He had no idea where he was or where he was going, but he kept that information to himself. He parted the neck-high grasses before him and blazed onward. Leading was his job, and he wasn’t about to let some new guy disrupt that.
It had always been his job to lead, and he knew no other role to play. It had always been that way–either he was followed or he went it alone; he would not follow.
“Shouldn’t we go back? I’m sure there should’ve been a trail back there.” The voice came from behind.
Why, oh why, was he stuck with that voice? He had only known it for a few short hours, and he was glad of that. At least this voice, the owner of which was apparently named Tom, didn’t seem to know much. He hated when people knew things, especially when they knew that they knew things. Jack’s reply was short and to the point. “Let me handle it.”
“I thought you said that you’d been here before.”
“It’s been a while.”
“You don’t seem to know where you’re going…”
“I said let me handle it.” He struck the foliage before him with more ferocity than necessary and hoped that Tom noticed.
“I said let me handle it. I know what I’m doing.” He didn’t, of course, but that was none of Tom’s business. This was his business, and Tom was lucky he was being allowed to follow. It wasn’t that Jack didn’t want him following, in fact the company itself was appreciated as long as he didn’t ask questions. It was the questioning that he hated, because questions can only lead to information he did not intend to divulge.
Jack pressed forward as he glanced toward the sky. The sun was high, and the thickness of the air supplied no relief to his drenched body. He thought back to a few hours before, back to when it was still cool and they were about to shake hands before climbing in that little canoe with a couple others, some hot dogs, and about 10 pounds of instant coffee.
Jack had arrived at the river before dawn and didn’t bother stopping in the parking lot but drove right out to the aging dock. As he stepped out of his battered, once-blue pickup he took a breath of the crisp early-morning air. It smelled slightly of yesterday’s catch, or rather its rejects, but he didn’t care. The air was fresh, and it was invigorating. As he walked out to the edge of the dock, he looked around and saw that he was the first to arrive–of course he was, he always was. The whole thing had been Jack’s idea, and the rest of them were to meet there at sunrise. He had wanted it that way; that was how he had planned it. Jack looked out toward the smooth, cool expanse of water as the sun peaked its crown into the sky and flashed its light through the glistening river. Farther out he could just see a small island emerging from the morning fog, and his heart skipped a beat. It was to be their destination, and he was determined this time. With a deep breath he felt his mind clear, and for a moment, however brief, he knew he was meant to be there.
The moment had passed as had he heard a vehicle approaching from behind him. They had arrived. He turned around and tread back to the dusty parking lot to see his two long-time friends emerge from the car with the new guy, Tom. Tom was the last to step out of the car, and as he did so Jack observed him carefully. He bore tattered jeans and a coal-black windbreaker, but his manner remained consciously reserved. Was it fear? Contempt? Jack wondered exactly what untold secrets were hidden under his stoic expression.
Jack was greeted by his friends enthusiastically, but his thoughts were still with the dock and the island. The last time they had been there was long ago, and he did not desire a repeat.
The shout brought Jack back to the present, and for the first time in a long while he came to a halt in the surrounding wilderness. He removed his hat and slowly ran his fingers through the sweaty black hair he was once so proud of, breathing deep the aroma of wild blackberries. He responded without turning around. “What.”
“We really should turn around.”
“I already told you.” Why couldn’t he just stop with the whining?
“Well why don’t we yell to see if the others hear us?”
“No. I’m going this way.” The others didn’t need to know anything.
“But there has to be a path back there somewhere!”
“Then go find it by yourself, dammit!” Jack pushed forward through the grasses with even greater ferocity but then came to a sudden halt. A distorted tree rose before him, twisted and mangled like a piece of modern art just waiting to be interpreted. It was an unforgettable sight, and had Jack been somewhere else he probably would have taken a picture of it. He’d seen it before, however. Gazing at it, images and feelings he hadn’t felt in a long time suddenly rushed through him like a frigid gust of wind leaving him gasping for air. His lungs were gripped with panic as the memories once again returned.
It was here they had found him last time.
Jack just stared. He couldn’t believe it. Panic started giving way to anger, and he suddenly noticed Tom’s shadow looming behind him. He was probably still ten feet behind at least, but Jack felt his presence as though Tom was reading over his shoulder. He hated when people read over his shoulder.
Jack turned on him. He didn’t know why, but this had to be Tom’s fault somehow. And even if it wasn’t, he could make it. He yelled. “What do you WANT?”
Tom didn’t respond at first. He still wore his stupid, consciously reserved expression, but Jack could see through it. He was scared, and he would crack soon.
“What do I want? I want to get to where we’re going.”
“Yeah, well, you aren’t helping.”
“I wasn’t aware that my help was wanted.”
Who did this guy think he was? Jack turned back toward the tree; he had nothing to else to say. He wasn’t completely sure what he had wanted Tom to respond with. He wasn’t sure why he had chosen “what do you want” as his question of choice, either, because it didn’t really mean anything. He just needed to say something. He just needed Tom to say something, to show that he felt some sort of human emotion. Certainly that wasn’t too much to ask for?
He heard noise from behind and saw before him Tom’s shadow shrink as he sat down. Jack was feeling the effects of their trek as well, but he couldn’t sit down now, not after Tom had.
So he stood there, his hands clenched as he absorbed the surroundings once again. The sun was even higher now, and Jack didn’t think it could get any higher. He presumed it must be about midday. His clothing was beyond drenched now, and as he grabbed a section of his torn t-shirt and twisted it sweat dripped to the ground. It provided little relief to his overheated physique and no relief to his aching legs. He lifted his legs and attempted to stretch in hope of soothing some of the pain, but he did it subtly. As far as Tom knew, Jack was still at his peak, and Jack wanted to keep it that way.
