The sun was beginning to wane and dusk was descending when they came to the opening of a large cave. Here, the trail stopped and seemed to turn directly into the darkened cave. "We'll have to go through here in order to follow the trail across to the other side," Graham said, reaching into his backpack and taking out a flashlight, then holding it out in front of him with one hand, his rifle held back over his shoulder like a marching soldier, with the other.
"But it's so dark in there," said Susan.
"It's the only way to get us through to the other side. We have to stay on the path," Graham replied.
"I don't want to go in there."
"Then you can stay here, or turn back. Do whatever you like." said Graham, walking forward into the cave.
Susan shook her head, and looked at Harold, who raised his hands in the air in a gesture of ascent. Let's just do what he says, honey. He knows best, was what that gesture said, and she was not impressed with it. She was beginning to really dislike Graham's persistently unwavering self-righteousness. He seemed to have very little concern for any of them. His only concern seemed to be moving forward, always moving forward, and as quickly as possible. Didn't he know that this was only recreational for them? Why did he have to take everything so damned seriously?
Still, she decided that it would be best to keep quiet for the time being, seeing as Harold seemed to trust Graham, and if Harold trusted his judgement, then she supposed they would be okay.
The interior of the cave was very dark, and very damp. An odor of rot emanated from within. The only light was cast by the tiny bulb of the flashlight, which Graham held out in front of him like some strange talisman as he moved quickly ahead.
Murphy felt himself losing his balance as he stepped in a puddle, and then toppled over sideways into the damp, muddy water. "God damn it!!" he shouted, spitting out the filthy water, some of which had gone into his nostrils and now dripped down the side of his face.
"You okay, Murph?" Harold said, helping him up.
Murphy breathed in deeply, then looked around him at the dark, damp, old stone walls of the cave, and all of a sudden had a severe longing to be back home, sitting in his comfortable Lazy Boy chair, with a big bag of nachos in his hand, watching the baseball game on his big-screen TV. That all seemed so far away now. Home seemed so distant. Instead, here he was soaking wet, cold, tired and miserable. Traipsing through a cave in the middle of the forest to get to God-only-knows where. Why had he agreed to come with them? He liked Harold, that was why. Harold was a good friend of his. But he should have realized his own limitations. This type of thing was not for a man like Murphy.
Graham was continuing to move forward, either unaware or simply disinterested in Murphy's fall. As he moved farther away, the light became dimmer and dimmer. The others had all stopped, and Harold called out "Can you hold on for a minute please, Graham. Murphy had a little accident." The light stopped moving away, and after a few moments of standing still, like a big distant shadowy statue staring back at them all, he started coming back toward them. When he arrived Murphy was sitting down on a rock, breathing deeply and shivering.
"Took a little tumble, did you, Murphy?" Graham said with a smile, looking at the heavy-set man with unmistakable amusement. There was a glint of what seemed like almost gleeful mockery in Graham's eyes. He enjoyed the humiliation of others. Especially people he thought were getting in his way, or, in Murphy's case, slowing him down. This was quite obvious. But what really disgusted Harold was the smug, sarcastic attitude. Here was a friend of his who was genuinely having a rough time, and Graham, who was supposed to be their 'guide,' simply chose to mock the man in a subtle, albeit plainly overt, manner.
"We need to wait for a minute. We need to rest."
"It's going to be nice and dark by the time we come out of this cave. There are plenty of animals roaming about up here in the dark. We'd be better to move on ASAP and set up camp. Don't want anyone getting eaten by wolves, coyotes, or bears. That would be tragic."
"Please, Graham. Can we just stop here for a minute-or-two."
"I'll wait for exactly two minutes. Then I'm moving on."
Susan shook her head and looked at Harold, who gave her a return look which said, "Please honey, I've got this under control. Don't say anything that he'll perceive as being critical."
