The pale moon shone wistfully over the meadow. Its melancholy aura seemed to acknowledge the passing of an age. Tall pines stood as sentinels around the grass in ceaseless vigilance. Their tops pointed to the darkened sky like bayonets of ancient soldiers, now impotent. One brush-covered dirt track leading to the edge of the meadow was the only tie between it and civilization. For some time, no human had ventured into the grassy meadow and nature was undisturbed. Such places were rare, disappearing under the trampling of the beer-guzzling, garbage-tossing, brat-spawning humanity.
A chorus of the night filled the air. Bullfrogs provided a pulsating bass, coyotes howled tenor, owls hooted a muted alto, and crickets chirped in shrill soprano. No human voice was wanted in this choir. Each section knew its part and carried it with divine direction. A softly tumbling brook provided a staccato background with a precision that only the inanimate is capable of achieving. The thin air of the higher altitude sharpened and clarified each tone, giving nature’s song a volume far louder than it would have had in an auditorium. These sounds of darkness were not dependent upon any listener’s appreciation for a reason to exist, but were an end unto themselves.
A gradually increasing droning interrupted the night. At the same moment, all living sounds ceased. The only natural sound left was the brook winding through the meadow. The droning turned to a roar, as the source of that sound crunched, bumped and wheel-spun its way toward the meadow. With a blast of barely-muted exhaust, a Jeep burst through the sheltering underbrush. The engine noise hardly covered the vicious snapping and snarling of the two occupants of the vehicle. Its bright, piercing headlights jerked spasmodically through the trees surrounding the area, breaking the serene darkness with a harsh abruptness. Lurching to a stop, the vehicle disgorged its noisy inhabitants. A man and a woman, thirtyish, dressed in brand-new outdoor attire, clambered out of the vehicle. They stretched aching muscles as they exercised their vocal chords.
She slammed the door of the Jeep. “Why the hell did we come out in the gawddamn wilderness? Just ’cause some old asshole told you how he meditates with nature?”
“Why don’t you shut up? You know I can’t stand women using that kind of language.”
“Chauvinist pig! That’s what you are. Like my mom used to say, you’re a real pig of a chauvinist. You say a lot worse than asshole if your Beemer back home won’t start.” She kicked the Jeep’s tire. “You don’t care what I want to do on a vacation. I wanted to go to the beach, rent a cottage, be with people. But no, we have to rent a Jeep and go out in the middle of nowhere to commune with nature. Gawd, this place gives me the creeps.”
“It’s getting dark. Why don’t you just drop it so we can set up camp for the night?”
“You mean this backwoods Hilton? Oh my, how wonderful. I get to help put up our luxurious accommodations. Aren’t I lucky?”
She gave him a hateful glare.
He started unloading the Jeep and she, with obvious disdain and anger, started helping him, tossing the camping equipment onto the ground.
“Hey,” he shouted, “this stuff wasn’t cheap. Be careful!”
“I’ll show you careful,” she spat out, taking up an ax. With all her meager strength, she swung it.
His eyes grew wide, but he realized a nearby pine sapling was the target. She swung again and again, teeth gritted and eyes squinted. When the sapling was cut half-way through, she stopped, panting and exhausted. Her energy and anger drained, she sat on a fallen log and leaned on the ax.
He stared at her. “Are you finished?”
“Yeah, I guess. Let’s just get the damned tent up. It’s been a long day and I want to go to bed.” She paused. “Or whatever poor excuse for a bed you brought.”
The small pine was tilted, slowly bleeding its life’s sap. The other pines stood quietly, powerlessly, as if mourning the senseless early passing of one so young.
Once the Jeep they had unloaded, he started it with the howl of an over-revved engine and spun the tires as he pulled it a short distance away. Mud and grass flew in clumps as he went.
“Why did you do that?” she asked him, as he walked back to her.
“Like you said, we’re here to commune with nature, so I moved the Jeep away from our tent.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she sneered. “Why not leave it where it was?”
He shrugged, but felt a little foolish for his dramatics.
When the tent had been assembled in the middle of the meadow, they stuffed it with sleeping, bags, air mattresses and such, as well as with essentials for civilized living: a radio, an ice chest, and bags of various snack foods. Then he fired up a small generator that sputtered to life and crawled into the tent. He turned a light.
She looked down at her smartphone. “I don’t have any bars.”
He opened the ice chest, took out a beer and twisted off the cap. “Looks like this is the only bar in town.”
“Funny.” She looked into the ice chest. “Didn’t you bring any wine?”
“You always provide plenty of whining.” He laughed at his own joke. “I packed, so you get beer, beer or beer. Your choice.”
As she pulled a bottle of beer out of the ice chest, he settled back with a bag of chips and fiddled with the radio. “Crap. No reception. I’m missing the Niners’ game.”
“Poor baby,” she said as she turned on her Kindle.
“Hey.” He looked over her shoulder. “Got anything interesting on there?”
“Sure do. My romance novels.”
He rested his hand on her breast. “How about some real life romance?”
She looked down at his hand, then lifted it off with two fingers like it was contaminated. “It’s much better in the books. Read your newspaper.”
