Finding Vanessa (Part 3)

Updated: Mar 24

I woke up suspended off the ground in a small dark room with that ever so familiar feeling of not knowing where the hell I was. The walls were covered in shelves packed with cleaning supplies, paper products, and canned goods. When I tried to sit up, the world shook and swung under me, and it took a few tries before I realized that I was being held up by a braided rope hammock.


“You awake?” asked a voice to my right. I turned and saw the gas station clerk from earlier, Jerry, sitting on a milk crate and smiling.


I tried to sit up but a pain shot through my leg like electricity and I fell back onto the hammock.


“Where am I? What happened? Did… did you paint my nails?”


I looked at the red nail polish on my right hand, then at Jerry.


“You like it?”


“No.”


“Ok, that’s fair. You’re more of a fire truck than a cherry red anyway, but I thought I’d take a chance.”


I looked at the source of the pain-my leg-and saw that it had been wrapped tightly in a makeshift duct tape cast that wrapped right around my pants leg. That’s when it all came back to me, a bizarre memory that wouldn’t have been out of place in a David Lynch fever dream.


I reached out, grabbed Jerry by the collar of his shirt, and yanked him close to me.


“I need to talk to the sheriff. Now.”





The man in the bear costume stayed there on the other side of the clearing, spinning his arms and legs in a bizarre dance like a PCP-jacked teenager at the disco, occasionally looking my way as if to make sure that I was still watching. I slowly started to back up, putting one foot behind the other, carefully adding to the distance between us. I didn’t know the score, but I sure as hell didn’t want to push my luck. Once I got back to my car I could call the sheriff and have him bring all his deputies and an extra large straight jacket, but that plan required that I first get back to my car.


I had my eyes locked on the bear man, so I saw exactly when the arrow whipped right through him.


It came from somewhere in the forest behind him, entered his bear suit from the back, just below the armpit, and passed straight through the other side towards me. I didn’t have either the time or the reflexes to dodge. The next thing I knew, I had been struck.


I hit the ground and the man in the bear costume grabbed his wound and danced his way back into the woods. The arrow had lodged itself deep in my left leg a few inches above the knee, with the light wooden shaft protruding straight out. It was the single most painful thing I had ever experienced, and sheer adrenaline is probably the only reason I wasn’t going right into shock.


Two men donned head to toe in camouflage and carrying hunting bows stepped into the clearing at the same spot where the bear man had emerged. They both had shades of green smeared all over their faces like war paint. The fat one was cussing and yelling when he emerged.


I screamed, partially to get their attention and partially because I just couldn’t help it.


“Aw shit,” yelled the skinny one, “Did we get you?”


He dropped his bow and ran over to me while the fat one put his own on a sling over his shoulder and slowly walked over to join us.


“Who the fuck are you?” asked the fat one.


The skinny one pulled an eight-inch knife out of its sheath on his belt and sliced open my pants leg around where the arrow had lodged. I took a look and wished I hadn’t.


“You shot me!” I yelled. It was about the only thing I could muster the strength to say besides the lengthy paragraph of expletives I couldn’t hold in if I tried.


The skinny one looked at me defensively, “Well hell dude. We weren’t expecting no people but us to be out here.”


“Bear’s gonna get away now, boy.” Complained the fat one. “You think you can walk?”


I didn’t answer right away. The shaft of the arrow was shaking with my pulse, and I knew it was embedded into my femur. The fat man knelt down for a closer look and whistled.


“Yep. That’s in there alright.”


I closed my eyes and tried to focus on anything but the pain. Every breath, every heartbeat, every micromovement radiated through the arrow like an antenna into the wound and down the nerve in my leg. My eyes shot open and I let out a scream.


The fat one had reached out and grabbed the arrow at the base. With his other hand, he grabbed the top and snapped the shaft off. I collapsed onto my back and stared up at the sky, hoping that the pain would just knock me out already.


“There,” said the hunter. “Now we don’t gotta worry about it snaggin on every little thing. Ned, help me get him to the four wheeler.”


The other one, Ned, pulled me to my feet and together we went back into the woods. I kept an arm over both of their shoulders, basically hanging on and letting my bad leg drag the whole way. Not too far into the forest there was a small trail that we followed for close to half a mile before we reached the four wheelers. I don’t remember the ride back to their truck, but I remember them smacking me on the face when we got there to make sure I was still alive.