Graham sat down, took out his plastic bottle of water and sipped from it. He saw his hand shaking, ever so slightly, as he held the bottle and clenched it tighter, so that no one would notice. The cravings for a drink were getting worse and worse. In the months since he'd stopped drinking he had never felt such a compelling urge to fall off the wagon. These people, Murphy especially, were beginning to really annoy him. The fat, useless ox should have stayed home. Well, now he was going to find that out…the hard way.
"Graham, why are you always in such a hurry? None of us are used to hiking or being in this kind of rugged terrain, Murphy had obviously been having a difficult time, and you don't seem to be a bit concerned with that," Stephen said.
"That's because I'm not," Graham replied calmly, even though he was seething inside. Who the hell was this pencil-pusher asshole, who'd never done a days' worth of real physical labour in his life, to tell him his business.
"You're not concerned at all?"
"Not in the least. He shouldn't have come out here if he wasn't prepared for it. I left my wife at home for the same reason, because the forest is no place for women, or for fragile men," Graham said with a smirk, staring at Stephen directly, waiting for him to look away first, waiting for him to back down.
"Now hold on a minute! I take offense to that," said Susan.
Graham kept on staring at Stephen, smirking. What are you going to do about it, big guy?
After a long while Stephen looked away, took his bottle of water out and had a drink.
"You can take offense if you like. That's fine with me. It doesn't change the simple fact that a woman doesn't belong out here. That's why I left my wife at home. Maybe Harold and Stephen should have done the same. Then we'd be making a lot more progress."
"You're a very ignorant man," Susan said, turning around and stomping off. She stopped and stood waiting twenty feet away in the darkened crevice between two large boulders. She had heard enough from Graham and was quite disgusted by him now.
"Yeah, so they tell me."
"You're right about me, Graham," Murphy said, "I shouldn't have come out here. I realize that now."
"You're gaddamned right you shouldn't have."
"Alright guys, let's just deal with the situation. The fact of the matter is that we're all out here now. So let's just try and do the best that we can," Harold said. "Graham said it'll only be a few more days until we reach the waterfalls. Then we're going to turn around and head back through the woods. So can we try and just make the best of things? Susan, are you okay with that, Honey?"
After a long time, she nodded, although still very upset. Janice went over to console her.
Harold had seldom seen his wife this way. She was usually able to put a positive spin on things no matter what. But Graham's words had really hit a nerve. And just what the hell was he thinking, talking that way? How dare he say that they would have been better off if the wives had been left at home. Pure rubbish, thought Harold. The man seemed to have a way about him that always drove people away from him. And perhaps that was the intention. Perhaps that was the way he really wanted it. Harold remembered a time in grammar school when Graham had been given accolades from a teacher for an essay he had written. The teacher had given him an A-plus for the paper (Graham had typically been a below average student, who had cared very little about doing well at school). When asked to read it in front of the class, he had ripped the paper up, almost out of embarrassment. The teacher had looked at him, dumbfounded. "Why did you do that, Graham?" she had asked him. In reply he had merely shrugged and cast his eyes downward to stare at his desk. A few days later, Harold had asked him why he had torn up the paper? Wasn't he happy that he had received such a good grade on the assignment? Didn't he want to receive any kind of recognition from his fellow students? "I don't care about what any of them think," had been his response. True to form, this had been the way he had lived life for a long time thereafter: as a loner, answering to no one but himself. Not wanting, or needing the companionship of others. Not caring about their petty affirmations, or the silly little cliques that they congregated in so that they could feel important, accepted. It was all foolishness to Graham, and he wanted no part of it. This was something that Harold admired in the man: his desire for individuality, his refusal to compromise. Yet any nobility found in this was far too often eclipsed by the man's self-centeredness and his narcissism, by his childish, perpetually standoffish personality. Harold realized how little Graham had changed since childhood. The boy had become a man, but really they were still exactly the same person in terms of the way they dealt with the world around them. This way of thinking, along with a desperate need to blame others for his own mistakes and wrongdoings, Harold surmised, had clearly led to a lot of Graham's past problems, including his alcoholism and violent behavior. It was unfortunate, but at thirty-five years old, it was unlikely that any significant change was on the horizon.
