Read Along: Paradise Palms: Chapter 11
Lying and sleeping didn’t feel right, so Girlfriend got up. She’d drifted off, but for how long? The clock was blinking 12:00 as if it’d been reset. That was getting annoying. She’d told Sam to get a new clock because something had to be wrong with this one. She looked at his watch on the nightstand and it read 4:00, but where was Sam? He’d only gone for a walk. She shouldn’t worry about him. He was a grown man, after all, but she couldn’t help it. She loved him. After all he’d been through with going to the police station and everything, she wanted to talk to him, or at the very least just hold him to know he was alright.
She got out of bed and an odd chill shook her body. Not cold, but a feeling something was horribly wrong. Her mother had told her about such feelings that women would get and men would ignore. She’d always said that men were just too stupid to believe that their feelings had any meaning and wouldn’t follow them, but a woman should always follow her feelings and they will lead her to where she should be. Right now Girlfriend’s feelings said to find Sam, and find him now.
She padded softly through the trailer’s one bedroom and into the kitchen.
No answer. It was quieter than normal. She couldn’t even hear crickets chirping outside, and they usually kept going all night long this time of the year.
She stepped into the living room and looked at the couch. In the darkness she thought maybe she just hadn’t seen him sleeping there, but it was just a shadow. He wasn’t there either. He must still be outside. After what had happened to Casper, she began to worry.
“No, better not to think like that,” she told herself, but her mother’s words got the better of her and she rushed for the door. She opened it quickly. “Sam!”
He sat on the bench, Blue sitting next to him with her head in his lap. Blue looked up when the door had opened, but Sam’s head stayed on his chest.
He groggily shook his head and looked up. “Oh, hey. Guess I fell asleep out here.”
“Did you even go for a walk?”
“Oh, I went for a walk alright. That’s the last late night walk I take.”
“What do you mean?” Girlfriend scooted Blue off the bench and sat next to Sam and put her head on his chest. He put his arm around her and took a deep breath.
“I’d tell you, but you’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“Sam, I’d never think that.” And she wouldn’t. She’d been accused of being gullible, but she took it as being over-trustworthy at times. She knew that Sam had never lied to her about anything important and this seemed like something that was very important to him. “Tell me, please.”
“My dad used to walk a lot at night. All the time, in fact. Mostly before the opening of deer hunting season. Said it was to get his eyes ready for night hunting and to get the deer to know he was around. He loved the night and I swear that if he didn’t have to work, he’d have spent more time up at night taking those late night walks. Sometimes he’d go to bed around eight just to get up at two in the morning and walk for a couple hours.
“A few times he took me with him. We’d spot a lot of small animals like porcupine and skunks and things like that. Sometimes we’d startle a pheasant and that’d scare us into laughing fits. Of everything my father gave me, I remember those walks the most.
“The best time we had was getting treed by a bear. I swear when my dad saw that momma bear he threw me ten feet into a big, old oak and yelled ‘Climb, boy, climb!’, and he was right behind me. That bear kept us up there for hours. Nearly until the sun came up. We just sat there and talked about food, and what kind of vegetables we could put into stew made from that bear if we’d had brought our guns along.”
“Sam, what does that have to do about tonight?”
“I miss my dad, Girlfriend. Tonight, for the first time in my life, I wanted him with me. To tell me what I saw wasn’t real. That I was dreaming. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in all my life. Not even when that bear treed my dad and me. It shook that tree. I couldn’t believe it. It even tried to climb up and get us, but my dad broke off a branch and beat it down.”
Sam got really quiet and stared off into the distance. Girlfriend sat up and rubbed his stubbly chin. He’d never opened up like this before. He’d talked about his mom and dad, but never like this. She didn’t want to say anything that might make him stop talking, but she wanted to hear more. What could have frightened him? He grew up in these woods, almost literally.
“I think I want to go to bed now,” he said.
“But Sam, what did you see? What happened tonight? I was really worried and now I’m even more worried.”
Sam looked at her, his brown eyes full of pain. She wanted to cry for him, knowing that he would never cry for himself. He held his tough man image so well that she feared that everything he kept inside would cause him to explode. Just once she wanted to have him speak what was truly on his mind, and he was doing just that, if only she could keep him talking.
“I don’t know that I can describe it fully. I mean, do you smell that? In the air?”
She hadn’t really thought of it, but something about the morning air didn’t smell right. She’d smelled skunks before and those were bad, but this was different. Suddenly she felt nervous about what Sam might say.
“I smelled it this morning, well, yesterday I mean. You know, before I found Casper. The detective asked me how part of Casper could be missing and there’s no blood trail. I thought about that a lot. I mean, Girlfriend, his lower body was missing. Just gone. Like something had bit him in half. I thought that was ridiculous. I mean, there’s nothing in the woods of Minnesota that could bite a man in half. Casper and I know these woods. Everything about them.
