Friday, January 3, 2014

A Walk in the Woods by Arun Dawani

Browbeaten Bill dodges his oppressive mother to go on a first date with a pretty British girl - but he's hiding something; by Arun Dawani.

The work was backbreaking. Hours of hard, manual labour, digging deeper and deeper in the hot and muggy Texan summer, the shortleaf pine trees mercifully providing shade from the searing sun. Bill finished up at 5pm on the dot, spent but proud of the job he had done. He walked back to the car, changed his sweat soaked shirt for a clean one and cracked open a well earned beer which he chugged down thirstily before firing up the Dodge and setting off for Interstate 45, the highway that would take him most of the way back to his home in Houston Heights.

He had moved back in with his mother a couple of months ago after losing his job as an equipment operator, meaning labourer, for an oilfield services company. Since then he had taken work wherever he could find it, a week here, a day there, often turning up at a job site early in the morning, only to be told there was no work for him that day. He would traipse home, defeated, and wait for his mother to come home from work and berate him for his worthlessness. She had been mean before Bill's father had left her, but afterwards she became unbearable.

He pulled into the driveway and braced himself for the onslaught. Opening the door he was relieved to see that his Mom was talking on the phone. He went straight upstairs and took a long shower to wash off the sweat and grime. Feeling refreshed he lay down on his bed and waited until the throbbing in his temple subsided before going downstairs and heating up a microwave dinner which he took back up to eat in his room. He finished the tasteless meal and got ready for bed, wanting to sleep early so he would be fresh for the date with Lucy. After an hour of watching TV he felt like he might be able to sleep. He switched off the bedside lamp and closed his eyes. Although the day's work had physically exhausted him, excitement and trepidation about the following day pumped enough adrenaline into his blood to keep him awake. Trying to force himself to sleep just made him feel more alert and anxious so he gave up and turned the TV back on, flipping through the dozens of stations, irritated that as the number of channels grew, it became harder to find anything worth watching.

"Bill will you turn that goddamn television down? I'm trying to sleep," his mother yelled at him from her room across the upstairs landing. "Some of us have got jobs to go to in the morning."

"Sorry Mom," he said, plugging in the headphones and trying to ignore the rage and humiliation he felt at being reminded, yet again, of how useless he was. He watched a late night movie about an ambitious young man who works his way up the corporate ladder by pretending to be someone he isn't and gets everything he wants in the end. The movie finished but Bill was still no closer to sleep. Infomercials now dominated the airwaves. The products being sold were so unnervingly pointless and sinister that he had to switch the TV off. He crept into the bathroom, opened the medicine cabinet, took two pills from his mother's bottle of Valium, then tiptoed back to his room where he washed the tablets down with a swig from a bottle of cheap whisky he kept in his drawer.

The Valium helped relax him somewhat but, after finally falling asleep, the night became an ordeal of fragmented and deeply uncomfortable sleep during which he remained conscious enough to feel his mind and joints ache but not enough to move, like the nightmare stories he had heard about patients on the operating table, rendered immobile and speechless by the anaesthetic but still able to feel each incision.

He rose from bed early the next morning, exhausted and still half drugged from the sleeping tablets, and went downstairs to make himself coffee. His mother was in the kitchen, fixing breakfast for herself.

"Any plans today Bill?" she asked with a sneer.

"I'm meeting a girl."

"Another one? Ain't that nice. Where do you meet these girls Bill?"

"I don't know, here and there." He didn't want to tell his mother that he met them on a dating site.

"Well Bill, I hate to be the one to say it but maybe you got things the wrong way round. Maybe you should find a job first, then a girl after that. What have you got to offer a lady anyway? Not a regular pay check, not a home."

"I know, I'm looking for a job Mom, I told you."

"Maybe you ain't looking hard enough," his mother murmured, taking her breakfast tray through to the living area. Bill made himself a big cup of coffee and took it upstairs to his room, where he gulped it down without waiting for it to cool, so that it scalded his mouth and throat. He left the house without saying goodbye to his mother but she came to the door and shouted after him, "Whose car is that? How come you can afford a new car but you can't pay rent?"

