Wednesday, February 1, 2012
George didn’t own a rocking chair, nor did he have a fireplace in the living room of his small house in Teaneck, New Jersey, didn’t even like to read all that much. But he figured, what the hell, it’s my daydream, I might as well enjoy it. He knew he should not have come hunting alone in the dank, desolate woods of Northern Maine in late November, but none of his buddies could make it this weekend, and George was damned if he was going to let his five-day break from the job at the paper mill pass by without getting out and enjoying some fresh air and solitude.
Going off by himself in the woods was a piss-poor idea, George knew that—common sense dictated that you always take at least one person with you as well as let someone else know exactly where you will be when you’re traveling into thousands of square miles of mostly uninhabited forest—but he had hiked and hunted his entire life in some of the most remote and rugged areas this country had to offer, so it wasn’t like he had no outdoor experience. Besides, with his trusty hand-held GPS, how bad could things get?
Pretty bad indeed, George now decided. The goddamned GPS had crapped out on him two days ago for no particular reason that George could determine. It simply made the decision, somewhere inside its freakin’ soulless solid-state electronic guts, to take a break from operating, maybe a permanent break; George didn’t know. What he did know, though, was that without a working GPS and after his map book had been washed away during a river crossing, he was more or less totally screwed.
George unzipped the right front pocket of his insulated hunting jacket and pulled out his cell phone for what he guessed might be about the two hundredth time in the last two days, knowing what he would see when he powered it up but doing so anyway. The device clicked and whirred, eventually awakening from its slumber and informing George that, so sorry, there was still no cell coverage in this part of the God-forsaken northern Maine woods, and furthermore, its battery was getting dangerously low, so if he wished to make a call, this might be a good goddamned time to do it. He cursed under his breath. The damn thing was about as useful to him as the broken GPS. Two electronic paperweights.
His hands were shaking as he shoved the cell phone back into his pocket and re-zipped it. He had only removed his gloves for a couple of minutes, and his fingers were already stiffening and losing feeling. Dammit, it was cold!
George stopped in a small clearing and tried to get his bearings, knowing it was pointless but not having the faintest clue what else to do. The lowering sky was a dark grey, almost black; the sun a distant memory even though it was the middle of the day. Orienting himself direction-wise was a no go. The drizzle which had fallen pretty much constantly since, incredibly, just about the exact moment his GPS had given up the ghost was now increasing in intensity from a soft mist to a steady, slanting rain. The temperature was falling, too, and George knew he needed to find shelter and hole up until the weather cleared.
He had been walking nonstop for almost two days now and exhaustion hung on him like a cloak. Conventional outdoor wisdom dictated that when someone got lost they should stay in one place and wait for help, but George knew while that was good advice for a twelve-year-old who had become disoriented during a Boy Scout hike, it would do nothing to help him in his present situation. No one knew he had even come here, and as far as George could remember from his map book before it decided to go for a swim and never return, there was only one small town within twenty miles in any direction, so the chances of some random hiker or hunter stumbling upon him and helping him out of this mess were pretty slim. Almost nonexistent, when it came right down to brass tacks.
That being the case, George figured he might just as well keep moving. Maybe he would get lucky and stumble upon the little hamlet, and if he didn’t, well, he would be no worse off walking when the sun finally came out than he would have been had he stayed in one place. Either way, if he didn’t find that town, he was going to have some serious hiking to do once he was able to determine which way was south.
But now, hungry, tired, depressed and drenched, with a steadily lowering body temperature as an added bonus, George Hooper decided the number one priority was to seek shelter and wait out the rest of the storm, at least until he could get warm and dry. But where? Most of the trees in this thickly forested area were towering pines, their branches sagging from the weight of all the water collecting on their needles the past two days. Perhaps he could burrow under the branches toward the middle of one of the mammoth firs in the hopes of finding some dry ground.
