tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Relapse Door

The Relapse Door


I know time's bent on destruction
The past is over every day
I wish we both could fly back home
But we can't, so I guess I'll just fly away!
--John Hiatt, "Fly Back Home"

A job's a job. That, in any case, was what Tom had been telling himself every day since his lifelong buddy Jim had coaxed him into moving up north to take jobs with his cousin's new logging company.

If you're going to be completely honest with yourself, Tom mused on that frigid morning as he clutched his Styrofoam coffee cup and wished the heater in Jim's old jalopy would work a bit faster, it didn't take a whole lot of coaxing, did it? No. No, it didn't. Tom and Jim, friends since the second grade, blood brothers since the fifth, now well into their twenties and still stuck in the most wretched crumbling milltown in New England, hadn't wanted to be poor anymore. Simple as that. If their ticket out of their crummy neighborhood was a politically incorrect one up in the woods of Maine somewhere, Tom had told himself time and again, he'd get over it.

But he never quite had. Now as they made their way up Route 103 out of Mascawad -- the last town before the Canadian border with traffic lights, and their home for seven months or so now -- Tom was stuck as usual with the difficult contrast of the beautiful scenery and the knowledge that he was making tons of money helping to destroy it. The same contradictory thoughts had preceded his arrival in the woods, and they had roared through his mind nearly every work day since he and Jim had arrived in Mascawad last summer. Today, amidst the cold brilliance of the frosty snow on the evergreens that enveloped the road, they bubbled to the surface again.

"So beautiful," he mumbled, blowing on the coffee to cool it. "There must be a way we could make a living up here without wrecking it. Skiing lessons maybe, or a winter-escape hotel or something."

"Winter escape hotel?!" Jim spat out the words like they tasted bad. "You've been listening to your bleeding heart hippie girlfriends again, haven't you?"

"Gotta talk to them about something other than my job," Tom replied. "When they find out what we do for a living they want nothing to do with me."

"That's why you've got to start telling them, Tom, if it weren't for logging, Mascawad wouldn't even be here! What else is there in that town, bro? Besides, like I told you, it's only until we get rich. But when we do I ain't spending my money on anything called a winter-escape hotel. What the fuck is that, anyway?"

"Just seemed like a good idea to me," Tom said. "We build it way back in the woods, and people come to enjoy the snowy bucolic scene and meditate on nature..."

"Christ, Tom, from now on every girl you bring home had better be a Republican."

Tom allowed himself to laugh. It felt good to let go of his angst about the job, since there was nothing to be done for the moment anyway. Jim always had had that tough-guy attitude about him, going all the way back to elementary school. But, like Tom, he'd never had the muscles to back it up -- a deadly weakness on the nasty streets of their hometown. That, no doubt, was why they had become friends in the first place, though neither spoke of all that. No need to do so after all these years, especially not now that the logging work had finally gotten both of the town runts into great shape for a change.

Of course, it had been a different weak moment entirely, when Tom's quick thinking had saved Jim from the worst sort of humiliation at school, that had forged their friendship into the staunch bond it was. But neither of them ever spoke of that. That, Tom supposed, was what made it such an intense bond. No need to ever prove their loyalty to one another when that had already been done in no uncertain terms years before.

For all of the job's promise, though, Tom had had cold feet from the very night Jim had summoned him to their favorite bar with his big idea. "I don't know, man," he could still recall telling Jim after listening to the pitch. "I mean, it's beautiful up there, but if we take the job we're helping to take that away. You want that blood on your hands?"

Jim wasn't to be deterred, as usual. "Trees grow back, dude!" he'd said with that usual goofy grin of his. "Besides, if you're gonna give me that liberal hippie crap about the evil lumber companies, it's their wood that builds the houses we live in!"

"I know we need some wood," Tom had admitted, feeling his resolve slip away already as he began to imagine the clean air and honest work that were both so elusive in their town. "But you hear so much about the damage they're doing to the earth and they don't even care. And it's not like we're going to get rich doing the grunt work."

"It's a start, dude! We wouldn't have to do it forever. Just a few years and then we can do something more noble like, I dunno, go to Mexico and start a club there."

