I stood on the edge of a great forest. Well, not exactly on the edge, but as close as I dared to get at the moment. A hundred meters in front of me, marking the entrance to the forest, a path stood wide, beckoning me inward. The hard-baked dirt that marked the path’s beginnings bore the imprints of many feet though none could be seen at the moment. I peered upward at the looming oak trees and smiled. Though the sun scorched the earth where I stood and made me swipe continually at my forehead with the towel I bore in my left hand, the towering trees would soon provide relief.
Still, I hesitated before entering. I planted my fists on my hips and peered around. For a country located near the tropics, it sure didn’t receive much rain; at least this part of the land didn’t. The long grass that waved in the wind around me had been seared brown by the sun. The breeze itself blew not cool, refreshing air, but hot air like a furnace bellows. I reached into my backpack to pull out my thermos and took a swig from it.
During the five-hour trek from the village to the forest, I had nearly emptied the thermos. Several more filled water bottles lay in my backpack, as well as some non-perishable food the villagers had given me. I had gotten a glimpse of the size of the forest from a hill a few miles back; it stretched up into the mountains more than twenty miles distant and presumably continued even beyond that. Looking at its vast expanse, I could only hope that my friends from the village spoke true when they promised that food and water would be provided by the forest itself; they had given me a small frying pan on the assumption that I would find food, which I also carried in my backpack. It would take many days to travel the length of this forest, and that assumed a straight path; my provisions wouldn’t last more than two.
I shrugged, determined not to think of such ‘details’-after all, the villagers had promised I’d be able to find food in the forest. I refocused my gaze on the path before me. Was this the path the villagers had spoken of? The words of the old codger who had seemed to be the mayor of the village rang in my ears: “There’s only one path through that there wood. If you find it, I reckon you best stick to it, boy.”
I smiled warmly as the image of that old coot sprang to mind. With the overalls he perpetually wore, the white bushy hair and beard, he looked every inch the farmer’s Santa Claus, down to the stick of straw that always stuck out of his teeth. Strange garb for a mayor, I had thought at first, but then them there people weren’t fancy city folk, as one of them might put it. They seemed more real somehow, though, than the people I had gotten used to seeing strutting and rushing through the streets of Manhattan.
I sighed and steeled myself to enter the forest. As straightforward as the path looked, the perils the villagers had spoken of had troubled my dreams the past few nights. Many people inhabited the forest, they told me, and not all of those were friendly. Dangerous men and women lurked in the forest depths and many of them had not seen the light in ages. Other perils waited to sneak up on the unwary traveler; some even perturbed the path itself. Best to keep wary and watchful, they had told me.
Yet, the reward for those who completed the task outweighed any danger. I hated risk-taking, especially when my very life was the thing at risk, yet the villagers had waxed so eloquently about a reward for which a man would abandon everything he owned that I had forsaken my fears and ventured this far. I pictured myself lying on a beach clad in only a Speedo with several bikini-clad vixens massaging baby oil into my nearly naked body while another fed me grapes. I snickered to myself. Ah, yes, what I would not give up for that!
Yet, a small voice in my head told me, that must not be the reward of which the villagers spoke. After all, hadn’t I asked them why, if the reward was so great, hadn’t they gone after it themselves?
“What makes you think we haven’t?” the old codger had said. I had looked at the man skeptically and asked, “You didn’t make it, then?” He had simply looked at me and smiled, “Just you worry about finding that path, boy, and sticking to it once you got it.”
Argh, I growled to myself. I swiped at the sweat that dribbled down my forehead. What sort of foolishness had led me out into this godforsaken scorched land? I had come to this blasted country for a vacation, for some fun in the sun, and yet here I stood on the edge of some gigantic forest seeking a reward that might keep a group of yokels happy. Hah! They certainly hadn’t found a fountain of youth at the end of that forest, or even a pot of gold to judge from the dilapidated shacks in which they lived. As for women, the only ones I had seen were the gnarled, bent wives of the septegenarians, women whose best attribute was the ability to cook a nice apple pie. If it’s baked goods I wanted, I would have gone after Betty Crocker years ago! Foolishness.
Yet, I reasoned, perhaps the rewards itself was changeable. What might please an old village man wouldn’t necessarily please a young, virile man like myself. Perhaps the reward and whoever gave the reward acted like a genie, giving the person who arrived the desire of his heart. Hmmm, I mused to myself. I could definitely think of a few things I desired.
That would be some funky magic, a small voice muttered sarcastically in my head.
