The woods were shrubby and shitty and full of ticks. It was the kind of embarrassing midwest excuse for a forest that is both the result of clearcutting and that makes me think a second clearcut would, just in this one case, be an improvement. The sun was on the back of my neck and I'd had my thumb outstretched for hours. The muscles in my face hurt from smiling at every single motherfucker who wouldn't pick me up.
I wanted to get out my slingshot and shoot every car that went by. Hopefully the drivers would swerve into one of the aforementioned piece of shit trees, and that would be two birds with one stone. Three, really, since I hate cars as much as I hate their drivers and scrawny midwestern trees.
If I think too hard about it, the fantasy falls apart. If the car doesn't have any empty seats, maybe I shouldn't murder its driver. If it's a woman driving alone, can I really blame her for not picking me up? I'm twenty, people think I'm thirty, and I look exactly like I smell—like I walked off the set of a post-apocalyptic film, one that couldn't afford armor. Really, I'd just come off a freight train. That isn't the furthest thing in the world from a post-apocalyptic film set.
But I shouldn't murder the drivers, because this isn't the post-apocalypse. And killing people is wrong. Even people who don't pick me up.
Sometimes people do pick me up, even out there on a back highway in Illinois, even when dark is settling in, even when the person is a woman driving alone.
She pulled up in an old Ford station wagon, got out of the car, and shoved things aside in the back seat to make room for my pack. She didn't come across as a hippie or nothing. Just a fairly normal woman, maybe in her early thirties, ambiguously non-white.
"Where you going?" she asked me, when we were both standing outside her car.
"Yeah but where?"
Usually I'm supposed to ask her that, right off. That's the first rule of not getting murdered or almost-as-bad-as-murdered. (I've been almost-as-bad-as-murdered before and some people say it's worse than being murdered but I've got nothing to compare it to. I think it's subjective, at the end of the day.) First rule of hitchhiking is I ask where they're going. If they say they don't know, I don't get in the car.
Well, usually I do anyway when the sun is on my neck and those murder-faced ticks are staring at me from the tops of the shrubs, just shouting "hey fucker, get closer, I want to make you sick."
"St. Louis." It was sort of true. I was going to St. Louis inasmuch as I'm ever going anywhere. Not all who wander are lost, sure, but at that point, I definitely was.
"I'll take you as far as Normal," she said.
Normal's a city in Illinois, a bit down the road. As the name implies, it's kind of a shit town.
"Thanks." I got in the car.
"What's your name?" she asked, as we barreled down the road. She didn't drive slow.
"Suzie," she said. "What do you do?"
"You mean for money?"
"Sure. For money."
I told her the truth, which was kind of stupid.
"Mostly I steal books from Barnes & Noble and sell them on the Internet."
"Mostly," I said.
"What else do you do?"
Sell handjobs to ugly old fuckers at truck stops, sell handjobs to handsome young fuckers at truck stops, pose nude for art students, pose nude for creeps, panhandle, strip copper from abandoned buildings, strip copper from houses under construction, pick moldy grapes for wine, trim weed, stand in weed fields with a shotgun and hope to fucking god I never have to shoot anyone.
"Mostly just steal books."
"You steal any good ones?" she asked. My gamble paid off. She was in on my crime. It's a short step from accomplice to friend.
"Almost always just textbooks, to be honest."
"You ever get caught?"
"Every state's got a felony limit. You never steal more than the limit, you're fine, within a certain understanding of the word 'fine.'"
"So you've been caught?"
"What do you do?"
"I teach pottery. At a summer camp, at the moment. At private schools, the rest of the year."
A potter. She'd flown right in under my hippie radar. Some people use hippie as a pejorative, but not me—I've spent enough time out in the world to know good hippies are basically the best people, even if bad hippies are basically the worst.
"You like it?" I asked.
"I love it. It's also driving me completely nuts."
"I've been staring at spinning clay for twenty years. You stare long enough into the clay, it starts to stare back at you."
"You live in Normal?" I asked.
"No, Alton, right outside St. Louis. I only told you I was going to Normal in case you were awful and I wanted to get rid of you sooner. You seem all right, though."
I smiled my winningest smile, with my crooked teeth and everything. But she didn't even look at me, because she was looking at the road, because she was going at least 90 mph and she was a good hippie. She didn't want to get us both dead. Though to be real, I didn't really care one way or the other about that.
