It was too much. My eyes rolled back in my head and everything started to fade away. I was so thankful. I could still feel the baby’s grip on my arm though, the little feet that tried to get footing on my waist like I was a climbing wall. Death couldn’t come soon enough for me.
That was my name. It was coming from the outside. From somewhere.
I felt the tiny extremities let go and the weight of the child was gone.
I raised my head up in time to see the baby scampering off into the bushes on all fours, like it was an able–bodied gazelle. A human gazelle, after the lion’s feast.
The voice again. I looked up and saw a tall, foreboding man standing in front of me. He had on a long black jacket, white–collared shirt and black vest. His face was in shadows but I was able to make out a blonde beard.
“Who are you?” I asked. My head slumped to the side. I had no desire to keep it up anymore. My eyes closed.
“What the hell?”
Hands were shaking my shoulders. They weren’t baby hands. They touched my face and pulled it in the opposite direction.
“Perry!” the voice was in my face now. I opened my eyes and saw Dex kneeling in front of me. Where did the other man go?
Dex looked at me, at the tree, at the vomit on my chest. I didn’t care. I just wanted to sleep. I just wanted to go very far away, away from thoughts and images and feelings and sounds. I was so tired. My brain was done.
My head slumped again, chin tucked against my collarbone. Dex muttered some things I didn’t understand and began untying my hands from behind my back. Once he was done, he lifted me up and with a groan, hoisted me over his shoulder. He was talking excitedly about something. Maybe it was more worry than excitement. Panic. It didn’t matter. I didn’t hear it. I went in and out of a delirious consciousness.
I think I passed right out for a while, because when I came too, I was looking down at the dark floor and Dex’s butt. I felt raindrops falling on my back, felt his shoulder digging into my ribcage, his arms around the backs of my legs.
“What happened?” The words came out slowly in a thick soup.
Dex slowed and then stopped. “Can you walk? Because I can still carry you.”
“Uhh, I think so,” I groaned. He gently lowered me to the ground and grabbed my arms before I fell over.
My head felt like it did after a bottle of red wine. Too heavy to keep up on its own.
“We can talk later. I just want to get us back to the campsite now,” he said. He didn’t sound good. I raised my head and looked at him. It was almost nightfall but I could still make out dull shapes and shadows in shades of grey. He didn’t look good either. His nose was purple and blue and twice the width as normal.
And that’s when it all came back to me. This morning. Mary. The punch. Being hit in the head. Being tied to the tree. The baby. Oh God, the baby.
“Did you hit me on the head?” I asked uneasily.
He looked shocked. “What…why? Who hit you on the head?”
“I don’t know, someone. You?”
He didn’t know what to make of that. He looked around him. I did too. We were in the glade, the dead heart with the dead trees and the suffocating moss.
“How did you know where to find me?” I asked, trying to cover up the suspicion.
“I was looking for you and heard you screaming.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. He ignored it.
“We have to get back, Perry,” he said determinedly. “We can’t do this here, now.”
I didn’t see why being at the campsite was any different, especially since he might be the person I should be afraid of. But the creepy, creaking noises of the dead limbs and the overgrown tangles, which that could hide many deformed and rotted babies, was overkill.
I nodded. He kept his hand firmly around my elbow and led me through the glade as quickly as he could. We were almost out of it, where the moss gave way to clean bark and the ferns turned into sprightly, berried salal bushes, when a hissing sound penetrated our eardrums.
The family of raccoons appeared suddenly. They headed down the path towards us, their figures dark, ominous lumps against the impending dusk.
We both stopped, statues in our tracks. The raccoons kept hissing and kept creeping forward. Though neither of us had a flashlight, their eyes glowed in the dark like luminescent ping pong balls.
I started to calculate how much space was between us and whether we could make a run for it around them when the two biggest raccoons lunged at Dex in a rabid manner, one leaping for his thigh, the other for his chest and face.
We both screamed in unison. Dex fell backward from the weight and shock. I could barely see it but from his cries and their slobbering, violent growls and the sounds of clothes tearing and liquids being expulsed, I knew their intent was to eat him alive.
I looked at the other raccoons. They were eyeing me, the glow in my direction. I had a second to react. I turned to the right and made a grab for the nearest tree. I yanked and pulled and twisted the biggest most accessible branch all while Dex was screaming and writhing on the ground, trying to fend them off.
I pulled until the bark cut my hands and until it gave way with a satisfying snap.
I brought it in front of me just in time to see two raccoons making a frantic scramble for me. I whacked it across both of their heads, sending them flying a few feet, landing with a thunk like furry, ravaged golf balls.
I bellowed something like a battle cry and ran towards Dex, holding the branch high above my head like some demented warrior and brought it down on the crazy beasts. They yelped in pain, as did Dex, since I was hitting him too, but they didn’t let go. The sound of their teeth furiously making a meal out of his clothing, or him, caused the sickest, deepest panic within my heart.
