Conflict, p.18
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       Conflict, p.18

           M. S. Willis
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  David was right. The police and the forest rangers wouldn’t be quiet either way, but if I was in the area and he ran, I could at least follow and let the police know where he was going.

  “David, I PROMISE, I’ll stay out of sight. I won’t approach him or attempt to fight him. I need to do this, especially for Annie. Don’t you know how much of a relief it will be for her if she knew he’d been caught? Plus, you know how good I am outdoors. I can traverse even the toughest terrains with no problem. I can do this and not get caught. I just need a vehicle to get there.”

  David sighed. I knew he would eventually go along with my plan, but I also knew that deep down he needed to feel like he had put up a good fight. I continued sitting on him until his shoulders relaxed to the ground. The corner of his mouth turned up in a sneaky little grin. “Fine, Paige. I’ll call Matt. But I’m going with you.”

  My jaw dropped and I instantly shook my head in response. “No way, David. It’s too dangerous.”

  He gave me a pointed look. “Then you probably shouldn’t be going either, being that it’s dangerous and all.”

  He had me cornered and I searched my head for any other excuse for why he couldn’t accompany me. When I found that excuse, I hurriedly explained. “You don’t get along with nature, David. And the preserve he’s at is the Florida scrub. It’s hot, it’s dry, there are nasty snakes and bugs, and if you’re not used to hiking it, it’ll wear you out quick. You might end up slowing me down, or getting hurt or bit by something.”

  He started to sit up and I crawled off of him and sat next to him on the floor. Crossing his arms over his chest, he said, “Sorry Paige. If you go, I go. I’ll consider my footwear this time.” He smiled at me and winked.

  I realized I had no other choice and nodded to relent to his demand. It would be tough getting him to stay quiet, but I think we could pull this off.

  I’m sure my face was sour at having to agree. “Fine. Call Matt.”


  Matt arrived in no time and was waiting in the living room when I was done getting dressed for the trip. I’d chosen a simple black tank top, some tan shorts and my hiking boots. My hair was pulled up into a bun on the top of my head and I didn’t bother with makeup and jewelry. When I was out in the wilderness, I liked to keep things as simple as possible. I had a knife strapped to each leg and I packed a hiking bag full of essential supplies, such as water and trail mix, rope, a flashlight, trail maps I printed from online, a first aid kit and some other odds and ends. There was no telling how far Chris was hiding out in the scrubs and it was imperative that David and I were properly prepared for the hike.

  I gave a Matt a quick hug in greeting and looked around for David. Matt must have noticed because he quickly said, “He’s still getting dressed. Said something about having to be prepared.”

  I smiled and was not only impressed, but proud of David for thinking ahead. Apparently, my negative thoughts about David’s forethought were misplaced. When he finally exited his room and turned the corner, my jaw dropped. David came out into the living room wearing head to toe black. Black shoes, black pants, black shirt, black shoe polish smeared under his eyes, a black cap on his head. He looked like he just walked off the S.W.A.T. team minus the protective gear.

  “Um, no. David, you are not going out there dressed like that! You’ll sweat to death. Do you realize how arid the scrub is? Seriously, you need to change into shorts!”

  David straightened up his shoulders and looked at me with disdain. “What?! I happen to think I would make an excellent spy. I look fabulous!”

  I walked over and grabbed his arm to lead him back into his room. “Seriously, David. It is one hundred degrees out there. You need to change into clothes that won’t suffocate you. At least put some damn shorts on, I can’t have you complaining about the heat and slowing me down.”

  His face fell when he realized I was right and he grudgingly turned to change his outfit. I walked back into the living room to wait. When he reemerged, he’d changed into a pair of cargo shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. He still had the shoe polish under his eyes and I chuckled at how silly he looked.

  We dropped Matt off at his place and told him we would pick him up on the way back. The car ride to the preserve was uneventful and David and I listened to music and enjoyed the scenery. There was no telling what would happen when we found Chris and I hoped that it turned out as I planned. If we could just locate where he was camping, we could get far enough away to keep an eye on him, while calling in the authorities.