Three days later I was still at her house. It's kind of a crustlord thing to do, to stay there that long, but she wanted me to stay as much as I didn't feel like leaving. I was hoping she'd let me stick around longer, to be honest. It was nice to have a roof and food, and I had a good time helping out around the house and yard. We weren't sexual, but I slept in her bed and we were kind of romantic. That's about half my best relationships, right there. Half my best friendships, too.
She'd picked me up on a Tuesday night, taken me home. Big old probably-not-haunted house, right up on a hill at the edge of the neighborhood that ignorant white people tell you not to go into, the kind of neighborhood I'd just tell you not to be an ignorant white person in.
Friday, she came home from work with groceries under her arm and her clothes covered in clay. I'd spent the day reading books and building her a raised planter in the yard and I was about halfway through making her a passive solar food dehydrator I didn't really know how to make.
"I saw your future," she said, heading into the kitchen with the food.
"Yeah?" I followed her, started putting food away.
"I heard it in the clay."
I've never given much credence to magic. Probably believed in it the same way I believed in yoga. Magic is a thing you can do to your mind to make your mind do what you want it to. So I didn't believe in fortunetelling or astrology any more than I believed in god, but my lack of belief has never stopped any of my friends. People got something out of all that bullshit, so who was I to call it bullshit to their faces?
"The clay hasn't spoken to me in months, and here you are and it's started again."
"It talks to you."
"People hear the spirits in every art. They just don't talk about it."
I had no idea if that was true. I couldn't say it wasn't. I didn't hear spirits when I wrote zines or built shacks but I've also never made much claim to being an artist.
"What's my future?" I asked.
"It's good," she said. "Your long, hard journey is coming to an end."
"All right," I said, because what the fuck else could I say. Most people, I would have guessed she was hitting on me, telling me to stick around and that I wasn't going to be lonely anymore. With Suzie, I just chalked it up to hippie nonsense.
"Do you want to go camping?" she asked.
That’s always kind of a trick question. If I said no, and she wanted to go by herself, then I’d have to move on. So we loaded up her station wagon with food and we drove off into the sunset, towards something like nature. Because Suzie drives like a fucking maniac, we made it to a campground in Missouri not too late at night.
It was the kind of campground you have to pay for, but she paid the whole twenty bucks because I'm a scumfuck I guess and just let her pay for it. Honestly I was sort of expecting her to want to sleep with me and I was going to let her, even though I only half wanted to. Since I'm a pro sometimes, I guess that worked out into my head as my half of the money, even though that's not really how it works.
There was hardly anyone else at the campground, so we snagged the best spot—a massive oak overlooked its picnic table, which overlooked a spindly river. I cooked us up canned lentil soup with fresh garlic and onion while she told me about the stars. Older people who know a lot of shit are cool. Older people who don't are sort of doubly disappointing. But Suzie wasn't even that much older than me, and she knew a ton of shit.
She told me about the stars in the Southern Hemisphere too, which made me kind of sad. For all my travels, I'd never left the country. Forty-eight states in five years, and I was pretty sure I could get myself into Mexico, maybe even legally, but the idea of heading off further seemed impossibly expensive. I'd read about riding in the wheel wells of airplanes, but mostly about people who died in the attempt.
Other friends of mine had hopped freight trains that got loaded up onto barges and shipped up to Alaska or down to Central America, but half of those friends of mine had been turned around by border guards when they got where they were trying to go. I guess there was that one friend who got murdered in Guatemala but that's neither here nor there, because my friends get murdered a lot of places and sometimes they do that murdering to themselves.
Suzie told me about the stars and I didn't tell her about any of my dead friends, because those two things aren't related and because I was happy just chopping onions and letting her think that's why I was crying.
While we ate, an old pickup rolled in and took the spot next to us. The man who got out looked like my future—grizzled and gray and alone—and he didn't bother setting up a tent, just laid down a tarp and put a sleeping bag on top. He waved at us, we waved back, and he sat down at his picnic table to read.
"What's in St. Louis?" Suzie asked, as I scrubbed the bowls.
"Fucking nothing," I said. "Some squats, some friends. Maybe I'll be there for a week."
"You don't have much of a sense of purpose in your life, do you?"
"I kind of want to die," she said. "Not an active thing, usually. Just sometimes hope I'll get lucky one day and die."
I'd felt that way for the whole of the past year. Grief hits you when you’re traveling, and you don’t really have a place to just let yourself shut down and ignore the world for awhile. You gotta keep going, always, and that gets old.
"It gets lonely, being alive," she said. "It's like you're disconnected from the world. All those bits of you that should be in the earth, should be part of everything, are stuck in your body."
