After hours of towering pines and occasional white-tailed deer, they pass a filling station with a faded orange and blue sign and old-fashioned pumps, the kind of place, Dad says, where you might see pig’s feet adrift in a jar. Behind the window, a big woman leans on the counter dreaming. The boy imagines her holding an electric saw to a dead hog, elbows juddering.
He thinks, This must be where the killers stopped for cigarettes. She’d be the one who saw them.
Mom says maybe stop for directions or at least gas, but Dad says no, they are well fueled and, besides, he knows the drive. She’s forgotten the way, that’s all. She should enjoy the break. Isn’t that the point of camping? Getting back to the basic conditions?
Mom says nothing, studies what hours of driving have made him, a squinty troll civilized by thick prescription eyeglasses. He brushes back thinning hair and rakes fingernails through his whiskers, until now strictly a tax season move. He bends closer to the bug-splattered windshield.
With his parents in their own world up there, the boy opens his new black titanium hunting knife’s three-and-a-half-inch blade with partially serrated edge. The knife should be packed, but he sneaked it into his pocket before leaving. He’s read about these woods and the family murdered here seven years ago. Three strangers in a black pickup truck descended on a family of four, a mother and father and two little girls. Rangers found their bodies in the lake, everybody’s throats slashed, the father’s wrists bound with wire, the mother naked. Police searched but found nothing. A gas station clerk described three people, two men and a woman. The boy runs his finger along the knife’s cutting edge until the skin threatens to break.
Dad’s right, it turns out, announces What did I tell you and dipping a satisfied smile in the direction of the wooden sign announcing they are Entering Crescent Moon National Forest.
“One of the great things about this place is the reasonable cost,” he says. “I just can’t get over the combination of cheapness and seclusion.” He holds up his cellphone. Its screen reads No Service. He turns it off. “A beautiful thing. I can’t wait to crack a beer and sit on my ass.”
“I’m looking forward to some nothingness,” Mom says. Her eyes might be closed behind her sunglasses. “I could use the relaxation. I’m already letting go.”
The boy wants no bored tranquility. He intends to make contact with something primal. He has read about the park’s flora animals, has memorized the lake’s edible fish. His new pole lies atop the suitcases in the trunk, neatly disassembled alongside his new tackle box, a dull green case made of sturdy metal, not plastic like the cheap crap you see at Walmart. No, Dad took him to Outdoor World, a vast and unexpectedly indoor if high-ceilinged realm of high-priced sporting and camping goods stocked around displays of mannequins demonstrating how tents and grills and skis might look if put to use. The boy will pass the coming days pulling perch and trout from the lake, cleaning them with his new knife, and grilling them on the propane-fueled stove. While his parents lounge in the dirt, slathered in sunscreen and snacking on high-energy hiking food, he will get back to the basic conditions.
“That’s strange. It’s not that late.” The sentry box at the gate is empty. Dad leans over the sill, reading the sign mounted beneath the dark window. Inside, small pieces of bark and paper litter the counter, as if a rodent nested there at some point. “I guess we just put money in the box by the site. Someone should come around and collect it.”
“There’s never anyone in this window?” Mom says. “Is that what this means?
“Budget cuts,” Dad says. “You know what’s happening to state government here.”
“So no rangers? None at all?”
“I doubt that,” Dad puts the car into gear. “I reckon they’ve just cut back.”
“You reckon? When in your life have you reckoned?”
“I’ve been known to reckon.”
The boy knows the sound of their flirtation and ignores it in disgust. Ahead, the road disappears into dusky pines. “Does this mean we camp for free?”
Dad’s eyes appear, red-rimmed, in the rearview mirror. “I doubt it. They need the money. The operation is bare bones.”
They take a large open site near the back, invisible to the two other encampments, a small orange dome tent where young backpackers sit eating granola, and a small trailer with a wooden porch and dirty windows that may have been there all summer.
