Authors: Richard Laymon
He suspected that he knew the reason why—because he had a need to remember what happened last time. He was out here again. Probably a hundred miles from the place where Julie was murdered, but here, in the mountains, in the wilderness. He needed to relive the horror. He needed it fresh in his mind. A cautionary tale. Watch out, be ready, it could happen again.
Shaken by the memories, he had crawled from the tent last night, stirred the smoldering fire to life, gone to his pack and taken out the bottle and revolver. The pocket of his parka was deep enough to hold the revolver. Its weight felt good. He sat on a stump close to the fire and drank. The heat of the bourbon swept through him. He wished he had brought two bottles, not just the one. He had six more nights to go. He needed to hold back, to drink no more than a seventh of the bourbon, or he might run out.
But a seventh of a quart wasn’t much at all.
There were bound to be nights when he wouldn’t need to drink, nights when he would sleep through till morning.
Now is when I need it, he thought.
When a quarter of the bottle was gone, he forced himself to quit. Hoping that would be enough to help him sleep, he put the bottle away and returned to the tent. He rolled his parka into a pillow. In spite of its thickness, he could feel the revolver under his head. He didn’t mind.
Nobody gonna fuck with us this time, he thought vaguely, just before falling asleep.
Rick reached the edge of the embankment. For a moment, he didn’t see Bert and something clamped tight in his chest. Then he spotted her. She was off to the right, sitting cross-legged on a rock near the middle of the stream.
“Morning,” he called, climbing down the slope.
She looked over her shoulder at him and smiled. “Afternoon,” she said.
“Oh, it’s not that late.”
She got to her feet, hopped across the stream, and stepped into her sneakers. She was wearing baggy tan shorts and a white T-shirt. She looked fresh and wonderful. She came to Rick. He put his arms around her. She pressed herself against him.
“How come you didn’t invite me to your party?” she asked.
She knew. Of course she knew.
“You were asleep,” Rick said.
He felt her shrug.
“You didn’t miss much. I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. So I knocked back a few. They helped.”
“The first night out can be tough,” she said. “It’ll get better.”
“God, I hope so.”
“Good thing I didn’t light a match this morning, the tent would’ve blown up.”
Rick laughed softly. “Sorry.”
Her hands slipped inside the seat of his sweatpants. They were warm on his buttocks. “If you have trouble sleeping again, how about waking me up? I don’t want you to suffer alone.”
She patted his rump, then stepped away. “Let’s get some breakfast. I’m starving.”
Back at the camp, Rick heated water on the fire for instant coffee. Bert dumped powdered eggs into her pan, stirred in water, and used her sheath knife to scrape chunks of meat off a bacon bar. She cooked the meal over the burner of her small propane stove.
Rick normally abhorred instant coffee. This morning, however, it seemed to taste great. He drank it eagerly while he lingered over the scrambled eggs with bacon.
And he watched Bert sitting on a log across from him, eating from the pan. Her hair gleamed like gold over one ear where the sunlight fell on it. Her white T-shirt, so bright that it almost hurt his eyes to look at it, hung loosely over her breasts. Her nipples made it jut and he could see a hint of their darkness through the fabric. The pan was on her lap. Her legs, long and sleek, were stretched out and crossed at the ankles.
Finishing first, Rick got up and went to his pack. He took out his Polaroid camera.
“Come on,” Bert said, “my hair’s a mess.”
“You look great. Just keep eating.”
She shrugged and rolled her eyes upward. Rick took a shot as she lifted the fork to her mouth. With a buzz, the camera ejected the photo.
Rick crouched beside Bert and they watched the picture appear, faint at first, growing sharp, finally showing every detail in rich clarity. “I told you my hair was a mess.”
“Now let’s get one with your shirt off.”
“I’ll wait till you go to change it.”
“Who says I’m going to change it?”
Rick tried to keep his tone light. “You show through, you know.”
She grinned. “Is that a problem for you?”
“I love it. But we might meet someone on the trails.”
“Or you could put on a bra.”
“If I’d brought one.”
“It I’d brought one.”
“I just don’t think...”
“I know. You don’t want some stranger getting an eyeful. Rather selfish of you, don’t you think?”
