No Man’s Woods

by Hector

Somewhere along the tall grass line Robert lays flat and still, eyes wide open as the helicopter comes down with its wandering white light. It passes him over and follows through into a forest. He remains – stiff – breathing so slow that he isn’t quite sure anymore if he’s taking in air, only that he sweats and his heart races. Goosebumps, numbing prickling extend from his belly and arms. Somewhere beyond the mountain hills, past Bee’s Bliss topped brown caps, the chopper cuts the air with its twin scythes, rushing nose first back into Los Angeles, disappearing into a ridge of dark clouds.

A dandelion vibrates, its plumes shooting out past his raven hair and towards the scene below; black streets and high rises and the yellow lights of life moving between them.

It has only been an hour since his escape and already the world has begun it’s chase. Helicopters with men perched on their arms, guns out and pointed down to the valleys and streets and broken macadam and pavement. He sits only in his bush, prostrate now. His head comes up and he looks around shoulders high raised. The climb is steep and he goes up with spider-like dexterity, all limbs touching the floor in his quick crawl. Armed robbery does not deserve this desperation.†1

Over the hill, his legs buckle and he slides some space down. The dirt rises to his face. His legs are weak, an ankle broken from a fall from the prison fence. Legs cut and dragged from curlicues of barb.

He steps hard on the mountain. Dirt digs deep into his legs and he winces. Over the hill, past a tagged concrete retaining wall and onto a street. Apartment complexes lay in front and him in the basketball court with a rimless board. A highway somewhere below. Distraught, blemished stucco walls a collection of blackened windows. To his rear, Sierra Madre Apartments. A light flashes on a window. He runs out. Out of the low fence guarding the community, out to more rising houses going up the hill and a small mall strip with spotty lighting. In the corner, a gas station. A chopper. Cop cars. He ducks behind a dumpster in an alley. Nothing goes past him. The noises don’t even die, just fade and he observes it in the corner. Back to him, he peels his clothes with a pinch and inspects the grime on them.

I look like a janitor.

He runs past the strip mall to Sallie’s motel. A half-aged woman†2 behind scratched bullet-proof glass leans against her folded chair with her mouth ajar and snoring harsh with chokes. Robert stands in front of her and sees the camera in the corner. He walks away, into the parking lot. Foot stomps on steel, somewhere above. A man opens a door to room 626* with a candy colored woman behind him, him excited at the door and her folding money into her purse.

I need to get out of this fucking city. Out to Nevada. Rorie’s waiting.†3

He feels his chest pocket, the shiv bulges through. He looks at the row of cars, the Honda won’t be missed.

He walks fast and leans close against the door, not so much looking at locks as he is to the darkness encroached on him. To empty low-lit streets crawling with high shoulders cats, to the other side where a drunkard pisses against a green waste container. Toilet and kitchen all at once, the man dips his hand inside as he pisses on graffiti.

“Fuck.” Robert whispers. He shoves his shiv down the lock. It’s just the sharp end of a spoon cut jagged and a drum stick from his prison music class. Heated, blackened, warped steel taped to a thin club. It fits the lock just fine. He wiggles the shiv, hearing clicks and snaps within the lock. Fuck it. A palm strike to the base of the shiv. He winces, his hand numb and red. He switches hands and nudges the shiv. Something snaps. He turns to it to the side. Up. Down. And punches the shiv with the side of his hand.

The Honda is so old it breathes out smoke when he opens the creaking door. There are three different shades of paint on the car; red hood, black trunk, white car doors. A frankenstein’s monster car so eager for death it doesn’t even cry and alarm when the door is broken and the plastic taken off underneath the steering wheel. He gets his shiv and snaps and reconnects wires with a zapping noise of electrical current running through. The alarm whines briefly before the hum of an engine shuts it. He closes the door, but it flares out. So he holds it with two fingers while he takes the car off parking and into the street. It’ll do.

The car shrieks and cats scatter behind metal gates. Metal gates with thin interstices like the bodies of harps. Meows and hisses, the Gothic tune of a city in its nightmare dream. Helicopter roar. Engine cries. Animals and humans moaning into summer warm night. The woman behind the glass sniffs the air and her head shakes back and forth, eyes lazily coming up to the smell of burning rubber.

