Fire in the Woods

It was President’s Day, and there were no classes.  My friend Denny and I had decided to build a fire in the woods.  We didn’t plan on being there too long; we were going to a party afterwards.

I sat sprawled on the dilapidated beanbag chair in my cramped dorm room, waiting for Denny to call.  He was my only friend with a car, and didn’t seem to mind giving me lifts.  My roommate had left to grab a bite to eat, and I had the place to myself.  He was a soft-spoken farm kid who ardently loathed my affinity for sixties rock.  

Sometimes I longed to be back home where I had control over my domain.  Perhaps the uncertainty of college life was getting to me.  Still, I refused to become one of those weak-willed freshmen, another hapless victim of homesickness.  With a twist of the plastic wand dangling from the blinds, afternoon sunlight cut through the dim room sending dust particles flittering through the shafts of light.  I turned on some Stones, plopped back down on the beanbag and dozed off.

The phone rang, jarring me awake.  How long had I been out?  I fumbled for the receiver, answering on the third ring.

“ Hey, Mel, pick you up in five.  Be ready!  Oh, and bring any beer you have.  We’ve got ladies coming with us and they’ll be thirsty.”  My brow furrowed in concentration as I struggled to picture the inside of my refrigerator.

“ I’ve got half a case of Bud, best case scenario.”

“ Okay, see ya in a bit.”

I changed the CD, singing along to The Doors as I crammed my backpack with beer.  I also stuffed my dark green Kipton College sweatshirt into the pack and put two Swisher Sweets in my front pocket.  I left with the music blaring, another jab at my roommate in our endless battle to annoy one another.

I emerged from the dormitory, squinting.  There was no sign of Denny so I bummed a cigarette from a classmate and chatted about an upcoming assignment on The Odyssey.  Within minutes a black Bonneville pulled up with tires screeching and horn blasting, each honk sounding more insistent than the next.  

“ Chill the hell out!” I shouted as fellow students turned to see what the commotion was about.  As soon as I was in the front seat, Denny peeled out.  The malodorous smell of burnt rubber wafted in before I managed to close the door.

“ What’s the rush?” I asked as I tossed my backpack in the backseat.

“ You’re messin’ with my timetable!” Denny said snidely, cranking up the stereo.  “  I’ve got a date with destiny!”

“ You mean, we, right?”  

“ No seriously, her name is Destiny!”  Dry sarcasm was his specialty and I was apparently due for a hefty helping.  

The first time I had met Denny was at one of his infamous house parties.  As soon as my friends and I had walked into his apartment, he seemed to single me out, delivering a baneful, loathing stare.  Being a naive teenager and not wanting to back down, I took the bait and stared right back.  Finally, Denny seceded, and yelled from across the room, “ Who the hell are you, and why are you here?”  Inebriated and slightly intimidated, I gave him a look as if to say, Is this guy crazy or what?  Denny’s expression grew sour, on the cusp of indignation.  I was just about to turn and leave when he burst out laughing.    “ Hey, I’m just screwing with ya, man!” he relented.  “ You’re here because this is a party.  I’m Denny, and this is my place!”  He rushed over, threw an arm around me, and chummed it up as if were old friends.  Sure, Denny was smug, even arrogant at times, but he was a good friend.  Plus, he knew a lot of girls.

“ So is Destiny bringing any of her stripper friends?”  

Denny looked me in the eyes, giving me his undivided attention, road safety be damned.

“ Mel, bud, this is your lucky day ‘cause Destiny’s roommate, Lisa, is all about you.  She remembers you from some fraternity party we crashed a few weeks back.  But beef up the vocab, cause she’s a poli-sci major.”  We pulled up to the girls’ dormitory.  Denny strummed his thumbs on the wheel, humming out of tune.

Partying in the woods, a Kipton tradition, was a welcome respite from the barrage of papers and exams.  Truth be told, I was burnt out.  What was the point anyhow?  Bust my ass to graduate just to be ushered into line at the unemployment office?  But the alternative not only brought parental disappointment but likely a blue collar, minimum wage job for eternity, which was motivation enough for me to soldier on.

“ Forgot to tell you, Lisa’s friend Molly insisted on bringing this guy Jake from her film class,” Denny mentioned, as if his casual delivery would counteract any adverse reaction from me.

