“Shh”- he whispered at a barely audible level while gently placing his hand over her mouth. “Don’t make a sound.”
She opened her eyes wide, looked over at him in the darkness, but saw nothing. He was there, next to her- right along side of her- but still she could see nothing, so she waited.
“There’s somebody walking around outside the tent,” he finally told her and then took his hand off of her mouth.
“Are you sure?” she asked in a voice so low that it slipped out of her mouth on a breath.
He slid closer to her and said, softly, “Listen.”
Carefully, deliberately- and with utmost silence- she raised herself up onto her right elbow, turned her left ear toward the front of the tent and did what she was asked. The seconds passed arduously and emptily as she strained to hear, something- anything. But there was nothing. Nothing until she heard the faint sound of a rustling, off to the left, a movement through the pine needles that covered the ground in the campsite. Yes, there was something out there, and she recognized it as being definitely human.
She was just about to lower herself back down onto the sleeping bag when she heard another- distinctively different- sound. It was the quick pitter-patter of a dog, trotting over to the vicinity of the last place where she had heard the footsteps, and then there was the growl. Quickly, she moved closer to him and asked the question, “What was that?”
“It’s that dog,” he replied. “Remember, the one that came out of the swamp- the one that we were feeding last night? Well, at least I think that it’s that dog.”
For a few seconds, all was still and quiet, then, slowly, the person was on the move. They were determined and purposeful, this time circling past the front of the tent and then stopping somewhere between ten and fifteen feet from the right side. And, once again, they heard the dog trotting over to the same side, but closer, now, to the tent than to the person. Next, came a deeper and more guttural growl.
“What’s going on?” she asked and then began to tremble.
He slipped closer to her, so close that his mouth was right up against her ear. “I think that somebody wants to get to us but the dog won’t let them. That’s why the dog moves when they move, to stay between us in here and them out there.”
He paused while he thought whether he should summarize their circumstances as honestly as the situation required. What ultimately convinced him to tell her was the possibility that if he underplayed the severity of what was going on, she just might innocently make a serious mistake. “We’re in big trouble, here, really big trouble.”
Sarah’s response was summarily concise. “What are we going to do?”
Initially, he said nothing as he reached for his beam light and his sheath knife, and brought them close to him.
Jim slid his knife- a six-inch blade- out of the sheath and positioned it on his chest, perpendicular to his body.
“Nothing,” was his simple answer.
He couldn’t see her, but based on the circulation of air around him, he was sure that Sarah was shaking her head.
Finally, she responded. “Nothing?” she echoed with thinly veiled incredulity. “How can you say that?”
Sarah took a deep breath, exhaled in as quiet a way as possible and repeated in a voice that betrayed a noticeable quiver- “What are we going to do?”
Jim fell silent for a time as he weighed their predicament of being in a six-by-ten tent and flat on their backs. There is someone walking around the outside of the tent, probably without the greatest of intentions, possibly with potentially violent intentions. Jim admitted to himself that the car was the problem and that it was foolish- if not stupid- to camp here- all alone- and have a brand-new, high-powered automobile standing out there for the taking. Yet, he knew that what was done was done and that the error of his- their- ways could not be immediately corrected.
Lastly, there was the dog. Jim had no doubt that if it wasn’t for the dog whatever might have happened would most likely have been over already. Yes, putting their situation in the most basic terms, there were the two of them, the person walking around outside- and the dog.
Sarah inched closer to Jim. “Jim,” she began- again- more emphatically, “tell me- what are we going to do?”
“Nothing,” he repeated in a voice so soft and easy that, at first, she wasn’t sure that she heard him- or anything.
“What?” she asked.
Sarah threw her disbelievingly head back on her camping pillow.
“Nothing!” she said to herself. “That’s just great! So, we’re just going to stay here on our backs and wait for someone to beat our brains out!”
Jim repositioned himself so that he was, again, at Sarah’s ear.