"How do you hope it'll happen?" I asked.
"Fire seems good."
"People say fire hurts and maybe it does but the only time I've ever been burned, it was second-degree, all over my hand, and I'm pretty sure the fire just burned out my nerves because I didn't feel anything. Not for a half-an-hour at least. If I was burning, like dying, wouldn't it just burn my nerves away?"
"I don’t think that’s how it works." I looked back up at the stars. I've always liked Orion. I'm a city kid. Orion is the only constellation I know. He's got that bow and that sword and he's invulnerable.
"What about you?" she asked. "How do you hope you'll die?"
"Freezing to death." I didn't need to think about that.
"You just shut down, give up, and warmth comes over you and you take off your clothes and you die. That's how I want to go—naked and warm."
After dinner, the moon was nearly full and Suzie threw on a backpack and took me hiking down the railroad tracks. We were in the woods, and they were real woods—thick old oaks interspersed with pine and fir, and a deep handsome creek ran alongside the tracks. The air was clear and sharp. The four-foot saplings in between railroad ties told me pretty quick that the railroad wasn't in use. Suzie knew her way, and we found our footing with the help of red LED headlamps.
"You've been here before," I said.
"Took my ex here a lot."
"I can see why."
"He wouldn't let me do what I need to do out here, though," Suzie said.
Maybe I shouldn't have gotten into the car with her on Tuesday.
"Let you do what?"
"There's something under these tracks, something that wants its way out into the air. It’s starving."
One of those dead friends of mine, she'd been cut up in Arizona by a madman. Another took a beating from a cop in Wisconsin and died of complications a year later. A third got a bullet in the back of the head in some shitty southern town. He'd just been walking into his squat when this guy trying to get into a gang followed him through the door and bang there goes my friend. The fellow in Guatemala got mugged to death. Desert, hospital, shit town America, Latin American slum. Never anyone in the forest. I'd be the first, which is kind of special.
This is the kind of shit I think about. I wish it wasn't.
"This trapped something, you saw it in the clay?"
"It stopped talking to me months ago, started again today." She still sounded like the nice hippie who'd picked me up hitching.
I kept walking with her, because I've got more curiosity than sense and because in for a penny, in for setting a demon loose into the world, that's what I always say. Helped that I didn't believe in demons. Helped that I wasn’t overly attached to being alive. We went about a mile down the tracks, over a sketchy, rusted out bridge, through fields of moonlight and summer flowers and back into the trees. She stopped about fifteen feet from a little trickle of a waterfall coming down over the rocks.
"Here," she said. She kicked the rail, and I looked down to inspect.
I know a lot about train tracks. I spend a lot of time walking on them and a lot my energy thinking about how I might get squished between them and train wheels when I catch on the fly.
There was a date nail driven into the railroad tie. A date nail isn't a spike, just a regular old nail with a number punched into its head. This one said 98.
"This tie is from 1898," I said. "Pretty much one of the oldest dated railroads in the country."
"That makes sense," Suzie said. "But look at the spikes."
I did. The railroad spikes, which are driven into the railroad ties to keep the baseplate and the rail stable, were adorned with numbers. Each one bore three sixes, in a triangle.
"Holy shit," I said. "That's cool."
"Yeah," Suzie said.
"Usually there are letters here, the brand of the manufacturer."
"These ones just show their purpose."
"How many of these are there?" I asked.
"Twenty-three of them."
"And you want to pull them up?"
"It’ll take both of us," she said. "I summon it, you pull up the spikes."
"Can I keep some of them?" I asked. I had some blacksmith friends who made knives from rail spikes, and these ones said 666 on the base.
"You don't believe me about any of this," she asked, "do you?"
"Months of silence, and it talked to me again just today."
"What happened to your ex?"
"It didn't work out." It wasn't hard to imagine him buried somewhere nearby.
"This why you picked me up hitchhiking?"
When I was a kid, flying had scared the shit out of me. Last time I flew, though, was to a friend’s funeral. Her mother had paid for my flight. I spent the whole trip thinking about the plane crashing, about free fall. Thinking about that had set me free, let me just marvel in the majesty of sunrise out through the window.
"All right," I said. "Fuck it."
She took a small crowbar from her bag, and I went at it. But a crowbar is actually a fuck-off bad way to get a spike out of a railroad tie, as it happens. I found a loose baseplate—a flat rectangle of steel—for a lever and got it up on a big chunk of gravel for a fulcrum, and jammed that under the lip of the first spike. I just jumped up and down on the damn thing, inching the spike out.