#

Ten miles out he made it off the freeway and into the wilds of the valleys proper, where road turned to dirt and macadam into pebbles and stone. Valleys of dry Californian terrain. Scorched grass drained of all it’s color, blistered white and golden across mountain ranges. A boulder protrusion shaded him across moonlight skies and the roaming helicopter eye. He lost grip for a moment. The wheels turning cross sighted, striking guard rail. His body flung forward, face against the dash board and nose bleeding heavy onto his prison jump suit. Gray, pale.

Robert shook his head and brushed against the car door with his shoulder. It creaked open and he slipped out like some test tube anomaly, an aberration of God bloody and coiling onto the floor. Smoke piled above him, smog too. He looked down to his rear where his car sat at the tipping point, a steep decline onto a mountain where cactii and sedge and kerosene grew wild. Bushy balls of wandering weed and thorn falling limp and easy against the breeze. He wiped his nose and his forehead and made his face bloody like a savage stuck in modern time. Robert came up, still low bodied, and retreated into the night staying clear of the car headlights.

The helicopters were gone. It did not stop him from sweating. He wasn’t even in Los Angeles anymore, the sign said so. He came up to it as he scaled the steep climb around the mountain and onto more bending roads. Havenbrook, 3 miles remaining. In front of him a flat bed where the ranks of high-risen oaks hid any street lights available. Not that there were many, it was desolate.

He slides down. Rolls. Bumps his body against thorny bushes and landed flat on cracked pavement. A car drove fast past him. A man screamed crazed in the air. He raised his head. Quick, duck. Another car. Speeding behind, two drag racers with the dust behind them.

“They’re gonna die. Crazy fucks.” Robert said and limped across, he held to his arm where each nudge made his shoulder pop in a way it shouldn’t have. It was two hours of travel through the forest and the thought was simple; if he did not know where he was, how would the police?

Where he presumed he was going was Havenbrook downtown. Where he actually went was into an endless tree line. He prefersthe named streets of Los Angeles. The sunset boulevards and hollywoods and Los Cielos drives. Now all he had was fire scarred trunks and pot holes filled with dead moles and the shake of leaveless branches, a squawk of crows. A deeper dark into horrible nature.

Somewhere in the forest he strips himself and throws sweaty rags to dry on the oak branches, they snap under the weight of his clothes.

It was two past midnight, though he knew not time when he heard the crunch of wood and a rolling of a marauder truck trampling through the forest. The earth shook. He did not fall, too exhausted to move. He just stood in the headlights, breathing hard. His face gaunt against the light streaming through. The engine rolls on for some bit before collapsing into silence. His heart races but his body is stiff, everything in him pressing against the seams of his flesh from chest to feet and begging for him to run. But he can’t. Or won’t. His palm against a tree, his legs bent and his body curved. Face dirtied, a caking of Havenbrook forest that drips debris.

“You alright?” A voice behind the light, just shadow to him.

“I’d be better without the light.” Robert says.

“Oh, you’ll be alright friend.” This man says.

“We were just going on huntin’.” Another.

The third man stands in the jeep. He grunts, perhaps in the darkness looks peculiar at Robert and goes back to sitting.

“Pretty rude to accost a man, don’t you think?” Robert turns his body upright. His feet burn just shifting his weight, how many cuts are on his toes?

“Pretty rude to throw yourself at our car, don’t you think?”

“I didn’t throw anything at anybody. I was just walking.”

“Just walkin’.” The first man turns and laughs at his friends. Robert can’t see their faces but they smile in the dark and it recedes just as quickly. A pair of yellow teeth. The third man sitting is not amused.

“No need for hostilities, friendo. I’m Jacob.” Jacob walks forward with his hand out. “The other one is Alton. The one sitting is T-Dog.”

“That his name, T-Dog?” Robert turns to him with a tightened face.

“It’s the name he told me to call him, so it’s his name.”