“Shut up!” I blurted out. I clapped a hand to my mouth as soon as the words escaped my lips, but the implication of my action was not lost on me. Didn’t crazy people talk to voices in their heads? I hastily glanced around, but saw no one who could have witnessed my step into insanity.
No, I assured myself, I could not be crazy. Crazy people don’t realize they’re acting crazy, right? Best to just pretend I had not just responded out loud to a voice in my head.
Satisfied with my conclusion, I looked at the forest again with its the broad path splayed out before me, and made up my mind. After all, what did I actually have to lose by venturing forward? Your life, the small voice whispered, but I ignored it and took one step forward. I could always retrace my steps if the going got rough.
My feet kicked up small amounts of dust with each passing step as I trod over the footprints of many. The trees loomed ever higher, so that I had to crane my neck sharply backward to see the tops. The forest path lay less than 50 meters before me and I could see that the soil changed abruptly with the change in topography. What looked like loam carpeted the forest floor and I marveled at the stark contrast. My feet groaned at the sight of the soft soil, as if yearning to escape the hard baked turf on which I now marched.
As I continued to approach the forest, I began to wonder again if this was the path the villagers had meant. It certainly appeared to be the only path into the forest. When I crested the hill a few hours ago, the entire valley had sprawled out before me. From that height, I had seen this path clearly and the trail I walked now led straight toward it. No other path revealed itself to me, yet a nagging voice in my head complained that the path seemed too obvious given the great reward that supposedly lay at the other end of the forest. I found it hard to disagree. After all, weren’t great rewards supposed to come at a great cost?
I shrugged and continued moving forward. If the villagers’ warnings proved correct, then the great cost would come after setting out on the path. They hadn’t promised an easy journey through the forest, but why shouldn’t the actual finding of the path be easy? With the other trials that supposedly awaited me within the forest, it would only be fair to make part of the trek easy. Yes, I assured myself, that must be so.
As the debate raged in my head, my left foot crossed the threshold into the forest. The feel of my foot sinking slightly into the soft loam snapped off the argument in mind. I froze, unwilling to follow with my other foot. My head turned of its own volition to take one last glimpse back at the world behind me before I committed myself to the path. As my head swung backward, a chill ran up my spine and I heard an ululating cry erupt from the forest ahead. I whipped my head forward and peered into the trees to see of the source of the sound.
As I did so, a crash shattered the stillness behind me. I flattened myself on the ground reflexively and pulled my hands over my head in a vain attempt to protect myself from whatever had caused such a resounding crash. The ululating cry had ceased and I seemed to have survived the explosion from behind, so I lifted my head and turned to look at the land I had just left. The sky, absolutely clear just moments ago, swiftly faded to black as storm clouds raced in from the distant horizon. From out of the darkness, a fork of lighting sliced through the air from cloud to ground, striking the hill on which I had so recently stood.
The bolt set the desiccated grass ablaze immediately. I watched in horror as the flames spread like wildfire through the dried out brush. I scrambled to my feet and uttered a little yelp as the line of fire sped toward me. Toward the forest! Oh, my God! I thought to myself. If the blaze hit these trees, I’d be toast. Try as I might, though, I could not make my legs budge. The fire raced closer, no more than 50 meters from where I stood. In moments now, my flesh would start burning, I thought. I absently wondered how that would feel.
What?! What was I thinking? How could I stand and muse on the feel of burning flesh? My flesh! Fly, you fool, cried that voice in my head. Still, I remained rooted to the ground. Just then, a blur of motion from the path I had traveled caught my eye and a solid something slammed into me, knocking me to the ground, pinned under its weight.
I struggled on the ground, trying to hurl the load off of me. All I could see above me was darkness, like the fur of some great bear. This dark, enormous thing had me pinned to the ground and all my best efforts could hardly budge it. I began to panic and started to flail at this monstrous beast with both arms and legs, kicking and punching in vain attempt to dislodge it. Still, the thing remained firmly in place, the bulk of its weight planted on my abdomen. I could hear its harsh, guttural breathing and a grunt or two when I struck it.
The response I got emboldened me and I lifted my head far enough to bite at the beast’s dark underside. Whap! Something hard smacked my face before I could plunge my teeth into the beast. My head smashed into the ground and the world flashed white for a second. I shook my head and tried to regain my focus, when the weight suddenly lifted off my chest. At the same time, a deep voice spoke.
“Sorry about that,” the voice said, “but we have to run.”