Suzie had a crescent wrench and banged a simple, steady beat on one of the tracks. The moon had gone behind the trees, and our headlamps cast a red glow over each other and the little pocket of the world we could see. It took hours, but I pulled out spikes, one at a time. There was the iron smell of rust, the clang of steel on steel, the sounds of night birds, and the trickle of water. Foxfire glowed in the distance. I got drunk, maybe spellbound, on darkness and strangeness and the ceaseless rhythm.
I jumped a final time, reached down, and pulled out the twenty-third spike. Suzie built to a crescendo, then stopped.
There, in our red light, was movement. It looked like black ashes coming up from fire, the way those tiny bugs came out from the ground and climbed into the sky. First like ashes, sparse and intermittent, but then like smoke, thick and black, spreading into the air, and like a spill of oil out along the ground.
We watched for ten minutes, and the flood of crawlers and fliers continued unabated. We walked back to the campground in the red light.
I slept with Suzie that night. It wasn't to pay my half of the money, either. It was because I felt like we had power. I felt like we could do anything in the world. We did each other.
I woke up with what felt like water in my ear. I jammed my finger in there and fished around, trying to equalize the pressure. I pulled something out. It was a tick, black and gray in the pre-dawn light.
That woke me up.
My memory worked its way backwards through the previous night's events, and I scrambled through the tent searching for a condom, for proof we'd used protection. I found it, tied shut. There were at least a dozen ticks crawling across the latex. We'd left the door to the tent partially unzipped.
That's when I remembered what came before the sex, and suddenly the condom seemed like a total non-issue. I stuck my head outside.
The world was a sea of chittering black. Everything—the tent, the trees, the picnic table, the shitty fire grill filled with shitty peoples' shitty trash—was carpeted with ticks. The sky was thick with swarms of arachnids or insects or whatever they were.
Our neighbor, the old man, was lying on his tarp, unmoving, as ticks drained his blood and locusts swarmed his face.
I zipped the tent shut and started ripping off my clothes looking for bugs.
"What's the matter?" Suzie asked. She was sleepy-eyed and smiling.
"The fucking world is being eaten by ticks and locusts."
"Calm down," she said. She closed her eyes again.
I only had about seven of the motherfuckers stuck on me, and I crushed their little faces with my multitool pliers and ripped them out. I scoured the tent, turning everything that moved into an eight-legged corpse.
"Hey," I said. "I need you to wake up."
Suzie opened her eyes.
"I'm freaking out."
"What about?" She sat up, put her arm around me, started stroking my neck and tracing her fingers along my face.
As a society, our sense of reality is built on a rough consensus. In order to keep the aberrations—hallucinations, psychosis, paranoia, all that—from taking over, we constantly double-check our assumptions with the people around us. Everything from "did you hear that?" to "is it a reasonable thing to murder someone because they didn't pick me up hitchhiking?" is something we run past other people to keep ourselves a bit more grounded.
But the ground outside was covered in billions of ticks and the only person around to compare notes with was Suzie.
"What did we free?" I asked. "What did we do?"
I saw a tick latched onto her collarbone, and started at it with pliers, but she pulled my arm down.
"It's a part of this place," she said. "Part of this forest and this river. Before the railroad, this forest wasn't a good place to live. It was only a good place to die. But dying here meant dying well, like fire, like freezing."
"Where are we?" I asked.
"It's got a name you can't pronounce with less than a million chitin bodies," she said.
I had nothing to say to that, so I didn't say anything.
In the silence, I heard it. I heard the demon's name, the name of the forest.
Sometimes I hop freight trains, and I get up alongside a steel leviathan and jump onto a ladder on its side while running while wearing a bag stuffed full of everything I own. Train wheels have this suction effect, they just want to suck you under, and I know some people who don't have legs anymore and I know other people who are dead.
Once you get on a train, you can't get off until it stops or until it slows down enough for you to do something stupid, like jump off on the fly. People say you can tuck and roll. Some of those same people have broken their bones jumping off at speeds as slow as ten miles an hour and had to stumble, crippled, for miles. The gravel rips skin from flesh, and blood runs down into the earth. Some wounds you recover from, some wounds you don't.
"If we can get across the river," I said. I was whimpering, falling out of mania.
"It can fly, too."
"Then the car."
"We're better off staying here," she said.
"For how long?"
"If we open the tent, it'll go faster."
