by Douglas Ian Fleury
The van lurched to a stop. Jök gripped the steering wheel tightly and stared at the greasy smudge left by the sausage and cheese Whafflewich that slapped against his windshield.
“Really, people! Why did a sandwich just fly across my car?”
For a moment there was silence in the battered, hand-me-down vehicle. Only the sound of the idling engine disturbed the woods surrounding them.
He turned and glared at the three people behind him. Lisa and Sara exchanged guilty looks from the middle seat. A moment earlier the two had been arguing over events in their favorite manga. Somehow the argument ended with one of them gesturing wildly, forgetting she was still holding a half-eaten breakfast in her hand.
Neither of the girls wanted to confess to the errant sandwich.
From under the seat came a voice, “Don’t look at me. I finished mine as soon as we hit the road. Also, mine had bacon.”
Harper, who had been stretched out in the back, was now wedged between the seats.
“Also, also, a little help here? ‘cause, ow. ”
Lisa turned around to check on him and shrugged.
“Eh, he’s okay.”
From his position on the floor, Harper untangled one arm and extended a single finger in appropriate response to her apathy.
“Hey, you’re the one who broke that seatbelt. So, it’s your own fault you’re down there.”
“Good point, O Blonde One.”
Jök just shook his head. “Why is everything broken in my van your fault?”
“To be fair, everything broken in my car is my fault too.”
Lisa looked down at Harper on the floor. “Is your car even safe to drive anymore?”
“Hmmm, not since I tried to install an ejector seat.”
“He’s kidding, right?”
Ignoring the two of them, Jök asked Sara to hand him the roll of paper towels from under her seat. He wiped the grease off, muttering to himself about why he let his idiot friends in his vehicle.
“Y’know, lying here on the floor of the big guy’s van, I’m thinking two things. One, for a guy as fit as he is, there’s a lotta candy wrappers down here. B, or two, whichever, a group of teenagers driving a van through the woods is kinda the opening of, like, half the slasher films ever made.”
Jök grinned. “’I can’t help being the biggest and the strongest. I don’t even exercise.’”
Sara just rolled her eyes. “And your point?”
“Just saying, as the lone black guy on this expedition, if someone with a chainsaw starts chasing us, my goal will be to make sure at least one of you Caucasians buys it first.”
She smiled mischievously. “Gee, I thought you were a fan of genre rules.”
“Frak that. I shall not be the first one chainsawed.”
Lisa winced. “Great, I wasn’t thinking about that. Now I’m going to see chainsaw-wielding maniacs behind all the trees.”
Jök checked the GPS to see where they were. “Don’t be ridiculous….Some of them might have machetes.”
Lisa shrank in her seat, glancing nervously out the window.
“You’re not helping.”
“Eric, toss that out the window. We’re in the middle of the woods; let it screw up some raccoon’s cholesterol.”
Seated next to Jök, Eric had barely noticed the antics of his friends. His mind was elsewhere. He was pondering what they were here for. Why they were driving down the recently renovated dirt road. He checked the old tin that he was holding. It had not changed in any way since he had entered his friend’s van. It was still solid in his hands, still a key part of what he was here to do today.
Jök pointed at Eric’s feet where the sandwich had landed.
“That. Chuck it out the window.”
“Right, got it.”
He rolled down the window and tossed the remains out.
“Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we….”
Through gritted teeth Jök grumbled, “Shut up, Harper, and get off the floor.”
Harper pulled his gangly frame back into his seat.
“Awww, I was just getting comfy.”
Sara glared at him.
“Why did we bring you again?”
“Moral support. Plus, I brought my violin in case we get attacked by zombies.”
Lisa, the newest member of the group, was not yet used to Harper’s non sequiturs.
The others just ignored Harper’s need to confuse people. Harper settled back into his seat enjoying Lisa’s look of confusion.
Sara shook her head in annoyance at her friend and laid a hand on Eric’s shoulder. She looked at him and asked if they were close to their destination.
“Um, yeah, the turn should be up ahead.”
Jök tapped the GPS again. “If you say so, ‘cause we are way off the map. Harper’s horror movie theory is looking plausible.”
“Quiet from coach.”
“Yes, captain. Could you send the stewardess back with some more peanuts?”
Lisa grabbed a pack of crackers from the bag of snacks and tossed it behind her. The snack smacked Harper between the eyes.
Sara snapped at the others, trying to get the group back on task.
