“Do you have anything stronger?”
The Bartender looks at me and laughs but doesn’t make me move.
“Not for you.” He says kindly. “Happy to grab you a nice chocolate milk if you want it.”
“Can’t blame me trying,” I grin at him before staring back at my cup of ice water.
“Do you ever feel like you don’t belong?” I speak softly, avoiding his gaze. “I mean, not like you just don’t fit in. But like, somehow, somebody cursed you. Or you were plucked out of some reality and plopped somewhere else? I mean. Nothing makes sense anymore. Not that it ever did.”
He pauses for a moment, pondering my words before speaking. “Welcome to being human.”
I laugh sardonically. “That’s just it. I’m pretty sure I’m not human. Sorry. I’m not crazy; I don’t really mean it like that. I just…”
He interrupts, attempting to comfort me, “Hey, who am I to judge how you feel. I’ve seen it all and am pretty sure you are not crazy. Sometimes it just takes a bit to find your way, you know?”
I raise my head to meet his gaze. “Not really, but I’ll take your word on it.”
It's probably best if I leave. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt. Slowly I stand, giving a small wave. Not sure how to tip for free water, I throw a few coins on the bar. The Bartender meets my eyes.
“Hold up,” he says. “Looks like you’ve had a day. Do you want to talk about it?
“You know what, I think I do…” Sitting back down, I begin my tale.
We had gotten a late start that day and didn’t make it to the trail until almost four. My best friend had never wanted to join me on a hike before, but when I bribed her with alcohol, she relented.
I love the outdoors. Inhaling the smell of pine, I listened as our footsteps crunch on the path. Birds were calling, and I could hear the sound of the Pemi rushing in the distance.
“Oh! A sign!” Vi said excitedly.
I slung the pack off my shoulders, giving my back a rest, and inspected the wooden directions. We had not even made it to the trail. I realized that I might have to rethink this hike.
“Hmmm, Okay, tomorrow we’re going to take Lincoln-Woods to Bond, but the river is right up ahead. Let’s find a spot on the Pemi and set up camp, okay?”
She nodded at me, and we made our way closer to the water. I crossed my fingers and hoped that there wouldn’t be too many people on the trail today. I had chosen one of the more popular ones, but it was mid-week and late in the day.
“Your quiet,” Violet said to me.
She tended to be more chatty than I was. Not content to just be still. I tried to make small talk, but I’ve never been good at that. Finally, I answered, “just thinking about fall. I’m jealous I’m not going with you guys. I just feel stuck.”
Violet scoffed and said, “You can still come- nothing says you have to be stuck here.”
She has never understood my need to be responsible, but I still loved her. She was my best friend.
“I know, I just need to save for school in the fall. Who wants to be stuck in a van with Nick for a month anyway,” I sighed. They are all taking off next month, in a van, traveling the country. I’m not sure how they plan to manage. No one has any money.
Violet laughed at me and skipped on ahead, gazing at the trees, her eyes wide.
“Oh, this is incredible.” she said, “It’s like some sort of faerie forest!”
I smiled, feeling pleased she saw the beauty that I did. Watching her taking in the forest made me feel at peace. She touched a tree here and smelled a flower there as I watched.
Finally, I interrupted, “Hey, look, let’s see if we can find a good place to set up camp, the waters right down there.”
I indicated a small clearing where you could just barely see the rushing water peaking through the trees. “It looks flat down there by the stream. Do you remember how to set up the tent?”
She nodded, and I handed her my pack. I gathered some wood and tinder and got a fire going as she finished up our dwelling. It was hard to screw up a pop up hiking tent. Once she was content with her work, we sat down on two stones by the fire.
“I wish we had a guitar or something. This place is so zen.” Violet lilted.
I tried not to laugh when I thought about the climbing we would be doing tomorrow, but it busted out.
“Yeah, don’t think you want to hike with a guitar strapped to your back.” I giggled.
“Whatever,” She retorted, rolling her eyes dramatically.
“You know, I love being here,” I told her softly. “I know it's not your thing, but thanks for coming along. It's the only place I feel completely at peace.”
She looked at me, serious now, “I’m glad. I can see why you like it; it’s beautiful. Sometimes you take too much on your shoulders.”
I smiled at my friend. Grateful for this moment of understanding.
We were silent for a while after that, just staring into the fire as the sun began its descent. The frogs were chirping, and the evening birds chattering joyfully. All was right in the world.
In the distance, a low bass sounded. A rock, I decided, but the hair on my arms rose, and I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. Something didn’t feel right. I looked at Violet, and she seemed oblivious, so I ignored the sound.
“You hungry?” I asked her.
