Last year, on something of a dare, I shot and edited (to a fine cut) a film in two weeks. We shot 4 twenty hour days without a script and $970 later came up with Blanc de Blanc, a mystery that played around the country, was called by one critic a masterpiece, and ran for a week in a cineplex. One night it even out-grossed the #1 film in the country, a little art film called Iron Man 2.
All on the strength of creating and promoting the film via word-of-mouth.
Naturally, I started right away working on the follow-up, what was to be something of an epic about suicide--a big, sprawling film condemning everything from the banking industry to the stubborn protagonist. Then life kind of took over, dropping me in Maine with a severe case of clinical depression and a broken heart (hey, write what you know, right?). So I did what any filmmaker would do in that situation: I decided that this summer I was going to make a feature. In Maine. In the middle of the woods.
You could say I'm a glutton for punishment.
Naturally, there's costs involved in making a film, especially when you have a grand total of zero collaborators in the state, so the first logical step was to create a Kickstarter campaign as a way of crowdfunding the project. I did some research and crunched the numbers. It'll cost at least $4,000 to make the film worth a damn, and a chunk of that is just allowing for travel costs to get people up here.
A day or two into the campaign, I debated the merits of posting the script outline (and the subsequent, fleshed-out versions) online, but a better idea surfaced: I'd write the story of the film as a serialized novella. And that's what you'll see here. Every $500 we raise, I'll write and release another chapter of the story that'll later this summer be adapted into a film. The ending, of course, won't come until after we've hit the goal, and maybe not until a couple of chapters after we hit the goal.
We'll be moving fast. Maybe we'll raise the money faster than I can write, but if the money comes in, I'll write them. Hopefully you enjoy watching it unfold. And hey, you might even get to see a trainwreck.
The tuck pulled to a stop at the edge of the woods. They had driven a mile or so through a field, past a weathered red barn with a Dukakis '88 sign facing the road. John had asked if people up here were that far behind the times. The joke had not gone over well with the truck's driver.
As far as John could tell, there was nothing to indicate that the truck should stop here. No parking area, no path into the woods, nothing but a solid wall of bushes and trees. It was, simply, the end of the field. He looked over his shoulder, but the red barn was gone from view.
Six months ago, his bother-in-law Mark had told him about this fishing trip his cousin had taken in the northern Maine woods--camping in a tent and living off the fish you caught for a couple of days, a real back-to-nature vacation. It sounded compelling enough. But when Mark had scoffed that, no, it wasn't Steven King country, it was much more remote than that, he was sold.
It took even less to convince his lawyer Paul, a tax attorney who worn Armani suits during the week and a ratty old hat with fishing lures stuck through it during the weekends. Paul had copies of Field & Stream magazine in his office, framed prints of lakes and rivers along all the walls, and some sort of large fish mounted over his desk. He had described to John once--in great detail--the process of catching it, the lure he used, the body of water he had been fishing, the thrill of victory. John had nodded politely, but never could remember what type of fish it was. He was too polite to tell Paul he'd forgotten, and didn't care enough to ask to hear the story again. He only knew it was impressive. Or, at least, he assumed it must be. Why else would he go to the trouble of mounting it?
The driver of the truck, the one who wasn't impressed with John's joke, was their guide. Brian or Ryan or Ian or something. He had said maybe twenty words since picking them up at the Portland airport four hours ago, and what little he had was so deeply buried underneath a accent that none of them had understood more than a fraction. John knew Pakistani cab drivers in New York that were easier to understand. Brian or whoever shut the truck off and muttered something like "this is it". He took a sun-bleached Red Sox hat off the dash and jammed it on his head.
They all piled out of the truck, walking around to stretch their legs. The guide walked fifteen feet down the edge of the woods and without giving it a second thought, unzipped his pants and relieved himself. Then, he grabbed some gear from the back of the truck, walked to a spot in the tree line, and pushed aside a bush to reveal a well-worn, clearly marked trail.
John, Mark, and Paul scrambled to get their gear out of the back of the truck and follow him before he disappeared into the woods. By the time John got his backpack on, he could barely remember which bush to move and the guide was already thirty feet away. He ran to catch up.
