Jake had tried to say the same thing Dave had said, but the word got trapped and strangled by his vocal chords, so that it merely sounded as though he belched.
“Please pardon the interruption,” the girl said in the latest faddish lilts, “but my friends and I were wondering if we could buy some firewood from you...?”
“Not a chance,” David said crisply.
The girl stared at him from the other side of the fire. “Oh...kayy....”
“Your money’s no good here,” David said, wriggling out from beneath Ashley with a grunt. “But I’d be more than happy to share my supply with you at no charge. I mean, come on—it’s only wood, right? We burly wilderness types have to stick together.”
Ashley said, “Really, David? Are you sure we have extra? Remember, we are going to need more wood for after we’ve hiked back down from the falls.”
David glanced at her, slid an embarrassed glance at the girl, who blushed.
“You said on the way out here that you weren’t sure you brought enough wood along for after the falls....” Ashley reminded him coolly.
Jake cringed inside the collar of the hooded sweatshirt he’d donned after the sun had gone down.
“You know what?” David said. “I was wrong, Ash. I brought more than enough wood, just like I always do.” He turned to the girl. “I’m a little anal about the wood, is all, and I never think I’ve brought enough. But, hey, we wilderness seekers have to look out for one another, right?”
“Yes, certainly,” the girl said, smiling and bouncing forward as though she were walking on air. Jake noticed she avoided making eye contact with Ashley. “We burly wilderness types do need to stick together!”
“Watch each other’s back,” David said, as he tramped over to the motorhome, still wearing shorts and flip flops though the temperature had dropped into the fifties. “I mean, without wood you all might freeze to death over there, and that would make things awkward for us over here. We'd have a moral dilemma on our hands, and who needs moral dilemmas when you're on vacation? We’d be stuck with the decision of should we call the authorities now or after we’ve hiked to the falls?”
The girl laughed loudly. It was like an old lady’s cackle that made her all the more endearing.
“And that’s a very real possibility,” she said as David opened one of the storage department doors near the back of the RV. “It’s getting sooo cold. I didn’t realize how cold it got up here and didn’t dress for it.”
“I see that,” Ashley muttered over her wine glass at the fire, and glanced at Jake. Jake smiled edgily.
He didn’t think the girl had heard. She’d followed David over to the motorhome. He pulled out a plastic garbage bag filled with split firewood, and said, “There—that gonna be enough? I’ve broken my supply into manageable bundles.”
“Actually, that’s wonderful. We still have some of the wood we gathered but it’s kinda wet.”
“And you probably need some dry stuff to keep it burning.”
“Right. Are you sure I can’t pay you?” She brandished a bill high between her thumb and index finger. “We all chipped in....”
If she smiled more tantalizingly beautifully, Jake thought, Ashley was going to get up and bitch-slap her. He could feel her simmering in her chair there beside him.
“Stick it in back in your bra, sister!” Dave said, and hefted the bundle on his shoulder. “And I’ll even mule it over there for you.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that!”
David had already clip-clopped off in the direction of the young folks’ camp. “Watch me!”
The girl followed him, laughing. They disappeared for a time in the darkness and then Jake saw their silhouettes against the glow of the fire over there—Jake’s much larger than the girl’s. Ashley watched in stony silence, holding her wine glass up against her mouth. Jake didn’t look at her, but he knew she was staring toward the other fire.
He felt his muscles grow taut between his shoulders.
He could hear Dave talking loudly for a time with the teenagers. The teenagers laughed. Dave laughed. Dave talked a little more, charmingly joking around, and then one of the young men said, “Hey, thanks, man. If you need anything from us, you know—not to hesitate.”
“Stay warm!” Dave said as he started walking back toward Jake and Ashley.
“Wow,” Ashley said as Dave approached the camp. “She’s hot!”
“Shhh,” Dave said, glancing behind him. “She might hear you!”
“Don’t tell me she hasn’t heard it before.”
Dave shrugged as he crouched to toss a couple more logs on the fire. “I didn’t think she was all that hot.”
“Really?” Ashley turned to Jake. “You thought she was hot—didn’t you, Jake?”
“Ashley,” he wanted to say but only said it to himself, “I thought she was hot, but I can honestly say I find you hotter. You’re a woman and she’s just a girl. And if Dave wasn’t here tonight, and if I had a choice between you and her, I’d choose you and thank my lucky fucking stars for just one more night with you under the covers. Why I ever let you go in the first place, I’ll never figure.”
Instead, rising heavily from his chair, he said: “I suddenly feel the desperate need to take a piss.”
“Chicken!” As he walked away, Ashley bounced a pinecone off his back.
“Ouch!” Jake said as he moved into the trees beyond the fire.
When he was well away from the fire, he unzipped and let go. Afterwards, he didn’t head back to the camp. Things were too tense back there. He hadn’t had much reefer after supper, but he was too drunk to sort through it all—David, Ashley, the pretty girl, Jerry “The Man-Hunter” Johnson, the life-changing phone call he’d gotten from Roger Goldstein just before they’d gotten out of cellphone range.
He’d have called Brenda and told her the news, if he’d had time. But everything had happened so quickly after that, and then they were out here where there was no coverage.
He strolled through the brush, crossed a narrow creek in whose black, rippling water the stars sparkled like diamonds. He strolled some more in the cool night air under the stars. So much to sort out. He felt jittery now about the money. He knew it was not to his credit that the main thing he kept thinking about was Ashley and how she’d react when she found out he was rich.
Or at least relatively so.
He knew he should have been thinking about Brenda and planning out the much better, more comfortable life he and she could start living once he’d cashed the Hollywood check. Nope. His thoughts kept meandering back to Ashley Whitfield, making his heart feel raw with want and regret and jealousy and every other piece-of-shit emotion a human being could entertain.