The boy wonders if they have chosen the same site as the murdered family. The odds are not good, he knows, one in fifty-three. And there is no way of knowing now, not since the Park Service went through two years ago, renumbering the sites. And the books are inconsistent on this point, too. Some say the family’s camp looked toward the lake, others that it faced the woods. He knows all the versions, all the details, all the controversies over what happened.
Still, there is a chance. A pay box stands posted at the road, a small wooden bin with a hinged lid and a coin-shaped slot for inserting cash. A rusty padlock hangs from its latch. Dad stuffs in a twenty, exhaling hard as he jams the cash into the hole.
“It’s like it’s full,” he says.
“Be careful,” Mom says. “There might be hornets.”
After a minute passes and nothing crawls out of the slot, the boy peers inside. It’s too dark to see, but he senses something there, an uncommon density. Or maybe it’s all suggestion, like last last month, when he moved the Ouija planchette until his cousins became convinced a spirit hovered there, demanding they confess what they’d done with their boyfriends.
They unpack the car and pitch two tents before sundown. Dad gets a fire going, then crouches in the glow, his tilted face appearing orange and demented in the flicker. Mom sits in a camping chair, shielded from mosquitos by a large blanket, her forehead shiny with repellant. Beside her, a small battery-powered radio emits a news cast of familiar voices.
The boy watches from the woods, his sneakers sunk in pine needles. The burble of the radio is minuscule compared to the enormous stillness around him. He stares into the darkening forest, daring ghosts to materialize, a pair of sad sisters, a ravaged woman, a man with torn bonds hanging from his wrists. Bats sweep across the final bands of twilight, ghostly animals, their razor mouths shredding mosquitoes and moths.
He sees by both his parents’ immobility that neither will press a meal on him. He grips the hard shape of his knife, watching the campsite and wondering if this is what the killers saw.
The following afternoon, back from fishing, he inspects the pay box again. The angle of the sunlight reveals the partially uncurled bill inside. He considers the possibility of prying off the lid, grabbing handfuls of twenties. Covered with lake-mud and sweat and smelling the muck in his waterlogged shoes, he watches Dad show Mom the four speckled trout he caught. She twists her mouth into a scowl and says she won’t touch those things and shakes her head when Dad answers, Me, neither, it was all the kid. The boy hates them. They understand nothing of the basic conditions.
They are the only people in the park now. Walking back, he and Dad passed the recently vacated site where the backpackers had been. Their orange tent was gone, their ashes buried. Then Dad went up to the decrepit-looking camper and peered into the dark windows a long time, finally proclaiming the place abandoned and giving the boy the okay to join him at the pollen-coated glass. The boy only got a glimpse of the clutter within, broken furniture and trash, had only begun to sense that something bad had happened inside. Dad tugged on his sleeve, telling him to come on, Come away from there. Let’s get back to Mom.
Maybe the pay box really is filled with money. He knocks on top and pulls back his hand, surprised by the sting in his knuckles. The wood is heavy and thick. The lock, he notices, is a Master, the kind the old men put on their lockers at the YMCA, where he is invisible to the swimming pool’s girls. Dad says you need bolt cutters to take them off. “You think there are wasps in there?” he says when Dad brings him a bar of soap and a towel.
Dad stuffs another rolled up twenty through the slot. “Your mom doesn’t like bugs,” he says quietly, as if this is a secret. He hands over the folded towel and bar of soap. “Go wash at the pump over there. Nobody’s around. Your mom and I are going to have some quiet time.”
The boy blushes fiercely and looks away, aware Dad has also averted his gaze. Again? he thinks, remembering their noises last night when they thought he was asleep. Haven’t they gotten their fill? Don’t they have anything better to do than lie around charging their sex drives? Worse is the thought of stripping and scrubbing himself where Mom can see, not that she will look. He is getting too old for either of them to know how he looks naked. “The twenty from yesterday is still in there.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“Mom said she hasn’t seen a ranger all day. That means you could leave that twenty in there now, and if a ranger showed up tomorrow, they would think we’d just been here one night.”