The first thing John noticed was the darkness. Kind of like walking into a cave. Here and there a shaft of sunlight hit the ground, but for the most part, the trees took care of that. It took John's eyes a second to adjust, to focus, to take in the shift in brightness. The floor of the woods was covered with a thick coat of dead leaves and rotting branches that had broken off during storms or just given up all hope of consistent sunlight. All around moss poked through. John tried to remember what he'd heard about moss. Did it always grow on the northern side? On the southern? Or was that something else?
Mark was yelling back at him. He was thirty feet ahead; Paul twenty feet more. John couldn't even see the guide, even though he wore a blaze orange shirt with a deer decal on it and the phrase "Getchadeeryet?" all mashed together as one word. Actually, blaze orange probably was no longer accurate. It was an old shirt. Perhaps just orange or whatever you'd call that color when it had faded over the years.
John jogged to keep up, careful not to trip in the trail that was more of a footpath weaving around trees with a strip of flagging ever forty feet or so to mark the way. As he got closer to Mark, he started to catch glimpses of the guide. He was moving fast, walking through the woods with purpose, only occassionally checking to make sure they were keeping up.
"Fucking hell. Does he even know we're back here?" The pack was heaving and John was slightly out of breath from jogging.
"I think so. I saw him check a minute ago."
"Where did you find this guy anyway?"
"My cousin recommended him."
"The one in jail?"
"I do not have a cousin in jail." Mark's voice came up a little. It was a touchy subject. "He's a second cousin. Not even a blood relative."
"Anyway, it wasn't him. It's a different cousin."
"You know, Paul's a lawyer."
"Sure. Hey Paul!"
"I don't want to know," Paul yelled back. "I'm on vacation. You see this hat? This is my I'm not a lawyer hat."
"So I lose my attorney-client privileges?"
"Yes." Paul stopped, turned to face them. "But replaced with the ever more solemn fishing trip code of secrecy. Like Vegas, only without the strippers."
"So you don't want to know about Mark's genetic pre-disposition to crime?"
"Not a blood relative," Mark protested.
"No. I don't care."
"Ladies!" The guide had walked back toward them and didn't look pleased. "You wanna stand around in the woods or you wanna fish?" They all wanted to fish. "Ok then." The guide turned and walked down the path, muttering something about people from out of state and city folk being a waste of time.
Like chastized children, they walked in silence for the next ten minutes, doing their best to keep up with a guide who was moving even faster through the woods. Finally, he stopped. They could hear running water, but they couldn't see it. The guide put his pack down and pushed aside some brush. The woods opened and before them lay a bubbling brook. The burst of light took their breath away.
It was if the guide had opened the door of a pitch black room and let in the sun. It was blinding, overwhelming, disorienting. Once John's eyes adjusted, focused, he saw a brook (a river?) carved out of the woods. There was no banking, no shore. The woods stopped and the water started. He imagined that when the water ran high, the trees would be partly underwater, that the roots stretched into the brook itself. And if he remembered correctly from childhood--that a tree's roots spread as far as the branches--then they did, they dug under the riverbed, soaking up water as it filtered on down. He was pretty sure, mostly sure, more sure than he was about the moss.
Mark and Paul had already put their packs down next to the guide's. Mark dug a worm out of his creel and carefully threaded it onto a hook and, following the guide's cryptic directions, walked fifty feet or so upstream. Once there, he dropped the worm into the currents and let it float downstream. The guide shook his head, no. He pointed Mark to a spot on the opposite shore where the water had collected around a fallen log. Mark did as instructed and no sooner had the bait hit the pool then the line went taut. Mark yanked the pole, hard (too hard?), and reeled it in as fast as he could. From the tension on the line, it looked like a big one. He drew it closer and it flashed to the surface, fighting with everything it had. Back down into the current and then--suddenly--the line went limp. It was gone. Mark finished reeling in the line. The worm he had so carefully threaded was gone--the hook picked clean.
"Why'd you let him go?" John chided.
"I had him. Did you see it? He was huge."
"I don't know if he was huge..."