I stepped back and took a proper swing as I had before, like a golf club, just another day on the driving range. It cracked against the jaw of the raccoon on Dex’s leg and within seconds I brought it across the body of the one on his chest. I might have been yelling the whole time, I wasn’t sure. It was just pure instinct.
The raccoons were still alive. I hadn’t killed them. I’m sure I would have cared in some other life but right now it didn’t mean anything to me. They were just as good as dead. But they did stagger off into the forest, all of them disappearing as fast as they had appeared.
I threw the branch to the ground and stood over Dex triumphantly, my chest heaving. He stirred, a good sign, and looked up at me.
“Can you make it?” I asked, holding out my hand for him.
He nodded and cried out as he took my hand and I pulled him up. I still felt oddly detached from him but I was glad to see he was still alive. Obviously, or I wouldn’t have gone so literally “to bat” for him.
We hobbled back together to the campsite, one mentally and one physically crippled camper coming right up.
* * *
Things back at camp weren’t any better. The wind was gusting more than ever, the kind that knocked over our coffee cups and made the picnic table creak uneasily. The sound of the surf was monstrously loud and within seconds of our arrival, the tarp above the picnic table came loose and was whipped away into the forest, crashing against the trees.
We made a dive for the tent. I ushered Dex inside, snapped up the lantern that was knocked over by the door and quickly went around to all the tent pegs, pushing them deeper into the ground with my boot. I hoped the tent would hold, I could almost see it wriggling out of the ground, desperate to come free. I picked up the heaviest pebbles I could find and started piling them on top of the pegs for safe measure. The wind came at my back like a battering ram.
I had done what I could. I removed my puke–stained jacket and threw it on the picnic table, hoping that any future rain would clean it. It took five seconds before the wind picked it up and tossed it away. I leaped into the tent before the wind could take me too, zipping it up behind me.
I put the lantern on the ground and looked over at Dex. He was sitting on top of the sleeping bag, shirt off and pant leg rolled up to expose the fresh wounds. The first aid kit was out and he was fumbling with it awkwardly.
“Hold on, let me,” I said, scooching over as the wind rattled the tent walls furiously. The noise was deafening.
I told him to lie down and try to relax. I looked down at the chest wound. It was on his left pec, a nasty looking slash that bled profusely. I looked away and focused on the shaking blue tent side. I took a deep breath and pushed down the waves of nausea that were still hovering around the surface of my stomach. I had dealt with a peeling leper baby, even though I dealt with it by passing out. I had to deal with this.
Dex was shivering, either due to shock or from being shirtless in the icy wind that managed to trail inside through the tent’s pores. I had to act quickly. I poured out a whole bunch of antiseptic onto a clean cloth and pressed it against his chest. He winced from the sting.
“Easy there, kiddo” he said through gritted teeth, his eyes closed, head back.
“Tables turned, hey?” I asked. He had to do something very similar to me in Red Fox. Now it was my turn to play nurse. “Maybe we should avoid all animals from now on.”
“Agreed,” he whimpered as I dabbed the wound clean. I applied some sticky yellow iodine and clean gauze and pad, securing it with a medical bandage.
“Do you have any clean shirts?” I asked.
He nodded, still in pain. “One. In my pack. It’s red.”
I went over and found it and slipped it over his head, careful not to touch the wound. He sat up and looked down at his leg.
“What are the symptoms of rabies?” he asked in a dull voice.
“It would be hard to tell with you,” I joked quietly and got to work on his leg. It wasn’t as bad as the chest, which was a relief, but it still looked pretty dirty and nasty. “I’d be more worried about tetanus. You’ll have to get a shot when we get back.”
Our eyes met at that. The thought of getting back home seemed almost impossible at this point.
“How are we going to do that?” he said.
I shrugged helplessly and finished up. “Anything else I can do for you?”
“Jack and a cigarette.”
I found the nearly empty bottle at the side of the tent and handed it to him while he brought out his cigarettes and tried to light one with his gold lighter. His fingers were shaking too much to catch a spark, so I took the lighter from him. I flicked it on and leaned over to light the cigarette that dangled from his twitching lips.
He kept his eyes on me while he sucked back and blew the smoke off to the side of him. Normally I would have objected to him smoking inside the tent but seeing the state he was in, I didn’t care. I was finding it hard to care about anything, really.
I took a sip of Jack myself, enjoying the heat it produced in my throat, and lay down on the sleeping bag, staring up at the ceiling.
After he had a few drags and my view was started starting to cloud over with smoke, he cleared his throat and began tapping his fingers nervously.
“What is it?” I asked sleepily.
“I don’t know where to begin,” he answered.
It was all going to come out. I knew it. I didn’t have the strength to keep things from him anymore. I didn’t even know if I could trust him but it wouldn’t make a difference. I knew he already thought I was nuts. I had nothing to lose.