I woke to the sound of someone outside my tent shouting, “Come out with your hands up! We’re drunk and we’re armed.”
The voice was followed by giggling and pine needles crunching under people’s feet.
I gripped the piece of rebar that I kept for self-defense. It felt rather insubstantial in my hands compared with the imagined weight of the gun waiting for me.
“Wake up,” the voice barked again. My tent began shaking violently around me.
Summoning all the air within my eighteen-year-old, hundred and sixty pound frame, I roared, “Get the fuck away from my tent!”
Cackling laughter. “Just come out, man. We’re here for Raven.”
We shared the camp together. He was a small time con and a permanent derelict. When I’d struck out hitchhiking across the country weeks before, I’d gone expecting to find the road full of figures like Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck and Ken Kesey.
All I’d found was Raven.
Not a creative or intelligent cog in his soul, he sold stolen things to pawn shops and donated plasma for a living. He was exactly the sort of guy to do something that would bring a crew of gun-toting maniacs out into the middle of the woods with violent intentions, and I’d been an idiot for taking up his offer to share the camp.
Sliding into my jeans and boots, I unzipped my tent and stepped outside. The first thing I saw was Raven illuminated by flashlight, wearing only his boxer shorts and socks. He flashed a smile at me, revealing his one licorice-colored front tooth.
The invaders were four–three men and a woman, all appearing to be in their early twenties. Doe-eyed and pretty, the girl’s sweet placidity looked obscene amidst that dark and violent scene. Two of her companions were tall and gangly and wearing backwards-turned heavy metal baseball caps. Neither looked very threatening. It was the third of her companions that worried me.
Face blunt and expressionless as a ball peen hammer, built like a fire hydrant, he stood in his collared shirt and slacks looking very eager to do some violence. He spotlighted me with his flashlight. “I’m going to ask you once. What did this piece of shit do with my friend’s watch?” The voice told me that he’d been the one bellowing about the gun. Later, I would learn that his name was Monty.
“I don’t know anything about a fucking watch,” I said. It was true.
Monty nodded towards the heavy metal baseball caps. “It was the only thing their father gave them before he died, and that piece of shit took it.” Raven opened his mouth to deny the charges, but Monty slapped him across the mouth. “He also disrespected Liz. We’re going to deal with that, too.”
The girl’s name sparked a memory. Raven had talked about her, claiming they’d met her in town and she’d fallen in love with him. He also told me that he’d taken her up to our camp a couple times, which I guessed was how she found us that night. Still, we were a quarter-mile from the nearest walking trail, and I wondered how long they’d had been stumbling around in the dark before finding us.
“Once we find the watch,” one of the heavy metal caps said, “we’re going to kick the dog shit out of him.”
His brother nodded. “And then we’re going to kick the dog shit out of you. Shitty luck man.” Both of them chortled.
The heavy metal caps tore through Raven’s tent while Monty watched over them like some kind of ogreish supervisor.
“I didn’t take the watch,” Raven shook his head.
Monty flicked a cigarette into his face. “Shut your mouth, piece of shit, and look at the ground.”
Raven had two tents–one for sleeping and one for storage. Both were filled to capacity. Figuring that their ransacking was going to take a while, I sat down on far end of the log from Liz and tried to devise my escape plan.
The pillaging of Raven’s things went on. Porn magazines, dirty underwear, ramen noodle packs, and various other forms of detritus were soon strewn all over the area. Throughout the ordeal, Raven made pathetic attempts to befriend his captors, but Monty only threatened to kick the dog shit out of him.
After half an hour had passed, I started to think that maybe Raven really hadn’t stolen the watch, and the bumbling efforts of our attackers caused my fear to dissipate. I asked Liz what time it was.
Monty snapped, “We keeping you from something?”
“Yes,” I answered. “Sleep. I have to be at work at six.”
He eyed me suspiciously. “You work?”
“Yea. I work construction.”
“Then why you living with bums?”
I measured my response carefully. Monty was clearly not the sort of fellow who would understand it if I told him that I had voluntarily gone homeless because I wanted to write about life on the road. Writers go to college to learn to be writers, don’t they? How could I possibly make him understand that the writers I looked up to all honed their craft in ditches and flophouses and forests? No, it would be better to say I was an escaped convict than to explain those things.
I said, “I just got into town and need to get some money together.”
Monty nodded towards Raven. “Well, that piece of shit right there has never worked a day in his life. He gives his plasma for money.” He shook his head in disgust. “Can you imagine that? He’d rather bleed than sweat.”