Paul was more methodical. He put his pack down and stood in the doorway to the water, surveying the brook, the sky, the opposite shore, and what else John couldn't guess. He took his hat off, selected one of the flies, and attached it somehow. John had never seen fly fishing in person and was curious about the mechanics, but not curious enough to be labeled a fool.
Paul waded out to the spot he'd selected and started waving the fly rod around, forward and back, 10 o'clock 2 o'clock, whipping the neon orange line around in the air like those rhythmic gymnasts John's wife would watch every four years. How did he keep it from going in the trees? After thirty seconds, he let the line rest on the surface of the water, then snatched it back up almost as quickly, as if he was only interested in catching the really motivated fish, the type-A personalities, the greedy ones. But soon enough, he had one, the fish attacking the fly as it hit the water, like Jaws going after a swimmer. It was a nice trout, big enough to keep, but Paul let it go, said something about it being bad luck to keep the first one.
John had never heard that. Then again, he had never read those magazines in Paul's office either.
"You fishin'?" It was the guide. His fishing pole ready and anxious to hit the water.
"Yeah, of course." John put his pack down.
The guide pointed downstream. "Go down they-uh, not too fah, just past the bend. Ok?"
Um, maybe? It was the most detailed thing he'd heard the guide say, and he still understood none of it.
"Did you say 'not too far'?"
"Ayuh. That way." He pointed, seemed slightly annoyed, muttered something about people from away, and cast his line.
John complied, left his pack with the others, and worked his way forty or so feet downstream, around the bend, and tried to find a spot similar to the one the guide had shown Mark. He spotted one without much trouble and spent the next twenty minutes futilely casting down into the deepest-looking spot. He let his mind wander, taking in the warmth of the sun on his face, closing his eyes and listening to the water rush over the rocks, the wind through the trees, the birds singing all around him. It was beautifully serene, peaceful.
Every so often, a fish would nibble at his worm, the line responding with a playful little tug, but it was never more than that, and John didn't mind. It was relaxing just standing there in the brook, the water up over his knees, the woods existing all around him in their uninterrupted form, the way they had for centuries. He imagined himself as one of the original settlers of Maine (or was it part of Canada then?), fishing this exact spot in this exact condition, his fishing pole nothing more than a stick with some twine tied to the end.
It was an hour later (Two hours? Three? John had lost all track of time) when Paul walked up to him, asked if he was having any luck. They exchanged comments about what a great spot this was.
"Did you see the guide go past you?"
"No, did he go downstream?"
"Yeah, I'm going to go down past him, and we can leapfrog our way down."
"Ok, I'll move down in a bit. Where's Mark?"
"Just killing it back where he started. No way he's moving any time soon."
Paul moved down the right shore as John cast along the left. Ten minutes passed, maybe more. He heard Paul calling to him.
"Hey John, what's the guide's name?"
"Uh...Brian? Ryan? Ian? Something like that. Why?"
"I can't find him." He called out again, this time in the other direction. "Brian? Ryan? Hello?"
There was no answer. John joined in. "Brian? Ryan?"
Still no answer.
"Mr. Fishing Guide? Ian?"
Mark heard them yelling and wandered downstream to see what all the fuss was about. They were back-to-back, hands cupped around their mouths, hollering into the woods. It was comical, really, to see them standing there. They looked like idiots, the guy who married his sister and some lawyer friend of his. Mark had never met the lawyer before, but he seemed like a nice enough guy--quiet, courteous but not polite, and clearly excited to be in the middle of nowhere. You didn't have to know him very well to realize that this was a person who relished the opportunity to get away from urban life.
As for John...well...John was family, sort of. He was proof of the old saying that you can choose your friends, but not your relatives. And, in truth, he didn't know him that well. His sister hadn't exactly brought him around to meet the family, instead casually mentioning one day that she'd started living with this guy who until then had only existed in Facebook photos of her at a baseball game, her at the beach, her at the bar. He was in the background at first, sporadically in the same places as her. Then he was in almost all of them, usually right next to her, sometimes with his arm around her. Then her status changed from "single" to "in a relationship with...". Even when they skipped the engagement and got married one day, John still hadn't met her family.