That had made Tom laugh, at least. "Now you're talking, Jim. But why don't we just go straight to Mexico now?"

"You got any money for that?" Jim had asked, playing his trump card. "How're those paychecks from the DVD shop stacking up?"

"At least I have that job!" Tom had shot back. In six years out of high school, he'd worked his way up to night manager there while Jim had bounced around from one fast food joint to another. An abortive stint in the army had been Jim's only steady job, and his attitude had seen to it that gig hadn't lasted too long either.

"Exactly, Tom! You want to sit around counting up how many copies of Titanic are overdue this week for the rest of your life? This is our ticket out of this dump. I know the lumber companies are evil and all that, but guys like us, we do what we gotta do. Blood brothers against the wind, man, that's us! Always. C'mon!"

Now, on his way to another day in the woods, Tom still recalled the dilemma already knocking around in his mind as he had wordlessly finished off his pint and considered the offer. He hadn't wanted to give Jim the satisfaction of knowing he'd won the battle right away. Jim always won their arguments sooner or later, and Tom knew it but somehow never did anything about it. Or maybe he hadn't wanted to admit to himself that he was willing to give into the dark side either. But Jim was right, they needed a way out and suddenly they had one. And Tom could always count on Jim to have his back no matter where they went; he'd known that since the fifth grade.

As usual, Jim had made the mistake of asking his mother for permission. And as usual she had said no, paying no mind to her son being well into his twenties, so Jim had had to sneak out the back door on the night they'd made up their minds to head off. He had at least had the foresight to park his ramshackle Honda a block away so his mother wouldn't hear it starting in the driveway. Tom, who had sold his own car for $500 and had been smart enough to take off without telling his mother of their plans, was waiting in the passenger seat. "You know I wouldn't have trusted anyone else with those keys," Jim had grumbled in place of a greeting as he climbed in and started the car. As usual, the reason why Jim knew he could trust Tom went unspoken; they never talked about that. But his trust in his friend was absolute.

"So you've been telling me all week!" Tom had reminded him with a grin, pulling a thermos of coffee out from the back seat. "Coffee?"

"I'll need it, yeah!" Jim gunned the car slowly down to the main drag, turned right and they were on the interstate in seven minutes. It was just past 2:00 AM on a humid summer night and their hometown faded into the rearview mirror for what Tom aimed to be the last time. They were in Mascawad by shortly after sunrise and Jim's cousin was kind enough to put them up in a cheap motel until they could find a place of their own in town.

Nearly every day in the months since then, Tom had been torn. Mascawad was a lovely outpost in the woods, not far from the ocean although it was rarely warm enough to go to the beach, even in summer. If the loggers were a bit raunchy on the job, the townspeople as a whole were polite and the town was well-kept. The work was hard and the hours were long, and most of the time Tom was too sleepy to feel guilty when they got home. The pay was good enough for Tom to buy some stylish clothes for the first time in his life, and he'd taken to actually paying attention to his appearance for the first time since he could recall for those weekend strolls through the town where he enjoyed the sights and sounds of the young women out and about.

He had, of course, learned early on to lie about where he worked if he wanted the more granola-looking women to flirt back at him. Mascawad may have been a logging town, but it was also a liberal East Coast country town with the robust artists' community that pedigree called for. Naturally the place was crawling with adventurous young women in bluejeans and tye-die shirts with nary a bra underneath, and Tom loved their wild uninhibited aura. Jim had played along, never spilling the beans over Tom's lies about being a writer in search of a novel plot, though he hadn't understood why Tom wanted anything to do with the women in the first place. "Why do you want to mess with anyone who thinks it's still 1969, dude? Most of them probably don't even shave anything."

"Exactly," Tom had reminded him with a wicked grin.

"Oh. Right. You and your love of the natural. I don't get it, Tom. How can you prefer that to a nice clean shaved pussy? One night with the right gal and you'd be set straight."

"I could tell you the same thing," Tom had said.

"Hell no! I like real women."

"You wouldn't believe what some of those 'filthy hippie chicks' are willing to do in bed, Jim."

"And I don't want to know!"