A talking bear? I mused, still half-dazed from the slap. I turned my head as fast as I dared toward the sound of the voice and let my vision swim into focus. The image of a man coalesced before my eyes. A extremely large man, true, whose oddly shirtless body was covered in thick black hair from his knuckles up the arms all the way to his navel. The name George ‘The Animal’ Steele popped into my head and I smiled at the childhood memory. This man had even more hair than the former wrestler, though, which made my initial impression of a bear on top of me more understandable, though the bald pate and mere hint of a 5 o’clock shadow gave his humanity away-not to mention the bizarrely out of place Bermuda shorts.
“Why are you lying there grinning at me like that?” the man growled at me. “Get up, fool! Run!” He stood there, clenching and unclenching those massive paws of his and glancing nervously back and forth from me to the direction I had just come from. Then I remembered. “Oh, shoot,” I swore and turned my head to look at the scene behind me.
The blaze had slowed its approach, but its leading edge hovered less than 30 meters from the forest. A slow, but steady rain beat down from the skies but the fire seemed momentarily unquenched by the moisture. Worse, it continued to sweep forward, drawing ever closer to the forest in which I now found myself. Rain or no rain, if that fire hit me before the rain doused it I’d be some wild animals’ lunch-or a cannibal’s; that ululating cry still rang in my head.
“Let’s go!” howled the hairy man. Before I could turn, huge hands hauled me off my feet and I found myself whirling through the air until I landed with a splat on the large man’s back. ‘Splat’ because the man’s back had been saturated with so much sweat that it made the most overused kitchen sponge seem dry. My face sunk into the soggy bush that made up the man’s back with a moan. This man-ape grunted and began moving, swiftly attaining a speed I hardly thought possible for a man of such girth. I passed my arms under his pits with a shudder of horror at the sweat that began to drip onto them and hung on for dear life.
As the man pounded along the path, I pressed my face firmly into his damp fur to avoid having my head bounce up and down with the motion. It became impossible, then, to avoid inhaling the fetid stench that wafted into my nostrils from my rescuer’s saturated backside. I gagged and tried to breathe in solely through my mouth, but the attempts failed. How could anyone or anything smell so awful? I wondered.
But he has rescued you, whispered a small voice in my head. Yes, I replied, but couldn’t my savior have better hygiene? Hell, even a pig wallowing in filth all day would carry less of a stink than this man-beast.
He could have left you for dead, the small voice retorted. Maybe that would have been better, I replied with an internal grumble.
Still, as I turned to gaze back in the direction from which we had come, I couldn’t help but notice that the blaze lay far in the distance and seemed not to be advancing. Perhaps the rain had quenched it, but if the man I found so repulsive hadn’t thrown me on his back, would the rain have quenched the fire before it got to me? Come to think of it, why had the guy helped me, anyway? Fast as he moved now, how much faster could he have gone without a 200 pound man on his back? He had risked himself somewhat to save me. Would I have done the same in his shoes?
I opened my mouth to utter ‘thank you’, but as I did so a patch of black fur wedged itself in my mouth. A particularly strong wave of foul air blew into my nostrils at the same time, and my world crashed in darkness.
I scurried along the forest floor on all fours. Something followed me, though I could not recall what. Fear of it gave a burst of speed to my crawling, though, and I sped along as fast as I could. A soft crunching sound followed me and I hastened forward.
The moon gave little light to reveal my path. Darkness had fallen long ago and seemed all too reluctant to depart, but I still traveled the path I had taken to enter the forest, I knew.
Though it seemed odd to me that I crawled on all fours, I knew I had to stay down. It wasn’t safe to stand in these parts. What was the danger? I wondered.
The crunching sound grew suddenly nearer, and I rushed forward, galloping as fast as I could. The twigs on the forest floor bit into my hands and knees with every jaunt forward, but I stifled a cry and pushed onward. Crash, went my ungainly body through the forest. I was making too much noise! At this rate, if the thing behind me didn’t get me, something else would hear and pounce on my juicy man-flesh.
I didn’t want to die yet! Harsh, guttural breathing erupted from behind, followed by the tell-tale crunching. It sounded like whatever was following me couldn’t wait to get me, but had found some other prey to chomp on while chasing me. I raced forward with all my might, trying to outrun the crunching beast.
Crunch, crunch! The sound picked up speed. I could feel its hot breath upon me. Crunch, crunch! I accelerated, pounding through the forest at breakneck speed. The twigs and even some small branches shattered beneath my weight as I raced into nowhere. I gazed forward, trying to see past the darkness to find a way out of my trap.
