"Erratic Cycles went through many changes and updates before it was finally sold to Parsec and then go on to be nominated for an Aurora. Despite the changes to the story and to the supernatural entities surrounding Charles Dean Webster in each inception of the evolving tale, one detail always remained: Charles was deathly afraid of being alone in the woods at night. That detail was very important for me to explore. Perhaps it was a way to help me deal with my own fears. Have you ever been stranded on a lonely highway in Northern Ontario in the middle of the night? It isn't pretty -- but it does provide fuel for the imagination". (Mark Leslie)
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by Mark Leslie
Charles Dean Webster, attorney at law, sat very still in his ‘89 Toyota Tercel, frustrated over his predicament. Something — he had no idea what — had happened to his car. First there had been some smoking and hissing and then the car had stopped running. That was the extent of his knowledge about what was wrong with his car. He was a lawyer, not a mechanic.
Dammit Jim, I’m a lawyer, not a mechanic.
He looked at his watch, taking his eyes off of the forest for only a very short time. It was a quarter past nine. As he lifted his head to look down the barren stretch of Highway 144, he caught the glare of the setting sun in his rearview mirror.
He slammed a fist against the dash and then sat back once more and stared out the bug
splattered windshield at the deserted highway.
Why me? he asked, and was quick to find an answer.
Why not you?
This was going to be your big case, your first major success, your big break. This was going to be the case that not only brought you a handsome sum but spread your name across the country. After winning this one, you were finally going to be someone.
So why not you? If you continue to believe such stupid glorified dreams, then why not you? Face the facts, schmuck: This is just another case.
And, being just another case, it had been nothing but a pain in the ass from day one. Getting stranded on a lonely highway somewhere between Sudbury and Timmins was just par for the course.
He looked at his watch again, but only a minute had passed since he had last checked it. His eyes quickly returned to the wall of forest which ran never-ending along both sides of the highway. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was watching him from the forest.
No, not something, he corrected himself.
The Bush People.
He shuddered at that thought and considered turning on the radio to help alleviate his mood; but he was afraid that it would kill the battery. And he needed the battery in order for the hazard lights to keep working? Didn’t he?
Dammit, it always came back to that, didn’t it?
He hated the fact that he knew nothing much about how a car worked. But that had been his father’s profession, not his.
When he was still young — very young — he’s watched his father closely. Anthony Webster would come home from the garage and spend as long as twenty minutes washing his hands and never really getting them clean. The tracks of his fingerprints were a permanent resting place for the grease and oil of his livelihood. Then, after supper, he would sit down in the living room with a beer in one hand and a remote in the other and grumble about inflation, taxes and the latest antics of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And the next day the cycle would repeat: Work, a vain attempt to wash away the residue of that work, and when that failed, a cleansing of the soul with beer and bitching.
Charles loved and respected his father who had never been anything but reliable and supportive. He’d always provided his only son with everything he could afford to give him and only once had he raised a hand to him — but in retrospect, Charles had deserved that quick slap after having verbally assaulted his mother in a typical teenager/mother argument. Anthony Webster was as close to the perfect father as any man could be.
But the last thing that Charles wanted was to be like him. He could never lead such a mundane existence. Charles wanted more than just money and a career. He wanted an exciting and fulfilling lifestyle. He didn’t want his father’s life of broken car after broken car — every day slaving over someone else’s troubles and ultimately getting nowhere in life.
No, that wasn’t for Charles. That wasn’t what he wanted at all. He yearned to be a lawyer, to experience the lifestyle portrayed in the L.A. Law television series he’d loved so much; so he reached for it.
But he never got it.
Every case he took on held for him that promise of being the case which would move him up. But they never did. Instead, he slaved day after day over someone else’s troubles, someone else’s broken life, never moving up.
He ended up living the very lifestyle he had dreaded: His father’s. Only, Charles lacked many of the things that his father had, including the knowledge of how a car worked.
Charles had been too engrossed in his own personal dreams to bother handing around with his father and learning a few essential details about his trade.
And because of it, he was stranded.
Caught in the very trap he had attempted to avoid.
So it always did come down to that, didn’t it? Running away from something only brought it down on you even worse.
