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Men tell me how things work
Chapter 24 of my utopian-dystopian novel, The Lost City of Desire
[This is a serialized novel, chapter by chapter. You can read the previous 22 chapters here. A new chapter will be delivered every week.]
I woke up snuggling with Joe, him in his bag and me deep in mine, the smell of our pine needle cushion filling my nose. I closed my eyes and burrowed in closer. I felt I could stay here forever. And then it hit me -- Carmen was gone. We’d come back to our camp in the lonely darkness, unable to search any more for her, both of us wiped out from worry. I’d slept hard and through the night and now I felt so rested. For a moment. And then my body was pure panic.
Where was Carmen? We had to get Carmen. We had to get Carmen and then return home to New York and forget about this whole ridiculous idea I’d had to see my parents. What was I going to say to them, anyway: Where did you go? Where have you been? Why did you run away from me? Was I going to whine like that? Did you betray me? Why was I even going to the wall? What was I wanting to prove now?
I turned towards Joe, that beautiful creature, and stared him awake. I stared at his cheeks, lips and forehead, I stared at the slope of his freckled nose. Finally, I took his shoulders in my hands and shook him. He opened his eyes, so brown like a bear, and, after a brief moment where his eyes lit up at the sight of me and the beautiful fact that we were together, he too panicked. He sat up half out of the sleeping bag and looked around the wet morning landscape. Quickly he realized he wasn’t dreaming. Carmen was gone. A miracle that we were able to forget in our sleep.
He didn’t say anything, just rubbed his eyes and looked over at me with this helpless expression that nearly killed me, it was so painful.
“I’ve got to do something,” he said. “I’ve got to find her.”
I sat up and put my arm around him, leaned my face into him.
“I’m supposed to take care of my sister. I’m supposed to keep her safe.”
“There wasn’t anything you could do,” I said.
“I shouldn’t have left her alone. I should have insisted that she come with us. I shouldn’t have gone in the first place. I was being selfish as hell. I just wanted to spend time with you, that’s all. I wasn’t thinking. And now look what’s happened.”
This hit me hard. I didn't want to be blamed for this. I didn’t want my feelings for Joe to be mixed up in that. But maybe it was true. Maybe I had wanted him so much that I’d ignored how dangerous it might have been to leave Carmen behind. It wasn’t like we didn’t know there were dangers. Every thought I had felt wrong.
“We never should have left home,” he said. “Oh my God it’s all my fault.”
“Let’s go,” I said.
Joe got up, smoothed down his jeans and put on his t-shirt.
I spread out the diagrams Terence had given me which, in addition to showing the structure of the wall, showed the surrounding countryside for 10 miles in all directions. And then I synced that up with an old highway map of New Jersey that I’d found in someone’s apartment.
“I think they would have taken her in the direction of the wall,” I said. “It’s wilder there, with these thick mountains – you see?” I said, pointing to the topographic symbols. The mountains ended right before the wall, and it just seemed to me that this would be the place they would hide.
“That’s the direction the guy was headed yesterday when we lost him in the woods,” Joe said. “We should just book it as fast as we can.”
He started lacing up his boots.
“We’ll get her back, don’t worry,” I said.”
He brushed that away.
“I can’t believe I let this happen,” he said.
I stood and put my arm around him, but he pushed me away.
“We need food, water, garbage bags in case it rains, and knives. We’ve got to have knives,” he said. “The trout from yesterday -- I left it over the fire in the night, so it’s smoked. That will keep us.”
He was acting like a boss. I didn’t like it. I felt momentarily bereft, like something had been pulled from me. I’d never known the comfort of sleeping near a man, and now I realized that neither had I ever known the discomfort of being angry with that man, until now.
I took a breath and sucked it up. I was so glad we hadn’t done anything but snuggle.
“We need to travel light,” I said, packing up. But how could we be any lighter than we were.
He paced, looking at the map.
“Maybe she’s already escaped – she’s sweet enough,” I said.
He looked up and smiled a bit of a frightened smile.
“We will find her,” I said.
I made us tea with sugar and a few hoecakes on the fire. We ate some and let the rest cool down to carry with us to eat later, with the trout. I also packed a fishing line and hooks, but no canned food or anything heavy. All of that I bundled together and put up in a tree, out of range of most of the animals who might cross through this camp while we were gone. We had to pack light so we could move fast.
We drank our tea, and then drank as much as we could from the stream before filling our water bottles for the hike. I tried to drink so much that I wouldn’t need anything else until the afternoon. Before we left Joe asked me to say a prayer with him. I had never done this before – never. But I said sure. And we knelt together and he took my hands in his big, warm palms and he led us in prayer.
“Please God, I have no idea who you are or where you are but if you are there, please help me and Sarah find my sister. Please, God, help us on our path.”