There had, at least, been no competition between the two best friends in that regard. As Tom had stuck to the town's many rustic types, Jim had gone for the preppier ladies who cleaned up carefully and didn't mind dating loggers. They'd both had a fling or two, but on the frosty morning that was about to change their lives, Tom and Jim were both single.

Women were not on Tom's mind that morning. As usual, the scenery provided all the beauty he needed to occupy his attention while Jim gunned the old car up the road. The evergreens were serene with their snowy dressing, while the other trees were bare and stark against the slate gray sky -- cold, but not without dignity, especially for those who lived among them. It was days like this that enabled Tom to rationalize his role in cutting down his beloved forests: something was bound to grow back come spring time, and just a few more seasons would bag them enough loot to stop participating in the slaughter. As he sipped his coffee, he leaned his head back and imagined himself and Jim on the beach somewhere, making a living he could believe in.

"More liberal guilt there, bro?" Jim asked.

"Course, man," Tom said. No point in lying about it. "I admit, it's not so bad this time of year."

"Not so bad? Freezing your balls off out here and now you don't mind the work?"

Tom laughed. "Oh, I mind all right!" Looking ahead on 103, he added, "Hey, here's the turnoff. Slow down!"

"Nah, we're done there," Jim said. "Next camp is about a mile up yet."

"Hadn't heard," Tom said. "I've never been that far up before, have you?"

"Nah, what's to see up there? Canada eventually, I guess. Nothing but trees until then, that's what they tell me. Hell if I care."

The sun was now emerging into the brilliantly cold scenery, and Tom found Jim appeared to be right. As the trek continued, there was no sign of further life beyond the woods, not even a billboard. As usual, Tom found he loved it until he remembered what he was here to do. At long last, the road took a sharp curve to the right, followed by a muddy gap in the trees that might have been invisible had they not had to slow down for the turn. "Here it is," Jim said, pulling the car off the road into the frozen mud. The hard-won sunshine seemed to disappear slowly as they drove along the crude bumpy track, deeper into the woods.

After two miles or so, the track finally came to an end at a clearing where their foreman's trailer had been parked. A lone pickup truck was parked beside it, and Jim pulled the Honda to a stop alongside the truck. The wintry silence that awaited when they got out of the car was so stark as to surprise even Tom, who was accustomed to being alone in the woods by then.

"Ah. Boys." As usual the foreman was less than pleased to see Tom and Jim, who were still too green and too urban for him to trust them completely. "Now we can get started."

"Where's everyone else?" Tom asked, drawing a chuckle from Jim, who knew the answer.

"You didn't tell him?" the foreman asked Jim with a frustrated look. "Tom, kiddo, you guys are the team for today. We need to do some surveying here before we start digging."

"I'm not a surveyor!" Tom protested. "I don't know anything about how to do that."

"Neither do I," the foreman spat out. "And I don't care. But the bleeding hearts and the usual government bullshit say I have to pretend I do. So you and your buddy here are going to go out there with that fancy schmancy equipment over there --" he gestured at some expensive looking tools in the corner -- "and make some notes about where we can and can't start cutting. I've got the directives here as to how far we can go. Your job is to mark it out in the real ground, not just on the map. You got that?"

"Yes sir," Tom agreed, silently relieved that he wouldn't have to cut anything today. Jim echoed his response in a more somber tone, probably a bit disappointed for the same reason, Tom reflected.

"Good," said the foreman, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of his breast pocket. "Jim, you head off to the left, Tom to the right. Now get out of my face and get to work, boys." Tom and Jim turned to go, but the foreman wasn't quite done after all. "Oh, Tom?" he added.

Tom turned around and forced a smile. "Yeah?"

"I ought to warn you, I don't have to but I will, the woods you're heading into, we call 'em "Blind Man's Gulch" in the business, and they've got a bad reputation. Sort of a Bermuda Triangle of logging. We've had a few guys get lost in there and never came back. So be careful."

"Gee, thanks," Tom said, his usual resentment for the job now perking up again.

"Don't worry, I'm sure they won't hurt a bleeding heart liberal like you, whoever 'they' are. Now get out there."

"Bastard," Jim muttered underneath his breath as he and Tom stepped back out into the clearing. Tom noticed for the first time that the stumps from the just-removed trees were still looking fresh with life that had only just been whacked away. Once again he hated himself for the role he was playing in it all.

