Trailblazing

“Trailblazing” appeared in the webzine Grimoire in 1999. I wrote this story after taking a vacation in Shenandoah National Park. If you enjoy hiking and rustic cabins, this is a good place to visit, especially during the off-season. (We went in early June, when it was still misty and cold in the mountains.) Just watch out for the witches.

The red Camaro roared up Skyline Drive, splitting the early morning silence with the growl of its engine. It was going much faster than the speed limit of thirty-five miles an hour, but Kevin figured that was okay. His vehicle really hugged the road.

“There’s another one!” his brother yelled, leaning forward to point out the window at a deer that had been grazing along the shoulder. Now it was scrambling up the steep hill into the forest, trying to get away from the onrushing car. Johnny sank back into his seat, wheezing with laughter. “God, you can’t swing a dead cat in here without hitting one of them things.”

They flew over the crest of a hill, not quite leaving the pavement. This brought them to one of the short, infrequent straightaways along Skyline Drive. Kevin gunned the engine. Trees and patchy mist flew by. As the road dipped and curved, a small white-tailed deer darted out of the woods. Kevin stomped on the brakes. The tires locked and the car skidded to a halt, but not before the startled-looking animal went down beneath it.

“Damn it!” Kevin put the car into reverse. The carcass thumped and scraped against the undercarriage before they finally cleared it. The collision had left a brownish-red smear on the road.

Kevin pulled into an overlook on the right and got out to check the car. Other than the bumper, the damage was minimal. He was bent over and checking the undercarriage when Johnny said, “Hey, Kev, there’s a trail here. Let’s do this one, huh?”

Kevin went to his brother, who stood before a vertical trail map of a place called Virago Mountain. The path ran a twisting line to the summit. “Okay, sure,” Kevin said.

“Great!” Johnny fetched the K-Mart bag full of spray paint from under his seat. He coated the sign with a brown squiggle to cover up the trail map. Then he turned to Kevin, grinned, and said, “Let’s go.”

The trailhead was in a stand of dead and naked oaks at the edge of the overlook. They followed the spray-painted blazes that marked the path; it led away from Skyline Drive, climbing through a thick growth of bristly pines and then curving gently to the left until it came to a steep, narrow ravine. A gnarled dead tree at the edge of the gully had a split blue blaze, indicating a sharp turn ahead. Kevin looked around and spotted the next mark a few yards to the left. The terrain climbed gently in that direction, but to the right the topsoil retreated from the stone, leaving a steep, stairlike formation.

Johnny handed Kevin the brown spray paint. “Take care of the next couple of marks, Kev.”

Kevin shook the can and covered up the next two blazes after the turn. The splotches were visible, but he didn’t think anyone would notice without looking carefully. By the time he returned to the split blaze, Johnny had started up the hill, spraying blue marks close together so hikers wouldn’t have to look too hard to find the next one. They might get suspicious if they noticed there weren’t any blazes to guide them back, and that would ruin the whole point of the prank.

Kevin caught up and followed his brother along the ravine. After several hundred yards it grew shallow and turned into a dry stream bed. They drifted into it and walked up the creek a while; it led them to a huge boulder, big as a house and cracked down the middle, the two halves leaning away from each other. The stream bed went between the pieces and petered out on the other side.

Johnny blazed both sides of the boulder and kept going, but Kevin paused between the halves. On the left, somebody had scratched the word ETERNITY into the stone. The lettering was shallow and weatherworn, like the epitaph on an old gravestone.

“Hey, Kevin, come on,” Johnny called.

They slogged through fog and forest for a while, with no obvious route; Johnny went from tree to tree, spraying fake blazes to fool the unwary. The slope ended at a wall of mountain laurel, taller than either of them. A crumbling ridge created a gap through the barrier. Johnny blazed the rock surface and then they pushed through the opening. The laurel was dense and tangled and the footing was treacherous, but it was only a short walk before they emerged onto a rocky promontory. Cool vapor cloaked the point in an impenetrable white glow. Johnny went to the very tip of the ledge and stared into the fog. He looked at Kevin over his shoulder. “End of the line,” he said.

“No shit.”

Johnny tossed his spent paint can into the fog. A few seconds later Kevin heard it hit rock. The sound was desolate out here and made Kevin want to get back to Skyline Drive. “Let’s go, okay?”

Johnny didn’t turn around. “I bet you get a great view from up here when there’s no fog. I think we did them a favor.”

“That’s our good deed for the day, huh?”

“Yep.” Johnny clambered off the point. Silver beads of mist clung to his short-cropped summer hair.

