The Fourth River

Fiction: “Woman in the Woods,” by Adam Reger

By on February 1, 2012

Bruce had been asleep under the table when the phone rang. An old phone, its bell rattled loosely, sending tremors down his hand: in the midst of a bad dream, he had gripped the table’s ankle. As the phone rang and the table leg trembled, a beautiful zombie shook her wrist, pushing feebly against his grasp. The phone rang twice more before Bruce, gazing into the zombie’s dead eyes, woke.

He did not immediately know where he was. The cabin was dark; the only light he could detect came from outside, a bright piece of the moon that showed through a thicket of swaying pine trees. The air inside the cabin was warm and close, exhaled by the people spread out across the cabin floor. Bruce could hear them breathing and could smell and feel their presence: Sam, Dave, and five others they had taken on to shoot their film. The even rhythm of someone’s snore brought Bruce back to himself and his surroundings. He was in a cabin in Tennessee. They were shooting a horror film. He crawled out from under the table and reached for the phone. The telephone rattled under his hand like a living thing until he lifted the receiver.

“Who the hell is this?”

“Who in the hell is this? Bruce? This is your father.”

“Dad?” Bruce could think of nothing else to say. “What are you doing calling this time of night? What time is it anyway?”

“I don’t know,” his father said, but his voice dipped at the end. Bruce pictured his father turning to look at the digital clock beside their bed. “A quarter to four. Listen, have you seen your mother?”

“No. Of course not,” Bruce said. “Why?”

“I haven’t seen her in a few days.”

“Is she all right? Are you all right?”

“I don’t know if she’s all right, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.” Bruce’s father paused and Bruce could hear a suck and then the exhalation of smoke. His father had quit smoking several years earlier. “I think she’s gone, Bruce. Run off. You haven’t heard from her.”

“No,” Bruce said. “I’m sorry, I haven’t.”

“When are you coming home?”

“Not for another month. The shoot’s running long, it may be longer than that.”

“Don’t worry,” his father said. “She may just turn up.” But Bruce could tell his father didn’t believe that. He pictured his father’s creased and unshaven face, his back hunched as he sat on the edge of the bed, the pale flesh of his arms protruding from his undershirt.

“Do you have any idea where she might be? Did you have any idea this was coming?”

“She might be with Aunt Eileen,” his father said after a moment, his voice flat and weary. “She might also be with—I don’t know. I think she’s been seeing someone. I don’t know. She hasn’t been happy in a long time. I don’t know if she’s ever been happy.”

“Could you call over to Aunt Eileen’s house?”

His father didn’t answer. Bruce listened to him take another drag on his cigarette.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Dad. Good luck?”

“Yeah,” his father said after a few moments. “That’s right, I think.” There was another pause, in which he could hear his father smoking and the sound of wind blowing through the phone line. “Well, I’m sorry if I woke you, Bruce. I’ll talk to you when you get back.”

“Okay, Dad,” he said. “Call again if you need anything.” Wearily, he placed the handpiece in the cradle and crawled back under the table.

He lay back against the floor, hard beneath the thin blanket, and tried to think through the things he had heard. His mother was missing. Bruce’s mind would not focus on the questions of where his mother might be, why she had left, who she might be with. His father had sounded strange. Perhaps he had been bitten, the way that his character in the film was bitten, and had begun to change over. You had to kill them then; you had to avoid being bitten, but the only way to make sure you were safe was to kill them all. It was hard to do and it took vigilance, but—

“Who the fuck was that?” It was Sam. The edge of cynicism in his voice put Bruce on guard.

“Nobody. My Dad.”

“What did he want? Is he lonely without you?”

“Cram it, a-hole. It sounds like my mom split.”

“Oh. Sorry.” There was a pause. Bruce knew Sam would come back. They had been friends since elementary school and Bruce had learned to expect wisecracks no matter the situation. He could picture Sam smirking as he said, “Was there an opening at the Oasis?”

“Sit and spin, shithead. Sit and spin.” Bruce held his middle finger up in the dark.

“Lighten up, Campbell. It’s probably nothing.”

