[Originally published in Country Feedback Magazine, Issue 3, Fall 2002. Copies of this magazine are no longer available.]
The sun set behind thick clouds, finally ending the eerie timeless gray of the afternoon. I shivered as fingers of cold found my skin through three layers of clothing. The trees had faded into the dark, not even attempting to block the icy wind.
Six of us huddled around a fire made from newspaper and outdated maps. Steve and Bill sat on a log across from me in dirty overcoats, each clutching a bottle of Green Dragon, an alcoholic concoction so strong it could probably strip paint off cars. I was willing to bet they weren't cold anymore. Martha and Joan, their wives, were nestled nearby under an old pink afghan, sharing their plans for remodeling their kitchens.
The van had broken down twenty miles from the campsite and further still from the nearest sign of life. This land was all forest, barely pierced by the thin dirt road no one seemed to use but us. Brown leaves covered the brown grass, both long dead, but it was too early for snow yet, thank God. Being cold was bad enough without being wet on top of it. None of us had had the foresight to bring a cell phone, so there we were, stranded in the middle of nowhere. Steve had sent his sons Mike and Jeff out hours ago to get help. I hoped the boys hadn't gotten lost, and then wondered why I still thought of them as boys. At 25, I was only older than Mike by a year, Jeff by two. I'd grown up with them, living just up the block and often feeling like the big sister they'd never had.
Actually, I'd known all these people since childhood. All except Isaac, Bill's nephew. In some ways I wasn't surprised he'd never joined us on our annual Halloween camp-out before. I guessed he was probably thirty now, but his eyes spoke of experiences well beyond his years. Bill told me once that Isaac had been to many child psychiatrists, none of whom could figure out why the boy had laid alone on the roof every night or why he had run away for days at a time only to return as if nothing had happened. Though every doctor had finally decided he was harmless, Mike and Jeff still insisted the man was some sort of psycho-killer underneath. Isaac shrugged it all off; he'd never seemed to mind having few friends and fewer dates. Depression was certainly not the problem. He simply did not seem to enjoy the company of other people. Though I'd just met him that morning, from time to time I caught him looking at me, as if learning all my secrets in a single glance. I always squirmed self-consciously, and he'd suddenly look away as if his eyes had merely passed over me.
I sat next to him, though admittedly closer to Steve and Bill, now belting out an uproarious drinking song. Neither of them would be doing any more driving tonight, that was for sure. The trees loomed in the firelight, the flickering shadows lurking as if ready to pounce. I wished I had a flashlight; I hated not knowing what was out there.
"Cold?" Isaac's voice would have startled me had it not been so soft.
I nodded, not taking my eyes off the surrounding woods. Anything could be out there.
"Would you like to share my cloak?" he asked. That was another thing strange about him: his insistence on wearing a thick black hooded cape instead of a regular coat. He claimed the ankle-length wool was warmer, but I preferred garments that couldn't blow off me.
I glanced at him; sharing his cloak and consequent body heat would probably be warmer, but it would also mean getting that much nearer to a man whom doctors could not explain. "No, thank you," I replied finally. "I'm fine."
The corner of his mouth turned up in a strange half smile, as if he'd been expecting my reaction, and he looked out at the trees. "Beautiful, isn't it?"
Beautiful? How can something you cannot see be beautiful? I wondered, but aloud I said, "Uh, sure. Real pretty." The wind changed direction and shoved smoke in my eyes and throat. I coughed and blinked hard, stretching my knit hat further on my head.
He chuckled; the smoke didn't seem to bother him. "Of course it is," he said, picking up on my sarcasm.
I turned to face him, looking longer than a quick glance for the first time. His pale face was partially shadowed by the hood, and his shoulder-length stringy blond hair peeked out around his neck. He'd gained a little weight since the pictures I'd seen of him in Bill's house, but his face remained gaunt and angular, a hooked nose protruding defiantly. He could have been a fairly attractive man, were it not for his...strangeness. "Okay," I challenged, bored of sitting out in the cold and needing something to keep my mind off the creeping night. "How do you figure? I mean, the forest is beautiful in the daytime, but you can't even see anything at night."
"Sure you can," he said, leaping to his feet and extending a hand to me. "Come, I'll show you"
Okay, the crazy man wanted me to go with him. I looked nervously at the others, but Steve and Bill were oblivious to everything, and Martha and Joan were busy discussing needlepoint. Unable to uncrinkle my forehead or wipe the frown from my mouth, I took his hand. He led me right past the two women, murmuring to them that I had to go the bathroom but was afraid to go by myself, and we'd be back in a couple minutes.
Never letting go of my hand, he continued into the forest, until the firelight no longer illuminated the trees and everything turned black. Unconsciously I gripped his hand tighter. The whistling wind had stopped, but something rustled in the leaves not far from us. I wanted to scream.
"Now. Wait for your eyes to adjust." How could he be so calm? Maybe he was going to kill me. Screaming was starting to sound like an excellent idea. But as I took in a deep breath, fingers brushed against my lips and my voice caught in my throat. "Shh," he said gently. "There's nothing to be afraid of. Open your eyes."
Forcing open eyes I had not even realized were squeezed shut, I saw Isaac in front of me, his face dim in the moonlight. "Why did you bring me out here?" I managed to whisper, trying in my fear to remember to breathe.
He smiled tenderly and looked out into the forest. "To show you how beautiful it is."
I turned my head and saw. There was no light but the full moon, but somehow it was enough for my eyes now. I saw everything. Trees, bushes, insects, the ground, the sky. Everything was the same as in the daytime, really, only now in magical grays and blacks, silhouetted against the background of a thousand glittering stars. A raccoon lumbered away behind a tree; a moth fluttered by my arm. Everywhere I looked, there was more to see. I laughed in spite of myself, feeling my fear melt away. Suddenly, something moved in the distance, something large. I felt the fear clutching me again until Isaac pointed out that it was only a deer, probably on his way to his family to rest for the night. "You're right," I breathed. "It is beautiful."
"I know. Someday when I have enough money I'm going to build a little cabin out in the woods somewhere and never come back to the city again. Just live off the land." He turned to face me again, his hood back and his hair just barely stirring in the breeze. A contented smile spread on his face, which I found myself mirroring, and we stood in silence for a long time.
Familiar voices drifted from behind us; Mike and Jeff were back. Without a word, Isaac and I walked back to the fire. I didn't let go of his hand until I saw the glaring yellow lights of the tow truck, already starting to hitch up the van.