A fright in the woods
'The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon'
April 5, 1999
(CNN) -- When a young girl gets lost in the woods, she has only her Sony Walkman for comfort. She is a huge fan of Tom Gordon, a relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, so she listens to a game and he becomes a character in her mind. The question is, is there something threatening in the woods? Or not?
The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted. Trisha McFarland discovered this when she was nine years old. At ten o'clock on a morning in early June she was sitting in the back seat of her mother's Dodge Caravan, wearing her blue Red Sox batting practice jersey (the one with 36 GORDON on the back) and playing with Mona, her doll. At ten thirty she was lost in the woods. By eleven she was trying not to be terrified, trying not to let herself think, This is serious, this is very serious. Trying not to think that sometimes when people got lost in the woods they got seriously hurt. Sometimes they died.
All because I needed to pee, she thought ... except she hadn't needed to pee all that badly, and in any case she could have asked Mom and Pete to wait up the trail a minute while she went behind a tree. They were fighting again, gosh what a surprise that was, and that was why she had dropped behind a little bit, and without saying anything. That was why she had stepped off the trail and behind a high stand of bushes. She needed a breather, simple as that. She was tired of listening to them argue, tired of trying to sound bright and cheerful, close to screaming at her mother, Let him go, then! If he wants to go back to Malden and live with Dad so much, why don't you just let him? I'd drive him myself if I had a license, just to get some peace and quiet around here! And what then? What would her mother say then? What kind of look would come over her face? And Pete. He was older, almost fourteen, and not stupid, so why didn't he know better? Why couldn't he just give it a rest? Cut the crap was what she wanted to say to him (to both of them, really), just cut the crap.
The divorce had happened a year ago, and their mother had gotten custody. Pete had protested the move from suburban Boston to southern Maine bitterly and at length. Part of it really was wanting to be with Dad, and that was the lever he always used on Mom (he understood with some unerring instinct that it was the one he could plant the deepest and pull on the hardest), but Trisha knew it wasn't the only reason, or even the biggest one. The real reason Pete wanted out was that he hated Sanford Middle School.
In Malden he'd had it pretty well whipped. He'd run the computer club like it was his own private kingdom; he'd had friends -- nerds, yeah, but they went around in a group and the bad kids didn't pick on them. At Sanford Middle there was no computer club and he'd only made a single friend, Eddie Rayburn. Then in January Eddie moved away, also the victim of a parental breakup. That made Pete a loner, anyone's game. Worse, a lot of kids laughed at him. He had picked up a nickname which he hated: Pete's CompuWorld.
On most of the weekends when she and Pete didn't go down to Malden to be with their father, their mother took them on outings. She was grimly dedicated to these, and although Trisha wished with all her heart that Mom would stop -- it was on the outings that the worst fights happened -- she knew that wasn't going to happen. Quilla Andersen (she had taken back her maiden name and you could bet Pete hated that, too) had the courage of her convictions. Once, while staying at the Malden house with Dad, Trisha had heard their father talking to his own Dad on the phone. "If Quilla had been at Little Big Horn, the Indians would have lost," he said, and although Trisha didn't like it when Dad said stuff like that about Mom -- it seemed babyish as well as disloyal -- she couldn't deny that there was a nugget of truth in that particular observation.
Over the last six months, as things grew steadily worse between Mom and Pete, she had taken them to the auto museum in Wiscasset, to the Shaker Village in Gray, to The New England Plant-A-Torium in North Wyndham, to Six-Gun City in Randolph, New Hampshire, on a canoe trip down the Saco River, and on a skiing trip to Sugarloaf (where Trisha had sprained her ankle, an injury over which her mother and father had later had a screaming fight; what fun divorce was, what really good fun).
Sometimes, if he really liked a place, Pete would give his mouth a rest. He had pronounced Six-Gun City "for babies," but Mom had allowed him to spend most of the visit in the room where the electronic games were, and Pete had gone home not exactly happy but at least silent. On the other hand, if Pete didn't like one of the places their Mom picked (his least favorite by far had been the Plant-A-Torium; returning to Sanford that day he had been in an especially boogery frame of mind), he was generous in sharing his opinion. "Go along to get along" wasn't in his nature. Nor was it in their mother's, Trisha supposed. She herself thought it was an excellent philosophy, but of course everyone took one look at her and pronounced her her father's child. Sometimes that bothered her, but mostly she liked it.
