Into the Woods
by Vic Sizemore
It’s Saturday and Aaron doesn’t have to work at either job. His girlfriend Monica is working on her honors project all day. He decides to drive out to Flat Top Mountain and run the trails. He’s been reading Annie Dillard—he wants to achieve mind-meld with a weasel. Or a deer or a bear. In those woods, it’ll most likely be a squirrel. He wants the epiphany, the light-filled tree. He wants a moment that he can hold in his hand like a smooth stone from a stream that proves he has stood in that water.
Aaron puts on his Brooks trail runners and his black shorts that wick away moisture. He throws on one of Monica’s old sleeping t-shirts; it says MGWC Nursery School on the front. She’d worked there her first year of college.
Before starting his truck—and without consciously thinking about it—he pops open his glove box and gets out his wallet. He finds the twenty-dollar tip the girl Ginny had left him at the bar, with her phone number on it. He does not think about what he’s doing, he’s not letting himself, but underneath the surface, there’s the realization that this is what he’s been planning all along. He calls the number and Ginny answers.
“Hey,” he says, “it’s Aaron.”
“Wow,” she says. “You called.”
“I’m going out to Flat Top for the day to run some trails. I thought you might like to come along.”
“Hold on,” she says.
He starts the truck while he waits. It’s in the low forties still, supposed to peak over fifty today. He turns on the heater and rubs his legs with his left hand. The vent blows cold mildew-tinged air on his chest.
Ginny comes back on the phone and says, “How long will you be out there?”
“Pretty much all day.”
“I’ll pack a lunch,” she says.
Ginny meets him at her door before he knocks. She has on a blue down vest over a charcoal North Face Fleece, and shiny black tights on her skinny legs. She has on hiking boots, not running shoes. A picnic basket rests on the floor beside the coffee table. On the table in front of the couch right where Aaron stands, there is a big burgundy Ryrie Study Bible.
Ginny lilts in from the hallway, which is really just a square space with doors to two bedrooms and a bathroom on the three walls. The bathroom door is open, and Aaron sees piles of dirty laundry in there—couldn’t take a piss without stepping all over it. He thinks some of the sour in the cigarette smell might just be a base of dirty laundry. It’s a pigsty.
Ginny bends over, and the camel-toed double bulge of her vagina rolls up under it and faces him, the seam of her pants cutting right down the center; his heartbeat quickens as he realizes this will be his today, that’s what this trip is really about, and he almost moans looking at it, but catches himself. She picks up the picnic basket.
“I haven’t been in the woods for a long time,” Ginny says. “I’m ready for a good hike.”
“Do you run?”
“You some kind of polar bear?” Ginny says as she walks out the cracked and uneven sidewalk to his truck.
“It’s not that cold.” He watches her ass as he follows her. He and Monica haven’t had sex for almost two weeks. Monica is buried under her schoolwork, her senior seminar project especially, and she’s stressed out. To be honest, they haven’t liked one another much the last couple of months.
“No,” Ginny says. “It’s not cold. It’s just freezing.”
She heaves the basket into the back of the truck as if she does it every day. She opens the door and climbs in. Her feet are on a pile of junk mail, and the plastic bag with jumper cables in it.
And the book.
Aaron remembers the Edward Abbey book she loaned him months ago at the bar, the one he tossed into the floorboard and immediately forgot about. It’s ruined, under the pile of junk, under her feet at this moment.
They drive out 64/77, turn off onto an access road, head out in the direction of Flat Top, where Aaron runs trails. The road weaves and dips through waves of flashing morning sunlight and shade. Beer bottles clatter across the truck bed as Aaron churns into tight curves, and downshifts out of them. The picnic basket slides and bumps. Aaron puts his window down just a little to get the smells—trees, grass, cow shit, something dead and rotting on the road.
They crest a hill and can see down into a gorge, not the gorge, the New River gorge, a smaller one, but several hundred feet down. The sun hasn’t gotten down there to burn off the fog yet, and it rolls white and thick, like a living creature. They roll over the hilltop and start winding down into the valley.
“I’ve never been out this way,” Ginny says. “It’s pretty out here.”