“I’m Lenny.” Robert says. “I got lost in the woods.”

“Doing what?” Alton asks, he wobbles in place, almost drunk. One arm holding the other, crossbow by the side of his legs.

Robert stares and shifts his sight to Jacob. He gulps, lips quivering.

“My girlfriend dumped by ass by the side of the road.”

“That right?” Jacob opens his mouth wide to laugh. A laugh never comes out.

“She called me a cheater and slapped me right out the side of the road.”

“So you decided to walk through the forest?”

“I needed to clear my head.”

“Is it cleared?”

“No.” Robert breathes. “I feel fucked.”

“And let me ask, did you cheat?”

Robert exhales and looks at the floor, then comes up with a smile. “That I did, that I did.”

Jacob smiles and turns around, his head fidgeting some like a bobblehead as he cackles. Alton laughs a little, T-Dog just stares from his car. Robert has been speaking for minutes now and he still can’t recognize their faces, not against light. They—to him—are just talking shadows. Voices in the dark.

“Well, friendo, would you like a ride back downtown?”

“To Havenbrook?”

“Thas right.”

“I wouldn’t mind, no.” I said.

The two jump on their jeep and Robert follows, with the machine creaking and bending to warped pain as I sat middle of them all—shoulders smothered in between two heavy breathing specimens. Men with high and pronounced brows, with their eyes lazed and relaxed and the dark in their eyes growing as we traveled through shadowy forest. Brothers. They looked like brothers, all with the stupid buck teeth and the same colored flesh.

“You family?” I asked.

“What gave it away?” Jacob says.

“Yous looked the same.”

“I hope not, they’re ugly sons of bitches, ain’t they?”

“I can’t tell in the dark.” Robert says.

“Good.” T-Dog mutters. The jeep hiccups and things in the back bump against the trunk. Things of metal and flesh, some deep sound of secrets. Alton turns his head slow, to me and then to the car, then turns it back with some droning movement. Robert feels the sweat on him, down his arms and he stands straight. It’s all made him nervous. The people, the sounds, the trail that keeps on winding. How they even navigate this dark is beyond him, the lights only shine a few feet away and each turn is a hazard for death. Yet travel they manage, through branches so sharp and severe that he swears the wrong veer would have his head decapitated.

Leaves brush down his face. Small pine needles cover the top of his head. His shoulders slouch forward.

“Is it alright if I get off here?” Robert says. Jacob whistles and nods his head. “I said is it alright if I get off here!”

“Oh shit, sorry. What was that?” Jacob turns. Robert wants his eyes on the road.

“Can I get off?”

The jeep stops and they all jumped forward.

“You wanna get off?” Jacob asks. “We’re in the middle of the forest, ya sure?”

“I’m positive.”

“Friendo, I’d be a bad neighbor to let you run off. You know how deep we’re in the boonies?”

“I prefer it that way, believe me.”

“Come on, have dinner with us at least. We’ve got a camp site nearby.” He says. “You can eat and then it’ll be a few hours walk to Havenbrook.”

“I ain’t hungry.”

Jacob’s eyes narrow in the dark. He turns off the highbeams. An owl hoots, crows fly. The branches shudder in the dark.

“Neighbor, I cain’t let you go off and have my conscious all muddied. Let me feed ya, then I can leave ya.”

All three look at him. His eyes dart across their faces, some more leaned in than others. Same faced curiosity, eagerness amongst them. Somewhere beyond, he swears he hears a chopper. But perhaps it’s just the fauna and the noises of the forest come to haunt him, approaching him with dogged fury.

“Alright. Alright. I can have some dinner.” Robert says. “But then I gotta get on my way.”

“That’s fine, neighbor. All anyone expects. Right?”

Jacob starts the engine. The lights cast shadows against the trees. He purses his lips and whistles. Alton turns his head torpid and quiet. T-dog tucks his chin and leans against the door and mutters to himself, not the phonetics of words but other, more brutish and primal sounds. Utterances of the Paleolithic.

