Here, as promised, is the second section of the first chapter of my novel. When I go through my final rewrite, I’ll break this up into a few smaller chapters.
They drove across the city to the suburb where Alec lived. As they entered the neighborhood, Jack slowed down and turned to Gary, a solemn expression on his face. “Alright, I’ve got to tell you two very important things right now. First, hide the bottle under your seat. We don’t want Alec’s parents to know we’ve been drinking. Second, there has been a drastic change of plans.”
Gary stashed the bottle under his seat and banged it against the seat’s metal frame. It hit with a clang that caused them both to fear its breaking. With the bottle hidden away, Gary looked at Jack, worried, “Alright,” he said. “As long as this new plan doesn’t involve me quitting smoking and still has drinking, I’m okay with it.”
“As I was driving to your place to pick you up, I realized that it’s probably a little unfair of me to drag you into the woods for your bachelor party—“
“But I’m cool with it,” Gary interjected.
Jack smiled. “Yeah, but you’re not that excited. So, we’re sticking with the original plan, but instead of staying in the woods three nights, it’ll be only one. Then, we drive back here and hang out at my dad’s house for two nights of debauchery—dorkish debauchery, mind you, because I’m sure it’ll involve board games, video games, and—may the Lord prevent it—role-playing. Is that plan okay?”
Gary beamed with joy, and looked as if he could reach across the Willys and hug Jack. “Oh, Hells yeah, my brother. We got the best of both worlds there. You are the man—”
Jack held up a finger to stop him from saying anything more. “There’s one caveat to this change of plans, though. One that’ll be like whipped cream on cherry pie—we’re not telling Alec and Greg. We’re going to let them think that we’re spending the entire three days in the woods.”
If Gary wasn’t excited before, this new act of mischief titillated him to a degree that he seemed ready to burst. “Oh, that’s perfect. I won’t say anything—why, I’ll even be sure to complain about this whole trip to make them ‘suffer’ even more. How did you ever get Alec to go on this trip? He hates going outside. I’m surprised that he hasn’t figured out how to build a teleporter so that he could still get to the Waffle House without ever having to step outside.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Jack said. They pulled up in front of Alec’s parent’s house where they saw him standing, flanked by his parents like an inmate surrounded by his guards. They stood there on their lawn in their pajamas and robes, Alec’s dad with his hands in the pockets of his robe, yawning, while Alec’s mom seemed to be stuffing advice into Alec. Greg, the final person to round out their camping quartet, sat on the concrete steps of the front stoop eating pop tarts and watching Alec with a smirk. “His dad did it all. I mentioned it in front of his dad, and before he could say no, his dad had us out in the garage looking for his old sleeping bag and reminiscing about some camping trip in the Ozarks he took when he was a teenager. One of the best experiences he had, he said. It helped him become a man. Alec refused to talk to me for the rest of the night.”
Though Alec worked in the IT department of an aeronautics firm doing something with computers that none of his friends understood, he still lived with his parents. His mother, worried about mooching roommates and despot landlords taking advantage of her son insisted they convert their basement into an apartment for him. His father protested, though not loud enough to be heard above his wife’s insistence, and so his son moved from his bedroom on the second floor to his basement apartment.
Greg on the other hand, had left home and high school at the age of seventeen—his home life was fraught with abuse, and high school he found tedious and dull. He lived in a studio apartment big enough for a futon and his pile of books, and worked as a cook in various greasy spoons until he got an apprenticeship as an electrician. Different as they were, Alec and Greg were inseparable, sharing a love of sci-fi and fantasy, video-games and role-playing. Add to this Alec’s parents’ sympathies for Greg’s struggles, and he stayed there most of the time, the pair of them holed up in Alec’s “apartment” coming up occasionally for delivery pizza or a trip to Denny’s or the Waffle House, and of course the daily interference of work.
Alec’s dad waved and his mom placed her hand on Alec’s shoulder. He brushed it off as if it was a tarantula, and headed towards Jack and Gary. “Stay there,” he muttered to Jack and Gary. “Let’s go before the parents say or do something. Greg, bring my bags.”
“Dude, do I look like your valet? Get your own bags.” Greg shouldered his backpack and said good-bye to Alec’s parents.
“Alec,” his mom bellowed. “Alec Enfield, get back here and give your momma a kiss.”
“Sorry mom,” Alec shouted back. “No time. Running late, we’ve got to go.”
“Alec,” she huffed, and started down the lawn after her son. “You are gonna say good-bye to your mother.” She waddled after him, a mother hen herding a stray chick. As she went down to corral her son, Jack hurried up the lawn to get Alec’s backpack without any more trouble.
