WORMWOOD ~ BY D.H. NEVINS: CHAPTER 3
I glanced down at the growing dark of the forest below and shivered, remembering Brian and worrying about whether he would actually attempt a visit to my tent tonight. The wide stream would likely keep him away, or at the very least, splash in warning at his approach. I wasn’t eager to test out that theory, however, and dreaded the coming night.
“You really ought to go, but … would you like to sit by the fire for a bit, first?” Tiamat asked with concern, misinterpreting my shivers for a chill.
I knew that I should be returning to my camp by now, in the rare chance there may be an emergency, but I welcomed the opportunity to put it off a little longer.
“Thanks, Tiamat,” I replied, “I’d appreciate warming up before I leave.”
He left to put on a dry shirt and I deftly rebuilt the fire from the neglected coals while waiting for him. The flames were already crackling cheerily by the time I noticed him sitting on the log across from me. I started with surprise at seeing him suddenly there, like a silent apparition out of the falling night.
“I take it you’ve made a fire a few times before?” he asked with a smile. He had changed into a blue fleece jersey, the color augmenting the strange shade of his irises in an almost startling way.
“You could say that,” I answered him, tearing my gaze from his unusual eyes with some difficulty. “My dad began taking me hiking when I was quite little and I always loved it; fires and all.”
“And did your dad ever try to leave you behind in the woods?” he joked. “He did name you Kali after all.”
“Believe it or not, he only objected to me in the beginning,” I quipped, “and he always said that he got around to liking me rather quickly. He just needed to discover my charming personality.” I tried to say this with a straight face, but I wasn’t entirely successful at suppressing my smile.
“Actually, he only left me behind in the woods once, and I managed to find him again before he got too far.” In fact, my dad had gone for firewood, but he got turned around and ended up wandering lost for a while. I found him on a trail quite close to our campsite. I was only seven. Dad took me with him every time he went for firewood after that, and amazingly, I usually managed to keep him from going too far off-track.
When I told Tiamat this, he seemed to find the latter part of my story quite amusing, and he laughed easily. “So if you’re camping with your dad now, Kali,” he chuckled, “have you left the poor man to wander around alone in the dark?”
“No, I’m working as a guide now,” I answered. “I haven’t been camping with my dad for years. Amazingly, he hasn’t gotten lost at all without me—recently, anyway.” I realized that my humor was dry, and hoped he didn’t think I was bragging about myself. “Good thing I taught him so well!” I laughed, trying to make it obvious that I was joking.
“You look young to be a guide. I’m guessing you’re about 18. Am I right?”
I looked at him sharply. “Wow, yeah. That’s my age exactly.” He was good. “And you’re right that I’m young to be a guide,” I answered, wondering at his age as well. He looked to be in his early twenties, but it was so hard to tell. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that was. “I just started leading groups this summer to save up some money for college in the fall. If all goes well, I’ll do this every summer until I graduate.”
“And you enjoy it?” he asked with apparent interest.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time I love it,” I responded sincerely. “Though to be honest, I sometimes get the odd client that I want to throttle,” I added quietly, thinking of Brian. Just that little reminder made my stomach lurch.
My face must have given something away. Tiamat suddenly leaned forward and looked at me intently. “And who is it you feel like throttling today?” he asked with a note of severity.
“It’s nothing, really, Tiamat. This guy, Brian, makes me kind of uncomfortable; that’s all.” His gaze was penetrating, and I tried to fluff it off so Tiamat would ease up a little. “But I have it under control. If he bothers me, I really will throttle him,” I added with a forced laugh. Or try to, I thought. My laugh sounded shaky, but the image of my fist smashing into Brian’s face actually did cheer me up a little.
Tiamat leaned back and was quiet for a time, looking agitated. “Fighting is not a good thing, Kali, but necessary, I suppose, if you are left with no other option. Do you know how to protect yourself?”
He was obviously concerned and meant well, but I suddenly felt like I was being interrogated by my father. I tried not to get defensive when explaining to him that I wasn’t completely helpless; that I had studied kick boxing for three years.
The impressed look on his face was gratifying, but I knew I had to come clean. “I’ve worked hard on all the moves and can really pummel the speed bag and heavy bag,” I said, focusing on my shoes. “But to be honest, I just do it to keep fit. I’ve never actually sparred against another person.” Glancing up, I noticed his dubious expression, so I continued, hoping to convince him that I could handle myself. “If it came down to it, though, I’m fairly sure I’d be able to land a few solid blows. It’d be enough, at least, to protect myself and get away.”
There was a long silence. I felt like a child withering under his contemplative stare. Yet in the end he must have been satisfied with my response, for after a time he nodded and looked away.
Before long, he started up on a new subject. “And what do you do with the groups you guide through here?”