Dad regards him with slightly narrowed eyes. Not a tall man, he remains the more massive by far, with arms that show the labor of afternoons on a Universal machine. “Are you suggesting we not pay? Like a bunch of freeloaders? Is that how you think of us? You think all this forest would be here if people didn’t pay?”
Yes, the boy thinks. In fact I do. He imagines a larger figure stealing up behind his father and holding a large knife to his throat.
“You want to say something?”
He shakes his head. So much, he thinks, for the basic conditions.
Dad stares hard, then looks away. “All right then. Let’s keep it that way.”
He lies in his tent with the radio turned up. The sun flashes through the green canvas, swelling and shrinking, burning bright discs into his vision. He lifts the knife he used to cut line and later to clean the trout the way he read, slicing their bellies from the blowhole to gills, then ripping out the jaw, pulling with it the other unwanted parts. It was impossible, cutting them open, not to think of the murdered family, to imagine the fish were them and he was the head murderer. Dad was there the whole time, oblivious to the boy’s thoughts, reminding the boy he didn’t have to go through with the cleaning. He had seen the boy gag at the sight of the first trout’s yellow intestines, and he’d smiled widely, saying nothing. The boy despised him for being a failure, for raising his son soft. The boy pushed on until the head and wormy innards were sunk into the dark lake and he clutched the meaty speckled tail in his fist. That wiped Dad’s face blank.
The knife lies on the tent floor beside him now, clean but tainted, its blade christened, infinitesimally dulled. He cannot bring himself to touch it.
He’s tuned the radio to a local fundamentalist station, one with a fire-and-brimstone preacher. The alternatives are country music, the province of broken men and women in too-tight jeans, and public radio, a victory he refuses to allow his parents. The preacher speaking now sounds young, pubescent, maybe a few years older than the boy. The rural congregations rally around Bible prodigies, ever hoping their church will spit out a prophet. The boy likes this, doesn’t mind listening. The preacher rants and the congregation calls back, enthralled. It is the sound of something ancient and ritual, something lost to people like Mom and Dad.
‘Good understanding giveth favor,’ it says in Proverbs. ‘But the way of the transgressors is hard.’ The Lord isn’t asking for us to give up pleasure, contrary to what you might think, the needling little voice says. It seems to come as much from within his relaxing body as from the radio. The wind moving the trees outside the tent feels very far away. You may think the road of the sinner is paved with pleasures, but I assure you, my friends, they know Hell long before they arrive there.
The large black truck arrives without warning, gravel popping under its heavy tires, summoning Dad from the tent where he’s been napping, nearly blind without his glasses, his thinning hair sticking out wildly. Mom has been lying out in her bikini, and at the sound of the approaching vehicle runs to get her clothes. While Dad stands turning one way and then the other, trying to make sense of the commotion, Mom pulls on her shirt, yanking the hem down to cover her bottoms before reaching for her khaki shorts.
It is too late. The truck pulls into the site beside theirs, the large bearded driver and the man sitting in the jump seat behind him looking out at Mom. The young woman on the passenger seat with her bare feet resting on the dashboard where the boy sees her toenails painted black and the thorns tattooed around one ankle looks at a magazine and does not raise her head to acknowledge him or his parents. The driver watches Mom finish dressing, which causes her to blush all the way down inside her shirt. Dad goes into the tent and emerges wearing glasses, blinking at the newcomers and frowning at their choice of site.
“Sorry, ma’am,” the bearded driver says. “Didn’t mean to startle you. You should go on sunbathing. We don’t take offense to natural views.”
Mom waves her hand and lifts her head, clenching her jaw in a smile. “It’s fine, thanks,” she says, then ducks behind Dad into the tent, where she will stay hidden a long time, even though it must be hot in there, judging by Dad’s sweaty shirt.