“Ya’ll get him?” asked the fat woman sitting in the driver's seat of the white extended cab truck stained brown from countless layers of dried mud.


The fat man got off the four wheeler and answered, “Naw, he got away.”


“I clipped him though,” bragged Ned as he jumped down from the four wheeler. “Left a blood trail. We may still be able to get him.”


“You shut up, boy! We ain’t goin nowhere tonight. Gotta get home before the sun goes down.”


The woman looked at me and smiled a big, toothless smile, her bright red cheeks standing out against her pale skin like she had already had a few drinks too many. “Oh, you got something though?”


The fat one grabbed me by the hair and yanked me off the four wheeler, throwing me to the ground, I let out another scream.


“What the fuck is wrong with you?! Are you crazy? That thing out there isn’t a bear, it’s a person! And you assholes shot me! I need to get to a hospital for Christ’s sake!”


The fat man looked at the woman and said, “Yeah, Ned got this one by accident.”


“Well that ain’t a total loss then,” she said back. “Why’s he still alive?”


“They’re easier to move when they’re alive. And they taste better if they’re scared when you put ‘em down.”


What?


Ned let out a whoop and jumped on top of me, pushing my face into ground and yanking at my pockets. He managed to dig out my phone, wallet, and keys before I finally got a handful of dirt and smacked it into his eyes. He fell off of me and I jumped to my feet, running towards the safety of the forest when-


BANG!


I froze.


“Now I wouldn’t be too keen on running back out there if I were you.”


I put my hands in the air and slowly turned around to face the fat one pointing a .45 at me from what I would consider point-blank range. Close enough that I could recognize it as a Dan Wesson Specialist. These guys were bowhunting for sport, but smart enough to bring along something heavier just in case. Smarter than me, that’s for sure.


“Why not?” I asked, “I doubt there’s anything out there as bad as right here.”


“Well that’s where you’re wrong.”


“OOOOOOhhh,” cooed the woman from inside the truck, “Shoot him! Shoot him!”


“Shut up woman! I ain’t gonna shoot him just cause you said so.”


“Hey now,” I said softly. Suddenly, the pain in my leg didn’t seem so bad. “Let’s talk about this for a second. You don’t have to kill me. I don’t know you from Adam. You can just leave me here and we can forget all about this.”


Ned reached out for the gun and said, “Let me do it. You got to do the last one.”


The fat one sighed and handed the gun over, “Fine. But aim careful. One shot, one kill.”


“Wait!” I screamed, “I know where the bear is! I can take you to him.”


“He’s lying,” whined the fat woman.


“No I’m not! We’re friends! Why the hell else would I be out here in the middle of nowhere with the bear?”


Ned gave the fat man a “what now?” look and the fat man scrunched up his face as he thought about it.


“Ok,” he finally said. “Take us to him, and then maybe we’ll let you go. Maybe.”


One gun, two hunting knives, two bows, a quiver of arrows. I raced every scenario through my mind quickly. How do I get to one of their weapons without getting killed first?


Forest, four wheeler, truck. Is there any realistic way to escape without being shot in the back? Things weren’t looking good, but I was still breathing for the time being.


“It’ll be faster if we take the truck.”





The hunters were being smarter than I would have liked. The big one--I picked up that his name was “Paw”--put me in the back seat of the cab next to Ned. He threw all of the weapons, knives included, into the truck bed and climbed into the back with us. I was sandwiched with Ned to my right and Paw to my left in that tiny vehicle that smelled like shit. Literally, it smelled like human feces. The seats were torn up and wet and I saw a few small roaches scurry away from us.


After Paw slammed his door shut, a tiny face looked back at me from the passenger seat. A little girl with matted blonde hair, no older than ten. She smiled and said, “Are we gonna eat this one?”


“Probably,” said the fat woman as she cranked the engine.


“Which way?” asked Paw.


I pointed straight ahead. “Get up here on the main road and take a right.”


“You better not be trying nothin,” warned Paw.


We hit the main road and the truck climbed up to a slow thirty mph.


“Go straight for about a mile,” I said, “Then you’ll see a dirt road on the left.”


“Ain’t no dirt road,” squealed the fat woman in a high pitched voice. “I know these woods like the back of my hands and I ain’t remember no dirt road up here.”


