Chapter 4 ~ The Child

The sun hung at its peak as they set out into the wilderness; a warm, enveloping May sunshine which would have been pleasant under any other circumstance.  But now it felt hot as they trudged along in an awkward silence, looking around at the hilly fields and clumps of trees, but not at each other.  At least, not at the same time.

Liseli continued to walk behind Russ.  Not that she was afraid of what was ahead.  No.  Not at all.  Of course not.  And if she had been, she wouldn’t be hanging behind Russ, because . . . well . . . well, he wanted to be out front, anyway, running up the hill like there was nothing the matter.  She shook her head, regrouping her thoughts.  Where does he think he’s heading, anyway?  There’s got to be some better way to go about this; some way to read the landscape and figure out the most likely place to find water.  But she could not think of one.  Wilderness survival had never been one of the most important issues in her life.

Their current path led them toward the mountains.  The distant peaks stood out on the horizon, like arrows pointing to the sky.  Snow frosted the tops, and clouds wreathed them like puffs of whipped cream topping a chocolate dessert.  Which I could really go for right about now . . . .  She smiled briefly.  Well, the mountains are as good a place to head for as any.

Liseli listened to the pattern of Russ’s breathing — a hungry suck at oxygen, a cough, a sniff and a weak exhale, a gurgled attempt at clearing his throat, a few wheezing intakes and sighing expirations.  He would catch his breath for a few steps, but it would clog again, and he’d choke again.  She should be doing something about it . . . but what?  It was his cold, not hers to deal with.  She shook her head and didn’t say anything, fixing her gaze on all other things around her.

Except for Russ it was quiet and still, and she wondered if that meant anything.  Birds chirped and insects made their lazy buzzing noises, but something was missing. She realized, after a while, that it was the hum of traffic.  There were no roads and no cars in sight or sound.  Empty, peaceful, as if they were in a big bubble, everything slow and measured inside.  White trillium grew in abundance in the shaded areas, and she thought, It’s really quite nice here, whatever here is.  Lots of flowers . . . pretty flowers . . . and quiet, so quiet . . . .

Liseli shook her head again, and looked back at Russ walking with his head down.  She thought she should strike up a conversation just to keep her mind from wandering.  But no . . . she couldn’t talk to Russ.  She didn’t know what to say.

Russ’s pockets were stuffed with napkins from the Burger House — he had taken a handful to use while working and now he counted them, wondering if they would last until they found some form of civilization.  If not, he’d have to use his sleeve, which he knew well enough would annoy Liseli.  Five napkins.  He’d have to limit himself to wiping or blowing his nose only when absolutely necessary.  He listened to her walking behind and to the left of him.  He knew she must not like the sounds he made, but when he tried to be more quiet it only seemed to make things worse.

The sun inched toward the west, unwavering in intensity.  He was very thirsty now, and still no water in sight.  Had they just passed by and not noticed?  If so, Russ felt that it was his fault because he was leading the way, though he sure as hell didn’t know how that happened.  He could feel her stalking behind him.  He couldn’t stop without her criticizing him for not knowing what he was doing.  Why didn’t she just take the lead?  He knew she wanted to, she was the manager, after all.  She must be staying behind just to . . . to get back at me for . . . something.

Soon it was all he could think about — his need for a rest and some water, to just collapse on the ground and shut his eyes, versus his inability to stop and admit that he couldn’t go on.  He was barely aware of his surroundings anymore, save for Liseli’s steady stride behind him.

“Look!”  Liseli reached out and seized his arm, yanking him to a stop.  “There, water, I think.”  She dropped his arm like a dead thing and trotted forward through a heavy growth of clover, toward a narrow furrow in the ground by a line of trees bordering the field.

It was an anemic little creek, crowded by long grass and weeds, but it looked clean.  The hour or so of walking had made Liseli thirsty as well, and she cupped her hand under the slight flow, then lifted it to her mouth and drank.  Russ crouched down next to her and followed suit.  The water was lukewarm, but after their hike it seemed cold and refreshing.  Russ splashed some on his hot, numb face.  He sat back on his heels and shook damp hair from his eyes, but suddenly felt a wave of dizziness.  The next thing he knew he was lying on his side on the ground.

“What are you doing?”

Russ rolled back up into a sitting position and muttered, “Lost my balance.”

Liseli frowned, and he lowered his head, fixing his gaze on the half flattened grass blades poking out underneath his hand.  His mouth was still dry despite the water, and he started to think about drinking some more.

He was still staring at his hand, thinking about moving somewhere, when Liseli’s voice cut back in: “Are you tired?  Do you want to rest here?”

He looked up at her.  She was still frowning.  “Russ?  Hello?”

“I’m sorry . . . um, what?”

“Do you need a rest?” she said, pronouncing each word slow and distinct.

He shook his head, keeping himself steady with his hands flat against the ground.  “I’m fine.”

Suddenly, she was kneeling next to him, her shadow falling over him.  He looked up in surprise, and froze.  Her expression was business-like, but his pulse quickened as she brushed aside the hair from his forehead and laid her palm against his skin.  After a moment she removed it.  “You’re burning up,” she said, pressing her hands together.  “I think you’re running a fever.”

“Just a little.”

She shook her head.  “You feel like an overdone burger patty.”  She stood up and paced a few steps away, stopping to survey the landscape.  “We should really be moving on.  We need to find . . . something . . . before it gets dark.  And I’m starting to get hungry . . . .”  She looked over her shoulder at him — he hadn’t moved.

