The second time he came, I was ready. I raised my wooden staff above my shoulder and I waited. I couldn’t see him of course, but I knew exactly where he was, what sounds matched what movements, the precise creak on the wooden boards as he moved closer towards me across the bridge.
The darkness was complete – but it would have been even at noon, under these trees. He was nearly fifty yards away, but I heard every movement as clear as night. The trees seemed to trap the sounds and pull them down to my ears. I’d stamped out the fire and the smoke was drifting across, towards the bridge, towards the approaching figure. He knew nothing, that was his mistake. He knew nothing of his future and he misunderstood his past, like she had before him. Was that why I was doing this? I don’t think so, I didn’t choose this – it’s sort of forced upon me by the decisions other people make – hapless decisions to move forward unknowingly, unthinkingly – like little bugs creeping along a branch into the web of a spider.
The first time he came, we were still friends. He bounced over the boards of the bridge like a simple kid.
‘Nick!’ He shouted, lifting up some sort of a package, wrapped in greaseproof paper. ‘I’ve brought some hash beef, here, we can cook it up.’
We settled down over the camp fire in this clearing I’d made in the middle of this gloomy old forest, where the wood scarcely ever got dry enough for tinder. Luckily, I’d brought some little sticks and things with me from the edge of the forest, where the late summer sun still beat down on the ancient bark.
By the light of the fire we brought out my ma’s old skillet and set about making up the dinner. After a while, with the hash beef browning in the pan and a kettle of water boiling up among the flames, we ran out of things to do and sat back, waiting.
‘She won’t be long,’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied. He was looking into the fire. I broke up one of the big logs with my staff. It made a little burst of red hot sparks.
‘We’d better take the beef off the heat just a touch, so it’s not burnt for her.’ John slid the skillet off the heat just a fraction. That wouldn’t do anything.
‘I wonder what she’s found,’ he said. I didn’t say anything, just prodded my staff into the fire a bit. By now the beef was beginning to lose any moisture it had to begin with so I took it off the heat altogether.
‘We might as well eat ours. There’s no point in it going cold.’ John didn’t agree, but took the plate I passed him.
‘I bet she’s caught up picking blackberries or something.’
‘Probably,’ I say.
The forest wrapped around us, in cedar silence. There was just the silence of the creak a little way off through the trees, running under the rough old boards of the bridge. This was my new home and I was happy to share it with pretty much the only people I’d liked at college. John was my room-mate from way back and now he’d got together with Susie things couldn’t have been rosier for them. I was doing fine too; I’d spent the summer camped out somewhere along the river, moving along slowly for a change of air every few weeks. But now it was nearly autumn and I needed somewhere a bit cosier, with a bit more cover from the October rains that hurl down in this part of the country. So I moved to the forest. From here I couldn’t even see the sky and, like I said, the sun barely made its way through the tall tall trees. But that didn’t bother me. When it rained I felt hardly a drop and the tarp I used was more for privacy than cover. Not that I needed too much privacy in these parts. I hadn’t seen a soul since July – apart from John and Susie of course.
I’d picked them up from Forgotten Creak railway station just two days before. When I say pick them up – I didn’t have a wagon or anything, I just walked right up to the station and we walked right back down the six miles or so with all our bags and gear and everything on our backs. I carried Susie’s stuff of course. We had an understanding, me and Susie, that John didn’t get. Don’t get me wrong, John’s a great guy, but he’s not very – subtle, do you know what I mean? Well me and Susie were walking up ahead, catching up on the good times, and John was crawling away down behind us, scrambling on the stony path. Me and Susie flew on up ahead – me because I knew the path like the back of my hand and Susie because she was high on seeing me and didn’t have any bags to carry. After about four miles I could see John was struggling. The sun was beating down still in this dog-end of summer and he was looking pretty red and sore. But I didn’t stop, I kept on walking – even faster if anything, with Susie by my side.
