I'm going to be honest—I usually have no idea where a story is going to end up.
I'm what's known as a "pantser." Or, if that imagery doesn't work for you, I'm a "discovery writer." I'm in good company with this. Stephen King is a self confessed discovery writer, as are a lot of the authors I really love. Maybe it's a kindred spirit thing.
so when I sat down to write this story I started in much the same place I alway start. I wrote an opening line, and then took it from there.
My wife and I have been traveling a lot more lately, and we recently purchased an A-frame pop-up camper. We've spent time in some really nice campgrounds. But we've also camped in the middle of what I will affectionally term "the pitch black friggin' woods." Both experiences have been invaluable, and fun. But honestly, those dark nights surrounded by nothing but wilderness will give you plenty of grist for a story mill.
But the mornings in those places! You wake up, you step outside, and your front yard is a lake or a forest or a mountain, and you think, "Wow ... I couldn't have had this view back home."
So that's why you go.
It's just those nights. Man invented fire just to beat back the spooks of those dark nights in the woods.
So when this short story started evolving into what it became, all those camping trips hit me. And all the trips from when I was a kid. In fact, every night and every day I've spent in the woods served as a nice bit of muse for this story.
I hope you enjoy it. And if you do, please let me know! Comment below, or send me an email, or ping me on social media. However you feel comfortable reaching me, definitely reach me!
Also, please share. It takes me, on average, about three hours to pen, edit, and post a short story on this blog. I do it so that you can have something enjoyable to read, and my hope is that you'll share it far and wide, to help me build an audience who might fall in love with my work, might get on my mailing list (and get 3 free books, I'll add!), might buy my books, and might become part of the whole Wordslinger universe I'm building. So tell a friend!
Now, read and enjoy, and definitely let me know what you think!
By Kevin Tumlinson
The camper was small, but it was in good shape, so even though it was buffeted a bit by the wind, it kept the rain out just fine. Much better than any tent would have, Clara realized. At least Kenneth had been right about that.
She missed Kenneth.
No, she thought. That is not how I'm spending a night in the middle of a thunderstorm, out in the middle of nowhere.
She realized that there wasn't much else she could do. The storm effectively short circuited her plans to sit by a fire, to toast marshmallows and sip hot chocolate while she looked at a sky full of stars. The idyllic dream she'd held on to on the whole drive up here was pretty much a wash, and she found herself huddled in a sleeping blanket, on top of a fairly uncomfortable set of foam cushions that she had folded down into a bed from their original sofa position.
This was going to be a long night.
She had plenty of power. Even without the solar panels, the two large batteries could keep the camper going all night. As long as she didn't run the microwave, or the air conditioner. She could run the fan, which was mostly for moral support. And she could power a the light above her bed, which was for comfort and protection against spooks in the night. But mostly it was for reading.
She'd brought three books with her, so she could have a selection to choose from, depending on mood. And, true, she technically had a limitless library of books on her iPhone, which was also benefiting from the charge of the batteries. But she sort of missed paperbacks.
When she'd first thought of coming out here, she remembered being a little girl, and being tucked into the back of a pickup truck—under the camper, lying on an old mattress, and wrapped in blankets. She rode the entire 24 hour stretch back there, from Houston to Colorado. And she'd read books the whole time. She still remembered the smell of them, and the heft of them. She remembered what it felt like to pick up a thick book, over a thousand pages long, and just decide she was going to read it.
She had figured it would take the whole summer, but she'd read most of it just on the drive up, and then had to sneak bits of it between hikes and swimming and campfires with her family. It was one of the first times in her life when she realized what she was capable of—and realized it was sometimes more than she thought.
That was part of what she was trying to capture, out here alone in the woods. She wanted a piece of that childhood back. She wanted a pice of her life back. And little Clara hadn't had an iPhone. She'd had real books.
The storm outside was an explosion of rain and thunder and lightning, and even though the camper was keeping her safe and dry, it didn't exactly keep out the noise and the swaying motion. And even though Clara knew the camper was still attached to her truck, she couldn't help but worry about being blown down the hillside and into the lake below.
This was going to be a long night.
Eventually she gave up on reading, turned out the light, and pulled the sleeping bag up and around her head, entombing her as she lay and listened to the madness of nature outside. She wished she'd gone with her first instinct, and brought blankets instead of this sleeping bag. The bag had been Kenneth's idea.
She stopped herself again. Because now, in the dark and with the storm blowing, thinking of him was going to be her whole night. Without a book or a movie or conversation to distract her, she was going to be visited by him constantly. She was going to dream about him, if she ever managed to fall asleep.
Somewhere along the way, between thoughts of Kenneth and thoughts of do not think about Kenneth, Clara actually did fall asleep. And maybe the storm blew some of those thoughts away from her in the night, because not only had she not dreamt of Kenneth, she couldn't remember dreaming about anything. She'd slept through the whole night without even waking up to use the tiny toilet in the front of the camper.