There it was! A huge oak tree marked a fork in the trail I pounced along. On one side, the path looked smooth and broad, while the other looked rough and narrow. Crunch, crunch. The beast drew closer now. Its fetid breath bathed me in its stench. I gagged, but continued gamely pouncing forward.
I reached the tree and leaped to my right, onto the smooth path. Throwing caution to the wind, I scrambled to my feet and raced forward when I realized the beast had followed me. A voice in my head bellowed a warning, but I ignored it. What difference if something else saw me if I didn’t outrun this beast?
I staggered forward. My legs felt leaden and bulky, as if rousing themselves from a long slumber. Gradually, my steps found fluidity and I broke into a run, the soles of my feet pounding the dirt as I sped forward. The crunching sound grew more rapid, interspersed with grunts that told me the beast was struggling to catch up. Closer and closer, the crunching beast drew up hot on my trail. I peered desperately forward, but the smooth path stretched on monotonously before me.
Grunt. Grunt. The beast’s foul breath blasted on my neck. Crunch. Crunch. Afraid to look backward, I pressed forward desperately. The guttural breathing washed down over me. Tears formed in my eyes, and I choked back a sob. All I wanted was a little fun in the sun, but now I’d die in this godforsaken forest.
Whap! A paw slammed down on my right shoulder and I tumbled forward into a pile of large sticks. I grunted as one of the sticks stuck in my right side. I reached down to pull the stick from my side, rolled over onto my back, and swung the stick at my attacker. “Oooofff,” sounded an oddly human grunt from the beast as the stick thunked into something solid.
“Yes,” I cried triumphantly and swung the stick again. It swirled through the air with a hiss, but didn’t find its target. Haha, I cried to myself, though. That’s right. Stay back, you filthy monster.
I brandished the stick before me. A strange red glow reflected off its peculiarly smooth surface. I crinkled my brow in puzzlement and peered closer at the stick. In my hand, it also felt smooth, and the surface actually looked pale, rather than the typical brown color usually associated with sticks. Its top end, come to think of it, rounded off much like a…
”Aaaaah,” I screamed and dropped the thing from my hand. A bone! I had held a bone in my hand. I backpedaled to get away from the cursed artifact. My hands fell on more of the smooth objects as I pushed myself backward. I shrieked again and scrambled to get my footing, but my foot rolled off one of those smooth objects that littered the ground and I tumbled backward to land on my buttocks.
A sudden wave of heat washed over my back. I turned my head and saw the source of that red glow from earlier. A fire blazed just inches from me. I dove forward to get away from the fire, when suddenly I felt a searing pain along my lower back. My shirt had caught! I threw myself into a rolling dive and tumbled back and forth among the pile of bones, cursing as the bones bit into and bruised my flesh.
Cackling laughter erupted from somewhere nearby. I cringed as I rolled. The fire bit deeper into my flesh, spreading along the length of my back despite my best efforts. I rolled back and forth harder, desperately yearning to stifle the flames. But, the pain intensified, soaring up my neck. The laughter grew louder. I began to wail.
“Noooooooo!!!!” I screamed. “Someone, please stop this!” The fire reached my scalp. The smell of burnt flesh swelled up within my nostrils. I gagged and bit off a choking sob. “Pleaaaase!” I pleaded.
Something abruptly changed. I lay on my back in the forest, staring up past overhanging branches into a clear night sky. The pain that had assailed me moments ago had fled, though I still panted with fear and from exertion. I could feel my heart pound within my chest as I examined my surroundings.
Sharp somethings lay beneath me, pricking my flesh but I no longer burned. Near me, something breathed heavily as if recovering from some great exertion, yet I no longer feared. Slowly, I sat up, pulling off the sharp something where they clung to my flesh. The fire had left no mark on my back, no tender flesh to haunt my every waking moment. Those sharp somethings I noted, too, were actually branches and twigs, not bones.
I turned to gaze around me, but saw no sign of the fire that had ravaged my body moments before, though a cluster of charred wood several feet away marked a recent fire. Tendrils of smoke still snaked upward from the pile. Next to it lay several small piles of cooked meat that were illuminated dimly by the moonlight streaming through the trees. Rabbit, if I wasn’t mistaken, with one larger pile perhaps a deer. Chunks of flesh appeared to be missing from the deer.