Bruce didn’t answer. He wavered in and out of sleep, his mind troubled but his body weary. Sam didn’t speak again. In the silence finally Bruce dropped off. First call was less than two hours later, and he didn’t dream again.

*

Bruce had slipped on a smooth patch on the cabin’s floorboards, and now Sam called for the camera to cut. Bruce could see Caroline’s face change from the tender empathy she had shown while in character to disinterest and mild annoyance. “Keep your feet, please,” Sam called. He didn’t need a megaphone to direct: his voice was heavy and the cabin was small. “Let’s go again, from the same part.”

That part was a moment in the film just after a zombie had bitten Bruce. The zombie was Oscar, the best friend of Bruce’s character, Ash. Oscar had gone walking in the woods and returned transformed, possessed by an ancient and malevolent spirit.

“Roll sound. Roll film. Action.”

“Oh my God, honey, are you okay?” Caroline asked, her face compassionate again. She laid a hand on Bruce’s arm.

“I don’t feel so good,” Bruce sputtered. “Oscar must have rabies or something.”

“You should go lie down, baby,” Caroline said. “Here.” She put an arm around Bruce’s waist and they walked slowly towards Dave, the cameraman. He pulled the camera backwards on a homemade dolly, an old wheelchair stolen from the nursing home where Sam worked.

When they reached a small tape mark on the cabin floor, Bruce began to flail. His shoulders shook and his arms flew out. His mouth stretched and contorted, and his neck twitched. “Guh!” he said. “Nguh guh!”

“Now fall!” Sam called, once Bruce had spasmed for a good twenty seconds. Bruce fell, convulsing on the floor, eyes rolling back into his head.

“Baby?” Caroline said weakly. “Ash, what is it?”

Caroline stooped over Bruce as he flailed on the cabin floor. He’d discovered on the first day of shooting that Caroline was a cold fish. During a break, Bruce had complimented her on wearing hiking boots, ideal for the rough, muddy terrain of that lonely place in Tennessee. She’d only looked at him blankly, and finally said, “What else would I wear? High heels?” He had laughed, but she had not. He felt strange later on, when Caroline, in character, swept back the covers in her negligee and cuddled convincingly against his broad chest. The truth was that that closeness, and the kissing that lasted until their characters heard an ominous noise outside, were more than he’d had in some time, at least since dropping out of community college the fall before. It was with mixed pleasure and guilt that Bruce had let the invisible shield of their roles drop, imagining that it was his chest, and not Ash’s, that Caroline was stroking.

Bruce had observed that Caroline was not as cold toward Sam. During a break that afternoon, Sam had approached her outside the cabin, where she stood smoking a cigarette and trying to tune a small hand-held radio, holding it close to her ear. Sam had slapped the cigarette into the dirt and then snatched the radio from Caroline’s hands. He’d reared back and heaved the radio out into the woods surrounding the cabin. He had glared at Caroline and said gruffly, “No smoking on set, and no radios on set”—rules that he had surely concocted on the spot. She had blushed and scowled at Sam, but later Bruce had observed them talking quietly, Caroline laughing softly, her head inclined toward him.

“Get away!” Bruce slurred. “Stay away from me!” He pushed Caroline away and sat up stiffly. “Run!” he said, and repeated it, the words melting into a growl. At last Caroline seemed to understand with horror, and rose and ran, ahead of Bruce, whose slashing, claw-like hands snagged part of her robe for a moment before she broke free. He continued to rise, growling.

Bruce let his face contort grotesquely, a vision of zombie blood thirst. Then compassion infected his face: his mouth twitched and his eyes lost their fixed quality, darting from side to side—with terror, perhaps, or just seeking out Caroline, already disappearing into the dark woods outside the cabin. Some unformed word, perhaps “Run” or “Help,” formed on Bruce’s lips and disappeared, engulfed in the return of zombie stiffness to his face. His eyes went glassy and distant and his mouth twitched with simple bodily hunger.

“Cut!” Bruce studied Sam’s face for some measure of how he’d done. Caroline stood just off-camera, glancing carefully at Sam. The other crew milled about, waiting for direction. Dave stood up to his full height and whispered a question to Sam, who nodded. “Let’s take a short break and we’re going to come back with scene seventeen, Oscar attacks Ash in the cabin.”