Which meant she had to rush now, wriggling out of the sleeping bag, which at the moment seemed like some giant slug creature that had consumed her in the middle of the night, and now was refusing to let her go, before she'd had time to be digested. She finally managed to get free of it, and as she rushed for the toilet she vowed to just unzip it and use it like a blanket next time.
Now that she was up, and hadn't wet herself, she took measure of things.
She opened the camper door and saw that it was a beautiful early morning. The sun hadn't quite made it above the mountains and the trees, but there was enough reddish light to assure Clara that the sun was still there. It would have been a shame, if it had been blown away by the storm. She smiled.
The day was crisp and cool. The rain had freshened the air, which was already plenty fresh thanks to the altitude and the pines in every direction. It was even a bit chilly, and Clara pulled on the cardigan she'd brought for just such moments as this.
She turned on the propane stove and boiled a kettle of water, then used the small pour-over filter she'd bought on the way up, and made a fresh cup of coffee.
The little refrigerator could run on propane as well as electricity, and she had plenty of that, so it had kept the cream she used for her coffee. It had also kept the half dozen eggs, in the little hard plastic container. Her tummy grumbled.
When she'd gotten in yesterday the rain was already starting, and she'd barely had time to get her stuff out of the truck and into the tiny camper before the torrential downpour started. She'd changed out of her wet clothes and toweled herself off, and then climbed into bed, hoping the storm would be gentle, and she could enjoy the sort of snuggly evening she had pictured for just this scenario.
Two for two, storm, she thought. Neither of her picturesque evening options had become reality.
She hadn't eaten last night, though. Her last meal, in fact, had been lunch at a small country cafe somewhere in Texas—a small town she hadn't managed to catch the name of. She had literally just stopped at the first place that offered gas and food, and taken care of all of her needs before getting back on the road. She was channeling Kenneth, and his incessant push to keep driving. He never could stand the bits in between. He liked either being there, or being home.
Clara cracked two eggs into the little camp-sized frying pan, and scrambled them with a spatula. She also used the other eye of the stove to toast a couple of slices of bread, and on these she spread a bit of dark cherry preserves.
Kenneth would have insisted on bacon and sausage and probably gravy and biscuits. His idea of breakfast has always been this heavy mass of food. Each breakfast was an event with him. But it was always essentially the same stuff. Sausage, bacon, hashbrowns, fried eggs, and biscuits with gravy. Clara supposed that made him a man of simple tastes.
She was thinking of him again, but this time she let it go. It was inevitable, really, that she would think of him. He'd been such a huge part of her life, right? It wouldn't be right to chase him away every time he came up throughout her day. It wouldn't be right to turn every memory of him into dread or fear or anger. Some memories were sweet and good, weren't they?
It was easier in the daylight.
Clara took her breakfast outdoors, and she managed to open up one of the canvas folding chairs with one hand, while balancing the paper plate on top of the coffee cup with the other hand. It was an impressive bit of juggling, if she did say so herself. And in a moment she took her seat, slipped her sock-covered feet out of her sandals, folded her legs to sit "indian style," and placed the plate on her lap. She held the coffee cup in both hands, letting it warm her, and she sipped it with a smile.
The view was amazing.
For miles and miles all she saw was the lake, and then the dips and rolls of the valley beyond as it edged toward the distant mountains. The sun had made some progress while she was making breakfast, and the red light had shifted to something more golden now, reflecting from the lake and brightening the whole valley. She felt the light on her face—a sort of soft warmth that did little against the morning's chill but made her soul feel cozy. That was the moment she'd been looking for. That was the moment of connection with this place, where she'd find rest.
She ate the eggs with the camp spork—something else Kenneth had insisted on. He liked economy of utility it represented, as a fork, a spoon, and a knife all in one. Why carry three utensils when you could get away with just one? It was the way he was. It just fit his personality.
When the eggs were gone—and they were gone a lot quicker than she would have imagined—she ate the two pieces of toast a little more slowly. She alternated with sips of coffee. She took her time and enjoyed the meal. Because unlike all those road trips and camping trips with Kenneth, she wasn't in any hurry here. She had all the time in the world.
She enjoyed the sunrise.
The ground was a little soggy from the night's rain, and her chair was sinking a bit unevenly. She eventually felt the tilt, and decided it was time to get up and get moving.
She took the paper plate inside. It was clean enough that she could use it again later—something else Kenneth had drilled into her. Waste nothing. Get as much use out of everything as you can. Definitely don't leave food or food-smelling trash outside the camper, because of bears and other animals. She remembered it all, even though he'd accused her more than once of not listening.
