The Hole — Chapter 4
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Elliot pushed himself off the steering wheel and moaned. He ran his hand across his forehead. He felt the heavy weight of the seat belt across his chest and the heat of blood in his cheeks. He saw blood on his fingers. Blood on his palms. He watched it drip. He watched it drip up.
He was upside down. Hanging — held fast in the truck’s seat. He could see loam crushed against the windshield. He heard the sounds of the forest and saw the early morning sunlight through the smashed driver’s side window. Everything was all distant — like watching a television across the room. He wanted to close his eyes. A short nap would clear his head. Just a nap.
He thought, No. He thought, That’s not right. Don’t sleep when you’re like this. Don’t sleep when your head’s been knocked around.
He groaned and forced himself to look around. Only his window was broken. Out the back, he could see the scattered supplies. Beyond that, the slope of a hill. He swore. He remembered the time they’d taken to collect that stuff. To get it stowed in the truck.
He remembered Evajean.
She wasn’t there. He looked at the passenger seat. Panic made his face even hotter. The seat was empty. Her seat belt was retracted. It was twisted around the headrest. He didn’t see any blood. Not there. Not on her side. He looked up — which was down — and did see blood. A pool above — below — his head. A lot of blood.
“Evajean!” he tried to call out. He only croaked — an inarticulate vowel.
She was gone. So was the dog. He was bleeding. He missed Evajean. He missed the dog. Elliot missed the dog more than Evajean — and this made him sick and ashamed. The dog was his, though. He’d found it. He’d name it. Fuck her. She wouldn’t name it — he would.
His thoughts were fuzzy — confused. He needed to focus. Evajean trumped the puppy. Of course she trumped the puppy.
He looked at the windshield. No blood there, no head size fracture. She couldn’t be hurt, at least not too bad. She must’ve gone for help.
He laughed. What help? In this world, what help was there?
Elliot reached around and undid the seat belt’s buckle. He held his other arm above his head to brace his fall. It proved to be little help. The pain in his skull bloomed. He lay writhing on the ceiling of the truck.
It seemed like a long time before the pain abated. Elliot dragged himself through the broken window, trying to avoid the glass. He swooned and coughed. He shut his eyes and opened them. He held back vomit.
Elliot stood up. Trees blocked the sky, moonlight barely filtering through. The ground was wet and dark, overgrown with moss and ivy. He could see the shapes of decaying logs beneath. There were no signs of foot traffic.
He had no idea where Evajean had gone.
He shouted her name again, hitting full volume this time. He got no response. She must be far away. He didn’t know which direction.
Elliot turned around and scoped the truck. It lay upside down, the grill against a big stump. The contents of the bed were scattered up the slope. Elliot picked his way through them, combing the debris for necessities. He found a bottle of water and a box of granola bars and stuffed them in a grocery bag.
His head was still fuzzy. He moved slowly, shouting Evajean’s name. He got an echo, but nothing else. Where would she have gone? To the road made sense. Help was more likely in that direction.
Elliot pushed through the trees and brush. He stopped at the side of the road and looked the way they’d been headed and then back the way they’d come: no sign of her. Now what?
He stared across into the trees on the other side. No Evajean, no debris — and no crazies, no infected.
Elliot turned west, taking the road farther into the mountains. They’d passed little civilization during the last couple of hours of driving. Evajean wouldn’t go back that way. She’d continue on. She’d hope to find something.
He’d hope to find her.
For a half an hour he walked. The chill of fall felt good and moonlight illuminated the road. But Elliot was tense. He checked the woods constantly, flinching at every rustle and snap. He was terrified of being found before he found Evajean. He was terrified of the people they’d seen.
He walked. He didn’t know how long — hours, maybe. Maybe less. Eventually, the road bent in a sharp curve. At the midpoint, Elliot saw a plank nailed to the trunk of a large pine. Beyond the pine the forest opened. It revealed a dirt path, ten feet wide, headed down the slope. The plank was aged and grey and carved into it was “Nahom.”
A pebble sat on the top of the sign. The bottom of the pebble was wet — it’d been placed fresh. A marker. Evajean wanted him to know she’d gone this way.
Elliot tapped his fist against the sign as he walked past. Evajean must have come this way. She couldn’t have gone anywhere else.
He headed back into the woods.
The dirt road to Nahom was more dirt than road. Ten yards in, it was mostly gone, too narrow for cars. A deer path, and little more. He hiked for a quarter of a mile, careful not to lose the path. It wasn’t easy. The path widened and contracted and was perforated by clumps of small trees. It disappeared once and he had to carefully backtrack to find it again. He began to doubt the sign. Nahom might have been this way once, but it was probably long gone now.
