I awoke to breakfast smells wafting in from the kitchen, sauteed onions and garlic, fried potatoes, and smoked meats. Outside there were a surprising number of mushrooms that popped up overnight as if they had somehow noticed our visit and decided to demonstrate their prodigious mycological fecundity. Poorly rested and loathing my stale clothes, I emerged into the scullery where Dimity was turning sausages with a pair of tongs in a skillet. Mushrooms were piled up and tumbling around on the butcher block prep table.
“Hey sleepyhead. There’s no coffee but I did find some tea. Earl Grey. It’s over there. The kettle’s hot.”
“It figures Ringo would like Earl Grey. What’s with all the mushrooms?”
I went out to the side patio I’d inspected before, the one with the paved nook, Greek columns and cozy sitting area. I was still not ready to go out the front door; the memory of the apparition we’d seen the day before was too fresh. Overwhelming the whole area were mushrooms of every kind: morels, chanterelles, fairy ring mushrooms, portabellas and common field mushrooms. They grew in clumps around trees and stumps, except the fairy mushrooms which grew in circles on flat areas, of course. It was a wonderland of mushrooms.
Back inside she was setting out plates of food.
“That’s pretty weird.”
“Back home we used to say that mushrooms were left by the fairies after a rainstorm.”
“If that’s true there must be a heck of a lot of fairies around here. I’ve never seen so many mushrooms.”
As I ate I considered, what to do next? Ringo wasn’t coming any time soon, if he was coming at all. And what about the Frenchmen who had pursued us so ruthlessly, who had tried to kill us in order to seize the Lancia and take it back to France? It seems we had eluded them. Or maybe Dimity had shot them all dead and disposed of the bodies while I lay unconscious. The gun in her satchel had reawakened the question in my mind. I was starting to question what was real, what had happened last night, and whether she might be more than just an eccentric, sunkissed, blonde surfer girl.
“You said Cougar Bob had a phone, and that you called your dad. I want to go and try to call my parents to tell them I’m safe.”
She wiped her mouth on a cotton napkin and talked with food still in her mouth.
“That’s a question though—are you safe? If we drive the noisy car to Cougar Bob’s, we’ll give ourselves away. The Beaux Voyous were within shooting distance yesterday.”
“We could walk then. It’s only a couple of miles.”
“Walk. Through these woods?”
“Just until we get back to the highway.”
We both became quiet in the memory of the specter we had seen when we’d first arrived. We had no categories for it. Such things only appeared in storybooks and movies. Adults are so fond of saying that ghosts aren’t real. Monsters aren’t real. Fairies and goblins aren’t real. But whatever we’d seen was pretty real. And Linda had warned us about lurkers and told us to stay indoors overnight. Did she know something we didn’t?
“It’s daylight. That thing only comes out at night,” I reasoned, lacking clear conviction.
“You don’t know that.”
“Linda implied it in her note.”
“The sky is overcast today. And this forest hardly allows in any light. It might as well be night. That thing is still out there.”
“Okay, now you’re sounding silly. We can’t just stay here forever.”
“What did you call me?”
“Huh? No, I didn’t mean anything by it, come on. It’s just—”
She held up her finger and glared at me. With her mouth suddenly taut, and in a soft, firm voice, the way some mothers scold their children, she said, “I’m not some silly girl, Bo. That’s not a kind word.”
“Okay, okay! I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
“Don’t ever call me that.”
“Fine. Jeepers! I’m sorry. Don’t be so touchy. I don’t really think you — No. You know what? I know you’re not some silly girl. You can’t be. Because silly girls don’t go around with a ten-pound heater in their bag. Yeah, I saw the gun last night in your satchel after you fell asleep. Hell! With that thing I don’t think you have anything to worry about walking through the forest!”
She looked at me. No, she was not a silly girl. I didn’t know what she was. A little careless maybe.
“You weren’t supposed to see that.”
“It wasn’t hid very well.”
“Did you go through my things?”
“No! It was laying in the mouth of the bag. The bag was open on the couch.”
Everything now was complicated. No longer a sweet high school romance, our relationship had now taken unexpected new dimensions. I could see on her face that she realized this, that she didn’t know what to say. She acted like I’d caught her at something she was determined to hide, and for the first time in all the weeks we had been together, her confident exterior began to crack. She got up and started to walk around the room nipping at a fingernail. There was a tense silence between us for a while. This whole situation made me feel boyish, like she was somehow already an adult and I had intruded on her private adult world.
“Fine. You want to walk to Cougar Bob’s? Let’s go.”