His cellular phone was rendered useless by the remote location he was stranded in. He didn’t even know how far it was to the next town, or at least to the next pay phone. If he knew, he might consider walking. It would be far better than sitting around waiting for another car to drive by.
Although it had only been fifteen minutes since he saw any traffic he was afraid that no one else would drive by. He’d never driven out of the concrete corridor before and had no idea of what to expect. Besides, even if someone stopped, would they even bother helping him if they knew who he was?
If only he could get to a phone and make one toll free call to the CAA.
Charles smirked and looked at his watch again without reading it. With his luck, his CAA membership would probably have run out, or for some stupid reason they didn’t cover this area. Or perhaps the nearby CAA was run by one of the local groups that despised him. Wouldn’t that be a cute confrontation? He wouldn’t be surprised if any of these things happened — everything else had gone wrong so far.
It had started out as a simple case. His client, a Toronto-based company called Durban Lumber, had purchased a large chunk of land near Timmins for their logging operations. The only problem when Charles had picked up the case was a local band of Indians claiming traditional rights to the land. But Durban Lumber had purchased the land from the municipality and held legal ownership. It was a straightforward matter of Charles walking in, going through the motions, flashing the ownership papers, quoting a sample of similar past cases in which the defendant was triumphant, and hopefully settling it out of court.
Then a new development changed things. The native lawyers uncovered an old weathered copy of a document that the municipality had signed with the native leaders, recognizing the land as traditionally belonging to them. Because of a fire over two decades earlier at city hall, the municipality’s copy of that document had been destroyed and forgotten.
And so the simple case had turned ugly. Durban Lumber was pressing the municipality from one side while the Indians were pressing them from another. The media had eaten the story up, of course, in the good old story of big business trying to step all over the little guys.
The more sour the case turned, the more difficult it was for Charles to obtain the upper hand. The stress mounted, the tension increased and it began to get more than sour, more than ugly.
On his last visit to Timmins, some environmentalists and Indians greeted his plane at the airport with rotten fruit, catcalls and stones. Charles, the representative of the big bully, became the object of their hatred and anger. It seemed like they all wanted a piece of him.
Things got so bad that instead of flying in to his next meeting in Timmins, Charles opted to drive. Not only would he arrive in an unexpected manner and hopefully undetected, but he could use the six or so hours that it would take him to get there to relax and sort things out.
It would be the first time he was alone in over seven years. Truly alone — without work and booze, his longtime companions.
After finishing a grueling law school program, Charles had launched straight into his career the first chance that he got. He started at the bottom, as most lawyers do, and had remained there ever since. He never once attributed his dire position to burn-out, but instead kept driving himself harder and harder, waiting for that one case.
At least in school when he botched a test or flunked a paper he had the chance of redeeming himself with another test or another paper before the final grades came out. But his career, he discovered, didn’t work that way. Mistakes stayed on his record, without the possibility of being wiped out by future successes. There was no chance for redemption — there was only one thing. Plugging on.
So Charles had jumped from a life of study, work, party, sleep, to a life of work, research, more work. There were no study weeks or spring breaks where one could relax and then use the time to catch up on all the areas one had fallen behind in. There were no getaway weekends like there had been in school.
This was a career. This was life. This was not at all what Charles had expected or hoped for.
The only way he could cope was using a method he had learned by watching his father. He coped with the Webster method of bitching and booze. That soon became part of his daily ritual.
Years ago he had lived for the weekends and the promises that once school was finished he would be able to get on with living, with life, with being a free man in a free world. It wasn’t long before he discovered that there was no such thing as freedom. There was no such thing as just living.
The barrage of cliches which his father spewed forth daily about the shit that life dealt an honest man were all coming true. Charles found himself repeating those same old tired cliches about life, and believing them.
Charles had discovered one night in the midst of an alcoholic haze that the cycle his life had taken was no better than his father’s. Work like a bastard, the come home and drink like one. Only, his father also had a wife and a son. All that Charles had was work and booze.
It had become time to re-examine his life.
That was why this drive, this pilgrimage to Timmins, was supposed to be just the thing that Charles needed. It would be his way of being alone with himself, without the work, without the booze. Just Charles and his thoughts. Six hours to finally reflect on what his life meant to him other than in the terms of a drunken man’s armchair philosophy.
There was only quiet thought and gentle reflection as his car left the sprawling fringes of the city, headed north on Highway 400.