I rubbed my eyes. A dream? Had the chase and the burning all been some dream? I lifted my gaze from the meat and saw the something that had been breathing so heavily. It sat there, a large, furry man-beast devouring a mostly raw piece of venison. The blood from the animal dripped down the man-beast’s chin and the occasional ‘crunch’ marked his chewing; apparently, the man-beast cared not whether he bit into bone. My stomach churned at the sight and I fought hard to keep from retching.
‘George’, I thought, lacking a better name for him. ‘George’ gazed back at me, a slight flicker of amusement in his eyes. Had he been the beast that had so closely followed me in my dreams? The waking world must have impinged on my dreams, I concluded. Just a nightmare. I sighed, the memory still vivid, but losing its power to fright by the minute. My heart eased its breakneck pace and my breathing stilled to normalcy. I could explain the dream; therefore, it became manageable.
A bass voice interrupted my musing. “Want some rabbit?” George pointed at the pile of meat on the ground.
My lip curled in instinctive disgust. ‘George’ must have noted it, for he said, “That meat’s cooked. I assumed you’d prefer cooked meat.”
“Thank you,” I said, meaning it. My stomach rumbled an enthusiastic response. I reached over, grabbed a rabbit and bit deeply into its cooked flesh. Juices from the freshly cooked meat ran down my chin, but I could care less for my palate roared an enthusiastic response to the tender meat. “Thank you,” I mumbled again between bites.
Part of me felt ashamed of how I continued to think of ‘George.’ He had saved me from a forest fire, carried my comatose body for who knows how long and cooked deer and rabbit, food he freely shared with me. This he did despite the revulsion with which I viewed his hairy, odiferous body. Had he caught on to my disgust? Perhaps. If so, I owed him an even greater debt of gratitude.
“Again, thanks,” I repeated. “You saved my life.” I reached out a hand. “My name’s Josh.”
He set the raw venison on his lap and reached out a giant hand with a smile. “George,” he said.
I choked, nearly spewing out my food as my hand clasped his greasy mitt.
“Are you all right?” he asked, releasing my hand.
I shook my head as I forcefully stifled the urge to laugh. No, ‘laugh’ does not quite describe what I wanted to do. ‘Crack up’ seemed more appropriate. Still, I handled the situation with admirable aplomb, or so I thought. A very sizeable part of me wanted to question George about his wrestling days, but I swallowed the impulse and said, “Nice to meet you, George.” My voice, I am proud to say, only shook slightly with laughter.
George grunted. I cast a furtive glance at my companion. His head hung low and he shook it slightly, a small sigh escaping his lips. He knew, I thought. George knew that I was amused and why. My face reddened. Shame flooded through me and I focused my gaze intently on the meat in hand, anything but look at the man I had so grossly mistreated.
Silence dragged on for several moments before I felt compelled to break it. “How did you come to enter this forest?”
I still couldn’t look at the man squarely, but I saw George roll his heavy shoulders in a small shrug at my question. “The men from village asked me to come here so that I might find something I desire.”
I raised my eyebrow in surprise. So, I wasn’t the only one. I guess those guys ran some sort of service for the desperate. “What did they tell you about it?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see George lift his head and gaze at me steadily. He didn’t answer for many seconds. “They mentioned that a prize I have sacrificed much to win could be found in this forest. I want to bring this prize into my possession.”
He opened his mouth again, as if to say more, but closed it quickly and returned his attention to the forest floor.
I waited while George absently shifted some rocks on the forest path, but his eyes never left mine. There was more to it, I was sure, but I didn’t want to press. He gazed at me like a man searching for something, but whatever he found made him reluctant to speak. I sighed and returned my attention to the venison.
“Why are you here?” George asked.
I shrugged. “The same reason,” I said.
“I see,” he replied.
I raised my head and looked at my companion. George still fiddled absently with the rocks near his feet. His shoulders hung heavy, as if they bore a large burden. He was a man well acquainted with rejection, I decided. My reaction, though unstated, to his hygiene and other qualities he must have seen a thousand times. He could probably move a mountain with his bare hands and had little to fear physically from any man, yet he was lonely.
In that way, we were not much different. I decided to elaborate. “Yeah,” I added. “Those villagers promised me I’d find a prize beyond my imagining. I figured, if there’s any truth to what they say-and they didn’t seem like liars to me-it’s gotta be better than what I have right now, you know.”
“I understand,” he said simply. I waited for him say more, but he just returned my stare blankly.
Finally, the massive man yawned. “Please don’t be offended,” he said, “but I’m going to sleep now. ” With that, he lay down, a small stone serving as a pillow under his head.