“ Well, that’s the cost of doing business, I suppose.  In this case, getting Lisa to come,” I replied evenly, although I was secretly peeved another guy was tagging along.

“ Apparently, he’s down on his luck.  The girls thought a night out would do him good.”  As if on cue, the back door opened.

“ Hi, Denny!” one of the girls, perhaps Destiny, chirped cheerfully.  She wrapped her arms around Denny from behind, and he forced out a laugh.  Lisa and Molly followed, and brief introductions were exchanged.  They had brought a case with them; more than I had expected from girls of Kipton.  Maybe Denny had landed some decent girls for a change, ones who wouldn’t flirt just to bum a cigarette.

“ Thanks for bringing booze!” Denny said, genuinely appreciative.  “ Saves us a trip to the store.  Hey, move over!” he urged me with an elbow prod.  “ Jake needs to get in.”  As I slid over to the middle hump, the passenger door opened and a guy looking like he just walked out of post-apocalyptic El Paso made himself comfortable, spreading his legs, crushing me up against the center console.  I awaited his greeting but he maintained his silence.

“ Mel,” I finally said, extending my hand, after it was apparent he wasn’t going to introduce himself.

“ Jake,” he muttered, almost inaudibly.  A foul odor, somewhere between stale sweat and burnt cigarettes, wafted from his direction.  Maybe it was his weathered leather motorcycle jacket that reeked or perhaps the ripped wide-brimmed cowboy hat, which probably hadn’t been washed in years.  The car filled with raucous chatter as we headed out of town and towards the woods.  Denny and Destiny were arguing over directions like a married couple, and talking with Lisa was impossible from the front seat.  I had no choice but to strike up a conversation with Jake.

“ So, where’re you from?” I asked in my most polite voice.  Robotically, he turned his head towards me.  A patchy black beard covered his slender face.  His complexion reminded me of a worn baseball mitt.  His eyes were bloodshot, and he spoke in a low, emotionless tone.

“ Tipowana, Michigan.  It’s a town full of phonies and wannabe gangbangers.  I hate the place, I really do.”  Okay, rough start.  I refrained from further questioning.  I cursed Denny under my breath for getting me into this awkward situation.  Suddenly, Jake began rolling his head around slowly.  With a wry smirk, he gradually sped up his head turning.  Was freaking out new acquaintances his idea of entrainment?  Even stranger, I was the only one who appeared to notice.  

Before I could ask him if he was alright, he suddenly stopped, whipped his head around, and stared me down with a devious, yellow-toothed grin.  “ Ever smoke weed?”  Before I could respond, he continued, “ You look like a clean cut sort of kid.  You’re probably freaking out, sitting next to a dude like me.  Bet your parents, teachers, pretty much everyone taught you to stay away from my type.”  

“ Only if the bad influence was a cowboy named Jake.”  I could tell by his hesitant smirk that my witty retort had caught him off-guard.

Jake rubbed his chin, as if searching for the perfect comeback.   “ Just say no to drugs!” he hollered, followed by a yeehaw!  Everyone laughed, unware of the context of the comment.  His attitude instantly flipped from hostile to playful, and he chuckled to himself, drumming his fingers on the dash.  He proceeded to tell me to take his harmless banter at face value and that it was in his nature to mess with people.  I told him it was cool, although it was most certainly anything but.


Fifteen minutes into the agonizing drive, I was at my wit’s end.  Jake’s foul stench was becoming more than I could bear.  The hump in the seat was gradually wedging further up my rear.  Finally, the urban landscape transitioned to rural and soon we had crossed a familiar stone bridge; we were close.  Denny turned off onto a dirt road leading to an old forest preserve which had fallen victim to state budget cuts.  I spotted a neglected wooden sign with vines snaking up its posts, a welcome to a camping site long abandoned.  

We came to a small clearing with a fire pit.  Before the car had even come to a stop, I nudged Jake, prompting him to exit.  My mood instantly improved as I took in the fresh forest air.  My main priority, besides keeping my distance from Jake, was properly introducing myself to Lisa.  As the girls and I chatted, Jake inspected the pit, poking piles of ash with his feet.

 “ Got any lighter fluid?” he demanded hastily as he stared intently into the charred ash, as if searching for some hidden meaning.