She opened her mouth to answer when another thrum sounded. This one louder than the first. She looked at me, questions in her eyes.
“Do you hear that?” she gulped.
I didn’t want to tell her that something about that noise was making me nervous too. We have the habit of letting our imaginations get away from us. Once, when we were twelve, Vi and I had convinced each other that there was a giant UFO under the water in the lake by her dad's house. He could never understand why we never wanted to swim there.
I finally answered, “It’s probably just the way the water is hitting the rocks. The current gets a bit stronger further-’”
I’m interrupted by another thrum, and this time the forest goes silent.
“I think we need to go,” I whispered.
When we made it back to my car, I let out a deep breath—fear washing away as I closed the driver’s side door. The sun was setting, but there was still enough light to set up somewhere else. “I know a campground a few miles down the road where my family goes a lot. It's called Covered Bridge Campground. It’s cute. Wanna see if there are sites available?”
Violet nodded. “That sounds perfect. Was I just being some sort of coward, or was that freakin terrifying?”
I laughed and put on a brave face. “I wasn’t going to stick around to find out. I’m glad we left. I feel much better now. At least at a campground, there are other people around. Maybe instead of hiking tomorrow, we can go shopping at the outlets?”
“Love it,” She replied.
I started to pull out of the lot we were in, and Violet pointed to a guy walking towards us, his thumb out.
“Seriously. We get away from whatever that was, and you want to pick up a hitchhiker?” the exasperation was evident in my voice.
Violet pushed out her bottom lip and gave her sweet little puppy dog eyes. “Oh, come on, he’s our age. It’s not like we’ve never picked up a hitchhiker before.” She pressed her hands together. “He’s got the dancing bears on his shirt. He’s harmless. Puh-lease?”
I looked at her face and knew she would be bored at the campground; at least this would give us a better story than the one where we were scared of the noise. The hitchhiker was small, and I could take him out quickly if he were dangerous. I slipped my swiss army knife into my pocket, just in case.
“Fine,” I said in my best mom voice. “We can at least get him to North Conway.”
“Yay!” Violet squealed.
I rolled down my window as he approached the car and tried to sound casual when I asked, “Hey, where are you going?”
The guy was young, at least close to our age, with a smattering of freckles across his nose. His wavy hair was wild, and a couple of dreads were starting to form—just Vi’s type.
“Not too far,” he spoke lightly and had a laid back easy-going presence. “just a bit further down the Kangamangus. Kinda near one of the campgrounds.”
“Which one?” I asked suspiciously
“Covered Bridge,” He replied.
Violet nudged me excitedly, and I pursed my lips. It seemed likely it wouldn't be a trip with just the two of us anymore.
“May as well hop in; we’re going that way,” I spoke warily. “Do you have a reservation, or are you just trying to see if there is a walk-in?”
He climbed into the back seat, and I glanced back at him, waiting for an answer. After settling in, he finally spoke, “Naw, man. There’s this cave I camp at, some friends and I found it a while back. They are all headed up this way too, going to meet them in town tomorrow. I just happened to make it up north a bit early and don’t have a place to stay. Made good time- Found a trucker in Jersey that got me to Nashua. It was pretty easy to find a ride the rest of the way. I would walk the rest of the way, but it's starting to get dark, and I don’t have a flashlight with me.”
I started the car and pulled onto the road, headed towards the campground.
Violet turned back and grinned at the guy. “I’m Violet- but you can call me Vi; you got a name?”
He flashed a bright smile, “Jay.”
They are silent for a moment before I pitched in, “I’m Skye.”
Violet laughed as if she just remembered I was there and turned back to Jay, “are you from Jersey?”
This behavior was normal for her. Vi was fascinated with anyone that didn’t live in our small town, especially guys. I rolled my eyes and continued driving, trying to tune out their conversation and failing miserably.
“Ya,” he stated, “I go to school at Plymouth State. I’m renting a place this year with some friends. Moving in tomorrow.”
He was full of shit. Keeping my eyes forward, I asked, “with no stuff?”
He just chuckled, “meh… I’m a minimalist.”
I wanted to hate him, mostly because I know the rest of the drive would be Violet talking to him and ignoring me, but as the conversation continued, I decided he was a nice guy, and some of his stories were pretty funny. I was worried Vi would ask him if he wanted to stay with us.
As we pulled onto the road, I saw the large wooden sign with Covered Bridge Campground painted in cream-colored letters. Under it hung a sign that read full.
“Fuck…” I exhaled softly. Violet looked at me, concerned.
“What?” she mouthed
“Campground is full,” I replied.