Bill was careful to drive just under the speed limit, a ticket for a traffic violation was the last thing he needed. He fiddled with the car stereo, settling on a country music station clogging up the airwaves with clichéd songs about down on their luck gals trying to make ends meet while yearning for a good man to love and provide for them. The safe bet would have been to take Lucy to a fancy restaurant but he barely had enough money to pay for his share of the rent and food. She had raved on in her dating profile about how 'outdoorsy' and 'down to earth' she was so Bill had suggested they go hiking. He would have preferred something more romantic but the hiking idea had its merits, the second most important one being that it would cost very little. Lucy had agreed to his suggestion, albeit in a lukewarm fashion. He arranged to meet her at a diner just off the interstate, to grab a late breakfast and then drive together to the hiking spot.

Bill pulled up into the Denny's car park, his heart starting to race. He sat in his car for ten minutes, making a conscious effort to slow his breathing and quell the feelings of doubt and dread that threatened to consume him. Marginally calmer he walked into the diner and looked around for Lucy. She was sat at a booth table, playing with her phone. She looked better than her photo, an English Rose, and Bill's heart started to beat fast again.

"Hi Lucy. It's nice to meet you," he said, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek. She recoiled slightly but he pretended not to notice.

"You look different to your photo," was the first thing she said.

"I hope you're not disappointed?" said Bill. Lucy ignored the question.

"We picked a nice day for it, the weather's beautiful isn't it?" said Bill.

"It's nice," she agreed.

The waitress came over to take their order. "I'm Marsha and I'll be your waitress. Can I get you folks something to eat?"

"We're not here for the view honey," he said, playing up the part of the brash American, "I'll get waffles with some bacon and eggs and the lady will have - what are you having Lucy?'

"Pancakes please," said Lucy.

"The lady will have pancakes. And we'll get two orange juices and some coffee." Bill waved the waitress off.

"You don't have to work today?" asked Lucy.

"No. I mean, I took the day off," said Bill, unnerved by her nonchalance.

"I suppose that's a privilege of being the boss," said Lucy.

"I guess so," said Bill.

"How did you get into oil?" asked Lucy.

"Through my Pop," said Bill.

"Oh really? Is it a family business?"

"Uh huh," said Bill. "How about you? How does a nice girl from London, England end up in Texas?"

"I've been asking myself the same thing," Lucy said, while looking over Bill's shoulder. "I like England but it just feels so small and parochial. Did you know that Texas is almost three times the size of the United Kingdom?"

"Is that a fact? Three times the size of England -"

"No, not England," interrupted Lucy, "three times the size of the United Kingdom. It includes Scotland, Wales and some of Ireland as well."

"United Kingdom? Is that the same as Great Britain? I'm sorry, I must seem like a dumb American to you," said Bill.

"It's confusing, even for people who come from there," said Lucy. "Anyway, it took a while but eventually a fellowship position came up at the University. I had other options, California, Chicago and New York but I decided to come here."

"Why?" asked Bill.

"I don't know. It was kind of arbitrary I guess." Lucy noticed the confused look on Bill's face. "It was kind of random, like closing your eyes and sticking a pin in a map. But I felt somehow drawn to Texas, to Houston. Does that sound weird?"

"It don't sound weird at all. Things happen for a reason," said Bill.

A few minutes later Lucy was talking up a storm but Bill was too lost in the dark pools of her eyes, the irises barely distinguishable from the pupils, to pay much attention to what she was saying. He thought how out of place she looked in the Denny's and how that was probably a good thing. She was leaning forwards, her arms stretched out on the table, so that her hands were just a few inches from his. He moved further towards hers, slowly enough that the movement was barely perceptible, until his fingers were so close to hers that he thought he could feel the heat from them. Did he dare to touch her? Suddenly he realised she was asking him a question and he snapped out of his daydream, pulling his hands back. "I'm sorry, what?" he asked.

