The pack isn’t getting any lighter, and the hayseed it belongs to won’t shut the fuck up.
The redneck drones on and on about God knows what. Derrick had long since tuned him out, especially after he had started hauling the man’s bag for him. If Derrick hadn’t taken it when he did, the entire group would have lost ground, and he had to get them back in time. He spares a moment to glance at his watch. 12:15. Forty five minutes to his promised 1 p.m. conclusion. If they keep up this pace they should make it.
Derrick readjusts the shoulder straps, hefting the ruck onto his upper back and tightening them down without breaking stride. The bag has to weigh forty five, maybe even fifty pounds. Add to that the ten or so pounds that he carries in his own bag, now tied to the top of the other man’s pack. Who knows how much crap this rube packed? Ninety percent of it is probably unnecessary. The whole point of his classes are to learn how to survive without all this gear. Hauling it the last three days defeated the purpose of what the guy signed up for, but hey, Derrick wasn’t about to tell a paying customer he couldn’t bring what he wanted.
Of course now he wished he had. The group moves ahead of them on the trail, led by two veteran hikers that had signed up for his class as preparation before a multi-month trek across the Appalachian trail. The rest of the attendees are his prototypical mix. Three guys on a bachelor party. A couple of people from corporate America using this as a team building opportunity. Another small group of overzealous, doomsday prepper types. Attendance had been lacking the last few months. Derrick would take whoever he could get, provided they had the cash.
A little over an hour later he and the hayseed straggle into the clearing where they left their cars on Friday evening. The rest of his class already has their gear off and stowed in their cars. They hikers and corporates talk quietly with one another. The bachelor party laughs and passes a bottle of scotch between them. The preppers congratulate themselves for “accomplishing” the weekend. Derrick drops the man’s pack to the ground and quickly undoes the straps to free his own bag. The hayseed, gangly with a mess of blonde hair, collapses to the ground next to his backpack while trying to catch his breath.
Small victories. In the last half mile Derrick had picked up the pace on him, forcing the man’s cardio to the point that he couldn’t talk if he wanted to keep up. That, at least, saved him from the inane babbling. Derrick pulls the front of his sweat soaked shirt free from clinging to his chest, mops his face with one hand, and adjusts his ball cap. Ignoring the gasps for air behind him, he steps into the center of the clearing.
“Hey folks, if we can gather around one last time,” he announces to the group. His participants make their way over and form a semicircle in front of him. Derrick starts his conclusion speech even though the hayseed is still sitting down and hasn’t joined the rest of them.
“I want to thank you all again for coming out this weekend. You’ve made remarkable progress in just a few days. Normally I like to get back here a little earlier so that we can do a final review and Q and A, but unfortunately we didn’t make the best time today. Which is okay, it happens sometimes. Still, I know a bunch of you had a hard out time of one, so I don’t want to hold you any longer. At the same time, I don’t want to rob you of that final class, so for the next week if you have any questions or want to do any reviews of the things we covered, feel free to shoot me an email or give me call. No extra charge.”
The preppers and corporates nod appreciatively while the hikers throw a grimace the hayseed’s way.
“Just remember your priorities,” Derrick continues.
“Shelter, water, fire, food,” the group responds in unison, echoing the mantra he drilled into their heads all weekend. Their collective tone is filled with monotonous exacerbation.
Derrick smiles. “Right. You guys got it. But above all else, the number one priority is a positive attitude. No matter the problem, no matter the challenge, keep hold of that and you’ll make it out alive. Thanks again for coming. Make sure you tell your friends and family. If they mention that you referred them, I’ll give them a ten percent discount.”
The group smiles and breaks up. Derrick shakes hands with the corporates who then quickly retreat to their vehicles to make their way back to NYC. He circles back to the hayseed who now is at least on his feet, hunched over with his hands on his knees.
Derrick places a hand on his back and the man looks up. “You feel alright Gil? You’re not lightheaded or anything, are you?”
Sweat pours down Gil’s face into his blonde mustache and goatee. “Nah. Just ain’t walked so far so fast in a bit. I’ll be fine in a minute.”