“Hi there,” Dad says. He holds his head at an angle, as if listening to someone whispering an outrageous story into his ear. He lets out a long hissing sigh, then turns his head toward the long row of empty campsites the newcomers just passed. “Great timing. Lots of empty sites.”
“You said it.” The driver opens his door and steps down into the dirt. At full height his head looms over the roof of the truck. He shoulders slope in his sleeveless black shirt featuring a gray skull with roses growing from its eye sockets and open jaws, an image the boy recognizes from the books. The man hustles toward the truck bed, speaking without looking at Dad, who seems child-sized by comparison. “Yeah, we found a good one.”
The young woman in the truck brushes long dark hair from one bare shoulder and goes on reading. Her arm is tattooed all the way down, and she has a young and beautiful face that the boy studies until she glances at him, her indifferent eyes seeming to pierce him. She is older than he first thought, has bags bunched under her eyes and a face that sags slightly around the edges. She wears black lipstick and does not smile or seem the least bit friendly.
The third stranger, a smaller man with a shaved head and a roughly triangular spiderweb tattooed on one cheek, does smile at the boy, revealing various missing teeth the boy turns away from, trying to forget.
“Well, okay then,” Dad says, his voice faltering and close to surrender. He glances toward the tent and Mom inside, then adds, in a meek voice the boy has never heard, “Thought you might want some privacy. We wouldn’t want to bother you.”
“Nope.” The bearded man moves toward his site’s fire pit with a tent box tucked under one arm. Mirrored sun-shield glasses cover his eyes and cheekbones, ending just above the beginning of the dark beard grown to his chest. His mouth is all but hidden, a suggestion of wine-red lips and brownish teeth. “We good right here, partner.”
“What you got, little man?” The smaller guy in the truck climbs halfway out and stops, so that he hangs out from the open door, looking all the more like a roosting bat for the flaring ears of his perfectly bald head. “Some din-din?”
The boy looks up from the cooler. He was only just opening it when the truck appeared, planning to check on his catch. They lie rowed on the ice, their scales ranging green and gold around the dorsal halves to a sheer silky white in the ventral regions. They smell of fresh water and give off no hint of rot.
“Good fishing, this part of the world,” the smaller man says, giving him a pronounced wink. “They got big ones out there, don’t they?”
That evening, Dad suggests they go for a walk with the obvious intention to establish privacy, so that they might discuss their predicament. They head back up the road toward the sentry box where, the boy senses by their hopeful squints into the distance ahead, his parents hope to see a ranger. They are afraid, the boy thinks with some satisfaction, without even knowing who the strangers are. Mom keeps glancing back, toward the newcomers’ screamy rock music that remains faintly audible no matter how far they go.
“We should leave,” she says. “I’m not comfortable here. Not alone with them.”
“Let’s be careful,” Dad says, his face pale and drawn. His voice is small and afraid. “Don’t act suspicious.”
“Too late. The little one’s following us,” she says. “Don’t look.”
The boy is already looking. The smaller man, Kevin, walks behind them at a distance of a hundred yards or so. Kevin smiles and raises his hand in a broad wave, then looks toward the darkening forest as if their mutual appearance on the road could somehow be a coincidence.
Mom says quietly they should walk back, get into the car, and drive as far as the remaining gasoline will take them. Leave everything, she says. Go. There’s half a tank, enough to reach civilization. Soon they will be on the outskirts of some city, surrounded by thousands of relatively harmless strangers and more police than they will ever need. They can stay in a hotel by the freeway, one with a pool where the boy can swim, and they can order takeout and watch free movies on television. Her wilted expression says she is through with the basic conditions.
Dad says that if the newcomers want trouble, trying to leave now would be a dumb move. Maybe, he says, they can move to another site in the morning. “They’ll think we’re being rude,” he says. “It could be brilliant. Of course, the odds are that they’re perfectly harmless. The odds are, these are just very strange people, vulgar people. But probably harmless.”