Our conversation went on like this for some time, with Tiamat asking me questions about my job, and laughing at certain things I did or various quirks I had. He peppered the conversation with so many inquiries that he never gave me the slightest opportunity to ask him any questions of my own. Yet I had no idea how to broach the possibly sensitive queries that I had for him, considering his mood when I met him, so the coward in me was happy to let my inquisitive side lie dormant for now.
His light-hearted scrutiny continued unchecked, and when I told him about withholding my group’s fifth stepping stone on their stream-crossing challenge, he just shook his head and chuckled.
“You’re a force to be reckoned with, Kali, and your dad was right to name you so. I will be careful not to cross you.” He shook his head again and began laughing silently, his shoulders shaking in quiet mirth. I was sure he was amusing himself with the prospect of me being even the least bit dangerous.
Deciding that this was probably my cue to leave, I stood up and announced my departure to Tiamat. I was secretly pleased to note that he looked disappointed by this.
“I’d really like to stay longer, but I have an obligation to the group I’m leading. I have to get back in case they need me for anything,”
“I’ll walk you back to your camp,” he informed me matter-of-factly.
“Really, Tiamat, I know these trails so well, I could probably hike them blindfolded,” I countered. “Besides, the moon is up and you can see that it’s lighting the paths for me beautifully. I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t doubt your abilities, Kali,” he said softly. “In truth, I’m a little sad about parting company. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind if I walked with you part of the way?”
“No, of course not, Tiamat... I wouldn’t mind, I mean,” I floundered, feeling sheepish.
We banked his fire, and walked quietly together down the moonlit trail. We didn’t say much for the bulk of the hike, Tiamat seemingly as lost in his own thoughts as I was lost in mine. Then before I knew it, we were entering my campsite. Tiamat had accompanied me the whole way, quietly dogging my footsteps through the moonlit forest. His steadfast presence behind me filled me with gratitude, and I turned to smile at him.
For once, he didn’t smile back, and a flicker of his earlier pain crossed his face as he looked at me. “Kali,” he said seriously, “will you still be guiding groups through these woods after you graduate from college?”
I grinned wider. “I’ll be guiding here in the summer for the next few years, at least. If you want to see me again, Tiamat, you know where to find me,” I teased. “Please don’t wait until after college, that’s much too long.”
“You didn’t answer me,” he said, looking agitated. “When you are finished college, will you still be guiding in these woods?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. I’m going out-of-state for school, so chances are high that I may get a job far away. A lot can happen in all that time.”
Instead of being disappointed that in the future, I may be living a fair distance from here, a look of quiet satisfaction passed over his face. It was maddening. Perhaps I misinterpreted his interest in me.
He paused then, a small crease forming between his brows, looking as though he was deliberating about whether or not to tell me something. I waited a long moment, but he ended up saying nothing, and the silence stretched on.
As I watched Tiamat mull things over, I attempted to distract myself from these little nagging feelings that kept telling me that he couldn’t possibly be interested in me; that he was just using me to pass the time. I impatiently pushed these notions away and instead concentrated on his face, trying to guess how old he might be.
Determining his age was a difficult venture. He undeniably had an adult face, chiseled, with none of the roundish facial aspects that most male teenagers had … yet strangely, he lacked certain features that characterized almost all mature men, even those that were only slightly older. In particular, his face was curiously smooth for someone who had been camping for the past month. He either kept it incredibly clean-shaven or it was virtually hairless. It was also smooth in that it was lacking the fine wrinkles and laugh lines that many men seem to develop shortly after losing their boyish features. Again, I had to place my best guess somewhere in his early twenties, though he had an air about him and a manner of speech that made him seem much older. It was perplexing.
Gaining no further ground in my musings, I couldn’t resist the urge to ask him. “How old are you, Tiamat?” I blurted without preamble.
His smile was instantly back, lighting up his features and warming the chill from my heart. But I was unprepared for his response. He stepped close to me before answering, and reached up to touch the tresses in my ponytail. His grin vanished, and was replaced by a look of intensity and thick emotion that stopped my breath and sent butterflies fluttering wildly in my chest.
Reaching around me slowly, he gently freed my hair, taking it down and tenderly smoothing the locks out across my right shoulder. “My real age is meaningless,” he replied softly. “Compared to tonight, I feel like I have been half-alive the entire time I’ve existed.”
Everything stopped altogether; the world around us blurred and melted. Despite a look of hesitation in his eyes, he never broke his gaze, while I could feel our closeness charge the very air between us. He leaned toward me tentatively, and I closed my eyes as the forest spun. Very gently, he pressed his lips to my forehead, kissing me light as a breath as he ran his fingers slowly through my loosened hair. Time froze as a feeling like electric energy blazed from where his lips had touched me, burned down my spine and shot out along every nerve ending, leaving my limbs tingling wildly.
“Live well, Kali,” he whispered against my skin.