Trisha didn't care where they went on Saturdays, and would have been perfectly happy with a steady diet of amusement parks and mini-golf courses just because they minimized the increasingly horrible arguments. But Mom wanted the trips to be instructive, too -- hence the Plant-A-Torium and Shaker Village. On top of his other problems, Pete resented having education rammed down his throat on Saturdays, when he would rather have been up in his room, playing Sanitarium or Riven on his Mac. Once or twice he had shared his opinion ("This sucks!" pretty well summed it up) so generously that Mom had sent him back to the car and told him to sit there and "compose himself" until she and Trisha came back.
Trisha wanted to tell Mom she was wrong to treat him like he was a kindergartener who needed a time-out -- that someday they'd come back to the van and find it empty, Pete having decided to hitchhike back to Massachusetts -- but of course she said nothing. The Saturday outings themselves were wrong, but Mom would never accept that. By the end of some of them Quilla Andersen looked at least five years older than when they had set out, with deep lines grooved down the sides of her mouth and one hand constantly rubbing her temple, as if she had a headache...but she would still never stop. Trisha knew it. Maybe if her mother had been at Little Big Horn the Indians still would have won, but the body-count would have been considerably higher.
This week's outing was to an unincorporated township in the western part of the state. The Appalachian Trail wound through the area on its way to New Hampshire. Sitting at the kitchen table the night before, Mom had shown them photos from a brochure. Most of the pictures showed happy hikers either striding along a forest trail or standing at scenic lookouts, shading their eyes and peering across great wooded valleys at the time-eroded but still formidable peaks of the central White Mountains.
Pete sat at the table, looking cataclysmically bored, refusing to give the brochure more than a glance. For her part, Mom had refused to notice his ostentatious lack of interest. Trisha, as was increasingly her habit, became brightly enthusiastic. These days she often sounded to herself like a contestant on a TV game show, all but peeing in her pants at the thought of winning a set of waterless cookware. And how did she feel to herself these days? Like glue holding together two pieces of something that was broken. Weak glue.
Quilla had closed the brochure and turned it over. On the back was a map. She tapped a snaky blue line. "This is Route 68," she said. "We'll park the car here, in this parking lot." She tapped a little blue square. Now she traced one finger along a snaky red line. "This is the Appalachian Trail between Route 68 and Route 302 in North Conway, New Hampshire. It's only six miles, and rated Moderate. Well ... this one little section in the middle is marked Moderate-to-Difficult, but not to the point where we'd need climbing gear or anything."
She tapped another blue square. Pete was leaning his head on one hand, looking the other way. The heel of his palm had pulled the left side of his mouth up into a sneer. He had started getting pimples this year and a fresh crop gleamed on his forehead. Trisha loved him, but sometimes -- last night at the kitchen table, as Mom explained their route, for example -- she hated him, too. She wanted to tell him to stop being a chicken, because that was what it came down to when you cut to the chase, as their Dad said. Pete wanted to run back to Malden with his little teenage tail between his legs because he was a chicken. He didn't care about Mom, didn't care about Trisha, didn't even care if being with Dad would be good for him in the long run. What Pete cared about was not having anyone to eat lunch with on the gym bleachers. What Pete cared about was that when he walked into homeroom after the first bell someone always yelled, "Hey CompuWorld! Howya doon, homo-boy?"
"This is the parking lot where we come out," Mom had said, either not noticing that Pete wasn't looking at the map or pretending not to. "A van shows up there around three. It'll take us back around to our car. Two hours later we're home again, and I'll haul you guys to a movie if we're not too tired. How does that sound?"