Derrick nods. “Okay. You gonna be alright to drive back upstate? I don’t want to hear about you passing out behind the wheel and ending up in a ditch on the news tonight.”
Gil smiles in return. “Fit as fiddle. Yes Sir,” the man replies and then immediately begins coughing.
“Alright then. Be safe. Thanks for coming.” Derrick pats him on the back one more time and walks off. He shakes his head as he approaches the rest of his attendees. Saying his final goodbyes, Derrick watches as the cliques get into their respective cars. He turns and makes his way back to his pickup, once again noticing the rust around the wheel wells. Really need to do something about that. Maybe after the next class. As he gets closer Derrick sees Gil approaching from the corner of his eye. The instructor quickens his pace, throwing his bag into the bed and opening the door to the cab.
“Hey D! D!” Gil yells after him.
Derrick freezes and rolls his eyes. He isn’t sure when he started letting this country bumpkin call him “D,” but the customer service in him tolerated it the rest of the weekend. After all, if he laid into every attendee that pissed him off he’d be out of business, and that’s one thing he certainly couldn’t afford to have happen. Not with his commitments.
Silently setting a goal to end the conversation as quickly as possible, Derrick turns around. He watches while Gil ambles over the rest of the way. Despite his waiting, the hayseed makes no effort to close the distance any faster. Derrick’s patience wears thin.
When Gil is within a few feet he starts speaking in his slow drawl. “I just wanted to apologize for slowin’ you down back there.”
Derrick flashes him a smile and waves him off. “No worries Gil. We didn’t get back in too late. It happens. Take care now.”
“No, no. I mean it. I feel terrible that you didn’t get to do your final class on account of me.” Behind Gil the last car drives out of the clearing. The bachelor party honks and waves as they drive away. Derrick waves back, envying their trip to whatever strip club they’re about to frequent. They had been talking about their anticipated, “stink and drink” all weekend.
Gil watches the car as it goes further down the gravel path, still talking but eyes fixated on the vehicle. “You see, I ain’t never had to do something like this before. Heck, I guess you can say I was a little in over my head. That damn Bear Grylls makes it look so easy and all and I…” The car disappears from sight as he trails off. “Alright. Enough horseshit.”
Derrick snaps his head back to Gil. The last three words came out as if spoken by a completely different person. The drawl vanished. The statement was sharp and exacting. Even as he looks the man over Derrick can see Gil change. His posture goes from stooped to standing erect. His gangly frame now seems to ripple with wiry strength. The man’s features tighten from a slack jawed idiot to someone with a hardened disposition. Gil’s eyes alight with a fiery intelligence that hadn’t been present the last three days.
It’s enough to set off internal alarms. Derrick makes the smallest of side steps, a nonchalant move in perception that accomplishes getting his back away from the open cab of his truck. At the same time he squares to the man. Derrick thinks of his survival knife on his belt and his sidearm in the glove box. “I’m sorry? What was that Gil?”
“I said we can stop playing around now.” The voice is the same, clear of any drawl and lethargy.
“Playing? Gil… what…”
The man shakes his head and waves a hand. “Don’t get all worried D. Ain’t no cause for panic. Let me cut to the chase.”
Derrick squints his eyes and inclines his head. “Umm, alright I guess.”
Gil’s lip twitches upward in the slightest of smirks. “I represent a certain… group. One that wishes to remain anonymous and is in the market for some advanced training. I came here to check you out and after this weekend, I think you’re the right man for the job.”
Derrick regards the man for a moment. “What kind of advanced training are we talking about?”
“Nothing outside of what you did here, but we don’t want the broad strokes. We need someone that can get into the details, teach true survival. Natural medicine. Wild edibles. Trapping. Primitive tools. Real off the grid skill sets. And I need someone who can stick around and teach it until we’ve gotten it down pat. You game?”
Another pause. “I mean… I can teach all that. Sure. That and some stuff you didn’t mention. How long of a timeframe are we talking here?”
“Two weeks minimum with the possibility for longer.”
Derrick sighs. “It’ll be tough to schedule but I might be able to arrange that with enough notice. When are you looking to do this?”
“We leave right now.”