The two jump on their jeep and Robert follows, with the machine creaking and bending to warped pain as I sat middle of them all—shoulders smothered in between two heavy breathing specimens. Men with high and pronounced brows, with their eyes lazed and relaxed and the dark in their eyes growing as we traveled through shadowy forest. Brothers. They looked like brothers, all with the stupid buck teeth and the same colored flesh.

“You family?” I asked.

“What gave it away?” Jacob says.

“Yous looked the same.”

“I hope not, they’re ugly sons of bitches, ain’t they?”

“I can’t tell in the dark.” Robert says.

“Good.” T-Dog mutters. The jeep hiccups and things in the back bump against the trunk. Things of metal and flesh, some deep sound of secrets. Alton turns his head slow, to me and then to the car, then turns it back with some droning movement. Robert feels the sweat on him, down his arms and he stands straight. It’s all made him nervous. The people, the sounds, the trail that keeps on winding. How they even navigate this dark is beyond him, the lights only shine a few feet away and each turn is a hazard for death. Yet travel they manage, through branches so sharp and severe that he swears the wrong veer would have his head decapitated.

Leaves brush down his face. Small pine needles cover the top of his head. His shoulders slouch forward.

“Is it alright if I get off here?” Robert says. Jacob whistles and nods his head. “I said is it alright if I get off here!”

“Oh shit, sorry. What was that?” Jacob turns. Robert wants his eyes on the road.

“Can I get off?”

The jeep stops and they all jumped forward.

“You wanna get off?” Jacob asks. “We’re in the middle of the forest, ya sure?”

“I’m positive.”

“Friendo, I’d be a bad neighbor to let you run off. You know how deep we’re in the boonies?”

“I prefer it that way, believe me.”

“Come on, have dinner with us at least. We’ve got a camp site nearby.” He says. “You can eat and then it’ll be a few hours walk to Havenbrook.”

“I ain’t hungry.”

Jacob’s eyes narrow in the dark. He turns off the highbeams. An owl hoots, crows fly. The branches shudder in the dark.

“Neighbor, I cain’t let you go off and have my conscious all muddied. Let me feed ya, then I can leave ya.”

All three look at him. His eyes dart across their faces, some more leaned in than others. Same faced curiosity, eagerness amongst them. Somewhere beyond, he swears he hears a chopper. But perhaps it’s just the fauna and the noises of the forest come to haunt him, approaching him with dogged fury.

“Alright. Alright. I can have some dinner.” Robert says. “But then I gotta get on my way.”

“That’s fine, neighbor. All anyone expects. Right?”

Jacob starts the engine. The lights cast shadows against the trees. He purses his lips and whistles. Alton turns his head torpid and quiet. T-dog tucks his chin and leans against the door and mutters to himself, not the phonetics of words but other, more brutish and primal sounds. Utterances of the Paleolithic.

#

Alton stokes the fires with the burnt end of a long branch, tapered into a spike at its end he moves the red coals out the way to the side. Around a circle of rocks, small sticks of leathery meat glow and glisten against the heat. Orange-hued, dark orange and drained of all liquid. Small droplets fall and steam against the burning floor. Robert looks up, his legs close together and eyes shifting between the three. Alton has not let go of his crossbow once. T-Dog stares at the floor, spitting and watching the long drool fall into black spots.

Jacob is still whistling. Still smiling.

“Where do you come from, friend?” Jacob asks. He has one hand on a knife and from his pocket takes out a small block of wood. He shaves the corners, first.

“Nowhere.”

“Nowhere ain’t a place and everyone comes from a place.”

“I forgot.”

“He forgot.” T-Dog says. “Then try and remember. Where’d you come from?”

“San Diego.” Robert says. “Parents were from Mexico.”

“Mexico. Mexi-co. You miss it there?”

“I’m not from there. Like I said…” Robert turns up. “I come from San Diego.”

“What’d you used to do down there, friend?”

“Nothing important.”

“Not important he says.” Jacob turns to Alton and smiles. “What’s your name again?”

“Lenny.”

“No. I mean, what’s your real name?”

“I told you. It’s Lenny.”