“Yes, sir,” I mumbled under my breath. What was that all about? I wondered. First, he seems disappointed that I don’t talk more, but then he goes to sleep when I do share. What kind of lonely freak did I shack up with? I spat on the ground in disgust. A loud snore answered my show of contempt.
“Ha,” I snorted. “Only a simpleton could shut the world out so easily.” I stood up and paced restlessly in front of my companion.
That annoying voice in my head insisted my attitude was foolish. Hadn’t I just felt a deep shame for treating this man badly? Now, I cursed him for a simple, lonely freak. You’re mad, this voice said, because you shared and he didn’t seem interested. You wanted to talk, but he didn’t, so you curse him. Perhaps you’re the lonely freak.
I swore at that voice and told it to shut up. Saddled up with Lenny from Of Mice and Men is one thing, but to have to listen to some freakin’ do-gooder voice in my head on top of that was more than I could bear.
I stopped my pacing for a moment and peered around me. The light from the moon and stars was dim, but my eyes had adjusted well to the darkness and I could see some distance into the forest.
At first, I could neither hear nor see much. Slowly, though, a distant music eased its way into my consciousness. Soft, sensual music, it sounded like. I inched closer. A few gentle splashes could be heard over the music, along with an occasional high-pitched giggle. I stepped forward, the crackle of leaves under my foot telling me I had likely stepped beyond the path. I didn’t care.
I weaved my way between trees toward the source of that enticing sound. A male voice interjected from time to time, usually followed by the feminine giggle. Finally, a clearing opened up before me. In the center of the clearing, a number of large boulders lay in a semi-circle. The side of the semi-circle facing me facing me lay open, with a few small boulders piled together to form a staircase that led to a gap between the larger boulders. The sounds that had drawn me to that spot emanated from this clearing.
I crept forward slowly, doing my best not to be heard. The music had stopped and so had the laughter, but gentle splashes told me I had found the object of my search. A low moan from among the rocks raised the hackles on the back of my neck and hastened my approach. I had to see what was going on in that clearing!
As quickly as I dared, I ascended the rock staircase. My feet threatened to slip on the wet surface, but the terrible urgency I felt must have lent dexterity to my feet for I clambered up the rocks without error. The moaning had intensified, a deep feminine moan that beckoned me onward. Carefully, I poked my head over the top of the staircase, nervous yet quivering with anticipation.
I gasped at the sight that greeted my eyes. A pool stretched out between the rocks and in the middle of that pool stood a man and a woman, naked. The water hid most of their bodies from my prying eyes, but I could see the swell of the woman’s breasts rise enticingly above the surface of the water. As I watched, the man trailed kisses down the woman’s neck as she arched her head backwards in the throes of passion.
My heart lurched as the woman rose up slightly to reveal more of her breasts to her lover’s wandering mouth. I clasped a hand to my mouth to stifle another gasp as the man’s mouth reached its destination. My feet pushed on the rocks beneath me as I strove to move in for an even closer look.
The rocks, though, slipped loose beneath my feet and a loud clattering noise announced my presence more clearly than a triumphal procession. “Aw, shoot,” I cursed. The couple in the pool froze instantly and turned in my direction. Still somewhat obscured by the rock staircase on which I stood, I would have had a chance of escaping unnoticed had I not inanely stood up just as their heads swiveled in my direction.
Now it was my turn to freeze as their eyes landed on me. For a second, we both looked at each other in awkward silence until their gaze descended from my face. I blushed and bent in awkward fashion to hide what their eyes had seen. Too late. The man suddenly burst into laughter. The woman followed, a harsh, cackling laughter that set my ears aflame.
I spun around and dashed down the stairs. Unfortunately, one of the larger stones slid out from under my feet and I fell crashing to the ground. The laughter grew louder. I scrambled to my feet and sped off into the forest in mad headlong sprint. Crash. Crash. Snap. I plunged through the forest, leaving snapped branches and crushed leaves under my feet as the laughter assailed me from behind. I heard little else.
Tears began to blind my vision as the mocking noises continued to pound my ears. SMACK! I tripped over a thick root and fell facedown in the dirt. My face slammed into the ground and I hastily spat out some loose dirt that entered my mouth. I clawed my way to my feet and raced through the forest again.
The forest no longer echoed with laughter, but with a deeper, more throaty sound. Salt from my tears stung a wound that must have opened up when I fell. I swiped at my face and raced on, mortified at having my loneliness exposed for any eyes to see. The sounds encapsulated all my hopes and dreams, what I had secretly longed for my entire life, but had not yet come close to experiencing. My fear that I never would have that experience made the sounds of lovemaking too painful to bear.