  I remembered the survivalist guy’s directions and turned left into the first preserve I found once I left the state park areas. We traveled along a curvy dirt road and dust and rocks were kicked up by the tires of the car. The drive into the preserve took about five minutes, but eventually we arrived to a rustic parking area. The only other vehicle in the area was a forest ranger’s truck with an empty trailer that would have carried an ATV. It made me feel better to know that there were rangers around in case we got into any trouble.

  I pulled into a makeshift parking spot and let out a deep breath before turning the car off and opening my door. David bounced out of the car and I wondered if he would behave properly on the hike. The man was incredible to have around when you were having fun, but he wouldn’t be my first pick as a partner in a serious situation.

  I came around the car and threw my pack over my shoulders. I looked David in the eye and tried to convey the seriousness of what I had to say. “David, I want you to listen to everything I say out there. If somehow we get caught, I want you to run and get help. I don’t know what’s going to happen and we need to make a pact now that if something happens, I’ll distract Chris while you call for assistance.”

  David’s face puckered into an unhappy expression and he was definitely perturbed with my instruction. “Why would you have to distract Chris? I’m bigger than you, Paige, I’d be able to fight him off better.”

  He was right about being in a better position to fight, but I was being smart. “You may be right on that, David, but Chris would kill you immediately. He has different plans for me and I would at least be able to survive long enough for you to get the cops over here.”

  David’s jaw dropped further at my explanation. He straightened his stance and crossed his arms before saying, “That’s the most fucked up, delusional thing I think I have ever heard you say. You think it would be better if you got caught because he would keep you alive long enough to torture you?! What the fuck, Paige. This is bullshit!”

  David’s face was turning red with his anger and I knew I needed to quickly diffuse this conversation. “Listen, we’ll just make sure we keep quiet and keep a good look out. As long as we do that, we should be able to find him without worrying about torture or death. We don’t even know that he’s out here, so we may be sitting here arguing about nothing.

  David sighed and turned to direct me to the first trail. His arm went out in the direction of the entrance and I quietly passed him to start our trek. The trails started out padded with grass that was packed in from the multiple hikers who come through these trails on a daily basis. I intended to follow the trails for a while, but then veer off once we started hitting the more closed in areas of the preserve. I assumed Chris would be smart enough to stay off the beaten path, but also remain in an area where there was water accessible. I knew one of the trails led to a creek that flowed through the preserve and I decided that once we hit water, we would follow the creek from that point onward.

  As we walked through the curvy paths, I looked around and genuinely enjoyed the environment. We were in an area heavily lined by trees and other vegetation and the shade provided by the canopies of the trees was welcoming. It was still early in the day, but the heat in Florida could be unbearable even in the early mornings. Luckily, there were some storm clouds in the sky and the weather was providing a decent cool wind to keep the temperature in the preserve at a comfortable level. The preserve was so silent that it was somewhat
disconcerting not to hear the white noise of the city. There were no car sounds, or crowds of people and the silence of the area made our footsteps that much more noticeable. Occasionally, you would hear a bird call or a large insect would buzz past you, but mostly you heard the lulling sound of the breeze blowing through the brush. We had been walking for about an hour when we finally reached the creek bed. It flowed lazily to our left and I cut off the trail and started walking through some low lying weeds to get to an area where we could follow it. David stumbled along behind me and I chuckled to hear that he was already out of breath.

  “Do you want to rest for a bit?” I pulled off my pack and retrieved a bottle of water and some trail mix. I offered David the water and he took it gratefully and handed it back to me. He took the trail mix and ate a few handfuls before handing that back as well. We sat along the creek bed and silently took in our surroundings. I was thankful to have left the trail because at the point we had reached, it was mostly sand and difficult to traverse in the glaring sun. It was getting close to noon and I knew that the sun would be baking down on us before long. Luckily, the vegetation along the creek was dense and it would provide plenty of shade to protect us from the sun’s rays. While we sat there, my phone chirped from my bag. I pulled it out to discover a text message from Daemon.