“They’re out there because they want the car. So,” Jim continued, “these are our choices. We can turn on the flashlight, unzip the front of the tent and see who’s out there. Of course, since we understand why they’re here, the moment I crawl out of the tent, I’ll probably get clubbed. Second, we can just throw the keys out. But, once they realize that we’re awake, I’m guessing that the outcome could end up being the same. Third, I can take the knife, cut through the top of the tent and confront them. The problem with that is that I would have to gamble on which way to turn once I was up and standing. Turn the wrong way- and there’s a chance of that- and it’s the baseball bat to the head. Or”- he sighed at the beginning of their last option, “or, we do nothing as long as when the person moves, the dog moves right along with them. Once the dog stops growling- or we don’t hear the dog’s paws on the pine needles anymore- well, we cut our way out and take our chances.”
Sarah closed her eyes and bit her lower lip. Then she asked, “So, that’s it? We just wait- right?”
“That’s right,” Jim affirmed, “we wait- except there’s one more thing.”
He, then, reached under his pillow and firmly grasped the car keys so that they did not make a sound.
“Here,” he said to Sarah, “here are the car keys. Now take them with your whole hand and smother them so that when you take them from me, they don’t make any noise.”
Jim transferred the keys from his hand to Sarah’s.
“Now,” Jim went on, “if we have to cut our way out, I want you to take the keys and make a run for the car. I’ll do my best to give you the time to get there.”
“Then what?” Sarah asked.
“I want you to go and find the cops- somewhere- wherever. Do you understand?”
Sarah nodded in the dark. “I do.”
“Good,” Jim said, “now we wait.”
Jim brought his luminescent watch up to his face so that he could see the time.
“One-thirty,” he said to himself, “okay, so this has been going on for about an half-hour already.”
With that assessment being made, Jim let a measured breath out through his lips, double-clutched his sheath knife and began the wait.
One-thirty turned into two-thirty and on and on it went, deeper into the night.
The walking, the trying to gain an edge so as to get closer to the tent, then the quick sound of paws on the ground and a growl. Walk, stalk, prowl, growl; walk, stalk, prowl, growl; walk, stalk, prowl, growl- over and over, again.
Yes, there were- because they thought that the dog had left- a couple of times when they were almost prepared to go into some sort of a “countdown mode”- to cut their way out of the tent, but, then, within a muscle twitch of their having readied themselves to act- they heard the dog- prowl and growl.
It was this to which they were reduced, an existence of listening, deciding, preparing and then listening, again, throughout the night as three-thirty turned into four-thirty and that turned into five o’clock and five o’clock turned into the light of dawn.
Jim was the first one who noticed that some very faint gray light was now beginning to come through the canvas.
“Sarah,” he whispered, “it’s getting on dawn. Just a little longer now and we’ll be fine.”
They still could not see each other in the darkness, so she simply put her hand on his forearm and gave it a loving squeeze. She was hopeful, now that the morning had arrived, but she was not yet ready to accept that they had dodged a nightmare.
Jim, on the other hand, was anxious to get out and find out who it was that had put them through a night from hell, but he knew better.
He knew that he had to rise above the impulsive part of his brain telling him that now that dawn had come- “go do it! Get up, crawl to the front of the tent, unzip it, get out and see who was there, see who was terrorizing you for the last few hours.”
At least, that’s what his impulsiveness was telling him. However, the logical and rational part of his brain were telling him to stay still, stay silent, don’t move, wait until the sun comes up and you hear traffic on the road.
“Is it time?” Sarah asked.
Jim turned his head toward Sarah and said, “Not yet.”
She said nothing, but the depth of her sigh told him everything. It had been a long night not just for him, but especially for her. He knew that he had gotten her into this crisis, and, right now, he was determined to see it through and get her out.
He listened for the footsteps and he listened for the dog, but he heard neither one. Had it been earlier in the night- back when it was still dark outside- he would have acted. But, now, the hour had changed and so too had the circumstances. So, he waited and watched the canvas above him for the first sign that the sun was up while listening for the sound of traffic- any traffic- that would indicate that they were no longer alone.
Then, gradually, everything inside of the tent became visible. The pitch blackness gave way to outlines which, in turn, gave way to details.
Jim knew that “the moment” was soon going to be upon him. He also understood that just because he no longer heard the footsteps or the trotting steps- and growl- of the dog, that the person had gone away. No, night or day, Jim knew that he could still go to unzip the front of the tent and be greeted by a Louisville Slugger.
It was time to return to the first choice of his plans. He looked over at Sarah, and, for the first time since the stalking had begun, he was able to see her. Easily, he nudged her to get her attention.