Not that Mark was all that surprised. His sister was the poster child for rash decisions where reason was little more than an afterthought. She held the local high school record for pregnancy scares without a positive result and managed to do it without getting a reputation for being a slut. She was just...impulsive. A match made this quickly, this foolishly had disaster written all over it. Sure, a rushed marriage wasn't newsworthy, but it didn't say much for either of them. What sort of person gets married without meeting his wife's family?
His father had said it best: "Thank God there aren't any children". And he liked John more than most.
Mark could do without him entirely.
But he was sort of enjoying watching him and Paul standing there, yelling into the woods like their lives depended on it. They hadn't even noticed he was there, they were so busy shouting. Could they seriously not even remember Ryan's name?
"What the fuck are you doing?"
"Hey," Paul saw him first. "Have you seen the guide?"
"You mean Ryan?"
"He went towards you. Why?"
John and Paul looked at each other, both of them feeling too dumb to answer right away. "We can't find him," John finally said.
"What do you mean?"
"We don't know where he is."
"Well...maybe he went to take a shit."
Paul looked at John with a wry smile. "That's probably it. I bet he can't hear us." He looked back at Mark. "Did you catch any big ones?"
Mark held up a Ziploc bag full of brook trout. "I got my limit."
Paul smiled. "In my bag there's a flask with some 18 Year Glenlivet in it, should you want a celebratory shot."
Mark couldn't believe it. "You put that in a flask?"
"We're roughing it, aren't we?"
Mark laughed and turned to head back upstream to where they'd left the backpacks. It took him a minute to find the spot where the guide had pushed back the brush, but finally noticed something of a trampled path of grass where they had walked through. Once his eyes adjusted to the change in light, he found the matted grass where they had placed their bags. Only, there was something wrong. He walked back to the brook.
After a minute, they walked into view.
"Did you guys do anything with the bags?"
They both shook their heads. John yelled back, "No, why?"
"Because they're gone."
Their gear was gone, that much was certain. The packs had left an imprint in the grass, so there was no mistaking where they had been. As the minutes passed, it became more and more clear that their guide might not be coming back. He hadn't exactly been friendly or outgoing, and he had always seemed to be sizing them up, as if he was unsure they were worthy of the woods.
It didn't take a detective to connect the dots. The guide was missing. Their stuff was missing. There were, as far as they knew, only four people for miles around, maybe farther. So unless Yogi Bear had mistaken their gear for picnic baskets, the only logical solution was that the guide had stolen their stuff. It wasn't a perfect theorem, but it was damned close. It was John who finally said what everyone was thinking, that the guide had stolen their stuff and abandoned them in the middle of nowhere. He shot a disapproving look at Mark, who seemed to be more at a loss than Paul.
"It's just...I had no idea," Mark stammered. "He even had positive reviews online."
He has a webpage?
"How do you think I found him?"
"Through your jailbird cousin?" John retorted. Mark glared at him.
Paul's face said that maybe this wasn't the best time as he took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. He was going to have to start thinking like a lawyer again. He started by taking a wider look at the area, but the woods pretty much all looked the same. There was evidence of traffic all around, but it was their traffic. The guide could have easily re-traced his steps back to the road or gone up river. There was no way to know. And considering how unfamiliar they were with the area, it would be a bad idea to head out into the woods looking for him.
"Well then," John added. "That means we either stay where we are, try to find our way back, or follow the river. Paul, you saw the trail better than I did. How well could you pick it up?"
"I would hardly call it a trail. For all I could tell, we were just walking through the woods."
"Ok, well we can't exactly stay here. I don't imagine he's sending someone to come get us. What do we have to work with?"
They all emptied the gear they were carrying. It wasn't much. Some worms and lures. Extra hooks. A lighter and a pack of cigarettes. Mark had a small Swiss Army Knife. John had his cell phone, but there was no service. The flares, the flashlights, all the stuff they needed was in that missing gear. Paul had bragged at the airport that he had brought enough supplies to survive for weeks. It was all gone.
"We're fucked," John said in the most direct way possible.