Raven started to say something, but Monty booted a branch into his chest and blasted the wind out of him. “He gives plasma and he steals from people. That shit makes me sick. I break my back hauling rock six days a week.”
His self-righteous proclamation struck me as a challenge. “I grew up working on farms.”
Monty smiled. “No farms where I grew up, but I know some guys. They say that’s hard-ass work. You bail hay?”
“Yea, I’ve bailed hay.”
“They say that’s hard-ass work.”
“Better than shoveling manure.”
“You shoveled manure?” He laughed.
Zealously, he told me about his most brutal days of lugging stone at the quarry. He had the kind of passion for his work that is normally reserved for artists or athletes. He was so enthused that I half expected him to run off for the quarry right there and then to start lugging rocks around, just for the fun of it.
We chatted casually about the worst jobs we’ve ever had, even laughing occasionally, as if Raven wasn’t kneeling five feet away in his underwear, possibly minutes away from getting the feathers beaten out of him.
After a long time passed, the brothers had to accept that, even if their father’s watch was there, they weren’t going to find it.
Monty broke off our conversation and walked over to stand over Raven. “Where’s the watch?”
Raven shook his head. “I didn’t take it.”
“Bullshit,” Monty said. “The neighbor said she saw you poking around our place while we were gone.”
“I didn’t take it.”
Monty ordered Raven to stand, and when he did, jammed his forehead into the plasma-donator’s face. “You look at me once and I’m going to kick the dog shit out of you.”
Monty rolled his head about, forcing Raven to counter-roll in order to avoid looking at him. Monty’s friends started cracking up. “You don’t know me, but I’m telling you right now that I am not one to fuck with. Where’s the watch?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s the watch?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s the watch?” Monty dug a short, stiff uppercut into Raven’s stomach that bent him in half.
I hoped the one shot would be the end of it, but Monty reached into the back of his waistband and pulled out a handgun in a motion so fluid and decisive that for a moment I was certain he was about to kill him. He didn’t. Instead, he cracked him across the temple, knocking him to the ground.
The whole scene seemed to freeze and then go spinning backwards on its axis. The metal-caps’ faces went strangely blank as they started circling Raven’s squirming figure like hyenas.
The air turned bad. It felt as if a vacuum had sucked out all of my wind. Everything went very cold. Things were moving beyond the point of return, and without really knowing what I was saying, I blurted, “Hey, man, you didn’t find the watch.”
They all turned at me. Monty had a violent look in his eyes, and for a moment I thought that I might become the object of his rage. But whatever essential, fundamental code it was that caused him to find joy in hard labor and an honest dollar also forced him to acknowledge that I was right. No matter how badly he wanted to punish Raven, the fact was that they hadn’t found the watch.
“Stand up,” Monty said.
Raven struggled to his feet, blood trickling from the left side of his face.
“You better hope we never get proof that you took the watch,” Monty said. “It will be very, very bad for you if we do.”
Panic and relief fought for control of Raven’s expression as he began to understand that he was going to get a reprieve.
“Now, apologize to Liz for telling people you slept with her.”
Raven looked to Liz. “I never said I slept with you, but if that’s what it takes to clear things up, then I’ll say I’m sorry.”
Liz scoffed. “Quit lying. Chris told me you said it.”
“Are you calling Chris a liar, you piece of shit?” Monty butted his head into Raven’s face again. “Get down on your knees and beg for forgiveness or else I’m going to knock every tooth out of your mouth, except for that fucked up black one.”
Dropping to his knees, Raven pleaded for Liz’s forgiveness. Monty shouted threats, driving Raven’s voice ever louder, until finally he was howling for mercy. The four invaders hopped around laughing madly like lobotomized finches.
When it was all over, Monty shook his head in disgust. “I’d die before I got down on my knees for anyone. You’re a turd, you know that? A worm. You got no self-respect. No pride. I’d die before I begged like that to anyone.”
“I’ll do whatever it takes to make things right,” Raven said.
Monty looked ready to explode on him again, but only turned away. “Let’s go. This asshole smells like old socks.”
The others looked disappointed that the violence had been called off, but filed out of the camp. Before he left, Monty turned to me. “Take it easy, man. Good luck getting on your feet.”
Unsure what else to say, I nodded. “Take it easy.”
After the four had left, Raven looked at me real seriously. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”
Not particularly caring, I crawled back into my tent. As I lay there looking into the dark, a giddy feeling started to well up inside me. For the first time in my life I truly felt like a Writer. After all my weeks of travelling, I had finally really seen something, something like no one else had seen. It had to be something. It had happened, hadn’t it?
Now, I just had to figure out what it was.
Copyright 2018 Jeff Suwak