First thing: Austin’s head feels like it’s splitting open from the inside—the worst fucking hangover he’s had in his young life. Second thing: sunlight. His eyes aren’t even open and he knows it must be almost noon. And how many days this time? He thinks for a second, but the answer doesn’t come to him. Where the hell are you, he wonders. An even better question. His eyes creep open. The sun is blinding. The woods. Somewhere.
Third thing: he’s itching all over. Austin’s arms and neck have been feasted on by mosquitoes in the night. It’s fucking awful. He scratches his skin. Fourth thing: there’s a terrible lump behind his right shoulder where his back came to rest on a root. Austin sits up. Pine needles stick to his bare arms. Fifth and sixth things: his backpack is missing, and he can’t remember where the hell he could’ve lost it. There’s also a red Solo cup filled with flat, lukewarm beer sitting at the foot of the large pine tree whose root tried to punch a hole through his shoulder in the night. That cup and the beer inside it, Austin tells himself, are officially your only possessions. He decides he’ll need them both.
The last thing Austin can remember is Maryland. Somewhere in Maryland, after sneaking onto that bus at a highway rest stop. I-70 maybe. He can remember the heavenly smell of Burger King from the passengers as they got back on board. More comes back. Austin remembers trying to look casual, being drunk and still having a fifth of vodka and a baggie full of amphetamines in the backpack. He had his wallet in there too. And now he’s here, which could be anywhere. It looks like Western Massachusetts maybe, Upstate New York, or some shit-eating farm town in Virginia, but who the hell cares? A forest is a forest, right?
Austin hears the sound of tires on a roadway in the distance, so he gets up, careful not to spill the beer—probably the one damn thing that can help his pounding headache, if and only if he can somehow manage to keep a stale beer down on an empty stomach. Austin hopes he might find enough shade on the other side of the highway to sit for long enough to sip the beer and remember something—where the hell he is for one, and maybe even how the hell he got here.
He makes his way through the trees to a field, through another patch of trees and to the grassy swath that runs alongside the narrow highway. He sits in the shady grass without crossing. The road is two lanes, separated by yellow dashes with no signs in sight that could answer the question of location. Cars are few in both directions, but Austin decides it’s safer to drink at least half the stale beer here, in case a car comes and he has to run across. Besides, it’s cool here. The grass is soft.
Austin thinks there might be nothing worse to drink in the entire fucking world than a flat, watery, warm light beer. He thinks it’s light beer, anyway. It’s terrible regardless. But good enough. Better than nothing. He thinks about Maryland: When did you get off the bus? Which way was it heading? Why the hell should you even care? You’re here now. The grass is soft, and the shade is cool. That’s enough, right? There’s still half a beer here.
He sips the beer for a while.
There seems to be something on the other side of the road. Isn’t that the way of things, though? Always over there. People were made to move. That’s all. Move.
Of course, there hasn’t been a car for the whole time he’s been sitting. But standing, thinking about crossing the highway, now cars come flying past. He tells himself to be patient, that there’s no need to race across. From the height of the roadway, it looks like there might be a river across the way. There’s space in the trees beyond the other side of the road, running as far as Austin can see, into the distance, parallel to the road. Water would be nice, he thinks—if it’s not dirty, if it’s not freezing cold—or even, the cold might help the headache too. Could soothe the mosquito bites.
There’s no sound of cars, so he walks. Halfway across, tires scream.
“Shit!” Austin realizes the car’s not going to stop. The car expands in his field of vision—an entire fucking universe the size and shape of a red Corvette. It swells, almost in slow motion, yet the tires seem to scream in real time. Austin’s legs feel rooted to the ground in that frozen moment.
Somehow time, it slips, and Austin staggers back, and the car is stopped right where he was standing a half second ago.
“Fucking asshole!” Austin hears the driver shout. The car’s windows are open. The driver blasts the horn.
Fuck that guy, Austin thinks. “Fuck you! You almost killed me.”
“Get the fuck off the highway, you bum!”
It’s already out of Austin’s hand before he can even think about what he’s doing. He sees the shape of the yellowish liquid change into this amorphous mass as it hurtles through the air on its way to the Corvette’s windshield. The liquid hits the windshield, obscuring the faces of the two men in the car for a split second.
He hears the doors open. Click. Click.
