Copyright © 2013 Adam Cesare
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Hugh led Hannah through the woods, following the music and the glow of the fire until they reached the camp.
The site was lived-in. Not the impromptu clutter laid down by a group of weekend warriors, the kind of folks that pitch a tent, warm a can of baked beans over the fire and declare themselves campers.
No, this was more like a modernist Swiss Family Robinson.
There was music as they approached, under which Hugh could detect the steady hum of a generator. The music was rock, but not overly aggressive. The kind of thing that you might have heard pouring out of East End clubs a few decades ago, back when even the punks only wanted to get high and sleep together.
These campers were kids, but not the kind that had ruined Boston for Hugh. These were country folk and even their in-party mode was softened by the laconic, well-intentioned mood of the countryside.
At least that was what Hugh projected on them in the first few moments of watching. For a time Hugh and Hannah went unnoticed, observing a few candid moments of young people at play.
They were young, but not teens, not all of them. Most were well into their twenties, unwinding after a hard day’s work, no doubt.
Their clothes were nondescript: no designer names, no vulgar images. The guys wore jeans and T-shirts, skirts and monochromatic tops for the girls.
Hugh and Hannah watched the group talk, joke, and drink. The two smokers among them were discreet, segregating themselves to the outskirts of the congregation.
Towering above the party, jacked up as high as it could get off the ground, was a caravan.
Or a trailer as the Yanks called them.
It hadn’t moved in a while. If the bald tires weren’t a dead giveaway, the old Airstream was surrounded on all sides by saplings and full-grown trees.
“Hey there,” a voice came from the left of the small rabble.
They’d been spotted.
“Don’t look like that,” the same voice called. “You got this look like we caught you peeking over the fence at our orgy.” The owner of the voice parted the crowd, older than the other partygoers by at least a decade. He was tall and heroin-skinny with a scraggly beard, a length and style right at the border between homeless and chic.
“We saw the fire,” Hugh said, stammering.
“Are you British? Is Smokey the Bear outsourcing now?” The kids laughed around the bearded stranger. His voice bounced around the forest around them, the music had been turned down. When did that happen?
For the first time since they’d been in the States, Hugh was aware of the difference in accent.
“We didn’t mean to intrude,” Hannah spoke up. There was an apparent embarrassment in her voice and a hint of something else that Hugh picked up on. Fear?
“I’m just kidding, ya’ll, meant no offense,” the tall man said. “My name’s Davey. I’m the den mother around here.” The kids offered this a light chuckle. “Join us. Please.”
And they did.
The Londoners had drinks in their hands so fast that Hugh could barely process the movement. Hannah lifted her cup to her mouth but didn’t drink. She pitched an eyebrow at Hugh, who offered her a slight shrug and drank deeply from his own red Solo cup.
Citrus and berry and vodka and apple and turpentine with an undercurrent of something licorice-y that didn’t fit at all. Gin? It was terrible. It was the kind of drink that a high school student would mix if they were given free rein to raid the liquor cabinet and refrigerator.
The music was back. Hugh couldn’t tell if it was louder than before, or just seemed so because they were at the heart of the party now, not off at the outskirts. It was louder and meaner, but something about that pleased Hugh.
Hannah took a draught of her own cup, leaning against Hugh for support, backing her ass into his hand. He gave it a quick pinch.
Hugh looked around. This wasn’t the stilted cocktail party the couple was used to attending. Davey was nowhere to be seen, but the young people seemed to double up, filling in the negative space and intensifying their dancing, carousing and joking. The kids weren’t mushing Hugh and Hannah together uncomfortably, but they didn’t keep their distance either.
Every so often a large kid with a beard would hoot and the crowd would part. He would then throw another armful of kindling on the fire. The flames flared up, sending a gush of smoke into the air and washing the citrus-hooch taste out of Hugh’s mouth.
They hadn’t learned anyone’s name, and Hugh didn’t particularly mind. Hannah was knocking her empty plastic cup against her lower teeth, a sophomoric clacking that Hugh couldn’t help but smile at. A mousey girl cut through the party and filled it from a plastic milk jug.
“Thank you,” Hannah said, but the girl just bowed and shot off in another direction, ready to refill someone else’s drink.
“I like it here,” Hannah said, laughing. Around them the chitchat and joking had discreetly morphed into dancing, a dance that pointed out the lone inequity of the party: the guys outnumbered the girls.
As the bonfire flared, the bearded kid dusted off his hands on his overalls and plucked the mousey drink girl from the crowd. He gently took the jug from her, returning the cap and placing it at the base of the tree. Then he took her tiny hands in his massive ones and twirled her around, the way a groomsman might dance with the flower girl at a wedding reception.
Hugh could see the blemish now, the large jagged scar running up the mousey girl’s left arm, so prominent that it looked like it had been built up with dark wax. The girl so innocent and beautiful immediately became an object of pity and (if he was being honest with himself) disgust.