She rinsed her coffee cup with a bit of water, and then used that to rinse the spork. She put both on a dish towel by the tiny sink, letting them air dry.
Back outside she folded up the chair and stowed it in the back of the truck. Kenneth had insisted on putting a bed cover on the truck, and this lay flush with the sidewalls of the truck bed. Clara had objected to this at the time, because it just seemed too expensive. But now she saw it was a pretty smart decision. It was extra storage, and it was secure. No one could see what was in there. And that was good.
She wedged the canvas folding chair into the gap where it had ridden the whole way up. It caught on the handle of the shovel, and she ended up removing that to help the chair fit. This was kind of a chore, getting stuff in and out of the truck bed. It would be a lot easier later.
Kenneth had always been better at this sort of thing, she realized. He could have packed the truck in such a way that everything fit perfectly, wouldn't slide around in transit, and could be easily removed and replaced when it was needed.
She smiled. She missed that about him—his ability to make things fit. She ran a hand over the blue plastic tarp, and sighed. She propped the shovel against the back of the truck, after closing the tailgate. She'd be using it later anyway, so it was fine there.
The sun had finally managed to crawl its way up in the sky, at least far enough to crest the mountains and shift from the golden hour to the morning blues. There wasn't a cloud in sight! That was just what Clara had hoped for! The chill of the morning was starting to fade, but the day would still be cool and dry, and apparently sunny and beautiful.
This spot was pretty secluded, which was exactly why she and Kenneth had loved it. Apparently Kenneth used to come here with his friends, back in high school. He'd grown up about a hundred miles away, but they came up here every couple of months to camp and swim and just be boys together. Clara rather liked that—the picture of a young Kenneth, running around in the woods with a bunch of other boys, probably drinking beer and telling all the lies you'd expect. She liked picturing him like that.
She'd rather picture him like that.
She took her own hike now. This spot was a bit too open, and it was clear that people came here from time to time. She didn't want to chance seeing any people right now. That was the whole point of driving so far. She needed this time, alone and in the middle of nowhere. She needed to see no one, and hear no one. She needed to be unseen and unheard herself. She needed it.
She wandered into the woods. She was holding on to the handle of the shovel, and using it as a walking stick. She was also using it as a weapon. You never knew when something might be in the woods. Kenneth had drilled into her how important it was to never go into the woods alone, even in daylight, but if you ever had to you needed a big stick. She'd brought the shovel—the biggest stick she had. She knew how to use it to defend herself. Kenneth would have been proud. It was a multi-purpose tool.
She marked the trees as she went, just like Kenneth had taught her. She'd saved up a whole bunch of colored twist ties from loaves of bread. She always saved them. It was habit. It annoyed Kenneth, because what was she ever going to do with a shopping bag filled with colored twist ties? But she'd figured out a use for them, finally. He would be proud of that, too. He would have had to admit, that was a bit of creative utility. They made good markers for the path.
Picking her way along was tricky, because she had to think ahead. This couldn't just be aimless wandering. There were things to consider. How would you come this way with a heavy pack, for example? Would you be able to push through the underbrush in this area? Was it taking you too far off course to go around? What about that dip? Would it funnel water your way, if it happened to start raining? Was the ground be softer there? Would it erode? Were there stones nearby?
She took mental notes. She didn't have to write anything down. This was all just fine. This was a walk in the woods. Later it would be tougher, but she'd be able to handle it. Kenneth had taught her that, too. He'd taught her she could do anything. Anything.
She found the spot, and she marked it with multiple twist ties, to act as a signal when she came this way again. It was far enough away from where she'd parked the camper that it represented a pretty significant hike, especially with weight on your back. It would be worth it, of course. It was a beautiful spot. It was the sort of thing she'd envisioned. It was restful. It was perfect.
Well, maybe not perfect. There was no view of the lake, because it was in the middle of the woods. But that mostly meant no one was likely to stumble upon the site. If they came camp up in this area, they were probably more interested in the lake, and the hiking trails, and the mountains. Going through the woods took effort. No one came here for effort. Not that kind of effort, anyway.
No one but her and Kenneth.
She spent some time at the spot. She drank cool water from her canteen, which Kenneth had insisted on buying her. She rested, and ate a peanut butter sandwich. She breathed in the clean air, and she closed her eyes and meditated. It was very zen here. It was as peaceful as she had hoped it would be. She felt good. She felt strong.
She stood, using the shovel to steady her, and then started scraping away leaves and limbs from the spot she'd chosen. She used the shovel, and she worked at it for a bit, watching a mound grow to her right. She enjoyed it. She was covered in sweat and dirt by the time she was done, but wasn't that part of the experience? Wasn't it right, to break a sweat when you're working hard?