She took up her bag and fixed her hair in an Alice band. She fussed a bit, straightening her clothes and blinking heavily as if clearing her head, but I knew it was to avoid my eyes. She walked toward the front door and lingered for me to come and open it for her.
The cool morning air was delicious and refreshing although the crepuscular dimness under the canopy of trees seemed unnatural for the time of day. But the tension began to relax. The little river chuckled off to our right and the forest insects tenderly chirped. We went at more of a strolling pace searching for something to say. With the fresh air and majestic beauty of the trees, the lichen and ongoing preponderance of mushrooms, she was feeling better, and with a quick but sincere smile and furtive glance she took my hand.
“I know you want to ask about the gun.” I said nothing. “I can’t go into detail, but…I feel safer with it.”
“Safer? Mitts, hah! I mean, sure it’s good to feel safe but guns are serious stuff.”
“I am serious, Bo.”
“I’m sure you are, but ya know, using a gun takes a lot of practice. You have to know how to shoot. How to load it, how to turn on and off the safety switch. It takes a lot of getting used to. You can’t just carry a gun and suddenly be safe.”
The foolishness of her buying a gun at Cougar Bob’s was becoming more apparent to me. To be honest, it was pretty silly, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. I was thinking maybe she would see my reasoning and realize she had acted rashly—understandably though, given that we had heard bullets whizzing by our heads the day before. But I was wrong about that.
She stopped walking, turned toward me, grabbed me by my shirt lapels, and looked me dead in the eyes. Then without breaking her gaze, she reached into her bag and pulled out the pistol and pointed it straight to the sky, and fired off three rounds. She did not flinch; I had what to most people would be an expected reaction following a triple explosion shattering the tranquility of the morning. While I was recovering, trying to regain my composure, she said “See that big fungus over there?”
With a single shot, she blew the protruding orange fungus to oblivion, sending it spewing away in a fine pastel mist. Once again, I had to gather myself from the ground, not to mention try to understand the radical reorientation of my estimation of this person who was so cute, at times so affectionate, and who had even suggested marriage to me just hours ago.
She tucked the gun away in her bag, grabbed my hand again, and continued her strolling, patiently pulling me along. She shook her head a little and continued,
“I know what to do with a gun, Bo.”
The day was now completely different, somehow lighter and yet darker at the same time. The greens of the forest were more intense, the few woodland animals, a squirrel or two, a handful of birds, had all vanished. The road ahead of us was now a completely different adventure; we were no longer two helpless adolescents unacquainted with the world, unprepared to deal with its dangers and villains, smalltown yokels scattered abroad in strange lands.
I considered this as she tried to restore the warm, amorous mood we always had enjoyed. She clung to my arm now as if I was the strong one, as if she felt safe under my protection, trying to rehabilitate the masculine instincts which she had just dispatched like a great outcropping of orange fungus.
We went on like this as we walked down the forest path. Some bold crickets resumed their chirping, and one bird flitted between trees. She took out that same pack of chewing gum and folded a piece into her mouth. She offered me one. I took it and began to chew. Some neonatal cortex in my psychology drew a primordial comfort from the act of chewing and I was grateful for the minty coolness to freshen my stale mouth.
We noticed the sky change and the forest become unnaturally still. The air modified slightly, almost imperceptibly, like a humid breeze, like walking into a hot kitchen where dinner is boiling on the stove. We both knew what it was; it had happened last night, a feeling neither of us would ever forget. At that time, we were close to the door of the house and had fled inside for shelter. Now we were exposed.
The lumbering spirit appeared fifty feet ahead, twice our height and looming toward us, ill-defined as if made of the mist or a giant swarm of gnats. Grayish-brown and witless, it drifted like an overland jellyfish. The lurker returned.
Dimity screamed. An enormous gust of wind descended on the forest blowing our hair and clothes around in a tornado. The trees moaned and the rustling leaves sounded like a heavy rain shower. I tried to run but found my legs wouldn’t move. The specter, summoned by the gunfire, came on steadily, mindlessly, like a gigantic figure under a muddy sheet, strikingly like a ghost from the cartoons if it had been white.
In a flash Dimity grabbed the gun from her bag and held it out with both hands straight in front of her. She leveled her eyes along the barrel and, shouting into the torrent, she fired it fast, again and again, slashing the air with explosions like strikes of lightning—six, seven, eight shots, until finally the empty gun just clicked. Meanwhile both of our legs were trapped in a quagmire and all we could do was fall to the ground and hold each other as we watched its approach.