Derrick laughs, shaking his head. “No way. I gotta get home Gil. I’ve got other classes scheduled that I need to prep for. I’d have to cancel them, not to mention my other commitments.” He turns and starts to get into the cab.
“Not even going to entertain the idea?” Gil asks.
“I couldn’t even if I wanted to,” Derrick replies, turning the truck over. He goes to pull his door shut.
Gil grabs the frame and leans in. “Will ten grand change your mind?”
Derrick freezes. The two men stare at one another. Derrick searches the man’s eyes for dishonesty and finds no trace of it. That doesn’t mean he has to let Gil know that. “Horseshit. I don’t know what kind of a charade you’re trying to pull here, but if you think I believe you’ve got ten grand to spend you’re crazy.”
Gil frowns and stands up from the door. He digs down into a cargo pocket and produces a plastic bag with a roll of bills in it. The man takes out the roll, pulls off the rubber band, and fans out the money. Benjamins. Every last one.
Derrick looks at the money, looks at the man, looks back at the money. Even if he could guarantee a class every weekend, which he couldn’t, it would take at least three months to make that much money. He cuts off the truck. “Other than the timeframe, what’s the catch?”
“No catch D. Just what I told you. You come. You teach. You get paid. You go home. Simple.”
Derrick slides out of the cab. “This group I’d be teaching? Your group. You’re not mixed up in something that’s gonna get me thrown in jail, are you? Because I’m telling you right now, I sense even the slightest bit of impropriety and I’m gone. Not only am I gone, I’ll expect to be paid for my trouble.”
Gil’s smirk returns, a little wider than before. “No impropriety D. Just a bunch of concerned citizens looking to safeguard their future. That’s all. But we’ve got conditions too. The pay isn’t just for your instruction, it’s for your discretion as well. I wasn’t kidding before about our anonymity. We’re expecting that our identities and anything else you learn about us will remain confidential. Indefinitely.”
“I can keep a secret.”
“Yeah. Something about you tells me that you can. That’s why I made the offer. You in?”
Derrick rubs his beard. “Two weeks?”
Gil nods. “Starting tomorrow. It’ll take us most of the day to travel up.”
A long pause passes between them. After a few moments Gil smirks. Derrick gives in. “Let me make a call.”
Gil steps back and gestures to the clearing. “Of course.”
Derrick walks out and thumbs open his home screen. She picks up on the third ring with all the pleasantness he expected. “What is it Derrick?”
“Hello to you too Mary Ellen.”
What sounds like wind coming through the receiver preempts her response. He knows it’s from not moving the phone far enough from her mouth as she blows out her latest drag. “I’m sorry. Something you don’t like about my tone?”
He grits his teeth but remains pleasant. “No, nothing like—”
She picks up after the first ring of his redial. “Yes?” she mockingly says in an overly welcoming voice. He can practically see the shit eating grin on her face on the other side of the line.
“Please don’t hang up again.”
A heavy sigh. “Derrick… what do you want? You’re obviously calling because you need something. Otherwise why would you be calling me? So, just out with it. Okay? The less I have to talk to you the better.”
He squeezes the phone in his hand and then eases when he hears the plastic case creaking. “Alright then Mary Ellen. I’ve got an opportunity developing here. Something pretty substantial, but I’m gonna have to resched—”
“I fuckin’ knew it! You bastard. You no good fuckin’ deadbeat. I knew you were gonna back out of next weekend. The moment I saw your God forsaken number I knew!”
“Will you calm down and just listen for once in your life?” he replies, his voice peppered with anger.
“You know what Derrick? I will. I will do just that. You go ahead and tell me. Tell me what’s so important that you’re gonna bail on your kids again.”
“Damn it! It’s not like that. I’m doing this for them.”
“Sure. Sure you are. How exactly?”
Derrick looks over his shoulder. Gil is leaning against the flatbed of his truck, the same smirk locked on his face. He turns back and walks further into the clearing, lowering his voice at the same time. “You know that alimony you keep hounding me about?”
“You mean the alimony that you’re four months behind on?”
“Yeah. That.” Snarky bitch. “I do this job and I’ll be able to pay it.”