The shavings drop down near the fire place where they whittle and curl, their exposed ends burning on both sides down the middle. Leaves scatter about them, somewhere beyond the huddle of woods he hears the engine droning into dry night air. An owl. A crow. A coyote. Animals calling out warnings to each other.

“How about this friend, you tell me your real name and I’ll tell you mine.” Jacob smiles.

Roberts eyes look up to Jacob past the fire, where the fire seems interred in his chest. His yellow grin beyond towers of small tongue shaped flame flicks. Jacob puts down the cube. It’s a lamb. He keeps his knife and digs it into the gap of a water cooler, where twisting it with creaking turn, he pulls the top open. There’s some sloshing sound like fat slapped around, meat turning, flesh pulsing. Jacob—whatever his name is—takes out a beer. He stabs a hole near the top and drinks from it.

“Want one?”

“No.”

“You sure. I think you’ll need it.”

“Why would I need it?”

Jacob looks at Robert as he drinks, tilting his head back. Dribbles of scum colored piss water drop the side of his mouth. T-Dog turns on his little log, almost snapping it under his weight. Alton taps the side of his crossbow with his fingers, a piano piece of taps.

“I think it’s important to know each other’s names.” Jacob says. “Those that have them, at least. I wouldn’t trust anyone with no name or who don’t care to give me his name. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“No.” Robert puts the meat down in front of his feet unto leaf dense floor. “I don’t trust anyone, period.”

“Now what kind of life have you lived to come up with that?” Jacob asks. He taps Alton on the shoulder with no response. Alton is too busy with his crossbow, picking at a string like a lute. An abrasive chord, one that makes the fire rise quick.

“Who are you, huh?” Robert asks. “What the hell are you hunting this late in this place?”

“Plenty things, friend.”

“Where? What?”

“Keep talking.” T-Dog murmurs. “It’s better when they’s talk.”

“Shut your mouth T-Dog.” Jacob says. T-Dog glares at him, red veins pulsing in his small skull. His bald head folds, there’s a ruffling in his beard. A swatsika along his neck creases into itself and he stands and walks into the forest, opposite the truck. Jacob eyes him, following what appears to be a shadow into an even darker forest. There’s something of a flash of white across his face, perhaps a smile though Robert can’t tell. No one can.

“I have unique tastes.” Jacob says. Alton stands this time, his eyes going left to right as he follows T-Dog. Robert’s hands are folded in on themselves and they shake, he must hold them together to stop his fingers from tumbling.

“The animal I hunt is a difficult animal to find. Though it is everywhere.” Jacob says.

“What makes it hard to find then?”

“The time and the place and the mood required.”

“Mood?” Robert asks.

“Yes. There’s a feeling in the air you’ve got to have. Luck’s breath down your spine.”

“And you hunt this thing for fun?”

“Sometimes I eat it too.” Alton says. “It’s like absorbing its strength. It’s fucking wild, man.”

Robert’s eyes blink one at a time, slow. His heart beats past his bones, pulsing at his flesh. His thumbs and fingers and lips pulse. Looking down, he spots the meat on its burnt twig. What is it? Blackened, burnt and fibrous. Dried to sawdust, mealy.

“What do you hunt?” Robert breaths fast.

“Why were you getting chased by the police?” Alton leans back into shadow.

“What do you hunt?”

“Things that want to disappear.” Alton stands though Robert doesn’t see it. He only hears the log turning and the cooler rattling and dirt piled onto fire. Robert puts a hand on his mouth, the sweat makes his palm sleek.

“Oh God.” Robert puts a hand over his mouth, the urge comes up to his throat. He leans forward, it spills between his fingers. He turns. Trips. Last dinner falling before him in oatmeal looking pudding, acidic smelling bile brown and grey and wetting dirt that Robert squishes with his hands. He stands. He runs out to the forest. Jacob stands, unmoving. Not even eye blinking. Two white holes in that great darkness.

“You’ve got ten minutes, friend.” Jacob says.

#

He aims for nowhere, he just runs and he travels far. On his torn down sneakers blackened and dirtied with leaves and grass on a day so dry his throat scratches with thirst. He has no drank anything for a day. He looks back because he’s forgotten to count, time is just another enemy. No eyes. No heavy breathing but his own. A branch breaks. He turns.