“Alec,” Alec’s dad called, “Say good-bye to your mom. Sometimes that boy has no respect,” he said to Greg and Jack. “And watch out for him,” he added to Jack. “He doesn’t have the experiences in the wild like you do.” He took off his glasses and cleaned them with the hem of his robe. “God, I wish I could go with you guys. What a great experience for y’all. A great experience.”
After extricating Alec from his mom’s red-eyed embrace and saying their final round of good-byes, they piled into the Willys and left the city.
They went west, wending their way up a narrow-cut valley into the mountains. The city dropped off slowly, houses here and there, streets and stoplights stripped away, until there was nothing but the asphalt and a stray sign warning of deer or falling rocks to suggest that anyone came back here. Mist tumbled down the sides of the valley the higher they went into the mountains—it wound round the ponderosa and spruce, and pooled on the edges of the road. Jack rolled his window down and breathed in the musk of pine and wet gravel. Rarely did he see it so misty here; it reminded him of Oregon and the Misty Mountains of Middle Earth.
“Looks like we traveled—” He started to say but stopped when he glanced in the rear view mirror and noticed both Alec and Greg asleep. Gary had been snoring since they drove past Manitou Springs, but Jack assumed that Greg and Alec were so taken aback by the beauty outside of their windows they were dumbstruck. Instead, he realized they were struck dumb by sleep. He let them sleep, slowed down, and kept one eye on the road, while letting the other roam over the mist-enshrouded forest.
“Where will we end up this morning,” he wondered. A Martian town with white picket fences? A world whirling with worms and spice and danger? He played this game whenever he was out in the fog—out hiking or on horseback or occasionally in the Willys. He would crest a hill, or take a sharp turn on a trail and imagine that he wound up in another world. Sometimes it was as simple as a pristine wilderness, while other times he imagined complex worlds stolen from films or books he read or whipped it wholly from his imagination. It was a simple way to pass the time on long backpacking trips or drives back-and-forth between Oregon and Colorado, but ever since Samantha died it had gotten worse, and the idle game became a greater desire to chuck it all and begin again somewhere utterly alien. He always had a longing for someplace else, somewhere else—he didn’t feel like he fit in here and that he really belonged elsewhere. His parents were immigrants. He never knew his mother, who left Jack and his father shortly after Jack was born, but they were both from a place his father always described as “far from here under another set of stars.” His dad never gave him the name of a country, so Jack assumed them were Romany, wandering people with a country. His dad never felt completely comfortable in the United States, and Jack often wondered if his discomfort and unease stemmed from his father’s struggles to feel at home in America.
He started singing Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” and as they came to the top of a hill he imagined that when they came down the other side there would be a roadless stretch of meadow speckled with wildflowers, unsullied by humankind. When they came down the other side there was a dew-dampened road with a barbed wire fence along the side where a herd of cattle milled about complacently. Jack waved to the cows and continued on down the desolate road, unsurprised, but as always a little disappointed.
They stopped for breakfast at a donut shop in a small mountain town. Jack stopped at a gas station to fill up and he heard rumblings inside the jeep. The abrupt halt awakened the three sleepers. Gary and Greg got out and stretched their legs, and Alec cracked his window and moaned through the crack, “I’m hungry. Hungry. We need breakfast soon or I’ll waste away.”
Gary, who was leaning against the jeep and smoking a cigarette, joined in. “Shoot, I’m pretty hungry too. I ain’t had nothing but coffee this morning. When are we planning to get breakfast?”
Alec moaned through the window of the jeep, “Breakfast.”
Jack glanced over at Greg who stood with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his leather jacket, his eyes glazed with sleep, watching the cars pass by on the small mountain road. “Shit, dude,” he said. “You want me to start bitching, too? I’m not stupid, I know how you are. I ate some pop tarts before we left.”
“Well, I was thinking that we’d get breakfast in Buena Vista—there’s a diner there with this waitress—”
“Buena Vista—that’s like a couple of hours from here, right?” Greg said.
Alec groaned. “I need to eat now. In a couple of hours I’ll be dead.”
Jack shook his head, knowing that if he didn’t feed them Alec and Gary now, there would be mutiny and a miserable two hour drive ahead of them. “Alright, alright. See up ahead there,” he pointed up the road to a small shingled barn. “They’ve got the best bear claws . . . and just great donuts. You guys head on up there, and I’ll finish up with Bessie,” he patted the jeep, “and meet you guys, okay.”
They grumbled about the walk and the chilly, damp air, but hunger outweighed their slight discomfort and they set off. Jack watched them go—Alec in the lead, frantic, he looked like Mr. Spock on speed, Greg just behind him, and Gary, content to know donuts were on the way, took up the rear, a plume of smoke trailing from him as he puffed his cigarette, the little engine that could.