The bearded boy twirled her around, eyes off the scar, oblivious to it.
Around them the dancing was less saccharine, the guys with their hands in girls’ back pockets, most doubling up in an attempt to offset the lack of female partners. Light, flirtatious kisses were traded, with deeper more adult ones creeping up along the shadows, behind the trees.
Hannah rubbed Hugh’s palms and he looked down to find his feet moving without him. He was dancing, the citrus-smoke burn in his nostrils like an alcoholic lozenge. Hannah guided his hands up and down, grinding like a woman born two decades later.
Her mouth was moist and sour. Her tongue darted along his teeth and a millisecond later was gone. “Hannah,” he said, wishing he could double his arms around her, constrict her like a snake in a loving embrace.
He looked up and the spell was broken. They were being watched. It wasn’t obvious, but the kids were sending too many sideways glances their way, some of them flat-out staring.
Hannah followed Hugh’s eye line and noticed it too, separating from where she was pressed against him, looking embarrassed that she’d been caught dancing with and loving her husband in public.
The eyes sobered Hugh. This wasn’t their place. This wasn’t their time.
“Let’s ask them to point us back in the direction of town,” Hugh said, “It’s late.”
Hannah gave his hand a short squeeze that let him know she was on board.
Taking a step towards the rest of the partygoers, Hugh’s world drunkenly rocked and tipped. The music was noticeably louder than before.
He made his way towards the bearded young man. The boy had taken a rest from tending the flames and had retired against a tree stump, the mousey girl on his knee like a sexually aware ventriloquist’s doll.
In Hugh’s imagination her scar pulsed and throbbed like an artery. He had to will himself to stop looking at it.
“Excuse me,” Hugh said, his own voice coming out too loud, cutting through the song.
The bearded boy looked up.
“Could you tell us how to get back to Mission? To the hotel?”
The boy stared back at Hugh. The young girl on his lap was pushing her fingers into his beard, making curly Qs of hair around her fingers. In the firelight their pale skin looked orange.
Her scar looked black.
“You head south, which is the path in between those two clotheslines. Leads to a break in the woods that faces the post office, one block up from the hotel. You keep on that trial and you can’t miss it. The trail disappears after a while. But by then you should see lights.”
The directions didn’t come from the bearded boy, who still hadn’t done anything except stare up at Hugh and creep his hand farther up the mousey girl’s thigh. The voice came from behind them, Davey had reappeared.
Hugh and Hannah weren’t the stars of the show anymore. All attention was on Davey. Behind him, the door to the trailer was open, a sliver of electric light peeking out.
The music had gone low enough that Hugh could hear the pop and crackle of the fire, the up and down of his own breathing.
“I don’t know that you should leave yet. If you wait an hour or so and some of the kids can walk you back, make sure you don’t get lost. Stay and dance a bit more. You were doing all right, chap.”
Davey wavered above them, close enough that if he fell down, he’d land on top of them. The lids of his eyes looked heavy, like either he’d just woken up from a nap or he was drunker than either Hugh or Hannah.
The tall man breathed in deep, giving a nod and closing his eyes at the same time, looking about ready to pass out. The motion was too subtle for a secret communiqué, surely.
The music was back up, sparks buffeted Hugh’s jacket as another log was thrown on the fire, and Hannah gripped his hand tighter.
She wasn’t the only one touching him now, though, Hugh looked down to see the mousey girl’s small fingers trying to work their way between him and his wife’s hands.
“Stay and dance with me,” the mouse said up to Hugh. She placed a small hand on Hannah’s hip and pushed his wife towards the bearded boy.
Hugh looked up for help, for Davey, who was the only other adult present, but he was gone.
There wasn’t just dancing, but singing now. It was a low hum of voices, the kind of sing along where no one seems to know the words, just the tune.
The small girl in the knit white dress and the scar had almost succeeded in unknotting Hugh and Hannah’s fingers when the bearded boy grabbed Hannah by the wrist and gave a swift tug, separating husband and wife.
Something was going on here. They were somehow being taken advantage of, but what does one do in a situation like this? Hugh could feel the dismay climbing up his spine, encroaching upon the polite smile he’d plastered to his face.
The bearded boy had his arm around Hannah’s waist, was twirling her around the same way he had the young girl. Hannah’s feet moved in time, keeping up with the dance, but her pained, blank expression told Hugh a different story. She was trying to calculate a way out, same as he was.
“We’ve really got to get going,” he said to the mousey girl in the white dress as she swung herself back and forth, a fist made around each of Hugh’s thumbs.
She could have been holding his hands, but she was playing up her size, showing just how big his thumbs looked in her tiny grip. This close, Hugh could see through her Lolita act, could see the dark lines under her eyes, the kind that told him she was at least in her twenties. She’d had time to earn that scar.
The girl didn’t acknowledge his request to leave, just kept dancing and smiling her half-childish, half-suggestive smile. Hugh glanced behind her to check on Hannah, craning his neck to see past the rest of the partygoers.