“Is it time?” she asked softly.
“It is,” Jim replied. “You got a good grip on the keys?”
Sarah lifted the gripped keys up over her head.
“Good, good,” Jim acknowledged. “Now,” he continued, “seeing as it is light out, we’re going out through the front of the tent. You ready?”
“I am,” Sarah said and quickly added, “I love you.”
Jim looked over at her and nodded. “I love you, too.”
With that he took a good grasp of the handle of the sheath knife and quickly moved to the front of the tent where he unzipped the flaps and tried to stand up and gain his bearings as fast as possible.
As he exited the tent he saw that there was no one directly in front of him. He didn’t immediately bother with the back of the tent because the solid ground was, minimally, ten feet away and behind him. That only left the immediate right and the immediate left.
He turned, sharply, first, to his left, but found that no one was there. It was then that he felt Sarah run past him toward the car. He then turned to his right, but, again, there was no one there.
Jim took five or six steps away from the tent in the direction of the car and then stopped to survey everything around him. There was no one; not a person, not the dog- only Sarah running toward the car- they were alone. Yet, still, Jim wasn’t completely comfortable with what his senses were telling him. No, he was seriously inclined to think that there was a trick afoot- a ruse- so that he would let down his guard. So, he stood there, continually scanning the campsite, the swamp and the nearby woods for any movement, for any sign of physical betrayal.
He glanced over at the car and saw that Sarah was behind the wheel and had started the car, yet, she was hesitating, she was waiting.
Jim waved to her to get going, but all she did was shake her head and begin to lay on the horn.
He thought about going over to the car and getting in, but, still, he was unconvinced that the person was gone.
“No- wait!” Jim told himself as he tried to put himself into multiple frames of mind. Had the person left? Had Jim been fooled? Yes? No? How? Jim wasn’t sure on any account.
The one thing that he did know was that with Sarah making a dash for the car, managing to get in, lock the doors and start it up, not only was she safe, but the car was beyond reach. That being achieved, Jim knew that- right now- the last thing that he wanted to do was to go over to the car and have her open the door.
Jim shook his head as he continued to be alert to any movement at the edges of the campsite.
“No,” he told himself, “not yet. You’ve got to give it a little more time before you make any decisions.”
He wondered about what might have happened to the dog, and whether it might still be around, just beyond the pines and the low growth, sitting there waiting, watching- and maybe even still protecting them.
Jim, then, looked at the tent site. He knew that he could maneuver Sarah out to the road, get in the car and be gone. Yet, it would be unfortunate- if the person was really gone- to abandon the tent, the sleeping bags and everything else that they had inside. It would take so little time just to pull it up out of the ground, throw it in the back seat- or the trunk- and be done with Huger and the Francis Marion National Forest.
The seconds passed as Jim thought about how speedily he could do what he was thinking about and how much of a risk- a danger- still existed from the overnight sojourn into stress, anxiety and time spent pondering their immortal souls- not to mention the impending hereafter.
He walked, guardedly and cautiously, up toward the road, motioning to Sarah, to follow alongside. Once he and the car were on the road, he gave her the sign to unlock the passenger side door. Then, with a fluidity of motion, he was in the car and had locked the door.
Jim was barely into his seat when Sarah stepped on the gas, propelling them down the road and away from the campsite.
“We’ll come back later,” Jim informed her, “we’ll come back in the middle of the afternoon to pack up the gear.”
“What?” Sarah asked as she stole a quick glance at him.
He turned to look at her, expecting her to continue, but although she was saying nothing further, he knew- by the way that she was shaking her head- everything that she was about to say.
“I don’t want to go back there—and I don’t want any of that stuff,” Sarah said in a rising tone. “It will just always be a reminder of last night! Let’s just go back home!”
Jim looked over at her- at her face- pleading in a desperately silent way.
“All right,” he finally said, “let’s go home.”