Denny rummaged through his trunk.  “ Yep, right here!” he called out triumphantly, bringing it over along with a couple of beach towels and beers.  “ Here you go ladies.  Only the five star treatment this evening.”  With the grace of an experienced gentleman, Denny snapped out the towels, laying them down perfectly.  

“ Thanks Denny,” the girls giggled in unison.  Beers were passed around.  

“ If we run out I’ve got half a case in the car,” I explained, hoping Lisa would be impressed with my forethought.

The girls smiled warmly, and Lisa looked at me adoringly, uttering a sincere,       “ Thanks Mel.”  

“ Hey Jake, why don’t you be a pal and scrounge up some firewood?” Denny suggested.  Jake lit a cigarette.  He let it dangle from the corner of his mouth, smiling crookedly.

“ Yeah, I’ll take a walk,” he complied before grabbing a couple of beers and stuffing them in his pockets.  He ventured off into the woods, the sound of snapping twigs and crunching leaves reminiscent of a lumbering beast making his way through the underbrush.

I sidled up to Denny and kneeled down, helping crumble newspaper and break branches for kindling.  “ This Jake character is one weird dude. What’s his deal?” I whispered.

“ Nah, he’s harmless.  Just shy.  Besides, without him, the girls wouldn’t have come, so just be cool.”  I asked the girls about their classes as I emptied the pit of beer bottles and realigned the rocks that formed the rim.  

Denny got the fire going, despite almost singeing his eyebrows in a lighter fluid infused fireball.  I was just getting acquainted with Lisa, a hazel eyed brunette with a tendency to stutter and an affinity for cheesy comedies, when Denny rudely interrupted.

“ Mel, can you find Jake?  We need that kindling!”

“ No prob,” I groaned, standing up, noticing Lisa’s subtle frown of disappointment.  “ Get some tunes playing.  But don’t run your stereo too long, I don’t want to be stranded out here ‘cause of a dead battery.”

“ Relax, dad!  I’m an adult now!” Denny scoffed.  Grudgingly, I entered the woods to track down the rogue cowboy.  Soon thereafter, I spotted Jake’s hat poking out from behind a towering oak.

“ Hey, Jake!” I called out.  Startled, he cocked his head to see who was coming.  Warily, I approached.  A pile of branches were at his feet.  He stood there looking perplexed, sipping his beer, and clutching a small plastic bag.  Upon spotting me, his hand shot into his pocket, stuffing the bag in, and pulling out a tissue.  He proceeded to blow his nose rather obnoxiously.

“ Party of one out here, or what?”  His blank stare did not waver.

“ Just taking a break…from it all.  Isn’t it peaceful out here?  Why go back?”  An uncomfortable silence followed.

“ You alright?” I finally asked.  “ You look a little pale.”

He leaned up against the tree, his face going slack.  “ Yeah, just been thinkin’.  Nature is good for thinking you know, real quiet, no distractions.”  I nodded in agreement.  “ Want a beer?” he offered.  “  I have an extra one.”  I nodded again, in the hopes that appeasing him would conclude our awkward exchange.  

He handed me his open can of beer.  It was almost full, so I didn’t complain.  He dug into his pocket and pulled out another Icehouse.  “ So, where do you call home in this pitiful place we call Earth?” he asked, cracking open the beer.

“  The Baltimore area.”

“ I wish I wasn’t from Michigan.  I’m never going back.  Then when someone asks me where I’m from I can say, I’m from nowhere!”  Jake’s idea of small talk sure was uplifting.  He dug into his pocket, taking out that plastic bag.

“ Where’s nowhere, that by Detroit?” I joked.  He didn’t seem to hear me.  As he fumbled with the bag, I casually inquired, “ What’s that?”

“ Just something to make this trip a little more interesting,” he replied slyly, taking something and placing it in his mouth.

“ Oh.”  Every instinct screamed for me to leave.  

“ Do you want some?  It’s good.  You can’t make this stuff in your kitchen.  This will let you see the unseen.  Yeah, it’s that good.”

“ Maybe later.”  I didn’t even know what drugs they were, but it didn’t matter.

“ Oh, that’s right, you don’t do drugs!  That’s cool.”

“ So why don’t you like Michigan?” I inquired, in a desperate attempt to change topics.  Another awkward pause.