She pulled my head to hers, forehead to forehead, and looked me in the eyes closer than my eyes could focus. That was it, then. The plane was falling.
A long, hard journey, coming to its end.
I tried to convince myself she was right, that I was ready to die. So much had hurt me in twenty years. There were so many wounds and scars, so much ugliness. So many lives I'd led were over. The forest was a fine place to die, a fine place to never leave.
There’d been sunrises over lakes in the mountains while I’d frozen in boxcars. There’d been strangers who'd fed me, there'd been people who'd loved me. There'd been summer nights by the fire as a bottle of Jack made its way around and we'd told every story that's ever been told. Maybe I’d lived enough.
Fuck it. I opened the tent and the forest came in, eight legs at a time.
I lay down. I was naked and warm and I'd been through a lot and Suzie curled up into the crook of my arm. I took deep breaths as the forest came over me, black and gray. I shuddered, but just once. They clamped onto me, they burrowed their heads into me. They took my blood, and I felt nothing.
Suzie put her hand up into my hair, held me tight.
I'd never worry again. I could leave myself to the earth, save myself the trouble of getting old, save myself cancer and hip replacements and failing at life.
I sat with that in my head for awhile, as I grew weaker. The weaker I got, the easier it was to convince myself it was okay to die.
But I'd never even made it out of the country. Whole continents I'd never seen. There were caves to wander and abandoned warehouses to climb and trains to ride and there were people to fuck and people to love. There was all kinds of shit out there in the world of the living.
A tick went back into my ear and that just wasn't right. I dug it out.
"Get up," I said. My voice wavered.
"I'm staying here," she said.
"You said being alive is shit because it disconnects you from the world?"
She didn't answer me. I barely had the energy to talk myself.
"That's a load of crap. Even if you go in for shit like that, you're not separate from the world. The forest can't absorb you into it because you're already part of the forest, you're already part of everything. We're all made of the same shit. I don't believe in fuck-all but I bet you do and I bet whatever made you did it for a reason and you're in the body you're in because you're supposed to be. One day you won't be. Right now you're alive and I need you to stay that way because I don't know how to fucking drive a fucking stick shift."
She closed her eyes, sighed. A few ticks crawled along her lips.
"Fuck you!" I said it to get my blood flowing as much as to condemn her.
I got her keys from her pants, staggered out to the car. Got into the driver side, turned the key. The engine sputtered to life. I lifted my foot off the clutch while my other foot was on the gas because that's what you're supposed to do and I stalled the engine. I was running on adrenaline, wishing I could get her car to run on it too.
I tried again, and the engine shook and stalled.
In the chittering silence, I heard Suzie’s weak shout.
I got back out of the car, and bugs swarmed my face and ticks crawled between my toes. I made it to the tent. She was crying, her eyes were open and bright white against the parasites that fed on her brow and cheeks.
"Help me," she said. Or maybe her mouth just moved and her eyes did the talking, I don't know. But I helped her up and out of the tent and she stumbled a few paces before her own adrenaline kicked in. We made it to her car and I sat her down in the driver’s seat. She turned over the engine and we tore down the gravel away from that hell.
We stopped at an overlook and stumbled out of the car. The ticks were on us like scales, but we'd made it out from the forest of death and the swarms were well behind us. I scrounged through my pack. In the hidden pocket, with my lockpicks and the high-powered magnets I used to take off security tags in stores, was a short length of plastic tube. I knelt down in the gravel, stuck the hose into the gas tank, then wadded up a sock around it to keep pressure. Deep breath, deep breath, then I got my lips over the plastic and sucked in. Three times, breathing in through the tube. Saw the gas coming through, moved my face in time, and gasoline fell freely to the ground.
I was shaking, terrified. I barely remembered what terrified felt like. I wanted to live, and I probably wasn't going to, and my nerve was shattered.
"Come here," I said, and I bathed Suzie in gas. Gas kills ticks, even if it doesn't get them to detach.
I don't have much extra weight or blood to go around, so Suzie was holding up better than I was. When I finished hosing her down, she started on me. The fumes went to my brain, and I faded in and out.
Some of the dead ticks, the ones who hadn't gotten firm into us, started to drop off. The others were stuck, and Suzie and I went at one another with tweezers and pliers. It hurt. It hurt a lot.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we were done.
"How do we get them out of the car?" I asked.
"We don't," she said. "Leave it."
"Are we going to make it?" I asked.
But that's never really the right question, because the answer doesn't ever matter.