By Marc Dickerson
Bruce threw another log on the fire.
Abe watched the smoke rise into the night sky, for an instant hiding the sea of trees surrounding them. Then his eyes went back to inspecting the charred marshmallow on the end of his stick. “I never really enjoyed the outdoors much as a kid. I liked my television.”
From across the flames Ronnie laughed, almost spilling his can of beer.
“It’s true. I never understood why you guys got your macho kicks from being outside with all the squirrels and bugs and shit.”
Bruce beamed down at Abe as he downed the last of his beer. “That’s why you got so fat while the two of us have remained in tip-top shape.”
Abe frowned, still turning his marshmallow over the flames. “We can’t all be as freakishly tall and lanky as you, asshole.”
Ronnie smiled and reached into the cooler to pass another can up to Bruce. “You were a boy scout too, Abe. Same as us.”
“Yeah. But I never really went for all that shit. Was more into reading, I guess.”
“Ah, yes.” Bruce took a seat on the log next to Ronnie and leaned forward with his palms on his boney knees. “Call of the Wild. Jack London. If that doesn’t say it all, my boy, what will?”
“Stop talkin’ like your dad.”
Bruce’s eyes went wide. “Come now! Where’s your sense of adventure? Just look at where we are! Smell those prickly pines!”
“They do smell kinda nice…”
“Yeah.” Ronnie nodded. “But let’s not forget why we’re here.”
They had covered a lot of ground that day, had walked until the light began to fade. Ronnie decided it would be wisest to save their flashlight batteries and instead make camp for the night. There was still much to explore.
They knew these woods, at least they used to. Their boyhood days were full of adventures in the forest that lie in the shadow of the great mountain. That mountain was as much a part of their childhood as anything else, always visible on the horizon. It loomed over the neighborhood, as if beckoning them. They had answered the call many times, lying to their parents about where they were going, then pedaling their bikes to the edge of the forest to begin their expedition. They never made it to the mountain, but that didn’t matter. Exploring those woods, away from their suburban street and the watchful gaze of parents and neighbors, was enough.
That was a long time ago, though.
The boys were men now, most of them since married, some divorced, a couple of them now with young children of their own. They would never let their own kids venture off like they had, allow them to risk getting lost or hurt in such a dense, dangerous forest. Now that they were older, they found that they preferred the familiar, the safe. At this point in their separate lives, they had all but forgotten the forest even existed.
That was, until Leo went missing.
They had looked everywhere else, made the worried phone calls to friends, acquaintances, even the local police. After the third day, they decided to take matters into their own hands. They had known each other for almost thirty years now, were still close, though not as close as they had been as children. But Leo needed them. And they thought they had a pretty good idea of where he might have gone.
“My wife was the one who noticed his car,” Bruce remembered, “parked off the side of Buckingham Road, right by our old entrance. Keys were still in the ignition.”
“We know he’s here.” Ronnie stuck out his jaw and ran a hand through his thick hair as he often did when deep in thought. “We don’t know why. But that doesn’t matter. We need to find him.”
Abe stared vacantly into the flames. “He did have a rough divorce…only sees his daughter once a month now.”
Bruce nodded. “Last I talked to him, I tried to lend him money. Poor bastard’s still looking for a job…told me he can barely make rent.”
Ronnie shuffled a foot in the dirt. “Like I said, who knows why he came out here. Let’s just hope…”
“Don’t say it.”
“Let’s just hope he’s okay.”
The sound of crickets arose in the cool September air, mixing with the crackling of the campfire.
“Let’s get some rest.” Ronnie finished his beer before crushing the can in his hand. “Tomorrow at first light we head for the foothills at the base of the mountain. If we don’t find him, we take the southern quadrant back so we can cover more ground. Then we meet up with Steve and James. If we haven’t found him, hopefully they’ve had more luck on their route.”
Abe nodded. “Southern quadrant. Looks like Ron-O studied his map.”
“I’m glad someone did.” Bruce pulled the tab on his new can, spraying a boozy mist. “No cell phone service out here, boys.”
“It is kinda nice though. Not relying on them.”
