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Authors: Steve Voake

Dark Woods

BOOK: Dark Woods
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Dark Woods

Steve Voake

Cal was discovered outside Pizza Hut in a blue holdall with the zip three-quarters done up, which showed his mum cared enough to make sure he didn’t get cold. She had put in a brown, threadbare blanket, a book of nursery rhymes and a note which said:
Im sorry I cant do it no more. Pleese look after him. His name is Cal.

The old man who found him took him to Camden police station, probably hoping for some kind of reward. But rewards were for the things that people actually wanted, so the old man went away empty-handed and Cal lay on his brown blanket in a draughty police station, staring at the ceiling and waiting for his life to begin.

Thirteen years later he was travelling across America in the back of a rented camper van, taken on holiday by the latest in a long line of foster parents, drawing pictures in his notebook and keeping his usual distance from a world that never wanted him in the first place.

‘Sketching the scenery, Cal?’ asked Sarah, the woman who had spent the last six months trying to be his mother, although they both knew she wasn’t succeeding.

Cal nodded, but didn’t reply. She had obviously thought a trip to the States might bring them closer together and he could tell she was upset by the fact that this morning, like every other morning, he had got up early and eaten his breakfast alone.

‘It would be so nice if just for once we could start the day as a family,’ she had said as he washed and dried his bowl before returning it to the cupboard. ‘Don’t you think, Cal?’

But Cal had heard that kind of talk before. He had even been taken in by it once or twice before learning that there was only one person he could rely upon to look after Cal, and that was Cal. What was the point in trying to complicate things when you knew how they were going to end?

As Sarah turned back to ask Michael
How far is it now?
Cal finished shading the man’s jacket and returned the pencil to the pencil case before flipping back through the pages. All the drawings were exactly the same. A man with a pale, white face dressed in a green frock coat and top hat, holding a pair of scissors from which blood dripped to form a dark red pool beneath his feet.

Cal closed the notebook and stared out of the window at a sign which read  

 

West Fork Campground, Bitterroot River

RV Park & Riverside Camping

75 spaces
 

 

‘You look pale, Cal,’ said Michael, glancing in his rear-view mirror. ‘Are you feeling OK?’

Cal nodded.

He watched the mountains scratch their silhouettes across the sky, shadows deepening beneath the pine trees as they drove down the forest track.

He didn’t know it, of course, but he was only hours away from the meeting which would change his life.

Behind the campground, the mountain’s steep, tree-covered slopes swept up into a bruised Montana sky. Four hundred feet above the boundary fence, hidden in the shadows of the pines, Jefferson Boyd watched smoke rise from a dozen barbecues and felt his pulse quicken. Taking a deep breath, he concentrated on remaining calm, because experience had taught him that emotions can cloud your judgement and he didn’t want to mess things up.

He was a scientist, after all. And good scientists were cool and methodical, eliminating errors and making sure that everything went according to plan.

Through powerful binoculars he watched the families gathering outside their camper vans, carefully arranging their food on individual picnic tables and preparing to settle in for the evening. Jefferson tried to remember what it was like to be part of a family, sharing food and conversation with people who were close to you. But then he clenched his fist and punched himself in the leg, eager for the pain to remind him how foolish it was to think of such things when there was work to be done.

It was oddly exciting to think that, somewhere down there, someone existed who might be able to help him. He didn’t know anything about them yet, of course, didn’t know what strange winds of fate might have blown them down the highway towards him. But he knew that these things could not be rushed. After all, he had waited over twenty years for this opportunity.

He was prepared to be patient.

Reaching beneath his camouflage jacket, he took the Smith & Wesson .38 from its concealed holster, opened the chamber and inspected the bullets inside.

He hoped he wouldn’t have to use them.

But he knew that trouble had a way of coming at you from the places you least expected.

The site owner told Michael the fish were rainbow trout, line-caught from the river that morning. ‘All you gotta do is walk a mile upstream,’ he said. ‘The water’s glittering with ’em.’

Cal watched Michael lay them on the barbecue, the last rays of sunlight illuminating the oily patches of colour beneath their gills as the flames licked around them, turning them charcoal black.

‘You should let her make breakfast for you once in a while,’ said Michael when Sarah had gone inside to fetch some cutlery. He flipped the trout over and the scales sizzled, flaking onto the coals like metallic rain. ‘She only wants to look after you.’

‘I can look after myself,’ said Cal.

‘I know,’ said Michael, ‘but you don’t have to. Not any more.’

*

Later that night as he lay awake listening to the sound of their breathing, Cal wondered how long it would be before they gave up on him. Called it a day and sent him back to the children’s home, just like all the others had done. Families always fostered him for a while, but never adopted, not since that first time. Everyone wanted babies these days, not teenagers who didn’t want to be there.

‘Boomerang Cal,’ that’s what they called him. Boomerang Cal – the boy who keeps coming back.

He could see it now. Almost looked forward to it, in fact. The way he would unpack his stuff, hang his clothes in the cheap flat-pack wardrobe and go back to making his own breakfast without anyone bothering him.

He thought about that for a while. Then he closed his eyes and fell asleep.

 

A blood-red sky giving way to night. The moon hanging low in the treetops and Cal in a place he didn’t recognise. A cheap candlewick bedspread and a dusty lampshade throwing shadows across the room. A window and a night full of stars. In the darkness, someone standing in the shadows. Staring at Cal and smiling . . .

 

As the screams echoed around Cal’s mind he struggled from beneath the duvet like a drowning man and Sarah ran through the cabin, knocking pans from the stove in her efforts to get to him.