And then, several hours later, the car — the very means of his pilgrimage — broke down.
And Charles was alone.
In the middle of nowhere.
This newest development brought to him the real reason he had never let himself be alone for all those years.
Being alone scared the bejesus out of him.
He was surrounded on all sides, it seemed, by the thick foliage of the Northern Ontario wilderness. Wilderness that grew darker as the sun crept down somewhere behind the distant hills.
Wilderness that threatened to take him back to when he was ten and camping with his parents at Algonquin Provincial Park.
Back to the last time he had really felt alone.
Back to the time when he had first learned of The Bush People.
"No," he whispered, and it all came back to him in a sudden rush, as if the nineteen years between today and that dreadful evening had never happened at all.
He was returned to that night — back inside the body of a ten year old who was alone and lost in the thick of the night in the middle of nowhere.
He re-experienced it all.
The cold chill of the night wind. The smell of the nearby lake which carried the faint scent of trout. The unending rhythm of the crickets, forever bleating their cries of passion for the night, their chant that there was much more to the darkness than could be seen.
And the knowledge, the dreadful, painful knowledge that his parents were still sleeping in the tent, completely unaware that he was no longer tucked in his sleeping bag, dozing peacefully and protect beside them.
Charles had awoken with a demand from his body that he visit the outhouse. He had slipped out of his sleeping bag and began a quick search for the flashlight. He considered waking his father and asking him where it was, but the urge to go — now — was too great. He unzipped the entrance to the tent and headed down the trail to where he remembered the outhouse to be.
Only, either his memory had failed him or he had missed it in the darkness, because after walking for quite a while, Charles still hadn’t found it.
He turned back, the cramps getting worse, and decided that he would wake his father after all.
But he came to a fork in the trail that he hadn’t noticed on his way out. He took the one to the right, hoping that it was the correct one. But that trail led to another fork.
That was when he knew that he must be heading in the wrong direction.
He had been tricked.
By The Bush People.
The Bush People. His father had conjured them up that very evening in a story told by the campfire. They were the bogeymen of the wilderness that hid behind every tree, beneath every stone. They were numberless, faceless and without mercy. Their sole purpose was to trick little boys by leading them down the wrong paths, deeper into the forest away from the safety of their parents.
He opened his mouth to scream.
But he stopped himself with a sudden thought.
What if The Bush People didn’t know where he was yet? What if they located their prey by listening for their screams? If he cried out for the help of his parents, The Bush People might also hear him and get to him first.
There was no way that he would scream.
The only thing left was to run.
He turned and raced down the path. Branches reached out from the sides of the trail, thin and invisible in the dark gloom. Each time they snagged him, he almost let out a yell, thinking it was a bush person touching him. They whipped at his face as he ran past them and tried to head down the proper trail, the trail that led to the safety of his parents.
The haunting cry of a loon echoed through the forest. To Charles it was the cry of another lost child trying to find his way to safety. Too bad pal, Charles thought. That cry just gave you away. Now they know where you are.
As he was thinking this, he collided with a wall of canvass stretched tightly across the path. He bounced back, sprawling to the forest floor and finally released the scream of terror he had been holding within.
No! he thought. They must have heard me. Now I’m caught too.
But then he heard the familiar grunt of his father. A command which was half-snore came from the other side of the canvass wall — which Charles realized was the tent — telling him that it was all right, to get back to sleep. His father must have thought that Charles was still in the tent and had screamed out while having a nightmare.
He quickly ran around to the front of the tent and slipped in. Then he crawled back into his sleeping bag which was still warm from the body heat he had left in it. He nestled there, the bag curled tight about his neck in an effort to keep out the chill of the night air. He lay there unmoving, waiting for the light of day as the pain of his cramps continued to grow.
But he would not go outside again that evening. Not without his parents — not until daytime when The Bush People were probably asleep.
And throughout the night, as the loon calls continued, Charles decided that they were not calls for help by lost children, but instead cries of pain and horror. The last desperate cries of the poor souls who had already been caught by The Bush People.
To keep his mind off of his cramps, he started counting the number of victims they had claimed. He quickly lost count.