“I don’t see,” Mom says in a miserable voice, “why you can’t do this one thing for me. They frighten me. Just do this one thing for me.”
“I did one thing for you a thousand things ago. Look where it’s gotten me.”
“This is not the time,” Mom says.
The boys listens to them argue, remembering how they ignored his stories about the murders here. Spooky stuff, Mom had said, more interested in something on her phone. Dad had smirked and crossed his arms and said, I think that’s an urban legend, son. He wonders if they would remember now, not that it would do them any good.
“Listen.” Dad looks into his hands, which he holds as if they were clutching a crystal ball into which they could peer. “Why don’t we stick it out tonight and leave in the morning like nothing’s wrong? Nobody finishes camping in the evening. We could try to leave in the middle of the night, but I don’t trust myself in a high-speed chase.”
Mom agrees or surrenders by doing the thing where she says nothing while staring at some unrelated thing, in this case the sentry house standing in overgrown grass between the campground’s exit and entrance lanes. From here they all see that the structure is dark and uninhabited, though it is tempting to look at it and imagine it in use, occupied by a ranger in a beige uniform, a vaguely impolite man with a silly hat and lots of maps and a gun. Mom lowers her gaze to the ground, then summons a casual smile for the man following them.
The large bearded man who calls himself Freddy comes over while Dad sets out supper items on the wooden picnic table. His openness to grilling the trout abandoned, Dad moves automatically, mindlessly, preparing to heat up a few hot dogs, to get them fed and into sleeping bags in a common tent, which he seems to think will protect them. Behind him, the range flares, the propane tank producing its endless sigh.
Dad does not turn to face the approaching giant, though he winces as ferns snap under Freddy’s boots. They all hear it. Mom, who wears a light rain jacket though it is neither cold nor raining, remains seated in the folding chair turned away from the unwanted neighbors. She glances over her shoulder until she sees Dad and the boy, but no further, as if the new neighbors exert a force that prevents looking. Only the boy watches the bearded man cross onto their plot of ground without hesitating, his large hands pendulous beside his hips. The bearded man comes to the range and pauses beside the rings of blue and orange flame. He waits for Dad to acknowledge him. When silence follows, he clears his throat, causing Dad to flinch and clench his eyes shut. He says, “Excuse me, Dave.”
Dad stiffens at the sound of his name. “What can I do for you, Freddy?” he stammers slightly, the surface of his wind-burned cheeks as richly red as a rose. He stiffens and forces himself to look up into the giant’s impassive face. “Do you need something?”
The bearded man points a long finger at the range. “I was hoping to borrow your fire.”
“Excuse me?” Dad says, as if baffled by the request.
“I was hoping to borrow your range.” Freddy speaks more slowly, half an octave lower, enunciating each word. He has a big, resonant voice that travels in all directions, and he knows Dad heard him the first time. He’s letting that slide, for now. “I’m having trouble starting a fire. The wood is wet around here. But you have one going.” He glances at the blaze crackling in the fire pit. “You also have some nice cooking equipment. You’re kind of a fire genius, aren’t you, Dave?”
Under other circumstances, Dad would bloom with pride. Now he stares up wide-eyed, rendered speechless by fear. He clearly regrets telling this man his name.
Something is wrong, the boy notices. The strangers have not unpacked. Since their arrival, Freddy has been fussing over trying to start a fire, repeatedly sending Kevin into the forest for more wood, each time telling him to come back with something drier. The woman has been sitting on the truck’s shining black hood since she got out, dangling her feet over the grill and flipping through a celebrity tabloid with the headline Celebrity Weight Gain! scribbled pinkly across the cover.
Dad stands blank-faced until Mom says, “Honey, didn’t you find some dry wood?”
He blinks. “That’s right. I did. Why don’t I help get your fire going?” He flashes a false smile, then adds, with a comical wave of his hand, “I’ll help you bring the range over, too, of course. You can go ahead and take it now.”