Mark was quiet. Paul was sorting through the creels, trying to see if he could channel his inner MacGyver and fashion something out of nothing. John looked around, trying to get a sense of direction related to where they had started. He paused staring at a 30 degree angle up-river.
"So I think we generally came from that direction. Seems we have to follow the river. So I would think upstream would have a better chance of taking us to the road."
Mark finally spoke up. "But if we go downstream, won't it take us to the ocean?"
"The ocean is a hundred miles away. We have to go upstream. Right, Paul?"
Paul thought for a minute. "Yeah, I think so."
They worked their way upstream for a mile or more, walking on the shore where possible, but more often wading through the shin-deep water. The rocks were slippery under the water, which slowed their progress some and made for a few moments where it looked like one of them might fall, but they trudged on more or less silently, all three of them trying to sort out the situation at hand. They were lost in the northern Maine woods, in a place so remote they hadn't even bothered to name the town. They had driven by a sign indicating that they were in the unorganized township T2-R6, whatever the hell that meant, and now they were seeing it first-hand. That big rock over there might as well be the mayor's office, the fish in the water the town council.
John was leading the way. After a while, he slowed to a stop. He motioned for them to catch up.
"What is it?" Paul asked.
"I don't know. Definitely something."
Upon closer inspection, what they found was the remains of some sort of wooden structure on the shore, the logs connected like the corner of a log cabin. The structure was clearly gone, but the wood wasn't so old that it should be. And yet, it was too close to the water to be a cabin. It looked as if it had been knocked down a couple of years ago. John climbed up on the shore and suddenly his expression changed.
"Guys, it used to be a bridge."
"How can you tell?" Paul said.
"Because up here, there's a road."
To call it a road was...generous. Sure, it fit some definition of a road--chiefly, you could drive a truck down it--but it was little more than two tire tracks in the woods. Despite the fact that the bridge had been gone for what seemed to be several years, the road looked to be somewhat recently used. Paul guessed that someone had been driving ATVs across the brook, or perhaps a truck with 4 wheel drive when the water was low, but the traffic had done little more than maintain the integrity of the ruts. The trees hung over, creating a gauntlet of branches under a canopy that blocked out the sun. They could only see thirty or so feet until it made a gradual right turn and was eaten up by the forest. It could at best be described as a tunnel through the woods that was just barely big enough to fit a vehicle.
John was pretty certain that this road would lead them to the highway, or at least to a dirt road, so without discussion he started down it. And really, what was there to discuss? They could either follow a river or a road and a road was, at very least, man-made. It seemed to be taking them in the general direction from which they came, so it was something of a no-brainer. It never occurred to him to ask the others.
And so they walked, John in the lead, for a quarter mile until the road came to an intersection. To the left the road spread out a bit, opened up into something a little more spacious. Straight ahead appeared to be more of the same. But through the trees to the right, there was a building.
They had found their way out.
John motioned for Paul and Mark to catch up and they all stood there for a minute, staring at what appeared to be a hunting camp.
It was a small camp, placed in among the trees with a semi-attached shed over to the right. The trim and the porch had long ago been painted green. The shingles on the roof were badly in need of repair. It was obvious this building had been around for decades, if not longer. But in the area in front of it someone had gone to the trouble of doing basic masonry around a campfire and there was firewood stacked in the small clearing that served as a yard. As abandoned as the camp itself looked, it wasn't.
John went first, walking about half-way before he started calling out to no one in particular. Hello? Is anyone there? There was no answer, so he walked the rest of the way and stepped up on the worn, knotted planks that made up the porch. The camp was covered in gray shingles (had they always been gray?) that looked similar to the ones on the roof, only a different color. There was a hunting knife with a 6-inch blade jammed into the windowsill. John set his fishing pole down against the gun rack nailed to the wall and pulled the knife out of the wood, gripping it as a weapon. He slowly opened the wooden door, then the screen door patched with duct tape. It slammed shut behind him.
