Chapter 2: In the City
We couldn’t have asked for better weather that Saturday. The blue sky stretched for miles without interruption, and the breeze blowing through the car windows smelled dry and green. Although it was only mid-morning, the heat was already palpable. It rose off the asphalt, distorting the horizon framed by the windshield. It was a little like looking at scenery through a glass of water. Beside me everything was a blur of colours as we cut through the landscape.
“Aw, stop skipping ahead, Ramy! I like that song!” Martha complained. Ramy, who sat in the backseat, had leaned over and reached for my mp3 player, which was hooked up to the car’s stereo system. “Relax, Mar. I just wanna see what else Steve’s got in here.” Engrossed by the road map, I paid little attention to Martha or Ramy as they squabbled over music. ‘Hey, Mar,” I interrupted, my eyes still on the map, “make sure to turn off after the next exit — there should be an unmarked dirt path that leads directly to the old logging road.” “Ok, I’ll look out for it,” Martha replied anxiously, both hands firmly gripping the steering wheel of her parents’ old Buick. Ahead of us the winding, black ribbon of highway seemed to unfurl itself as we drove. “That’s it,” I exclaimed suddenly as we sped by a discreet, overgrown path branching off the highway. “Oh crap! I passed it!” Martha muttered in frustration. “Just put ‘er in reverse,” Ramy broke in, “there’s nobody behind us.” “You can’t reverse on a highway!” I retorted. Martha slowed down and pulled over onto the soft shoulder. The car came to a full stop before she started to drive backwards. “Yeah, good one, Mar,” Ramy said in encouragement. I shook my head, smiling in disbelief. Martha shrugged her shoulders and smiled back mischievously, her eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror. “What else did you want me to do? The next turnoff is, like, a million years away!”
We drove a good distance on the narrow dirt road. The crisp air of the open highway gave way to the damp smell of moss and moulding leaves, and the chirping of birds replaced the deafening noise of the wind that had blown through the car windows. As we made our way deeper into the grove, the narrowness of the path, with its arc of trees whose branches partially obscured the sunlight, made it seem like we were travelling through a portal to another world. The further away we got from the highway the more the car jerked about on account of the rough terrain; it made me feel like we were in some sort of amusement park ride — so much so that I had to look away from the map to keep myself from getting sick.
“Wow! This road is gonna destroy your parents’ suspension!” Ramy commented as we made our way along. “I know!” Martha answered, “That’s why I’m going so slowly — plus they said I’d get this car next year for college, so I gotta be careful!” “Have you decided where you’re going yet?” I asked, folding the map. “No…it kinda depends on what program I get into,” she countered matter-of-factly. “I applied to English ‘cause I heard their admissions standards are low, but I think I really wanna study art…. I’m just not sure if my portfolio’s good enough.” Come on, Mar,” I protested warmly, “you don’t give yourself enough credit. You rocked art class all through this year!” She blushed and I noticed the corners of her mouth curl up into a smile, but she kept her eyes focused on the road. “What about you, Ramy? You figured anything out yet?” I enquired, turning back to face Ramy. “I dunno” he replied evasively, “I might take some time off before I go to college.” “I bet you’ve got it all figured out, though,” he said quickly, nodding his head. “Well….” I hesitated, a sheepish smile spreading across my face. “Come on, Steve,” Martha insisted, her voice full of warmth and admiration, “own up to it. You’re the smartest kid in our class.” “Yeah, dude,” Ramy, declared in agreement, “I’ve been copying my homework from you since grade seven!” “Ok…” I said, still trying to sound modest, but I was too excited. I carried on, eager for a chance to talk about the future. “I’m hoping to get into this co-op program in computer engineering,” I continued enthusiastically, looking over at both Ramy and Martha, “then I can design artificial intelligence. How cool, is that?!” “So you’re gonna be one of those mad scientists we see in the movies?” Ramy countered jokingly. Martha started laughing, so he went on: “Hey: you can design yourself a girlfriend! You know, a hot robot who’ll do whatever you want ‘er to!” I could feel my cheeks burning as I rolled my eyes and groaned in response.
