“What gray thing?” asked Colin. Hassan pointed, and Colin followed the trajectory of his finger to an oak tree about fifteen feet away. Crooked between the trunk and a branch, a sort of gray paper cyclone contained a circular hole about an inch in diameter.
“What is that?” asked Hassan.
“Something’s coming out of it,” Colin said.
It doesn’t take long for a thought to get from your brain to your vocal cords and out of your mouth, but it does take a moment. And in that moment, between when Colin thought Hornets! and when he would have said “Hornets,” he felt a searing sting on the side of his neck. “Oh FUG!” shouted Colin, and then Hassan said, “AIEE! AH! AH! FU—FOOT—SHIT—HAND!” They took off running like a couple of spastic marathoners. Colin kicked his legs to the side with each step, like a heel-clicking leprechaun, trying to discourage the blood-thirsty hornets from attacking his legs. Simultaneously, he swatted around his face, which, as it happened, only indicated to the hornets that besides stinging his head and neck, they could also sting his hands. Waving his hands above his head crazily, Hassan ran considerably faster and with more agility than Colin had ever thought possible, weaving around trees and hurdling bushes in a vain attempt to discourage the hornets. They ran downhill, because that was easiest, but the hornets kept their pace, and Colin could hear their buzzing. For minutes, as they ran in random directions, the buzzing continued, Colin always following behind Hassan, because the only thing worse than getting stung to death in south-central Tennessee when your parents don’t even know you’re on a hog hunt is dying alone.
“KAFIR (breath) I’M (breath) FADING. ”
“THEY’RE STILL ON ME. GO GO GO GO GO GO GO GO,” Colin answered. But just after that, the buzzing stopped. Having chased them for the better part of ten minutes, the hornets began the winding journey back to their decimated nest.
Hassan fell face-first into a brambly bush and then slowly rolled over onto the forest floor. Colin bent over, hands on knees, sucking air. Hassan was hyperventilating. “Real (breath) fat (breath) kid (breath) asthma (breath) attack,” he finally said.
Colin pushed aside his fatigue and rushed up to his best friend. “No. No. Tell me you’re not allergic to bees. Oh, shit. ” Colin pulled out his cell phone. He had reception, but what could he tell the 911 operator? “I’m somewhere in the woods. My friend’s trachea is closing. I don’t even have a knife to perform an emergency tracheotomy because stupid Mr. Lyford ran off with it into the woods to chase the same goddamned pig that started the whole fugging mess. ” He desperately wished Lindsey were there; she could deal with this. She’d have her first-aid kit. But before he could even register the consequences of such thoughts, Hassan said, “I’m not allergic to (breath) bees, sitzpinkler. I’m just (breath) out of (breath) breath. ”
“Ohhhhh. Thank God. ”
“You don’t believe in God. ”
“Thank luck and DNA,” Colin corrected himself quickly, and only then, with Hassan not-dying, did Colin begin to feel the stings. There were eight in all, each of them like a little fire burning just inside his skin. Four on his neck, three on his hands, and one on his left earlobe. “How many do you have?” he asked Hassan.
Hassan sat up and looked himself over. His hands were cut up from landing in the briar bush. He touched his stings, each in turn. “Three,” said Hassan.
“T h ree?! I really took one for the team by staying behind you,” he noted.
“Don’t give me that martyr shit,” said Hassan. “You shot the bees’ nest. ”
“Hornets’ nest,” Colin corrected. “They were hornets, not bees. That’s the kind of stuff you learn in college, you know. ”
“Dingleberries. Also, not interesting. ”72 Hassan paused for a moment, then started talking. “God, these stings HURT. You know what I hate? The outdoors. I mean, generally. I don’t like outside. I’m an inside person. I’m all about refrigeration and indoor plumbing and Judge Judy. ”
Colin laughed as he reached into his left pocket. He pulled out Mr. Lyford’s can of chewing tobacco. He pinched a bit of tobacco, and pressed it against his own earlobe. It felt instantly, if only marginally, better. “It works,” Colin said, surprised. “Remember, Mae Goodey told us about it when we interviewed her. ” Hassan said, “Really?” and Colin nodded, and then Hassan took the can of dip. Soon their stings were covered with blobs of wet tobacco dripping brown, wintergreen-flavored juice.
“Now see that’s interesting,” Hassan said. “You should focus less on who was prime minister of Canada in 193673 and focus more on shit that makes my life better. ”
Their idea was to walk downhill. They knew the camp was uphill, but Colin hadn’t been paying attention to which way they ran, and while the cloudy sky made it bearable to walk around in long sleeves and an orange vest, he couldn’t navigate by the sun. So they walked downhill, because (a) it was easier, and (b) they knew the gravel road was down there somewhere, and since it was longer than the camp, they figured they had a better chance of finding it.
And maybe they did have a better chance of finding the road than the lodge, but they never found it, either. Instead, they walked through a forest that seemed endless, and their progress was slow, as they had to step through kudzu and over trees and hop the occasional dribbling creek. “If we just keep walking in one
direction,” Colin said, “we’ll find civilization. ” Meanwhile, Hassan was singing a song entitled: “We’re on a Trail / a Trail of Tears / There’s Dip on My Chin / and We’re Gonna Die Here. ”
Just after 6 P. M. , tired and hornet-bitten and sweaty and generally in a poor mood, Colin spotted a house a short walk to their left. “I know that house,” Colin said.
“What, we interviewed someone there?”
“No, it’s one of the houses you can see when you walk to the grave of the Archduke,” Colin stated with great confidence. Colin gathered his last bit of energy and jogged up to the house. The place itself was windowless, weather-beaten, and abandoned. But from the front of the house, Colin could—yes—see the graveyard in the distance. In fact, there seemed to be some movement down there.
Hassan came up behind him and whistled. “Wallahi,74kafir, you’re lucky we’re unlost, because I was about ten minutes away from killing and eating you. ”
They hustled down an easy slope and then fast-walked toward the store, ready to bypass the cemetery. But then Colin caught sight of movement in the graveyard again, turned his head, and stopped dead. Hassan seemed to notice it at precisely the same moment.
“Colin,” said Hassan.
“Yeah,” Colin answered calmly.
“Tell me if I’m mistaken, but isn’t that my girlfriend in the graveyard?”
“You are not mistaken. ”