Once inside, it took John's eyes a second to adjust, to focus. Despite the fact that there were four rather large windows, the camp didn't seem to get a lot of sunlight except for on the white table to John's left. It was old and chipped, but looked new compared to the linoleum on the floor, which was cracked and peeling beyond recognition. In some spots it was non-existent. From the gas lamps that hung from the ceiling, John surmised that there wasn't any electricity. He was right. They were too far from a power line for it to even be an option. To the right there was a sink, but the spigot had been taken out and taped over, and a metal bucket with quite possibly the original version of the "All" logo was turned upside down inside it. There didn't appear to be a single thing in the camp that wasn't older than John himself.
Straight ahead was a wood stove, and behind that there appeared to be another room.
Is anyone there?
John pushed the curtain back to reveal bunk beds, two queen sized mattresses with another two more on the other side of a partial wall. The mattresses were lumpy and stained. John could see where a mouse had ripped out a good deal of stuffing and made a nest, exposing the metallic spring. There was a duffel bag on the floor and a sleeping bag rolled out on the top bunk, but no one was in the camp itself.
Outside, Paul and Mark looked around. Mark made a slow circle around the perimeter. Paul looked at the wood pile and spent a few minutes in the middle of the yard, taking in the surroundings while John went inside. There was a rusted out oil drum that had been used to burn garbage. He could see that the campfire had been recently used, as there was a tiny bit of smoke coming from it. He bent down to take a closer look as John came back outside.
"No, but someone's been here. I'm going to check the shed."
The shed had been built more recently than the camp, but was in worse shape. There were gaps in the boards and from the smell, John could tell that at least part of the shed functioned as an outhouse. The door was shut. He walked across the porch and reached to open it.
Paul shifted his weight to get a better look at the fire, to maybe get an idea of just how long ago it had been used. He reached his hand out for a rock to steady himself and it landed on something sticky. Annoyed, he went to wipe what he assumed to be pitch on his pants, but it wasn't pitch. It was a dark red. He touched it to his tongue.
The rock was covered in blood.
"Oh my God. Uh, John?"
John had the door to the shed half open when he noticed the silhouette of someone standing in the corner. He was heavy-set, hadn't shower or shaved in weeks, and looked as if he had been living out here for months, maybe more. But John didn't see that. What he saw was a crazed, maniacal look in the man's eyes and the gleam of light reflecting off whatever metal object was in his hands.
"Holy shit." He stumbled back and gripped the knife tighter.
The man took a step toward him and started to swing the metal object through the air.
"Oh fuck!" John scrambled off the porch, nearly tripped on the uneven ground, and took off.
"Paul! Mark! RUN!"
John ran faster than he had run in years, faster than he thought was still possible.
He had never seen eyes that contained so much hatred, so much hunger, so much pure evil. In his mind's eye they were yellow, almost glowing, like a wolf or a coyote or a bear, ready to tear him limb from limb at the slightest provocation. The sort of eyes that haunt your dreams. Had he been mistaken? No, there was a weapon--an axe or a spear or a sword, something sharp and painful. It was a man protecting something, defending his turf, and he had intruded.
He ran like a man possessed, blindly down the road. Branches whipped his face.
He knew he should look back to make sure Paul and Mark had gotten away. He had yelled to them, hadn't he? The moments after he had come across those eyes had been something of a blur, so he couldn't be certain, but he thought he had yelled something. At minimum they would have a head start on the psychopath and should be able to outrun him. Mark, especially, was young and somewhat athletic, but he wasn't sure about Paul. How fast could he run? He knew Paul was older, but couldn't be sure how old, exactly.
He ran some more.
Paul had been on one knee, wiping blood on the grass when John had fallen away from the shed and bolted. On closer inspection, Paul saw the blood had been smeared on the rock with a wide brush and had started to dry and turn brown. He figured it was still relatively fresh, and was about to make a more thorough investigation when he had heard John's panicked yells of Run, run. Fuck me, run. His right hand was still on a rock for support, so he used it to push himself up and followed John's lead.
He looked back briefly to see a man lumbering out of the shed. That was all he needed to see.
