What Followed

by Thad Weitz on December 3, 2012

in FICTION

It was around the second mile into the woods that Jack Dowter knew that he was being followed.  Without any evidence, it was a gut feeling so certain he knew he was right. He employed the tricks he had seen in movies: he would suddenly stop, so he could hear footsteps.  He heard nothing. He would speed up, and hide behind a tree, so what was after would come into view. He saw nothing. The tricks didn’t work, but he still knew that something was behind.

Jack peered from behind an oak tree at the trail behind him.  This is ridiculous, he thought. How many times have I been in these woods? What could possibly be after me? It’s probably some old man out for a Sunday stroll. He looked West. A quarter mile in that direction and I’m in somebody’s back yard. He looked East. A half mile over there, and I’m grilling burgers at the Reynolds.

He thought these things, but his heart jarred his chest, in full, rapid beats. Calm down. Calm down. If somebody is after me, chances are I can kick his ass. This thought bolstered him. Yeah, I wouldn’t want to be the person that followed me!

He glanced back one last time, and began walking forward.

He focused on the weather. It’s brisk, he thought. The sun had been out when he started, but now, it was gray.  He wondered if it was darker here, amongst the trees, than it was outside the forest.  If the sun’s not shining to begin with, he thought, the woods shouldn’t make a difference.

He surveyed his surroundings. He couldn’t distinguish the trees.  When he saw them singly, on lawns, he could always say, “That’s a dogwood,” or, “That’s a Japanese maple.”  Here in the woods, they merged in confusion.  Most of the leaves were down, and when he looked up he thought, That’s either an oak or a poplar.  He thought some trees were elm, but then thought they might be birch. Then he wondered if birch even grew here.

He passed a patch of tall bamboo. He liked the bamboo, even though he knew that it was alien and that it choked the proper forest. The shoots were tall and still.

The trail ran beside a creek. Jack listened to the gentle rush of the water. Then he listened to the crunch and crackle of the leaves beneath his feet.  He dragged his feet and pushed the leaves in piles. The sound grew loud and scattered from his immediate spot. He heard it behind him. He stopped.

Didn’t he hear the leaves continue to break after he had stopped?  He held his breath and listened. There was nothing. Jack cleared his throat loudly, and spat with emphasis. He then laughed to himself. I’m sure my pursuer is scared of following someone with a loud, phlegm problem.

He reached for his cigarettes in his jacket pocket, but then thought better of it. He always felt that smoking in the woods was profane. From his jeans pocket, he pulled out a red disk of chewing tobacco. Holding the tin with his thumb and ring finger, he shook his hand so that his index and middle finger slapped the can. He pinched a large wad and stuck it between his lip and gum. The tobacco tasted of cherries.

The tobacco relaxed him and made him feel virile. “Nothing like a little chaw of tobaccy,” he said, out loud, in a baritone voice. He spat and began walking again.

In the creek, Jack saw a small black shape dip into the water. Must be a beaver, he thought. He waited for it to surface, but couldn’t see it. In the middle of the water, a duck rode down the current. On the shore, there was a car tire and some beer bottles. He wondered if the fox he had seen was about.

Jack saw his hands shaking, and he had to walk to subdue the nameless uneasiness that burned his stomach. “Goddamn booze,” he said to himself.

Though he tried to keep such thoughts from his mind, he reviewed his last night, again. He winced.

Office party at the advertising agency.  Margaritas, vodka, bourbon. He’d gone there after drinking at home. He remembered thinking how affable he was at the beginning, and now he realized that he was continually out of line.

He had put his arm around his boss, Anton Morton.  He said, “You know what?  I like you, Anton.  I like you a lot.  But, you can’t run this department for a shit.  Seriously. You don’t have a creative bone in your body. I don’t know why you chose advertising. You should be selling used cars, or something.”

He recalled Anton’s eyes. They glimmered with good humor.  But, underneath, he saw the gears of his brain turning, plotting ways of getting rid of him.