A crow jumps twice along the floor and they spot each other. The one flies away, the other remains quaking. He pushes himself off the tree and hears the whizzing. Something pins itself against the tree. He feels it on his neck, something that makes his hair rise. He turns. The arrow shakes in place. Robert looks out to where it points to. Alton stares back, not an ounce of fear or anger or life on his face. Curly red hair falls in front of him, he bends down and tightens the arrow. Robert steps forward. To run at him? Swing?

He puts a step down and feels the rabble in the ground, shifting yellow grass that chafes against his heels. The Jeep. It springs light against all of them, so much so that even Alton puts his hands in front of his face.

“He’s over here.” Alton waves his hand. Robert blitzes for a tree thicket full of fat oak trunks. The Jeep goes to one side, drives around and back to the other.

“Why are you doing this?” Robert screams. “What’s in it for you?”

No answer. The Jeep travels fast and with such loud murmur that all noise dies. Animals scatter off the trees, arrows fly past his face.

“Fuck.” He turns his face, his cheek bleeds. It settles hot all the way down his neck. He looks up where branches are scarce and the night still visible, off to stars distant and few. His eyes narrow—one of the stars move. Or lights. Or helicopter.

He pops his shoulder forward and runs into the woods. The Jeep turns its wheel, T-Dog inside struggles to steady the wheel. It reverses with heavy cranks of the engine and follows Robert. Alton shoots another and it chips at Robert’s arm. But he holds steady, keeps still. He runs to the moving light, somewhere beyond the forest. Moving fast, eager.

There is no more sweat to give. No more tears or pain. He meets the forest break, where the trees are sparse and the rolling fields gold with grass even underneath the night. Eyes drawn forward. He extends an arm out. The helicopter light casts in front of him, it flashes beyond.

And he drops. Arm extended out, he falls forward. Screaming. Leg in burning pain. It goes up his body. Below him, crawling out of a thicket of grass and leaves and dropped acorn the ground shifts. An arm clings to his leg, a knife in his heel. He kicks out. He presses on the hand. It lets go, Robert drags himself away and climbs the side of a tree, breaking bark with his grip. He turns.

The monster comes out from his dirt home. Leaves falling down the side of his face, small bits of dirt falling like rain. Jacob.

He picks up the knife and walks forward, Robert tries for the hills, tries to run himself under the light. He falls and waves at the helicopter.

It passes him by.

“Mighty fine night, isn’t it, fried?” Jacob leans over. The knife in his hand specking Robert’s face. “Mighty fine night for a hunt.”

“Stop. I didn’t do anything.”

“Everyone does something. Everyone deserves it.” Jacob brings the knife over. “I mean, youse was locked up, weren’t you?”

Locked up. Deserved, perhaps?

Jacob puts his hand in front of his face. He screams. Alton doesn’t bother loading his crossbow, he just stares coming out of the foliage. Jacob brings the knife down, through a hand.

And to Robert it looks like a glint of moonlight, the hole in his hand pointing straight moonward. A bloody sneer of a crescent moon through his palm. And a red smiled wound all across his face.

 

Mortiarties Notes

1 To be fair to the LA police, Robert Ramirez’s fourteen year sentence may have had more to do with the two bullets he stuck into a fifty-six year old man’s legs. A senior by the name of John McCleef who stopped Robert by placing his hand on Robert’s shoulder. Saying, with the arrogance of a man who still had his knees, “You don’t have to do this, son.”

I guess Robert really showed him he did, in fact, need to do this. 

2 This is Sallie. A drunkard. She downed half a Jack Daniel’s by afternoon on January 14th, 2019, the night of Robert’s escape.

At least drink the good stuff.

3 Rorie Chamberlain. Presumed red-head romantic partner of Robert. They met after she saw him on a youtube video called, “Dumbest Robbers #231”. She fell in love at first sight and allegedly tried sneaking in her panties to through the small holes of glass during visiting hours. I tried contacting her, with no avail.

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