I ran on, heat suffusing my face, and shame turning my lungs to fire. As I pounded forward, another, harsher, sound cut through the moans. It sounded like a mix of a lion’s growl and a teapot whistle, but I rejoiced at the sound of it for I could not hear the lovers in the forest above its din.
Still, I thought, best not to approach whatever made that sound too freely. I slowed my pace as the sound grew louder. The forest in front of me thinned and gave way to a path. From what my ears could tell, the source of the noise lay somewhere off to my left on the path itself.
Rather than step out onto the path, I decided to keep to the protective covering of the trees. I crept closer, but soon smelled a familiar odor. Mixed with a lingering scent of roast venison, a much sharper smell pierced my nostrils. George, I said under my breath. I sighed. He had come to my rescue again, this time inadvertently. Another sort of mortification set in, this time the shame of realizing how shabbily I’d treated George, if mostly in my head.
I could not approach him or the small camp he had set up for us. I slunk back into the trees and slumped to the ground at the base of a large oak tree. I wept. At that moment, the sounds I had heard earlier came back to me louder than before. I did not know if they came from the forest or the memories in my mind, but I responded in my usual manner. In the darkness of the forest, I masturbated bitterly.
“Josh! Josh!” called a deep voice.
“Huh?” I croaked. I tried vainly to open my eyes, but cobwebs glued them in place.
“Oh,” came the voice, “there you are. I’ve been looking everywhere.”
“Huh,” I said, more urgently. My eyes snapped open and I saw a large, furry figure approaching swiftly. A shaft of sunlight illuminated George’s large figure enough to see that he bore a large smile. He seemed happy to find me.
I suddenly remembered the events of last night and leapt to my feet, my shame now exposed to the light of day. The sounds of George crashing through the forest came closer. I glanced up hastily to see him weaving between several trees not 20 feet from me. Quickly, I reached down and hid my exposure. As the zipper came to its final resting place, I glanced up.
George stood there, less than 5 feet away. His eyes loomed wide as he peered down toward where I had been fumbling. The surprise on his face lasted only a moment, though. He looked up at me and smiled.
“I found some eggs, Josh,” he said. “Don’t worry, I cooked them. Please come and eat.” He turned around and walked back to our campsite.
I followed meekly. My head hung low. Though George continued to talk throughout our brief walk back to camp, hardly a word registered to me. My embarrassment drowned out all sound. All I could was mumbled ‘yeah’ when the pauses in his ramblings seemed to require a response.
At last, we arrived at camp. George had squelched a fire recently. Tendrils of smoke trailed upward from the embers that remained of the wood from last night, but the fire itself had been quenched entirely. To the right of the fire lay my frying pan. Scrambled eggs lay piled up on the pan several inches thick. From whatever beast George had found eggs, he had certainly found quite a few.
Not ten feet away, I noticed, lay my backpack, its contents partially spilled on the forest floor. I frowned at the sight, but did not object. George had cooked me food for the second time in less than a day. He deserved some gratitude, not chastisement.
I plopped down next to the frying pan and reached over to scoop up some eggs. As my fingers encountered the eggs, I paused and turned to face my companion. “Thank you, George,” I said sincerely. “Did you have any yet?”
He flashed a quick grin. “Of course I did,” he said. “You think I got this big by waiting for others to eat first?”
I chuckled. “No, probably not.” I scooped some eggs into my mouth. “Thanks for finding me. If I were you, I probably just would have left.”
He grimaced. “I’m not you. Thought about it, but you’d be dead without me to look out for you and I don’t want that to happen.”
His grin took some of the bite out of the remark, but I still flinched for I knew it to be true. I needed this man to survive. At least for now, I did. It grated on my nerves to be dependent on anyone, but I smiled and tried to sweep away my irritation at the thought. In time, I consoled myself, I would learn to survive in this forest by myself.
I stuffed my mouth with more eggs to hide my reaction. What did I have to complain or get irritable about? The man seated in front of me had saved me from fire, hunted down and cooked me food I would never have had the resources to find, and found me after I had deliberately run away to seek after some puerile desire. I had no right to get irritated simply because I needed all the help this man could offer. Still, part of me grumbled inwardly at being so helpless.
I shook that part of me off, though, and savored the eggs set before me. As the first bite hit my taste buds, a question popped into my head. “George,” I asked, “do you think the treasure at the end of this path is worth it? I’ve risked my life on the word of a few old men I only met a few days ago. Does that make sense to you?”