Lisa and Harper slunk down in their seats chagrined. Jök muttered an apology and started the van again. They drove on in silence. The rumble of tires on the rough road and Bob Dylan on the radio were the only noises in the vehicle.
Harper, not a fan of quiet, spoke to Eric.
“Which of us is Shaggy?”
“Sorry, what are you on about?”
“Well, the big guy’s Fred. Sara’s Velma, and Lisa’s Daphne. So one of us is Shaggy and the other one’s Scooby.”
Sara turned to face him. “Wait, why am I Velma?”
“You mean the smarter, shorter, brunette one with glasses?”
“Fine, okay, point.”
Annoyed, Lisa muttered: “Why am I the ditzy one…?”
The van stopped again.
Jök gestured ahead.
“We have a problem.”
There was the turn they were looking for. The area was surrounded by a fence. The road they needed to take was blocked by a locked gate. There was a guard sitting in a muddy white SUV outside the gate.
The guard was looking straight at the van.
“Damnit! Why is there a gate? A gate with a guard?”
“Probably to keep wandering bands of teenagers from entering their property and, y’know, messing with their stuff. Oh, hey, look. We’re a wandering band of teenagers. Whadauknow.”
“Harper. Not helpful.”
“Oh, I see, Daphne. You want me to help, do you? Okey-doke, Jök, grab the GPS and follow my lead. My personal policy is if you can’t beat ‘em, confuse ‘em. Eric, when you see your chance, break for the woods. And don’t forget the bucket.”
Harper grabbed a handful of almost folded maps, and he and Jök jumped out of the van.
They marched quickly towards the SUV. Harper unfolded a map and began yelling.
“I told you north!”
Not missing a beat, the tall, shaggy-haired driver yelled back.
“I went north!”
“Noooo, you went west!”
He shook the GPS in Harper’s face.
“What does that say?”
“That you have no idea how to read directions!”
The duo reached the SUV and held the map up to ask the already confused and slightly intimidated guard for contradictory directions. They continued arguing while the guard tried to get a word in edgewise.
Lisa looked out of the open van and grinned. “Brilliant, well, if that doesn’t work, we could have Sara flash him.”
Sara looked shocked and raised her hand to hold close an imaginary shirt. “Why me, and not you?”
“Oh, please, I barely need a bra. Whereas you…”
“Do you think I’m clear?”
Lisa snapped to attention “Huh? Oh, yeah, go. Wingus and Dingus there can keep anyone confused for hours.”
Sara climbed over the seat and kissed Eric on the cheek. “Good luck. We’ll wait here.”
Eric checked to make sure his friends were blocking the guard’s view.
“Heh, Laurel and Hardy, the next generation.”
Lisa looked at him. “Who?”
“Really? You can borrow my DVDs when…”
Sara threw the book she had been reading at him. “Go, dumbass!”
Eric, with his tin, ran for the woods.
The road disappeared as Eric crossed the tree line. Silence and darkness descended upon him. The trees were thin and evenly spaced. Only a generation ago it had been his family’s farmland. The land had been unused for decades now. It had been sold off by his parents and his aunts for quite a pretty penny. Soon it would become houses and malls and other enforced bits of civilization. Soon this peace and quiet will be gone.
He came to the fence that they had seen part of from the road.
Why is it this far back?
They’re probably going to need to widen the road for construction. Easier to install a fence where it will need to be later on.
Now how do I get over it, he thought. It’s not very high.
Jök could probably scale it, or jump it, or just toss you over it. Sara and Lisa would have looked for a way around the fence first. Harper would have brought cutters, or a blowtorch, or maybe even a stick of dynamite. Actually, it would surprise no one if the loon brought a homemade rocket launcher. Well, maybe just the dynamite.
Just a fence, no razor wire, or electric fence posting. They have to tell you if it’s electrified, right?
Eric tossed the tin over the fence and began to climb.
Up, over, thud, ow.
Need to work on my fence climbing skills, he thought as he lay in the dirt. He stood and collected the tin and made his way into the woods.
For a few minutes, he walked alone through the new-growth trees. It seemed a shame that they would never get a chance to become a proper forest. The trees were too thin, too evenly spaced to look like proper woodland. It looked unformed. It wasn’t even dense enough to absorb the sounds from the road. He chuckled quietly, as he could still hear Jök and Harper yelling at each other. He knew that what he was looking for was not far from the road.
