A swift sudden noise in the forest; Rune looked to his left, scanning the dark woods. Another noise, similar to what he’d just heard, only slower, not as close. An animal, raccoon perhaps. He couldn’t remember if raccoons hibernated. Maybe a fox, then.
Hey. Rune stopped, looked around quickly. Dark woods to his right, snow-covered shoreline in front of him, a large sheet of frozen lake water to his left. No sign of life anywhere, save for his own breath vapor. But for the first time since walking away from the front door of his house that evening, he was certain that he wasn’t alone. When he had been stumbling through the woods towards the lake, he’d thought he heard something or seen someone a few times, but each time he’d quickly dismissed the idea. Yet the voice he’d just heard, was accompanied by something he hadn’t experienced in those earlier moments, a presence, a tangible force he could reach for and grasp, if only he knew where it was. Perhaps this presence had been following him all through the woods; perhaps it had just arrived, had just announced itself.
Options. He could call out, something brilliant like who’s there? If he was right, they’d probably answer. But what if he were wrong and there wasn’t anybody there, he’d look like a fool — but if he was alone, nobody would notice. Unless there was somebody there, but they hadn’t said anything. Say nothing, then. But if someone was there, was trying to get his attention, that person, that presence, it would see that he’d stopped — and then he’d certainly look like a fool.
Compromise. “Must have been a fox.” Worst case scenario (someone was there but choose to remain silent) was that he looked a little odd, talking to himself out loud. But he wouldn’t look foolish.
He waited. No sounds, no movements — no presence. Nothing.
His ears picked up the mechanical hum of the dam, and Rune resumed walking. His left knee still ached, but he found walking actually helped ease the pain, so he continued, his ears alert for any further noises from the forest to his right.
Fourth Saturday, Late Afternoon
Rune was sitting at one of the small square plastic tables at the Pizza Place, staring intently at his meatball sub and soda. Always a quick eater, the slender teen with wavy hair slick with grease had forced himself to slow down this afternoon. The longer he took to eat, the longer he could sit in the restaurant without feeling the need to leave or having to answer any questions (can I get you anything else?), and the longer he sat here meant more time he wasn’t out in the frigid air, wandering aimlessly around Bark Bay, where weeks of steady snowfall had turned the sidewalks into narrow canyons of dirty snow and black ice. He couldn’t go home yet — well he could, but his mother would have already left with with his brother several hours ago and wouldn’t be back until late that evening, and he didn’t want to be alone in that house, or to be precise, not be alone —
“Hey.” As he felt the slap on the back of his right shoulder, Rune lurched forward and began rising and turning in indignation. But he tripped over his own feet, his body stumbling forward and nearly crashing into the table. Forcing his body back into the plastic chair, Rune finally looked up at the person who’d slapped him; he didn’t recall the name of this guy or where he’d seen him before, but there was enough friendly recognition in the bearded face looking down at him to give him reason to relax.
“Fencing tournament, last spring.” He was wearing a navy blue baseball cap, and talked in a casual tone that assumed Rune wouldn’t recognize him. “I was hanging out with Double-J that day, you and I got into it a little.”
Rune’s mouth opened slowly. “Yeah. Right.” He snapped his fingers, then glanced up at the insignia on the baseball cap, the interlocking N and Y. “Yankees!”
The guy in the baseball cap smirked. “They got the money, and the brains!”
Rune picked up the argument like an actor reciting his lines. “Only brains they have, is the ones they buy!”
They swapped names and shook hands, and the man in the Yankees cap then sat in the chair across the table from Rune, and stroked his beard. “So tell me, you often sit alone at restaurants?”
The question sounded to Rune like the opening line of a sales pitch. “Only when I’m hungry, and by myself.”
The man slapped the table. “Ha! Well, I need to eat too, don’t mind if I keep you company, do ya?”
Rune shook his head. “No.” The teen realized he had already forgotten the name this guy had given him, and he was still bothered by his overt friendliness, which seemed far more expansive than their brief encounter several months ago had warranted. But he also recognized his presence would help keep his mind off the events from earlier that day. Getting hurt at the fencing tournament, Rex’s awkward card — the trip back home, had she really said those words — “Not at all.”
The man (early twenties, Rune guessed) took off his Yankees cap, scratched his head, then pulled the cap back on. “So tell me, how’s that sub?”
Rune glanced down at his nearly empty plate as if he where searching for words, but the nearly devoured sandwich gave him no inspiration, like a pile of junk mail. “I dunno. OK, I guess.”
“Mind?” His arm had already reached across the table, he had nearly touched the sub before glancing up at Rune. The teen nodded, there was only a bite or two left so he told the man to take it, finish it off. Without a word the man grabbed the sub, and shoved the entire remnant into his mouth — “Oh, muh guh!” The partially masticated bread and meat, mixed with red sauce and yellow cheese, was on full display in his gaping mouth as he looked up at Rune — “Gon geh me un tuh!”
After swallowing, the man ordered his own meatball sub, and asked if Rune wanted anything else. “This one’s on me, bud, you get what you want!” Rune thanked the man, and decided this was an opportunity to discover if the Pizza Place’s cheesecake was everything it was cracked up to be. The man across the table seemed to be genuinely enjoying Rune’s company, and the teen thought how this man in the Yankees cap was like a lot of young adults in Bark Bay — brash, unmannerly, even rude at times, but also disarmingly unpretentious and generous. Rune still didn’t remember this man’s name, but realized that his not knowing, oddly enough, made him feel more comfortable.
“So tell me — ” Rune had been staring out the large window, turned his attention back to this strange friend — “you going to Double-J’s party tonight?”
The question took Rune entirely by surprise. He hadn’t seen or heard from Double-J in weeks, not since that night the fencing team had gone up to the city to see “Hamlet.” Word had gotten around soon after that Double-J had left school entirely, and would no longer be fencing with the team. He hadn’t been to any of the practices, or the tournament at Midland, or the tournament this morning at the Academy. Rune wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that Double-J had moved away, far from the town he so often railed against. But he was still around, and evidently, hosting a party this evening. Rune shook his head — “Nah. Didn’t invite me.”
The man threw his arms back. “Ha! Well, consider this your own personal invitation.”
Rune quickly objected, but the man dismissed him with a wave. “So tell me, what you got planned that’s so important?”
A long walk home in the cold, and an evening alone with his father. Rune sighed — “So, where’s Double-J living these days?”
“Over at the Embassy.” Rune remembered being at the small apartment building once, to see a friend of his uncle several years ago; the building had seemed older than any of its graying residents. “Said to show up at six, but if we’re early that’ll be his problem.”
Rune pointed at himself. “Think I should call him first?”
The meatball sub and cheesecake arrived, and the man told Rune not to bother calling. “He says anything ’bout you not having no invite, I’ll just tell him to go fuck himself.” They ate quickly, Rune finding the cheesecake was good, but not quite up to its reputation. As they prepared to leave, the thought of meeting Double-J again caused the teen to consider changing his mind, to recall a fabricated appointment he really shouldn’t blow off — but then decided that the uncertainty of the party was preferable to the certainty of the long walk home.