The brightness up ahead and the unmistakable smell of felled pine pointed to the end of our journey on the narrow forest path. Martha proceeded carefully onto the old logging road. Although it was broader, its muddy, irregular surface meant that she had to swerve to avoid ditches carved out by the rain. “Look, Mar, over there it gets smoother,” I said cheerfully. She smiled. “We’re gettin’ close, guys!” Martha stepped on the gas and sped up a little. I could tell that she was getting more comfortable driving. When we hit an even stretch of road, she reached over for the mp3 player. Manoeuvring the steering wheel with her left hand, she fiddled around with it. “Steve,” she said, turning quickly to face me for a second, “can you flip through this for me? I wanna listen to Feist.” “Sure,” I replied. Behind me, I heard Ramy sigh loudly. “Hey! You’ve had your turn,” she called out to him in mock defiance, “now I’m gonna play something I wanna listen to!” “Oh yeah?” he countered, “Not if I do this!” He reached over with both hands and tried to seize it from me. “Gimme a break guys!” Martha whined. She looked over and attempted to grab hold of the player with her right hand. The three of us ended up fighting over it like a bunch of kids: I struggled between giggles to fend off Ramy, whose grip loosened the harder he laughed, while Martha’s right arm wrestled in earnest to take it away from us. We carried on like this for a little while, until all of a sudden I heard Martha scream. In the flash of a second the car skidded and swerved — I felt myself get pulled forward and jerked back just as abruptly before coming to a dead stop.
At first I was so stunned I couldn’t move. I just sat there, eyes wide open, unblinking. Tall grass, weeds, thin tree trunks: I could no longer see the road through the cracked windshield. We must have crashed into a ditch. “Everybody ok?” I called out faintly, my voice cracking. “Uhhhhhh….” Ramy moaned in response, “What the hell happened?” I groped around for the seatbelt and pulled myself forward, out of my seat. My neck ached. I turned slowly to face Martha. Her head hung to one side: eyes closed, face bruised, lower lip swollen. I gripped her right shoulder and shook her lightly. Her limp body offered little resistance. “Holy shit, Ramy! I think Martha’s unconscious!” I yelled out as I glanced over at him. “We gotta wake her up!” Ramy lay stretched out in the back, legs twisted towards me, his hands partially covering his face. “Can you get up?” I continued breathlessly, “How bad are you hurt?” The left side of his face looked bruised. “I think I’m ok,” he replied, shaking his head. He sat up and stretched his neck. “Uhhh….” he mumbled as he steadied himself. I heard a dull pop when he rotated his left shoulder, fist closed. “I’m good,” he said soberly. Using his right arm to steady himself, he lurched forward towards me. “Mar,” he whispered in her ear, “wake up.” No response. We looked at each other in alarm. ‘Let’s get out of the car,” he urged, “and get to her from the outside.” I tried to open my passenger door but it was jammed. “Give it a good push,” Ramy advised while he kicked his door open, “it’ll give.” I gave it a shove but it wouldn’t budge, so I had to crawl out the backseat after Ramy.
As I made my way out Ramy grabbed the handle of Martha’s door and gave it a firm tug. It swung open. He reached in for her, holding two fingers to the side of her neck. I stood close behind him, watching intently. “She’s… got a pulse,” he stated hesitantly. “Martha,” I said with impatience, “come on, wake up.” We both stared at her nervously, hoping for a sign…. After what seemed like an eternity her head moved slightly and her eyelids fluttered. She opened her eyes. “Martha!!!” Ramy and I both shouted in relief. She stared blankly at us for a few seconds. “Uhhhhhh…..” she moaned. “Are you ok?” “Where does it hurt?” Ramy and I asked at the same time. “My head,” she mumbled as she raised her left arm feebly. “We’re going to get you out of here,” Ramy affirmed in a decisive tone. Her unbuckled her seatbelt and placed his right arm around her waist. “Steve, you lift her legs.” I grabbed both her legs and waited for his signal. “On three: one, two, three….” I promptly raised her legs. “…Lift!” he commanded as he strained to move her upper body. “What the hell was that?” Ramy barked. “I dunno,” I sputtered nervously, “I picked her up on three, not on lift. I didn’t know you were gonna say ‘lift’!” “Put ‘er back down,” he said shaking his head in exasperation, “let’s do this again.” Martha winced as we struggled to move her back into her seat. “So, uh, just to be sure, on three or on lift?” Ramy rolled his eyes and broke into a smile. “Am I the moron here?” he said mockingly. “Let’s do it on ‘lift,’ yeah?” I smirked and nodded in assent.