‘It’s all right,’ she whispered, reaching for his hand in the darkness, ‘it was only a dream.’

Cal held her hand for a few moments until the fear subsided. Then, as she put her hand on his shoulder, he turned his face to the wall.

‘I’ll always be here if you need me, Cal,’ she whispered. ‘But you have to trust me. You have to let me in.’

Cal wanted to believe it this time. But knowing that if he did the world would only let him down again, he said nothing and closed his eyes. As he drifted off to sleep he felt her lie down beside him, whispering in the darkness:  

Star light, star bright

First star I see tonight

I wish I may, I wish I might

Have the wish I wish tonight

Jefferson Boyd sat with his back against a tree and zipped up his fleece. He took three sips from his water bottle and ate a handful of trail mix that he had picked up from the gas station en route. Then he took the night-vision goggles he had got mail order for two hundred dollars and slipped them over his head. As his eyes adjusted, he saw the grey shapes of the rocks and trees, the eerie green heat of birds returning to their nests and the fading glow of barbecue coals.

It looked promising, but he would just have to be patient.

When the time was right, he would make his move.

Cal woke early, just as the sun was coming up. Although it was dark inside the camper van, there was still enough light for him to see Sarah lying on the bed next to him. He guessed she must have slept there all night.

Feeling a pang of something he didn’t want to feel, Cal immediately shut it down, locking it away so that it couldn’t hurt him. Careful not to wake her, he slid past and dressed himself. He took two slices of bread from the bread bin and spread them with butter and jam. Then he opened the door and sat at the picnic table, eating his breakfast and watching the sun come up over the mountains.

He wondered briefly what it would be like to have a mother after all these years, but he knew he couldn’t allow himself to think about such things. So he forced the last of the bread down, licked his fingers and wiped his hands on his jeans. There was a bowl next to the table full of last night’s washing-up. Although he didn’t know why, he suddenly wanted to do something for her. Something that wouldn’t involve talking or hoping or believing in promises that couldn’t be kept.

He went inside and took some washing-up liquid and a cloth from the drainer. Then he picked up the bowl and walked down the road towards the washrooms. There were a couple of double sinks built into the outside of the block and he filled one with hot water, frothing up the suds before dumping in the plates and cutlery.

‘Looks like you know what you’re doing,’ said a voice. Cal turned to see a girl smiling at him over a pile of plates. She was maybe a year or two older than him, with short red hair and a handful of freckles sprinkled across her nose like pepper dust. ‘You wanna do a few more?’

Without waiting for an answer, she placed the plates on the drainer next to his, rolled up her sleeves and turned the taps on full blast.

‘I’m telling ya, if I ever have kids I’m going to send ’em out to work while I stay home watching TV and eating Hershey bars.’ She dug in her pocket and pulled out a pack of Life Savers. ‘Want one? Beats cleaning your teeth.’

‘Thanks.’ Cal took a mint and saw that she was watching him with interest, trying to figure him out.

‘You just got here?’

‘Last night.’

‘You’re English, right?’

‘That obvious, is it?’

‘Put it this way. The only other place I’ve heard people talk like you is in the movies. Usually standing next to a horse and carriage.’ She smiled. ‘It’s not a bad thing. I like it.’

‘OK. Well . . . good.’

Not knowing what else to say, Cal stuck his hands in the sink and began scrubbing the remains of last night’s dinner off the plates.

‘Barbecue?’

‘Yup.’

‘Same. The name’s Eden, by the way. As in Garden of.’

‘I’m Cal. You live round here?’

‘Nah, I’m from Orange County. My dad owns a farm on the coast.’ Seeing the blank look on Cal’s face, she jerked her thumb over her shoulder and added, ‘Cali
fornia
. Like, a gazillion miles in that direction.’

She put a plate on the drainer and threw a fistful of cutlery into the sink.

‘See, where I come from we’re surrounded by palm trees
and I get to hang out with my friends down at the beach. So my dad says, “Ooh, I know – let’s take Eden on a road trip for three weeks and see how many boring places we can visit.” I’m telling you, there ain’t a monument too dull or a museum too dusty that my dad won’t want to have his photograph taken next to it.’

Cal smiled, partly because he had never met anyone quite like her, and partly because she knew nothing about him. It was like turning over a fresh page of his notebook; like starting over.

‘Why are you up so early, anyways?’ She grinned mischievously. ‘You pee the bed or something?’

Cal blushed. ‘I couldn’t sleep.’

‘Join the club. Been lying there for hours, thinking about the thousand-mile nature hike he’s probably got planned. So I thought I’d get up, make myself useful and see what the day had to offer.’

She dried the last couple of plates, wiped her hands on her jeans and pulled down the sleeves of her sweatshirt.

‘How d’you fancy doing a spot of exploring before breakfast?’

Cal followed Eden’s gaze to the pine trees that grew from the side of the mountain.

‘Now?’

‘Why not?’ She looked at her watch. ‘It’s 6 a.m. and my folks won’t be up for a couple of hours yet. But soon as they are, it’ll be, “Eden, get yourself ready, we’ve got some fascinating guidebooks we want you to read.” So what do you say? Are you up for it?’

Cal thought of Sarah and Michael, still asleep in the van. He thought of all the places he had lived, of all the people who had come and gone and of how whatever happened always seemed to be decided by someone else.

‘OK,’ he said, picking up the bowl of crockery. ‘I’ll just take these back. See you in five minutes.’

BOOK: Dark Woods
6.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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