“  It’s all just so screwed up,” he blurted.  “ Just like school.  If there’s a professor who has it out for you, they can give you a bad grade and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it!”  His voice was elevated, his rage evident.  “ Goddamn bastards can do anything they want.  Well I say, screw all that!”

“ Yeah, you hit the nail in the head.  Now, come on, we’ve got a fire to build.  Don’t want to keep the ladies waiting,”  I spoke calmly, attempting to defuse the situation.  His shoulders slumped and he nodded, his head bobbing rhythmically like a buoy.  We guzzled our beers quietly, scooped up the branches, and headed back.  He chucked his empty into the underbrush while I held onto mine so I could dispose of it properly.  Apparently his love for nature condoned littering, but I kept my mouth shut; anything was liable to set him off.

Soon we had a roaring fire going.  Jake seemed to loosen up, and we were all having a good time.  As the beers flowed, I disregarded Jake and his potential for explosive outbursts.  The Rolling Stones blared from the car’s exceptional sound system, and every now and then one of us would sing along.  The sun was beginning to set as we partied under its orange radiance. The soft breeze rustled the surrounding tall grasses, providing a serene setting.    

After a brief discussion, we concluded that no one had an overwhelming desire to hit the bars, so we collectively decided to stay a bit longer.  Lisa nuzzled up close to me.  The warmth of the fire felt good on my face.  I closed my eyes, lost within a moment of complete Zen.  Don’t get too close.  Feels too hot.  Am I on fire?  I suddenly came out of my daydream, startling myself in the process.  Had I just momentarily blacked out?  Maybe it was the booze, but my head was swimming, and an overwhelming sense of euphoria was washing over me.  Just stay right here, don’t move, don’t panic, my subconscious advised.  Maintain your orbit around the comforting bosom of your consciousness.

“ Wanna play truth or dare?” Lisa asked with a nervous laugh.  The other two girls shrieked with excitement.  Denny’s face lit up, recognizing the perfect opportunity for his adolescent libido.

Through the flames, Jake eyed me with a crooked grin, as if amused by some inside joke.  Periodically, the crackling flames would leap higher, sending embers soaring, temporarily blocking him from my view.  As the flames receded, there he would be on the other side, grinning sadistically.  Something was off.  I felt strange.  Stranger by the minute, in fact.  Jake consumed my attention.  I felt as if he was liable to crack in an instant, murdering us all.  I could just picture Keith Morrison narrating it in an episode of Dateline.  Was I the only one who thought Jake was on the verge of a psychotic break?  Was this all in my head?  

I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  I needed air, space. The chatter was incessant, buzzing in my ear.  Lisa was staring at me.  Surely she saw through my facade, sensing my panic.  I began to stand but she yanked me down.

“ Mel, you’re not getting out of this one!” she insisted playfully.  Get out of here!  Say something, anything!  You have to piss!  You need to make a call on your cell!  You think you see Kipton off in the distance, engulfed in flames and billowing smoke!  Anything to end this madness!  

Instead I forced a smile, and muttered, “ I’ll play.”  But all I could focus on were the glowing embers that would dance from the towering flames before encircling me and dissipating into nothingness.

The voices and laughter around me seemed to ebb and flow like the crashing waves of the surf.  Thoughts, fleeting snippets of brilliance, would come to me then vanish before I could even register them.  Jake sat alone, shrouded in darkness.  Good.  No one should go near him.  Malevolence seemed to permeate from his mere presence.  I was now thoroughly convinced he was pure evil, a by-product of one of Satan’s twisted experiments.  Maybe I should stop drinking.  Jake is staring at me, like he knows what I’m thinking.  Did he do something to me?  Why is screwing with my head?

“ Truth,” Denny answered with laughable bravado, jarring me from my daydream.  

“ Okay,” Molly began.  “ Have you ever done it in a public place?”

After taking a swig of beer, Denny replied casually, “ Yes…if you count the time I did it with you in the lobby of your dorm.”

A roar of laughter pierced the quiet night, disrupting the serenity of the park.  We’re too loud.  We’re going to disturb the delicate balance.  We’re asking for it.  This isn’t good!  

Molly fumed, “ You wish, you drunk pervert!”

“ Your turn,” Lisa said softly, turning to me.  “ Truth or dare, Mel?”