He pressed on, not knowing what else to do. He could either follow the path to wherever it lead or go back to the main road. His gut told him the main road would take him farther from Evajean. He kept moving into the darkening pines. His mind wandered to the beginning of their trip. The whole thing was supposed to have been an adventure — a way for him to get out of that dead town, to leave with someone alive. To leave behind the memories of Clarine and Callie. He would share the road with Evajean. He’d felt optimistic when they left their quiet neighborhood. The hope vanished when he woke in the wrecked truck. The only other living person he had seen in ages — gone.
“Fuck!” he shouted, overcome with despair. How was he supposed to act right now? He didn’t know. Did anyone? Did anyone prepare for something like this? Did anyone prepare for being alone at the end of the world?
Elliot leaned against a tree and felt the lightness of his sack. Granola and water. How long would that last?
He heard something up ahead, though the trees. The crunch of leaves. Thoughts of Walmart flashed, thoughts of the crazies on the road, of the crazies filling the woods, surrounding him. Elliot looked around. He didn’t see anyone. He grabbed a broken branch and held it tight, ready to swing. Elliot started in the direction of the noise.
He crept closer, lifting the branch higher, prepared to bring it down fast if something sprang out of the trees. The woods were quiet. Elliot didn’t hear any mumbling. None of the Walmart babbling.
“Hello?” he said, just above a whisper. His voice cracked.
No response. Whatever was there started moving again. This time it moved away, running, deeper into the forest. “No, wait!” Elliot said. He raced after the sound of the footfalls.
Once during the brief chase he thought he saw the other person. Just a quick glimpse of cloth — the hem of a skirt and black shoes kicking up dirt and moss. The figure looked small, child sized. Elliot remembered the boy, the sound of the truck, the impact, the crunch.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he called. “Stop running, please!” He wished the child would stop. He just wanted to talk, to find out where he was, where Evajean was.
“Please, stop,” he called again.
He ran on, following more flashes of color. Now he could make out that she — it was clearly a girl — wore a dress, yellow and ankle length. Below the hem were black, Sunday school style shoes. Was she from Nahom?
While he was thinking this last, the babbling started. From his right, he heard another set of footfalls, and the barely linguistic mumbling. Oh, shit, he thought. Oh, no, not now. Please.
He stopped running, turning in the direction of the sound. A brief moment of calm held him. Three figures emerged from a line of raspberry bushes. They brushed absently at the branches, unconcerned by the deep scratches and welling lines of blood from the thorns. They twitched, muscles spasming. Crazies. Elliot felt silly with his stick held out in front of him.
“Stay back,” he shouted. They paid no attention. One was a woman in a bright red sundress. The two men wouldn’t have looked out of place arguing in front of a judge. They kept coming toward him as Elliot yelled. He commanded them to turn back. He told them he didn’t want to hurt them. They ignored him. Elliot dropped the grocery bag and hefted the stick high, shuffled away from them.
The crazies seemed to notice him for the first time. The woman pointed. All three stopped talking.
Elliot turned away and ran, not caring what direction. He lost all thought of Evajean or Nahom. All he wanted was to get away from the three crazies.
Glancing back, he could see that the woman had out-run the suits and was sprinting after him, head down, arms swinging. The men only jogged, faces pointed up at the trees and sky. They screamed.
The woman was fast. Elliot wasn’t a runner. He had never gone out for track in high school. He hated treadmills. He never exercised. Now he wished he had. He couldn’t keep up this speed for any distance. That woman looked like a goddamn marathon runner.
He did the best that he could. He pumped his legs and ran. He forgot about the girl he’d been chasing, about finding Evajean, about the dog and the overturned truck. All he could manage to keep in his mind was the image of that woman in the red dress.
Elliot fell. Had he been able to pay more attention, had he not been panicked, had he not been terrified, he might have seen the grey branch with a line of dirty white mushrooms. Had he seen it, he might have lifted his foot over it.
He felt his toe catch and then the ground was in his face. He tried to roll over but his shoe twisted in the branch. He swore and scrambled and pulled at his foot. But then panic got the best of him and he froze. He watched without breathing as the woman in red stopped next to him. She was still talking. Elliot strained to hear. The sounds were words — he was sure of that. And they were words he was sure he could understand, if he just listened enough. Not that they were English. They weren’t English. But his brain said he ought to understand them.
She reached for him.
“Get away from me,” he said. He gulped air, struggling to fill his lungs. He searched for his club and saw it within reach.