Anton used the condescending approach to drunks. “Alright, Jack. You should go sleep this one off. No offense, but I can tell you, you’re going to be kicking yourself for this conversation.”

“Ah, lighten up, Anton.  Can’t you take a little ribbing?” Jack then wandered off in search of his next drink. He refilled his Margarita and walked down the hall. The hall looked funny. Jack thought of how buildings changed their character, depending on when you were there. This place wasn’t the same now, at 12:30 at night on a Saturday, as it was at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning. He couldn’t pin down how, it just was.

He opened the door to a meeting room, and went in.  Closing the door behind him, he flipped on a light. In the room, sitting at a table, was Linda Morton, Anton’s wife.

“Well if it isn’t the great Jack Dowter.  Hi, Jack.”

“Hello, Linda.”

She sipped a drink, and narrowed her eyes at him.  Her checks were flushed.

“Little down time, Linda?”

“Oh, you know.” She sniffed.

“I hear you. I need some away from the group time, myself.”

“Cut the small talk, Jack. You’ve never been like that.”

“Fair enough.  What would you like to discuss? Ornithology? The Gaza Strip conflict?  Is that still a conflict? You name it.”

“Let’s discuss Jack Dowter.”

“I’m afraid that’s not the most interesting subject. Quite transparent, actually. We could cover that one in two minutes. Or, perhaps, it would take three hundred years of continuous talk.”

He removed a hip flask from his pocket and took a long drink. He handed it to her. She, too, took a long drink and did not grimace.  They sat in silence.

Jack looked at Linda. Big breasts in a red sweater. Sky blue eyes that somehow frightened him.  She was smiling and poking at the ice of her drink with a straw.

“With all due respect, Linda, how the hell did Anton land a hellcat like you?”

She fanned herself.  “My word, Mr. Jack Dowter.  If that isn’t a conversational shift, I don’t know what  is.  From small talk to the absolutely personal in three minutes.”

The next thing Jack knew, he was beside her kissing her. He pulled her out of her chair, turned her around, and bent her over the table.  With her head turned she looked at him, and then shut her eyes as she rocked back against him. Jack found himself studying a white drawing board. I’ve never really noticed that before, he thought. For some reason, the whiteness of the board disturbed him. The world “Integration” was written in green letters and furthermore circled.

He dismounted her.

“I want them to find us.  I want Anton to see you screwing me,” she said.

As they straightened their clothes, Jack thought of the reentry into the party.

“You’d better go first.  I’ll wait a couple of minutes.”

She tossed her torn underwear into a trash basket. “I’ll see you back in the real world.”  She walked out the door.

Jack lit a cigarette and drank from his bottle. He walked to the trashcan and removed the underwear, smelled it, and placed it into the pocket of his sports jacket.  He paced around the room.  Again, the whiteness of the drawing board disturbed him. With the pen from the ledge, he drew two stick figures copulating. He looked at them and then erased them with his hand. The ink stained his skin green.

Back at the party, things were dying down. Most people were gone, and the people who were there were mostly the drunk and shamefaced or the drunk and oblivious. Linda was talking to the shipping clerk, who was enjoying his status as an equal on the occasion of a party.  She glanced at Jack, and gave him the trace of a smile.

Jack made himself a bourbon on the rocks. He saw Anton speaking with Ralph Taber, a vice president.  Anton looked sober. Jack thought of a book, he couldn’t remember which one, where one of the characters didn’t drink so that he could hang around people who did drink, and in this way gather information from all the loose lips.

He then saw, he didn’t think he was mistaken in this, Anton gesticulate toward him, and do a pantomime of a drunk. He saw Taber laugh.

Jack walked to them.

“Hello, Jack.  Still enjoying the party, I see.” Anton said.

Jack held his fingers beneath Anton’s nose.  “You recognize that smell?”

Jack could swear that Taber had chuckled.  Anton turned white, then his face grew rigid and composed.

“Well, Jack, don’t flatter yourself.  You’re not the first.  Gentleman, I believe this party has run its course for me.  Jack, you can tell my wife she is free to take a cab home with you.  I’m leaving.”  He walked briskly out of the room.