Nineteen years later, Charles sat in his car, feeling a sudden urge to urinate. He no longer believed in The Bush People, realizing that his father had told him that story out of a fairy tale mentality. The same way that Little Red Riding Hood was supposed to teach children not to talk to strangers, Anthony Webster’s tale of The Bush People was supposed to teach Charles not to wander from his parents when camping.
No, he no longer believed in The Bush People. But his fears — of being alone, being lost, and being in the forest at night — remained.
As the need to urinate worsened, becoming a tight unbearable pain, he told himself that he was being sill. Slowly, he opened the car door and stepped out.
The light from the opened car door spilled out onto the highway, pale and yellow. It mixed with the flashing red of his hazard lights. He looked at the light on the frail cracked pavement and then past it to the dark silhouettes of the trees against the grey night sky. He looked up, straight up to see more stars than he could ever see over the city. He saw in them the freedom of open space that this trip had originally promised him.
Freedom that was being threatened by the encroaching shadows of the trees which were far closer to touching the sky than he would ever be.
He hated them for mocking him so.
Unzipping his fly, he urinated in the middle of the highway.
Take that, he thought as his urine pattered on the dry dusty pavement. Piss on you, you stupid barren highway.
As he relieved himself, he kept his eyes on the forest. Black faced, it stared back at him. It was like a two-way mirror. He could sense, with every fiber of his being, that something was there, just on the other side of that blank face, watching him. But no matter how long he stared he couldn’t see it. He could only see the trees.
Then, as he finished and zipped up his fly, he caught the glint of steel in the red reflection of the hazard lights. It stuck up from a patch of tall grass across the highway on the far side of the ditch.
Could it be a fallen highway sign?
He took a few steps across the highway and from there could see that indeed it was. Jesus, a highway sign. Maybe it would tell him exactly how far he was from Timmins, or perhaps from the next town. And if it wasn’t too far, he could begin his hike.
It was much better than waiting for nobody to drive by all night and reliving ghost stories of his childhood.
His hope renewed, Charles took a few more steps. As he did this he felt a warmth and realized that for the first time in years he was in control of himself, of his fears. As mundane as trekking across a highway to read a fallen sign was, it meant to Charles that he was confronting his situation in an optimistic manner that took his destiny into his own hands. He had had it with merely reacting and avoiding. This time he was initiating a new chain of events.
He stepped off the solid pavement and onto the soft shoulder of the highway. The ditch was shallow, only about two feet lower than the highway, and Charles went through it easily and was on the other side, stepping through the tall grass toward the fallen sign.
Looking down at it, he wondered if instead of telling him anything important it would just be another SOFT SHOULDERS sign. He’d seen enough of them on Highway 144. He took a breath and bent over it.
As he reached down he thought he could feel a boney finger poking at his right shoulder.
Startled, he whipped his head around and saw that it was only a branch from a nearby tree which was sticking out over him. He relaxed again and took hold of the sign once more.
He couldn’t read the sign in the dim light and so lifted it, tilting it towards the light emanating from his car.
He felt the boney poking again, this time closer to his neck. Then again. Then something had a hold of his shirt. He whirled around, dropped the sign on his foot, screamed in pain and stumbled forward, twisting his ankle on some unseen stone.
He fell to the ground, hard. The bleating pulses of pain shot up through his ankle to his ears, keeping perfect time with the red flashes of the hazard lights of his car. Another boney finger grabbed at his left shoulder and something pulled on his tie, chocking him.
Quickly, more boney limbs grabbed onto his body and pulled him slowly away from the highway. He struggled, trying to break free, but the chocking tug on his tie made him weak, useless.
In the dim red beat of the hazard lights he detected subtle movements above him which looked like tree branches bobbing to some soundless disco beat — but there was no wind.
He realized that the boney fingers were actually branches from the trees, and that they were passing him along to each other, deeper and deeper into the forest.
As he was being moved, dragged along the forest floor, his head collided with stones and stumps and he wondered vaguely, through the haze of pain and confusion, whether or not he would still be alive when the trees delivered him to The Bush People.
Then a new thought occurred to him.
Perhaps there were no Bush People. Perhaps there would be no destination, no end to this mad journey. Perhaps he would continue to be dragged along by the trees, helplessly stuck in yet another cycle until death finally claimed him.
"Please, God! Let the Bush People be real! Let them exist. Please . . ."