Freddy remains still. “It’s too much to move everything. Especially when you have everything going here.” He turns and says, “Kevin. Jasmine. Come on.”
“Okay, sure,” Dad says. “Whatever you need.”
Freddy moves closer to the range, apparently listening to the hum of propane feeding the flames. “We’ll be out of your way shortly, Dave. I don’t mean to create a problem between us. I don’t think we need any tension between our two little camps, and I hope we aren’t putting you out too much. We will get you back, of course. You don’t mind, do you, Dave?”
Dad places his hands on his head, looking distraught. “I guess, I-I guess—”
“Great. That makes me happy, Dave.” Freddy opens the plastic tub next to the range and pulls out a black skillet and places it on the fire. He takes the package of hot dogs from the picnic table. The others come up behind him, Kevin smiling as he opens the coolers and then peers into the bag of dry food. Jasmine frowns and examines Mom’s clothes from yesterday, which hang on a clothesline over the tents.
“I love me a hot dog.” Kevin holds up a package of wieners and winks at the boy.
Jasmine shrugs and looked off down the road. She has curled her magazine into a tight cylinder and drums it against her knee.
“Jasmine doesn’t care for hot dogs,” Freddy says with a helpless flip of one hand.
“Neither does my wife,” Dad says hopelessly. “She hardly eats on these trips.”
Freddy harrumphs. “Why would you take your wife on a vacation she doesn’t want? Jesus, Dave. What kind of husband are you?”
Embarrassed by Dad’s helplessness, the boy says, “She wanted to come out here and relax. Maybe she would, if you would leave us alone.” Someone needs to talk to these people, he thinks, to reason with them. To show fear is to show weakness. These are the basic conditions.
Both Kevin and Jasmine look at him, smiling with amusement and curiosity, him chuckling stupidly, her gazing with the same creepy aloofness she’s showed since they arrived. Behind them, his parents are horrified, Dad raising a shaky hand and mouthing No, no while Mom comes to her feet, her knees wobbling, something the boy has heard of but never seen.
Freddy wheels slowly and looks down. After a moment of staring through his shades, the giant says, “I had a mouth like yours when I was your age. My dad helped take care of that. He sure taught me a lot, my dad.”
“Son,” Dad says, his voice quaking. “Keep your mouth shut.”
The boy stares at Dad, dismayed to see him so utterly defeated, when he hasn’t even tried to defend his family. He closes his lips together and gazes at Freddy, saying nothing.
“That’s all, Dave?” Freddy says. “No wonder he’s got a mouth.”
He sits on the ground beside his parents at the edge of the firelight while the strangers raid the coolers and the grocery bags. The men are tremendously hungry, eating their way through the second package of hot dogs, along with the cheese, the tomatoes, the chocolate and marshmallows, and all of the bread. They feed themselves hungrily, stuffing food into their mouths and then sucking their fingers clean and wiping them on their dirty jeans. They have also grilled and eaten the trout, Kevin making sure to tell the boy how good it was.
“You know how to catch them,” he said, holding up a translucent bone he’d plucked from his teeth. “You got the instinct. You ought to come out with me. I’ll show you a thing or two.”
The woman Jasmine is averse to eating. She reclines in Mom’s folding chair, smirking distantly and staring at the boy’s parents.
Finally Freddy sets aside the box of sugar flakes he’s been eating by the handful. His beard is full of cereal. He belches and let out a satisfied-sounding groan. “That’s enough for me for the night. Thank you for your hospitality and generosity, Dave,” he says in a dull, almost reluctant-sounding voice. “It has made camping much easier. Hasn’t it, you two?”
Jasmine covers a yawn with one hand.
“Oh yeah,” Kevin says. “You bet it. It’s been nice to meet such a nice boy, too.”
Freddy rises and comes to stand over Mom and Dad, his large face backlit and dark. “Thank you. I mean it.”