"Are your family in Houston?"

"No. Well, my Mom is. My father lives in Indianapolis. How about you? Do you have any family out here?" asked Bill.

"Not in Texas, no," replied Lucy. "I have a couple of cousins in California but that's about it."

"What do they do?" asked Bill. "Your folks I mean."

"My father's a doctor and my Mum's a university professor."

"Oh, that's great," said Bill. His father had been a steel worker, when he wasn't too loaded to work, and his mother worked in a factory. "Don't you feel lonely sometimes? It's a long way from home to be by yourself."

"I don't know, I haven't really thought about it," said Lucy. "I suppose if I didn't I wouldn't have joined that site." Bill gave a nervous laugh.

Lucy looked at Bill's hands. They were heavily calloused, with recent cuts. He caught Lucy looking at them and gave her a wan smile, "Sometimes you gotta get your hands dirty," he said.

"You're the first person I've met who works in oil. Is it anything like Dallas?" asked Lucy and Bill couldn't tell if she was mocking him or not.

"Dallas?" said Bill, looking sullen. "Not really no. It ain't like that at all."

They lapsed into silence. Bill finished his waffles and Lucy put her knife and fork down on the half finished plate of pancakes.

"Not good?" asked Bill.

"I'm not that hungry," said Lucy.

Twenty minutes later and they were on Interstate 45. Bill had to constantly fight the powerful car to keep it under the speed limit. The stolen Dodge purred happily at high speeds and grumbled discontentedly if Bill went too slow. Lucy stared out of the window, still awestruck by the scale of her new home.

After about forty miles Bill took exit 87A off the interstate for State Highway 105 and on to Farm to Market Road which would take them into Sam Houston National Forest.

"I didn't know it was going to be so far away. Dirk, I don't want to be too late getting back," said Lucy.

"It's ok, it won't be that late," said Bill.

"You don't seem to be having any trouble finding your way. Have you been here before?" asked Lucy, again playing with her smart phone.

"Once or twice," said Bill. "My Pop brought me when I was younger," he hastened to add.

They arrived at their destination, Little Lake Creek, and Bill pulled up into the parking lot. They hauled on their backpacks and set off through the camping area to the beginning of the hiking trail.

"It's quite busy isn't it?" said Lucy, referring to the RVs and campers around them.

"It is here at camp but once we set off down the trail, it shouldn't be too crowded," said Bill.

"How long is the hike?" asked Lucy.

"The main trail is about 10 miles. It's easy to get on to other trails and make it longer but I think 10 miles should be about enough for today," said Bill.

"Ten miles sounds plenty," said Lucy.

They set off down the loop at a brisk pace, passing slower hikers and nodding greetings to those heading in the opposite direction back to camp. The further they went along the trail, the less frequent such encounters became. The forest was a cacophony of croaking frogs, chiselling woodpeckers and deer calling out to each other in groans and wheezes. Lucy let out a squeal when an armadillo dashed out a few yards in front of them, scurrying quickly into the bushes. "I've never seen one of those before," she said.

After about six miles Lucy suggested they stop for a break. Bill readily agreed and they sat down on a plastic sheet that Bill had rolled up in his bag. Lucy took out some sandwiches that she had made early that morning. Their breakfast in the diner seemed a long time ago and the hiking had made them hungry.

"Won't it be getting dark soon?" Lucy asked.

"Not for a little while. But I brought a headlamp just in case."

"I'd really rather not be walking around this forest in the dark," said Lucy.

"Let's get going," said Bill. It was funny, but predictable, that this date was going just like all the others. They looked different but they were all the same inside. They all talked to him the same way, like he was something beneath them, an annoying intrusion on their busy lives.