George scratched the stubble on his chin as he pondered the question. “That’s a good question, Josh.” He paused, as if uncertain about what he was going to say. “Did you think they were honest with you?”
“Yes,” I answered, “they did. I doubt one of them could say the sky is green.” George smiled slightly at that.
“But,” I protested, “lots of people can be honest. What I care about is accuracy. They might think they’re telling the truth, but simply be mistaken. They would be acting honestly in telling us about this treasure that they believed to exist but might be wrong about its actual existence. Have you considered that, George?”
This time George did not hesitate. “Yes, Josh,” he said, “I have. But, I doubt you would be here if they hadn’t found something you desired.”
“Yeah,” I muttered under my breath, “some toothless old hag to wake up to every morning. Some freakin’ treasure.”
George cleared his throat suddenly and violently. I jerked, my gaze going straight for his face. George’s once vague face had turned sharp as a knife and his eyes drilled mine like an auger. He must have heard my remark. I quickly raised my hands in a plea for mercy.
“Sorry, George,” I said hastily. “I just meant that they don’t seem to have all that much worthwhile. They live in huts, have grown old, suffer from arthritis, and have wives, who, while nice, hardly put Cindy Crawford to shame. What could I possibly desire that they have?”
His face still flushed with anger, George replied. “Well, at least they…” He stopped himself suddenly and ran a hand over his face. When his hand fell to his chin, his face had returned to its normal hue. “You’re saying,” he began slowly, “that there was nothing about those villagers you wanted?”
I cringed at the slight bite in his tone. Though I prided myself on strength, even the slightest rebuke was hard for me to bear. Especially, I thought, when I knew I was wrong. “Maybe,” I said, “maybe. But whatever it is, it isn’t what I’ve wanted my whole life.”
“What is it you want, Josh?” George asked.
I paused and smiled at my companion. “You really like those villagers, don’t you?”
He nodded solemnly. “Yes, I do. Now what is it you want?”
“Why the hell do you want to know?” I snapped, irrationally. I stood up and kicked over the frying pan. The few remaining eggs flew out onto the dying embers of the morning’s fire. “Maybe all I want is some pussy. Huh,” I asked, “did you ever think of that?”
George just stared back at me, his left eyebrow raised slightly. I sighed and ran a hand through my hair as I paced back and forth. “No,” I said bitterly, “I don’t really expect there to be some sexy supermodel at the end of this road programmed to think I’m the hottest man alive, with her only goal in life pleasuring me. No, George, I don’t actually think that.”
“Then what do you think you’ll find?” George asked.
“Aaahhh,” I groaned. “That’s the point, George. I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s gotta be better than what I’ve got now. Look at me, George. I’m 25 years old, in good shape, and pleasant enough to the eyes, but I go haring off into the forest at the slightest provocation to see some couple have sex just so I can masturbate as I watch. Some freakin’ life I have right now.”
I gasped as I realized the words that left my mouth. George had obviously known something about my experience last night, but to admit my weakness to him so blatantly? Shame suffused my face. I peered at George hesitantly, unsure of his reaction. He simply looked back at me, a slightly sad, pitying look on his face.
For once I didn’t mind the pity. It was better than laughter, the reaction I would have gotten from most. After a moment, George flashed a brief smile at me, not one of mockery but of reassurance. He gazed at me calmly and said simply, “I know, Josh.”
“Look at me,” he said, pointing at his face. “I’m ugly. I stink. Hair grows on me where no hair should. People think I’m disgusting.” I blushed at that, recalling my first impression of George. “I’m lonely. You think I don’t know anything about loneliness?”
“No, George,” I said, stopping my pacing to face him. “I know you understand. But what can chasing after some unknown treasure do for me, or us?”
He smiled gently. “Josh, you may not think I’m a smart man, but I know a thing or two. Those villagers had something most people would die to possess. Do you want it?”
I hung my head, still unsure of what I had seen in those villagers. “I don’t know, George,” I said, “but I don’t have much to lose. Except my life that, is,” I muttered.
George gave a loud, bellowing laugh and rose swiftly to his feet. “That’s the spirit,” he said and slammed a hairy paw into my back. I staggered forward under the blow, but caught my balance and turned to him with a grin on my face.
“Shall we go, then?” I said. I gazed up toward the sky and could see through the trees that the sun had reached about halfway into the morning sky. Much of the morning had already passed, I realized with alarm. We better get moving.
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