James Key let out a low gasp as a silver van veered directly into the path of his own brown Buick. He was on his way through the English countryside to pay a sincere visit to a breast cancer-ridden aunt, but now he worried that he might get there late. He quickly turned the wheel to avoid the silver van's bumper and then settled back into his own lane, his breathing returning to normal. Arrival at the hospital would be in ten minutes, so he stopped the car and took out a comb and a bottle of hair gel from the glove compartment and sculpted his hair. Then, after fixing his perfect brown moustache, he dressed his wrist in a pristine gold watch and took a fountain pen from the dashboard. In the glaze of the hot midday sun, he picked up the hardcover book from the passenger seat with his own name inscribed in glittering capitals on the cover and scribbled a semi-authentic sympathetic message to his aunt on the inside flap.
After this, James sighed in satisfaction, a grin stealing his face and turned up his moustache into a flattened V. He started the car and turned the radio to a slow jazz station, humming along with the misty saxophone as if he knew where it was sailing to. Hunger pressed nerves in his stomach and soon he was thinking of taking out the corned beef sandwich he had been saving for a few hours later. Deciding against it, he pressed the gas pedal, but suddenly he was awakened from his thoughts to a loud honk and another screech of tires.
"Not again!" James Key said. A car had just changed into his lane in front of him after passing him, and was going slower than James expected, swerving right and left; its driver apparently could not regain control. James' heart thudded as he hit the brakes, trying not to hit it. No one could possibly know what the critics and media would say if he got into the crash; they would twist it up into a primetime dramatic catastrophe not unlike those which James himself made a living from creating.
But suddenly the pea – green car in front screeched to a halt and smoke drifted up from somewhere inside into the cloudless blue summer sky. James gasped again, pin wheeling the steering wheel to the right. The car went sailing off the road into woody, green chaos. Down, down the James's brown Buick went, straight down a hill, but then it buckled up and then down again, James thrown up against the ceiling and bruising his head. Pure terror gripped his heart and he was motionless as the car flew through the forest. Finally, a great dead tree loomed ahead in the windshield, and G forces screamed high as the front of the car smashed into it head-on, silencing the radio from its soft saxophone.
For a long time, James just sat there, half in his seat and half out of it, halfheartedly pretending to be asleep so that he could wake up and see that all of this had never actually happened. "But," he said to himself, "I couldn't have gone too far of the road. I could make my way back and ask for a ride or a telephone call."
So, wiping a layer of sweat off from his forehead, he opened the door through the whispering and bending green underbrush and stepped outside. Immediately, he was greeted by yet another surge of humidity and he suddenly felt very alone; he was a crashed spaceship on a deserted planet. "But," he reasoned, "I am not alone. I have just gone twenty feet off the road. I am not alone." He looked back at the tire tracks through the foliage; at the flattened grasses and weeds and the halved or quartered sticks. Following them, he reasoned that they would, in all logic and reason, lead back to the merely grass-covered hill, and then to the road.
So he followed them. They made a clear, accessible path through the forest, avoiding the half fallen trees, disorganized underbrush and thick logs that were strewn across this wilderness. Where there were not trees or bushes there were grasses and weeds. Where there were not a grasses and weeds there was dirt and mud. In the air buzzed flies, mosquitoes, and tweeting lost or lonely birds. A small furry animal scurried part now and then.
But in thirty paces, the tracks stopped in a sheer dead end. They just stopped, ending the two long rectangles and confusing James even more. Again he stood, dumbfound, just thinking. By this time, he had forgotten all about his aunt the lump on her breast and all that he now thought of was a way; a path to get out of this accursed wood.
"Yes!" he thought. "I will look for a path!" A path would be like being safe and free even before he had actually escaped. So he followed the tire tracks away from the dead end and back to the car. He opened the car door and took out his comb, a pocket mirror and the corned beef sandwich and threw them all into a blue grocery bag. He made to get up and close the car door but then, exhausted already, sat back down on the car seat a took a few deep breaths.
The memory came back to him from twenty or so years ago of himself and his best friends going camping with his father. They had gone to a creek and set up camp under a big old oak tree fifty yards away. He remembered how he had stayed up all night that first day, nervously tossing and turning and looking around to make sure that none of the nighttime monster stories he had fabricated had suddenly realized themselves.
On a whim, James picked up his hardcover book from the passenger seat and slid it into the grocery bag with everything else. He opened the car and stepped outside. Closing the door behind him, a chorus of breaking twigs responded with but a shift of his weight.
After five minutes of pointless wandering, looking somehow, somewhere for a path, James realized that he should have left signs or a path on how to get back the his brown car. Now, he was lost, hot, tired and now without a car. Spotting and thick fallen tree, he kicked and stepped his way over to it and sat down, closing his eyes and wiping the latest layer of sweat from his forehead.
"Hello!" He called out, from nowhere to somebody somewhere. "Is any body out there?" When no reply was heard, an uncomfortable frown spread across his face, followed by a light whimper. He swatted a fallen leaf away that had been turning around with the wind next to him on the log. "Hmmpf!" A squirrel scampered into his field of vision, stopping and freezing to take a long look at this trespasser. "Go away!" James shouted, making hopefully scary, wild gesticulations to ward it off. "Go on!" It worked. He was finally alone, without anyone staring at him.
A fly buzzed in his ear and he swatted it away. Groaning, he took out the corned beef sandwich from the grocery bag and then from the Ziploc bag and ate it quickly, as if worried that someone might catch him eating it before the respected time. Immediately he regretted this, for what if he was out here, lost, all day? What if all night? What would he eat for dinner? For breakfast? Would he have to sleep out here – in the wilderness?