“Yep.” Not just selfish, he thought. Seeing her nipples through the shirt might give people ideas. Such ideas might lead to ...
“Well, I suppose if it’s going to bother you. But no pictures, or I’ll change in the tent.”
“Why don’t you get some shots of the campsite before we tear it down?”
Rick obliged, then put the camera away.
They took the cook kits down to the stream. After cleaning them, Rick remained to brush his teeth and wash. He returned to camp. Standing in a patch of sunlight, he changed out of the sweatsuit he had slept in. Bert doused the fire and watched him. Then she pulled off her T-shirt, walked over to her pack, and took out the faded blue chambray shirt she had worn yesterday. She buttoned it up, and gave Rick a coy smile as she fastened the button at her throat. “Is this modest enough for you?” she asked.
“Well, you don’t have to overdo it.”
She smiled and opened the top two buttons. “Okay?”
She went inside the tent. Rick watched while she forced her sleeping bag into its stuff sack. “Want me to do yours?” she asked.
If she started touching the things on his side of the tent, she might find the revolver in his coat.
“No, fine. I’ll take care of it.”
She crawled out.
Rick entered the tent, rammed his sleeping bag into its tiny sack, and brought it out along with his rolled parka. Bert stayed beside him, rearranging the contents of her backpack. He wanted to put the gun into a side pocket of his pack where it would be easy to reach, but that was impossible with Bert there. So he left it inside his parka. His sleeping bag went on top of it.
So much for easy access, Rick thought.
They struck the tent. They were both on their knees, folding it, when Rick heard voices. His stomach clenched. Head snapping to the side, he saw three figures moving through the trees, coming down the trail that ran past their campsite. He looked at Bert.
She was watching them, too. Her hands were on the tent. The way her loose shirt hung toward the ground, Rick could see the shadowed slope of a breast. He felt as if his head were being squeezed. He wanted to shout for her to button up, damn it! Then the shirt swayed back and concealed her breast as she raised herself.
She waved at the strangers. “Morning,” she called.
They might’ve gone on by if she’d kept quiet. Why did Bert do that?
The young man in the lead called, “Hi, there,” and turned off the trail. He stepped between a couple of saplings and came toward them, followed by his two companions.
Bert stood up. She brushed dirt and pine needles off her knees.
Numb and shaking, Rick got to his feet. He forced himself to smile and say, “Hello” to the three approaching men.
Men? Boys. They were teenagers, seventeen or eighteen years old.
That’s worse, he thought.
Three of them. God.
He strolled over to his pack, lifted out his sleeping bag, and set it on the ground. There were voices behind him, but he didn’t listen. Fingers trembling, he plucked at his down parka, turned it until the pocket was on top. He slipped his hand in, pulled out the revolver and shoved its barrel down the front of his pants. He untucked his shirt, looked down at himself to make sure the gun handle didn’t show, then took a cigar from his shirt pocket and faced the intruders.
They’re not intruders, he told himself. Bert invited them over for godsake.
She was still beside the collapsed tent. The three guys stood in a semi-circle, facing her.
He ripped off the cigar’s cellophane wrapper as he walked toward them. “Hello, fellows,” he said, and clamped the cigar in his teeth.
As he lighted up, Bert smiled at him. “They spent the night at Mosquito Pasture,” she said.
“Sure did,” said the leader, smiling. He was bigger than Rick and had a body that looked solid. “They damn near carried us off. Wally got messed up real good.”
Wally, a fat kid in glasses who wore cut-off jeans that hung low and appeared ready to drop around his ankles, turned and pointed to red weals on the backs of his legs. He pointed out others on his neck, on the inner sides of his forearms and the crooks of his elbows. “They murdered me,” he said in a dismal voice.
“Don’t you have insect repellent?” Bert asked, sounding concerned.
“Who wants to stink?”
“That’s a good one,” said the third boy, a lanky, freckled kid in white-rimmed sunglasses and an olive green beret.
Wally sneered at him.
“Have you tried Cutters’?” Bert asked. “It doesn’t smell bad.”
Wally shook his head.
“I’ve got some left in my old botde,” she said. “Why don’t you take it?”
Bert headed for her pack.
Wally scratched the side of his neck and watched Bert. The leader watched her, too. Rick couldn’t tell where the guy in the sunglasses was looking, but he could guess.
