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MERCILESS BEAUTY, continued

We reviewed the options, which were few. Gil's parents were staying overnight in New York. There was no point calling his house and waking his sisters — none of them had a car or could even drive. The only one of our friends that might have come to the rescue was Andy, and Carolyn declared she'd rather walk than ask him. After about half an hour we began to consider the idea seriously.

"If we went over the mountain, we'd cut several miles off the trip," I said. "There's no direct route, only the old carriage roads through the Sligh estate, but I know them pretty well. I think if we walked all night we'd get to your house about dawn tomorrow, Gil, and no one would be the wiser."

Gil looked at Carolyn. "Do you think you're up to it?"

"I've been on longer hikes," she said. "I'm game if you are, Gilly."

We collected our jackets, a few snacks, a canteen, and set out on what we jokingly called the "Legendary Midnight Stride." If only we had known the trouble we were walking into.

The night was cool but clear. As we got up onto the mountain and under the trees, the moon rose, giving me enough light to find the way. Traffic sounds on the main road faded behind us, leaving only the crickets and katydids to fill the summer silence.

The Sligh family had long passed from the area when my folks moved here nine years before, the main house having burned to the ground some time in the 1930s, but the large estate had not yet been sold or parceled out to developers, and some traces of its former glory remained for those that bothered to look. Miles of elaborate carriage roads wound through the wooded slopes, unpaved, but well-designed and still quite passable by car. Where the side was steep, a wide stone wall guarded the outside edge. there were several arched stone bridges crossing ravines, a scenic overlook, and the remains of a Japanese garden complete with pagoda, now rotting and vandalized. Near the house foundations the state had built a fire lookout tower, now also abandoned.

There were wild places, and plenty of things for kids to do, as my brothers and I discovered, exploring every part of the place we could reach in a day. I had dug for treasure in the dump, dammed the streams, catalogued the birds and animals, picked the flowers, climbed the trees. One thing I had never done, though, was to go there at night.

From my house the road was a simple series of switchbacks climbing the slope, but as we got further in, there were choices to make. I explained the layout to Gil and Carolyn as best I could, but they had to trust my decisions. There were no lights, no houses. Only the play of shadow and moonlight as the wind ruffled the trees. A great horned owl called in the distance, and another answered right beside us, making us jump.

"Quiet, you insidious creature!" Gil told it, and it flew off, startled itself.

We had walked about three miles, and were deep in the estate when Carolyn called for a rest. A shallow stream ran along the road, and we soaked our tired feet.

"I'm beginning to wish we'd just stayed at your house," Carolyn said, yawning.

"It's a bit late to think of that now," Gil commented. He was about to go on, but I held up my hand. In the distance we heard a wildly racing engine.

"I don't like the sound of that," I said. "Get behind the wall. Now!"

To our night-accustomed eyes, the headlights throwing stark shadows through the trees seemed horribly bright. In a moment a black Camaro came racing up the road, swerving dangerously and skidding at the turns. The guys inside hooted wildly, one singing off-key. As the car screamed past us, a beer bottle sailed out to smash against the wall. We stared at each other, wide-eyed with fear.

"We didn't need this," I groaned.

"Maybe they're just passing through," Carolyn said.

"Could be. But I've found plenty of beer bottles up here. Mostly by the tower and the overlook, though, so if we avoid those, we may be all right."

"Come on then, troops," Gil said. "The sooner we're out of this, the better. On to bed and glory."

We walked about another mile, and gradually relaxed, as we had heard no more of the car. We were in a straight section, fairly level, that traversed the higher part of the mountain, and the walk had gone from tiring to tedious. I was practically asleep on my feet. I think we all were. Suddenly Gil stopped short and grabbed both our shoulders. From somewhere off the the right there was the clink of a bottle, and a low laugh. Looking more carefully, I realized that we had walked to within 50 feet of the Camaro parked squarely in the middle of the road. In the shadows, it had been completely camouflaged. Worst of all, the glow of a cigarette indicated someone sitting on the roof. My heart pounded.

"Stay calm," Gil muttered softly. "Just keep walking. Don't show them you're afraid."

