Things Go Bump In the Night
by Brat Farrar
I never expected to be wandering the world on foot, a spatula my only visible means of protection, with a half-crazy person for a traveling companion. But then, that’s not the kind of thing one envisions for oneself, is it? I mean, it’s all high-paying jobs and happily-ever-afters, and then suddenly you’re standing all alone by the side of some anonymous highway, clutching a spatula and a roll of paper towels. Well, maybe not the paper towels, but you know what I mean. Life does this sudden twirly thing on you and there you are. With a spatula and a vengeance.
The spatula, that’s no one’s fault in particular. And the vengeance? Well, that’s another story entirely, and one I’m still piecing together. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
Two separate stories–or perhaps not. It’s hard to say where one story ends and another begins, sometimes. Often we don’t realize that a new story has begun until we are well into it, or even until after it’s been finished. How did I end up by a highway with a spatula and a roll of paper towels as my only possessions? Ah, now there’s a story worth telling. I wish I knew more of it so I could tell it to you properly.
This much I know for certain: I had an ordinary life–as much as any life is ordinary. I had a B.A. in some innocuous field–something like accounting, I think–a boring but well-paying desk job, my own closet of an apartment. I had friends, family, a car, plants . . . I had a life.
And then I was standing by the highway, clutching the aforementioned items, in the very late watches of the night. My first thought was that it was some incredibly realistic nightmare, my next was to drop everything and run for home so I could call mom. But I couldn’t remember where I was, or where home was, for that matter. It wasn’t amnesia–I remembered who I was and as much of my past as anyone ever does, except for certain small details like phone numbers. Addresses. Names. Even what exactly my job was–or rather, had been. Any fact that might have helped me get home was gone. Even my own last name. As I discovered later when there was more light, I had a grand total of $52.47 in my pocket, a blank “puddle-jumper” licence, and nowhere to go.
I should have cried at that point, I think, but I didn’t. The paper towels and spatula made the whole thing too surreal to cry over. Any way I figured it, they just didn’t fit. In any case, it was good that they were there. They gave me something to worry about besides all my losses, and something to distract me from the fact that no one from my life was likely to notice my absence any time soon. People came and went constantly at my job–I remembered that much, at least–so they weren’t likely to call in the bloodhounds when I didn’t show the next morning. I didn’t call home much, and visited only around Christmas–and that wasn’t due for a while yet, so no rescue party there. I had no close friends, and my plants were all cacti. It seemed likely that my life would just sort of continue without me, until my rent came due or someone in the family died.
I was very happy to puzzle over the inexplicable paper towels and spatula.
I was less happy about the twig which snapped behind me. Although I did not spin around in panic or scream, I will admit to readying myself to use the spatula as a weapon. At the time I didn’t really have any idea how to use it effectively, but I was prepared to give it my best shot and trying not to freak out about it.
Then someone ran into the tree to my right and swore. And not in English. This time it seemed appropriate to turn around, and I did so, holding my spatula at the ready and still without any real plan of action. After all–and this was what I was really trying not to think about–what good would a flimsy, buck-fifty spatula do against some of the things which were bound to be running around somewhere nearby? But I refused to act like some idiot from a horror movie, so I had to at least make the effort.
“Um, hello?” While that was probably the lamest thing I could have said, at least I didn’t squeak. “I, um, don’t suppose you know where we are? Only, I’m about as lost as humanly possible.” Which was something else I really didn’t want to dwell on.
The person swore again–it’s odd how you can tell when someone’s swearing, even when they do it in another language, isn’t it?–and added in English, “No, I don’t. And you’d better shove off now.”
It was a guy, and a rather irritated one, by the sound of it. However, if he was warning me off, he probably wasn’t planning to rob, rape, or murder me, so I ignored his advice. “I don’t have anywhere to shove off to.” He muttered something particularly virulent-sounding at this, and swore again. But he didn’t sound angry so much as in pain. “Look, are you okay?”
There was that long slithery-scrape sound you get when you lean against a tree trunk and slide down it until you’re sitting, followed by a long silence, although under the circumstances any silence would have felt long. Finally he sighed. “No, I’m not okay. You really ought to go, but as long as you’re here. . . .” He shifted against the tree and swore again, more softly this time. It was odd–he swore in a foreign language, but spoke English without an accent. “Do you have any bandages? Or something that could be used for bandages?”
“No,” I said, now understanding the reason for all the swearing. “But I have something almost as good. Would paper towels do?” They were pretty low-quality, and would probably disintegrate too quickly to be effective, but it would be better than ripping the arms off my sweater.
Apparently the maybe-foreign guy followed a similar line of logic, because after another, shorter pause, he said “I guess so,” and tried to stand up. He didn’t manage it, falling back against the tree after a couple of one-handed attempts to get to his feet, and I began to wonder just how injured he was.
“Don’t–” I started to say, putting out the hand with the spatula, and then decided that was pretty silly and shoved the spatula into a back pocket instead. Either he was in no condition to hurt me, or was a really good actor, fully capable of tearing my head off, and the spatula would only irritate him. “Here,” I said, and stepped into grabbing range.
Once I got that close, I could see what the why he was so irritable. He had a hole in his shoulder, big enough for me to put my thumb into, and it looked like it was still bleeding pretty heavily, so I handed him a wad of paper towels without hesitation. And then I looked away, because the moonlight was making the blood all shiny, and I’d never done well with that sort of thing.
“Thank you.” He sounded less irritated and almost grateful, which was a little awkward. I turned back, with an attempted smile, and didn’t look at his shoulder or the stained hand which was now pressed to it.
“No problem,” I said, which was true, even though I kind of wished it wasn’t. There were many other situations I’d rather have been in, and none of involved strangers with holes in them. Well, not holes oozing liquid which should really have been inside–and I really didn’t want to think about that. “Er–anything I can do to help?” Not that I particularly wanted to do anything that might involve touching someone else’s blood, but it seemed the polite thing to say, and if I remembered anything about who I had been, it was that my mother raised me to be polite.
“Not really. These will be sufficient for the moment, I think.” The wad of paper towels he held pressed to his shoulder was soaked through, black with blood. I hoped that it only appeared black–there were things without red blood, and I didn’t want to deal with any of them. Most were entirely unfriendly, and those that weren’t still tended to have a rather nasty sense of humor.
But this person seemed too intent on stuffing his shoulder with paper towels to be contemplating mischief, however benign, so I decided not to worry about that possibility. Besides, my feet were beginning to hurt, so I sat down and pretended the ground was drier and warmer than it actually was. And that I couldn’t see the growing pile of blood-soaked paper towels.
After a while, bits of me went rather numb and faintly tingly, and my pants had gone quite definitely wet. I didn’t know what time it was, but evidently it was late–early?–enough for dew. For some reason I was wide awake–even though I was positive I’d always been an early bird, and not a night owl–and although I’d never been a thrill-seeker, sitting around in unfamiliar forests at night with a stranger who’d been shot in the shoulder wasn’t what I usually did for fun. But every time I tried to think of something to say, the words either slipped away or ended up sounding so inane that I gave up planning and simply spoke.
“You have anyone looking for you?” I said it as casually as I could manage, which wasn’t very, but he didn’t seem to notice, instead continuing to work his way through the roll of towels at a worrying rate. For a moment I thought he hadn’t heard me, but then he shook his head, hair shining silver.
“No. No one. You?” He sounded faintly rueful, and when he turned his head, I saw he had several long scratches down one cheek and a scar that made his mouth quirk up a little on one side.
“No,” I said, but glanced away because that wasn’t true. “Maybe. I don’t know.” My hands looked alien in the moonlight.