Ronnie leaned back to gaze up at the stars. Bruce and Abe watched the fire as it burned and burned.
The three friends woke with the sun.
After a quick breakfast of granola bars and thermos coffee, they pulled on their knapsacks and headed for the mountain. They were already closer to it now than they had ever been, though all they saw were trees.
“When we were kids,” Bruce said, hurling a rock, “this place seemed infinite. Larger than anything I could imagine.”
“Still is.” Ronnie kept his eyes forward, leading the pack.
“And now here we are. The cavalry! Come to rescue our lost soldier.”
“He was the colonel, remember?”
“Ah, yes. Colonel Leo the Lion! You were the sergeant, if I remember correctly.”
“You guys always stuck me on lookout.” Abe chuckled, kicking at the ground as they began to move through tall reeds.
Bruce laughed as well. “The only lookout man too scared to climb a tree.”
“Ha-ha. I seem to recall Bruce the Goose being our most wounded soldier.”
“Ah, but also the most decorated one! I received the most medals.”
“Valor, honor. Or tripping over your own leg braces.”
Bruce became silent. There was only the rustling leaves and twigs snapping.
“Oh, come on, Brucey. I’m just kiddin’ ya.”
“Am I gonna have to separate you two?” Ronnie asked, trying to lighten the mood. “Thought I was getting a break from dealing with kids.”
“Hey,” said Bruce. “You think Leo’s living in a cave? Inside the mountain?”
Abe chortled at the thought. “Could he really do that? What would he eat?”
“Well, squirrels and other small quadrupeds, of course.”
Now it was Ronnie’s turn to laugh. “Sounds delicious. Hope he saved some for the cavalry.”
The three friends continued their trek, not speaking for some time.
Then Abe said, “I climbed a tree once. Fell into some bushes. Hurt like hell. Maybe I dreamed it, though.”
“Dreams can come true.” Bruce pointed. “There’s a fine tree right there.”
“There are lots of trees.”
“Ah, but this one, my dear Abe. This one is calling your name.”
Bruce made it halfway, Abe only to the first couple of branches. Ronnie stood below them, watching and laughing.
Abe crouched, clinging tightly to the trunk. “My cousin died falling out of a tree, ya know.”
“We’re on an adventure,” said Ronnie. “Thought we checked real-life shit at the perimeter.”
Bruce called down to Abe. “Hold on buddy, I’m comin’ back down!”
But before he could rejoin his friend, Abe had already hurled himself from the tree and fallen to the ground. He groaned loudly and rolled around in the leaves.
Ronnie was laughing again. Bruce cupped a hand around his mouth and yelled to Abe, “Your mother should be ashamed she ever had a child like you. You only fell six feet!”
Abe was still rolling around. “Lemme alone.”
Bruce dismounted, landing next to him. “You know, Hemingway would never let a tree defeat him. Why don’t you go up alone this time, and I’ll be here to catch you?”
Abe extended a hand. “Shut up and help me up so I can kill you.”
It was almost sundown by the time they reached the mountain.
They had not stopped to rest since their tree-climbing excursion, and the terrain had changed from soft grass to uneven rocks and dirt. Though once inside the shadow of the mountain from their childhood, each man felt a renewed sense of vigor and excitement. They began heading east, trying to spot any caves or hollows that Leo may have gone into.
“Now that would be a hell of a climb.” Bruce pointed to a jutting rock formation, halfway up the mountain. “Think he’s up there?”
Ronnie consulted his compass and folded his map before nodding ahead. “Five clicks to that boulder. We can make camp there for the night.”
Abe eyed the distance, chewing his lip. “Ah, I’d say four and a half.”
“You’re a real son of a bitch, you know that, Abe?”
“After all the juice boxes my mother gave you when we were growing up? How dare you, sir.”
“Don’t you mongrels have any decency for a man’s toilet?”
They all turned at once. There, in tattered clothes, hair unkempt and wily, stood Leo.
“I go to take a shit, and it looks like fate beat me to it.”
The three men yelled his name and ran toward their friend, hugging him and slapping him on the back.
