Extraordinary America, Part II

by: Chris Thompson

The motley crew of adventurers gather, their escapades only just begun….

We all met up at our top-secret meeting spot, Pig Farm Road. It was an overgrown gravel path on the outskirts of town, flanked on either side by two rusted steel posts with a moss-covered chain strung in-between. There was a weathered sign hanging from the chain, and if you got up real close and squinted your eyes just right you could make out the faded words stenciled on the sun-bleached wood. Overbrook Farms it had once said. A place for legendary Yorkshires.

Simmons and Tyler were already waiting when Manny and I pulled off the road, positioning themselves a little ways off the path, near the leafy ferns growing at the edge of the forest. Tyler, tall and lanky, with his hands buried deep in his pockets stood like a sentry next to his BMX bike, on the lookout for the members of our group. And Simmons, his long hair hanging heavy in his eyes, sat on his duffel bag, his bony elbows resting on his knees as he toyed with his flashlight. The light of the gibbous moon as it rose overhead stole color from everything it touched, casting our world in a spectrum of blue-tinged hues as we arrived.

Simmons shined his flashlight in our direction as we rode up to meet them, the bright glow of the incandescent light attracting a myriad of strange, fluttering, nocturnal insects. Tyler walked forward and raised his hand in greeting as we brought our bikes to a stop, our back tires skidding ever so slightly on the dry gravel road.

“Ho Fawcett! Ho Manny!” Tyler called. “You guys made it! Perfect! Any trouble on the ride out?”

“Nah. But we would’ve been here a lot sooner if Manny didn’t keep stopping to catch his breath every five minutes,” I joked.

“Real funny Fawcett!” Manny barked, struggling to keep his bike alight as he straddled its seat, the soles of his Reebok’s barely touching the ground. “I told you, somethings wrong with my chain. I think it needs to be greased.”

“Righhhht Manny. I’m sure that’s it,” Tyler snickered, joining in on Manny’s ribbing as he raised his hand to give me a high-five. Manny was about to get off his bike and make us pay for our words, his default response to our teasings, but just then a pair of lights appeared on the road, traveling from the opposite direction that Manny and I had arrived. There followed with it an occasional clattering of metal, the hollow sound drifting in on the warm evening breeze. All our eyes went to the road and Simmons swung his flashlight in the direction of the oncoming lights, its yellow-white glow arcing swiftly across the ground to meet the fast-approaching travelers.

It was Kimmel and his cousin, riding out to join us from his farmhouse on the banks of the Washkill River. They quickly turned off the road and drove their bikes up onto the gravel path, Kimmel in the lead, the incandescence from their pedal-powered bike lamps dying-out as they came to a stop. Kimmel stepped down clumsily from his bike and slung his top-heavy pack off his back, struggling to stay upright as he wrestled with its bulk. There were all manner of contraptions and devices hanging from the straps about its sides and they burst forth a short-lived metallic symphony as the bag landed on the ground with a thud.

“Hey fellas!” Kimmel called out, wiping his sleeve across his brow. “Glad ya’ll made it. Fawcett, c’mere and give me a hand with this pack will ‘ya! I nearly did a backflip trying to pedal with all this stuff weighing me down.”

“Suuuure,” I answered, wondering what we were going to do with all those random pieces of equipment he had brought. That was Kimmel to a T, I thought, Always over-prepared. I stepped off my bike, shaking my head in amusement, and swung out the kickstand, putting my own pack down on the ground. I made my way over to him and as I approached, Kimmel’s cousin stepped out from the shadows of the path and into the ellipsoid of the flashlights glow. I let out a gasp of surprise as Kimmel smiled, put his arms around his cousin and made introductions.

“Danny Fawcett, meet my cousin Erica Warren,” He said, gesturing to the girl beside him. “And Erica, meet Danny, he’s the fella I told you about, the one who organized all this.”

Before I could speak, or do anything, Manny was pushing past me, like a hungry man in line for a loaf of bread, the crunching din of his bike falling into the gravel sounding loudly behind me.

“Erica is it? I’m Manny. Manny De La Vega, Danny-boy’s next-door neighbor and best friend. The pleasure’s all mine,” Manny said, laying it on thick. He took Erica’s hand in his and gave it a light kiss, like he was addressing royalty. I just stood there, my mouth open, frozen in mid-step. You had to hand it to Manny, he was quick on his feet when the moment arose and this time was no exception. Turning to Kimmel, Manny continued his clichéd efforts at romance. “You didn’t tell us your cousin was a girl Kimmel,” Manny chuckled lightly, turning back to face Erica. “And a beautiful one at that.”

“Easy now Manny. How you’re acting right now is exactly the reason why I didn’t tell you that. The last thing I wanted to hear all summer long was you asking me a million questions about her before we left for the lake.”