There was a cold breeze, and I opened my eyes to find I was alone.
* * *
I awoke suddenly, my heart pounding in my chest. The air seemed very close as I kept myself still, my body rigid with tension. Holding my breath, I listened intently for what noises had alarmed me during my sleep, wishing fervently that I could see through the sides of my tent. The thin nylon walls glowed faintly from the bright moon outside, and I felt blind and exposed.
“Oh, darlin’...!” Brian’s voice called out, chilling my blood. “Your stud is here,” he slurred thickly, like the words formed by a bar fly at closing time. The sound of the chattering stream competed with his somewhat distant voice, and I could ascertain that—for the moment—he was likely on the far side of it.
“’S time fer the hot stallion ta warm the cold fish,” he announced. “You’d better be ready for a good pinning, baby, ’cause I know you need it. And this time, I won’ take ‘no’ fer an answer—I know what’s good fer ya, you feisty bitch!”
Then I heard it. A faint splashing in the stream sent shocks of terror through me as I realized how negligently naïve I was to put myself into danger like this; sleeping isolated and alone after Brian gave me virtually every indication he might make a move like this tonight. He might have been middle-aged and out of shape, but he was bigger than I was by far, and had looked strong. I was in serious trouble.
My mind reeling with indecision, I quickly went over my options as the splattering in the stream sounded closer and closer. If I came face to face with Brian, I’d have no choice but to try to fight him off. But when it really came down to it, would I even be able to? Frantically considering my options, I immediately realized that any struggle would have to be outside the tent, allowing me a chance, at least, to try to get away. If I could avoid his grasp, I was sure I could outrun him.
The splashing got closer. I had to get out of the tent.
Go now! I thought urgently. But if I opened the zipper, the noise would alert him to my escape, possibly ruining my chance to get away unhindered. Should I use my knife to cut my way out the back? I worried, however, that I wouldn’t be able to slice my way out quietly without tipping him off to what I was doing.
The splashing stopped. He must be across, I realized with horror. And then the next terrifying sounds came; the unmistakable padding of slow, hushed footsteps on the hard-packed dirt.
Out the back! Use your knife and get out the back! I silently screamed to myself as I jumped into action. My hands shook as I fumbled for my knife and opened it in the thick gloom. Yet just as I began to slice my way out, working as swiftly and noiselessly as I could, I heard a strange wind-like sound that didn’t seem to fit the outside scene—a scene that, in my terror, I had pictured all too vividly in my head. It sounded like someone shaking a large blanket … or wind snapping the nylon on a giant kite. It just didn’t fit. The sound was fleeting, ending as abruptly as it started.
I froze mid-slice, the knife in my clenched fist sticking through the thin nylon. There were no other sounds. No footsteps, no splashing; just the impartial babbling of an apparently vacant stream. Holding my breath, I waited longer. Still, there was nothing. My hand slowly relaxed and I released my breath tentatively, all the while listening carefully for the footsteps to resume. Again: nothing.
Sitting numb and motionless for a time that seemed to extend endlessly, I sifted through the usual night sounds of the forest around me—over and over—and for every instance, could detect nothing amiss.
I finally fell into a restless sleep sometime in the final hours of the night. Curled up by the small slit I had made at the back of my tent, I slept with my hand wrapped tightly around the hilt of my knife. I would be ready next time, and naïveté be damned.
* * *
“Kali… Kali!” Sarah’s panicked voice called out. It carried across the wide, gurgling stream clearly, and I could hear her begin to tromp through the shallows in her rush to get across to me.
I sat up stiffly, prying the knife from my cramped fingers as I shook myself awake. Something was wrong. I hastily zipped back the flaps, stepping into my shoes as I lunged swiftly from the tent opening.
In the pale light of early morning, Sarah splashed clumsily through the last few feet of the water to reach me. She was sopping wet and near hysterics, and I needed to wait for her to catch her breath before I could make any sense of her broken ramblings.
“Calm down and take a breather,” I said soothingly, sitting her down on a large, flat stump. “Now when you’re ready, first tell me the gist of the problem; we can get to the details later, okay?”
Sarah nodded and took a deep breath before replying. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I would have come to get you sooner, but the guys only just told me…” she rambled, apparently deciding to divulge the inconsequentials first. “Mike noticed late last night that Brian wasn’t in the tent anymore. At first he thought that Brian just left to relieve himself, but he never came back.”
My breath caught in my throat, but thankfully, Sarah didn’t appear to notice my reaction.
“For some reason, Mike didn’t think much of it. He said he thought Brian might have just curled up by the fire, or that maybe they would find him snoring under a bush this morning. Brian did hit the whiskey pretty hard last night.”
“But they couldn’t find him?” I asked, unnerved, my stomach twisting in knots.