Kevin threw the can of brown paint off the cliff and it vanished into the fog. He followed Johnny through the laurel. The spindly branches plucked at his pants and jacket like they wanted him to stay. Condensation dribbled down his collar, soaked through his clothes. When he came out the other side Johnny had already begun to move down the slope. He seemed to be looking for something. The blazes he’d done on the way up, maybe. Kevin had kind of figured they would find their way back by sight and memory but he realized with a little bit of alarm that the forest spreading out before him didn’t offer much in the way of distinguishing features. One direction looked the same as another.

Johnny was coming back. “There you are,” he said. “You didn’t mark any trees, right?”

“You had all the blue paint.” Kevin stepped away from the laurel and took a look around and understood why Johnny had asked him that question. All the trees were blazed with identical vertical blue streaks. Big ones, little ones; live ones, dead ones. As far as Kevin could see through the mist, they were blazed blue. He felt a little prickle along the back of his neck and rubbed the skin to make it go away. “Somebody must’ve followed us or something.”

“Somebody who had spray paint just like ours?”

“What else could it be?” There was a lengthy silence. Johnny watched him. Waiting for him to explain the situation, he thought. “Look, it doesn’t matter.” Kevin scanned the forest. With the mist he could barely see fifty feet. “Do you remember how to get back?”

“I’m not sure.” Johnny dropped the K-Mart bag at the foot of a nearby tree. It still held three full cans of blue paint. “If we keep heading the same direction we’ll come to the road, won’t we?”

“Yeah, sure,” Kevin said. “We have to come to the road. Won’t take too long. The park’s not that big.”

“Yeah.” Johnny didn’t move, though, and after a second Kevin figured out he was supposed to take the lead now that they were in trouble. He was, after all, the older one.

They walked through the forest, following the downward slope of the mountain. As long as they were going downhill, he figured, they were heading for the road.

All around them the trees were blazed. So were any stones that presented enough aboveground surface area. Kevin couldn’t quite get his mind around how it had been done so fast; he finally gave up thinking about it and concentrated on listening for traffic. As it grew later Skyline Drive would get busier, and they should be able to hear it. The sound of cars carried far through the forest. Despite the mist everything was very bright; the sun was climbing. The mist would burn off soon, Kevin thought.

But even though they walked for hours, the fog didn’t lift.

And there were no traffic sounds.

And there were no animal sounds.

Then, looming in the mist, Kevin saw a darkness spreading left and right like a wall.

A wall of mountain laurel.

It disappeared into the fog in both directions, dense and tangled and impenetrable. Johnny ran to it and shook the wiry branches. White petals fluttered to the ground at his feet. “Let me out!” he screamed. “Let me out!”

“Johnny!” Kevin grabbed him and pulled him away from the bush. He fell on his backside, sprawling on the loamy earth. “Get a grip, man.”

Johnny looked up at him. “Don’t you see? We’re stuck here!”

“We’re not stuck, we’re just lost. Look, we’ll go left, that’s downhill, right? We want to keep going downhill, right?” He gave Johnny a little shake. “Right?”

“It’s a wall,” he said. “It’s a wall keeping us in.”

“No it’s not, it’s just a shrub. It’s a shrub from when people lived up here. This was probably somebody’s field and he planted this around it. Like Aunt Sue’s hedge.”

Johnny wiped his eyes with the back of his arm, made a snuffling noise. “I’m hungry.”

“We’ll have lunch at Skyland when we get back. Fried chicken and blackberry mountain pie for dessert. How’s that sound?”

“Okay,” Johnny mumbled.

“Good.” Kevin pulled him to his feet. “Let’s stay cool, okay?”

“Okay.”

They started walking again, following the laurel as it curved down the slope. Kevin kept a grip on his brother’s shoulder. The forest thinned a bit. The mist was maybe a little less dense. All the trees were still blue-blazed. Johnny looked at them with a frightened expression, but he didn’t say anything and he didn’t flip out again.

Not until they came to the split boulder, anyway.

It was different this time. For one thing, it was set right into the laurel hedge. There had been no laurel hedge around it on the way up Virago Mountain. For another thing, there was no stream bed beyond; there was only foggy whiteness, blank and vacant.

Johnny was squirming, trying to dart through, but Kevin held him back. “Hang on, Johnny, hang on.” Keeping a firm grip on his brother, Kevin sidled into the gap between the two gigantic halves of stone. The word was still there. ETERNITY. But now it looked fresh, like it had just been scratched into the stone a few days earlier. He reached up to touch the letters.

Johnny punched him in the stomach.

Pain and shock doubled Kevin over. Johnny broke free and ran between the halves. He disappeared into the fog, like falling into whipped cream.

“Johnny, you dumb-ass!” Shouting made Kevin cough. “You’ll break your neck!” He stood up, leaned against the boulder for a little while, catching his breath. Then he followed his brother into the fog. It closed around him, muffling sight and sound. He might as well have been looking through an inch of wax. He walked with outstretched arms, feeling for obstacles.