"No, of course not!" James said, aloud this time. "Of course not." Throwing the Ziploc bag onto the ground, he picked up the rustling grocery bag and started off again.
He looked at his gold watch. It read 1 : 50. How long had he been out here? Not as long as it seemed, surely. Trudging along, he squinted as the sun winked through the passing trees, the hefty book making the grocery bag handless cut into his skin. He changed hands.
"Now, I've got to find my car," James said. "Road map's in the glove compartment…" Realizing that he was talking to himself, he set his jaw and glanced around to see if anyone was watching. There was not, and he forced his legs to continue.
For five minutes, he looked for his lost car or perhaps even tire marks that had come from it, but it was of no avail. Already, he became tired and hungry again, looking around despairingly for a soft log or a comfortable looking bed of leaves to rest on; or even possibly an accessible bush of berries. The thought of hunting birds or squirrels even entered his mind, grimacing as if suffering from exquisite distaste or discomfort.
Finally, he came to a pond, where above it was clouded with a thick white mist; and around it a shore of mud and spots of grass and small stones. He staggered to a dry a dry spot of rotting leaves and flat rocks and sat down. He closed his eyes and reached into a small island of water six inches away and wet his face, not caring whether it was clean or not. He took the bottom of his striped button-down shirt and dried his face; after, he took his comb out of the grocery bag next to him and straightened out his hair using the pocket mirror he had also brought with him. Then he examined the scars that he had gotten.
There were seven – three on each arm and one above his eye. His black trousers, though the bottoms totally destroyed, had impeded any direct contact from the pointy sticks to his pink, vulnerable skin. All his wounds stung, and were not quite helped by the supposedly cleansing douse of dirty water. He looked into the pool of water he had taken from, and saw a few small tadpoles swimming and ducking through the water; and James wondered if possibly he might have to go fishing for food if didn't escape the forest soon.
As he felt the water, he suddenly felt a surge of unbearable thirst; his mouth and tongue had miraculously just turned into a piece of splintering wood, and his throat too, when he swallowed. Without thinking, he splashed water into his moth, and succeeded in getting only a small fraction to its intended target. Grimacing with a fouler taste in his mouth, he coughed hard few times, and most of the water he had won he lost now, into the hot air. He rubbed his eyes and gazed around, looking for something to hold his attention away from hunger and thirst and exhaustion.
But this was hard to accomplish. Peering through the hovering fog, he could make out nothing besides a thick layer of mossy green atop the water. In a few places, a long thin strand of green plantae rose from above the waterline; a save mountain after a torrential flood. Trees bordered this crater of water and deprived James of much of any sighting of what lay beyond them. He could not see how far away the opposite side of the pond was; it could have gone on and on forever, a pond of infinite water.
Then, for a moment, the fog cleared – perhaps because his eyesight had adjusted or maybe because the mist had actually cleared. Again, he peered through, trying to make out trees on a distant shore or something but he did not. What he saw was the top of a tower; a gray tower wrapped in abundant moss and wear; far, far away, and the fog cleared some more, and now, to James's joy, he realized that this feeble tower was not a tower alone; no!—it was a wing of a castle as wide as the whole opposite side of the pond!
Forgetting his grocery bag and its contents, James jumped and ran along the shore next to the tree line, the pond to his left. Sooner or later he would reach the castle. "A castle!" James panted, his eyes growing bigger and bigger. "I wonder if anyone lives there. A tourist attraction, perhaps?" His dirt festooned shoes splashed through a particularly wet mud puddle, painting brown spots all over his nice clothes he would have strained himself horribly over a few hours ago. "Even if there are no inhabitants," he continued, "at least it would be a nice place to stay." At this moment, he tripped over a thin tree or a thick stick and went sailing through the air. He was reminded of the car crash from earlier. Landing, he went hands first into a rough branch and a bed of leaves. His right arm scraped a rough end of the branch, ripping the skin and flesh off as he landed. "Ahhh!" he gasped, the pain hitting him at full throttle. He touched the long wound, laying down, felt blood trickle down his right arm and his left hand.
"What do I do?" James whispered. Taking off his button-down, he wrapped it tightly around his underarm and shoulder. He looked at the pond and saw that he was a little more than halfway to the castle, which loomed even bigger and more ominously from this different angle. Adjusting his soiled white undershirt, he resumed his trek to the castle, slower, and clutching his right arm with the left and wincing.
He reached the castle and found it bigger then he had first judged it. In the front, its foreground was the lake and the sides of it were bordered by dying, weeded clearings that sloped up from the grass into the moss and viny weed plants that climbed up the stone walls of the castle. The castle wall was so high, he had to look far up and squint in the sun to see its top. In awe, he made his way to the front door, which was a giant, sun brightened and splinter ridden door that stood minutely ajar. He looked at it, at the whole castle's sheer aura of mystery. He wondered who may have opened the door.
He slowly opened the door, which made a deafening creak that drove steely watching birds from their perches, squawking and flapping, annoyed. Stepping inside, James saw almost nothing. A shaft of bright sunlight diffusing through a single window high above shone with the opened door on the corner that the wall-floor joint made. He tip-toed inside, not knowing why, exactly, listening to the echoes off of the undisturbed rock. Following the light from the door, there was revealed a great red carpet stained with dirt stains, water and wine from spilled goblets of ancient kings queens and princes. The walls were a dead gray and unaccustomed to light. A colony of midnight black insects scattered and ducked under their dirt trenches and houses.
"So this place is deserted," James said. He leisurely walked to the wall lit up with sunlight and crouched down, leaning back and relaxing. "A tad unsanitary, but," yawning, "'twill have to do." He closed his eyes and fell asleep, forgetting the horrible pain in his arm.