Bio: John Richmond has “wandered” parts of North America for a good portion of his life. These “wanderings” have taken him from a city on the Great Lakes to a small fishing village (population 400) and then on to a bigger city on the Great Lakes- Chicago- then, eventually, New York City. Since then, John Richmond has made his way to a small upstate New York town and has sequestered himself in his office where he divides his time between writing and discussing the state of the world with his coonhound buddy- Roma . Recently, he has appeared in the The Tower Journal, Stone Path Review, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Rogue Particles Magazine, From the Depths, Flash Frontier (N. Z.), The Birmingham Arts Journal, Riverbabble (2), The Writing Disorder, Lalitamba, Poetic Diversity, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Embodied Effigies, ken*again, Black & White, SNReview, The Round, The Potomac, Syndic Literary Journal, Ygdrasil (Canada), Slow Trains, Forge Journal, and is forthcoming in The Corner Club Press(2).
by Glenn A. Bruce
My aunt—we call her Crazy Aunt Tildy—loves rituals. She says that rituals “define us.” She says that without rituals we would just be “animals.” “Rituals raise us above the animals,” is the way she puts it. Personally, I think most animals are above most humans I know, at least as far as their ethics go. I don’t know about their—the animals’—rituals; but I suspect they have some, even if they don’t know what they are (that they are rituals), or even that they’re doing them. I guess that’s why I like them better than people, most of the time.
I have come to learn why.
I had a cat named Mr. Squiggles. It was a stupid name for a smart cat. This cat could get into anything, including the kitchen cabinets; which it did on occasion if there was anything he could eat inside—say, insulation. He once got in a top cabinet (which I though was inaccessible to him) and ate three entire bags of tomato and basil tuna. He threw up so much red stuff I thought he had cancer and spent over three-hundred dollars at the vet to find out it was tuna. I didn’t know that Squig had gotten into the cabinet, because he always made sure to close them after his raids. So I wouldn’t know.
He also learned to how to open regular doors. We had French handles which made it easier for him, but still: seeing that cat jump straight up in the air and land on the handle, somehow clinging to it long enough for the handle to drop and the door to open, was a sight. He weighed over ten pounds, which of course makes him large for a cat, and was solid grey with a single white patch on his chest. He had amber eyes that could cut through any human’s ability to stare him down. I’ve seen more than one of my friends from our hockey league give up and look away, intimidated—while holding trip aces in Hold’em, too.
And talk about rituals? Hockey players! Christ. Those guys have more rituals than Jamaican ballplayers. The socks: always in the same order, left first or right first, depending on the player; pulling them up at the same or different speeds; stopping halfway with one to put on the other, then completing the pulling-up process on the first one before returning to the second; or, even more complicated, pulling up, say, the left one only as far as the heel, then slipping on the right on just over the front pad, behind the toes, then returning to the other one, pulling it back down so that it matched the right one, on the pad, just over the toes, then returning to the right one to pull it up and over the heel, then returning to the right one to make it match exactly, then after careful examination, pulling the right one up over the calf, and finally matching it with the left, making sure that the tops of the hockey socks were in precise alignment and agreement of both height, ribs lining up (they had to be perfectly straight up and down), and that the stripes looked like one continuous, unbroken line the same number of inches below the knee.
I have seen this.
My aunt—Crazy Aunt Tildy—had a million of them, rituals, none involving socks though (at least that I knew of). She made tea in a particular way at a specific hour of the day, every day, 365. At precisely 10:15, she would be sure to be standing in her kitchen, ready, as if at the start line of a marathon. When the clock ticked 15-after, she took the waiting saucepan from the stove, filled it with precisely 1-1/4 cups of water, returned it to the stove, turned on the gas eye, placed the saucepan over the flame and, while waiting for it to boil, went to the third cabinet on the left, below the counter, pulled out the cabinet tray which had a nice assortment of Earl Grey and herbal teas from MotherEarthPlus (her grocery store of choice—Mondays and Fridays—only), chose her tea for the day (I suspect that Chamomile was Thursday’s, Lavender Lady Grey for Sunday, etc.), put the box back on the shelf, the shelf back in the cabinet, the door back against the cabinet face, and moved past the stove to the second top cabinet on the right. There she removed the proper cup for the day (she had seven), and moved back to the stove to watch the water and wait for it to boil. Defying the “watched pot” theory, hers always boiled on schedule.
The rest of her tea ritual was pretty standard—pour, steep, open a book of Walt Whitman, wait three minutes, add two lumps of sugar, one “splash” of heavy cream, sip and enjoy. Every day, 10:15 until 11-sharp.
And this was just tea.