Pete had said nothing last night, but he'd had plenty to say this morning, starting with the ride up from Sanford. He didn't want to do this, it was ultimately stupid, plus he'd heard it was going to rain later on, why did they have to spend a whole Saturday walking in the woods during the worst time of the year for bugs, what if Trisha got poison ivy (as if he cared), and on and on and on. Yatata-yatata-yatata. He even had the gall to say he should be home studying for his final exams. Pete had never studied on Saturday in his life, as far as Trisha knew. At first Mom didn't respond, but finally he began getting under her skin. Given enough time, he always did. By the time they got to the little dirt parking area on Route 68, her knuckles were white on the steering wheel and she was speaking in clipped tones which Trisha recognized all too well. Mom was leaving Condition Yellow behind and going to Condition Red. It was looking like a very long six-mile walk through the western Maine woods, all in all.
At first Trisha had tried to divert them, exclaiming over barns and grazing horses and picturesque graveyards in her best oh-wow-it's-waterless-cookware voice, but they ignored her and after awhile she had simply sat in the back seat with Mona on her lap (her Dad liked to call Mona Moanie Balogna) and her knapsack beside her, listening to them argue and wondering if she herself might cry, or actually go crazy. Could your family fighting all the time drive you crazy? Maybe when her mother started rubbing her temples with the tips of her fingers, it wasn't because she had a headache but because she was trying to keep her brains from undergoing spontaneous combustion or explosive decompression, or something.
To escape them, Trisha opened the door to her favorite fantasy. She took off her Red Sox cap and looked at the signature written across the brim in broad black felt-tip strokes; this helped get her in the mood. It was Tom Gordon's signature. Pete liked Mo Vaughn, and their Mom was partial to Nomar Garciaparra, but Tom Gordon was Trisha's and her Dad's favorite Red Sox player. Tom Gordon was the Red Sox closer; he came on in the eighth or ninth inning when the game was close but the Sox were still on top. Her Dad admired Gordon because he never seemed to lose his nerve -- "Flash has got icewater in his veins," Larry McFarland liked to say -- and Trisha always said the same thing, sometimes adding that she liked Gordon because he had the guts to throw a curve on three-and-oh (this was something her father had read to her in a Boston Globe column). Only to Moanie Balogna and (once) to her girlfriend, Pepsi Robichaud, had she said more. She told Pepsi she thought Tom Gordon was "pretty good-looking." To Mona she threw caution entirely to the winds, saying that Number 36 was the handsomest man alive, and if he ever touched her hand she'd faint. If he ever kissed her, even on the cheek, she thought she'd probably die.
Now, as her mother and her brother fought in the front seat -- about the outing, about Sanford Middle School, about their dislocated life -- Trisha looked at the signed cap her Dad had somehow gotten her in March, just before the season started, and thought this:
I'm in Sanford Park, just walking across the playground to Pepsi's house on an ordinary day. And there's this guy standing at the hotdog wagon. He's wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt and he's got a gold chain around his neck -- he's got his back to me but I can see the chain winking in the sun. Then he turns around and I see...oh I can't believe it but it's true, it's really him, it's Tom Gordon, why he's in Sanford is a mystery but it's him, all right, and oh God his eyes, just like when he's looking in for the sign with men on base, those eyes, and he smiles and says he's a little lost, he wonders if I know a town called North Berwick, how to get there, and oh God, oh my God I'm shaking, I won't be able to say a word, I'll open my mouth and nothing will come out but a little dry squeak, what Dad calls a mousefart, only when I try I can speak, I sound almost normal, and I say...
I say, he says, then I say and then he says: thinking about how they might talk while the fighting in the front seat of the Caravan drew steadily farther away. (Sometimes, Trisha had decided, silence was life's greatest blessing.) She was still looking fixedly at the signature on the visor of her baseball cap when Mom turned into the parking area, still far away (Trish is off in her own world was how her father put it), unaware that there were teeth hidden in the ordinary texture of things and she would soon know it. She was in Sanford, not in TR-90. She was in the town park, not at an entry-point to the Appalachian Trail. She was with Tom Gordon, Number 36, and he was offering to buy her a hotdog in exhange for directions to North Berwick.
Copyright © 1999 by Stephen King
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