Carolyn gripped my hand fiercely, and we went ahead. As we neared the car, the guy on the roof spotted us, and slid to his feet, swaying unsteadily.

"Good evening, sir," Gil said in his most controlled, pleasant voice. "Lovely night for a walk, isn't it?"

He studied us uncertainly as we continued past him, hands in the pockets of his denim coat. Then he focused on Carolyn, and I could feel her cringe as he said, "What's yer name, sweet thing? Whatcha doin' out here with these jerks?"

She didn't answer, and we kept walking, pulling away from him now. He took a few uncertain steps to follow, then thought better of it.

"Hey, Stevie! C'mere! We got some comp'ny — real nice lookin' chick!"

"Chrissakes, Lou," came from the woods. "Wait a damn minute, I'm try'na take a leak!" Another drunken voice laughed at this choice bit of humor.

We were walking a bit faster now, and the Camaro was disappearing around a slow bend. As we lost sight of it, Gil said, "Now, RUN!"

We pounded up the road, full of adrenaline. A few minutes later, the engine roared angrily to life, and the headlights blared on behind us. There was a three-way intersection ahead.

"Which way?" Carolyn demanded.

"Left…I think. Yeah, left!" But I wasn't sure. I was shaking, couldn't remember the corner at all. We ran up to the left, and around the next curve. The car rumbled slowly to the intersection behind us, and stopped, the driver throttling the engine impatiently. Voices argued, then with a screech the car sped down the straight choice. We continued up our own road as fast was we could. The car's engine moved off, but not out of hearing, and then began to get louder again.

"They're coming back," Carolyn gasped. Then to me, "You know where you're going?"

Our road moved at a steady incline and a continuous curve to the left. I looked up through the thinning trees and saw a wooden framework against the stars. "SHIT! We're in the spiral — dead-ends at the tower!"

Below us the engine rumbled at the intersection again. We had come a full circle now, and could see the headlights below. Then the car turned into the spiral and began to follow us. Panting, we practically flew up the remaining curve to the top. The house foundations were at the high point, but the cellar had been filled in, leaving no cover. I motioned them to the tower. The state had removed the lower fifteen feet or so of stairs when they abandoned it, but kids never let that sort of thing stop them. There was a rickety ladder made of scrap wood leaning against the lowest remaining stair.

"Up here…only place…!" I gasped.

"They'll see us…!

Gill nodded agreement with me. "Best place…they're too drunk…to climb that ladder!"

We pushed Carolyn up ahead of us, and reached the open platform on top as the car skidded to a halt underneath.

The driver laughed. "We got a bird 'n this tree, fellas…real pretty bird. Come down and sing for us, baby!"

We waited, terrified, as they tried to climb the ladder, but Gil had been right — they were too far gone to make it. There was some scuffling and cursing, and a crunch as the ladder toppled onto the hood of the Camaro, followed by louder cursing. Then the leader yelled up, "S'all right, chickie — we c'n wait. We'll be riiight here when ya come down, babe!" They went back to get more beer out of the trunk.

We slumped down with our backs against the railing, Carolyn between us. It was colder here. The wind picked up, and soon a bank of clouds covered the moon, leaving us in total darkness. I couldn't see my watch, but it had to be about 4 AM, the blackest, loneliest part of the night. Carolyn began to cry softly. I kept saying to myself, "Please, Lord, if I can just get out of this mess, I'll never do anything stupid again."

"Don't worry, Carolyn," Gil told her. "We'll wait them out. They'll get tired eventually and go home."

She was not mollified. "We could be here till morning. I'll miss my dad — theyll search for us, probably call the police. It'll be a mess." She sniffed, calming herself. "I know what they want. I could go down there and talk to them. Get them to take me somewhere else, and you two could go on to Gil's."

"Are you nuts? They're drunk — dangerous! They won't listen to you! I won't let you," I said firmly. She squeezed my hand gratefully, seemed to be thinking. Then she spoke calmly, as if she had decided what to do.

"We'd better try to get some rest. Close our eyes for a while."

Continue with Merciless Beauty