When they finally emerged from the cave, they continued on the path far down to a large stony, open area. It was here that they would set up camp for the night. Harold and Susan helped Murphy set up his tent, while Graham went off with his rifle. He returned roughly fifteen minutes later with what looked to be three dead birds strung up and hung across his shoulder. Blood from the dead animals had left a darkened stain on the side of his thick, woolly grey jacket. "That was fast," Stephen said, eyeing the birds and patting Graham on the back.
"Doesn't take long when you know how to hunt."
"No, I suppose not. Practice makes perfect, right?"
"In some cases. But there are some folks who would still make lousy hunters no matter how much practice they got. You have to enjoy it. That makes you better."
"You have to enjoy it? The killing part, you mean? How can someone actually come to enjoy that?"
Graham looked at him oddly. His eyes flashed with cold intelligence. "Killing is natural. It's a necessary part of survival: animals killing weaker animals for sustenance, and humans killing animals for sustenance. It's all necessary. The weak get swallowed up by the strong. You have to be strong in order to persevere in this life. If you're week, if you sit around sobbing about the poor animals or other things like that, then you'll get swallowed up as well. Empathy is weakness. It makes you vulnerable, it makes you into a doormat, it allows people to exploit you and walk all over you. Didn't they teach you any of that at that expensive college your parents sent you to, Mister Smarty-pants?"
"You have a lot of hostility issues."
"Not true. I just have a low tolerance for idiocy."
"And not gleefully revelling in the fact that one can kill defenseless animals is idiocy?"
"Gleefully revelling? Who is gleefully revelling, you smug asshole? It's simply a natural act. We kill to survive. The strong survive, and the weak perish. End of story. If that concept is too complex for your Ivy League educated mind to grasp then I think you might want to think about coming out here and living with the animals, since you care about them so damned much, that is."
"I just think killing them is wrong if it can be avoided."
"Well it can't be avoided, and you're not a vegetarian, are you? So those sound like the words of a hypocrite to me!"
"Guys, please. No need to shout," said Harold, who had come over after hearing the commotion.
Graham scowled at him, then turned around went about setting up the wood for the fire.
"Jesus, Harold, what's his problem? I only asked him about hunting, and why he enjoys the killing part of it so much, and he goes off like a lit grenade," Stephen said.
"He just gets a little wound up sometimes, that's all. Try not to say anything to push his buttons. Questioning him about the morality of hunting is a definite no-no."
"I didn't mean to get into any sort of serious morality debate. I think it's odd that a person can get so much gratification out of killing other living creatures."
"He's a bit touchy about things like that."
Later that night, when the others had all gone to their tents Graham stayed up, sitting on an old rock, staring into the fire. The light cast wild reflections against his face, and his cold eyes stared at the flames, as if mesmerized. Often, as a child, he had been sure that he could see faces within the flames; terrified faces, those of the damned, the eternally tormented. Their eyes bled, and their voices cried out in horror, but no one could really hear them, for they were no more than ghosts, lost forever in a void of flames and suffering. Now, he thought he could see those faces again, just as he had seen them when he had camped out in this area as a child, with his father next to him, usually swigging from a bottle of booze. This time though, he wondered if maybe his father was one of those faces. After all, the old man had shuffled off this mortal coil long ago, and if there was any sort of an afterlife, Graham was fairly sure that his father would be paying for the hell, for the torment that he had put his wife and son through: the constant beatings every time the old man drank, having to go to school with black eyes and fat lips, laughed at and mocked by his peers. Yet, he had not suffered their scorn lightly, oh no. They had soon learned that it was extremely unwise to mock him. Anyone who did, usually caught an even worse beating than the ones his father had so regularly dished out to him. Such were the ways of the world. The weak getting crushed by the strong. He had learned from a young age that this was how things had to be. So, when he had finally become strong enough to stand up to his father, he had done so. He had been sixteen and they had been out here on one of their camping trips. The old man had started in on the booze as soon as they had set up camp for the night, and within a few hours, when he was quite inebriated, he had begun with the name calling, and with telling Graham how useless he was as a son, and how he was a hot-headed fool who would never amount to anything in the world.