He sighed, “First crisis of the trip narrowly diverted. How many more bullets am I going to have to dodge, hunh, Bessie?” He patted the jeep. While he waited for the gas tank to fill, he popped open the hatch to dig out his wineskins. There was a liquor store next to the gas station, and he decided now was as good a time as any to fill them—and himself—up. He dug through his backpack and found his, and then remembered the one from his dad’s. He lifted Alec’s and Greg’s backpacks, and rifled through the box when he found the knife.
He had forgotten about the knife, but upon seeing it again it was all he could think about. He unsheathed it, and it glowed with an uncanny sheen. The traffic hushed and the outlines of the buildings and road blurred. The fog tightened around him, and he felt like boy in a blanket fort—safe and powerful and when he popped his head out the world wouldn’t be what he knew, but what he wanted it to be, where he belonged. He ran his thumb along the flat of the blade, and was about to test the edge with his thumb when the gas pump made a thumping sound and then a click.
He sheathed the knife and stuck it into his backpack, and then went to the liquor store and bought a couple bottles of wine to fill the wineskins. After filling the wineskins and taking a few swigs himself, Jack finally caught up with Gary and the others. They sat at a long table made of lacquered pine with two boxes, each capable of holding a dozen donuts, on the table in front of them. Eighteen donuts remained—the remnants of at least one powdering Gary’s beard. Greg nodded and Gary waved. Alec, hunched over the box of donuts, paid no attention to Jack, his focus on choosing his next donut.
“Damn. You were right, Seyfair—these are some of the best bear claws,” Gary somehow managed to say coherently with a mouthful of donut. He chased it with coffee. “Damn fine coffee, too.”
“What can I say I know my donuts,” Jack replied. He picked up a bear claw and sat down next to Gary. The fog leered through the window, over Alec and Greg’s shoulder, leaving prints upon the glass. “Now the coffee . . . It’s not bad, but there’s this little shack on the coast of Oregon, just south of Tillamook—”
“Not one of your Oregon stories, c’mon dude,” Greg interrupted.
“Hold on,” Gary pointed his coffee mug at Jack, plashing coffee over the table. He didn’t seem to notice, but Alec glared at him and sopped it up with a napkin before it ran off into his lap. “I’m here to defend this gentleman’s honor. I spent that summer out there in Oregon at Jack’s place when I was thinking of moving out to Portland. He’s right. I had some kick-ass coffee out there. What about that diner—Leo’s? Yeah, that was fine coffee.”
“Wait, you went out to Oregon, I don’t remember this? Why didn’t you move out there. It’s gotta be better than here.” Greg said.
“Eh, It’s just another city . . . I couldn’t find a job, and so I came back here. They took me back at the hotel and they bumped me up—made me front desk clerk. Besides, if I had moved out there, I wouldn’t’ve met Callie.”
“What if. . .” Jack said. He paused and stared out the window, past the fog and the world around them. He snapped back and picked up a donut. “What if you could go anywhere. I don’t mean anywhere as just anywhere in the world or fuck, even the solar system. I mean anywhere you could imagine. What if after we leave here we get back on the road, and as we’re driving through the fog we end up somewhere else. Like, we crest Wilkerson Pass and as we come down on the other side we don’t find a road or a rest stop or houses or towns, but . . . another place.”
They all stopped for a moment of miraculous silence to consider the possibilities. Alec leaned back in his chair, his fingers tented, and snickered like the villain of a melodrama. Greg gazed pensively over Jack’s shoulder, his thin lips clenched as he stroked his Van Dyke beard. Gary sipped his coffee and chuckled, tapping his pack of cigarettes on the table, a rhythmic, shamanic drumming. Jack watched them all with a knowing smile. Elbows on the table, his coffee mug held like a bell, swinging to-and-fro soundlessly. In the span of seconds and within each young man’s mind stardust collected into planets and continents formed. Empires rose and fell and destinies followed.
“Do I have to be me?” he asked. Alec envisioned not only a new where but also, and to him more importantly, a new who—he cast himself as he did every time he and Greg played AD&D as a fearless and mighty warrior-wizard in a forgotten medieval land. He rode into a battle on the back of a horse, a flaming sword in each hand, breathing in the fear of his oppressors, now the oppressed.
“Well, yeah, that’s the whole point—”
“Pfft,” Alec dismissed Jack with the wave of a half-eaten donut and then jabbed it accusingly at him. “Where’s the fun in this if it’s still just me?”