“Until I went for my walk, I thought I’d seen everything, heard everything, that these woods could stir up. But when the lights flickered, I thought I was dreaming; wished I was dreaming. The world changed, Girlfriend. I mean everything changed. The woods, the sounds, the smells, the moon, everything. I know I wasn’t in Minnesota anymore, at least not the Minnesota I know. Blue knew it too. She started barking and I thought we were going to go like Casper did. In fact, when I heard something in the woods, something huge, moving around, I was certain that I knew what had killed Casper. I should have been able to walk into my woods and killed what killed Casper. An eye for an eye, you know. I froze up, Girlfriend. I froze up in fear. I backed up to a trailer and hid like a child. I wanted to cry for my daddy.”
Sam put his hands in his face, but he didn’t cry. Girlfriend thought she heard him growl in anger. It was her turn to put her arms around him, but he shrugged off her attempts. On her fourth attempt he stood up.
“Don’t you understand? Don’t you get it? It wasn’t just the woods of Minnesota that changed tonight. That change burned deep down inside of me and took away what I was. How can I ever go back into those woods knowing what I heard? I know it’s not the same woods, but it’s the woods my best friend was found in, torn in half. It’s over for me. All over. Game over, time to pack it in, call it a night, and hit the road.”
“Sam, that’s not true.” She tried furiously to think of what to tell him. “Sit back down.”
Sam stared at her and reluctantly sat down. He had that defeated look he got when she got mad at him and she didn’t want to sound like she was scolding him. She had to be careful. He was in a vulnerable state, a state she’d never seen him in. He wasn’t only opening up to her for the first time, he was truly scared of what he’d seen.
“Now you know that whatever happened to Casper isn’t your fault. Right? So if something bad did happen to him, he’d want you to find out what. Scared or not, he’d do the same for you.”
“I’m serious. Now not many people liked him as much as they like you. You’re responsible and you kept Casper in check. You were his stability. So if anything happened to you, he wouldn’t rest until he’d found out what happened and who did it. That much I know about him. You owe him the same. I know the police are going to be looking into it and everything, but you’re here. You know this place better than anyone. You’ve been over every square inch of this park a thousand times and then some. You’ve been in the woods, down to the lake, and everything. Nothing has happened here that you didn’t know about. So why should this be any different? Because it’s your friend you should be doubly concerned over what happened.”
She stopped and took a slow breath. She didn’t want to get overly worked up. Sam just sat nodding his head and scratching Blue behind the ears.
“Sam, I love you, and I’ve wanted you to talk to me like this ever since we met. Whatever happened tonight, sure it may have scared you to the core and you’re worried about that, but it won’t change who you are. If anything, you need to take what you’ve seen, file it away, and think about what it means regarding what happened to Casper. And you need to figure out what is going on around here before anything happens to anyone else. You are probably the only person in this entire park who can do that. I think it’s your responsibility to the people in this park.”
Sam sat for several minutes without moving, just stroking Blue’s fur. He’d barely even acknowledged that Girlfriend had said anything. Once Blue laid down, he looked up at Girlfriend, his eyes sad and full of worry. She wanted to kiss him. She wanted to tell him that what he’d told her about the woods changing hadn’t scared her, but it had terrified her. That didn’t matter. Right now he needed a rock in the storm to hold onto and she needed to be that rock. His rock.
Slowly, gently, he wrapped his arms around her. He held her tight for longer than he ever had before. She let her tears flow. She couldn’t hold everything in like he could. He was her rock. He wasn’t cold-hearted; he just didn’t let everything show. That didn’t mean his feelings weren’t there.
“Girlfriend,” he said quietly, almost a whisper. “You’re right. For you and for Casper and for Pops and for everyone in this park, I need to find out what’s going on. Unfortunately, I can’t start right now. I’m tired, and I need to sleep. Tomorrow, well, today actually, is another day. I’ll be better for everyone if I get some rest and look into things my own way, in my own time. I will look, though.
Sam stood up and walked into the trailer, leaving Girlfriend sitting alone on the enclosed patio. The peculiar smell had diminished slightly, wafting away with the morning breeze, but its memory chilled her to the bone. What had Sam seen? What had happened to him during his walk? Would it happen again? He had just experienced some strange, life-changing event, but it hadn’t been a willing change. She wanted him to open up to her, but not to the detriment of his very being. Not if it meant that he had been somehow defeated. She wanted him to open of his own accord. Something out there had forced his change and she didn’t like that. Whatever she could do to help, she was going to do it. For Sam.