The floor of the woods was blanketed with burnt brown and orange leaves that crunched and slithered beneath his feet. It wasn’t quite yet winter, but Nicky was freezing cold.
“Jesus,” he muttered to himself, as he pulled his folded arms tighter to his chest. “Fuck, it’s cold.”
The sun had fallen from the sky but a soft glow remained, illuminating the bark of the trees with a softness that seemed almost artificial. Nicky had been walking for hours when it had, in fact, only been ten minutes. He was cold and tired, he told himself. He pulled his grey stocking cap lower, over his ears, not sure of where he was headed and how far he had left to walk.
The trees stood in stoic attention as he passed them, even those that let their limbs bend and fall to the side or over the path. They seemed frozen, not only from the sinking temperatures but by time as well. There was a deathly quiet that pushed in on him. Nicky would stop, look all around from left to right, and listen. But he couldn’t hear a thing. There were no noises, no sounds to be heard. He moved his fingers in and out of his blond goatee and found that the density of the woods had closed up on him, for he could no longer see beyond twenty feet in any one direction.
Nicky could no longer remember what led him into the woods in the first place. He had to pee. That was a fact. He could’ve waited, he told himself, until the next road stop or gas station, but “when nature calls, nature calls and you can’t not answer.” He had pulled the car to the side of the road and sat for just a second before getting out. He relieved himself behind the closest thick brush and when he walked back to his car, he looked back down the road, a straight, rolling carpet of grey. Not a car in sight, no sign of anyone. He hadn’t passed anyone on the road for while, either, not for at least the last ten minutes or so. He pushed the door closed and walked back into the woods, past the thick brush, and forgot all about his car, the road and how nature had called.
“God, I’d love me some soup. Some nice thick green pea soup,” Nicky thought, for no reason beyond being cold and tired and, of course, hungry. He kept walking, curling his arms around each other. “Damn.”
He walked among the trees, not knowing where he was or where he was going. Nicky wasn’t sure he was following a path, or if one lain beneath the leaves he stepped, but there did seem to be a definite natural course to follow, and he eased into the openness between the trees, one layer at a time, deeper and deeper in.
A broken branch stuck out, its pointy tip like the tapered lip of a clarinet. It reached out as he passed and caught his leg just below the knee, digging into his skin without breaking the denim fabric covering it. Nicky clutched his leg as he bellowed in pain. “Oh fuck,” he said, “Oh Christ.” He fell to the floor of the forest and pushed this pant leg up to reveal a gash two inches wide on the top part of his shin, just below the knee. He watched the blood bubble at the surface and he was surprised at how quickly it formed and how deep the red was. He wiped the wound with his hand but the blood stubbornly reappeared, now sliding down his leg, worming it’s way through the hair. He leaned back and shoved his hands into the front of this jeans, groping for the waistband of his soft white underwear. He rubbed his fingers along the edge of the cotton, looking for a weakness in the fabric. He found a small whole and pushed his finger though until it reached the skin at his waist. And then he began to tear at the waistband, pulling it apart from the rest of the underwear. He shimmed it down, over his legs. Soon, he held the elastic band in this hands and he looped it twice and tied it around his legs, a tourniquet courtesy of Fruit of the Loom. Like a soldier, he thought, like a soldier, saving lives with whatever he can find. He again swiped at removing any trace of tears (or sweat) still clinging to his face. He wanted to rest, to sit awhile, to even lie down on the bed of autumnal leaves, but he feared that if he did lay down, he may never get up again. He was like a soldier, stuck behind enemy lines, and he had to stay alert. He grimaced but took comfort in knowing that his mind was in fine working order, still sensitive to the potential dangers.
He pulled the leg of his jeans back down and pressed his open hands firmly against his leg. “I gotta make it. I gotta push through. Past the pain, past all the pain.” He rose and hobbled along, his face pulled in pain. After a few steps, the tingly throbbing sensation was forgotten and Nicky concentrated on trying to make out where the grey light could lead him as it peeked through the black silhouettes of the trees. He could feel a shift in the air as it crackled against this skin, moving from evening to night. Soon the forest seemed to close in on him. Where there had been light a half an hour before was now a blanketed wall of a black so deep, he could feel despair as it settled in his ribs, deep in his chest.
He did not know where he was or where he was headed but he still felt like he had a long ways to go. Something just told him that. Nicky remembered a song his mother used to sing around the house and the thought made him smile.
When I was young, I fell in love
I asked my sweetheart what lies ahead
Will we have rainbows, day after day
Here's what my sweetheart said.
Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future's not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.
He thought of his mother moving about the house — humming, singing — strands of her dirty blond hair falling over her eyes, the lightness in her movements. Her skin was always so pale, even in memory. She was gone now, had been gone for almost ten years but he thought of her a lot. She was always there, so easily accessible, and she was forever in constant motion, holding conversation over her shoulder, as she moved from one room to another. And when he thought of her, it was that image that warmed him. How happy she seemed then. It was different when Daddy came home and a black cloud descended on the house and to everyone in it. Nicky and his brothers tried to get out as much as possible. Playing baseball until it was dark, staying at the Marmells house until it was time for bed. That was all gone though, those days so far away now. Nicky quickened his pace, trying to stay warm.
With each step, he could feel fatigue start to slow him down. It filled him slowly, starting from the tips of his toes and curling up his legs, rising like water from a tap. His knees began to wobble and his shins throbbed. His wound ached. He could feel his voice quiver though he was not speaking. And then, for no apparent reason, Nicky began to cry. He squeezed his eyes and wiped at the tears at first, but then could not keep up and decided to let them harden and grip themselves to his cheeks. He had to fight the tears just as he had to fight the pain.
“Que Se-fucking-ra!” Nicky shouted, his words bouncing off the trees and filling the thin night air. He clinched his fists and let out a shout that was so guttural, so primal, he was surprised by the power of it. It must have echoed for miles, he thought. He stopped, his legs suddenly too heavy to move another inch, the leaves shifting at his feet. He looked up, past the skeletal branches reaching towards a clear sky so brilliantly charcoal grey. The moon was a perfect white circle. It vibrated and glowed and the started to get bigger, bigger before his eyes. He leaned his head back and let tears filled his eyes until he could not see. The cool air seemed to glide across his forehead and nose.
“What will be,” he whispered to himself. He closed his eyes tight and shook his head from left to right. When he brought his head back down, he looked ahead to see the trees separate like curtains at the Saturday matinee. They slid across the floor of the forest, overlapping in the wings of the night. Through the black, a lightness rose and overtook the darkness. He could see the road — silent and peaceful — and his silver Ford Escape glimmering in the moonlight.
“What will be, will be.”