Bruce slumped on the floor and closed his eyes. He knew he had ten minutes or so, as Dave and Sam plotted the next scene. It was the first break Bruce had had all day. From morning until now, well after dark, when not shooting he had been pressed into carrying things, loading the van with equipment, props, the food that Dave cooked at the other cabin a few miles away. It was better than the sort of work Bruce was used to—here the work made sense, building towards something, and all of it had to be done—but it left him drained.

It was a Saturday night and that caused Bruce to think about the job he had left in Battle Creek. He had been an usher at the Cineplex. There, when a big rush was over, the supervisor came around and handed the ushers brooms and kept them busy sweeping popcorn off the floors. When that was done, he might send Bruce into the men’s rooms or outside to scrape gum off the front sidewalk. Lying on the cabin floor, Bruce thought of how much depended on finishing this film, and on people seeing it. He needed the film to take him away from the Cineplex. He needed it to erase the feeling he had when he woke in his tiny apartment in Battle Creek, of waiting for something to happen that would let his life begin.

With his eyes closed, Bruce quickly fell asleep. This place on the floor felt just like the spot where Bruce had slept every night since they’d come to Tennessee, beneath the table in the center of the room. That place, lacking in privacy and comfort, had already come to seem like home to Bruce, as much as his apartment did, and certainly more than his parents’ house in the nicer part of Battle Creek. In his sleep, Bruce saw Oscar, his face streaming blood, screaming and laughing over the thin body of Bruce’s mother, bone-white and limp, splayed across a blanket in a green field. His mother’s dark hair blew in a gentle breeze, rippling from side to side like the tall stalks of a wheat field.

Bruce woke with a shudder. In the busy rush of the day, he had not had an occasion to recall—not even once—what his father had told him in the middle of the night. His mother was gone, his father alone. The knowledge came not as a fact but as a bodily sensation, a stone in the pit of his stomach.

“Places,” Dave called, looking listlessly at Bruce. Dave was slender and soft-spoken and didn’t trust his reedy voice to carry through the cabin. He went around saying to the crew, “Places, we’re shooting in one minute.”

“Bruce,” Dave said, towering over him. “The scene is you coming in, you find Oscar, you two fight. Do you want to look at the script?”

“I’ve got it,” Bruce said. Dave shrugged and went to stand by Sam, who was frowning at the script. In fact, Bruce wasn’t sure he did have it. He tried to bring himself back into the world of the film. He was Ash. He was on a weekend getaway with his girlfriend and his best friend, Oscar, and Oscar’s girlfriend. They were having a great time, all their cares left behind for the weekend. An ageless evil had entered the cabin from the woods just beyond that door, intent on killing them all.

“Bruce, we need you outside,” Dave said, his eyebrows raised.

“I’m on my way,” Bruce said, standing and going to the door.

“Roll down your sleeves,” Sam said, looking up from the script on which he had penciled changes and notes in his messy scrawl. “Rob will have your cue,” he said. “It should be two minutes.” Bruce knew it would be longer than that, that some issue would cause Sam to delay another few minutes. He stepped out into the bracing wind. He pulled the door closed and the sounds inside the cabin stopped. Outside, the sounds of the woods were distant but sharp: the metallic caw of a far-off crow, the creak of distant trees swaying in the slow wind.

The frozen mud around the door cracked as Bruce paced. He was not yet a zombie, and he rolled down the sleeves of his flannel shirt to conceal the blood and gore crusted over his arms. Still, the wind ran him through. He stooped and picked up the firewood that was Ash’s reason for being out in the woods. The piled wood was heavy, its bark rough and cold. Bruce had chopped it himself, earlier in the day, and it would be used that night in the other cabin. His breath poured out, stark white against the black of the woods. Bruce cradled the firewood, facing the cabin and waiting for the passage of Rob’s hand across the window telling him to enter.

Seconds passed and no hand appeared. The wind turned and rushed back, strafing him. The groan of the trees, invisible in the black woods, grew louder. Dry pine needles trembled in the branches.