George looked around for the most likely tree to begin burrowing into, and as he did, he again glanced up at the dark sky, at the clouds roiling high above the treetops. His breath caught in his throat as his brain at first refused to believe what his eyes were telling him. He stared without moving for a good sixty seconds at a thin column of smoke rising above the forest and disappearing into the rain and mist. A fire!
Whether the smoke was coming from a fireplace or a campfire or a cook stove, George had no way of knowing, but one thing he did know was that someone was near, and if someone was near then that meant food and warmth and directions out of here and maybe even a ride back to civilization if he got really lucky.
He couldn’t believe his incredible good fortune. He almost laughed out loud at the thought that he had been seconds away from crawling on his belly through the mud under a tree where he would have spent the next twenty-four hours or more cold and miserable, and now, because he just happened to look skyward at the right time, he might just be on his way home with a full belly and warm, dry clothes within hours.
Hefting his pack, which had started out heavy but was now even more so thanks to the water soaking the canvas, George angled in the general direction of the smoke, zigzagging through the trees, ducking under branches and putting up with ice-cold water dripping down his neck. He kept his eyes on the prize: that thin column of nearly-invisible wispy smoke, fearing that if he lost sight of it he might never relocate it.
After roughly twenty minutes of struggling, he trudged through a particularly thick line of trees into a large clearing and stopped dead in his tracks. Spread out before him was what had once been a tiny village, clearly abandoned years ago, probably decades ago. Hell, maybe even centuries ago. The remnants of about a half-dozen small granite foundations lined each side of a narrow, rutted dirt trail, which was barely wide enough to accommodate a car, not that any car would be able to navigate this rough terrain; even a four-wheel drive vehicle would get stuck trying to make it out here.
In addition to the ancient stone foundations, which George assumed had at one time held houses, a couple of similar but larger foundations—perhaps supporting a general store and maybe a police station or jail—sat in disrepair at the far end of the clearing. Weeds and scrub grass and even some fairly large trees sprouted out, around and through the foundations, giving the area a look of utter abandonment. The forest had nearly completed its reclamation of the lonely and isolated village which had been hacked out of it at some point in the distant past.
In his shock at stumbling upon this tiny deserted village, George had almost forgotten the trail of smoke he had been tracking and now looked around to see if he could find the person or persons responsible for the fire. At first he could see no sign of the smoke—he thought for a moment he had lost it completely and almost panicked—but after a few seconds caught sight of a wisp drifting lazily up and out of a red-brick chimney sprouting from the roof of a small log cabin off to George’s right.
The home was tucked into the very edge of the abandoned village and was clearly not part of the original town; it looked almost brand new. The construction looked square and shipshape, with windows and a door and a farmer’s porch running the length of the house.
George’s heart leaped with the thought that he was about to get out of this mess, then he was struck like a hammer by the obvious question—who in the hell builds a home way out here in the middle of nowhere, at the edge of an old housing graveyard? Even Ted Kaszinski, the old Unabomber himself, the guy with the grudge against modern technology who had terrorized the country for a time in the 1990’s with bombs delivered through the United States Postal Service, had lived in an area that was at least accessible to some conveniences. What had George stumbled upon? Some antisocial lunatic who might chop him up into little pieces and then feed them to his equally antisocial dog?
George laughed uneasily to himself at such a ridiculous notion. He just needed a little help, that was all, and undoubtedly whoever lived here would be happy to provide it.
Of course they would.
Jeez, get a grip.
But his nervous body refused to cooperate with his calm, rational brain. His breath came rapid and shallow and sweat dripped down his back as he stared at the strange village laid out in front of him, not a pleasant sensation considering he had been wet and freezing cold to begin with. George couldn’t imagine why he was so nervous and jumpy. He wasn’t a guy who spooked easily, and he should be jumping up and down screaming his damn fool head off in delight at the prospect of getting out of this mess, not standing motionless in the rain like some four-year-old kid afraid of his own shadow.