  Daemon: Hey beautiful. I’m checking in to see how your day is going. My day sucks and it will only be better when I can finally get home to see you again.

  I instantly felt guilty again knowing that I would have to lie to Daemon about what I was doing. I decided to admit that I wasn’t at the apartment, but make him believe that I was over at Matt’s place with David.

  Me: Sorry your day sucks and I look forward to seeing you tonight as well. I’m over at Matt’s with David, so don’t freak out if you get home early and I’m not there.

  Daemon: Be careful and stay at Matt’s. I worry about you running around without me when Chris is still loose. I’ll see you later.

  I laughed to myself a little over his statement. He was worried about me being at Matt’s and I knew he would go absolutely nuclear if he knew what I was really up to. I had to find Chris and get this over with quick. Daemon would eventually find out what I did when I had to explain how Chris was apprehended, and I hoped he would understand and not be too angry once everything was said and done. I was hoping for pure luck in finding Chris and I knew the likelihood was slim to none due to the size of the preserve, however I had no other choice but to try.

  I slipped the phone back in my bag and stood up to brush the dirt off the backs of my legs. David eventually relented and pushed himself off the ground to start walking again. The banks running along the creek were more difficult to cross because large roots stuck up from the ground and the low vegetation tended to get pretty thick. Branches stuck out across our path and we would have to push them back when crossing along. Unfortunately, David had to learn the hard way that if I pushed a branch back, he needed to stand out of the way when I let it go. He already had a nice red mark that ran across his forehead from when he took a whack from one of the swinging branches earlier.

  I looked at the other side of the creek and noticed that the area on the opposite side was clear for the most part and it looked pleasant to walk along. I couldn’t understand why we should continue on the side we were on and I looked into the creek for a means of crossing. The creek wasn’t that deep and I could have easily walked through it, but I didn’t want to get my shoes soaked in the process. These boots were heavy enough on their own without being completely soaked. Eventually we came to an area where larger rocks formed a natural bridge across the creek. They were placed close enough that if you jumped just right, you would be able to make it across without ever touching water. I turned to David to instruct him on how to cross.

  “We need to cross the creek to get over to that meadow. It will be easier to travel than the path that we are on. The best way to cross will be those rocks right there. Try jumping from one to the next, but go slowly and be sure to catch your balance each time you land. The rocks will be slippery and if you go too quick, you’ll slip and fall into the water.”

  David eyed the rocks and nodded his head in reluctant agreement. I jumped to the first rock and took my time preparing for my next jump. Once I made it safely to the second rock, I turned and motioned for David to follow behind me. He leapt to the first rock and looked like he was having difficulty catching his balance at first. Once he got the feel for it, I jumped to the next and he followed behind. It took us a few minutes to finally make it to the other side, but we were able to cross without any mishaps. I walked out to the field and noticed that the ground was slightly soggy, but not enough to worry about getting our boots wet or worse stuff like sinking sands. The sunlight flooded into the field through the storm clouds above us. I was concerned about those clouds letting loose, knowing that the rain could ruin our chances of finding Chris. The filtered sunlight gave the meadow an almost mystical feel and I could tell David was mesmerized by its beauty. We both absentmindedly walked out to the center of the field to bask in the natural wonder around us. As we almost reached the center, David stopped and grabbed me by the arm.

  “Do you hear that?”

  I looked at David in confusion and then listened hard to see if I could hear what he was talking about. At first it was only a slight buzzing that I noticed, but before long the buzzing grew louder and the air around us was filled with thousands of insects.

  “Oh shit. David, we’re in a mosquito nest. We need to run, NOW.”