They look like a couple of angry rednecks. They’re wearing tank tops—the passenger’s is white, the driver’s is black. They’re both wearing gold chains too and camouflage hats on sideways—redneck homeboys. They’re going to fucking kill you, Austin tells himself.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t see you guys.”
“You poured shit all over my fucking car.”
“It was just a beer, man. I’m sorry. I was startled.”
“You poured beer on my car, you vagrant piece of shit?”
The driver’s face looks like a grenade with the pin pulled.
“I’m sorry, man.”
The driver shuts his door and starts walking toward Austin. The passenger’s eyes are cold—slick and lifeless.
“Let’s dust this fucking bum, Ace,” the driver says.
The dark-haired one, the passenger, he goes for something in the back seat. Austin doesn’t want to know what it is. Run, Austin tells himself, heading for the woods. Fucking run!
A few frantic strides. He hears the crack of a shotgun discharge, and a blast of wind rushes past Austin’s left ear. He hurtles down the embankment and dives into the trees.
He hears the second shot. It sounds like cannon fire.
Buckshot spatters through the leaves, spitting through branches and bark. The chick-chick of the shotgun being cocked precedes another blast, and Austin stuffs his head into the dirt and leaves, hoping to get down low enough. There’s gotta be another shot coming, he thinks, and he’s down low, crouched at the bottom of the highway embankment. He’s deciding if it’s worth it to run and give the shooter a sound to aim at? Austin can’t really see him up on the roadway, just the grass through the leaves. The two assholes are talking to each other, but Austin can’t hear what they’re saying. Stay here, Austin thinks, they’re not following. Suddenly he’s aware of every sound. There’s no headache. His mind is sharp. There’s another set of tires humming toward them and a chickadee singing in the pine tree at the edge of the clearing. Austin imagines the bird can see everything from its lofty vantage point. The approaching truck slows.
“What’re you boys shooting at?” the driver of the pickup asks.
“Turkey,” the driver of the Corvette says. “There was a whole flock of ‘em down the side of the road there.”
“You boys hunting turkeys?”
“That your damn business, old man?” the driver says.
Time to move, Austin thinks. He gets up as quietly as he can, sneaking for the first few steps, then he runs. Farther down the hill, into the woods, thirty yards from the road now he ducks behind a tree big enough to hide him. The pickup truck is pulling away.
Austin can hear the Corvette pulling to the side of the road. The dark-haired passenger with the shotgun walks down the embankment toward the edge of the woods. Boots crunch leaves where Austin was just hiding. Better run, Austin thinks, if that asshole gets any closer you’re fucked.
The second Austin moves, he hears the next blast. It obscures every other sound in the world for a split second. The wind rushes past his ears as he flees. Austin is all out, blasting through the undergrowth. Twenty more yards and he’s out of the trees to a clearing. He charges into a little grove of saplings by the side of the river. He ducks down in the undergrowth, trying not to move, or even breathe. Austin can’t hear anything now. He can’t hear the shooter. Five seconds of silence. Ten seconds. Twenty seconds.
In the distance the Corvette growls, a car door shuts, and the car drives off. Austin kneels with his hands and fingers digging into a muddy mess of twigs and brown earth and pine needles. He crawls his way from the sapling grove, careful to step out slowly. He moves without making a sound, worried about whether the shooter actually got into the car. He could still be out there, Austin thinks, waiting for you to come out from your hiding place. Wait. Wait longer—two minutes. Can you time two minutes by mosquito bites? Is three enough? Fucking psychopaths. Over a beer—half a fucking beer! Not even.
