Gaelin reached the edge of the woods by mid-morning. He stood in the last forest shade, staring numbly at the dusty gravel. For some reason, he was utterly surprised to see it again. The sight of the road from the woods in broad daylight was like the punchline of a joke he hadn’t even known had been going on. And now it was finally over. He shifted the bundle from one arm to the other, then set out decisively down the road.
It was much easier to walk on the gravel then along the narrow and fickle path through the woods. As if to make up for this, the sun shone on him until between the rock, the trees and the open sky he felt like he was in an oven. Before the sun had risen much higher he sought cover under the trees to rest. He wished for a drink of water already. He wasn’t too sorry about leaving the bread. He would be just fine without a meal for a day or two. Hell, I could afford to lose a little weight. But what kind of idiot runs off on a long walk and doesn’t bring water? I don’t even know how far it is to that town.
As he considered the bright road from his position, he realized that walking in the sun wouldn’t help him get to the town if it made him that much more dehydrated. But fighting his way through the woods would also take more effort than he could afford. The obvious answer was to go to ground and wait until late afternoon, when the heat would subside and he could continue along the road. Satisfied, he began looking around for a place to sleep, but this proved more difficult that he thought, as any of you who have ever tried this might expect.
The forest’s soil was thin and filled with roots, even where there was thick leaf litter. Where there weren’t thick roots, there wasn’t a nearby tree, which means the sun filtered into the forest. Here, brambles, saplings, and other weeds competed for the light. Gaelin finally settled under a partly fallen tree. The forest lord had cracked, leaned and come to rest on a younger tree, which not only supported the old tree like a cane but also grown around its burden and continued up. The old tree was as dry as a bone, and beneath it laid a thick, carpet of dry leaves. Under there, Gaelin crushed down the leaves until they made a mat, adding more until it was shaped into a nest to cradle him.
But after his effort, and despite his actual satisfaction with his new hidey-hole, sleep now eluded him. Any small discomfort that he might have normally been able to forget and ignore nagged at him. He was thirsty. A little beam of sunlight made it through the forest canopy and blinked across his face. He rolled to his side, and a leaf escaped the blanket and settled its dry, itchy little self against Gaelin’s neck. He tossed it away, but more came until he sat up, tamped down the leaves around him, re-spread the blanket and tried to nap again. By leaving his eyes half-closed, they soon grew sleepy and closed of their own accord. He wasn’t sorry for leaving, yet.
Discomfort brought him out of his doze several times during the day until the sun began to sink. Each time he woke, snatches of dreams floated around him in the thick amber hues of his surroundings. He dreamed of playing baseball, of running and hiding, of worrying about something, and of cold nights and fires. Once he dreamed of Trista and Dion, but he would never remember that.
He was dreaming of that cold night when he woke, shivering slightly, and realized that the sun was falling beneath the trees, the shadows were deeper, and the ground felt cold instead of merely cool. He rolled out from under the tree and shook the leaves out of his blanket. He felt sleepy and stiff. It was almost like the times he would sleep most of the day at home and wake up feeling so drowsy. Almost. The mosquitoes and ticks were definitely an addition to this experience. But he knew that once he was awake for an hour or two, the feeling would pass and he wouldn’t need sleep for most of the rest of the night.
He found his way back to the road and set off again. Now the going was both easy and cooler. The sky darkened but he could see just fine to keep walking down the center of the gravel road. He folded his blanket in half and hung it over his shoulders for a little warmth, for the day’s heat was indeed leaving quickly. And next came the real travel. Now for hours he moved through the grey of the night.
Nights are rarely black you know. Caves are black. A tight-shut room may be black. And the heart of the devil is black. Not nights. Only under deep cloud cover, perhaps under thick trees, with no snow or sand, and with no town or city anywhere nearby may a night be black. That night that Gaelin walked through was as grey as any, maybe of a slightly paler shade than some. A crescent moon hung in the sky. Trista would have known it was a waxing crescent, still a few days until first quarter. Gaelin was blissfully unaware, but was only pleased with the light. He felt like batman, or a cat.