  The mosquitos came out in hoards and David I ran quickly across the field. We were slapping at our bodies as we ran and I stumbled a few times on errant rocks that were hidden in the grasses. David eventually overtook me and was approaching the creek in front of me. He stopped to start jumping across rocks when I pushed ahead.

  “There’s no time to use the rocks, David! Just run through the water. The little fuckers are after us!”

  We splashed across the creek and turned right to continue our original path. We were still engulfed in a cloud of the little blood sucking creatures and we hurriedly jumped over roots and other obstacles as we ran. I saw that we were coming to a clearing at the end of the tree line and I picked up my pace to get out into the sunlight. As we traveled farther from the meadow, most of the mosquitos had stopped following, but there were still enough that were relentless in their pursuit.

  Once we reached the clearing, the cloud had all but cleared away, however our bodies were still covered by the insects that had attached themselves to us. We were furiously slapping at ourselves and then turned to each other to slap away any insects that we could find. I’m not sure exactly how crazy we looked standing in the open slapping at each other for no apparent reason. Thank goodness no one was there to witness our little episode.

  Once we felt that we had killed off the rest of the stragglers, David and I fell to the ground out of breath from the heavy running. I shoved my pack off of my shoulders and was relieved to have the added weight off my back. We caught our breath and then looked at each other and laughed. David’s face and arms had small welts developing from where he had been bitten. I’m sure I didn’t look much better and it was slightly entertaining now that it was all over. I knew we would be hating life later on when the itching set in, but it wasn’t anything a little Calamine lotion wouldn’t fix.

  I reached in my bag and pulled out a bottle of insect repellant. Now that we had already been bitten, it would sting when it came in contact with those areas, but at least it would keep any additional bugs from wanting to get near us. I sprayed down my face, arms and legs and looked up to find a sour expression played across David’s features.

  “So, you’ve had bug spray this entire time and you didn’t think to put it on until AFTER almost getting eaten alive by the mosquitos?!” David snatched the spray from me and starting dousing himself in the liquid. He flinched each time it came into contact with his bites and the smell of the spray
became overpowering due to the amount he used. I snatched the bottle back from him and eyed him.

  “You’ve used enough, David. Crap, now I don’t think even a human could approach you.” David smiled sweetly before turning to look over the open area that we had come to.

  He grabbed my arm suddenly and motioned to a point off in the distance. “Hey, Paige, look! Is that smoke over there?”

  I quickly turned to look at what he was talking about. I was concerned about smoke being visible because the scrubs were known for uncontrollable fires. Luckily, it was a small stream of smoke out in the distance and I realized that it could have been coming from a camp fire.

  “Holy shit, David! That could be from a campfire. It could be Chris!” I started to push myself up and had David not grabbed me again, I would have hauled off in that direction in pursuit.

  “Okay, Paige. Stop and let’s think for a second. If that is Chris, we can’t just go barreling in there. He may be armed and we have to be smart about this. Let’s walk slowly, lay low and see if we can find him. As soon as we do, we need to get out of there and call the authorities. Agreed?”

  I was momentarily shocked at David’s reasonable thinking and it took me a second to nod my head in agreement. We picked ourselves up off the ground and headed out across the field towards the smoke.

  After reentering a wooded area, we were careful with our footsteps to try and stay as quiet as possible. We didn’t speak and fell into a pattern of communicating with one another via hand signal or facial expression. It was another forty five minutes before we found another clearing and noticed that the smoke trail was considerably closer to us. Instead of heading out across the open area again, I turned right to follow along the wooded areas. David trailed after me and eventually, we reached another opening in the vegetation.

  We began to approach the area where we had seen the smoke. I looked through the tree lines and I became nervous that it was difficult to see through the dense brush. David remained close behind me and his steps fell into perfect timing with mine. We were breathing heavy, but trying to remain as quiet as possible. My heart felt like it would come through my chest, I was so anxious about our situation. I hoped we would spot Chris from a far enough distance that we would be able to escape without being caught.

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