3:10 am. 14 hours on the train so far, with 8 more still ahead. A train that is going to take me where, back to the crumbling society we live in? Even in the morning paper nothing but murders, terrorist threats and corruption. That’s not to say any of us are innocent. Everyone makes mistakes as a kid, but you think we would learn as adults. I’ve never cheated on my wife, not that I have one, but I wouldn’t. Yeah, I’ve sowed wild oats; however, I don’t have kids with multiple women either. There was that close call a few years ago with Amanda, but she was just late, and we ended on mutual terms. I never told Dad about Amanda. He would have been disappointed. I could tell him anything he always used to tell me. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell him about that. He would have called me careless.
Looking out the window, I watch the forest go whizzing by. What if I was to jump off this train? Right here. Without anyone knowing. Just start new in the mountains. A simpler life? I decide to do it. I know there’s a crossing coming up in about two miles, the train will slow down just enough for me to jump. I’ll leave my luggage, just take what’s in my pockets, and my bookbag with my sweatshirt and a few reading materials in it. I make my way towards the back of my car. Just as the train approaches the crossing I slip outside between the cars. Here’s my chance. The train is still going quite briskly, but I can do it. There’s a small grassy area just before the crossing, that’s my landing spot. Palms are sweaty, my heart is pounding louder than the tracks. I haven’t felt this alive in years. I jump.
Crashing and rolling along the grass my bookbag doesn’t provide as much cushion as I thought it might. Banged up and bruised I finally skid to a stop. I find myself standing there on the side of the tracks, only dimly lit by the moon, as the train continues on into the night disappearing from sight and sound. Standing here in the dark quiet I think to myself, now my new life begins.
Now, where to go? I see only one option. If I cross the tracks and head down that will just lead me to more of those people. I know where the tracks came from, and I know where they lead. So, I will stay on this side and head further into the woods and up into the mountains. I look down at my watch, a gift from the company for being there ten years. I pull it close to my face. My eyes haven’t completely adjusted yet. The face has multiple cracks, the hands, perpetually stuck on 3:17 am. I’m not sure why I even looked at it. Old habit I guess, one I won’t need anymore: no more schedules and no more deadlines. I don’t need to know the time; the day starts when the sun comes up and ends when the sun goes down.
An owl screeches in the distance, followed by a small, high pitched scream. In my head I picture the owl swooping down on a mouse, blaring its battle cry as it sinks its talons into the helpless mouse. All the mouse can do is scream, and die. I continue making my way through the forest. A breeze, perhaps strong outside the woods, rolls its way through the trunks and underbrush. It’s cool right now but, the sun should be up in a few hours to warm things up, hopefully.
Continuing to hike deeper into the forest, the sun is up just above the horizon. I hear a welcoming, calming sound; running water. And I don’t mean that crap with lead in it that comes out of my faucet. It was a river, cool and clean from the mountain. I lay my bookbag on the bank next to me as I kneel down, and cup the water with my hands and drink.
I dry my hands, patting them on my pant legs. Dirt and dust from my rough departure billow off of my legs. I open my bookbag, pull out my sweatshirt and throw it on. I look around enjoying the peace and tranquility of my new life. A man could lose himself out here and not worry about anyone ever bothering him. For the first time in about fifteen hours I finally feel like I could sleep. I lay back and put my hands behind my head. I’ll just rest my eyes for a bit.
Some time later I’m awoken by a nudge, gentle at first quickly followed by a forceful jab. I’m about to open my eyes, as my awareness races back to me, when I hear it. A low, nasally snort, inches below my neck, released with enough force that I can feel the warm, damp breath at the base of my neck. Shit! What do I do? What can I do? Nothing. All that crap about which bear to stand up to, which one to play dead doesn’t mean shit when you’re on the ground and the fucking thing is standing over you with a napkin tied around its neck. Suddenly I think of the mouse, at least its end came swiftly.
Another hard shove, this time to the small of my back, hard enough for my legs, from the knees down, to land in the river. I lay here face down on the bank. I feel it looming over me, watching, waiting. My heart is pounding so hard I’m afraid the bear will hear it. This must be what it feels like to stand in front of the firing squad. Waiting for the shots to be fired, bullets to rip through your body. I hear the bear let out a disappointed snort. It sounds like it’s moving away, I don’t dare move yet. I hear a stick break some ways away. Methodically I shift to try to see. I catch just enough of the ass end of the bear to watch it disappear into the forest.
Carefully I pull my legs out of the water, trying not cause any enticing splashing. I dart up onto my feet and grab my bookbag. Looking back in the direction I last saw the bear, I head further up the mountain. First, it is a brisk walk until, I find myself running to put distance between me and the beast. I slow down, I’m just too winded to keep running.
There’s a small grouping of trees, almost forming a circle. They wouldn’t stop the beast, if it returned, but they give me a small sense of protection. I drop down and sit against the largest tree. Leaning forward I struggle to get the bookbag off of my back. Holy shit! I shiver from the cold water which continues to embrace my lower legs. I realize it’s not just my legs that are cold, the air is cooler than before. The sun is starting its way behind the mountain.
My stomach starts growling. Shut up. I don’t have time for you right now. A fire, I’ve got to build a fire. I grab my bookbag, placing it between my legs and unzip the main pocket. Time, Men’s Health, Newsweek, none of these are going to help me. There it is. The newspaper I grabbed yesterday morning before boarding the train. Finally, I will be able to put stories about corrupt politicians, threats of nuclear missiles and terrorist attacks to good use: burn them to keep me warm.