The wind rushing past his ears, his heart pounding, John tried to focus his attention. He thought back to his high school track days, trying to remember his coach's tips. He pumped his arms, lengthened his stride, and was careful not to turn around, lest he slow himself down. Plus, he figured whatever was going on back there, however close the axe murdering serial killer might or might not be, it was probably best that he not know. He remembered a story he'd once heard, something about how you don't have to outrun a bear, you just have to outrun the guy next to you. It was enough to know there were two people between him and danger. All he had to do was stay in the lead.
And so he ran, down the road, ducking to avoid low-hanging branches. When he came to a fork in the road, he took it.
In his fishing boots, Paul struggled to keep up with John. He could see John up ahead, pulling farther ahead. John would vanish from view when the road turned, then reappear when it straightened out again. Paul tried to call out for John to keep up, but he was having trouble drawing enough air into his lungs and his cries came out as nothing more than the wheezes of a desperate man. He feared John would run too far ahead and be gone for good.
John's lungs burned. He had no idea how far he had run (A mile? Two?) when the road emptied into a clearing. He kept going.
Paul saw John reach the clearing and figured it might be his last opportunity to get his attention, so he slowed his pace in order to gather the resources for one last scream. He shortened his step and the shift in stride put him off-balance. He never saw the root that caught his toe, sending him tumbling to the ground.
John slowed when he heard his name and turned around to see Paul face down in the dirt, scrambling to get back up. He ran back to help and readied the knife in anticipation of the madman, should he come barreling around the corner, but he didn't appear. It was oddly quiet.
Had they lost him?
Paul was on all fours, struggling for breath. His hat was gone. His face was flushed crimson. The fall had knocked the rest of the wind out of him. It took him a minute to speak.
"Who the fuck was that?"
John bent over, his hands on his knees. He had no idea. "You ok?"
Paul nodded. "More or less."
It was another minute before either one of them spoke. John straightened up. "Hey Paul?"
They turned around, looking back in the direction of the camp. There was no sign of Mark. No one was yelling. They couldn't even hear someone running through the woods. It perfectly quiet. Too quiet. There was no sound at all.
John stood at the edge of the clearing, at the road delta, peering into the woods, looking for Mark. Even in the clearing, his cell was still without service.
All his life, he had heard the phrase "the silence was deafening" and assumed it was meaningless, an antiquated idea from a time long since dead. He understood it now. No matter how loud he called out Mark's name, no matter how frantically he yelled, the answer came back the same. Mark, his brother-in-law, was somewhere back there, somewhere between the safety of this field and the clutches of crazy axe murderer.
He wasn't all that fond of Mark. The kid could be kind of annoying, kind of a pain in the ass, but it was worth the domestic tranquility to try and get along with him. Or, at least to make some sort of an effort when the wife was around. But, really it was like that with all of her family. And it wasn't like they weren't polite to him. They were just...well, he just didn't like them. He wondered, sometimes out loud, if she was maybe adopted or something. Because, if you think about it, she didn't have a damned thing in common with her father.
But no matter his opinion of Mark as a human being, he was still family and he needed to make sure he was ok. He couldn't just leave him out there to fend for himself against that lunatic.
When he turned around to explain this, he noticed Paul was hurriedly putting something back in his pocket. He looked caught in the act, like a teenage shoving porn back under the bed as the bedroom door opened. It was a strange thing for Paul to do, but even stranger still was his insistence that they under no circumstances go back for Mark.
"Look," Paul said, regaining his composure, "he clearly can't hear you, so there's really only two things that could have happened back there. Either he got caught or he got away by running in a different direction. If he's caught, then he's fucked. He's dead or he's tied up in a hole somewhere and there's nothing we can do. We go back there to get him and it's a suicide mission."
"It's one guy. We could take him."
"With what, that knife? It's his territory. I'm pretty sure I saw a weapon. Do you even know which way we ran?"
"We don't even know it's just one guy. And if he ran the other way, there's no fucking way we'd find him."
Paul's reasoning made a lot of sense and John knew he was right, but he felt like he didn't have a choice. Like it or not, Mark was family. He had to do it, if for no other reason than his wife would never forgive him if he didn't. And that was a whole different kind of suicide mission. But, if by some miracle he could find Mark or, better yet, rescue him from the bad guy against all odds, he'd be a hero. It would be the ultimate marital trump card. Boy, dear, I don't know how that lipstick got on my collar. I mean, it couldn't have happened at work, or when I was saving your brother's life. So...beats me. It was worth a try.