“Fool,” he told himself, running his hands through his longish brown hair. “You’re a goddamn fool, Jake Gorton. A goddamn fool. Forget her. She’s Dave’s. David’s. Besides, if you had her, would you really want her? Maybe you’re too fucked up to ever appreciate anything you have. Maybe you’re destined to always want for something else...”
Hearing the gentle strains of a fiddle, he stopped. A fire flickered before him. He’d thought he’d been heading generally back toward his own camp, but now, peering through the dark brush, he saw that he’d somehow strayed over to the backside of Jerry and Marigold’s camp.
They had a Coleman gas lamp hanging from a pole, hissing, and bluegrass music playing on a radio or cd player inside the trailer. The music wasn’t very loud. Jerry and Marigold were dancing to it, on the other side of their campfire that lay between Jake and them, about fifty yards away. The horse, tied to its picket line, watched them, twitching its ears. The firelight was reflected in the chestnut’s black eyes.
Otis lay near the horse, curled in a ball, sleeping with his snout resting atop his paws.
Jerry and Marigold were dancing slowly, cheek to cheek, shuffling from side to side and then in a slow, tight circle. An old-fashioned dance—a very slow waltz, Jake thought. Or their own version. The kind of dance today’s youth only learn in ballrooms.
Their eyes were closed, and Jerry was smiling, keeping his cheek pressed tightly against the unsmiling but happy-looking Marigold as they moved to the poignant strains of a fiddle and what Jake thought was a dulcimer. Old-time music. Appalachian music.
Jerry and Marigold looked like teenagers very much in love.
Jake’s eyes sti=ung. He turned away, ashamed of having spied on the pair. Tears pooled in his eyes. They rolled down his cheeks. As he walked away from the dancers, he brushed the tears from his cheeks with his fists, bewildered.
What in Christ had gotten into him?
Too much to drink. Too many different things to drink on top of the pot. For some reason, all the alcohol and marijuana in his system had swollen his heart to the size of a gas can, and it was chugging heavily beneath his breastbone. As he moved away from Jerry and Marigold’s camp, the music dwindled behind him. Walking along beside the creek, he saw the low, umber glow of his own fire. He pushed through the shrubs.
David and Ashley’s chairs were empty. Their empty glasses lay on the ground near the chairs. Slow guitar music rose from the direction of the young folks’ fire. They were all sitting around the fire over there, a boy and a girl singing softly.
There was a light on in the rear of the motorhome. David moved slowly toward the RV. As he did, he could hear David and Ashley’s voices emanating from the lighted windows at the back, from the bedroom. They were talking in low, taut, testy tones.
They were having it out over the girl.
Jake cursed under his breath.
He added another log to the fire and sat in his chair, kicked back and staring at the stars, listening to the young people sing, talk, and laugh together. One of the boys gave a brief, coyote-like howl.
“Shut up!” one of the girls said. “You trying to call the killer in or what?”
The others chuckled.
They quieted down after that. Eventually, David and Ashley stopped arguing, and the lights went out in the back of the RV. Jake waited another fifteen minutes for the pair to go to sleep, and then he moved quietly over to the motorhome. Usually when they camped together, he broke the dinette down into a bed. It was a comfortable enough arrangement, and he didn’t feel out of place in there with the two of them.
But tonight he felt like an intruder. He felt like a third wheel again, just as he’d felt on the way out here, and he didn’t like feeling that way around them. They were his closest friends, even closer to him than family. At least, he usually felt that way. Tonight, however, he didn’t want to sleep in the RV. He needed his own space.
He stole quietly into the rig, gathered his gear, brought it outside, and spread his air mattress and sleeping bag beside the fire. He removed his sweatshirt and hiking boots but kept his cargo pants and long- and short-sleeved T-shirts on. It was bound to get colder once the fire died.
Jake crawled into the sleeping bag, zipped it all the way up, used the sweatshirt for a pillow of sorts, and closed his eyes. For a time, Jerry and Marigold’s sweet faces floated like fire balloons against the backs of his closed lids. He had a brief remembrance of the dream he’d had when he’d nodded off in the RV earlier—the dream of Ashley seducing him and taking her halter off. To avoid a hard on, he rolled onto his side, used a mental broom to sweep his mind clear, and drew a long, deep breath.
“An arrow to the heart,” he heard one of the young men say. “That’s a nasty way to go, bro.”
“Unless it’s a Cupid’s arrow,” one of the girl’s said smartly. Jake thought it was the tan beauty who’d been flirting with David.
Jake must have slept for a time. When a noise jolted him awake, his fire had gone out entirely. He saw no light next door, either. It was very cold. Keeping his cheek pressed to his sweatshirt, he looked around, half-expecting to see a ghostly specter wielding a crossbow moving toward him from out of the darkness.
There was the faint squawk of a motorhome spring. It was followed by the resolute click of the RV’s door being gently latched. David or Ashley was outside. Why? If they needed to tend nature, they had a commode inside.
Keeping his head down, feigning sleep for some reason he was not sure about, he heard the crunch of gravel beneath a stealthy tread. A figure stepped around him and moved out away from the dead fire—a large figure in a red fleece sweatshirt and baggy, red plaid sleeping pants. David’s wool-lined deerskin moccasins flashed dully in the starlight as he stole off into the night, heading in the direction of the creek.
“Stole” was the right word.
For some reason he was stealing away from the camp. He was sneaking. Being furtive.
Before he even realized what he was doing, Jake was out of his sleeping bag and stepping into his hiking boots. He had no business doing so, but he intended to follow Dave and find out where he was going though something told him he already knew.