Paw punched me hard in the stomach, “You think you’re funny, boy?”


He knocked the wind out of me, and I doubled over in the seat as they all started laughing maniacally…


There’s an expression in trapping called “wring-off,” which is much worse than the phrase implies. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, allow me to explain. Trappers have to check their traps frequently, because if they don’t, an animal’s survival instinct will kick in and they will free themselves, one way or another. The most common form of wring-off is when a coyote or jaguar or anything with sharp enough teeth chews through its own leg to free itself. It ain’t pretty, but it sure beats the alternative, right? In that moment, I understood exactly how those trapped animals felt.


I bit down hard on the exposed piece of the wooden arrow shaft, as hard as I could stand, and yanked it out as fast as I could. For the second time in as many hours, I experienced the single most painful thing I’d ever felt. But now the arrow was free from my leg, and I had a weapon.


I spit the broken arrowhead into my left hand and stabbed it into Paw’s neck, cutting his laughter into a muffled gurgle.


“Oh shit!” yelled Ned as I swung myself onto the seat and planted the foot of my good leg against the side of his face with as much force as I could muster. I pushed his head into the glass of the window, all the while holding onto the arrow that was still embedded in Paw’s neck.


The little girl started screaming and the fat woman turned around to see what the fuss was about.


I turned to her, then I noticed it… maybe a hundred feet ahead, the man in the Bear costume stepping out of the woods and crossing the road.


I closed my eyes and braced for impact.


She must have looked back and seen the bear because the truck lurched wildly to one side, then back to the other, like she had swerved to miss and then over corrected, and then we started rolling. The sound of the crash was like an explosion, pieces of broken glass and blood rained down all around me as my head hit the roof, then the seat, then the door, and finally the world stopped spinning and I was on my back with blood stinging my eyes.


A warm hand reached under me and dragged me out of the wreckage and twisted mass of bodies and debris, through the cold wet grass and through a ditch, then dropped me into the road. I wiped my eyes and looked up at the giant black buttons of the man in the bear costume.


He waved at me, then gave an excited double thumbs up before walking back to the truck, unzipping the fly on the bear suit, and pissing all over the wreckage. He did a little jig off into the forest, and that was the last I saw of him.


What the fuck is happening?





I checked the truck. The driver, Ned, and Paw were all dead. The little girl was nowhere to be found. I know if she had survived, it’s unlikely I’d have any luck finding her. The weapons were gone too, probably flung out in the crash, and even though I would have felt a lot safer packing, it wasn’t worth the time it would take to track them down. I made a quick bandage out of my shirt sleeve and wrapped it around my leg tight enough to slow the bleeding, then I found a fallen branch long and strong enough to service as a walking stick and started up the road in the direction of the gas station.


I must have been a hell of a sight when I got back there. I was torn up and bleeding from several wounds, but none of that seemed to create a sense of care in the clerk behind the register, who still didn’t even have the decency to look up from his damn book.


I walked over to him and knocked on the counter, finally drawing his attention. I don’t know what it takes to impress this guy, but the sight of me in my nearest-to-death sure as hell didn’t even register with him.


“I need to use your phone.”


He tapped a small cardboard sign that was sitting on the counter. In sloppy black sharpie, someone had written the message:


“If you would like to use the store phone, it is twenty-five cents per minute. Please pay in advance. There are no exceptions.”


I reached for my wallet, only to remember that it wasn’t on me. Ned had taken it and left it somewhere out in the woods.


“Look, asshole, this is a life or death situation. There’s been an accident. I need to call the sheriff.”


The clerk spun the cardboard sign to the opposite side, where someone had written: “No exceptions means no exceptions. Not even life or death situations. Thank you for understanding. - MGMT”


Under normal circumstances, I would have resorted to a more physical solution, but at that moment I started feeling light headed and dizzy, and the next thing I knew, I was swinging in a hammock with my nails painted.





“Where the hell am I?” I repeated the question to Jerry.


“You’re in the gas station dry supply closet.”


“Why?”


“Because the customers were complaining that they didn’t want to keep stepping over you every time they wanted to buy something. But don’t worry, I already called the deputy that babysits us. She’s on her way here to arrest you or whatever she does, and in the meantime Jack says you can borrow one of his old crutches.”


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