I’d met John almost by accident in fact. We were both in the same chemistry class at college. Not that either of us were studying chemistry, it was just a cool subject back then. We liked messing around in the labs, with free access to all kinds of fun chemicals. When I say by accident, we were both called up by the professor at the time and asked to take part in an experiment together. I don’t know why the professor picked on us, maybe because we were the oddest pair going, but he made us put on all the chemistry gear, all the eye glasses and lab coats and everything and took us down to the quad. He said it was going to be a pretty dangerous experiment – for one of us. He told us that one of us was going to set the other one on fire. I know – he must have been some kind of sadist or something. But we went along with it. As you can imagine, that was a pretty awkward moment. No one wants to be set on fire, but you don’t want to be the one who sets some poor guy on fire yourself, do you? I was lucky John was chosen with me. After a little moment of silence he said ‘Alright, you set me on fire.’ You can imagine my relief. Anyway, it turns out that this sadist’s told the whole damn college that there’s going to be some kind of a show and they’re all looking out from the windows all around the quad, looking out on the student whose going to be set on fire.
Don’t ask me how he did it – I wasn’t a chemistry major, remember – but he made John strip right off, with just a pair of shorts and a stupid looking net hat that was meant to protect his face. He looked like a naturist bee-keeper to be honest. Then the chemistry professor gave me some real plain looking gel. It could have been for your hair piece, you know? I guess this is why he needed another student to do the experiment; he could have been accused of molestation, rubbing this gel all over another student’s naked body. So there’s John in the middle of the quad with all the students hanging out of the windows, hooting and hollering, stark naked covered in this flammable gel. Me and the professor have retreated to a safe distance and he hands me a box of matches. I can’t believe it’s this crude you know. That’s why I reckon he was a sadist. I’ve got to open the box, strike the match and throw it at this poor kid who I hardly know, just some small town sophomore who thought he’d do a bit of chemistry to broaden his mind. Course the first match broke and the second one got lost in the wind, by which time John’s beginning to look a little grey. Third time lucky though and I’ve never seen anything like it.
As you can imagine that bonded us pretty closely and we ended up rooming together for a year, well, it was almost a year. Just around exam time I met a girl, Susie, who was always hanging around the labs. She told me about the day I’d set John on fire and how brilliant it had been and we kind of had a thing going. I told you we always had something that other people didn’t understand, a kind of chemistry. Anyway, it didn’t last and it’s not as though I was sore about it or anything, it was kind of inevitable that it wouldn’t last. I was too complicated I suppose. She wanted something a bit more dependable, someone who would take one for the team. Someone like John, that poor son of a bitch who volunteered to be a human torch. So like I said, after that summer me and John stopped rooming together. I went and lived in a tent just off campus for a while and eventually John and Susie got together.
It was kind of with my blessing to be honest. Neither of them ever really made a move. Susie kept coming out to my tent trying to talk to me, trying to make my come in and live on campus. Eventually I had to move camp without telling her before she finally got the hint. And John I saw between classes sometimes – junior year you can’t take electives any more, it all gets pretty serious. You know – I can’t remember what he did any more? English literature? Art history? some such crap anyway. So they got together and our lives went in separate directions. I think I came out the better. But then everyone would say that, wouldn’t they? I never really saw them again until Susie sent a postcard to my ma saying they’d got married and about how they’d love to come and see me during their honeymoon, for old times sake. I don’t know how they got ma’s address, she doesn’t even live there any more – it was forwarded on.
So that was that. They came down here to Forgotten Creek and I came down to pick them up, although it was hardly picking them up and then we’re sitting around eating and taking and they’re going off into their tent at night and I’m retreating to my tarp and that’s all there is. Then tonight, their last night, she disappears and me and John are just sitting eating beef hash in the silence with the trees all around and not a sound. She’s gone off for some scavenger food – blackberries she saw or something. And then he gets worried and all of a sudden he gets up and goes looking for her and then he’s coming back over the bridge for the second time and I’m ready and waiting.