The Trail, scene twenty seven
The road that intersected the tracks was built up from the prairie with yellow gravel, and was a welcome sight. Once they mounted the wooden planks that were built up to and between the tracks so that vehicles could cross, they turned south without any discussion, it was as if they both instinctively knew to run from the direction of the fire. A sense of relief washed over them, and they could sense it in one another. The smoke had shrunk their entire world to a 100 foot ring of vision, but finally finding something forged by human beings besides the abandoned house, made them feel like there was progress being made. Gravel crunched under their shoes as they padded down the road, and they felt almost like they were going downhill, the relief at finally getting somewhere was so great. The only thing holding Tom back from total elation was the worry that perhaps the fire was moving toward them, and because they were in such an isolated area without having contacted anyone to let them know where they were, if something were to happen… He pictured the same fate Cat’s one time traveling companion had suffered long ago. “You still think we’re not in danger from the fire?” He asked Cat. Sweat was beading on Tom’s forehead and leaking into his eyes. He used the neck of his shirt to dab it away. “I mean, I’m no fire expert, but it isn’t windy, and that fire was a long way off. I think this is just smoke that’s settled in here. With no wind that fire is probably moving pretty slow.”
They developed a rhythm as they walked, step, inhale, step, exhale, their steps matching stride for stride. Neither of them had purposely decided to match the other, it happened naturally. Their eyes and throats were burning from the acrid smoke, and they both had pounding headaches. The sun was so muted that it could be stared at directly, its rays rendered powerless to hurt their eyes, and it looked like nothing more than a flat, putrid, orange egg yolk as it descended toward the horizon. Watching it go gave them one solid point of reference, they knew which way was west. Both sides of the road were fenced with rusty barbed wire, and the fence posts had been gathered from many different sources, blackened railroad ties, metal fence posts, crooked branches of trees, thick gray planks, broken aluminum irrigation pipes, and other odds and ends. The vegetation on the sides of the road was much greener and denser than it had been along the tracks, and led them to believe they were moving into better agricultural ground, which meant that there may be water somewhere. As the late afternoon turned into evening, the sky turned a deep reddish amber, like blood stained honey. They sat on the edge of the road and split a can of chicken chunks and mixed uncooked instant oatmeal in water and drank it down. “It’s almost like one of those old Twilight Zone episodes where two guys walk around a corner and they find themselves the only men on earth.” Tom said. Something reminded him of an old story, “There used to be this old lady who lived a few doors down from us in Wisconsin. She had one of those big old Victorian houses that’s super ornate. The top part of every window had a little section of stained glass, and there were all kinds of turned handrails and columns and latticework, all of it painted in really intricate color combinations. Her yard was a maze of rose bushes, lilies, lilacs and every kind of hanging pot full of flowers you can imagine.” Cat took out a cigarette as he listened to Tom talk. He held it between his fingers as if he were smoking it, but it was unlit. Every few seconds he brought it up and looked at it, turning it this way and that, and measuring if he wanted even more smoke in his lungs. Finally, he lit it. Tom continued, “She had about ten cats, and I think every one of them were black. So, you know how stupid ass kids think, an old lady living alone, she owns a shit load of black cats, she’s got to be a witch. We used to walk down the sidewalk by her house late at night and freak ourselves out. I swear we’d really see things. There was a little round room on one corner of that house, you know, like castles have. That little room always had a glowing orange light in it, about the color of this sunset.” Tom picked up a little handful of gravel as he talked and rolled it around in his hand like it was candy and he was going to pop it into his mouth. “One time we were walking around town late at night and wandered by her place. We stood hidden behind a clump of lilac bushes watching that house. It was late, maybe midnight or so, and the house was totally dark except for that little glowing room. So we sat there and talked about scary movies and shit…and it was so goddamn quiet that we were all whispering, you know, like you do when you’re nervous. Then something moved across that upstairs window, like it was floating across on a string, it didn’t walk.” Tom worked tiny stones out from the palm of his hand until he was pinching them between thumb and forefinger, then threw them at a piece of broken white quartz laying at the bottom edge of the road grade. Cat watched him and leisurely smoked. “We all saw it, it wasn’t just me, and we ran like we’d been shot out of a cannon until we were three blocks away, we were bent over, holding our knees and gasping for air, each of us telling what we saw.” Tom looked at Cat to gauge whether the story was interesting to him. He had a knee pulled up, and was resting his elbow on it, and held the cigarette in that hand, about three inches in front of his mouth. Tom could tell he was paying attention, so he continued. “I can still see whatever that was moving oddly across the window, I remember it clearly. About three months after that happened my old man got a job replacing her gutters, and he made me tag along. I didn’t say anything to him about what we’d seen, but I was nervous as shit. It was hotter than hell that day and about 1:00 she invited me in for some lemonade. She had the sharpest little black eyes, and snow white hair, and she couldn’t have been an inch over five feet. I sat at her old wooden kitchen table in a rickrty chair, and she fed me date cookies and fresh squeezed lemonade, and try as I might, I couldn’t convince myself that she was anything but a nice old lady that just happened to own a bunch of black cats. Sitting there and talking to her took all the power out of my imagination, and I was never scared of her or that place again…and when I told my friends about how nice she was, they were almost pissed about it. I think they wanted to believe she was a witch, and I ruined it for them. I’ve thought about that a lot since then. People want to believe the worst sometimes. It’s a conscious choice to always think shitty of someone. Hell, I’ve been guilty of it myself.” As he finished talking, a sound came from back up the road they’d just passed over, it was a vehicle still hidden back in the smoke. They stood and shouldered their packs and started slowly walking down the shoulder of the road. A truck pushed its way out of the smoke bank and they both turned to face it, and stuck their thumbs out. The truck ground to a stop, its tires crunching on the gravel road. It was a drab green crew cab with a dark green and yellow insignia on the door that read, Forest Service, on the top, and, Department of Agriculture, on the bottom, and in between was a yellow silhouette of a tree, and on each side of the tree were the letters, U.S. A window rolled down and a very dark skinned young man with long black hair and a red bandana tied around his head stared at them silently for a moment, his dark eyes narrowed with questions. “What the hell are you guys doing out here?” He looked them up and down and then rested on their faces. “You guys get in a fight or something?” The young man had a strange accent, his sentences ended with a slightly high note. They glanced at each other and suddenly remembered how they looked, Tom’s purple, swollen, bruised face, Cat’s bee stung eyes and forehead. Cat chuckled, “It’s a long story.” Tom could sense that Cat should be the one to communicate with the men in the truck, so he leaned back and was quiet. The young man wore a bright yellow shirt, stained with black soot, as did the other men in the truck. “You know there’s a big fire heading this way. You need to get out of here. We ain’t supposed to give no one a ride, but you guys jump in the back and lay down, and we’ll get you out of the way at least…what the fuck are you guys doing out here?” The question was one more of true amazement than actual need to know. Cat had been wrong about his assessment of the fire, but there was no need to address his wrong guess, because that’s all it had been, a guess.
They rode down the bumpy gravel road in the back of the truck, wedged between chainsaws, greasy chains and cables, and come-alongs. They tried not to breathe through their noses because gasoline and diesel fumes were thick, and compounded their already pounding heads. They stared up at the smoky sky, devoid of any reference points, like they were staring into a fog bank. They laid there and looked up until the sky was black with night and they drifted in and out of sleep, catching little fragments of dreams in between being bounced awake. After what felt like two hours, the truck ground to a halt and someone pounded on the back window. They climbed out, their legs stiff from inactivity, and watched the taillights go from bright red, to dull red, to nothing, in the dust of the road and the night. “Well…here we are,” Cat said.