Kenneth taught her that, too. Earn your sweat, and you earn the good feeling that comes with a job well done. Effort can be good for the soul.
She was smiling when she left, and she made her way back by following the bread trail. That made her laugh. She hadn't really thought about it until now, but the colored twisty ties were from bread bags. Funny.
Back at camp, she used the hose on the outside of the camper to freshen up. It had a little shower head on it, and she could control the flow with a little lever positioned just right to hit with her thumb. She didn't strip down, because people did sometimes come this way. But she did open up her blouse. She was braless underneath, and she leaned forward as she let the cold water spray up onto her neck and chest. She used a wash cloth to pat water into her pits, under her breasts, around her belly button. She rinsed her face, and used the wash cloth to clean and cool the back of her neck. She toweled off and buttoned her shirt again, and felt so completely refreshed it was unbelievable.
She needed to do this more often.
Maybe she would.
But for now, it was time to get to work.
She put everything away and locked up the camper and the truck. She might be gone for a while, so it was best to take precautions.
The toughest part was mounting the pack. It was large and dropped down to nearly the backs of her knees, making it awkward to walk. And with blue tarp sticking out of the top it was actually about a foot taller than her, which meant she'd have to duck a lot. And it was heavy. She'd done her best to secure the tarp so that its weight wouldn't shift while she was walking, and that would help. But it didn't do anything for to reduce the weight itself.
She could do this, though. Kenneth had taught her. He'd had her do this exact thing with almost twice her body weight in the pack. It was rough, and it was exhausting, but she could do it.
She used the shovel again, helping her stay upright and stable with each step. And as she had feared, once she was actually in the woods the pack made things ridiculous.
At one point she started crying. She sobbed loudly, like a child looking for her mother in a crowded shopping mall. She felt lost. She felt bad. She felt like she was just about the worst person in the world, and the weakest, and the most useless.
Kenneth would never have tolerated that. He would have told her, "You can do this. You're stronger than you think you are. You've come this far. It's only a little further. You can do this."
And that ghost voice, echoing in her head and her heart, was enough. She kept putting one foot down after the other. She stopped and rested from time to time, leaning and huffing against a tree, sweat and dust coating her in a thin, gritty slime. But she took the next step. And the next.
When she came to the little tangle of multiple twisty ties, she laughed. It had been hours since she'd left camp—much longer than it had taken to get here the first time. But she'd still managed to do it faster than she had expected.
She shrugged the heavy pack off, letting it fall limp to the ground.
She suddenly felt so light, as if the physical weight had also carried away some of the mental and emotional weight when it fell from her shoulders. She felt like she could leap to the tops of the trees right now. She was exhausted, and had to catch her breath, and could barely slow her breathing enough to drink water from the canteen, but she still felt amazing and powerful and free.
She grabbed the pack, and pulled it free of the tarp. This wasn't easy. She'd taken a lot of trouble to secure the tarp in the bag. It was a large load to carry, after all. The bag had to be modified to allow it to fit, and modified again to support the weight. The metal frame of the pack had helped a lot. But now, as she used the camp spork to cut away the plastic zip ties and twine, she wondered if a lot of this had been overkill.
Now the tarp was free.
She dragged it to the mound, and the hole she'd dug in the softened earth here. She used the camp spork to cut the ties that were wound around the tarp to hold it in place. And then she rolled it open.
She did this in such a way that she wouldn't have to look. She did it so that the tarp rolled into the hole, and she could pull it back without having to look inside. She'd never be able to look. She'd never be able to think of anything else again, if she looked.
She grabbed the shovel, and started literally pushing dirt into the hole, from the other side of the mound. She could do this without looking, she knew.
When it got to the point where the hole was more or less filled she started spreading the dirt around a bit more. She covered a large part of the clearing with it, and the she started pulling leaves and branches and stones over the spot. She covered it, and did all she could to make it look natural. She knew it would take some time. This time of year, the leaves were starting to fall. In a month there would be snow. Time and seasons and weather would make this place invisible, eventually.
She rolled up the tarp and gathered all the cut bindings and zip ties and everything else, and shoved them into the pack. Kenneth had taught her—what you carry in, you carry out. Not everything, obviously. Some things had to be left behind.
She pulled the pack on, and marveled at how light it was. Then, as she walked, back the way she had come, she snagged the colored zip ties. She wouldn't be coming this way again.
When she got back to the camp she put the shovel and the pack in the back of the truck, and sure enough they fit easily. Kenneth would have liked that.
She got cleaned up again, this time using the little shower inside the camper. She dressed in the clothes she would sleep in that night.
She was hungry, so she brought out the hot dogs and the marshmallows. She started a fire, just like Kenneth had taught her. And as the sun was starting to make its way down past the horizon she read her book in the fading light, and then put it away to stare at the fire and at the stars when darkness came.
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