He grabbed the newspaper and turned it to the sports section. After a while, he went out and killed the generator. They turned away from each other in their sleeping bags. Except for the soft sound of the brook, it was silent.
Her scream shattered the night air.
He sat bolt upright. “What’s wrong?”
“Something’s on me! I don’t know what it is, but I felt it land on me!”
He groped for the flashlight, found it and turned it on. There, on her sleeping bag, trying desperately to escape the beam of light was a large, goggle-eyed frog.
“Get that thing off me! Why the hell didn’t you zip up the door of the tent? Get it off me!”
“All right! All right! I’ve got it.”
Taking the frog by one leg, he carried it out of the tent. There was a thud, then another. A short time later he crawled back into the tent.
She pulled her sleeping bag high on her neck. “What did you do with it?”
“I gave it a permanent home under a rock.”
“You didn’t have to kill it just ’cause you’re mad at me.”
“What’s it to you? It’s gone.”
She turned away from him. “Well, I hope it’s not where I’ll see it in the morning. I hate those things, you know.”
He switched off the flashlight and turned his back to her. “Go to sleep.”
With one last disgusted glance at him, she snuggled down in her sleeping bag and, except for the soft sound of the brook and his snoring, silence was restored.
She punched him in the back. “Are you awake?”
He stirred. “What’s wrong now?”
“It’s getting wet in here.”
His sleeping bag was damp. ”Huh. We’d better get out of here.”
Picking up the flashlight, he crawled out of the tent and found mud where dry land had been.
She came out of the tent after him. “What’s going on? Why is it all muddy?”
“I don’t know. We’ve got to get to the Jeep.”
“But my phone’s in the tent. And my Kindle.”
He set off to the Jeep. “Screw your phone and your Kindle. Do what you want, but I’m getting out of here.”
She hesitated, then followed.
The Jeep, a mere forty or fifty feet away, stood silhouetted in the light of the full moon. It offered an oasis of civilization, a refuge in a wilderness growing hostile. Safety was but a short distance away.
As he slogged with increasing difficulty toward the Jeep, he realized two things. The mud seemed to grow softer and more clinging, and the Jeep appeared to be sinking. The second realization shocked him to astonished silence.
She didn’t speak because she couldn’t waste the energy. Just to keep moving required maximum concentration and effort. Each step took longer, as her feet sank past the ankle in mud. It seemed harder and harder to pull her feet out of the muck to make another step forward. Her panting filled her ears with the rasping sounds of her panic.
Reaching the Jeep first, he found that it had sunk so far into the mud that he couldn’t open the door. With great effort, he managed to climb onto the hood of the vehicle. When she reached the Jeep, he helped her onto the hood, then leaned against the windshield in exhaustion.
She sat huddled over, gasping in an effort to regain her breath, and looked toward where the tent would have been. “What . . . hap–pened?”
“I don’t know.”
“What . . . are we . . . going . . . to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You . . . you don’t know! You’ve gotta know! What – is – happening?”
“I don’t know, but this Jeep is sinking.”
“I said the Jeep is sinking. And the only chance we’ve got is to make it to the trees.”
With sudden resolve, he slid off the Jeep into the mire and began determinedly trudging toward the trees. He heard her slide into the mud with a plop.
“Wait for me!”
With steady drive, he pulled each foot out of the sludge one at a time, always moving toward the edge of the meadow where the trees stood. The mud was now up to his calves.
“Come back! I’m stuck! I can’t get my legs out.”
Unheeding, he plowed ahead with single-minded determination. The mud was up to his knees. Sweat ran in rivulets down his face. Veins were standing out like chords on his forehead. Still he moved forward toward his goal, the trees.
“Coward! Ya gawddamn coward! Coward! Coward! Coward!
Her screaming taunts had no effect on him and they died away to sobs. And then there was no sound from her at all. Still he persisted. Still he struggled on toward his goal, until at last his feet could no longer rise above the mud.
In desperation, he went to his hands and knees, trying to crawl forward. Whimpering, he made swimming motions, trying somehow to get to the trees, to safety. Slowly, he went deeper into the mud. His struggling was useless, until at last, with a terrified gurgle, his head sank beneath the morass. Except for the soft sound of the brook, it was silent.
Then, slowly, the chorus of the night resumed its nocturnal concert. The bullfrog and the cricket, the owl and the coyote again sang their song under Mother Nature’s direction.
As a native of California, R. L. Cherry has spent most of his life in the Golden State. However, the five years he lived on the Isle of Man in the British Isles. His love of things English, Irish, Scottish and Manx influence his writing, as does his love of mystery and history. His short stories, mainly of a sci-fi or futuristic bent, have been published online in Devilfish Review, Ineffective Ink, The Dan O’Brien Project and the now-defunct Writing Raw. For over eight years he has written a column under the name Ron Cherry on classic cars and hot rods for The Union newspaper in Grass Valley, CA, which reflects his passion for such works of automotive art. He has two books currently available on Amazon: Christmas Cracker, a mystery with a female detective, and Foul Shot, a noirish suspense. For more about R.L. Cherry and his writing, go to www.rlcherry.com