Bruce leaned back, taking him in. “His beard’s a little longer, but I think it’s him, boys.”
“Well, that’s to be expected of a Neanderthal man of the woods.” Abe gave him a hard pat on the shoulder and eyed him up as well. “Still got his belly though.”
“And still pasty as a motherfucker.” Ronnie grinned.
“Jeez. Nice to see you guys, too.” Leo stepped back and rested his hands on his hips.
“I bet. We’ve been looking for you, you rat bastard. All five of us.”
Leo smirked. “Must’ve been looking a long time. There’s only three of you now.”
“Steve and James took Bravo Company.”
“Just like the old days…” Leo nodded and gazed off into the trees.
“What you been eating out here? We had a bet going. Squirrel or rabbit? Or, did you hunt yourself a big ol’ bear?”
Leo was still staring off. “You found me. You done your colonel proud, boys.”
Abe slapped a bug on his arm. “What the hell are you doing out here?”
His gaze returning to his friends, Leo smiled. “Out here? Wouldn’t you know it, Abe? Living.”
“Well,” said Ronnie, “it’s time to go home now.”
“Right. Back to society, civilization. I suppose I’ve lived enough. Gotten my fill. It was good while it lasted.”
Leo’s three friends eyed one another and let out uneasy laughs. Then Ronnie said, “We should make camp first. Will be dark soon.”
“Smart thinking, sergeant. The woods get dark, indeed. Good thing I am part of it now, one with the forest.” Bruce was looking around at the trees again.
“Yeah. Good thing.” Ronnie glanced again at the other two, who returned worried looks.
“You hear the birds call? The thing is, they do not respond.”
Abe looked down at his shoes and asked, “Is this really your toilet?”
It was pitch dark by the time they made camp, the only faint illumination from their newly made fire. Leo was staring into the flames intently, chewing on a strip of beef jerky. “I prefer the dark,” he said.
No one spoke for a bit, then Abe said, “It’s gettin’ cold.”
“The woods are better, without all the light. Nature gave us the stars. That’s partly what my book is all about.” Leo nodded toward Ronnie. “You got any more of that jerky?”
“Nope.” Ronnie shook his head. “That was the last of it. Like I told you before. You trying to clean out all our supplies before morning?”
Leo chuckled. “I’m a hungry boy. Hungry lion.”
“You wrote a book?” asked Abe.
“Sure. It’s all…” Leo tapped his head, “in here.”
“Well, once it makes it out of that demented brain of yours and into the real world, I’d like to read it.”
“You’ll have to wait. I want to show you all something first. First thing tomorrow.”
The next morning, they began their long trek back home.
On their way, they came upon a clearing with a softly trickling creek, where Leo wanted them to stop. He walked ahead and kneeled on the rocks along the edge of the water. The others watched as he quickly leaned forward, plunging his face into the icy stream. After a few moments he snapped his head back and whipped his hair around, screaming.
Then he sat calmly on the ground, taking a knife from his boot to pick his teeth. He looked back at his three friends. “The earth is vicious this morning.”
Bruce scrunched his face, staring at him. “Uh. When you gonna show us the thing?”
Leo motioned with his knife. “It’s at the bottom of this creek.”
Abe thought for a moment before looking from Bruce to Ronnie. “This must be like a, uh…a ritual. One of them things.”
Ron shook his head. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Come, come.” Leo was smiling at them now. “You boys do want to live, don’t you?”
Bruce shrugged. “I’ll do it.”
Ronnie took a step back toward the trees they had emerged from. “I’m gonna go take a leak. That’s my morning ritual.”
Abe followed. “Yeah, nature’s calling me too. I think I’ll skip the face-plunging as well.”
“Don’t forget the buddy system, boys!” Bruce called as he jogged over to Leo.
Abe shook his head before moving off into the foliage, where he found Ronnie near some bushes.
“Hey, you mind holdin’ this for me?” Ronnie turned his head to grin over at him.
“Forgot my tweezers.”
“You’re a real ball-buster, you know that?”
Abe turned away and unzipped his pants. After letting out a long sigh, he shook his head and said, “He’s a madman.”