Manny looked to Kimmel, as if to say Me? Never! But Kimmel, undeterred, as if he had rehearsed this scenario before in his mind, continued on. “And I can see now that I was right in my decision Manny. So lay off a bit would ya’? You’re scaring the poor girl with all your childish flattery.”

Manny backed off a bit as Kimmell moved to put himself between the two. “Sure Kimmell. No harm done. I was just trying to make our new friend here feel welcome. I’m a lover not a fighter you know that. It’s in my blood.”

That couldn’t be farther from the truth, I thought to myself. Manny was both a lover and a fighter. It just depended on what mood he was in.

“Thanks Walt but I don’t need you looking out for me. I can take care of myself,” Erica said, brushing past her gallant cousin and a broadly grinning Manny, to stand directly before me.

She pushed up the sleeve of her green army jacket and extended her hand. She had a white, woven hemp bracelet around her wrist and a different color nail polish for every finger. A brightly colored geometric-patterned shirt swam below her jacket and knee length, cut-off jean shorts rounded out her ensemble. Red cherry fruit earrings, like the ones you saw spinning on the reels of casino slot machines, hung in her ears, skimming the edge of her upturned jacket collar as she moved.

“Erica, Walt’s cousin from the city,” she said. “Nice to meet you Danny. Thanks for putting this thing together. My parents ship me out here every summer to stay with Walt for a few weeks and get a break from the city. But all we ever do is swim in the river and play checkers or Parcheesi on the screened-in porch and watch the same old tired movies. I’ve never done anything like this before and when Walt told me about it I demanded he take me. So thanks!”

“Your-your-your welcome,” I stuttered, blushing enormously. I secretly hoped that it was dark enough outside that she hadn’t seen me go all red in the face. Even in the darkness though, I could tell that she was beautiful. And by the light of the rising moon I could make out the countless freckles flung across her face like tiny orange-red constellations. Her blonde hair, with a few strands dyed purple in the front, fell gently in curls down the side of her face, never seeming to stay in one place no matter how many times she tried to tuck them behind her ears. She was a singular beauty, her deep-set green eyes exuding confidence and curiosity, and her slender, athletic frame suggesting voracity and rebellion. I was instantly in love.

I leaned in to shake her hand and when our fingers touched it was like a jolt of electricity coursing through my body. I stiffened rapidly in that moment, a sharp surge of liveliness running within, and Erica, sensing my discomfort, pulled away quickly, raising her hand to her mouth to cover an amused smile.

As she moved on to meet Tyler and Simmons I just stood there dazed, rooted to the spot, recovering from my shock and running the fingers of my hand repeatedly through my hair. Each of them, like me, fumbled awkwardly through their introductions. The unexpected presence of an attractive girl amongst our motley crew of adventurers had upset the careful balance of personalities. Erica’s presence was a curveball, and I could sense that there would be numerous scuffles ahead as we battled for her attention.

We casually made our way to our campsite, walking our bikes down the gravel road into the blackness of the forest. The leafy canopy grew denser the further we walked, reducing the bluish moonlight to a faint glimmer on the occasional swaying tree limb. As the trees moved closer to the road and the path’s width contracted we fell to walking in pairs.

Simmons and Tyler were in the lead, singing loudly the chorus to Billy Idol’s In the Midnight Hour, their dreadful English accents silencing the forests creatures as they passed. They swung their flashlights cavalierly in wide-ranging arcs, looking out for the rock that marked our hidden campsite.

Manny fell in behind them with Erica at his side, regaling her with tales of his various accomplishments. He told her of his recent passing of the 6th Kyu in karate class and his reception of a Green Belt. And of his second place ribbon at the school science fair for his project “What is the most efficient angle for a windmill blade?” The answer was 45 degrees he told her. Erica was quickly learning that Manny could go on forever talking about himself, it was one of his strongest qualities, and it made Kimmel and I smile.

We brought up the rear, Kimmel and I, each of us carrying a strap of his overloaded bag, our other hands steadying our bikes as we walked through the forest. We had put on our Sears headlamps and as we walked we illuminated the path ahead for Manny and Erica, the bright lights of our lamps casting their long shadows down the darkened path. “You know, you’re going to have to leave a lot of this stuff behind Kimmel,” I said, nodding to the bag slung between us. “Was that a periscope I saw strapped to your bag? What are we going to do with that? Do you expect to be engaging in trench warfare anytime soon?” I asked jokingly.

“I know, I know. Erica said the same thing to me when she saw me strap the second and third can opener to the bag. You can never be too prepared, you know?”

“I think you’ve left prepared and are orbiting obsessed.”

“I know. It’s a problem, but I’m working on it. I’m in counseling.”

“Oh really? I didn’t know that. How’s it going?”

“Terrible.”

“Crocodile Rock ahead!” Simmons called out. That was the turn off for our campsite. We called it Crocodile Rock because the boulder that jutted out into the path resembled the toothy amphibians head. Manny had painted an eye on it last summer, further cementing its likeness.