“All of it.” The silence on the other line lingers longer than usual. Yeah, thought that would get your attention, you money hungry son of a—
“You better not be fucking with me on this Derrick. You don’t come through, and I swear to God I’ll go to the judge. You’ll never see your kids again.”
“Don’t you fuckin’ —”
“No Derrick. You don’t. You don’t get to mess with me. Ever. You understand? I hold the cards now.”
He can feel the blood pulsing through the veins in his neck. “Fine Mary Ellen. But we’re in agreement? You’ll take them next weekend.”
Another blow of cigarette smoke into the receiver. “Yeah. Whatever. But the weekend after they’re yours. I don’t want no more excuses. Hang on, I’ll get Michael.”
“No, don’t put me on with—”
The shrill indignation pours from her voice. “I’m not explaining why their lousy dad abandoned them. Again. Michael! Your father is on the phone!”
Derrick can hear the pounding of feet coming down the stairs and into whatever room she is in. The phone jostles a little before his son’s voice comes over the line. “Daddy?”
His own voice immediately softens. “Hey buddy! How’s everything going?”
“Good. Why are you calling? I thought our call wasn’t until Wednesday.”
“It is buddy. It is. But I needed to talk to your Mom about something, and well…”
Disappointment seeps through the line. “You’re not coming next weekend, are you?”
The pit in Derrick’s stomach grows. He swallows before going on. “No buddy, I’m not. I have to work. I’m sorry.”
His son tries to be resilient despite the heartache Derrick knows he just caused. “It’s okay. I understand. I’ll tell Tess when she wakes up from her nap.”
“There’s my good boy. And listen Mike, I’m going to make this up to you. I promise. You and your sister. How about we finally go that Yankee game together?”
The voice on the other end brightens. “Really? You’ll take us?”
“Sure will bud. Once I do this job I can get us tickets.”
“And hot dogs? And ice cream too?”
Derrick chuckles a little. “Sure bud. Whatever you and your sister want.”
“Can the seats be behind home plate?”
“Almost anything you want. But I have to work first before I can buy them. That okay with you?”
Michael’s exuberance can hardly be contained. “Sure Dad. No problem.”
“There’s a good boy. Now put your Mom back on for me. Okay?”
“Love you buddy.”
“Love you too Dad,” and then a second later, “Mom! Dad wants to talk to you again!”
The phone jostles and Mary Ellen’s shrewd voice returns. “He looks chipper. What’d you promise him this time?”
Derrick resists the bait. “Listen, there’s one more thing that I need from you.”
She hesitates and then it dawns on her. “No Derrick. Fuck no. You’re pushin’ it.”
“Come on. You know he’ll be sitting in the apartment the whole time without me there. Just look in on him. Two or three times tops, if only to make sure he’s eating and showering.”
“Damn it Derrick. He’s your fucking father. Hire a goddamn nurse’s aide.”
“I have, you know that. He either hates them or I find them stealing his shit while I’m away. ” He moves into a tried and true methodology. “Come on. You know he still adores you. He curses me everyday for our splitting up. And you know you love your talks with him. No one else gets him to respond like that. Stock the fridge. Have a cup of coffee with him. I’ll reimburse you whatever you spend and throw a hundred on top of it.”
Mary Ellen sighs deeply. “Fine. Whatever. But you better be back the following weekend. I’m not kidding Derrick.”
“You never are.”
“Go fuck yourself. Bye Felicia,” and then the line goes dead.
He takes a moment to gather himself before stuffing his phone in his pocket and spinning around. As he crosses back to his pickup Gil stands up.
“So we good?”
“I’ll do it,” Derrick says, “on one condition.”
“Ten grand for the two weeks, but that’s it. I won’t do it with the whole extension parameter tacked onto the end. We go tomorrow through next Friday. If at the end of that time you think you need more training, we’ll make a new arrangement.”
Gil considers the man for a moment. “That it?”
“Yeah. That’s it.”
The man breaks into wide smile. “Well let’s get movin’ then. Got a long drive ahead. Follow me.”
Gil crosses over to his Suburban and Derrick climbs into his truck. As he follows the other man out of the clearing Derrick can’t help but wonder what he is getting himself into.