Once we managed to get Martha out of the car, we lowered her legs-first onto the grass. “Can you stand up?” Ramy asked her quietly. She nodded weakly. Ramy kept his arm around her waist to steady her. “Here, this way,” I said, pointing to the hood. As the two of them made their way over, Martha stopped unexpectedly and almost fell over. When I reached over to help Ramy raise her up she pushed me away and struggled to free herself from Ramy’s hold. He and I looked at each other for a moment in bewilderment. “Mar?” I said anxiously as we lowered her onto the grass. “Uhhhh….” she mumbled, and then started to throw up. We crouched down on either side of Martha and waited for her to finish. As I watched over her my mind started to race. I considered our options. “Ugh… that was so gross,” Martha grumbled. We helped her get to her feet. She smiled, wiping her mouth on her shirtsleeve. “Oh, dude, that’s even grosser!” Ramy teased. She chuckled faintly. “Ok,” I chided in jest, “suck it up, princess! You haven’t lost your sense of humour, so you can’t be as bad as all that.”
“Guys, we gotta figure out a plan,” Ramy spoke up as we leaned against the hood of the car. “We need help, that’s our first priority,” I stated. Martha nodded in agreement. “The car’s out of the question,” Ramy continued, “there’s no way we can get it out of that ditch.” “Yeah, even if we’re lucky enough to get it to start,” I added. “Can’t we call for help?” Martha started to say in a still feeble voice, but stopped herself. “No cell phones! Duh… that was bright….” “Hey, it doesn’t matter anyway,” I replied, trying to make her feel better, “they’d be out of range.” “And we can’t just wait for help to drive by,” Ramy considered. “Yeah… the road’s been closed for years, no one comes through here anymore,” I affirmed, finishing his thought. “I guess our only choice is to walk,” Martha declared bleakly. “Hold on a sec,” I said to myself, and went to look for the map. Using the hood as a table, I stretched it open so we could all look at it. “That’s us here,” I explained, tracing my finger along the highway, “and that’s the closest town there.” “Hum….” Ramy reflected, “it looks to be roughly four kilometres away. I think we can reach it by nightfall.” “We’d better pack light,” I added, “and bring only what we need.” They both nodded. After a pause Ramy and I both turned and looked at Martha. Some of the colour had returned to her cheeks and she seemed more alert than before, but.... “It’s ok, guys,” she reassured us, “I’ll be fine.” All three of us stood there a moment, staring at each other without saying a word. “Ok,” Ramy called out like a drill sergeant, “let’s do this!” “Yeah!” Martha and I answered with all the determination we could muster.
That was three hours ago…. Martha took a few sips of water before putting her bottle away again. Her hands shook. “The town’s about two hours west of here,” Ramy observed as he held the compass to the map, “if we give ‘er we can make it before dark.” The tremor in his voice betrayed his concern. “Can you make it?” I whispered to Martha. “Yeah, I’m good,” she replied quietly, her lips barely moving. Her pupils were so dilated that her eyes seemed almost black. I stood there for a second without knowing what to do. Ramy put his arm around Martha’s shoulder. “Everything will be alright,” he reassured her, handing the map and compass over to me with his free hand. I glared at him. Ramy returned my stare with an air of indifference. “Your turn, Steve,” he stated flatly. I started down the path, head down, fists clenched; I can’t explain why, but I suddenly felt rage welling up in me. What if we’re lost? I thought to myself. At this pace we’ll never get anywhere! No sooner had that thought entered my head than I regretted thinking it. What a selfish jerk I am! Martha was hurt — it wasn’t her fault she had trouble keeping up. I glanced behind me; Martha was looking down at her feet while Ramy held her hand and spoke softly to her. She was smiling. I could feel my head begin to ache.