With that I started to let go of his hand, but he held mine tighter for a still moment of silence. It was during that moment that I felt the power of his prayer. It surprised the hell out of me. It felt strangely good to ask for that help. I didn’t know who I was asking, or how this unknown whatever was going to help me. It didn’t matter. What I mean is that I felt some goodness around that prayer, some energy, maybe even some protection. It actually felt like it might be a powerful thing to do. It sure beat the darkness, where things came to mind that were almost too horrible to consider. A bunch of wild men. A 17 year old woman. It didn’t take much for my thoughts to get very, very uncomfortable.
We started off in the same direction as the day before, and in half an hour had made it to where we had seen the creepy guy. We moved fast uphill on that trail until it petered out, but still we could see from the smashed grass, broken twigs and the footsteps in the mud where he had crossed the stream. It didn’t seem as though he’d been trying to hide his tracks at all, which made me nervous – wouldn’t someone who lived in the woods be more careful about being followed? Maybe it was a trap? Maybe they wanted us to come and find her, because maybe they had plans for us, too.
It felt so massively self-centered to put Carmen and Joe at risk. It was stupid enough to put myself at risk, but them too? I moved up the trail, fast trudge, boots hitting rocks, slipping now and then where there was mud. I missed the city. It was so easy there, so peaceful, so predictable. Jeezus.
After an hour and a half of straight, fast hiking we paused and took a sip of water. Joe’s skin was shiny from sweat and his hair rode wet behind his ears.
“What do you think?” he said.
“I think they’re right up ahead,” I said.
It was a sense I had, nothing more. Almost as though I could see a shape moving in front of us leading us to Carmen. It was a large translucent square, with thick jelly edges, hiking in the air ahead of us, guiding us towards our destination. Freaky, I know. And I wasn’t about to say it out loud. Suddenly the trail opened up onto a limestone ridge, with views across a valley and far off over low, forested mountains.
“There, look,” Joe said, pointing to an opening in the forest at the top of some cliffs a few hundred yards across from us.
“Do you see houses over there?”
I squinted against the sun and looked to the west. Sure enough, there was a collection of little huts, and some picnic tables and even some fires with smoke rising up.
“That’s got to be it,” Joe said. “Or if it isn't, those people have got to know where she is.”
We rested for a moment, scoping out the terrain. Our trail appeared to lead right to the little village. We hadn’t seen a single person moving over there. I took a sip of my water, passed it to Joe.
“I say we just go right in there and make our demands,” he said, screwing the cap back on the bottle.
The evening faded. In the deepening twilight the village became more obscure through the trees.
“Let’s do it early in the morning,” I said. “And let’s do it quick before anyone gets wind of us.”
We slept in the open, under a low spreading tree. Frogs in a nearby bog woke us at dawn. In the morning light everything seemed certain, but tense.
Joe motioned for silence and pointed towards the hillside. Up there I could see Carmen’s red and blue scarf on the ground, the one she wore around her face to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
“She was here, definitely,” Joe said.
The village had about 11 little structures, including a two seater outhouse. Inside the little homes were beds with mattresses dragged up there from God knows where, a table with a few chairs, and in some of them, some knick knacks – on one table there was a brass 7-inch tall Empire State Building. None of the buildings were locked. An outdoor cooking fire smoldered, but we didn’t see anybody.
Then I heard a rustling, like someone was playing in the leaves. It scared the shit out of me!
“Who’s that?” I shouted.
Joe stopped and cocked his head to listen.
I walked over to the little hut where I thought the rustling came from. Joe joined me. I nodded at him and he kicked the door open. There was a bed against the far wall and I could see an arm sticking out from underneath it. Joe grabbed the hand and jerked the guy out into the open. It was one of the fake Indians we’d seen the day before, a little guy with long hair and a headband.
“Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” he said.
We didn't. I had the pistol with three bullets, but this would be a waste.
“Where the fuck is my sister?” Joe said, staring down at the guy. The guy didn’t answer. “Where is she?” Joe said. “Tell me.”
“La Shonda say,” the guy said.
His face was deep almond color, and sweaty, and so nervous. When I stared hard at him he got really squirmy and pointed toward the window.
“She’s with La Shonda.”
“Big lady mama.”
“Where?” I said.
“Yeah, where?” said Joe.
“Show me,” said Joe.
The guy stood up and we walked outside. He pointed to the trail and then to a cliff way across the valley.
“Let’s go,” said Joe. “We’ll leave this guy here.”
“What if he warns them?”
“He’s too scared.”
“Watch the bear traps,” the guy said.
“You know bears?”
“Yes. But I never saw a bear trap.”
“Holes in the ground with branches and leaves over it. Bears fall in and never come out.”
“Good skin and fat for winter. Kill with lots of rocks, rocks, more rocks. Find em before they die or badgers get in there, eat the corpse. Big mess.”
“If a people fall in before a bear, no way they’re getting out. If a bear falls in with a people -- not funny,” he laughed.
Sarah reached behind and patted her backpack. Yes, the pistol was still there. She tucked it into the rear waist of her underwear, hidden by her sweatpants and jacket. She didn’t really know how to shoot it, but she knew she didn’t want to lose it.
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