She had rituals for everything: laundry, gardening, tv, dusting/housecleaning, brushing her teeth; nothing was left random. Everything had a purpose, every action was performed in a particular order, and repeated every day, or every few days (on the same days), or weekly, monthly, annually. She had every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year planned out well in advance, and her life never careered from that path an impetuous moment or inch. I’d have hanged myself before I turned, well, after the first week I realized I was doing that.
Lest I appear unfair, allow me say that Mr. Squiggles—truly a terrible name, but he came with it; I did not bestow such punishment on a (smart) dumb animal—had routines as well. I came to think of them as rituals, after Crazy Aunt Tildy made that observation. She said, “See? Even Mr. Squiggles is defined by his rituals.” I pointed out that he was an animal and that, as such, he must be elevated nearly to human status, at least far above common lowly “animal” status—to which Aunt Tildy said, “I have roses to clip. It’s almost four.”
Roses got clipped Wednesdays and Sundays at four p.m., rain or shine. (Although to be fair again, she did have alternate rituals in case of heavy rain or natural disaster.)
So, what the Squig did was that he would pace, starting at 5:10 every day on the dot. This is because my lovely wife got off work at 5 p.m. and we lived exactly ten minutes from her job. When Squig started pacing, I knew my wife would be home in five minutes. It was a nice warning in case I was doing something my wife wouldn’t like—say, drinking out of the orange juice carton. Or worse: the milk.
When my wife walked in, the Squigger took exactly three turns around each of her legs, waited to be scratched once, then sashayed to his cat bed on the medium-high bookshelf where he cleaned his paws then watched us for the next two hours to make sure we didn’t fuck anything up. We had our rituals as well; though we didn’t see how mixing cocktails and eating Vienna sausages on whole stone wheat Shepherd’s crackers really qualified; I exempt snacking from ritual. We then checked mail, paid bills, made another cocktail, glanced over the paper, checked emails, replied to the important ones, sent the rest to the trash folder, farted once or twice for good measure, then retired to the den.
Squiggy—not to be confused in any way with that shitty Laverne and Shirley show—jumped down from his perch, went into the garage through his private entrance cat-door, used his litterbox, and then joined us in the den as we, speaking of television, turned on the tv and the cable box. (We’re very good about turning electronic devices off when we’re not using them; I do not consider this to be ritual either, just common-sense, cost-savings practices.) Squig would make two trips around the outer edges of the den, up and over anything in his way, at his desired sllllllloooooooowwwwwww pace. Then he would climb across my wife, onto me, where he would settle in for the next two hours. This was ritual. Ours was watching the least objectionable show on television at that time of night with our third and final cocktails.
When the Squigmaster died, at age 15, we had what I consider to be our first ritual ever. We invited my Crazy Aunt Tildy over to read from her Whitman sampler (that’s what my wife called it) and place two of her gorgeous white roses in the grave on top of our mostly used (stolen) Martex spa towel from St. Lucia, which served as Mr. Squiggles death shroud, and we cried voluminously. Tildy said, “See?” but we were busy missing Squig. Autn Tildy then bent down on one knee, grabbed a small handful of dirt, waved it around over her head three times, said something that sounded like, “Ix-nay on the eth-day,” but I don’t think it was (I think it was some native American thing), spat on her hand holding the dirt, then flung into the hole and yelled, “Be gone! Be whole again!”
After that little performance—which stopped our tears abruptly—Tildy stood, walked around us in a circle three times one way, then once the other (to reverse the magic?), then said, “I have things to do. Thank you for allowing me to participate in this most hallowed of hallow rituals. Be sure to put a large rock over the top so nothing digs him up.” And she left.
We had cocktails and watched tv alone.
But the story doesn’t end there.
We got another cat. This time I named him. I called him Oscar, because he seemed grouchy at first, but quickly settled into exactly the same ritual behaviors as Mr. Squig had.
Bio:Glenn A. Bruce has an MFA in Writing, was associate fiction editor for The Lindenwood Review, and has published five novels as well as two collections of short stories. He wrote the movie Kickboxer, episodes of Walker: Texas Ranger and Baywatch. He has been published in in RedFez, Beat Poets of the Forever Generation, Alfie Dog, LLR, and Carolina Mountain Life. He is currently working on two novels and several film projects while teaching Screenwriting and Acting for the Camera at Appalachian State University.