He pulls into a small lot beside the creek beside an RV. An elderly couple stretch their legs at the far end of the lot. They balance themselves on an old wooden picnic table with moss growing on it. They have two little black-and-fawn dogs, Lhasa apsos, with their hair pulled up out of their eyes and clipped with pink plastic barrettes.
Ginny cranes her long neck to look over the creek bank. “Is this still Stony Creek?” she asks.
The dogs bounce like toys between the picnic table and the creek. They are barking their little yips at the water as it splashes over rocks, but they are afraid to get too close.
“I hate little, yipping dogs,” he says.
“Aren’t you going to get cold?” She zips the fleece and snaps her vest closed.
His legs are anticipating the run; like another kind of muscle memory, they are getting a slight burn in anticipation of the exertion. They want to be worked.
Out of the pockets she pulls little knit gloves, an unnaturally bright blue, and puts them on and claps her hands in soft whumps together. “I made these myself,” she says. “I’m getting pretty good.”
He gets out and doesn’t bother to do any stretching. There’ll be no running today. He does a deep squat and then gets the basket out of the truck.
They walk to the end of the parking lot. They say hello to the older couple as they cross the footbridge over the creek. Out here the creek makes its way through the rocky gorge, flows around gray and tan stones, some as big as Aaron’s truck. Under the bridge, the stone is slate, flat and terraced. Once they are across the bridge, they are between the mountainside and the white roar of water over rocks. The sound echoes back at them from the mountain, making it feel like they are inside the swirl of it. A cold gusting breeze kicks up off the creek, and Aaron is indeed cold. Two hundred yards running and he’d be fine. Instead, he carries the basket along bumping against his leg.
They follow the path as it runs parallel to the creek and the road on the other side of it. Eventually the flat woody area between path and creek begins to spread as the path curves out away from the road. The creek noise gradually fades behind them as they hike silently.
Aaron starts to jog a little, to get his blood pumping, and Ginny follows. She’s a sport. They haven’t run a quarter mile yet and she’s back there huffing for breath. The cool April morning in the woods is still wet and dewy. Even on the path, his feet are getting wet. An iced drink sloshes around inside the basket.
Beside a rotting log that had been sawed flat to keep the trail clear many years ago, Aaron, on a whim, makes a ninety degree turn and starts trudging straight into the woods, to get away from the human-ruined part. He even thinks he might leave her behind. She can wait on the path. But of course, she follows.
It isn’t long until they are climbing the mountain, their feet ripping through leaves down to the pungent humus. Aaron’s nostrils flare at the smell. He grabs at small trees with his left hand, swinging the basket along in his right, and pulls himself up and up. His feet slide. He keeps climbing. He speeds it up, tries to climb away from her, but Ginny is breathing hard behind him, rhythmically, keeping up.
He thinks again of Monica. Her gay friend Drew didn’t tell her about Ginny kissing him at the bar the other night. But they are ever more distant. He’s beginning to think they are about two different things. She certainly doesn’t get this, his longing to get away from the city, the reason he runs to the woods. And Ginny does.
“Slow down, dude,” Ginny huffs behind him. “We have all day.”
He inhales the crisp mountain air, takes it deep into his lungs. When he gets to the top of the ridge, he angles his way to a pine thicket a little ways over the other side, and sprawls on his back once he gets there and stares up through the branches.
Eventually Ginny sits down beside him trying to catch her breath.
The trees and branches are dark brown with crusty yellow and white sap.
Through her gasps, Ginny says, “That was invigorating.”
“You’re a sport.”
She opens the picnic basket and gets out a pack of Marlboro Light 100s. She offers one to Aaron and he takes it. He always leaves his smokes behind when he comes to the mountains, but what the hell. The Marlboro tastes of chemicals, but he smokes it.
She pulls out two blue Nalgene bottles. He takes one bottle from her, opens it and has a drink. It’s cheap vodka and grapefruit juice—heavy on the vodka.
They drink and smoke cigarettes and talk—about Stony Creek, about the people in her circle of friends. They eat the hummus and cucumber sandwiches she made. With the physical exertion, Aaron feels drunk quickly, light-headed anyway. Ginny’s a little loopy too, animated and loud.