Taber looked like he wanted to say something, and Jack walked away.

And now the trail had veered from the stream, and Jack could no longer hear its trickling. He heard the liquid sound of a thrush. Jack thought it was like the sound of the air melting.  Squirrels rustled in the leaves, and a chipmunk ran across the trail.

So that’s how the big decisions are made in life, Jack thought.  You’re drunk, and without thinking for a moment, in a split second, you become a man who sleeps with married women.  Thoughtless, and in no time, you step over a great divide. I am now an adulterer.

Jack walked up a steep incline, and almost stooped down to use the roots to help pull him forward.

He worried about the safety of his job. How could the company tolerate its workers sleeping with the wives of superiors?

Jack heard a grunting behind him.  He stopped.  What is back there? he wondered. It was silent. Bears had been known to make it, once in a blue moon, out of the mountains and down to these woods. Could it be a bear?  He heard no more grunting.  No, it’s no bear.

He then thought of Lon Chaney’s Wolfman. The monster had terrified him since he was a child.  There was something about the grainy black and white film, and the mist on the ground, and the gypsies living amongst some timeless curse.  The Wolfman!  Not a man, and not a wolf, but a clothed beast that was beyond category. Wasn’t this gray day like the color of that film, he thought. He pictured the Wolfman, peering at him from behind a tree. Breathing quickly.

Jack began up the hill again.

“Now this has become ridiculous.  Yeah, I’m sure it’s the Wolfman after me.  There’s nothing back there at all, so quit using your imagination,” he said aloud.  Still, he quickened his pace.  I’ve got about a mile, and I’ll be back to the main road.

Jack still felt his hands shaking.  He and his friends often joked about the worst hangovers, saying that they had the “DT’s.”  The real DT’s were the symptoms of withdrawal of the serious drunk, where he saw snakes or bats or felt bugs on his skin.  From the feeling of his minor ones, Jack dreaded the thought of the real thing.

He was sweating. Clean out the system. Clean out the system. I’ll be back to tip-top in no time.

Hadn’t he gone beyond a simple passionate moment of indiscretion, though?  He had gone to the motel with Linda. He actually had taken up Anton on his offer.  He remembered the car ride there: Linda’s head moving up and down above his lap as his car went in and out of his lane, and sometimes up on the curb.  Wouldn’t that have been symbolically appropriate, he thought, if they had been killed on that ride?  A swerve into an oncoming car, and he, Linda, and the family of four are all dead. It wasn’t  adultery, or impetuously choosing a brand of potato chips, it was death that was the true sign that the biggest things in life happened in an unthinking instant.

You’re trying to fool yourself, Jack.  You’re smarter than this.  You’re not even thinking about the important issue.  Forget what you did to Anton. What about Clare?  She’s the wronged person here.

His fiancée had skipped the party to go to dinner and the movies with her friends.  Jack hadn’t pressed the issue.

I can’t think about this. I did what I did. Just turn to stone about it, and leave it behind you. Move on. Life is mistakes.

Just then, Jack heard the call of an owl reverberate throughout the woods. “Who, who, who-who, who, who, who, who-who, who, who.”  The sound seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere.

Jack spat out his tobacco and began to jog. I’m gonna get out of these woods.  Three quarters of a mile, no problem.

The owl didn’t stop, and Jack thought about how birds were sometimes the alarm systems of forests.  He imagined the thing behind him picking up speed.

He ran faster, and then thought about how he was running faster.  My God, I’m running from something.  I’m actually running from something.

Topping a hill, he tripped on a thick root. As he lurched forward, he tried to stay on his feet, and he careened off the trail and over a steep ravine.  He tumbled down the side and he saw a flash of white when his head hit a rock.

At the bottom, Jack was lying in a pile of leaves. The back of his head was open, and blood came down into his right eye from a cut on his forehead.  There was sweat in his other eye, and his vision was blurry.  He looked up at the indistinct shapes from where he had fallen.

He knew that what followed would be on him soon.

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