"I guess in that case I'd be following in your footsteps then, eh, Dad?"
"What did you say, you smart-mouthed little prick?"
"You heard me. I said I'd be following in your footsteps. Being an absolute zero, a drunk who can barely provide for his family and beats the shit out of his wife and kid constantly to try and somehow soothe his own feelings of inadequacy, to try and make himself feel powerful and important, even though inside he knows that he's a total failure, and that's why he's so fucking angry and violent all the time!"
His father immediately sprang up and took a swing at him. He had attempted a long sweeping right hook, and normally he connected with these, but on this occasion, being as drunk as he was, Graham took a quick step backwards and the old man missed completely and stumbled forward, almost falling over completely but only managing to maintain his balance by the thinnest of margins. His legs were wobbly, but despite his state of physical disadvantage, his fury knew no limitations and he cursed and charged forward like a bull, his eyes cold and dark, just like those of his son. He swung wildly at the boy, but again Graham was able to use quick leg movement to step out of the way and dodge the blow. This just made his father even more angry. His eyes squinted, and a long throbbing vein stood out in his forehead (as it did whenever he was angry, or when his face showed an expression of intensity). He came forward again, but this time when he swung and missed, Graham leaped forward and with all of his power smashed his right fist into the old man's jaw. His father fell down, holding his hand to the side of his mouth, spitting out blood. "Okay you worthless pile of horse shit! You're finished now," said his father sneering and getting to his feet. Graham saw him wobbling and as the man charged forward screaming bloody murder Graham stuck his foot out and tripped him. He fell flat on his stomach, his face in the dirt. That was when young Graham went and picked up his father's rifle, which he had left beside the fire, right next to his still half-full bottle of Jack Daniel's. He knew that there was no other option. Even if he was able to subdue his father that evening, when he sobered up the next morning it would be curtains for Graham. His father had threatened to kill him before, and his mother too, but after such a humiliation as this, it was very likely that he would not just make an empty threat, but that he would act. So Graham had to act first. There was no other choice; the alternative would likely mean either his own death, or a beating so severe that he would be left on life support, perhaps as a vegetable. That was not going to happen. Not now, not tomorrow, and not ever. He pointed the barrel of the gun at his father's head.
The old man raised his head and looked up at him, his eyes bloodshot, blood dripping from his mouth, a pitiful expression of unquenchable rage still burning on his face, but now there was something else mixed in with that rage, there was something that Graham had never seen before, and had never expected to see on his father's face: there was vulnerability, there was the feeble, hopeless look of complete inadequacy, the faint flickering flames of the fire a few feet behind them faintly shone on the dirty angry face of a man who knew himself to be a complete failure, and a man who had chosen to torment those close to him in order to somehow mask the failure within himself, but no mask could cover the woeful expression on the face of Graham's tormentor, and he savoured it as he held the barrel to his father's head. "I guess you never were really such a tough guy after all, eh Pops?" Then he pulled the trigger and watched the top of the man's head literally explode.
He stepped back and looked at what he had done. Half of him was horrified, but the other half was exhilarated. He felt a sense of strength, a sense of power. This man would never lay a beating on him again. He had made sure of that once-and-for-all.
He had then taken the gun and thrown it into the river. When he arrived home he had cried hysterically, and told his mother and subsequently, the police, that a hunter had accidentally shot his father. "What happened to the hunter? If it was an accident why did he take off?" the police investigator had asked him. "I think he was scared," Graham said, wiping tears away from his eyes, "he was scared that he might have to go to jail for what he did, so he took off running. I chased after him, but I couldn't catch him."
And they had believed him, his mother, the police, all of them. This had given him an even greater sense of power. He had killed and gotten away with it completely. He had gotten rid of the man who had done nothing but beat him up constantly since early childhood. Sure, his father had taught him a few things about nature and hiking and camping, but the bloody noses and swollen lips and black eyes and the constant feelings of pain and humiliation eclipsed all of that. Those days were all over now. He had put an end to that. And no one would ever treat him disrespectfully like that again, or God help them!