As we turned off the path and into the forest true,  I heard Manny say to Erica, “I painted that eye on the rock you know. Pretty good, huh? I would say that it’s a perfect example of what a crocodile eye looks like. I even added a tear. Get it?” he said, elbowing her playfully in the side. “Crocodile tears?” Manny let out a high-pitched laugh, amused by his own joke, then quickly caught himself, embarrassed.

Erica just continued on in silence, throwing a quick glance over her shoulder as she turned onto the forest path, the pained expression on her face in the light of our headlamps saying Help!

When we arrived at the campsite we gathered up the dry pine branches and leaves that had fallen about and threw them into the fire pit fashioned from stones collected in the surrounding woods. The place was situated on a slight incline, overlooking a pond that used to irrigate the sugar pumpkins, corn and alfalfa grown as feed for Overbrook’s prized Yorkshires. Kimmel lit the fire quickly using some crumpled up newspaper and his magnesium flint rod fire-starter, a gift from his father for attaining the rank of Tenderfoot First Class in his Boy Scout troop.

He had the fire up and roaring in no time and we threw a few cans of baked beans on the stones, letting them warm as we laid our bedrolls and sleeping bags out on the soft ground covering of pine needles. Someone passed around a bag of cheddar Goldfish, and then a box of Entenmann’s cookies appeared. I pulled out a few cans of Dr. Pepper from my own bag and threw a handful of Fruit Roll-ups that I had pilfered from my parents pantry in Manny’s direction.

After all the food had been consumed and our hunger bedded, we took to lounging in our sleeping bags, watching the embers of the fire slowly die down and listening to the sleigh-bell chorus of the peeper frogs drifting up from the pond below. I was leaning back on my elbows, looking up into the evening sky through a break in the forest canopy, trying to make out the constellations high above. I raised my arm and traced out Cassiopeia with my finger, following the distinctive ‘W’ shape formed by its five brightest stars as they shimmered in the sky.

As I traced its shape I became aware of a noise thundering through the forest behind us. It sounded like an animal was staggering through the woods, ricocheting wildly off every rock, tree and bush in the forest. I sat up quickly and turned my head in the direction of the sound, the flickering light of the dying fire casting strange shadows on the surrounding trees.

“What is it?” Manny asked, agitated as he fumbled to remove his dad’s “Rambo” knife from his backpack.

“Shhhhh Manny!” the four of us said in unison.

I heard Cough before I saw him. His unmistakable, haggard-sounding wheezes announcing his arrival to our hidden campsite.

“Hullo fellas,” Cough said, wiping his nose on the sleeve of his thin flannel shirt. “Helluva thing trying to find this place at night.” The fire, reflecting off the thick lenses of Cough’s glasses made it seem like he had flames in his eyes, his thin, red hair and pale, waxen skin only adding to the ghoulish nature of his appearance.

I stood up quickly, surprised by Cough’s sudden arrival and brushed the dirt and leaves from my shorts. Walking up to him I put my hand up, hoping for a high-five but he offered a feeble smile instead. “C’mon Cough!” I bellowed. “Put ‘er there buddy! Lay one on me huh?” Reluctantly he reached up and slapped the moist palm of his hand against mine, the dull sounding smack, like the slapping of a wet fish in the bottom of a boat, resounding loudly through the campsite.

Just then a stiff breeze blew up from the pond, carrying the scent of Cough with it. He reeked of Vicks Vapo rub and mosquito repellant. “Cough!” I said, taking a moment to recover from his powerful aroma “I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow morning buddy. How did you get here? Did you trudge through the forest the whole way?”

The rest of the group just sat there on the ground in silence, Manny still fingering his knife; Erica, radiating curiosity; Tyler, smiling amusedly; Simmons, flashing bewilderment; and Kimmel, a protective arm flung out across Erica’s chest, holding the closest weapon he had found, one of his numerous can openers. They were all stunned by the sudden appearance of Cough and hanging on his every word, at the edge of their seats with wonder at what he’d say next.

“I was going to meet you fellas tomorrow morning like we had talked about Dan, but I just had to get away from my sisters,” Cough said, waving his hands animatedly around his head. “They’ve been drivin’ me crazy all summer long and I couldn’t take it anymore. Plus my parents are away traveling through Europe all summer and Brenda’s in charge. If you knew Brenda you’d understand why I left. If I have to hear one more time about how wonderful her boyfriend Gregory is I’ll go insane.” Cough paused a moment to pull out his asthma inhaler and took a deep pull of its vapors. He was getting himself a little too worked up and he took a moment to compose himself before he continued.

“So when everyone went to bed I snuck out. Figured I’d get an early start on this adventure. Only I hadn’t remembered that I have no idea what this place looks like in the dark. So I’ve been trudging up and down the road all night, marching into the forest whenever I thought I heard your voices. Boy am I glad I found you guys! I was having some pretty weird thoughts out there all alone in the woods.

To be continued (next Friday)…..

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