The woman in red slid her hand along the ground toward his leg. He kicked at her. She pulled back. She stopped babbling and glared at him. “What the hell do you want?” he said. Elliot pushed out with his feet, trying to shove himself closer to the club.
She looked at him with what might have been genuine interest — or puzzlement. She started talking again. It was calm and slow — speech to a child. Elliot almost laughed at how considerate she was. Her companions had come up behind her, flanking her like bodyguards. They stared up at the branches and chattered at the trees.
The woman leaned in close. She put both hands on his calves and dropped her voice to a whisper. Elliot didn’t understand any of it. She stopped and stared at him. Then she began again, her babbling getting faster, turning to screeching. She shook her head and screamed. Elliot pulled away from her, away from the anger in her voice, the insanity in her eyes. He felt her breath in his face. His ears hurt from the noise.
“I don’t know what you’re saying.” He tried to keep his voice calm. “I don’t understand.”
She stopped and turned to her colleagues. They screamed at each other, not making eye contact, looking at the trees and the ground. The woman spit and chewed her lip. Elliot could see blood on her teeth.
Elliot tried for the stick. Stretching backward, he inched out with his fingers until they tapped it. He strained. He didn’t want to get up or scoot or do anything that might return their attention to him. He had to get away.
He failed. The woman turned back to him and got down close to his face. She had a strange smell, like lightning, and her lips were cracked. She said three words. She enunciated. Elliot still had no fucking clue. Each word sounded bad — disappointed.
The woman in red gave up. She looked angry. She screamed at him again — rage and hate and frustration. She walked away. The two men in suits stepped forward. Each took hold of one of Elliot’s ankles, dragging him, following the woman in red. Elliot twisted and grabbed the stick, hugging it against his chest. He tightened his grip and raised the club.
Elliot swung at the leg of the taller one. The blow connected behind the man’s knee, heavy and solid. The man grunted and fell. The other turned and reached for his companion. The move brought him low, closer to Elliot. Elliot pulled the club back, then swung again. It connected with the second man’s head. Elliot felt the impact in his palms.
He rolled over, pushing himself off the damp ground. He could hear the woman in red screaming, her words resuming the frenetic and unintelligible speech he’d become used to. Elliot managed to get up. He waved the stick, backing away from the two men and the screaming woman.
The trio held their ground, the woman glaring at him. The downed man groaned and twisted in the dirt and scratched at his face. What the hell was wrong with them? Why were they just standing there? Elliot didn’t know. When the distance between them stretched to fifteen feet, he turned and sprinted. He heard the woman call out once.
This time he watched the ground. He didn’t trip. He wouldn’t trip.
The woods blurred. He ran without direction, just trying to get away. He would figure out where Evajean was and how to get back to the truck later. The road was north. He could use the sun’s location to find it. But now his only goal was speed — and escape.
The ground finally opened into a clearing of flat grass. He risked a look back. His pursuers were gone from view. He slowed his pace, giving himself a chance to breathe. The cool forest air felt invigorating. Elliot stopped long enough to lean against the weathered trunk of a huge tree. He held his club loosely and closed his eyes. What the hell was happening? How did he get from the peace of the drive, with Evajean’s increasingly pleasant company, to being lost in the Appalachian forest with at least three psychotics out to do…something to him? What would Clarine have thought of this “adventure?” She would have laughed. She would have called him nuts — if she weren’t terrified he’d get himself murdered.
Nahom, he thought. The name ran in his mind. Had he heard it before? Regardless, he needed to find it. He needed to find others like himself–especially if the woman in red and her lackeys weren’t the only crazies nearby. A village, even a small one, would be better than being alone with a stick.
He started walking again, keeping an eye out for any sign of civilization — or more crazies.
Twenty minutes later he saw something. He’d been following a deer path — an easy way to backtrack if need be, a sort of breadcrumb trail — and had lost the woman in red and her companions. It was in this relatively calm state that he saw the first marking.
On a tree to his left, at chest height, a circle carved in the thin bark. Up close he could see that it wasn’t just a circle but a border around a soup of symbols: strange glyphs and wiggles of different sizes, incomprehensible to Elliot. The wood they exposed had darkened and weathered. He couldn’t tell if that meant they were old. He knew they weren’t fresh.
Elliot looked for symbols on other trees. He was rewarded with half a dozen circles. They all appeared about the same age and similar to the first. Each had a slightly different assortment of markings. Elliot found himself hoping this was the kind of thing stupid kids had done, bored in the woods and looking to leave their mark. The alternative — that the circles were carved by someone who’d placed significance in the work — made him think of crazy mountain people, reading entrails and brewing moonshine.