I sit my backpack on the newspaper and push myself up. Like a squirrel collecting nuts, I race around collecting twigs and sticks off the forest floor along with some dried leaves. Now I just need to figure out a way to light it. I saw Castaway, so I know rubbing two sticks together won’t work. Maybe banging two rocks together? Sure, if I was at home I’ve got plenty of matches and one of those electric lighters for candles. I’ve got no change of clothes, no food and in need of fire.
Grabbing two different looking rocks I bang them together. Besides getting some white powder off of the rocks, and losing more daylight, the only thing I accomplish is catching my right middle finger in between the rocks on my last try. I was never good with tools, apparently, not even cave man tools. Looking down at my pile of torn paper, sticks and leaves, I smell it. Smoke! I huddle down quickly over my pile and look in. Nothing. I sit back up and look around. I can still smell it. Where is it coming from?
Like a dog with its nose in the air I spin around sniffing. It’s coming from further up the mountain. No person living this high on a mountain can be like those people down there. This is the simpler life, the way it was meant to be. Perhaps they can help me for tonight and then, I can head back out on my own tomorrow. I can deal with these kinds of people, especially if it’s just one night.
I follow the scent of the smoke up the mountain. It’s a scent from my childhood I’ll never forget. My dad would split logs by hand every fall. As he split them, my brother and I would stack them. When it was all done we would go inside, my brother and I each with an armful of wood, and enjoy some hot chocolate by the first fire of the season. My dad would always comment about how sore he was, but I think he really enjoyed splitting the wood. He was always like that, enjoyed being outdoors and doing physical labor around the house.
He was never the same after my brother and his family were killed by the drunk driver. The only thing he seemed to enjoy, after that, was taking that long train ride to visit me. I always felt bad not being closer for him after the stroke took mom, but my brother was still around then. That’s why I thought it fitting to take the train to say good-bye to dad. The doctors had no explanation, other than his heart gave out. I think he missed mom and the grandkids too much.
The smell gets stronger, I can see the smoke drifting like fog through the branches. The sun is half way behind the mountain. There it is, a small log cabin with a rock chimney, which smoke escapes from. Roughly built, the cabin looks no bigger than three rooms. A beast of a man walks out carrying an old axe. He heads to a stump surrounded by slivers of wood and some logs. As I approach, I watch him grab a log and stand it up on the stump. With one smooth motion the axe hits the stump, thwack, the log explodes into two pieces.
“Excuse me, sir?”, I call out.
Pivoting quickly the man growls, “Who the hell are you?”
A broad face, covered by a long, brown, bushy beard, which bounces as he talks, stares back at me. His skin is tan and wrinkled. His eyes on me.
“What are you doing here?”, he demanded.
“I’m sorry to disturb you sir. You see I was hiking and”
“You don’t look like a hiker to me,” the man interrupted.
“Well I’ve been hiking since early this morning. I had an incident with a bear and ended up part way in the river.”
“A bear?”, the man laughed. “Boy, you’re lucky it’s not spring. It would have eaten you up and shit you out without a second thought.”
“I’m wet, cold, and hungry. I was hoping I could come inside to warm up. Maybe, if you could spare a snack too.”
He stares at me. Making a sound, like a mountain lion purring, he strokes his beard; pulling down on it, separating it, as though horns on his chin.
“I’ll let you in but, once you’re in there you’re gonna’ have to answer some more questions. Understand?”, he asked.
“Yeah, that’s fine. Thank you.”
“But first, you’re gonna’ have to hand over that backpack,” he demanded with an out stretched arm.
“You can have it back when you leave.”
Just happy to have some where to warm up and eat I hand it over. He looks around as if he expects to see someone else.
“Alright, git’”, he says nodding his head towards the cabin.
I walk in with him close behind. He shuts the door and puts a board across it, bolting it shut.
“Sit,” he points to a rustic chair. He puts the bookbag on a small table. A stove sits next to the fireplace. On top sits a black pot. He scoops out some of its contents with a wooden bowl. Grabbing a spoon off the table he places it in the bowl and hands it to me.
“Thank you,” I say as he returns to my bookbag.
He rummages through the bag.
“What are you doing out here?”, he asks.
“Like I said, I’ve been hiking since morning.”
“Bullshit. You ain’t no hiker. No one goes hiking out here with just a bunch of magazines in their backpack.”
“I didn’t start the day hiking but, I figured you wouldn’t believe the truth.”
“I’m gonna’ ask you one more fuckin’ time. What are you doing out here?”
“I’m out here because I’m sick of the cheats, the liars, and the assholes. I’m out here because I’m tired of a world of people killing each other for the money in their wallet, or the clothes on their back. I’m done putting up with that shit.”
“I’m not goin’ back,” he says looking over his shoulder at me. “After 14 years, I’m not goin’ back.”
“You put up with it longer than me,” I pull my broken watch off and throw it on the floor, “ten years. No more, it ends today.”
“No!”, he roars throwing the bookbag at me, spilling the contents of the bowl all over my sweatshirt.
I stand up, dropping the bowl and spoon to the floor, and try to brush myself off. “That’s it.”
Like a flash of lightening the man lunges at me with a knife from the table. Grabbing the back of my head he sinks the knife into my stomach. I try to scream. All that comes out is a squeak. Wrenching the back of my head, his other hand twisting the knife handle, allowing my blood and life to uncontrollably gush out, the man growls,
“14 years I rotted in that cell. I told you, I’m not goin’ back.”
Copyright © 2018 Brett Martin
Brett Martin is a native of Massachusetts. He is married to the
only woman that would put up with, and rather enjoys, his shenanigans.
She also happens to be his best friend. They have two boys and three
dogs, where on the bad days they all have interchangeable names. He has
gone from writing stories as a child in elementary school to now working
on his Masters degree in English Creative Writing at Southern New
Hampshire University. He loves camping, hiking, fishing and being in the
outdoors, though is glad to see his bed when he gets home.