"Nah, I'd rather do this anyway," Tom said.

"Course you would, bro," Jim grumbled. "Man, I was looking forward to revving up the chainsaw for some of these." He pulled the cord on an imaginary saw and mimicked the noise: "Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrawwwwwwmmmnnnngggg! So even with the history of those woods you're okay going out there, huh?" He pointed to his right, towards the ocean, where the breezes would make the air even colder than it already was as they approached it.

"Fine with me," Tom agreed, silently amused that he was surely aggravating Jim even more. "I'm not superstitious."

"Sure you ain't." And Jim was off without another word.

Tom hoisted the tools into the sling and strapped it to his back, and trudged off into the virgin snow. It was a rather long walk to the boundary line, that much he was able to discern with certainty from the very basic directions the foreman had provided. This was a pleasant surprise for Tom, despite the frigid air and the bizarre rumor about the woods. One could hardly argue with getting paid for a walk through the woods without harming anything! As the woods once again grew deeper, the scenery was positively bucolic, with green pine needles and delicate icicles everywhere. Occasionally the sun even poked through the bare branches.

Though focused on his job, every now and then Tom could not resist stopping to drink in the beauty completely. This was such a far cry from his and Jim's old neighborhood! The chance to see it was worth nearly any cost. Nearly. But Tom did his best not to dwell on that. The destruction would continue whether he participated in it or not, after all, and how many of the jerks he and Jim had grown up with had ever had a chance to even see all this?

As the time went by and Tom ventured deeper into the trees, the foreman's warning grated less on him. Whoever those other guys were, they had probably taken crazy chances. In fact, he thought on further reflection, they probably weren't loggers. Since these woods were untouched, obviously there hadn't been too many loggers out this way. Probably just some college kids taking crazy chances. Tom wouldn't do that; at least his job had taught him some street-smarts for the woods.

But as his journey progressed, an odd thing began to come to his attention that kept him from letting his guard down too far. Though there was no sign of any other human having been anywhere near the woods recently, he often thought he heard someone passing through behind him. A snapping twig, a breath, the swish of clothing...just the echo of his own noises, Tom told himself the first few times he heard the noises. When they grew too frequent to be ignored, he turned around expecting a wild animal crossing behind him but saw nothing.

On perhaps the fifth such occurrence, though, he whipped around and was nearly sure he saw a bare head of bright red hair pulling back behind a tree trunk. And a familiar face to go with it. Steeling himself for a fight even though it looked for all the world like a woman's head -- a woman he knew from somewhere, and he found it a nice memory whoever she was -- Tom doubled back to investigate. Nothing. "Great, I'm so guilty about my job now I'm getting paranoid," he thought. Whoever the woman he thought he'd seen was, Tom reasoned with a deep breath, it was rather unlikely that she had been murdering lumberjacks.

But who was she? That face and that hair had looked awfully familiar.

Tom did not return to his walk just yet. He was so sure he had seen something -- someone he knew -- and not someone he would have expected in a logging camp. There were a few women working for the company, but why would any of them be out here now? If it was any of them, he further mused, she would have worn a hat against the chill and she would have put her hair up under the hat. For that matter, why would anyone be out here without a hat? No, that fleeting glance had been of a sweet memory, someone he had admired a great deal once upon a time, someone who had no business being in the woods outside Mascawad in the dead of winter, even to the extent that anyone did.

Tom remained stock still and reflected further upon the woman. He knew it would come back to him. After thinking hard for a few minutes, it did. Darcie, the swimming instructor from the YMCA back home, whom he had lusted after throughout the summer he took lessons from her back in middle school. The first adult woman he'd fallen hard for, back when he was far from an adult himself. With her lovely red hair and shapely body and nice smile, she had fueled many a fantasy for Tom back then, and he still occasionally imagined her to this day. Indeed, he sometimes thought, she was the ultimate symbol of beauty and sexiness for him, the one against whom he compared all other women. But he hadn't seen her in over a decade and, he now realized to his titillation, he didn't believe he had ever seen her fully clothed. Why on earth would she turn up here of all places?

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