He looked back at the tree not sure what to even think. It’d been so long, but he hadn’t forgotten it. He hadn’t forgotten what it represented. It was here he had failed.
Jack glanced back at Tom. He was still sitting there, still blank. But Jack couldn’t deal with that now; he had to press on. His body wanted to stop, to sit down, to rest, but he would not allow it. Not now. He had to get away from this place.
Jack started again, heading in a direction that he had yet to attempt. He only continued on for a short distance, just far enough to be out of sight of Tom. He stopped for a moment and listened for any movement. The sound of brush crunching under feet grew louder, and upon hearing it Jack proceeded onward. Where he was proceeding to he still did not know, especially now. He’d never been here before–that tree marked the edge of his past exploration, if you could even call it that.
His anger had started to cool, and he was once again aware of the fear. What was it that he feared? Perhaps it was that he had no idea where he was; perhaps it was that he had no idea where he was going. Perhaps that he might fail once again, or, perhaps, that Tom and the others might realize it.
Tom was catching up, and he called up to Jack. “Weird tree, huh?”
“Wish I had brought a camera.”
“You won’t forget it.”
“You never know. We’ll have to tell the others about it.”
Jack felt his stomach turn. “I’m sure there’s lots of weird trees out here; they wouldn’t want to hear about it.” Of course they would, but not because of its artistic value. They remembered it, too; Jack was sure of that.
“Well it’s the first like it that I’ve seen, and you sure seemed interested in it.”
Jack faltered for a second. “What?”
“What’s it mean to you, Jack?”
“What does what mean to me.”
“The tree, Jack, the tree.”
Jack didn’t answer. What did it mean? It meant failure. It meant complete realization that he had no idea where he was. It meant that no matter what he did next or where he went, it was hopeless.
Earlier today, back at the dock, back when he had felt freedom, purpose, and control, he never would have believed that it would come to this. When they had split off from the others and agreed to meet later, Jack was sure this would be it. He was sure this was his chance, his opportunity for redemption. But now he wasn’t so sure. What was wrong with this place? With him? Jack wasn’t sure of anything anymore, and he needed to finally sit down. He needed to rest, to calm the fear in his stomach. He needed to eat.
Jack found a nearby stump to employ as a chair and slowly sat down so as not to aggravate his already aching body. He breathed deep.
Tom stayed standing. Jack watched as he looked around, absorbing it all. He must’ve noticed the change in Jack’s disposition, because he said nothing. Jack was fine with this, and he simply studied Tom as he stood there. Tom was a mystery to Jack, and he was almost envious. Tom seemed to have control over the one thing Jack couldn’t–himself. This whole thing was supposed to be Jack’s plan. It was his chance to finally make it, to conquer this place. Yet there he was, sitting on a stump where the only thing that looked familiar was their footprints.
Jack thought back to where those footprints originated and to when they were still there. Up until that point, they had all been together. The day was still young and cool, but the others had been getting hungry and were considering heading to the campsite. Jack was hungry as well, but only slightly, and this offered him the chance he needed. It was time to overcome. As the others decided to make their way to the campsite, Jack declared that he would continue on for a while and meet them there. He felt confident.
The others looked at each other, and Jack could tell what they were thinking. They remembered the last time, too. Last time, Jack had been certain he had seen another way to get to their campsite, and he had insisted on going after it. He hadn’t been able to remember exactly where it was, but he knew he could find it. He had to. But no matter what he had said, he couldn’t convince them. Neither of them believed him. But he was confident, and he knew he was meant to find it. So he did it alone. How hard could it be? It was getting dark though, and somewhere along the way he must have lost his way. He never made it, and eventually the others found him and had to bring him back.
But that was a one-time mistake. This was a new day, and this was his trip. This was his time. He’d find it. The others still didn’t believe him, but he’d track it down. He knew what he was doing.
Then Tom had spoken up and said he would be going along with Jack. Jack still didn’t trust him, but he knew the others would force him into allowing Tom’s company. Jack pretended to consider it before agreeing.
Then they parted ways. Jack led the way, and Tom followed silently. Jack knew he was in control, and he knew things would be different this time.
But now, hours later, he wasn’t sure how much control he had anymore. And even if he had it all, he wouldn’t know what to do with it.
“Hey, Jack.” Tom was still standing, but he had a reserved tone in his voice.
“Where are you going?”
Jack thought about his question. Why did he need to know? Jack was leading, shouldn’t that be enough? Why can’t Tom just trust him? He replied with the obvious, or at least it should have been. “To the campsite.”
“No, Jack, you’re not. What are you doing out here?”
Jack wished he knew, he really did. Earlier today he had thought he did. He used to always know, that’s just how it was. But now, out here, he wasn’t sure. Things were different now. Jack didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing.
“It’s time to go back.” With a look toward the sky, Tom turned around, and without saying anything more he slowly started to walk back.
Jack watched him. He seemed so calm, so under control. So…reserved. He was starting to walk out of sight now, and Jack slowly rose from his stump. He said nothing.
Jack looked at the sky and the now declining sun, thinking once again to earlier that day. He thought of his determination, of his plan. It had been so perfect. Why couldn’t things have followed it? This was supposed to be his chance.
Jack looked toward where Tom had walked. He couldn’t see him, but he could hear the brush quietly murmuring as Tom made his way through. Jack followed.