My head was spinning.  I understood the question, yet couldn’t seem to answer.  Look upwards, it will create a sense of space, which will calm you.  Focus on the stars, all the tiny specks of light sparkling and shimmering beyond a veil of absolute darkness.  Breathe.  The crisp forest air will do wonders; let it fill your lungs and reinvigorate you.  Expel Jake’s evil aura from your soul.  Cleanse yourself.  Your spirit is pure.

“ Come back to me,” I finally managed to mumble.  “ I’ll think about it.”

“ Oookay,” Lisa drawled, rolling her eyes, turning to Jake.  “ Truth or dare, cowboy.”

“ Truth.  There’s no hiding from it,” Jake stated matter-of-factly, glaring at me.  He removed his hat, set it in the dirt, and wiped his brow with his sleeve.  He began methodically rocking with his arms wrapped around his knees.  His forehead glistened with sweat in the firelight.

“ What do you regret the doing the most when you were drinking?”  As we awaited Jake’s response, I pulled a cigar from my shirt pocket, desperately hoping that the tobacco would calm me.  Instead, I just struck the lighter several times, the sparks captivating me.    

“ I was so wasted one time at this high school kegger that I couldn’t even find my way home.”

“ So where did you go?” Lisa inquired eagerly.

“ Ended up sleeping in a park bathroom stall.”  Everyone cracked up except me.  My attention had turned to the fire, which was crackling at an accelerated rate, the flames rising higher.  I desperately puffed on my cigar but it refused to light.

“ So did you ever make it back home?”

“ Don’t know why I even bothered to go back at all,” Jake seethed.  “ You know what?  To hell with home!  And to hell with this dumb game!  Here’s a truth for you: you all are a bunch of phonies!  I’m outta here!”  Silence shrouded the group like a sodden blanket, the droning of locusts and the trills of crickets reclaiming the night.  The raucous gathering now resembled a funeral.  Everyone was shocked by the outburst and avoided eye contact with Jake, except for me.  I could feel the resentment radiating from his hard stare.  

Finally, Jake stood and looked us over forebodingly before scooping up his hat and stomping off toward the dirt road.  Denny called out to him but he kept walking.  Molly rose as well.  She contemplated going after him, as she was the closest to a friend that he had.

“ Leave him be,” I uttered, my tone ominous.  “ He’s bitter, angry, and clearly on drugs.  He could hurt someone.  No one knows his state of mind, or what he’s going through…”  As I said this, the only feasible resolution suddenly presented itself.  If he was tripping, only someone on his same level could reason with him.  Jake had spiked my drink with who knows what kind of concoction, and perhaps, it was the drugs that had allowed this moment of clarity.  

It was my duty, my destiny, in fact, to personally handle the situation.  

“ Denny is the only one who can drive his stick shift,” I state sternly.  “ I’m the only one who can go after him.  Pack up and put out the fire.  Meet up with us down the road by the bridge,” I instructed, leaving no room for negotiation.  Denny nodded solemnly.  The girls remained silent.  

 Fear was long gone, supplanted with an overzealous confidence.  I was capable of anything!  The world was mine to mold.  Time to be a hero.

I flicked my cigar into the glowing embers of the fire and hurried after Jake, now a receding silhouette in the distance.  Soon I was panting, shielding my eyes from the cloud of dust in Jake’s wake.  It was as if he was shuffling his feet on purpose, creating a natural smoke screen.  Disoriented and unable to see, I panicked.  I felt as if I was lost within a violent desert storm, sand pelleting against my skin.

 Keep your wits about you, keep focused.  It’s all in your head.  

Through the haze, I could see the outline of a man with a wide-brimmed hat perched atop his head.  His shadow loomed disproportionally large over the road.  Suddenly, dark spots formed within the shadow.  Your eyes are playing tricks on you.  It’s the drugs, ignore it!  But I could not look away as I watched the spots begin to dance around, eventually forming a rudimentary face.  The eyes blinked several times before dissipating.  A hand then reached out; a scaly, reddish clawed hand.  I did not let the aberration deter me.  As if sensing my resistance, the hand suddenly went limp and receded into the shadows.  I sighed in relief, and pressed on.

At last, I caught up to Jake, and walked alongside him in silence.  He ignored me, continuing his brisk pace.  This was going to be one of those unforgettable, defining moments of my life, I was sure of it.  My heart raced and my stomach twisted in knots while I gathered my courage.  As we approached the two-lane highway, I broke the silence.  