Eventually he leans over and kisses her. She receives the kiss and gives back, open mouth and tongue. They start making out, and lie back on the dried pine needles. He unzips her down vest and she sits up and shrugs out of it, then pulls her fleece over her head and tosses it to the side. She looks down at him. Her bulgy eyes, her skinny chin.
They kick off their shoes. She rolls over on top of him, spreads her legs over him and grinds. They roll around on the needle-padded ridge. She sucks on his tongue, bites his lip. She reaches down and slides her hand into his running shorts. Her hand is freezing cold and he almost loses his erection at the shock of it. She sits up again, then immediately leans over and yanks his shorts down and takes him into her warm mouth.
Aaron lies back and stares up at the pine limbs, the white cloudless sky above them, without depth. She doesn’t know it, but she scrapes him with a tooth. He flinches and she thinks it means he’s almost there and starts going at it harder and faster, and moans while she does. It hurts. He pushes against her face to stop her. She keeps stroking him with her hand.
She says, “I love sex.” She says, “I love doing this. Going down.” She kisses his penis and says, “I can’t get enough of it. I like doing it everywhere, all the time, driving down the road, wherever.”
He pulls her up and she rolls to her back and her breasts sag toward her arms and lay with scoops in the middle like juiced oranges, pale and marbled with blue veins just under the surface; her nipples are brown, textured and hard as miniature acorn caps. Her armpits aren’t shaved.
He starts to peel off her running tights. She has on white cotton panties underneath. While they kiss, she reaches down and scratches vigorously at her pubic hair. He gets on his knees and pulls, and she rocks her hips to help. Mouse-colored hair spreads from her crotch out onto the sides of her legs and down onto the inner sides of her white butt cheeks. A full head of hair between her legs, a pelt. Her calves aren’t shaved either.
She looks up at him with her bulging eyes. “What do you want?” she says. “Tell me what you want.”
Looking at her face now, for the first time Aaron realizes why it could never work out with her: she is ugly. It’s that simple. She is ugly and he is not.
She pulls him down to her. “I want to do everything with you.”
His stomach growls. He reaches down and slides two fingers into her. She is sopping wet—she is ready. An animal stink rises from her. He rubs and fingers her. His hand is sloppy with her fluid.
“I mean everything,” she says.
She takes his penis in her hand and guides it and it slides right in, no initial catch, no friction at all. He thrusts deep, and starts stroking slowly. She cranes her neck up and kisses his mouth.
He closes his eyes to not look at her.
She whispers, “You feel so good.”
He keeps stroking slowly.
She reaches up with both hands and palms his face. “You’re a beautiful man,” she says.
A large limb cracks down the mountain. Something big: a person. Aaron pulls out of her, rises to his knees and looks hard. The breeze makes his wet prick feel like it has just been dipped in ice water.
Ginny sits up and holds her arms over her breasts. “What was that?” Her arms are broken out in goose bumps.
Aaron stands up and glances down the hill, and then at Ginny. She pulls her legs up to her chest, and between her legs is no vagina but just a wild brown bush.
Another limb cracks, louder and closer.
Aaron bends over, pulls his shorts up. Her fluid on him has already gone cold, and it makes him shiver.
Once several years ago, Aaron was running trails and he saw two bear cubs rolling around and playing in the trail ahead of him. They saw him and scurried up the hillside, but he knew momma bear wasn’t far. He turned around and hoofed it the other way, probably making six-minute miles until he was out of the woods. He had just started running then, because of Annie and the running coach.
He sees the bear over the hill, moving around on all fours, swinging its head here and then there. It’s about the size of a large Newfoundland dog, maybe a little bigger—not a full-grown black bear.
“Get dressed,” he whispers.
The bear meanders up the hillside toward them.
“What is it?” she says.
“Black bear. Get dressed.”
She stands up and, shivering, pulls on her panties, then her running tights, almost losing her balance and falling.
The bear stands on its back legs and looks at them. Then it makes two bounds up the hill toward them. A bear is not supposed to behave like this, Aaron knows. They keep to themselves when they can. This is not good. It’s a small bear, a teenager prone to erratic behavior.
“We have to go,” he says.
She sees the bear now. It makes another lunge up the hillside.
Aaron whispers, “Run.”