“Oh, sure,” Dad says nervously. He lets out a sigh and seems to deflate a little, looking down at the dirt in which they sit. He does not look up when Mom gives him a big-eyed sidelong glance. The boy knows what his parents are thinking, that the moment the neighbors fall sleep, they will all pile into the car and drive far away from here. “Whatever we can do, really. We’re just happy to help. You’re welcome.”
“Yes,” Mom says, her voice more controlled, stiffer. “You’re welcome.”
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear that,” Freddy says. “Because all three of us are going to need a place to sleep.”
Dad jerks upright, looking stricken, and then looks at Mom and shrugs. “I suppose we could sleep in the car.”
She says nothing to object to his reasoning. Maybe she thinks like the boy, that they must try to drive out once the others nod off, no matter how risky it might be. Maybe she is thinking this now, sending Dad telepathic messages, the same way the boy is, urging him to let the strangers move them closer to liberation. Maybe these, the boy thinks, are the basic conditions.
He looks at the men and Jasmine, trying not to smile. He wonders how close they are to suspecting that he and his parents have them exactly where he wanted them.
“I’d like a few beers before bed,” Freddy says. “Wouldn’t you, Kevin?”
“I could go for a few cold ones,” Kevin says, his eyes bulging at the boy.
“We don’t have any, though.” Freddy glances back toward the emptied coolers. “They don’t either.”
“I saw a beer store ten miles down the road.”
“There’s nothing,” Dad says. “There’s nothing nearby.”
“Maybe not the direction you came,” Freddy says.
“I know this area.”
“Is that a fact, Dave?” Freddy sits forward, then interlaces his fingers and stretches his hands. “I do, too. And I haven’t seen you around here before.”
Dad lowers his head.
“Tell you what, Dave. Why don’t you and your boy hop in the car with Kevin here and go pick up some beers? Jasmine and me will stay here with your wife.”
Mom grabs Dad’s sleeve and makes a hoarse resistant noise. It is upsetting. The boy looks to Dad to do something. Dad stares into the flames, clumsily patting Mom’s hand, refusing to meet her eyes. There is a terrible stretch of seconds in which the boy senses something between Mom and Dad, a palpable connection he only now feels had always been there, begin to tear.
“Go on, now,” Freddy says. “Ain’t nobody going to get hurt. As long as you drives safely, Dave. Try not to think bad thoughts. Once you think a bad thing, you have to live with it, the same as if it was really happening. It’s not worth it. Now get along. I’ll get you back for the beer.”
Dad pries Mom’s fingers from his sleeve one at a time. “It’s going to be okay,” he says, his voice loose and rasping. “It’s going to be fine. We’ll be back shortly. We’re going to get some beer. We’ll get through this.”
“That’s right,” Freddy says. “Now, Kevin, you go on and get them into their car and take them to the getting place.”
The boy sits in the backseat as Dad drives him and Kevin into the dark wood. Every few seconds he moves his hand to his pocket and the knife. He is too afraid to look out his window at the passing trees that dissolve into a tunnel of blackness. He watches Kevin’s bald head and thinks of Mom back at camp. He imagines her and Freddy and Jasmine sitting the way they had left them, like obedient children who can be trusted not to move. He sees them that way, bright and still, like figures in the manger scenes that crop up before Christmas.
In front, Dad breathes strangely, in a husky, wet rhythm that sometimes gives way to choking, and Kevin talks softly, his voice just audible over the wind hissing threats through the cracked open windows.
“Don’t worry, won’t take long, I promise. Won’t hurt. Won’t get worse than any of this. Now go ahead and pull the car over to the side of the road there. You and me need to talk, get a few things straight.”
Dad nods, slowing the vehicle and steering the car onto the shoulder of the road although they have not seen another automobile beside Freddy’s pickup truck in two days now. He is looking down muttering things that the boy can hear and doesn’t want to hear him say. Please buddy I can give you money please—
Kevin’s dark face appears looking back between the seats. “Listen up, kid. I want you to sit right there. Don’t move. Your dad and I are going to step out here and talk something over. Then we’ll get you both back to your mom.”