After a few seconds, his fingers touched mountain laurel.

He felt a gap and pushed into it, stumbling through the narrow, bristly opening. “Johnny!” he yelled. His voice came out flat and deadened. His brother didn’t answer.

He emerged from the shrubby overgrowth. He was back at the top of the trail they’d blazed. Through the patchy mist he could see Johnny’s legs and feet; his brother was sitting up against a tree some distance away. Kevin went to him. “You punched me, you dickhead–”

He stopped.

Johnny wasn’t moving.

Johnny wasn’t breathing.

Johnny had the plastic K-Mart bag tied over his head.

His clothes were ragged and filthy, his nails lined with dirt, like he’d been digging with his bare hands. His windbreaker was missing. Three cans of blue spray paint lay next to him in the dirt.

Kevin dropped to his knees. His fingers trembled as he unknotted the handles of the shopping bag and pulled it off his brother’s head. It stank of aerosol propellant; the inside of it was blue and crackly. Condensation had matted Johnny’s long, unkempt hair. His eyes were open. The white corneas were coated with a faint dusting of spray paint. So were his skin and his lips. His cheeks were streaky with dried-up tears.

“You idiot!” Kevin said. He thumped Johnny’s chest. “Why’d you do that? Why?” He threw the bag into his brother’s lap.

He looked around.

The trees had lost their blazes. All of them. Even the ones Johnny had marked.

Kevin slowly stood up. “What the hell is this?” he yelled. His voice echoed and faded. The forest didn’t answer.

Kevin picked up the cans of spray paint one by one and loaded them into the bag. He started going from tree to tree, blazing them.

Big ones, little ones; live ones, dead ones. Stones, too.

He didn’t feel his exhaustion until he reached the bottom of the slope, where the big split boulder sat in the middle of the laurel wall. By then he was down to his last paint can. His throat was dry and tight, his mouth cottony. He staggered to the boulder. Next to it was a deep hollow under the hedge, surrounded by a ring of freshly-dug earth. Johnny’s windbreaker lay beside the hole, tattered and filthy. He wondered how long his brother had been digging before the laurel roots had stopped him.

Kevin stumbled into the path between the two halves. He stared at the blank rock face. The surface looked fresh, unweathered. There was nothing written on it. He took his last paint can and, using the metal rim, scratched the word ETERNITY into the stone. Then he dropped the can among the broken rock and staggered into the mist.

Back into the laurel.

This time, when he came out at the top of the slope, it was winter. Snow covered the ground, the trees were barren and lifeless. A bloodless sun shone through their ragged branches. Shivering, he trudged away from the withered shrub, toward the tree where Johnny had laid down for the last time. But this time, he saw a snow-covered cabin nearby. He staggered toward it, hoping for warmth, for shelter. The tiny hovel had no door, just a thick blanket hanging over the entrance. He pushed through it, into the dim interior of the place. It was no warmer than the outside; if anything, it was colder, with a chill that seemed to suck at his bones.

A shape dangled from a beam in the center of the cabin, an old woman with a thick rope around her neck, tied clumsily around the overhead support. A stool lay on its side beneath her. Numbly, Kevin shuffled over to her. Her face was black, her tongue swollen and protruding from her mouth like a piece of leather. A scrawled note was pinned to her chest. He removed it with trembling hands. It said: To the Government – if you want my land for your park, you must take me with it. I told you I would stay here forever. Eternity!

He looked up at the old woman. Her eyelids had opened, revealing empty sockets that glared blackly down at him. Her arms reached up to her throat, as if to untie the noose.

Kevin screamed and ran out of the cabin.

The old woman’s laughter filled up the forest as he fled down the slope, slipping on the wet snow. He finally tripped over the roots of a tree and collapsed beside it, face-down in the frigid white blanket.

An icy rain began to fall.

Exhausted, Kevin drifted off to sleep.

—-

A station wagon pulled in next to the shiny red Camaro. A mother and a father and three kids tumbled out. The children flocked to the story panel on the overlook wall, which was still partially obscured by the thinning fog. “Hey, somebody covered up the map!” the younger boy cried.

“That’s okay,” the father said. “We can just follow the blazes.” He ruffled his son’s head. “Can you read the story?”

They walked along the path for a while. “Looks like it’s pretty foggy up ahead,” Mom said as they passed between the shattered halves of a big boulder.

“That’s okay,” Dad said. “A little fog won’t stop us, will it, kids?”

“No!” they shouted.

The younger boy paused between the halves of the boulder and tried to read the word scratched into the stone, but it was one he’d never seen before.

It was ETERNITY.

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