Around the eight mile mark the little light that had made it through the tall trees during the sunny day grew dim and by the nine mile mark it had faded to nothing. Lucy stumbled over a root bulging out of the ground and almost lost her balance, Bill catching her just in time. "It's too dark to see where we're going," said Lucy, freeing herself from his arms and almost pushing him away as if he had tried to attack her, rather than saved her from falling.

"We only have about a mile to go," said Bill, switching on his torch.

"I'm scared of the woods at night," said Lucy, "the trees look like they're closing in around us."

"They're just trees," replied Bill.

Suddenly Lucy stopped short.

"I don't think we're on the trail anymore," she said.

"Aren't we?" asked Bill, but it wasn't really a question.

"Did we get lost?" asked Lucy.

"Lost? No, you don't have to worry about getting lost. I know these woods pretty well," said Bill.

"Ok, so what are we doing off the trail?"

"You know I have to admit something," said Bill, stopping and turning to look at her.

"What?" asked Lucy. "Why have you stopped?"

"Well two things actually. The first is that I'm not the boss of an oil company. In fact I don't even work for one. I used to though, but as a roughneck not an executive," he said, starting to laugh slightly.

"A roughneck? What's that?"

"A manual worker," said Bill.

"What's the second thing?"

Bill started walking again. Come on, it's not far now."

"What's not far?" asked Lucy, confused. "What's the second thing?"

"You know when we first met, you said I didn't look like my photo? That's because it wasn't my photo. Pretty similar though right? You have to at least give me that."

Lucy had stopped in her tracks. "Why would you put a fake photo up on the site?"

"It wasn't just the photo. I mean I used an anonymous e-mail account and never logged in from my computer. So it's not possible to trace the e-mails we exchanged back to me," said Bill.

"I don't understand," said Lucy but her arms were covered in goose bumps, even though it was warm out.

"I wanted to show you something," replied Bill. "It's ok, we're almost there."

"Show me something? We need to get back on the trail and make it back to camp. It's too dark to be out here," said Lucy.

"It's just a little bit further," said Bill, walking on.

Lucy didn't move. "Dirk, I'm not going any further. Please stop this, I want to go back." Bill ignored her and carried on walking. Lucy looked around, not at all confident of finding the way back to the trail herself. Bill had now disappeared out of sight and Lucy felt a rising sense of panic. "Dirk! Where are you?" she called out.

Bill reappeared. "Come on," he said. "It's just here." Lucy followed him as if in a trance until they reached a clearing, when Bill stopped. "Oh, you reminded me just now, that's the third thing I wasn't exactly truthful about," said Bill.

"What?"

"My name isn't Dirk. We're here," said Bill.

"There's nothing here," said Lucy.

"Close your eyes, count to ten and then open them," said Bill.

"I don't like this. I don't want to," said Lucy, beginning to sob.

"Close your eyes," said Bill.

Lucy closed her eyes. She heard the rustling of leaves and the sound of material being scrunched up. Almost paralysed with fear she counted to ten and opened her eyes. There was a hole in the ground, about 7 feet long, three feet wide and six feet deep.

"What is it?" she asked, horrified because she knew exactly what it was.

"It's your grave," said Bill. Before Lucy could scream he clapped a hand over her mouth and held her so tightly that she struggled to breathe.

Two hours later Bill returned to the car, alone, and followed the route he had taken the previous day onto the interstate. All the tension and anger and hopelessness had dissipated. He marvelled at the thousands of pinpoints of silver light in the night sky, each star like a beacon calling him to another world. He opened the window and roared at the moon but was still careful to drive under the speed limit.

2 comments:

  1. i really didn´t see where this was going. very nice build up of tension. i felt sorry for Bill .......at the beginning
    another good story

    Michael McCarthy

    ReplyDelete
  2. Like Michael, I didn't see it coming either, despite the fact that we're all used to stories that end this way. Probably because you did such a good job of provoking sympathy for Bill/Dirk and wanting it to work out for him and Lucy. Thanks for the read.

    ReplyDelete