"Paul, do what you want. I'm going after him."
John turned to head back into the woods when he felt Paul grab his arm and spin him around. Paul's eyes had a determination he'd never seen before.
"I don't know what you're trying to prove, but you can't go back there."
"I have to."
"No, we have to stay together if we're going to find our way out of here. There's no point in the three of us wandering independently around the woods. We're in a clearing, which is our best chance to signal someone for help. If we go back in there, we may never come back out."
"Mark's on his own now. We can't help him."
John took a deep breath. Paul was right, of course. "Fuck it. I'm going."
Paul sighed. "Ok, I'll go with you."
John turned back to the woods and the silence was shattered when a gunshot rang out. In the corner of his eye, he saw Paul drop like a rock. Out of reflex, he threw himself into the tall grass and covered his head.
There was only the one shot. The silence was back. He couldn't even hear himself breathing.
He didn't dare open his eyes.
At first, it was nothing but silence and darkness.
The first thing to come back was the sound of breathing--heavy and labored, a little panicked. Then, birds chirping, the wind rustling, until finally John dared open his eyes.
Through the grass he could see a foot, then a leg. Paul was prone, not moving, and John was pretty sure he'd been shot. Without Paul, John knew he was fucked. It was simply a matter of the bad guys picking them off one by one. First Mark had been taken by the guy with an axe, and now Paul had been gunned down in a clearing. He wondered if there was more than one guy. Was the axe murderer working with the Guide? And if so, was there a third person? One guy he could elude. Two people, maybe. But three? Four?
On top of that, Paul was the one with the wilderness experience, the one who knew which berries you could eat and which were poisonous. John was pretty sure he could keep his bearings, but if he didn't know which way he was supposed to go, what good was that?
As John started to contemplate his next step, he noticed Paul's foot had moved. He was alive. But there was no telling if it was safe, so he had to stay quiet, he had to keep his voice down.
Paul's head whipped around and a sense of relief broke over his face. John held a finger over his lips and Paul nodded. They would have to communicate silently, using nothing more than hand gestures and lip reading.
"You ok?" John mouthed.
Paul nodded. "You?"
"Is it clear?" Paul couldn't see anyone, but wanted to be sure.
"Maybe?" John motioned for Paul to come toward the grass, and was careful to form the word, "Slowly."
Paul put his head down and used his elbows to work his way over to the grass. He angled himself to where he could have a better view of the clearing.
John made the universal signal for a gun with his hand and pointed toward the direction of the shot. It was the direction from which they had come. Could there be any doubt about the intentions?
Paul didn't need to do anything to communicate the next part. His face said it all. Paul was right. They couldn't go back to the camp. There was an axe and now a gun versus their knife. Going that way was out of the question. Mark's best chance was for them to find their way out and send the police in after him.
But first, they had to get the hell out of this clearing.
They looked around. The best they could tell, they were surrounded by woods. Logic dictated that their best move was to head for woods that were close, while being in the opposite direction from which they came.
John pointed over his shoulder and Paul nodded.
John held up three fingers.
They both pushed themselves up onto their hands.
Then their knees.
Hunched over, their heads down, they ran as fast as they could, trying to stay below the grass line whenever possible. The woods loomed. Another shot rang out, this one farther away (was it a warning shot?), and they threw themselves into the woods.
And still they ran, weaving in and out of trees, taking some solace in the fact that the tree trunks would at least deflect a bullet. The branches whipped at their faces, at their clothes, but they didn't care.
After a while, when John was reasonably sure they had put enough distance between themselves and the clearing, he slowed to a stop. Paul slowed too and they both took a minute to catch their breath.
Hands on their knees, they struggled for air and looked around. There was nothing but trees in every direction. Nothing looked familiar. Nothing looked any different than anything else.
Had they run father into the woods or closer to the highway? There was no way to tell. John pulled out his cell phone. There was still no service.
But at least no one was shooting at them. That was something, at least.