The bearded boy swung an elbow out at another young man, a motion that served both as a dance move and to keep the smaller boy from trying to cut in between him and Hannah. He was territorial. He’d taken a stranger’s wife in hand and he wasn’t letting her go.
Hugh shook his thumbs free of the girl’s grip, her fingernails scrapping his skin raw.
“Hey,” she said, pouting like a favorite toy had been taken away.
With the bearded boy occupied with Hannah, no one had been feeding the flames, but still the bonfire raged higher. Tendrils of fire licked the low-hanging branches, threatening to ignite the whole dry forest.
Hugh jostled his way to Hannah, taking the outside track, trying to keep on the far side of the bonfire, not wanting to feel the heat any more than he already could. He still wore his jacket, but he didn’t need it. His lower back was drenched in sweat.
“Excuse me,” Hugh said, physically parting two youths that didn’t want to let him pass. With every step the mood became more antagonistic and Hannah seemed to be swept farther out of reach, still in the pantomime of dance with the bearded boy, but Hugh could see that her feet were no longer touching the ground.
The boy had his hand on her ass, was picking her up by the pelvis, his large hand like a bicycle seat.
“Put her down now,” Hugh shouted. That changed everything.
Every eye was on him, every smile turned towards him. He was painfully aware of the sweat dribbling down his chin, the noxious lemon-booze stink oozing out of his mouth.
Like magic, the bearded boy began to lower Hannah. When her feet were just a few inches from the ground he released his grip on her ass, letting her slip down to the ground.
At first Hugh though she’d passed out, the drinks and the exhaustion of the day conspiring to black her out.
But then he saw the bearded boy’s other hand. His arm was slick up to the elbow, oily black in the firelight. He held a small knife, blood dripping down the handle.
“What have you done?” Hugh screamed, trying to close the distance between them, trying to run to where Hannah lay, but finding himself glued in place by the rest of the boys and girls.
Hugh bucked against them, throwing wild, helpless punches. He caught the mousey girl in the mouth with the back of his left hand, feeling her teeth mash against her plump lips. Their young muscles held him firm, giving up a bit of elasticity but redoubling their hold as he struck out.
The music was switched off now. The only sound was the crack of the firelight and the shuffle of shoes against dirt as Hugh’s captors repositioned themselves. Twigs snapped as the ones that weren’t holding him pressed in, forming a circle that stopped at Hannah’s body.
The bearded boy’s eyes gleamed in the firelight as he held his bloody hand out in front of Hugh’s face. He didn’t smile, even when everyone around him did. For the bearded boy this was a serious matter.
“Christ, Jesus Christ!” Hugh said. He was not a religious man, but it was the only exclamation that fit. The words did nothing to abate the bearded boy’s approach.
Raising the knife, the boy placed one fat thumb against the flat of the blade and scrapped away the blood. Hugh could see the metallic gleam of the knife, see the semi-coagulated accretion on the boy’s thumb.
Sheathing the knife in his jeans pocket, the bearded boy raised the bloody thumb and kissed it lightly. The kiss left a small dot of red in the middle of the boy’s mouth. He made a mark in the air with the thumb and made some sounds deep in his throat.
All around them the boys and girls made a similar sound, a primal amen to echo the boy.
The boy was going to paint the blood on Hugh. He shouted and wriggled against them. Fingers crawled out of the darkness, callused palms covered over his ears, pinning his head in place.
The boy pressed Hannah’s warm blood to one cheek and then the other. Hugh tried his best to scream but they held his jaw shut. The boy finished up by pressing his thumb to Hugh’s forehead, leaving a fat, warm droplet like it was Ash Wednesday in hell.
Taking a step back, the boy lowered his hands to his sides and waited.
“Toss him to the flames,” Hugh heard Davey’s voice boom. Whether Davey’s long, lanky body was lost somewhere behind him or beyond the crowd that held him down, Hugh couldn’t tell.
The hands hoisted him up onto his back and into the air. In the instant before facing treetops, Hugh grabbed one last look at Hannah. She lay with her back against the brambles and dead leaves that coated the forest floor, her eyes half open, legs splayed in the firelight. She looked like a child’s abandoned toy.
Beneath him, his pallbearers laughed and joked and flirted. They swung him sideways, pointing his head forward, a compass for the flames. Behind him fingers stretched forward to support his head. They all wanted to lay hands on the crowd-surfing rock star.
Upside down, the flames of the bonfire didn’t look like they were stretching to heaven, but instead like they were pressing up against the sky, their propulsive force trying to send all of the woods down deeper into the earth.
“Don’t do this,” Hugh said. It was too late, though. The kids at his feet were heaving him up and over, flipping him end over end onto the flames.
Hugh Mayland’s head bounced off a knot on one of the larger logs, dulling his mind as he inhaled the smoke of his own flesh but not dulling the pain.