We made our way through the forest at a snail’s pace, and it wasn’t just on account of Martha. Often the trail was so overgrown that we had to improvise as we went along over gulley, rock, and dirt. I still kept the lead. Having to concentrate on staying true to our course kept me from thinking about other things… and gave me the chance to relax a little…. “Hey, Steve,” I heard Ramy call out after we’d been walking in silence for some time, “how ‘bout a quick break?” We had reached a small clearing. In spite of the open space, the air was no less damp and heavy than in the forest. “Sounds good,” I said casually, turning around to face them. Martha had made her way over to a large, moss-covered rock. She sat down on the ground and leaned against it for support. “What’s for dinner?” she asked half-yawning, with an indolent smile. The thought of eating something was a welcome relief. I had been so focused on getting us through the forest that I never realized how hungry I was. “Let’s see….” I rummaged though my pack. “I’ve got a bag of chips, some pop….” Ramy said while he dug through his bag. “Why don’t we lay everything out?” Martha suggested. With slow, haphazard movements, she pulled out a towel from her pack and spread it on the ground in front of her. Ramy and I gathered around, sitting on either side, and began to toss whatever food we’d brought with us into the middle. Soon a small pile formed in front of us. When we were about done, Martha turned her bag upside down right above our little mountain of goodies and gave it a quick shake. “My turn!” she exclaimed. To my surprise, over twenty different chocolate bars came tumbling out of her pack. “All you brought are chocolate bars?” I asked, incredulous. She smiled. “You can have one.” “One? Are you kidding me?” I replied in amazement, “You’ve got enough there to feed a small village!” “Oh, yeah, I forgot….” she absentmindedly mumbled to herself as she proceeded to dig up a small bag of chocolate-covered cashews from a zipper pouch. I shook my head. “How did you plan to make it through three days on those?” I demanded, trying to control my frustration. Ramy couldn’t stop laughing. “See, Ramy doesn’t think I’m crazy,” she said stubbornly. Ramy looked over at me with a self-satisfied grin. “So, JB, what did you bring?” he asked as he groped around the pile. “Nuts?” He picked up a small bundle wrapped in a clear plastic bag. “Dried fruit?” He shot Martha a complicit smile. “Did your mom pack your lunch for you or something?” Martha giggled. He sure knew how to piss me off. My head started to ache again — it felt as though someone was crushing my temples in a vise. “Come on, guys, gimme a break, alright?” I protested angrily. “No one said you had to eat any of what I brought.” Martha had stopped laughing. Now she looked at me steadily, her brows furrowed, a look of concern spreading over her face. “Hey, take it easy — I was just kiddin’ around,” Ramy countered, still grinning smugly. “No need to get upset.” I was too infuriated to reply. I thought I’d lost my appetite, too — when I reached over and grabbed a handful of nuts I almost choked on them.
We sat there for some time, burdened by an awkward silence. Ramy sat cross-legged, staring abstractedly at the bag of chips from which he was eating. With my legs extended in front of me, I leaned back on my elbows and tried to focus on the trees directly in my field of vision. Martha still sat in front of the boulder, only now she shifted around nervously, unwrapping one of her chocolate bars as audibly as she could. I think she was trying to get our attention, but neither of us took the bait. “This is so lame!” she cried out suddenly. “We’re supposed to be having FUN!” Ramy straightened up and glanced over at me. I looked at Martha with a sheepish smile. Her eyes were tearing up. “You two,” she said pointing at each of us, her voice shaking, “kiss and make up!” Ramy and I stared at each other uncomfortably. “Like, NOW!” she commanded in a shrill tone.
Ramy extended the bag of chips he’d been holding. “Want some chips?” he asked me reluctantly. I hesitated. “Only if you take some nuts.” “Are they salted?” he said matter-of-factly. “‘Course not,” I replied in a deadpan tone. “Hum… I dunno. I like ‘em salted,” he countered. “Oh, for goodness’ sake!” Martha exclaimed before we could carry on any further. “You guys suck!” In a fit of rage, she pulled her towel out from under our snacks and started to cram it back into her bag. Ramy and I looked at each other and started giggling. “Come on, Mar, we’re just messin’ with you!” I pleaded. She shot us each a hard, steely glance. “You’re so cute when you’re angry!” Ramy added playfully as he grabbed her wrists to keep her from putting away her chocolate bars. “Damn you,” she cursed, struggling to break away from him. “Uh huh, is that the best you can do?” he teased and held her fast. They were both smiling in a way that made me uncomfortable. “Ok, guys,” I said nervously, “so we’re good then —” Ramy let go of Martha. “Ask her,” he replied, trying to sound indifferent. “Yeah,” Martha enjoined, eyes lowered and cheeks flushed, “uh, we’re good.”
By the time we finished our meal we were tired but in considerably better spirits. When we set off again on what thankfully turned out to be an uneventful two and a half hour trek, Ramy took the lead. “Ok, here’s where we are,” he explained to Martha and I after we’d finished packing. “Here’s where we need to go,” he continued, still pointing at the map. “Two hours, maybe less.” “Well, now that we’re all sugared up,” I said smiling, “I’m sure we’ll make good time.” “Yeah, I feel a lot better, guys,” Martha announced as she swung her backpack over her shoulders. “There’s nothing like chocolate to cure a bruised head!”