They were all three staring at the way she moved inside her shorts.
“How long you fellows been in?”
“Three nights,” said the leader, still looking past Rick. He licked a comer of his mouth. Then he took a pack of Winstons from the pocket of his sleeveless shirt, shook out a cigarette, and poked it into his mouth. “Borrow a light?” he asked.
Rick slipped a book of matches from his pocket. He pictured the guy grabbing his hand when he reached out, yanking him forward and driving a knee into his guts. So he tossed the matches.
The guy caught them, muttered “Thanks,” and lit his cigarette. He tossed the matches back to Rick.
“Where are you folks heading?” asked the one in sunglasses.
“Granger Lake,” Rick said. He’d never heard of such a place.
“Yeah? That anywhere near the Pylons?”
“Is that where you’re going?” Rick asked. “The Pylons?”
Rick heard footfalls behind him. Bert was coming back, and the eyes that he could see were on her. She stepped past Rick and handed a squeeze-bottle to Wally.
“Thanks a lot.”
In her other hand was a plastic tube. “Here, put some of this on your bites. It should help with the itching.”
Wally nodded. He uncapped the tube, sniffed its opening and wrinkled his nose.
Bert let out her husky laugh.
“Can’t smell any worse than your pits,” the one in the sunglasses said.
“You and the horse you rode in on, Bugger.” He started dabbing the pink ointment onto his bites.
“Bugger?” Bert asked, smiling.
“It’s Burgher.” He spelled it. “Luke Burgher.”
“Also known as Ham, Cheese, and McDouble,” Wally said, leering as he got in his digs.
“So it’s Wally, Luke and ...” Bert looked at the leader and raised her eyebrows.
What is this, Rick thought, a goddamn cocktail party?
The guy blew out smoke and said, “Jase.”
“He’s sensitive,” Luke said.
“You know,” Wally said. “Jason. Friday the Tbirteentb.”
Bert smiled at Jason. “I didn’t recognize you without the hockey mask.”
He blushed. Then he smiled.
“I’m Bert. Nobody calls me Bertha and lives.” She shook hands with Jase. The cigarette drooped in his lips, and his eyes glazed over as if she were holding his cock instead of his hand.
“My silent partner here is Rick,” she said.
Rick nodded, but didn’t offer his hand. Jase made a feeble smile, and his eyes stayed on Bert as she sidestepped to Wally.
“Bert,” Wally said. He wiped his pink fingertip on his shorts, then shook her hand. He grinned and blushed. Watching, Rick half expected the kid’s glasses to fog up.
She moved on down the line.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Bert,” Luke said, and gave her hand a quick, stiff shake. Rather formal. Rather mocking, as if he thought she was weird for shaking hands with them all.
Good for him, Rick thought.
Wally resumed smearing goo on his bites.
“Are you guys heading up over Dead Mule Pass?” Bert asked.
“Yeah,” Jase said. “How about you?”
Great, Rick thought. Why don’t you break out the map and show them our whole route?
“Maybe we’ll run into you up ahead,” Bert continued.
“Yeah. Could be.”
Next, she’ll be inviting them to hike along with us.
“We’d better finish getting our stuff together,” Rick said, “or we’ll be here all day.”
“Need a hand with the tent?” Jase asked, looking at Bert.
“We can take care of it,” Rick said. “Thanks anyway.”
Wally twisted the cap back onto the ointment.
“Better?” Bert asked him.
“Yeah. Thanks. And thanks for this.” He patted the shirt pocket where he’d put the mosquito repellent.
“It was nice meeting you,” Jase said. Then, he stepped over to the muddy ashes of the fire and tossed in his cigarette butt.
“Well,” Bert said, “if we don’t run into you fellows up ahead somewhere, have a real good trip.”
Don’t worry, Rick thought. We’ll run into them again. They’ll see to it.
“Yeah,” Jase said. “So long.”
“Nice meeting you,” Wally said.
“See you around,” said Luke.
“Take it easy, guys,” Bert told them.
“Yeah,” added Rick.
He watched the three turn away and head for the trail. Wally looked back and waved. Jase glanced back a couple of times. Luke didn’t.
“Nice kids,” Bert said.
“That remains to be seen.”