There are some things that are almost always loud and crystal clear. One is the sound of a toddler using a curse word in front of his grandparents, another—to put it crudely—is a fart in church, and still another is the sound of a cell phone going off in the middle of a supposedly empty forest while a dangerous fugitive rests in a nearby cabin. Admittedly, the last example is far less common than the first two, but now we know it happens.
With shrill tones strung together like pearls, one of Jimmy's special ringtones issues forth, piercing the encroaching night and seeming to amplify the sound twentyfold, carrying it through the trees with the force of a Chinese gong.
Just like that, everything changes.
It's the spoiled appetizer before the soup sandwich.
A world of fumbling and grabbing ensues as Jimmy searches his pockets, finally remembering he placed his phone in the zippered inside pocket. He kills the call before it gets halfway through the third ring.
For a moment he just stares at the phone in his hand, a look of shock and horror on his face. It's a rookie mistake, and he knows it. When he finally looks at me, the shock has changed to embarrassment, and all he can say is, "Damn."
That's about as vulgar as it gets for Jimmy.
When his earpiece comes to life a second later, startling him, he has to live the moment again as he explains to the others what happened.
Meanwhile, my heart still drums in my chest and pulses in my neck. It's so loud I fear the sound of it will carry to the cabin and set its walls to trembling. The thought is preposterous, I know, but still I fear.
A minute passes.
I'm waiting for something to happen, some reaction from the cabin, perhaps an attempt to flee. He had to have heard the ring. It was impossible to miss. My attention is so completely focused on the slouching old hovel that I nearly cry out when I feel Jimmy prying at the fingers of my right hand. That's when I realize that I've clamped down on his shoulder, my knuckles white from the pressure.
Releasing, I give him an apologetic look and he tries to smile. It's a tense smile, but the effort is appreciated. I exhale to the count of four, and then inhale to the same count, repeating the cycle several times. It's a calming technique Jimmy taught me years ago, a way to reclaim control of my body when adrenaline threatens to take over.
My eyes are off the doorway mere seconds, but when my gaze returns a chill electrifies me and I freeze as if turned to stone, as if Medusa herself looked out upon me. Breath is once more stuck in my throat, unable to enter or exit.
There, in the doorway, at head-height, a sliver of face with a single, probing eye peeks out from the left side of the opening, unmoving, staring into the darkening forest.
The plan is simple.
"He's in the front corner," Jimmy whispers to Jason over the radio. "He was just left of the doorway a moment ago—my left, not yours." There's a short pause. "No, no gun. Not that we saw, anyway." Another pause. "We're good for now. Have everyone spread out and move up a bit for containment. The perimeter's going to be tight in these trees, but we don't have a choice. As soon as it's a go, we need to tighten it up further."
As the next words come through Jimmy's earpiece, he glances at me apprehensively and then looks way. "Are you sure?" he asks.
The response appears to be in the affirmative, because his next words are tight and to the point: "I can do that. When?" I don't hear Jason's reply, but Jimmy nods in the darkness. "You got it. Make sure the dogs are ready to give chase, just in case."
When he ends the transmission, he sits silently for a moment, eyes on the dark shadows overtaking the cabin. "Are you ready?" he asks at length.
"Ready? Ready for—"
Apparently it was a rhetorical question, because before I can finish, Jimmy calls out in a loud voice, projecting the usual challenges: We know you're in there; Come out with your hands on your head; You're surrounded, that sort of thing. Experience tells me to expect two possible reactions: silence or profanity. On rare occasion, gunfire decides to join the party.
We get none of these.
Instead, from the blackness of the cabin issues a quiet, hysterical laugh, and the words, "He's going to be so mad." After a short pause, the words come again, louder: "He's going to be so mad!"