There was only the sound of their urine spilling into the grass. Then, Ronnie said, “Lack of nutrition.”
“Something like that. He was always a little weird. Now, though. Christ, I’ve never seen him like this.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean. I still love Leo and all but…”
“That’s not Leo.”
Ronnie zipped up and turned toward Abe. “Living out here like some goddamn folk hero. I liked Colonel Leo the Lion better when he was a kid.”
Abe finished too. “He’s still a kid.”
“He’s bat-shit crazy.”
Abe bit his lip, something he did when he didn’t want to say the words he was thinking.
“We never really found him, did we?”
They heard splashing coming from the stream. Ronnie looked off through the trees. “We found what was left, an empty shell.”
“The divorce. It broke him.”
Ronnie stuck his jaw out, watching. “His mind was never right.”
“Never thought we’d ever really find him.”
“Like you said. We didn’t.”
Abe turned toward Ronnie, who was still staring off through the trees.
“Ronnie…fuck, man. You don’t really think that, do you?”
“This was nice. Reminiscing. It’s been great.” Ronnie finally looked over at him. “It’s time to go home, Abe. Back to our families, our lives.”
Abe nodded. “Let’s get out of these woods.”
The four friends walked mostly in silence, stepping cautiously over a downslope in the land. Ronnie and Abe were up front, with Bruce and Leo bringing up the rear.
Abe leaned over to Ronnie and said in a soft voice, “Maybe he’ll come back. Once we get home. He’ll be like the old Leo.”
Leo’s voice rose from the back of the group. “May I trouble you strapping lads for some more of your fine beef jerky?”
“You ate it all,” said Ronnie. “I told you.”
“I shall eat some blades of grass, then. And pretend it is jerky.”
“Yeah. You do that.”
They were approaching another stream, this one much wider, the water more forceful as it raged downhill.
“Holy shit!” Bruce pointed off toward some bushes. “You guys see that?”
Abe looked around. “What was it?”
“I believe we have been graced with the presence of the rare and illustrious gopher frog!”
“You made that up.”
“I swear to you, it’s real and it’s right there in yonder bush!”
“Well, why don’t you go check out yonder bush?” Ronnie grinned. “It’d be a tale to tell the grandkids.”
Bruce broke from the group, running off in excitement toward the bushes.
The other three slowed to a stop once they reached the water, the sound of it so loud now that they had to yell.
“Is this a stream or a river?” asked Abe.
Leo stepped to the edge, staring down at the rushing water. “No matter. I have crossed many a river on my journeys.”
“You don’t say?”
“Yes. You can read all about it in my book someday.”
Ronnie nodded toward a scattered path of large rocks jutting from the water. “We could probably cross over those, but I don’t know. They’re spread out pretty far. Looks slippery, too. It’d be safer to take the extra time and go around.”
Leo looked back at the two of them. “This is why I’m the colonel.” He nodded, turning to face the water again. “I’ll cross first, show my men there is nothing to fear.”
Abe shook his head. “Leo, I really don’t think—”
“Nature has given us a path. No need to question it. She’s a fickle one, Mother Nature, but fair. Let us continue on our journey.”
And with that, Leo pulled off what remained of his tattered shirt and stared out over the river.
Ronnie and Abe first looked to see if Bruce was coming back, but they could no longer see him. Then they turned to watch as Leo began his perilous journey across the raging water, over the smooth, slippery rocks. Then, they looked at each other.
“The colonel should always lead,” said Ronnie.
Abe nodded. “Accidents happen in the woods.”
Ronnie peered out toward Leo, squinting. “Nature is a fickle one.”
And when they met up with Steve and James, back where they had begun their journey, there was more reminiscing, more tales of adventure told. And when both groups of men asked what the other had found, the answer was the same: “Nothing. No sign of him.”
But they were friends, lifelong friends. They would never stop searching.
Marc Dickerson is a writer and filmmaker from Bucks County, PA. He has written short stories, graphic novels, screenplays, and has recently completed his first prose novel, ART FARM. He mostly enjoys creating dark
comedies as well as fiction that incorporates unique or surreal elements.