They are running down the mountainside, sometimes on their feet, sometimes sliding on their asses and legs. Their clothes, their shoes, the picnic basket—all of it is up on the ridge. Aaron has on his shorts and Ginny has on her running tights. Her white breasts swing and jostle and whack against her body. It looks painful. She grabs at trees to keep her downward plunge from going out of control.
When they reach the flat, they stop for a minute. Another branch cracks. From the direction of the parking lot, and the truck. They run across the path, making straight toward the creek and the road. They have to get to the road, Aaron thinks, though a bear could maul them there as easily as anywhere else. It’s not rational, he knows, but the paved road has become the beacon of safety.
They emerge on a cliff twenty feet above a wide place in the creek. Blood blooms bright red into a limb scratch on Ginny’s white arm. She crosses her arms over her breasts, seemingly as much for modesty as warmth, and stares down at the brown creek.
Aaron turns and stares into the woods, taking deep breaths, trying to settle the throbbing in his ears so he can hear if the bear was still coming. He’s pretty sure it’s digging around in their picnic basket, but not sure enough. A woodpecker pounds on a tree in the distance. He can see it—a read headed woodpecker, almost as long as his forearm. Then he hears shuffling in the leaves, too much to be squirrels, a slow walking, like a person—or a mad fucking bear bent on chasing them down.
“It’s still coming,” he whispers.
Ginny stares with her wide huge eyes down at the water. Her pale skin is splotchy. It looks almost like a rash is forming on her chest.
“We have to jump.” He grabs her hand and whispers, “One, two, three,” and jumps. She jumps with him. He hits feet first, but she lilts sideways and smacks her side and her arm. It’s chest-deep to him, which is almost over her head, so cold his legs immediately ache and cramp. They paddle and pull their legs through the water, and lumber dripping up the other side.
They get muddy climbing the wooded creek bank. Finally, on the road, they walk toward the parking lot. There are no cars. Only woods on either side. Without saying anything, they start jogging as best they can in their bare feet. Ginny’s shoulders are jerking with wild shivers. It’s probably up to sixty degrees right now. Fear maybe, as much as cold, is making her shiver.
The parking lot is less than a mile back. The couple with the little dogs is gone. His truck sits there by the loud creek, dull and gray.
“How are we going to get our clothes?” she says.
“Don’t know. Those are my best Brooks trail runners.”
“What was that bear doing?”
“It’s strange. We’ll have to warn the game warden.”
Just as panic flows over him about where his keys are—he usually keeps them in the little inside pocket of his running shorts, but they’re not there now—he looks and sees the keys, hanging from the ignition in his truck, glistening a little against the black vinyl interior. His cell phone and wallet are in the glove box. He reaches for the door handle and it’s locked.
“You locked your door.”
She doesn’t say anything.
He walks around and tries his door. It’s locked too.
“So did you,” she says.
He looks up the road, the way they came. It winds and snakes up out of the creek valley, up onto the mountain, and down the other side, and back up toward Interstate 64/77. He looks the other way. The road disappears around the curve they’ve just come around, running from a black bear the size of a big dog.
“I’m freezing,” Ginny says.
Aaron slides down the creek bank and pulls up a chunk of sandstone about the size of a kid’s lunchbox. It is wet and gritty in his hand. He holds it against his leg and climbs back up the bank. He strides to the passenger window and throws—more shoves—the stone at it. The rock bounces off the window and he has to jump back out of the way. In doing this, he slams into Ginny, who has stepped closer to watch. It wouldn’t be so bad, but he has also come down with his foot on top of hers, so that she can’t step out and regain her balance. She goes down hard.
“Oh, god, I’m so sorry,” Aaron says.
She sits on the parking lot, one arm over her bare breasts—one hard nipple, puckered and brown, peeks from the crook of her elbow—her other out so that she can inspect her raw scraped palm. He helps her up and she walks to the creek bank and goes a little down, so that if someone from the road does come by, they won’t see her. All that shows is her head, stretching up like a groundhog, watching him.
He picks up the rock again. The window has a white chink with a tiny dab of sandstone in the center of it. A breeze blows through the trees and whips cold air up off the creek. Now he is shivering uncontrollably too. The crashing water drowns out any rustling in the leaves he might hear, which is worse than being able to hear. He scans the woods and sees nothing.