“ You wanna talk about it?” I asked as we came to the bridge.  Jake bent over the railing as if searching for something.  Perhaps he’s looking for his sanity, I thought.

“ Nope.  Nothin’ to talk about, buddy.”  I joined him at the rail, and gazed upon the murky stream below.  The dank stench of muck and scum was overwhelming.  The muddy banks were bubbling.  Several grayish arms, some with sharp talons and others with claw-like pinchers emerged from the branches and debris.  Was I imagining this?  Or had the drugs taken over total control?  Maybe the figures were, in fact, real but could only be seen by those under the influence of reality-warping substances.  In other words, the drugs allowed me to see the evil.  Perhaps the drugs had been a concoction that Satan himself had stirred up before dispatching his minions to escort us to hell.  Their mutated faces were surfacing under their outstretched arms.  They coughed up mirth, moaning at the sight of us like mindless zombies.  Would our souls be forever lost?  

The only absolute was that if I failed to diffuse the situation, Jake would be dragging me down to hell with him.  What could I say to insure his safety as well as my own?  Our last hope of salvation was for me to play hostage negotiator.  If I did not save his soul, we were surely doomed.

“ When was the last time you visited home?” I began, struggling to keep my voice steady.

“ Over a year now,” Jake uttered in an uncharacteristically soft spoken and gentle manner.

“ It is possible to hate your parents and be homesick at the same time,” I said empathetically.  My eyes were fixated on the creatures rising from the depths, their mutated and grotesque faces contorted with sadistic pleasure at the sight of their prey.  They cried out, squealing like tortured animals as they struggled to pull themselves upwards.

“ I can’t go back.  I just can’t.”  Jake laid his hands on the stone railing with a resigned sigh.  He climbed over, and sat precariously on the edge.  “ At first I didn’t want to come out here to this fire in the woods.  I wanted to sulk in my room and hide from the world.  But something compelled me to come.  This moment of finality is our destiny.  As strange as it is, this moment feels right,” he decided, gesturing to the hellish scene below.

So he saw them too!  How had the drugs caused us both to have the same visions?  Or perhaps they were real, as inconceivable as that seemed.  Whatever the case, it was my move.  I wracked my brain for the magic words that would end this madness.  To occupy my nerves, I picked at a loose pebble in the stone support beam.  Daylight was fading fast.  I was running out of time.  I squinted down below, as if the abominations were merely an affliction of poor vision.  They were becoming more agitated as daylight faded into the dusk.  Scores of them had squirmed their way to the surface, only their legs now entombed in the earth.

At last, I said, “ I miss home too, but after college it will all be in the rearview mirror.  You can forge your own path, your own destiny.  But right now, we’re not thinking straight.  Why don’t you just sleep this one off, okay?”  Either by accident or on purpose, I was worried that he might plummet into the wretched, splayed claws of the demons below who were waiting to devour him limb by limb.

“ Each day that we’ve lived actually hasn’t really mattered,” Jake sobbed, face buried in his hands.  I’d never seen a man cry before.  A once brazen and imposing man had suddenly been emasculated before my eyes.  At a loss, I awkwardly placed my hand on his shoulder and told him everything was going to be okay.  He wiped his nose on his sleeve, sniveling like a toddler.

“ Screw it,” he mumbled as he took off his cowboy hat, tossing it over the bridge.  The monsters, now unconstrained and writhing in the creek with outstretched arms, gobbled it up eagerly.

“ Things will turn out alright.  Live for yourself, no one else,” I advised in a moment of perceived brilliance.

Jake’s somber expression suddenly turned maniacal.  “ Who the hell are you?  You don’t even know me!  No one does!”  My confidence plummeted, I had unequivocally failed.  The creatures below seemed to feed off Jake’s negativity, thriving on the dispossessed.  They circled in a frenzy of unbridled eagerness, squealing and churning with delight.  Some of the smaller ones began climbing up the muddy embankment.  They were coming for us.  The end was near.  

“ What do we do about them?” I asked, gesturing below.  “ Let’s take care of them first, then we can worry about the rest later, how does that sound?”  In a stroke of pure stupidity and desperation, I yelled at them to leave us alone, throwing several rocks in their general direction.  The things merely snarled and hissed at us.