The boy says nothing. He stares at the shape of the dark face watching him, waiting for it peel itself away.
He sits silently while Kevin walks Dad across the dark road and into darker woods, talking the whole way in a reedy, rigidly chummy voice that meant to be both soothing and menacing. The singsong tone of it fades steadily into the night until the pulse of the insects has covered it completely. After a moment, the boy takes out the knife and opens it, then reaches out and pulls the door handle, half expecting it to be locked, and finds it opens easily. He steps out quietly and then closes the door enough to make the dome light switch off.
The sound of insects is surprisingly loud. He turns in the direction from which they’ve come and begins to run, aware of how quietly his feet patter on the pavement. He listens for Kevin’s voice or his father, for a gunshot, but nothing comes. Somewhere in the woods behind him, Kevin is doing something to Dad. Somewhere ahead, the others are doing something to Mom. He holds the knife out as he runs.
He has traveled a good distance when he hears Kevin call. At first the voice seems to chase him, but then the cries grow quieter, and he knows the man is shouting in all directions, that they are both lost. Out here in the woods, he sees, they are equals. He makes a quick turn and scrambles into the trees, through bushes, over logs, until he is far enough in that he cannot be seen from the road without a flashlight. He crouches behind a thick tree trunk and shuts his eyes.
When the woods have become still and silent, he looks again. On the road, Kevin has turned off the car and is hanging out the window. He seems to look right at the boy. His face is spotted with something dark. He smiles broadly and says something unintelligible. He turns on the car engine, puts the car into gear, and drives back toward the campground.
He has been gone for a while when the boy returns to the road, slapping and brushing phantom bugs from his arms. He still has the knife, but it feels small, irrelevant, not the weapon he had thought it would be. He looks for the place where Kevin walked his father into the woods. He calls out in a harsh whisper, “Dad, Dad.” When there is no response, he calls out again. Then again and again, faster and faster, until he hears his own voice.
He lies on his back in the dark tent, damp with sweat in the cold night air. Dad is calling his name from outside. The door unzips and opens, then drops in, away from the man kneeling in the darkness outside. Behind him, the fire has dwindled, and Mom is nowhere to be seen.
“You okay? You were having a bad dream. You were out for a while there. Must have been all the sun.”
“She’s asleep. It’s late. We went ahead and ate without you. Figured you needed the rest.”
The boy comes out rubbing the stones from his eyes and sits with Dad by the fire. Their camping chairs are still here, unoccupied. A tied bag of hot dog buns pokes out of the grocery bag on the cooler behind Dad’s chair. The boy looks at the dark campsite beside theirs and says nothing. He imagines Freddy and Kevin and Jasmine there, leaning on their truck in darkness and smiling at him. They have always been here, he thinks. They will always be here. They can see us, but they can’t touch us.
“I’m about ready to give up the ghost,” Dad says. Behind his glasses, his eyes are small and weary. “You should think about turning in. You’ll get back to sleep eventually.”
The boy feels a powerful longing to sleep in his parents’ tent, but he refuses to ask. To show fear, he thinks, is to show weakness.
“Your mom wanted me to let you know you can bring your bag to our tent, if you want.”
He shakes his head. He wishes he were at home, that he could go back to the safety of his room, but there is no way. The week of camping stretches before him, an impossible task. He stares straight ahead as Dad stands and stretches and then walks around to the far side of the fire. The man undoes his fly and begins to piss on the embers on that side, sending up steam and loud hissing. The boy has seen the man naked before, but he watches now, despairing over the difference between them.
“You can sleep alone if you want,” Dad says. He gives it a firm shake and then puts his thing away. His face flickers orange through the rising smoke. “I said that’s what you’d want. That was only day one out here. We’re getting back to the basic conditions, and you’re only just getting started.”