We marched on eagerly at first, heads held high and a bounce in our step, talking and laughing at nothing in particular, but that energy was short-lived. By the middle of the second hour a feeling of lethargy stole over us, weighing down our movements. Hunched over and yawning at every turn, we fought to move forward. “Hey Ramy,” I called out after we’d laboured to climb up a steep incline framed by gnarled roots, “let’s take a quick break?” Standing a few steps ahead, he stopped and turned to face Martha and I. “It’s getting dark and we’re almost there. I really think we should push on,” he replied candidly. Martha seemed to be too tired to protest, so I let it go. For a long while we walked on single file, Ramy at the front and me at the rear, barely saying a word to each other. I made an effort not to lose my footing while keeping an eye on Martha. It was getting more difficult to see that path on account of the increasing darkness.
Some time thereafter we reached another clearing. This time, though, the oppressive forest air gave way to a cool breeze that boosted our morale — so much so that even Martha seemed to have regained her strength. She no longer hesitated before stepping forward and stooped less as she walked. As I looked past her I noticed a faint, yellow glimmer bleeding through the thinning wall of scrawny tree trunks a short distance away. Ramy sprang ahead of us. “We made it!” he yelled out. Martha and I both sighed in relief. We hurried to catch up to him, and the three of us ran eagerly towards the grassy slope leading to the town. As we made our way down, staggering over rocks and slipping on bald patches of mud, we caught glimpses of paved streets lined with old, two-storey brick buildings. Our path led us to what looked like a back alley. Bricked-in yards obscured by overgrown shrubs framed the narrow lane. We moved ahead carefully, keeping close to each other. A little further down a faint, syncopated rhythm welcomed us, followed by the enticing smell of fried food. “Mmmmm, fries!” Martha exclaimed, grinning. I salivated at the thought of eating real food…. All of a sudden we heard a sharp crash and the sound of muffled voices. All three of us stopped, alert. Under the dim streetlights I noticed Ramy’s dark eyes narrow. He nodded, his fists clenched: “It’s ok. Let’s go,” he said resolutely. The two of us moved in closer to Martha. When we turned the corner, we noticed a group of people standing around an open doorway halfway down the street, drinking and laughing. We approached them cautiously. They seemed older than us. A tall, dark-haired guy had his arm around the waist of a thin blonde girl wearing a really tight black tank top. I think she was drunk — she seemed to have trouble standing up. Two other guys talked loudly to a girl with long black hair. “Hey, maybe they can help us,” Martha whispered enthusiastically. I wasn’t so sure about that. I could tell by the hard look on his face that Ramy wasn’t either. “I dunno, let’s be careful,” I mumbled back.
Before we could decide what to do Martha had made her way over to them. “Hey there!” she said. All five of them turned towards us. Ramy shook his head and muttered something under his breath I couldn’t make out. Luckily, the black-haired girl smiled back. “Mind the broken glass, hon,” she warned as Martha approached, pointing to the fragments spread over the pavement. Now she eyed us closely. Before we could answer, she asked, cautiously: “Are you guys alright?” Martha looked straight into her eyes: “We were in an accident,” she replied. “Well, that explains the bloody faces,” the black-haired girl observed with a touch of humour, “Go on, hon.” She waited for Martha to continue. “Our car’s in a ditch five kilometres south-east of here,” I cut in after a pause, “we need to find a way to get back to Arkham.” “Hum….” she mumbled pensively. “Hey, Sam, doesn’t Phil drive over that way on Sundays?” said a tall, brown-haired guy in a red shirt. “That’s right,” added the one holding up the drunken blonde, “I remember he let some hikers ride with him a couple of weeks ago.” “That’s right!” Sam exclaimed, smiling. “Ok, here’s what you do,” she continued eagerly. “Make your way to Stan’s Diner before noon and ask for Phil. Tell him Sam sent you, and you’ll be home before dinner.” “Wow! That’s great!” Martha declared as she looked at Ramy and I in the hopes of gaining our approval. Ramy didn’t seem convinced. His arms were still crossed tightly across his chest. “Who’s this Phil guy?” he demanded, his head tilted back so he could look down at Sam. Sam started laughing. “Don’t worry, she replied casually, “my cousin’s not a serial killer.” “Yeah? How do we know?” He countered defensively. “You don’t,” she stated point-blank with a cheeky smile, “but if it makes you feel any better, he’s the local forest ranger.”
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