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Chase’s Camping Trip

by R. W. Nichols

I save up, scrimping every year for my annual camping trip. It’s that time again. I awaken to the sound of red squirrels chattering, a desperately lonely loon calling, and one of the campground’s outhouse doors slamming shut. The springs are always too tight and invariably they close hard, waking the immediate area of sunburned, bug-bit tourists.

Sunshine is just beginning to peek through the leaves on the trees; it’s going to be a beautiful day. Already I smell the first campfires being brought to life and am amazed that I have slept in so late. Normally I wake before dawn when the thrill of an approaching hunt is coursing through my veins.

“Hi there, neighbor,” a voice comes from across the trail. It’s a middle-aged woman drawling out the greeting in an irritating Southern accent. She has bleached hair and expensive clothes that pretend to be casual.

Her husband looks up from tending the fire and gives a half-hearted wave. He doesn’t see or maybe he doesn’t care about the appraising look she’s giving me. Blatant suggestion is on her face, along with a smile that shows perfectly uniform teeth.

I smile back in a confident way and saunter over, perfectly aware of the effect my body has on the woman. It’s tall and limber, fully muscled, with the six-pack abs that appeal to most women, and also some men. Oh yes, I know how to use it.

“Well, hello yourself! What brings a gorgeous couple like you two to this little hole in the woods?” I run my eyes up and down the woman’s body, carefully concealing this from the other man. The effect on her is instantaneous; she arches her back, showing off ample cleavage, and smiles again, flirting outrageously.

Her husband frowns now, irritated with her, but holds out his hand. “Hi, I’m Sam and this is Vivian. We’re from Jackson, and we came up to do some fishing.”

“My name is Chase,” I say, as I shake hands with him and then with her. “I’m here for a little hunting.”

Confusion crosses the man’s face. “Hunting? What’s in season now?”

“Oh, sorry. I’m just scouting the area; I’ll be hunting nearby later on this fall and this is the only chance that I have to get out here before then. Since I had a little extra time, I thought I might as well check out the fishing, too. What are you after? I’m partial to walleye.”

The other man relaxes now and launches into an animated discussion of the attributes of certain lures and the depth of water that the fish are hiding in. I listen with a calculated spellbound expression on my face, while occasionally eyeing his wife. I manage to keep them both happy.

Finally, tiring of the game, I excuse myself. I return to my tent, feeling the woman’s stare roaming my body numerous times. Some women are too easy.

I pull my new folding chair out of the bag and yank the tag off, risking the penalty of law. Situating it close to the pit, I start the predictable, ever-present campfire and settle in to watch people. I never tire of this; people are always amusing.

To my left is a fancy fifth-wheel trailer with a large expando out the side and a line hanging between trees holding towels and swimsuits. The swimsuits show there are a man, woman, and two children sleeping in their air-conditioned wonder. No, my mistake, make that three kids; a stroller’s barely visible, locked in the back seat of the club cab. No swimsuit for that one, he or she must go into the lake in only a diaper.

On my other side there’s a fire that has already died down to coals. The old man standing there is filling his thermos with coffee that’s been brewed over the fire. He’s rounding up his fishing equipment, ready to go out while the fog is heavy and the water still.

There’s the sound of snoring coming from the tent. Apparently, his woman doesn’t go out in the early morn; it’s probably the only peace the old guy gets. I smile at him and nod, sharing the tranquility that I feel coming from him.

I decide that he’s got the right idea. I think I’ll go out, too. Standing, I stretch comfortably and wander down to the lake where my canoe is pulled halfway out of the water. The poles, tackle box, and seat cushion are right where I left them. It’s nice that this is a family campground; nice in more ways than one, I think to myself with a grin.

The morning fog is still lying heavy, coming all the way down to blanket the water like a shroud. Paddling away from camp, following the curve of the water’s edge, I’m quickly out of sight, and within a few minutes am also out of sound, of humanity.

After a short time, I allow the canoe to drift; I don’t really want to fish, I just want to enjoy the solitude. The paddle lies across my lap, unused. Little drops of water fall from it, hitting the water with near-silent plops. A bullfrog voices his deep croak before splashing his way under a stand of water lilies. He thinks I can’t see him hiding down in the mud.

As the current pulls me silently around the next bend, I see a large doe standing on the bank, ankle-deep in mud on the trail where others of her kind have come for eons to drink. Her eyes grow huge, and she stares at me in glassy-eyed, hypnotic fear. Dropping her head, she backs frantically back up the bank and melts into the trees. The noise of snapping twigs fades as she puts distance between us.