Careful, Elliot, he thought. You don’t want to end up cannibalized or sodomized or shot because you’re one of them outsiders. He stopped. He chastised himself for being so silly. How the hell did he know if the people of Nahom (if they were out here), were backwoods nuts? Better to be optimistic. Evajean would be.
The circles were a sign that he was on the right track. He continued walking, following the deer path as it widened into a footpath and then became a narrow dirt road. Tracks grooved the hard soil, worn four inches wide and three deep — the passage of many wheeled carts over long years. They looked freshly used, the edges crumbled. The dirt at the bottom was pressed but powdery, only recently settled after being kicked up by the passage of wheels.
This was something to follow. People had been through here. It was a well-used road. Leaning the club against his shoulder, Elliot picked up his pace.
The track continued for half a mile with no sign of a town. Elliot kept frustration at bay. The road had to lead somewhere. Anywhere was better than the damaged truck or the highway, which was probably swarming with crazies.
The sun had almost gone down, the forest becoming defined more by shadow than light. The chill in the air felt good. Now that he was no longer running for his life, his thirst had returned and hunger wasn’t far off. He would walk until he couldn’t see any more, then try to grab some sleep. If he were lucky he’d come across a stream. Elliot imagined nice, long gulps. He imagined washing the dirt from his hair and face.
Sometime later, his sense of the passing minutes had blurred. His only clock was in the radio back in the truck. Then Elliot glimpsed light coming through the trees to his left. The road had kept its size for a good distance, and the tracks still looked the same, but the woods had thinned, the trees younger. If they’d been larger he might have missed the light. But he saw it flickering, far enough from the track that he couldn’t make out its source.
He could stick to the road and see where it led. Or he could follow the light. The road might very well lead to the village — but it might not. The light meant people now. Or, rather, the possibility of people now — but also the possibility of more crazies.
The light wasn’t far. He could come back to the road if it turned out to be nothing. He could run back to the road if it turned out to be crazies.
He made a decision, leaving the dirt road behind and starting through the trees toward the light. He moved quietly with ease, the ground beyond the track soft and damp and mossy.
When he made it through the trees and saw the source of the light, Elliot was glad he’d kept quiet. Five people, robed in blue and grey, stood in a circle. Lines of white chalk ringed them in, emphasizing the wide circle of their gathering. The chalk gleamed bright in light pouring from a smaller ring of torches stuck in the ground, one behind each of the circle’s members.
They all faced inward, toward a small table made of fat pieces of old wood, holding up a metal box. Its lid hung open but Elliot couldn’t see what lay inside.
He hunkered behind a tree, far enough from the group that he felt safely concealed.
The robed people started singing. It reminded him of the readings of the Torah he’d heard. Or the Muslim call to prayer. The words were lost in the melody — but the melody also seemed subservient to the words. None of it made sense to him, but at least it wasn’t the language of the crazies. It sounded different, more natural.
They kept with the chanting for ten minutes, standing still, singing to the box. Then, while the others continued their song, one stepped forward. He lifted a large, green stone from the box, holding it above his head briefly. Then he walked back to his place in the circle. By his feet rested a leather satchel. He opened it and pulled out a top hat. He held the hat out in front of him with his left hand and dropped the stone into it with his right. Then he sat down in the dirt next to the table and brought the hat to his face like he was examining the lining. He pressed it against his face. He looked ridiculous.
For a half an hour the guy stared into the hat. The other four members of the circle chanted. They didn’t look like Deliverance hillbillies. They were clean cut, their hair trimmed and combed. It was like watching a corporate boardroom — except for the hat and the robes and the stone.
This what you were hoping for? Elliot thought. He shook his head. At least they weren’t crazies. At least there was no sign of the woman in red.
Then the man with the hat took it away from his face. He stood and pointed in a direction away from Elliot. The singing stopped. One of them picked up the box and another took the table. All five started walking the way the man with the hat had pointed.
Elliot, being as careful as he could, followed. The ritualistic air of the gathering vanished as soon as the group started making their way through the woods. They became just another bunch of guys hiking in the mountains. They laughed and chatted. Elliot was too far away to make out the conversation. The leader waved his hand to stop them occasionally. He’d stick his face back in the hat for a minute or so before leading the group off again.
Elliot moved slowly, keeping the trees between them. He didn’t want to give himself away just yet. They weren’t crazies, but that didn’t make them safe. They didn’t scream or mumble, but they did wander through the woods in robes. They did stare at rocks in top hats.
Elliot hoped he’d made the right choice in leaving the road.