“No! He wasn’t anywhere,” she said, her voice rising in fear. “The guys looked all over the area before they told me. He’s gone! There’s no trace of him!”
I jumped up with cold decision. Regardless of my revulsion for Brian, he was my responsibility. They all were. Walking swiftly toward the bushes, I fished out the planks that were stashed there. I had the boards straddling the stream and was already halfway across before Sarah gathered her wits enough to come trailing behind me.
“What do we do?” she whined nervously.
“Nothing,” I snapped back. “The last thing I need is to have more people lost in these woods. I’ll look for him alone,” I commanded, “and you’ll all wait right here until I return.”
When I deposited Sarah back at the camp, I gave the rest of the group the same instructions.
“Don’t worry,” I told them. “If he’s out wandering, he’ll likely stick to the trails. If he wandered from one, chances are very good that he would have found another one eventually. This park is riddled with them.” Noticing that they appeared calmer, I continued. “There are a number of places in the area where the trails cross. He’ll likely be stopped at one of these junctions, as people tend to get nervous about choosing the wrong path when they’re turned around.”
They looked relieved, so I turned to go, reluctant to waste any more time. As I strode away, I called back over my shoulder. “I think I’ll find him, folks, so make sure you have everything packed up by the time I return.”
I walked quickly along the trails toward a junction I nicknamed The Crossroads, with a strange feeling I would find Brian there. This intersection had four separate trails that bottlenecked together at the base of Lookout Peak before merging into one. There was a good possibility, given the camp’s location, that he would have followed one of those four paths and, hopefully, stopped at the junction. It was my best bet.
Luckily, I wasn’t wrong. As I neared the spot, I could hear his voice beckoning impatiently, obviously having picked up the sound of my approach and my intermittent calling of his name.
“Hello? I’m here! I’m over here!” he called.
There at The Crossroads stood Brian, looking like an abandoned child. A bewildered expression was on his face and leaves and other debris were stuck in his hair and plastered up one side of his body. His filthy chicken legs appeared rooted to the ground, and he wore only boxers and a dirty-looking t-shirt that was far too small to fully cover his protruding belly.
I was repulsed, but he was shivering noticeably so I pulled out the emergency blanket I had brought with me. Rapidly unfolding the thin, reflective plastic film, I scrutinized his face, relieved to see that he only appeared genuinely happy to see me and any traces of sleaze were presently absent. I stepped closer to him and passed him the thin heat shield, indicating that he should wrap it around himself.
“It’ll trap your heat so you can warm up,” I informed him.
“Thank you, Kali,” he said, actually calling me by name. “I don’t know what happened. I was going…” he paused, “…just wandering last night and the next thing I knew, I was here. I just woke up here, right on the path. I must have blacked out or sleepwalked or something…”
I looked at him, unconvinced, but he didn’t appear to be making it up. I didn’t bother asking him where he was wandering before he ‘blacked out.’
“Come on, Brian. Let’s get back. The others are worried about you.”
When we returned to camp a short time later, we found the group entirely packed up and ready to go, apparently having faith that I would find Brian and deciding to follow my instructions in the meantime.
Mike dug some clothes out for Brian who scrambled to put them on.
“Where did you find him?” Mike asked me.
“On a junction near the base of Lookout Peak,” I answered. “I didn’t have to go far.”
“Lookout Peak?” Mike asked incredulously. “But we already checked there this morning before Sarah got you. We should have seen him.”
“You went up the Peak?” I asked. “Right to the main lookout?”
“Of course we did. We hoped we’d see a sign of Brian from up there.”
“And did you speak to the man who was camped there?” I asked, eager for an update on Tiamat.
But Mike just looked at me curiously. “What man?” he asked. “There was no one at the site when we were there this morning.”
“You don’t need to look far if you want a man, darling,” Brian interjected. “You already found me,” he said, stepping closer. Not surprisingly, his demeanor had shifted and I was looking at the old, slimy Brian again. It was probably because he didn’t feel so naked and vulnerable in front of everyone now, I guessed briefly, or because the cockroach was no longer relying on me for his safety.
I ignored him, my thoughts shifting rapidly to a more significant person. “The site was empty?” I asked Mike. “You mean he wasn’t in his tent?”
“No. I mean the site was deserted. No gear and no tent. There wasn’t a soul up there.”
I staggered backward. Did Mike mean that Tiamat was gone? How could he be gone?
“Hey, don’t look so distressed, Baby,” Brian said as he slithered closer. “He obviously left because you’ve got a real man around now. Want to see how manly…”
Almost of its own accord, my fist flashed out and punched him squarely in the face. The force of it knocked him so hard he reeled backward and landed right in the bushes, his legs splayed absurdly apart like he was some silly cartoon character.
“Go to hell,” I told his legs triumphantly. “Though I doubt you could find your way.” And with that, I spun on my heel and strode from their camp.
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