Ray duct-taped a blue plastic tarp over the Field Unit's entrance; it matched the one Karen had put over Carol's window. The moon was new, but the sky was clear and the stars were bright. Jim lowered the top of his Mustang.
"Nice work tonight," Jim said. "See you tomorrow."
"Are you good to drive?" Ray said.
"I can handle a drink or two," Jim said. He drove away apparently unimpaired.
Ray stood in the parking lot, listening to crickets and frogs and the rustle of leaves and moths' wings. He did not hear a dog barking or bare feet treading on asphalt. He peered into the woods and said, "Are you there?" If she was, she did not reply.
Ray got into his Camry and drove away. Not many cars passed the Field Unit during the day. At night, the roads were empty. Ray thumbed through his text messages.
"What does tosser mean?" Byron had texted. "Do u want Pollos?" He meant Pollo Tropical.
"Not hungry," Ray texted back. He turned a corner and drove down a long, unlit corridor of trees. His phone chimed.
Byron texted, "Bro u need protein."
Ray neared a three-way intersection. There were no streetlights, and no other cars on the road, just a lonely, distant Kangaroo station. He typed, "Going home. Weird day."
The car's headlights lit something in the crossroads. Ray hit the brakes. His phone flew out of his hands and hit the windshield. His seatbelt kept him from doing the same. A yellow-brown lump the size of a young bear lay on its side. Its back rose and fell unevenly. Ray parked the car, leaving the headlights on, and ran over to check on the injured animal.
Someone stepped between Ray and the car's headlights. She cast a long shadow that made her arms and fingers look very much like the branches of a tree. Rex sat up and barked.
"You don't go to art school, do you," Ray said.
"I promised I'd come back for you," Dread Girl said.
Ray moved his car to the road's shoulder, and he and Dread Girl leaned against the side of his car together. Her lips were swollen like an allergic reaction, and her cheek bore an ugly purple bruise. The center of the bruise glistened as though it were scraped raw.
"I'm so sorry," Ray said. "I should have stopped him."
"You should have stayed outside," Dread Girl said. "You could have died."
"I just bumped my head," Ray said. "Can I get you ice or something? I didn't realize how hard he'd hit you."
"It's not that bad," she said, covering her cheek with her hand.
"Let me see," Ray said. He pulled her hand away. Her cheek was red, as though slightly sunburned. Her lips looked soft. Inviting. And the look she was giving him...
"Uh, the swelling has gone down," he said.
"Are you sure?" she said.
Ray coughed. "Your cheek. I thought it looked worse before, but I don't see so well out here."
"I told you," she said. "I'm fine."
"Good," Ray said. "Then I can be angry at you."
"Angry?" she said. "That man dug his own grave, and I told you not to follow me!"
"I have some questions about that," Ray said. "Believe me. But I'm angry about that stunt you just pulled with Rex."
"I wanted to get your attention," she said.
YOU ARE READING
King of the Woods, or Trivial PursuitFantasy
Florida Forest Service duty officer Ray Lumley is in love with a white fringetree. Not an I-read-Walden-in-high-school love; a sweaty, sappy, I-want-to-rub-against-you-'til-I-get-splinters love. It's awkward. So, he's relieved to learn that he's rea...