Gaelin ended up doing a lot of thinking that night. He remembered nights when he couldn’t sleep, when he mind was so full that he couldn’t even settle to playing video games until he dozed off. This was more like he knew he wasn’t going to sleep, and soon thoughts rushed in to fill the space in his mind. He journeyed through the dark, caught up in his musings. Under normal circumstances, he paced when he thought, and in this case it translated to a brisk, steady walk, his head bent.
The road turned beneath him, the heavens turned around him until his sore feet ached with every step. The evening noises of insects and frogs subsided until the only sound was the rustling breeze in the tree tops. It seemed the longest night of his life or as if he had never done anything but walk down a gravel road, when the scene changed.
He nearly tripped on a sudden, slight rise in the surface of the road; the edge of a paved road. Again, Gaelin stopped and stared, as he had at the edge of the woods before. You’d think I had never seen roads before for how surprised I am each time. I just hope I don’t break down and kiss the first sidewalk I see. Dang…now which way? Gaelin realized that he didn’t know which way they had come from. He had still been asleep when they had turned off the road, only a few days before. Now that he looked, there was nothing to distinguish either way from the other. His natural impulse was to turn left and head down-hill, but there was no telling if that was the direction to the nearest town or not. Finally, he decided to find and reach the nearest highpoint and see if he could spot anything. Taking his knife, he cut strips of bark off a couple saplings on either side of the gravel road to mark his starting point. In the process, he discovered ditches on the sides of the road, and the little water in them. After only a second of hesitation, he bent and sipped a little.
Of course it is the best water you ever tasted, stupid. You only haven’t had any water all day and been walking all of that same day. Now think about how it really tastes. He tasted again. It did taste alright. A little muddy, but otherwise ok. Well, it will do for now, I just probably shouldn’t make a habit of drinking straight out of road ditches.
This done, he turned right onto the paved road and started uphill. It took him about five minutes to reach the summit, and a welcome sight greeted him. Below him and far away, lay a town. He wasn’t sure how far it was. The sight alone gave him some hope. The distance was daunting, but now he knew where his goal lay. Let that show them that I can walk out of this if I want to. It isn’t much further now.
Weary but satisfied, Gaelin pushed his protesting muscles back into action. His stomach growled and gurgled because of the water. It was hungry, now that it had something in it. Gaelin sighed. After all this, and his trip was half over, if that. He was just beginning to hope that someone might possibly come along and give him a lift.
At this point two things happened. One was that the idea of being picked up by someone made him acutely nervous. The other was that in that moment of odd realization, a car topped the hill behind him. The headlights of the car approached him, and Gaelin felt fear wash over him. Before the fast approaching glow reached him, he vaulted across the ditch and ducked into the woods, rolling behind the second tree and watched, shaking with adrenaline, as the car passed. As it did so, relief and new shock hit him, jumbled together.
This…is new. Why did you do that you moron? That might have been your ticket back into civilization! Good thing I wasn’t seen. I bet I look like something the cat dragged in, and I’m in the middle of nowhere, on foot, with no pack, food, or anything, and no reason to be out here. I just don’t want to be questioned, or seen, or anything! What are you talking about? Don’t you want to be found so your life can go back to normal? No, I don’t want my family to find me, they are the ones who got me and Trista and poor Dion in this mess. I don’t want them to see me. Don’t let them find me. You need finding, stupid, what has gotten into you? That wasn’t your family in that car. Yeah, but still…
This went on for a while until Gaelin’s heart slowed and his breathing steadied. He went back to the road. He shivered a little when he stepped onto it. He felt exposed, like a mouse in the shadow of a hawk, but he began walking toward the town again. Maybe an hour later, he heard the sound of a car behind him again. Again he tried to wait, and again an unreasoning fear sent him diving for cover. It was closer that time, he even fancied that the car slowed a little at the place where he had left the road, an idea that made him scramble further back, his heart pounding like a drum against his throat.
Confused and tired, Gaelin discovered that where he was lying in the loam was comfortable enough to lull him. He wrapped his blanket around him and let himself fall; too tired to do any more. Obviously, the long hours of darkness and labor were beginning to addle him. Things would be better in the morning. Surely things would be better in the morning.