They had left home almost before the sun was up. They had taken Jök’s van since it was the only vehicle that they could all ride in comfortably for the four hours it took to get here. It was also the one that involved the least amount of arguing over. Everyone had dressed, not formally, but as respectfully as they could for a trip into the woods. They wore boots for walking through the woods, and light jackets that they shed as soon as the sun warmed the air. Harper even managed to find a shirt without an obscure pop-culture reference. Other than a stop for gas and one for breakfast, it had been a straight drive from home to here. They had made a list of half a dozen places to stop on the way home. Used bookstores, and thrift shops, and malls, and a dinner that his mother said they just had to stop at for a meal. They could take all the time they wanted; the day was theirs.
After a while of walking he stepped into an opening; in the middle was a cairn of rocks. They were right where his great-grandfather had put them almost a century ago. The cairn was almost as high as he was tall, an enigmatic pile of neatly arranged stone. It was obvious that no one had been there in years. The fall atmosphere made the place seem like something out of an old story someone told him once. The late morning sun framed by the trees fell perfectly across the open area. The stone structure was half in sun, half in shadow. Time seemed to hold its breath. It was a place just to the left of the real world.
There it is, right where Mom and Dad said. He set the tin on top of the moss and lichen-covered stones.
He felt his thoughts scatter. This was why I wanted the others with me, he thought. I have no idea what to say.
“Um, hello, I guess. It’s just me. Your brother.”
He sat down on the ground and listened to the sounds of the trees. He had half hoped this would be like some fairy tale story where the person he had come to talk to would answer.
But that was impossible. This was the real world. The dead never answer.
“I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve never come before. Why I’ve never….I never knew. They never told me. It’s only because they sold the land that they decide to speak up, I guess. Maybe it’s because I’m graduating high school this year. Happy 17th birthday. By the way, you had a twin sister. You lived two months; “born sickly” they said. They brought your ashes here after…after….”
His hands were shaking as he wiped his eyes.
“They told me a month ago. Sorry it took me this long to come out here. I came with my friends. I wanted them to be here, but we didn’t think of the fence. Or the gate, or the guard. Sorry”
“You’d like them. Jök is like Thor’s little brother, I mean he kinda looks like the guy in the comics, and, well, he’s someone I’d nominate to be a real-life super hero. Saved my scrawny ass more than once. We keep giving him hammers as a joke. Harper can get on your nerves at first. But he’s actually the smartest guy in school. He’d be valedictorian if he’d wanted it. The nutjob wants everyone to think he’s certifiable. Honestly, though, he’s just the guy who creates chaos just to make people pay attention to the world around them. He likes to say he’s practicing to be a mad scientist. Last month, the two of them built an off-road golf cart. It…kinda worked. Well the cart worked, the brakes…not so much. Good thing Harper’s mom insists he wears a helmet when he operates something he builds. The two of them have been my best friends since, huh, elementary school, I guess.”
He paused, smiling, remembering barreling through the woods behind Harper’s family’s home. He remembered his friend and himself hanging on for dear life as the experimental vehicle ran out of control, only stopping when it dropped into a ditch. As far as he knew, the cart was still half buried where it landed.
“Lisa only started hanging out with us last semester. She’s a ‘recovering Bible thumper.’ Her words not mine. I’m not sure what happened, but she used to be one of those types that were always trying to ‘save your soul.’ Harper used to have way too much fun making her nuts by quoting the Bible better than she could. She still slips into ‘Bible-girl’ mode sometimes. But we don’t mind. She likes comics so she fits in with the rest of us geeks.”
This was a lie, he and the others knew what had changed with her, but that was a private matter. Even here, somewhere that was sacred; some things remained nobody’s business.
“Sara’s… Sara’s my girlfriend. I guess she has been since before we knew what the whole boy/girl thing was. We hung out all the time growing up. One day, she just kinda told me we were a couple. I never thought to argue with her about it. I love her, I know I… I’m not….”
Again he hesitated; Sara had always been a part of his life. But this was the last year of high school. Then it would be summer, and after summer? Harper already had acceptance letters from every school with a math or engineering department. Jök was going to spend a year in Finland with relatives. Lisa was planning to get as far away from her parents as possible. As for the two of them….
“You’d like them, you would have… maybe you would have had your own group of friends. Rival groups of friends making our parents nuts. Would we have looked alike? Mom and dad had a photo of you in one of those plastic crib things. You can’t really see anything. We were born a month early. Guess that’s why I’m scrawny. My, our, little sister’s tall and pretty.”
He dug a photo out from his wallet.