He turned away from the cabin. The black of the woods spread across his vision like an inkblot. His nose and ears were cold, going slowly numb. It might be some time before he was called into the cabin. Enough time to walk to the edge of the woods and peer into its depths. He moved out of the pane of light thrown from the cabin window, over the dark bed of pine needles at the edge of the trees, and stepped into the dark.

A noise came from the woods. It was like the keening of a swaying branch, but the pitch wandered and the sound faded but then rose again.

After standing at the threshold of the woods and watching for a long time, Bruce thought he saw something move in the trees, a lean, pale figure that waved among the branches and disappeared. Bruce took another step forward, entering the woods.

Between the trees Bruce could hear the noise more clearly. He heard words he could not quite make out. It was a woman’s voice, high and clear. The wind rose again, rattling the branches. The voice was deeper into the woods, but not so deep as to be unreachable. He stepped between two trunks, pushing dry branches out of his path. He bent down and placed the firewood beside a great pale oak. Something in the voice urged him on. In his mind he was a rescuer, carrying in his strong arms a tiny woman lost in the woods, babbling ceaselessly to herself.

From a distance there came a faint, sharp tapping. He could not tell whether the tapping came from the same place as the voice or from farther away. Something told him the noises were the same, that the woman in the woods was trapped in a hollow log or nailed inside a pine box, one dirty fingernail tapping at the inside of the lid. Bruce imagined picking up the coffin and carrying it through the trees, laying it down and prying the nails loose with his hands.

The darkness was heavy, almost cloying. The moon, which had been a vague glimmer overhead, was gone. As he went deeper, the tapping grew fainter and ceased, while the voice grew more distinct. He was close enough now to make sense of the words. The woman said “shameful” and “no right to do that.” She said “God” and “Israel” and “Isaiah.”

Bruce turned and noticed, as if in a dream, that he could no longer see the lights from the cabin. Through the trees he heard voices calling something, long and low.

And then, close by, the voice of the woman exploded in rage, saying, “They tell us that this is the law, and demand our obedience. When what they ought to say, friends, is that this is man’s law.” Bruce’s heart leapt. The source of the voice was hard by his feet. For a moment, he was terrified that the woman would rise and attack him, raking his skin with her fingernails. Then he crouched and found the plastic box that contained the voice. It was only as large as a paperback book, with an antenna protruding from one end. Bruce’s fingers, thick and dull with cold, slid over the dials, changing the station so that the radio was imperfectly tuned. He could hear at once the strumming of a guitar on one station and on another a man’s voice, slow and with a heavy Southern accent. “Hutchins passes to Ward, Ward puts up a long two-point shot,” the voice said. “Rogers gets the rebound. The Huskies have the ball and they are on the move. Willard brings it up. Long pass to Peterson. The pass goes off his hands, out of bounds. It’s Cougar ball.”

Bruce recognized the guitar strumming. It was an old song that his parents had sometimes played on the record player at home. The guitar paused and the singer took a breath. “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me,” the antique voice sang through the radio, “tell me where did you sleep last night? In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine.”

He felt along the edge of the radio until he had switched it off. The sudden silence made the darkness heavier and the cold crueler. It was a hopeless moment, with no direction in the woods, not even up or down, it seemed to him. The feeling lasted until a distant call reached him, and then another. “Bruce,” the voices said, stretching the syllable out long and bovine.

Bruce took one step toward the sound of the voices and the dry, cold undergrowth at the base of the trees wrapped itself around his legs. He feared being dragged down inside the earth, but the vines and ivy and wild grass bore him up so that he hovered above the trunks and low branches of the trees. Bruce could see the light from the cabin again, and his companions standing at the edge of the woods, peering into the dark. He could not feel the cold against his skin, or the radio in his hand, or the vines and weeds bearing him toward the cabin. As he moved closer, the noises of the woods went out, all at once, all but the voices calling Bruce to come back.

 

 

 

 

Photo by Adelaide EichmanAdam Reger’s stories have appeared in the New Orleans Review, Twelve Stories, Juked, and elsewhere. He lives in Pittsburgh and is the author of U.S. Navy Pirate Combat Skills, a humor book.