She’s lucky that I let her go; she only knows her terror. She’s not intelligent enough to understand the pardon. Years ago I tried hunting her species for the challenge, only to be disappointed. There’s simply no entertainment in such a pathetic contest, although I do enjoy the taste of a little venison.

When the fog lifts, exposing a bright sunny day, it’s revealed that I’m not as alone as I’d like to be. There are several boats dotting the lake and a pontoon angling toward me. When it’s close enough for the occupants to see my face, I smile and wave in my friendliest manner and am waved at in return.

The captain, a tired-looking man of around forty, turns his craft, conscious of the wake his boat will cause for a man in a canoe. Ah, a gentleman — I expect nothing different from the father of that many kids. There are four teens and a woman sitting along the bench seats, patiently waiting to arrive at the chosen site so that they can drown their worms, or get a hook caught in their hair.

I study the family with the care of a professional observer and notice that the two older boys, with their red hair and freckles, are probably a handful. I’m surprised that the father managed to drag them along on this, most likely their last, trip. Next to them is a sullen-looking girl of about twelve. Large-framed like her parents, to most she would appear to be sixteen. I can read her body correctly though, without having to use the easily translated hostility of the pre-teen that is smoldering in her eyes.

The youngest, a boy of ten, is smiling broadly, delighted with the morning’s great adventure. He’s probably the only joy in his parents’ life; it’s hard raising teenagers. I don’t know why people do it; it could be one of the reasons why I’m a bachelor... one, maybe. I absently watch the pontoon pull away and putter around the next bend, and then begin paddling back the way I’d come.

Arriving back at camp, I heat some beans over the fire. I only get to enjoy the taste of beans, with a little ash stirred in, maybe once or twice a year. It’s an acquired taste. My colleagues don’t understand how I can manage to get this culinary delight down, but then they don’t have the primal urge that I do. They don’t understand hunting trips and that it’s all part of the game; they are only thankful that I do it.

Across from me, beside the camp of the flirtatious southern belle, a very large man, with a very large beer gut, sits in a straining camp chair, flashing a gaudy ruby ring. He’s too big to sit at the picnic table that’s provided for the site. I know that he could never get his ample body pulled up to the table, although I firmly believe he has pulled himself up to too many tables in his lifetime.

I wander over to share a beverage. Nice, friendly man; I enjoy his company. I think we’re going to hit it off famously. Be best buddies, so to speak. Some days I crack myself up.

As we sit talking, the pontoon family comes straggling in with a stringer full of pan fish. I watch the father and older boys deftly fillet the unfortunate trophies, making them ready for the Mrs. to fry for their lunch. The youngest boy watches intently, he’ll make a good Boy Scout some day. “Little Miss Ornery” is sent for water at the pitcher-pump located down the trail around a corner or two, out of sight.

I walk over and introduce myself to the father and boys as they sit and wait for their food. It smells good, but no, I don’t want to share their meal. After a few minutes, the mother questions as to the whereabouts of the girl. I volunteer to find her and send her home, as I have to walk that way to get to the outhouse.

The males in the family are relieved; lunch has just been served. The mother is suspicious, but grudgingly allows my services as there is more fish waiting to be fried and the oil is hot. Sometimes, everything just falls into place.

At the pump, I find the girl, Tina, petulantly sitting in the grass, eating peanuts and hand-feeding squirrels tame from so many campers throwing them food. It’s a good thing that she’s a strong, healthy young lady, with the size of the chip that she’s carrying on her shoulder. Why is it that youth of that age have so much to prove and are so easily offended? It’s always the end of the world for them. Drama queens and kings, they are continually looking for the dangerous attentions of any stranger that shows an interest in them.

After some flattery and friendly persuasion, the girl wheels the water container back toward her camp and I continue walking the length of the campground, going to the farthest outhouse. There are a few interesting people spread along the route, but none with as much potential as the ones I have already met. I put my charming face back on and return to my tent.

As evening begins, the fat man, his name is Joe, has a party. Not much of a party, just he and I and a case of beer. Ample and giving, he’s my kind of guy. I make sure that he knows how grateful I am and thank him profusely before retiring, leaving his smoky eye-watering bonfire for the relative freshness of my tent.

The next morning all hell breaks loose. I awake to the sound of police sirens approaching, people calling, and a mother sobbing. Showing the effects of too much beer, I stumble out of my tent into the bright sunlight. Throwing a hand over my eyes, I look around for a chair to fall into. I remember that I left mine at Joe’s.

Glancing over, my mouth drops open. Joe’s tent is gone; cooler, strained folding chair, everything. The only thing on the site is my chair, in its place before the damp ashes of last night’s bonfire.