“See. I wish I had more to say. I’m sorry, but I kinda wish they never told me. I get to spend the rest of my life knowing that there was supposed to be… what? Another half of me. No, I don’t. I’m glad. I’m glad we had this moment. This is going to be the only time we speak, y’know. In a couple of days the company that my family sold the land to is going to rip all of this up. We don’t really need the money, but no one uses it for anything. Me and a cousin are going to college next year. And there’s like four more behind us. So the money’s being divided up for us. I kinda wish we kept the land. Y’know, just leave it alone for a while longer. ”
“Maybe this means that you’ll have company now. Buildings, people, families, y’know.”
He sat in silence for a while longer. Staying in the moment. There would be only two times in his life that he would be close to his twin. In the womb, and now. After this, time would move on; life would change things. He worried what would happen. His friends would spread out. Go to schools across the country. There were cell phones and social media, sure. What about Sara? Was this the last year of their relationship. Was it to become something that he would think about when he was older? His first love. Or was this just the beginning, a life with his only love?
He wished he could talk to his twin. He knew her name, but did it matter? She never lived to grow into it as he had with his own. Her name was just a sound without context.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. He did not know for what or to whom he was speaking. He stood and wiped the dirt and leaves off his clothes. He picked the tin up off the cairn. He had found it in the attic. It was just an old tin, nothing special. It had originally held tea. His grandmother had used it to hold change, before it found its way to him.
He pulled off the lid. There was a breath of old tea and copper. Inside were a handful of photos. His family, parents and sister. His friends, those who had come with him and those had not. He lifted a rock off of the cairn and set the pictures under it.
Standing he looked at the edges of the photos sticking out from under the rock. If this were a movie, or some other story, the wind would have whipped the photos away. He imagined the pictures disappearing into the dark of the woods.
Or maybe the cairn would collapse, or an animal step out of the woods to look at him. There should be something, some acknowledgment that he was here. He needed some connection with his long-gone twin. But nothing happened; he was just standing in the woods next to a pile of old stones.
He knelt down and scooped the tin full of dirt. He did not know why he wanted it. It would probably just sit on a shelf somewhere for years to come. He then collected a handful of stones and put them in his pocket. He picked up one of the medium-sized stones off the cairn, one he could carry easily.
“Well, good-bye. It was nice to talk to you.”
There was nothing else to say, nothing else to do. He turned and headed back to the road.
Up, over, thud, damn.
Eric stood at the tree line. He could see the SUV with a still bewildered-looking guard. The road was otherwise empty.
He reached for his phone just as he remembered that it was in his jacket, which was still in the van.
He could ask the guard. And say what? My friends ditched me? I was just out for a walk?
Maybe Jök drove ahead and will turn back. Or, what if he didn’t? Walk?
Eric sat down to think. He set down the tin and examined the stone. Brushing away the years of dirt he could see a glimmer of quartz. He held it so the sun reflected off the shimmering specks.
Through the trees he heard the strains of a violin.
Eric picked up the tin and stone and, hoping the guard wasn’t looking, bolted across the road. He listened for the music and followed it.
The music grew as he passed through the trees. Where the hell are they?
Eric finally stepped out onto another road, or possibly the same road doubled back.
Jök had his head under the hood of his van checking something. Leaning against the side door was a homemade potato cannon made out of PVC pipe and a bicycle pump. Harper’s lanky frame was leaning against a tree playing his violin. Past the van he could see the girls tossing a Frisbee back and forth.
The others did not see him exit the woods. He walked towards the parked van.
Eric decided not to ask about the spud launcher; he’d been around Jök and Harper long enough to guess. “Problem?”
Jök didn’t startle at Eric’s sudden presence. He didn’t even look up.
“Nope, just checking. Seemed like a good time.”
Eric nodded towards Harper, putting the tin and stone in the front seat. “Zombies?”
“Nope, we just figured you would hear him play so you could find us. We had to bolt ‘cause the guard was going to call someone.”
Seeing Eric, Sara ran to him, ignoring the Frisbee as it flew past her. She hugged her boyfriend and kissed him.
“Did you find it?” she asked once she let him catch his breath.
“Yeah, open space in the trees right where they said.”
Lisa collected the Frisbee from the ground and joined them. Harper continued to play, oblivious of events around him.
“Ummm, I guess we should go then. Harper! Let’s go!”
He did not move from his spot under the tree. “Shhhhhh. Mozart.”
Lisa turned to the others and shrugged.
The four of them walked past the van so they could play Frisbee until Harper finished playing.
There was no hurry.