The footsteps came to a stop near a white birch tree just a few yards from Cookie's hiding place. The trunk rose high into the air, splitting into a maze of branches, themselves splitting into smaller and smaller segments. Cookie watched the white birch through the limp fronds of the ghost fern, listening to his own breath whistling in his nose. His heartbeat echoed on his narrow wrist, blood rushing through the shoals of his body in tides.
Deep in the forest a branch snapped, a sudden and distant crack, and somewhere closer a bird cooed softly, then stopped. The wind pushed hard against the treetops and the whole forest shook with a long sighing whoosh, which receded quickly into the distance.
"Whoo . . . Whoo," Cookie called out-the company whistle, off pitch but still recognizable-but there was no reply. The white, papery bark of the birch tree continued to soften in the darkness.
Gradually, as the forest became silent again, Cookie's mind began to crawl out from its blind ditch and start functioning better. The footsteps were probably just settling branches, he told himself, or a foraging deer, or a squirrel moving a cache of nuts from one knothole to another. They could come from any number of creatures, all of which were more frightened of him than he was of them, and most of which were much smaller, too. Cookie muttered into the club moss, "Nothing out there. Nothing to worry about. Everything's fine," his dry lips catching on his teeth.
He took a deep breath, and in a burst of resignation rose to his feet. The denim of his pants rasped loudly and an acorn snapped underfoot, making his heart jump. "Yessir," he said for no reason, and cleared his throat. Cookie brushed off his pants and glanced over his shoulder. The men would be missing him by now, he figured, even if his mission into the woods to find supper had been something of a failure.
Cookie lifted his boot and took a tentative step toward the camp, scanning the ground carefully for good footholds. He planted his heel on a soft patch of fir needles, when suddenly the whole forest seemed to shatter. He heard wood breaking, leaves ripping, the huff of air releasing from between layers of moss. A shock of fear ran down his spine and back up again. The stalker had returned, he realized, closer than ever this time, his footsteps fitted precisely into the sound of Cookie's own gingerly motions.
Cookie swallowed hard and felt his skin ringing with panic. Without a word he lurched forward into the trees, a din of breaking leaves and twigs raging around him like a fire.
Cookie raced down a deer run and leapt over a snag, nettles and switches slapping him across the face, then tripped over a hard root and almost fell into a prickly mooseberry bush. He dashed through a thin stream of water and flew past a mossy stump, at which point a strange thought came to him. The noises chasing after him were possibly not a bloodthirsty Indian at all, but rather his very own footsteps banging on the ground underneath him, which made Cookie, in a funny way, the invisible stalker of himself. With this, the recognition that his senses had betrayed him so badly, Cookie's panic flared up even hotter than before, and he fled faster, chased by his own roaring footsteps into the quiet landscape of the woods.
As suddenly as the chase began, it was over. Cookie stumbled from the underbrush into a small clearing in the trees, where a black stew pot simmered over a campfire and wood smoke pulsed blue in the twilight, obscuring the faces of eight ugly men lounging about on stumps and rocks, whittling and polishing their guns. The ground was littered with packs and boxes and bundles of beaver pelts and other half-finished, partly opened things. The air smelled of steeping broth heavy with oil and chicken fat. Hanging on the branch of a sapling chestnut was Cookie's silver triangle, bending the limb under its metallic weight.
From The Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, Chapter 1, pages 1-17. Copyright 2004 by Jonathan Raymond. All rights reserved. This excerpt is reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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