He heaves the rock, this time with real force. The window explodes into a shower of little white pieces that rain down around the rock as it bounces on the truck seat.
No sound but the constant white splashing of the creek water over rocks.
He opens the door and drags out the stone. He walks it to the creek bank and drops it and watches it topple down and come to a place of repose before it reaches the water.
Ginny struggles back up the hillside. She has to use her hands, and her breasts hang down and jiggle.
They scrape the window glass out of the truck seat. There seems to be too much—no way one window could make so many little geometric shapes—piles and piles of it. They get in and Aaron turns on the heater. It blows its mildew smell, which mixes with their own smells of sex and creek mud. As he drives up out of the valley, Ginny leans over to keep her breasts covered. She isn’t crying, which surprises him.
“You really are a sport,” he says.
She smiles and says, “If nothing else, we have a great story to tell our grandkids about our first date.”
Aaron doesn’t know what to say to this, so he says nothing, and Ginny goes very quiet and the tension in the truck begins to rise.
They ride in tense silence.
Eventually, he says, “We can’t tell anybody about this. You can’t tell anybody.”
She looks at him and doesn’t say anything.
“None of the people who hang out at Stony Creek. Drew can’t find out. He and Monica are best friends.”
Ginny says, “Monica.”
She is silent. They reach the top of the mountain, and now they are heading back down, into another gully.
“You knew,” he says. “Don’t act like you didn’t know.”
She says, “Actually, no, I didn’t know.”
“How could you not have known?”
“I’m not friends with Drew.”
“How could you not have known?” he says again.
“Because I’m stupid. I didn’t know.”
They begin to pass an occasional car coming the other way. Ginny scoots down low and puts her elbow on the seat. Her head is beside the gearshift. They ride like this for a while. Her hair is stringy. Her shoulder pale and scratched. The cold air blowing in her window mixes with the hot air pumping out of the vent.
As if things weren’t bad enough, she spies the book in the floorboard. She reaches down and picks it up, and looks at the spindled cover—Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire—the fanned and water-ruined pages. She presses it with her thumb and there is the name and phone number she wrote almost six months ago.
She stares at the book. She turns her bulgy eyes and looks up at him.
Aaron doesn’t say anything. He concentrates on driving the truck.
She tosses the book back into the floorboard.
They get back out to the access road, and then they are on 64, traveling at sixty, the wind whipping in through the broken window, cars and big trucks clipping past them on the left at eighty or more.
Neither of them says anything.
Driving through Meadow Green to the house she shares with Sam, Aaron finally says, “Me and Monica aren’t getting along. I don’t think it’s going to work out.”
She doesn’t respond. She is still hunched over on her left elbow with her right arm covering her breasts.
“You and I always have such good conversations, you know? I just thought…” He shrugs. “I don’t know.”
“I’m so stupid. I really thought you were different.”
Again they are silent.
He pulls up in front of her house. He says, “What now?”
He says, “Don’t worry. I’ll go get your stuff and bring it by. I have to get my Brooks. I can’t leave those up there.”
She sits up and looks around to make sure the coast is clear. She puts her left arm over her breasts so she can open the truck door with her right.
He says, “Please. Can you not tell? I mean, you’re going to tell your roommate, I understand that. But I mean, kind of keep it on the down low, for now anyway.”
She looks directly at him and says, “You are not a good person.”
“Come on,” he says. “We were trying something.”
“Trying something?” She laughs. “Like getting back to nature.” She affects what he knows is supposed to be his voice. “You know, shit like that.”
She gets out and slams the door, and makes an awkward twisting run, more like a speed walk, toward her front door. Her pale skinny back, the black tights twisted a little at the left side of her waistband to show the white of her panties. Bare feet. She reaches for the door and disappears inside. The door closes behind her.
Ginny’s musk hangs in the air, along with creek mud and humus. The section of sky framed by his front windshield is segmented by power lines into long geometric segments. His phone beeps a blinking message from Monica.
Vic Sizemore‘s fiction is published StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, storySouth, and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and a Pushcart Prize. “Into the Woods” is an excerpt from Sizemore’s novel Seekers. You can find Vic at http://vicsizemore.wordpress.
Image: Glynevans via Creative Commons.