Greg cut in before Jack responded. “Dude, what are you talking about? You want to get blasted by a dose of gamma radiation and turn into the Hulk? This would be your chance to be someone else. Think about it—we could get away from here and go someplace where we could have anything we desired. You can’t be content with just sitting around on your ass here in the Springs, this place is like a fucking prison.” Greg too, imagined a fantasy world. Instead of combat, though, he imagined bookshelves crammed with tomes and mystic ruins relinquishing their arcane secrets up to him. He craved power—brute, physical power, of course, but that was easily gained. What he longed for was magical power—with magic he could do anything. He hungered for wealth and status—all he needed was the means to gain it, and power—a combination of knowledge and strength, cunning and magic—was that means.
“What if there was nothing?” Gary said. “What if the world just decided to stop existing and we drove off into nothing . . . Now that would be wacky shit . . .” He knocked a cigarette out of his pack and stood up. “I’m off for a smoke, boys.”
The possibilities of what might be waiting in the fog animated the rest of their conversation at the donut shop. Coffee cups emptied and refilled, and the plashes and pools of coffee were left unnoticed and unattended. Aliens and extraterrestrials, cowboys and Indians played out a spectral warfare, ghosts and zombies hungry for soul and flesh—a menagerie of horrors paraded across the table, tromping and trudging through coffee spills and over donut crumbs.
Fueled up, they piled into the Willys. Alec curled up like a cat in the back of the Willys. Against the protestations of his co-campers, he unrolled and unstuffed their sleeping bags, piled them into a nest, and promptly fell asleep. With Alec in the very back, Greg stretched out along the length of the backseat and dozed as well. Only Gary remained awake to keep Jack company on the drive. They continued their conversation, passing the bottle of peach schnapps back and forth as they talked. Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Woods” played in the background, the soundtrack to their talk.
“You never said what you’d expect to find on the other side of the fog,” Gary said.
“I’ve gotta say, Gary, just like those guys,” Jack waved the bottle in the direction of the back of the Willys. “I want to go someplace where I can get away from myself. Someplace where I can forget myself for awhile—like this bachelor party. Now why’d you say nothing? Not that I was surprised—it was a total Gary thing to say.”
Gary chuckled. “Because why does there have to be something on the other side of the fog. Why does there have to be anything?”
When they got to Wilkerson Pass, the fog was at its thickest and their bottle of peach schnapps was empty. Jack stopped the jeep at the top of the pass. He turned it off. Silence filled the jeep. Jack looked at Gary. “Well, we’re about to find out what’s down there.”
An uneasy laugh escaped from Gary. A groan slumped its way from the back and Alec’s head popped up from his sleeping bag cocoon. “Why are we stopping? Are we there?”
“We’re at the top of Wilkerson Pass, and we’re—“
“So we’re not there yet?”
“Alright,” Alec burrowed back down into the bags. “Wake me when we get there. Better yet, wake me when this is over.”
Greg peered though his dewy window. The forest formed vague shapes in the gauzy fog, making it hard to tell where a boulder ended and a tree began, so that the landscape looked nebulous and unformed. The fog shifted and swirled, adding to the dreamlike quality. “It’s like something from a Lovecraft story out there . . . I’m just waiting for the Deep Ones—” He stopped talking and his face paled. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, I think . . . Something’s moving out there.”
Jack glanced over and Gary pressed his face to the window, his eyes wide. He locked his door. “Where?” Gary asked.
“Right over there . . .Look . . . I think it’s coming towards the car.”
There in the fog they made an amorphous figure shambling towards them. Brown against the fog, it was hard to tell if it was on four legs or two. The tips of what appeared to be talons or claws cut through the fog.
“Oh man, I think it’s got some kind of nasty demon claws. Jack, what do you think,” Gary turned to Jack. “Do we need to get out of here?”
Jack shook his head. Downcast, resigned to their fate, he replied, “Nope, there’s no helping us now. If we try to go it’ll only scare it and make things worse.”
“Well you’ve got to do fucking something,” Alec screamed from the back of the car, making everyone jump. He sat up, holding a sleeping bag around his head like a shawl. “I don’t want to die stuck in this piece-of-shit car of yours on this piss-poor excuse for a—hey . . . .”
Alec stopped talking. They froze. The thing came down through the fog to the road. The talons were antlers, and the shambling beast they feared would tear them apart, a deer, picking its way carefully across the road.
“It’s a twelve point buck,” Jack said.
Gary laughed, and then Greg joined him. Alec scowled and grumbled under his breath. “You knew all along didn’t you, Gary said.
“Yep,” Jack said. “C’mon,” he started the Willys. It rumbled and grumbled. The buck, startled, disappeared into the fog as quickly as it appeared. “Let’s go see what’s waiting at the end of the road for us.”