“ I know you said, ‘you feel like no one really knows you’.  But someone will know you some day.  You’ll meet someone that will change your life.  You just have to solider on.”  Unfazed by my words, Jake leaned farther out from the railing, his arms trembling under the strain.  He peered downwards, the tendons in his neck so taut they looked ready to snap.  Although he grinned indignantly, his eyes told a sorrowful story of desperation.  

“ Maybe I should give in, let go and allow them to take me to hell where I belong.”

“ You’re not one of them.  That’s not where you belong.”

With no other options, I decided to take matters into my own hands.  I grabbed Jake’s arms and yanked him from the rail with such force I’m surprised his shoulder wasn’t dislocated.  The momentum sent him tumbling into the road.  His initial reaction of shock rapidly morphed into unbridled rage.  His hands balled into fists, his jaw clenched, and he seemed to growl at me as if gearing up for the ultimate blow.

“ You’ll thank me later, when you come down,” I said calmly.  “ You don’t want to be taken by them.  It may have seemed like a good idea at the time…”  

The Bonneville pulled up, its headlights cutting through the hazy darkness.  Jake turned his piercing, vindictive stare toward the car.  

“ Run me over you bastards, you can’t hurt me!” he bellowed, followed by a cackling laugh.  “ This nightmare is just beginning!”

Molly hurried from the passenger side door, desperate to pacify the situation.  But Jake was like a ravenous animal, and her words went unheeded.  Denny exited the car to aid in the subjugation.  Our efforts only seemed propagate his mania.  In the ensuing melee Molly was pushed to the ground.  Denny and I pounced on Jake, wrestling him to the asphalt.  

“ You’re too late!” Jake cried, eyes fiery and bulging.  “ They’ll come for me, no matter what!  It’s hopeless!  Let me go!  I’m doomed!”  

“ Crap,” I muttered, having momentarily forgotten about the drugs coursing through my body.  I turned to see humungous, discolored hands with tattered flesh and elongated fingernails reaching over the crumbling stone railings of the bridge.  Squatty, toad-like creatures with jagged teeth and stubby arms were emerging from the underbrush.  Not only to save Jake from himself but also to avoid my own mental collapse, I needed to get us out of there immediately.  I foresaw myself and Jake screaming about being devoured by ghouls from hell as the cops threw us into the back of a paddy wagon.  No, I mustn’t let it come to that.  

“ Sorry, cowboy,” I huffed, towering over Jake, who was restrained by Denny’s half-nelson.  With enough force to kick a field goal, my foot connected, hitting the side of his face with a resounding whack.  Blood spewed from his mouth and he rolled over, rambling incoherently.  Denny and I managed to wrestle him into the backseat.  The girls, not knowing what to make of the predicament, sat in silence while Jake lay at their feet, eyes wide, blood and tears cascading down his cheeks.  Lisa took it upon herself to stroke his head, which seemed to calm him.  In minutes he had transformed from a raging lunatic to a docile mute.

“ What’s he doing?” I managed to ask, frantically checking the mirrors to insure the demons were not in pursuit.

“ He’s just sprawled out awkwardly, gazing up at me in awe, like he thinks I’m an angel or something.”

“ Maybe to him you are.”

For the girls’ safety, we dropped them off first, although Lisa insisted on staying.  Every time she stopped stroking Jake’s head, he jerked up, crying, “ Don’t stop!  They’ll come back!”  It was at this point I informed Denny about the drugs, which he had pretty much surmised.  But when I explained I was under the influence as well, he complimented me on my exceptional ability to play it cool.

We had come to the consensus that the authorities may misinterpret his deteriorated mental state, so we deemed it best to take him to a hospital.  Denny parked in front of the emergency room entrance and was gone for several minutes, explaining the bizarre situation to the personnel.  While we were waiting, a rather large crowd had formed around the Bonneville, drawn by Jake’s spastic screaming and nonsensical rambling.  The nurses ended up sedating him before wheeling him off.  

After dropping off Lisa, of who I was sure would never want to see me again, we made our way to Denny’s place and spent the night discussing the incident and scarfing down pizza, awaiting my eventual return to normalcy.  

Reaching for another slice, Denny quipped, “ So want to try another fire in the woods next weekend?”

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