Here was the boy who had been used as a punching bag for years, now a teenager, close to the verge of blossoming manhood, with the blood of his own father on his hands, and yet his conscience had felt completely clear then just as it did now. This had been a necessary action to him. He had merely done what he perceived as being necessary in order to survive.
Now, as he stared into the flames, and saw the strange, wild crackling orangey-yellow shapes within them, he thought, just for a moment, that he saw his father's face, the same angry, wasted, pathetic face that had looked up at him just before he pulled the trigger. Then, just as fast as it had appeared, the image was gone, a ghost lost to eternity. The stars stared down from up above. Orion, and the big dipper, the constellations glittering faintly far beyond: tiny flickering dots illuminating the black void of space up above. They did not care what went on down below. Just like the moon, they were oblivious to it all. They simply shined on, watching casually while man destroyed man, and man destroyed the earth. Graham didn't care for the stars at all, nor did he care if man destroyed man, or even, for that matter, if man destroyed the earth. It was all inevitable in the end. It was bound to happen, and only a fool would waste his time caring or trying to stop it. The world did what the world saw fit. That was all.
He reached into his backpack and touched the large bottle of whiskey that he had tucked in at the bottom, underneath the few changes of clothing and toiletries which he had brought. He rubbed his hands across the smooth glass and felt a sudden and desperate need for a drink. The urge was overwhelming. This was the worst craving he could remember since sobering up. No. No, you can't have a drink. You've done so well. You made the decision to change, and you've stayed disciplined about it. Don't ruin all of that now. Discipline! That was the key. Stay disciplined. Don't let your urges and impulses rule you. You are their master, and you have control over them, not vice-versa. Don't let it all slip away now just because of some silly urge.
But his longing for a drink, for the powerful taste of the whiskey in his mouth, warm and bitter against his tongue, would not subside. Then Harold came out and set next to him by the fire, temporarily taking his thoughts away from the bottle in his bag.
"How come you're still up? It's late," Graham said, looking at him quizzically.
"I know. But I couldn't sleep."
"What about you?"
"Oh, I always have trouble sleeping. As long as I get a few hours, then I'm good to go. I've always liked the nighttime anyway. Things are much more quiet while the world is sleeping. I like it that way. Sometimes I think that the whole human race should just be quiet and sleep. Sleep forever. It'd be much better that way."
This was followed by a long silence as they both stared at the fire.
"When I was a kid, and I was out here camping with my old man, I often thought that if you stared long enough at the flames you can almost make out faces within them. You could actually see the faces of the dead, staring back at you from some place far beyond."
Harold squinted his eyes and looked deeper into the flames. He did not see anything resembling human faces. Nothing but formless flickering blazes of light. "I just see flames."
"I guess not."
"Do you ever think about starting to drink again?"
"I hadn't for a while. But for the past couple of days I have. In fact, I tucked a bottle away in my bag before leaving home. I might well have had some this very night if you hadn't come out here."
"You don't want to start drinking again, Graham. That would be the worst thing that you could possibly do."
"Would it? Really? I think that maybe coming out here with all of you was the worst possible thing I could have done. Your friends are really starting to annoy me, and so is your wife with all of her whining. Don't you know that women aren't cut out for this type of thing? They whine and complain too much. You should have left her at home. I would never bring my wife out here in the wild."
"Susan and I do everything together. That's just the way we are. We're very close."
Graham rolled his eyes. "Sounds like she's got you whipped. Yes sir, it sounds as if she's got you wrapped right around her finger. You'll do whatever she wants to do whenever she wants to do it. Don't you know that a man has to be in control of things? I thought that was common knowledge, at least to men who have any backbone."
Harold shook his head, unsure of what to say and neither of them spoke for a long while.
When Harold finally broke the silence, he saw that Graham was again staring into the fire in that strange, lost way, as if hypnotized by it. "I'm going to go and get some sleep. See you tomorrow."
Graham didn't respond.