Austin doesn’t see any blood on his clothes, and he doesn’t feel like he’s been hit, but you never know. So much adrenaline. He’s never felt so much adrenaline. He runs his tremoring hands over his head, and when he gets to his left ear, Austin feels moisture sticking to his fingertips—something more than the sweat that’s starting to flow from every pore in his skin. He realizes a piece of buckshot must have caught his ear. There isn’t much blood, but it’s starting to sting. The headache’s starting to creep up again. With his fingertips, he can feel a little ding in the top of his earlobe where the buckshot hit. A little piece. Austin doubts if anyone will ever notice that there’s a piece gone. He’s lost that piece of his ear, half a beer, and that solo cup to those assholes. He realizes he was wrong about the beer being his last possession. He still has his shirt, his jeans, his underwear, his one pair of socks, and his shoes. These are your last true possessions, he thinks—things that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Austin walks through another grove of sparse undergrowth and finds himself atop the riverbank, looking through several bushes to the water beneath. It’s the blackest water he’s ever set eyes on. In it, there isn’t a hint of movement. Not a ripple, nor a wave, nor a visible current of any kind. Not to the eye. It’s as dark a black as Austin can ever recall seeing, as though a wound has opened in the crust of the Earth and its blood is this thick, liquid black. He’s seen waters: brown rivers washing silt across farmland; clear streams pulling a winter’s worth of mountain meltwater to green prairies below; the dark blue of the ocean in winter; and the pure blue of the Gulf as bright and brilliant as the sky on a clear spring day. This black, though, has a look about it, as though you could dip your fingers or your feet only inches into it and watch them disappear before your very eyes. God, Austin thinks, it’d be so nice to swim.
He weaves his way along the riverbank, looking for a path to the water. He swears the river doesn’t want him near. Bushes block every approach each time he gets to the top of the riverbank, or else there are thick reeds or short slopes too steep to descend. It seems to get darker now, the water. There’s no way in.
He moves back toward the road instead, figuring it’ll be a quicker walk than cutting through this gnarled watershed. There’s the thought, of course, that those assholes in the Corvette could come back. But would they? Would that old man in the truck have called the police? Would those assholes care if he did? You have to wonder about a person who could kill a man over a spilt beer. But he could be miles from any town, and cutting a path through weeds and bushes is no way to travel. Back to the highway it is.
Austin watches the road ahead, and every now and then, he turns around to be sure. The color red sends him shooting for cover twice. Once an ambulance, whose lettering is too far away to read. Another time, it’s a red pickup that sets him scrambling.
He can’t get the thought of the water out of his head—of sticking his fingers and his feet into that blackness, of losing more things. Austin sees this image in his mind, like a hallucination or a dream of some kind: he sees his body leaning over that black riverbank, looking down into a reflection of himself that he remembers. He’s naked. He’s lost the clothes from his back now and he’s smiling into the water. He’s lost every last one of his possessions, his wallet, his identity, his clothes, that piece of his ear. He sees himself smiling into that black water and he knows he’s going to lose those teeth soon enough. Eventually, he’ll step forward, put his legs and fingers and hands and arms into that stagnant black water, and the water will swallow everything whole.
A growl rolls atop a wave of sound like the hush of tires. It grows louder. His headache, the blackness, the awful pain of hunger, the question of when he last ate something, anything—all of these things are crowding out something else. Austin wonders if he’s forgotten something. He turns and sees red.
He sees the muzzle flare, the cloud of smoke, and he hears the shot all at the same time. His feet move without thought. Those fuckers! One second, maybe two. Fifty feet and closing. Austin dives down the embankment. Tires squeal.
The red Corvette screams past, overshooting its mark. It’s enough of an opening to gain some distance—to get back to the trees. The squealing of the tires stops, and the Corvette reverses to the point in the trees where Austin ducked into the woods. Ace and the driver remain in the car, and Austin is certain they can’t see him hiding in the bushes at the foot of the embankment.
“We’re going to hit you, fucker!” the driver shouts. “You’ve got nothing. No fucking chance.”
Isn’t that enough for them? That someone would even bother to take that. That nothing. But you do have your clothes and most of your ears and your teeth, Austin tells himself, and you have a few moments of painless peace, while the adrenaline courses through your blood again.
The adrenaline soothes every pain, from headache to hunger to the stinging of that fractured earlobe. They have given Austin that much, and a reason to stick to the bushes for good.
The Corvette growls into the distance, shrinking into a small red spot on a green horizon before it vanishes altogether.
This time, Austin sticks to the woods, avoiding patches of reeds where the riverside gets marshy and skirting around patches of poison ivy where the ground gets dry. He learns that if he moves fast enough, the mosquitoes don’t bite, and, he figures there’s a chance he might get to a town before getting shot to death. He starts to think about the night before again, figuring that he took a bunch of those amphetamines. Must have. And drank all that vodka, and more for sure. He hopes he’s walking in the right direction. He can’t even tell which way is downstream with the water so stagnant, but he figures that doesn’t really matter. This was where it was all going to end up anyway. So now you’re here, he tells himself.