“Chase! Have you seen her?” Tina’s father comes running over to me; he’s frantic. “Where is she? We can’t find her!”

Seeing the bewildered and hung-over expression on my face, he adds, “Tina. She’s gone! She was in our pop-up last night, but this morning she’s just gone! I thought she’d walked down to the outhouse, but I looked. The boys and I searched the whole campground and she isn’t anyplace! Oh, God! What are we going to do?”

The distraught man turns abruptly and goes to hang on to his wife who has collapsed into a little ball at the table. I stand there with confusion written on my face, trying to focus on what is happening around me.

Campers are poking their heads out of tents and the boys are running everywhere wildly yelling for their sister, as the cruisers finally arrive with their sirens blaring, threatening to cause my head to explode. Three speeding cars slam on their brakes, fish-tailing at the family’s campsite, dust swirling in little circles before dissipating into the already warm air. I sneak over and retrieve my chair; it’s going to be a long day and I want to be comfortable.

A policeman walks over to me, suspicion dark in his eyes. After questioning me for a few minutes — Had I noticed the girl? Had she said anything about running away? Had she seemed interested in any of the other campers? — He fixes upon the fact that my drinking buddy has disappeared, stealing away in the middle of the night.

Then there are questions about him — Did I know his last name? Where was he from? What kind of car did he drive? After receiving my limited information, the cop goes to the next site and repeats his questions to the old man and woman, who stand wringing their hands, caught up in the tragedy.

When it’s time for the interview of the Southern belle and her overly tolerant husband, they are at the camp of the victim’s family. She has rushed over and is holding the mother, rocking back and forth in that comforting motion that women everywhere use to soothe and calm any and all stress, when the trooper asks her to accompany him to the side for a few questions. She angrily snaps her way through his list and returns to her calling of comforting needy souls. I regret now that there hadn’t been time for her to comfort me.

A search party is organized. I say that loosely. There are hours and hours of needless talk before, finally, an army of campers and law-enforcement personnel spread out and begin walking through the brush and woods around the lake. Some men poke long sticks into the water, searching for a body, in case the little girl has fallen in.

I walk and call out for her, along with the rest. It is indeed a long, hot, tiring day. The campground is very quiet that night, husbands lying awake, guarding, and mothers keeping their babies close.

The next morning comes with a flurry of activity. The dive squad is here and soon the lake is noisy with an armada of boats. On land, the television crews begin arriving. The circus is here. I love a circus.

For six more days, we search through the woods, trampling every flower, and scaring wildlife for miles around. Finally, the search is called off. The reporters go on to the next story, the cops leave after giving warnings to everyone in the area, and the family is left to put together the broken pieces of their shattered porcelain lives.

As I pack my few possessions, preparing for departure in the morning, I feel the mother’s eyes on me. She’s stared in my direction for days. She’s at the picnic table, hunched up against a cold that only she feels, suspicion written clearly on her accusing face.

The dying rays of the sun catch my ruby ring, sending sparks flashing harmlessly into the pile of dead leaves and a discarded child’s juice box that lay composting under the trees. The mother looks at me, as recognition and then a dawning horror widens her eyes. I stare back with a half-smile on my lips, before slowly turning my gaze to her youngest boy and holding it there, making my intentions plain.

The woman starts, shuddering visibly, and then calls her child to her, clutching him tightly. She looks over his head at me in fearful defiance. I nod my head a mere fraction. We understand each other. She’s a smart woman.

* * *

The fog is so thick it feels heavy on my skin this morning. It’s difficult to see where the lake and fog meet, the color of both merge so well. It’s the perfect ending for this, the last day of my vacation. I do love these hunting trips, especially when I can combine business with pleasure.

My larder is stocked with fish, venison, squirrel, and Joe. He was such a large, giving man. My co-workers will be so jealous! I’ll pass around a few free samples (the smoky taste is addictive), but there will still be plenty left to sell. The protein on this world is so concentrated; it takes only a little to sustain us.

I check the clear orbs that hold my latent stock; three females and a male are suspended in liquid dormancy. I pause, looking down at the last one. Tina’s sleeping face shines back at me through the swirl of preservative, innocent in her rest. She will make a good breeder with her large-boned and strong body. I may keep her for my own herd.

My ship breaks through the glass-like surface of the lake and begins its ascent through the glorious mist that is sending colorful prisms of light dancing around the cockpit. It’s always the little things that you truly appreciate. I smile in satiated contentment.

It’s going to be another beautiful day.

Copyright © 2010 by R. W. Nichols

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