“Right,” he replied.

“But you’re not going anywhere like that.  Why didn’t you say something?”

“Why?”

“You’re sick, you should have said something before collapsing.”

“I didn’t collapse.”

“Yes, you did, you fell down right after taking a drink.  After walking all that way like your heels were on fire — you’re not supposed to overdo stuff when you’re sick.”  Liseli crossed her arms.  “Now you can’t even get up from the ground.  I’m no nurse; I don’t know what to do with a feverish person in the middle of nowhere.  I don’t know how we’re supposed to find any help, now.  That was . . . Russ!”

“What?”

“Are you listening to me?”

He thought for a moment.  “No,” he decided, “what was the last thing you said?  I mean, before . . . .”

“Go to sleep,” she snapped.  “Rest for . . . for half an hour.  Then we have to keep going.  You think you’ll be able to get up after a half hour?”

“I can get up now.”  He struggled to his knees.  He felt a wave of nausea, then Liseli’s hands on his shoulders.  She pushed him back to the ground and ordered him, in her severest managerial tone, to sleep there.

A hot fog descended over him, and Liseli’s face above him was fuzzy, now.  Her voice sounded distant, as if she stood on one of the mountain peaks, and the sound echoed down to him.  But the words were lost.  He closed his eyes, feeling like he was falling backwards, ever so slowly, into dark waters, sinking down . . . .


Liseli crouched next to Russ for a few minutes, her arms wrapped around her knees.  He looked to be sleeping — eyes shut, ragged breathing slow and measured, though still shallow.  He didn’t look well at all.

“Damn it,” she muttered under her breath, and stood.  She didn’t know if the nap would make things better.  But there wasn’t anything else to do — he couldn’t go on, and she couldn’t pull medicine out of nowhere.

Liseli paced back and forth for a few minutes, mulling over everything that had happened.  It just didn’t make any sense, and the more she thought, the less sense it made.

She tried to sleep, but she couldn’t relax.  The ground was lumpy, and when she lay down on the grass little ants and other insects started to crawl over her.  How could Russ sleep so deeply?  Too deeply, maybe, like someone had knocked him out.  She stopped staring and got up again.  It was better to just keep pacing.

A little over fifteen minutes into the rest, Liseli looked up and saw a figure standing some distance away, across a field.  She caught her breath and stopped.  From where she stood it looked like the thin tanned frame of a small child wearing a white loincloth.  The child stared back at her.  He was bald.

“Hello!” Liseli called, breaking from her stupor.  The child didn’t respond.  Liseli threw a glance back at Russ.  He hadn’t stirred.  She turned back to the child and tried again: “Hello!  Can I talk to you?”

He turned slowly and began to walk away.  “Hey!” Liseli objected, “I just want to, I mean, I need some help, and . . . .”  He didn’t stop or turn back.  Liseli started to jog after him, but even though he appeared to move slowly he disappeared around a bend of trees before she could approach him.

Liseli followed around the curve of the woods, but she couldn’t find him.  She hurried on, up past other clumps of trees, but still there was no trace.  How could he get away so fast? she wondered, turning in circles.  He must have a little fort or some kind of hiding place.  She stopped and spoke into the seemingly empty woods: “My name is Liseli Luenford.  I don’t want to hurt you; I just want to talk to you.  I need to find out where I am, and my . . . my f-friend is sick, and needs help, and I . . . .  We need your help.  Alright?  Will you come out?”


Russ awoke still feeling dazed and foggy.  He sat up, an uncomfortable stiffness in his neck.  He choked and coughed on the gunk that had been building up and dripping into the back of his throat, then groaned, rubbing his face.  He was very thirsty, so he bent over the stream again, this time not bothering to use his hands.  It felt cool against his burning face, though his throat was sore and it hurt to swallow.  But he did feel somewhat better, after sleeping, and the water was reviving.  He sat back and looked around, slowly recognizing that something wasn’t right.

Liseli was gone.

Russ dragged himself to his feet and looked around again.  “Liseli?”  His voice came out in a hoarse wheeze.  He cleared his throat and called again, but still couldn’t manage any decent projection.

It doesn’t matter, she wouldn’t answer.

The thought stopped him cold.  He stood in shock as the realization hit him.  She had left.

He sank back down to the ground and sat there staring at his knees.  Was that why she’d been so eager for me to go to sleep?  So she could sneak away?

Of course.  How stupid of you.  Liseli doesn’t like you when you’re healthy, she’s not gonna drag you around when you’re sick.  Nothing but a hindrance.  Should have known.

He leaned over the stream again, and saw his reflection peering back up at him, warped and distorted by the rippling water.  He hung his head and squeezed his eyes shut, but in the dark he saw Liseli’s green eyes glaring down at him.  It made him feel angry for a moment.  She’d deserted him!  Sick to death and lost in the middle of nowhere . . . and she just ditched him!  Yeah.  I’d ditch me too.  But maybe if I wasn’t so sick, I could be . . . a help . . . .  No, who are you trying to kid?  Liseli doesn’t think she needs any protection, and certainly not yours.

Stop this.  Get over it, think, do something you stupid bastard!  He stood up, thinking he should try to find her, anyway — to hell with whether she wanted him around or not.  She was alone in an unknown place, after all . . . .  He felt a surge of dizziness and sat back down again, hard.  He took a breath, but the air felt like knives shoving down into his lungs, and he choked on it, coughing violently.  He thought he heard laughter then . . . he was sure someone was laughing at him from far away.

next: »