Jay smiled at us. “Hey, you guys are welcome to chill at the cave. I got a few joints I can share, and there is plenty of room.”
“It’s probably best-” I started to say.
Vi interrupted me, “Yes! That would be amazing!”
We parked the car and followed him up a dry gully where the snowmelt probably ran off in the spring. Jay and Violet were talking animatedly, while I followed a few steps behind.
“Just make sure only to do this later in the season. Spring melt this bed is all full of rushing water- but it will lead you back to the bridge and parking lot, so it’s hard to get lost. See that giant granite rock? That's how you know when to veer off,” I heard Jay tell her as we made our way up a path on the side of the small chasm.
It was starting to get dark, and the way was hard to see. I grabbed my flashlight and pointed it at the ground, following the trail as it opened to a clearing with a small fire pit. A slab of rock leaned against a cliff face, and it was dark underneath. It wasn’t a cave in the traditional sense, but it would keep us dry.
“Wow,” I breathed. “I will come back here if that’s okay?
Jay smiled at me and nodded. “We are not here that often, so you should have it to yourself whenever you come.”
I blushed, deeply aware of how well he was reading me. I opened my mouth to say more, but it was Violet who spoke first.
“Thanks for showing us this place. I love being outdoors,” Violet gushed.
I rolled my eyes, knowing it was dark enough that no one would notice.
Jay smiled. “Caves not too big, but it will keep you dry,” He gestured at two small pines, “I got a hammock, so I’m just gonna set up over there, then I’ll start a fire.”
I pulled the pack off my sore shoulders then shone the flashlight into the cave. After I was sure it was animal-free, I spread out our sleeping bags. When I exited the cavern, night had landed. The full moon was enormous, shining an eerie blue light through the pines, casting tall shadows on Violet and Jay.
Violet scooted over, and I sat next to her, watching Jay blow softly at the flame, coaxing it to catch. Before long, the fire was roaring. Its glow, dancing on our faces. I was tired and mentally unprepared for conversation, so I sat silently staring at the flames as the other two chatted.
Jay pulled out a small glass pipe, packed the bowl, took a deep hit, and passed it to Violet. She inhaled as well and raised her eyes to meet mine.
“Naw, I’m good,” I answered quietly, hoping neither would make a big deal. I pulled a small flask from my pocket and took a sip, choking on the cheap vodka it contained. “This will do fine,” I smiled, trying to look convincing.
Jay and Violet chatted softly about philosophy while I nursed my drink, taking in the night. The crickets sang to me, and in the distance, an owl hooted. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine I was alone. I let my senses roam and could almost hear the pulses from the bats and the whoosh of the owl. A wave of dizziness overtook me. Had I drunk too much Vodka?
I could still hear my friends droning in the background, but the nausea was getting worse.
“Skye?” I heard through my fog, “You okay?”
Shaking my head, I brought my attention back to the fire. “I don’t feel very well,” I whispered, “I think I need to sleep.”
“Okay, you do that. Feel better,” Vi said softly.
When I next opened my eyes, I was alone in my car. The sun was overhead, and it had to be at least noon. My head was thumping like a Taiko Drum. The vehicle was not at Covered Bridge anymore.
Honestly, I panicked a little. I’m usually pretty calm in a crisis, but this time I just froze. The best idea I came up with was to drive into town and call for help. I turned the dial on my car's radio, figuring it would calm me, but the only station I could find was the news.
The bartender was leaning against the counter, listening intently.
“What did it say?” He asks in a low voice.
“Nothing good.” I laugh and shake my head. “They found Jay and Violet, what was left of them at least. Bear attack. Things seemed strange after hearing that news. I never went home, just kept driving.”
The bartender paled as I tuck my bloodstained hands onto my lap.
“You ever have blackouts before this?” he whispers, glancing at the only other patrons. The couple is on the other side of the room and only have eyes for each other.
I sigh, “Twice that I can remember. Once at a party, a girl ended up going missing. They never found her. See what I mean about being cursed? This shit follows me. I should probably stay away from people…”
He backs away, trying to be inconspicuous, but I know better. Then he laughs nervously. “Well, you know that adage, keep your friends close, and your enemies closer? I think it suits your situation…”
Then he reaches behind the bar and pours me a shot. “Here… I think your affliction constitutes something stronger.”
I laugh out loud. “You know what? Maybe I shouldn’t, after all. Are you going to turn me in?
He smiles at me as he backs up. “Of course not. I’m just here to listen, sweetheart. Need to refill the glasses though, be right back.”
I watch as he retreats into the back room and picks up a phone. I guess it's time to go.
Inspired by Reedsy Prompts: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/