Henry woke to the sounds of birds and running water.
He lay inside a hollow conversion van under a heap of sleeping bags. But this time he knew exactly where he was. Zoe’s face still simmered in his mind, at once both vibrant and ghostly, but he willed it away. He couldn’t deal with it, not now, not here.
And then he remembered Alice.
He sat up and rubbed the back of his skull. His epic headache had dulled to a mere shadow of its former self, praise the Lord!
He sheltered his eyes against the sunlight pouring in through the van’s open side door. As his eyes adapted to the brilliant morning light, he surveyed his surroundings. This was the same van that picked him up last night, right? It was last night, wasn’t it? Why did it seem like years ago?
A huge cooler squatted behind the driver’s seat. Some folding chairs hung on the wall above him. The rear of the van was barricaded with a mess of boxes and carry-on bags. A couple duffel bags were scattered through the quagmire of tangled sleeping bags, apparently doubling for pillows. A clothes rope ran across the length of the ceiling, draped in shorts, tee shirts, some girlish underwear, and one huge pair of boxers. The interior walls of the van were plastered in old posters boasting concerts for bands that had died natural deaths decades ago. A fat white pig dangled obediently from the rearview mirror. It was grinning at him.
It took him a moment to dig free from the bedding. He crawled to the edge of the van and dropped his feet to the gravel. His shoes were missing, but he still had his dress shirt and slacks on, and he thanked God for it. It wouldn’t do to be socializing with his new friends in attire unbefitting the occasion.
He looked back into the van and wondered if there was any bourbon in that cooler. Maybe he should take a quick peek? But he abandoned the notion almost as soon as it’d arrived. Wouldn’t do to be caught snooping around in his guests’ private supply, now, would it? He had a feeling it was a long walk back to the highway.
He spied a bottle of water sitting at the edge of the open slider. It had a sticky note on it with the words Drink Me written across it in black letters. He peeled the paper free and smelled it. Sharpie. He laughed.
Drink Me. It had to be Alice. They’d spent a total of two minutes talking, and he was already intrigued by her. It was too much to expect that she might turn out to be another person of interest in this most bizarre outing, but he could always hope.
Then again, she was trying to poison him, wasn’t she? This was a half-liter bottle. There was probably enough poison in this bottle to kill a small village. Still, he twisted the top off and forced down a drink, and before he knew it, he’d finished it the entire bottle.
Take that, Alice.
He carefully recapped the empty, reapplied the sticky and put it back where he’d found it. Then he pulled a sleeping bag up over his shoulders and stood up. The air was brisk and cool. The gravel was cold beneath his feet. They were parked at a campsite between two anemic looking pine trees and a sun-tortured picnic table. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. He’d probably scared them off with his expensive duds and fancy cologne.
The campsite was a flat expanse of dirt and rocks and a few tired yuccas scattered haphazardly about. The site sat a dozen paces back from a river that twisted along like a great snake thirty or so feet below the camp. The land on the other side of the river rose most abruptly from the riverbank, sailing upward into a really steep hillside. It was nearly a cliff, in fact. He blocked the sun with his hand and tried to see up to the top of it. It looked like it might be a mesa. Or maybe a butte. Or maybe just a damned big hill. He’d never been much for geology.
He walked around the back of the van to relieve himself. The land across from their camp was pretty much a mirror view: Dried out mountains, ratty looking trees, spiky tufts of yucca, and plenty of struggling cacti and scrubby brush. Oh yeah, and rocks. Lots and lots of rocks.
When he finished, he walked around to the front of the van. They were parked beside a gravel road that twisted sharply to the left a hundred feet ahead. Beyond that was a tired two-track that wandered off into the hills beyond. There was no sign of his hosts, although he thought he could make out footprints plodding through the roadside dirt. They led directly away from the van.
A light breeze kicked up. He caught a whiff of himself. No wonder they were all gone. They probably abandoned him with the van until they could have it fumigated.
He grabbed his gear and climbed down to the river to wash up. A large bird watched him from the opposing bank. It was tall and white with a long crooked neck, ridiculously long legs, and a beak that looked like it could easily pluck out an eye. He tried not to draw its attention.
The water was clear and fresh, and colder than the sum of his sins. He splashed it on his face until he couldn’t feel his fingers anymore. Then he brushed his teeth with a toothbrush Josho had donated and ambled back up to the van.
He found his shoes neatly parked just under the van beneath the sliding door. A scroll of paper was tucked into the left one. He unrolled it and held it up to the sunlight. It was a note written in printed letters with just enough girlish flair to be artistic without stepping completely in cheese.
Good morning, Henry,
This is your mission, should you choose to accept it:
1 - Grab a towel and a pair of flip-flops from the blue duff
2 - Start walking down the road in front of the van.
3 - Find a two-track road up by the bend
4 - Follow it to a high cliff that curves in on itself to the east
(that’s “to the right” in city-speak)
5 - Don’t keep us waiting.
PS Nancy says it’s just over 2 miles.
PPS He also says to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes.