catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 24 :: 2009.12.11 — 2009.12.24


Clutching Dust and Stars

Mommy, What Were Trees Like?

This is the fifth chapter of Laryn Kragt Bakker’s new novel, Clutching Dust and Stars (read chapters one, two, three and four), published by *culture is not optional and available for purchase now.  We’ll be serializing the first part of the novel on catapult for the next several weeks.

It was still strange to see him-probably because they hadn’t filled in all the blanks yet and the questions still rubbed uncomfortably, like shoes that haven’t been broken in, and that was fine with her.

He had stopped by briefly on Sunday afternoon during a break from organizing his place, and again on Monday evening, after she was finished at the store. Tuesday he had come by the store and picked up a few things-a lamp, some dishes, and a lifeless print in a garish frame which Natalie had initially thrown away and Dorrie had then rescued.

He seemed to have no problem with the idea of just jumping back into her life, but she was a little more cautious-always one toe to test the waters first. She was trying to be intentional about forcing things to roll out slowly. Instead of spending a full day with him and going over everything that had happened in the interim, she preferred short visits here and there. Otherwise, once the past was ironed out, they’d be sitting there all caught up on each other, with the question hanging between them: what now? And she wasn’t sure how to answer that yet.

So she was coming up with excuses, finding reasons to be gone, to keep the visits short or at least in the presence of a group of friends. They were both different people than they had been two years ago, and it would do them well to acknowledge it. She hadn’t told him about this studio space in the back room yet-she liked having the ability to disappear back here and paint.

On Monday morning, she had spent some time talking with Dorrie about the situation-or talking at Dorrie about it. Dorrie usually made sure she had all the information before she gave away comments.

“You don’t sound completely thrilled about him coming back, you know. If you asked me, I’d say that you seem a little bit scared about it, to be honest. You’ve never told him about what happened, have you.”

She said the last part so that it wasn’t a question and brought the unspoken worry that lurked beneath Nat’s words closer to the surface.

“I don’t know if I’d say ‘scared,’ but ‘apprehensive,’ maybe, yes.”

Dorrie was right. It wasn’t just the fact that Rob had come back that was bothering her. Having someone from the past come back was one thing-having them come back from an unresolved past was another.

She had stayed late and painted for a few hours that day, too, knowing that she was not likely to be disturbed and could organize her thoughts, or maybe even figure them out. When she got home, she found two notes that Rob had called, and he showed up at the door halfway through supper. He was “just in the neighborhood,” of course, so he’d stopped by to say hello.

When he had come in the store yesterday, she had talked with him for a few minutes and directed him to the rooms that contained what he was looking for. She had to smile when she remembered Dorrie zoning in on him, walking up and playing the old lady with her innocent questions, as though she didn’t know who he was. It reminded her of the way Finn used to run up and sniff the legs of visitors, making sure they were safe.

She squeezed out some blue paint and began to mix other colors into it absently. She felt a little bit dishonest, working back here and knowing he couldn’t find her, but she wasn’t sure how to tell him directly that she wasn’t sure how she felt about him. So she spent the time hiding back here and talking to herself with paint and hoping that she could figure it out.

Rob seemed almost shy at times when they were alone. It was kind of cute; it made it seem like there was no history between them, like he was just a boy and she was just a girl, which was what she would have chosen if it were an option.

You can’t change the past-she had prayed for that upon occasion. What is the past but memories? Memories that leak into the present and color the future, seeping out like tea from a bag, darkening the water nearest it first and then dispersing.

When she got home, she went to her room without turning on any lights and lit the candles on her desk. It was already getting dark outside. She used a loose candle from beside the shrine and dripped wax into the cracks where the two side candles had been peeled out, welding them back onto the structure to make it whole again. She loved candlelight. It was not controlled by any switch. It was something real, flickering inconsistently like faith.

She had a worn out Catholic missal that someone had donated in a box full of religious books. It had Latin on the left hand side of the page and English on the right. She read the Latin by candlelight once in a while-a quick way to cash in on a sense of holiness and history.

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.

She was sure that she mangled the Latin, but she trusted God to figure out what she was saying. She pressed her thumb into the soft wax, leaving a fingerprint as a seal. Some days she went through entire candles just sitting here and tipping them, spilling their wax onto the shrine so the drips built up and solidified.

There were no notes or messages from Rob today. Was he giving up on her? The bastard. Her mother had left a long message on the machine. Sometimes she thought that her mother must be so lonely up there. Often when she had a day off, she would call Natalie’s place just to talk to the answering machine or to hear Natalie’s voice on it. She hadn’t sounded too bad today, just chatty. They talked once or twice every few weeks-usually not long, but they talked.

She sat with the candles for a few moments longer before blowing them out. Tink was still working, so Natalie decided to run down to the store and get a few things. She picked up her shopping bags from the closet and set out.

It was getting cool out, but earlier it had actually been sunny, a holdout day from the summer. Maybe the weather would allow for camping after all. As of yesterday when she had talked with Shawn, the weekend was still a go. She tried to make a list of what to get for the weekend, and what they could take from home.

Tink was ringing somebody up when she entered the store and didn’t see her walk in. She grabbed a handbasket and speed-walked toward the fruit.

She stroked the items from the list as she found them: apples, bananas, bread, buns, instant oatmeal, pancake mix, vegetarian hotdogs. She always ended up packing the basket to overflowing and then carrying a few things in her other hand. It was kind of a check on how much she bought-once she couldn’t carry any more she had to go home.

She waited behind an extra person so she could go through Tink’s line.

“Did you get everything?”

“I’ve got most of it, and we’ve got some back home. Maybe you could pick up a few snacks, though.”

“We’re going to need some snacks.”

“I leave it in your hands.”

Tink grinned as she weighed the bananas. “Oh, hey, Rob called earlier. I forgot to leave a message.”

“I was beginning to wonder if he was losing interest.”

“Not yet, but if you don’t smarten up, he might. He was wondering if camping was still on.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“I told him it is. And I invited him to the coffeehouse tomorrow.”

That was okay; the coffeehouse was safe.


It was Thursday after her shift and she was in the studio. It had been some time since she had heard the sound of the front door slamming or of Dorrie talking with a customer, which meant that it was probably closed already. Dorrie was very strict about not disturbing Natalie while she was working, not even to say goodbye.

She intentionally didn’t wear a watch, or even put up a clock in the studio. It was probably almost time to head home if she wanted to eat anything before going to the coffeehouse. She had given up on the Bacon piece a few days ago, and it was faced against the wall beside her until she received further inspiration. Bad painting. Sit in the corner until you behave.

She had started a new piece using the same approach-take a loose idea and let it grow itself. She had begun with simple thoughts on communication: how what she was trying to say through the paint could be so different from what the painting actually said to the people who looked at it.

She had started with two heads, one in three quarter view and the other looking straight on. She painted the faces roughly and then began to paint connectors between them: pipes, bridges, telephone cords, bare wires and electrodes. The heads had the brain area cut out, like an old medical diagram from before they knew anything, revealing the thoughts of each.

The first head was thinking hot, sharp-edged flames in a blaze of oranges and reds, while the second was more subdued, thinking leaves and sky in cool blues and greens. One of the connecting pipes was made of glass, and the fire and the leaves came through from each end and met in the middle, where they muddied up against each other into a mass of brown and purple as though the thoughts had mixed together and ended up impure, the pipes and bridges clogged with sludge.

She pulled off her paint-spattered clothes and draped them over the chair. She was just buttoning up her jeans when someone knocked on the back door, startling her. She found her t-shirt and pulled it on quickly. Sometimes people knocked as they left their load, even if it was after hours.

She opened the door and found Rob.

“Hi,” he said. “Tinker said to check if you were here.”

“Oh. Well…why?” Now she had nowhere to hide.

“Tonight is Coffee House Night, remember?”

“I know that. What time is it, then?”

“Nearly seven. I stopped by your place and Tink said you hadn’t been home yet, so I should come here in case you lost track of time.”

“Thanks.” She turned and looked at the room, trying to remember if she had taken anything else this morning.

Rob saw the easel and started through the doorway; her arm snapped like a mousetrap, holding him outside.

“There’s no time to look. I’ve got to lock up. Nothing’s ready to be looked at besides.”

“Okay.” He backed out, bumping into a small recliner that somebody had left on top of the steps without her noticing. She started to drag the chair through the door and Rob pushed from the back. She sent Rob on ahead, to let people know she was coming, and would be there shortly.

She unlocked the bike, formulating in her mind places where she could remain hidden from Rob. Maybe she could keep using the back area while wearing earphones.

Other people were still showing up when she got there. She ordered a drink and a bagel. They had the chairs pulled out into a circle, with a few tables in the middle, and some wrinkled computer print-outs claiming the empty chairs: RESERVED FOR PHILOSOPHY NIGHT.

She chose a chair not opposite him and not next to him, either. Wade and Tink were in between them. That way they wouldn’t be looking at each other the whole time, but they wouldn’t be close enough to touch. Everybody settled into chairs and conversations, and she took a bite of her bagel.

“You found her,” Tink observed to Rob. Natalie chewed and looked straight ahead, as though she were zoned out, while she listened. Rob talked quietly.

“Yeah, she was in the back. I think she was just leaving. I’m not sure I should have gone there.” She took another bite and kept staring ahead, chewing.

“Why do you say that?”

“I don’t know. It seemed like she was pissed off at me or something.” She tried to look at him with her peripheral vision. Was he looking at her? A faint smile pulled on the corner of her mouth. She turned her eyes slowly in her head without moving her neck. Tink’s back was facing her but Rob was looking right at her. He winked.

Her cover was blown so she looked anyway, and he was smiling. She laughed, and held up her hand to make sure the mouthful of bagel stayed in.

Tink looked over and gave her a look that asked why she wasn’t in on the joke, but Natalie just smiled. She popped the last of the bagel in and Tink started to call the meeting to order.

“Okay, everybody, Natalie’s going to start us off tonight.”

Natalie wiped her mouth. “Actually, what I’m going to do is throw out a couple of possible leads that I’ve been mulling this past week and we’ll follow whichever one gets picked up first.”

“Aren’t you going to introduce the new guy?” Marie asked.

“Oh yeah. Rob is his name. This is Marie.” She motioned with her hands. “I think everybody else has met him already.”

There were nods all around. “So, one after the other, here’s the possibilities. One: What is time? Can we change the past? Can we change the future? Do you believe in fate? Two: Is true communication even possible in this world? Or does the attempt to communicate thoughts necessarily lose something?”

Nobody spoke. If you spoke too soon you often ended up defending something you didn’t actually believe and wished you hadn’t said. Rob was looking around, looking a little unsure of himself.

“I think people communicate at times, and not at others,” he said.

“No.” Natalie jumped on his comment, cutting him off before he could clarify himself so that she could try to back him into a corner he didn’t necessarily intend to get into. “Never perfectly. It always loses something, like a law of Physics. There’s always waste heat.”

“Choose your sides,” Wade said.

Everyone except Natalie and Rob stood up, like musical chairs.

“Waste heat, this side,” Wade called, moving toward Natalie.

“The rest of us, over by Rob,” called Tink.

Wade slouched back in his new chair.

“Okay, Rob. We start these discussions off like they used to fight wars-each side takes a turn shooting while the other side just stands there, no interrupting. Then after we’ve each given our main points, we open the floor up completely. You don’t confer with your team, which makes it possible for a few threads of argument to open up. You don’t even have to agree with anything anyone on your team says if you don’t want to.”

“And try to sound intellectual, even if you’re talking out of your ass. It’s in the unwritten rules,” Natalie added. “I’ll go first. Here’s what I think: each person has a unique background, and therefore a unique perspective on life. Everything they do and think is shaped to some extent by their past, and when they communicate, anyone who interprets what they are saying interprets it from the perspective of their own unique past, at best combined with an incomplete idea of the other person’s past. So while they may get an accurate idea of what is being communicated, it can never be perfect.”

Tink started off for the other side. “Okay. What you are saying may be true for big chunks of communication. But there are small moments of insight, of connection between two people, which are pure. Kind of like distillations of pure communication.”

They began to go one after the other, each delivering their argument in a single sentence.

“Feelings can’t be put into words-communicating feelings involves reliance on abstractions, which are interpreted based on each individual’s own experience of that abstraction.”

Marie set down her mug. “Some things are easier to communicate than others. Feelings, as you say, can’t be communicated easily. But concrete details can be given without waste heat being produced. For example: the man went to the store. There’s a kernel in there that comes through.”

Wade shook his head. “What man? Which store? How did he go? Translating thoughts into words loses something, and then translating those words back to thought loses again. It’s like exchanging currencies-you lose every time you do it.”

“The kernel! I’ve communicated, even if it’s surrounded by questions.”

“The question was not whether you’ve communicated at all, but whether you’ve communicated perfectly.”

“This is good,” Natalie said. “I was thinking specifically in terms of art, not necessarily just words. There can’t really be any perfectly pure communication, if by that you mean something being transferred exactly from one person’s head to another person’s head. And that’s critical to art, because art is meant to involve the viewer in the piece, not necessarily beat them over the head with something that came out of the artist’s head. But that’s a whole other topic. I don’t know if we’ll have time to start into that one tonight.”

It was Rob’s turn. “Well, then, here’s a question. What about the method? If the mode of communication changes form and maybe even goes through a number of people or channels, but the idea still comes through on the other end, that’s still communication, right? Even though the message has been put through the ringer, the idea can still come through if it’s pure enough.”

“I’d still like to pick up on what Wade said,” Tink broke in. “I think there can be pure communication beyond the factual approach of a man going to the store. There are universal experiences that we all share, despite the differences in our past. Eventually, we all experience love, hate, loss, joy, and I think these are the channels that real communicators know how to tap into.”

“You sound like an advertiser,” Rob said. “Talking about the channels you want to tap into. But maybe that’s why it feels like we can’t communicate anymore. Our channels are all worn out and stretched, because we’re bombarded all day by these people who are trying to shove their products up and down them-shoes, and cars, and lowest prices.”

“Wrong team,” Wade said.

“Oh, yeah. All I’m saying is that it’s no wonder we feel a little beat up.”

“I feel a little violated. Who’s sticking what where?”

“Well, maybe we should feel more violated than we do,” he said. “When we see the advertisements everywhere, never giving us a break, trying to sell us this car, trying to make us want that drink…It seems to me that they’re sticking Coke bottles where they don’t belong, and we just yawn and turn over and wait for the next one.”

She laughed. No matter how different some things were, some things were still the same. Rob still got worked up about things. She was a little uncomfortable at the surge of affection that fact brought.


She crammed her sleeping bag into its tiny stuff sack and pulled the top shut. It was going to be wet, she knew. Everyone was talking positively, religiously refusing to say the word “rain,” but they were bringing enough canvas to build a tarp city up there.

They had gone up last year over the Labor Day weekend and every one of the regular places was packed full with two or three vehicles, so they had just kept driving down the logging road, bouncing through potholes in the darkness, eventually stopping at what might have been a good spot.

And they had made it into a good spot. It had been less than a handful that time-Shawn, Dara, Tink, and herself. They had stumbled over the piles of broken boulders to an area that seemed flat in comparison, and pitched the tent by electric lamplight. The river was fifty feet away, though it sounded closer. It felt like they had been plucked and set down in the middle of the wilderness.

They curled up inside only to discover that they were on a steeper slope than they had thought. They spent a few minutes laughing and rolling down on top of Shawn, who was at the base until someone, probably Shawn, convinced them that it was healthier to sleep head down, so the blood circulated in the brain easier. They all did the ninety degree rotation and it worked, though it took getting used to.

She wondered if the extra blood up there changed the content of a person’s dreams, making them richer, more vivid. Or the environmental effects like the sound of the river, the wind on the tent, the birds. Unfortunately she had slept too deeply to remember anything she had dreamt that night.

The next day when they had woken up they had discovered that the site had looked better in the darkness-there was the small open section where the tent was, the broken rock piles, and the rest was overgrown with brambles. They had spent hours pulling up brambles and flattening out the sand beneath, and once they were done, everyone was covered in nicks and scrapes. The challenge this year was going to be remembering exactly where that spot was so they didn’t have to do that again.

She put a rubber band around Crime and Punishment to keep the pages from falling out and packed it into one of the side pockets of her bag. She threw a deck of cards in at the last minute and zipped it all shut. The two cars were parked out front-they were taking Rob’s Jetta and Wade’s beat-up Taurus. Most of them were outside playing catch with a frisbee on the sidewalk and lawn, all of their stuff packed in the trunk already.

She squeezed her pack into Wade’s trunk and slammed it, then turned and smiled at everyone.

“Ready when you are.”


The trip started out like all road-trips do, with high energy and plenty of fooling around. Shawn had a walkie-talkie set, so the two cars traded comments as they barreled up the interstate. Natalie was in Wade’s car with him and Tink, while Shawn and Dara rode with Rob. For a moment there it had looked like it was going to be Rob and her all alone in the car, with the other four in Wade’s car, but she had spoken up in time.

“Let’s see, we might as well go three and three to keep things even. Shawn and Dara, you guys can ride together with Rob and I’ll ride in the back of Wade’s car.”

The Canadian border was not even an hour away. As they neared it, they ironed the story out.

“All we need to say is we’ll be gone for two days camping,” Shawn’s voice insisted over the radio.

“But what if they ask us other questions? We should go over all our information again,” said Tink.

“They won’t.”

“What if they do?”

“All we need to say is who we are and what we’re doing. Camping for two days.”


TWO DAYS!” he yelled.

There was silence until they reached the border. Wade pulled into his gate and was waved through. Shawn was still talking with the guard, and after a moment the guard directed Shawn to the side.

“Oh, shit,” said Wade.

Shawn walked into the building and a few minutes later came out with a different guard, who made everyone get out of the car.

“They’ll find something. They’ll plant something there if they need to. We’re screwed,” Wade muttered as the guard began to paw through the trunk.

Wade pinched his eyes and leaned forward, refusing to look back.

“They’re letting them go,” Natalie said, and his head snapped around.

“Lucky as hell,” he whispered.

They took turns trying to sound like truckers with the radios. “Breaker Breaker One Nine, this is the Big Dog calling Little Bo Peep, do you have yer ears on?”

“Ten Four, good buddy, and be advised there’s a Smokey on your tail.”

Shawn had forgotten to fill up before the border, so they stopped at a Petro-Canada and Rob ran in to buy a pack of cigarettes while the rest of them got out to stretch. They pulled out a map to verify their route before climbing back into the cars.

Once the darkness arrived, Natalie found the sleeping bags and pillows which were stacked around her in the back very inviting. She woke up again on the logging road as they pitched and heaved through the potholes.

The campsite was still there, and the piles of sharp boulders were as bad or worse than she remembered. They took their time, stumbling and picking the way down with lamp light, testing rocks for stability and avoiding sharp edges, using hands and feet to probe ahead.

They had one large tent to set up and they each carried an armload of tent poles except for Shawn and Wade, who teamed up to carry the tent itself. Rob had volunteered but had been shot down because, as Shawn said while motioning to Rob’s leg, he was “4-F.” There was no rain falling from the sky, but it was pooled on the ground in places. They spread out the biggest tarp they had and Shawn began to erect the tent.

Everyone else grabbed a tent pole and pretended to be doing something with it for a moment, but it was clear he was the only one who really knew how the tent worked. It was a big old army tent. Rob put down his tent pole and began climbing back over the rocks.

Shawn was trying to direct Wade on which loop to feed which pole through when they heard the car start. The conversation stopped and everybody looked up as Rob backed away from the side of the road and then ahead again so that the headlights were pointed toward them.

It was strange to be in the glare of headlights-her first thought was that she was about to be run over. It was no wonder the deer froze up.

Rob opened the door and the car’s interior light blinked on. It was such complete blackness out here without the street lamps and city lights that the car stood like a beacon, a lighthouse to warn against the broken rocks along the side of the road.

“Is that going to help?” he called.

“Yeah, I think so. Better than my headlamp alone,” said Shawn.

Everyone began to trek back and forth from the tent to the cars to transport the goods, and Wade turned on the lights of the other car, positioning it at another angle to cut out some of the hard-edged shadow.

If it hadn’t been quite so late, they would have probably set up a campfire and fooled around for a few hours, but everyone knew that once the tent was up, they would all be in it. In fact the tent was only half up, still sagging, when they began to crawl inside to unroll sleeping bags and claim their spots.

Rob took the lantern and headed back to the road to turn the headlights off. Tinker was peeking out from her mummy-bag, one arm awkwardly stuck out the top to hold her lighter aloft as people crawled in. Shawn was the only one with a light besides the lantern.

Natalie began to feel a tinge of claustrophobia with all these bodies packing themselves into this thing. She closed her eyes, but the noises surrounded her: breathing, shuffling, muttering, giggling. Personal space was always at a premium in a tent.

A dim glow from outside the tent grew brighter, foretelling the coming of Rob, or maybe a Canadian park ranger. It was Rob. He poked his head in with his eyes squinted, as though trying to make out the people, to determine whether this was the correct tent.

“Over beside Natalie,” Tinker called out from within her bag.

He was still squinting-the lamp was right beside his face and it was the only thing easily visible. She didn’t want to call out “Come here, Rob,” because that sounded a little more inviting then she wanted it to, so she was quiet.

“Where, now…” he muttered.

“Say something, Nat!” came Tink’s voice again.

“He’ll figure it out,” she said casually, quietly, glad for a chance to say something without saying it directly to him.

Rob fell into place by his sleeping bag. “He’ll figure it out,” he muttered. “Thanks.”

She turned her face sluggishly toward him and made a noise to acknowledge him which implied that she was too far into sleep to actually open her mouth and respond with words. She smiled with her eyes closed. The nice thing about camping, and tents in particular, was that you could pretend you were sleeping and get away with it.

She watched him settle into his spot through half-open eyes. The lantern cast a hard shadow across his face; he looked at once familiar and unknown as he wriggled in place, trying to make a nest by forming the sand to his body.

When the lantern was off, she lay with her eyes open and watched the darkness. Whispered voices slowly died, the words becoming fewer and spaced further apart before finally disappearing and settling into breaths. It wasn’t long before Rob began to snore; she was caught off-guard at the memory of that sound, and of other times, years ago, when she and Rob were lying beside each other, she awake with her thoughts and worries floating in the air around her, and he next to her, snoring.

The past didn’t want to stay there. It was a flammable cocktail that was brewing inside of her. She visualized all her emotions boiling around inside her, squeezing out of her throat. She imagined vomiting them into her hands and offering it all to God.

That was how she prayed. Two or three years ago, when she had started trying to pray again, or maybe it was for the first time, she kept running stuck. She tried to gather all her thoughts and questions together and when they were all there for one brief instant, churning and massing and pushing at the edges, she would try to turn to God. The thin membrane that was holding everything ready in a pretty package would burst and she would be sitting alone on her bed like a popped balloon.

It was a learning process. Prayer isn’t a time for holy thoughts, or purity, or carefully crafted phrases, she was discovering. It’s a time for rage, for pain, for despair and hope. A time to sit in the dirt and joy of everyday life, to purge herself of the questions that plagued her by flinging them at God. Sometimes when she prayed, all she could do was sit there with her torso ripped apart and her guts in her hands. When you pray you sweat blood.

Turning emotion into words loses in the translation; instead of mouthing words that never represented what was circulating inside her, she tried to speak in emotion, which seemed closer to God’s native tongue. It was easier to pray without ceasing that way-emotions keep coming where words fail, and then you just spit them up and let God deal with them.


They woke up early, or rather, Shawn woke up early and made such a noise getting out of the tent that everybody else had no choice. Natalie stayed curled up in her sleeping bag, not as warm as she liked to be in the morning and feeling a little stiff. Rob tried to talk to her once in his morning voice but she just curled deeper. He yawned and crawled out.

There were three of them inside yet-Tink, Wade, and herself. The others had left their sleeping bags hollow like spent cocoons. She was relieved that Rob was not next to her anymore. Shawn was muttering about rain which made it feel better inside. It felt like they had divided into two parties which were camping independently of each other. She lay there, half-awake, vaguely translating the sounds that were coming from outside until she couldn’t justify remaining in her bag any longer.

The others had constructed a canopy with rope, branches, and canvas; each square of canvas was stretched taut into a relatively flat plane and overlapped with the next, held there with ropes that were tied to trees or long branches acting as pillars.

They agreed that the three who had slept late would find firewood and cook breakfast since the others had already built the shelter from the coming rain. Shawn volunteered to get the stove going while the sleepers gathered wood.

Natalie walked out into the bushes behind the campsite, gathering anything that looked like it would burn and throwing it back towards the tents. Some of it was dry, but a lot of it was damp from a previous day’s rain and from dew.

Rob was sitting in a lawn chair, watching them as they picked up logs. “You know,” he said, “hunting and gathering isn’t so bad.”

Natalie turned around with three logs cradled in her arms. “Says the guy who’s neither hunting nor gathering.”

They cooked their breakfast on the stove-bacon and eggs in one pan and water in the other. The meat-eaters had taken the burner on the right side, which gave the most heat, so the water took a small eternity to boil. Wade was put in charge of the cooking, cracking eggs and putting raw bacon in beside it. He muttered “We’re camping, dammitt,” if anyone complained about the greasy eggs.

Once the water was hot enough, Natalie added some of it to her bowl of instant oatmeal and put a piece of bread on the flame toaster. She went to sit on a rock overlooking the river. It was cool out, there was no denying that. But there was something about camping near a river, or near any body of water for that matter, which compelled a person to go into it. Last year the water had been higher and faster; they had gone in one by one with a rope tied around their waist and fought the current with the other three holding the other end of the rope for safe measure.

“Who’s going to go swimming in the river with me after breakfast?” She looked back at the campsite; a pack of greasy-mouthed carnivores stared back, hunched over their plates.

“In the river?”

“No way,” Tinker called from behind the tent, where she was huddled with her oatmeal as though still recovering from the year before.

“I’m in,” said Shawn.

“I’ll do it,” Rob followed.

Natalie was going to rinse her bowl out when she noticed something in the water. Tiny fish, bright orange, were floating in suspension near the shallows, their heads facing the current. Once she saw the first few, she could see them everywhere.

She called the others and they all stood on the edge, watching. Shawn flipped little pebbles at the fish-some darted out of the shallows into the current; others didn’t seem to notice. Natalie threw crumbs of bread out and they gobbled them up.

They were smaller than she would have imagined, but they were still pointed against the flow. Tough little things. They didn’t seem to be moving ahead, just holding their ground, barely. She knew the feeling.


They each had their own way of getting in the water. Rob thrashed out to the middle and plunged under, then jumped up and thrashed back out, hyperventilating. Shawn waded right in as though it didn’t phase him, until he was in halfway between his knees and waist. He gasped quietly as the water soaked through his shorts and then he folded his knees, opening his arms and collapsing into the water. She stood on the shore, bare feet on stone, growing colder and colder.

Slowly she moved ahead. Rain was beginning to spit on them. The rocks were like knives pressed against her feet, which were growing numb and losing their feeling. The water licked up her leg, biting each time it rose higher than the last. It came just past her knees when she began to lower herself in slowly, horizontally, like she was on the downstroke of a push-up in slow motion.

“She’s crazy,” said Rob, who was already wrapped shivering in a towel.

She tuned out the voices and concentrated on the water as she went almost to eye level, watching the droplets of rain hit from point blank, and then she went under completely, her face into the current. She floated like that for a moment, clasping rocks to hold herself in place, trying to think like a salmon, holding her own against the flow of water. She could feel her core temperature dropping, and when she went up for air she couldn’t make herself go back down.

“Get out of there! Your lips are blue,” Tink said.

She tottered to her feet, holding her clinging t-shirt out with one hand, and staggering towards shore, unable to feel the ground or control her legs. Tink draped her in a towel and rubbed her down as though she had just won a fight.

“You look like a corpse.”

“Thanks,” she said through her teeth.

“Well, I think we were outdone,” Shawn said to Rob. “Wanna go again?”

“No, but I will if you do.”

Rob seemed to be pretty comfortable with her friends already. They splashed back in and out, whooping and screaming. In another crowd, she might have made a joke about them being ‘double-dippers,’ people who had been baptized twice. But not this crowd. She sometimes felt incredibly lonely, even in the middle of a group of friends. There was a piece of her that none of them could relate to, and she felt like she wasn’t allowed to talk about it. Sometimes she wondered if anybody could understand her. Anybody who wasn’t invisible and silent and almighty.

She felt like she was straddling a creek, one foot and all its doubts and questions planted over there with the pagans, and the other foot in all its audacity having fallen firmly in love with Jesus, planted on the other side with the Christians, so in the final count she didn’t fit in completely on either side. Maybe there was no crowd where she would feel completely comfortable.

Everyone made their way back toward the tent, clustering near the campstove, where the water for dishes was boiling. She scooped up some water in a mug and dropped a teabag in it, setting it on the woodpile to steep. Rob sat down in a lawnchair, looking down at his chest and pinching one of his nipples. “These guys’ll cut glass right now,” he said, sticking his chest out like a weapon.

“Thanks for the warning,” she said. “I claim the tent for a few minutes.”

The rain was becoming a little more insistent, and Wade began to construct a teepee of branches in the firepit. He took the axe and began to split kindling from a dry log.

She zipped the tent shut behind her, dropped the wet towel, and started to peel off her clothes, listening to the outside conversation

“We’ve got a bunch of paper in a bag beside the tent,” Tink said.

“I don’t want any paper. I’m making this fire the real way.”

It felt strange to be naked and separated from everyone by this thin piece of canvas alone. She felt exposed, as though the tent weren’t thick enough.

“Whatever. You know where it is when you need it.”

Natalie found her sports bra and got into it, then felt around in her pack. Rain was pattering on the canvas roof they had stretched above the tent. She pulled on big wool socks, sweatpants and a sweatshirt, then wrapped herself in her sleeping bag and unzipped the tent.

Rob smiled when he saw her. “Someone’s not planning to go too far for a while.”

She smiled. “I just need to sit down inside this for a while to get the blood flowing again.”

“Your lips are still blue.”

She sucked her lips into her mouth to hide them.

“That looks like a good idea,” Tink said, eyeing the sleeping bag.

Tink went into the tent to get her bag and Nat curled up on one of the chairs in hers, holding her tea in two hands. It felt heavenly. Rob was still sitting there with his shirt off, which made her feel warmer and colder at the same time. He leaned forward to find a stick, preparing to poke in the ashes, and she saw the spray of moles across his back like ink spots on a page from her past. She saw herself lying in bed beside him, where was it-Berlin? Amsterdam? He was on his stomach reading to her from a guidebook and she was parallel to him, playing connect-the-dots with these small brown growths scattered between his shoulder blades, inventing constellations with them or running her fingertips across them, reading him like Braille.

Wade pulled some newspaper out of the grocery bag, glancing guiltily at the tent where Tink had gone in and silently holding a finger to his lips, motioning to the others not to reveal to her his secret.

Rob shook a cigarette from the box.

“Did you see these warnings?” he asked, handing the box to Wade, who passed it around.

There was a photograph of a pregnant woman holding a cigarette, emblazoned with the words Cigarettes Hurt Babies.

“I got these because I’m not pregnant. The other brand gives you nasty teeth or makes you impotent.”

“That was wise,” Wade said.

Once the fire was going, they all sat around it for a short time and made comments about it.

“That heat is just what we needed.”

“Will it melt through the tarp?”

“I doubt it.”

“I hope so; we definitely need a chimney here.”

“Hey! You used paper!”

It took some time for them to devise a system to allow the smoke to float out. They took a long branch that had been broken off of a tree and propped it up under one side of the roof, so that it was a slant roof and the smoke could float up and out while the rain rolled down and off. At least that was the theory. There was still a lot of smoke under the tarp.

They decided to go for a little hike while it aired out. The rain had tapered off, though the sky was still overcast. Upstream in the river, they could see a huge boulder which they had hiked onto last year and which overlooked both the river and the campsite. Slightly downstream, a little bridge spanned the river, built of huge logs and tied down with cables. Driftwood and branches were crammed into the crevices, much higher up than the river went, evidence that the water was low.

They followed the gravel logging road up past a little wooden hut and then ducked into the trees on the left side, picking their way back down towards the sound of the water. Dara slipped on a fallen tree that had been stripped of its bark and slid part of the way down the slope, nearly taking Shawn down with her.

The rock they were headed toward jutted out from the side bank, forcing the river around it, but they had to scale down a rock wall to a section that had been eroded out between the rock and the bank. Water eddied in front of it, some being forced around the rock, but a portion of it pooling off to the side. It continued building up and periodically overflowed so that water surrounded both sides of the rock, making it into an island temporarily, and then subsiding.

Shawn was down first, walking a rib of stone that was elevated above the shallow pools of water that remained on either side of it. It was slick and he balanced with his arms out like he was walking a tightrope. When he was at the other side, he turned and reached out his hand.

He could reach just far enough that they could grab his hand and steady themselves. One by one they made their way across. The water came up on Tink when she was right in the middle of the crossing and soaked her feet, but everyone else made it across dry.

They climbed on the rock, exploring it again. It was split in two, like the hemispheres of a brain, and a large piece of driftwood that had been stuck in the crack last year was still there. It was perhaps a little whiter, and now with a small graffito on the surface. JD ’00.

“Aw. We should have carved our names last year,” Shawn said, pulling out his jackknife.

Natalie watched him scratch his name out like a sculptor, or a cave man. She smiled-the rest of them were watching him, too, waiting patiently for their chance to mark their territory. 

She took the knife when her turn came and carved out her name in block letters: NAT. She gave Rob the knife and scampered over to the other side of the rock, climbing over the edge near the river and down onto a wide ledge that formed a natural seat. She dangled her feet over the edge so that they hung out above the water.

Last year she had sat here for hours, just watching the river go by, always the same, always new. Maybe the reason that she loved nature was that she could see herself in different parts of it. The rock: passively being eroded, sculpted without much say in the matter. The river: sculpting the landscape, carving a path for itself. The salmon: pushing against the current, knowing that they’re going in the right direction because of the effort it takes to stay where you are. The trees: stretching upwards, shaping themselves, being shaped.

Tink came and sat down next to her. She looked over and smiled.

“What’s on your mind, girl?”

“Oh, art…life. I’m kind of just breathing this all in. It’s amazing.”

Shawn and Dara were having a contest to see who could hit a stump on the opposite bank with rocks, and Rob and Wade were trying to scale a part of the rock from another angle about ten feet down from where they had all climbed up.

“I wouldn’t mind a little more sun, though.” She hugged her arms around herself.

“I guess this is what we get for trying this in mid-October, huh?”

“Yeah. But there’s always that hope.” She looked down at her wet feet. “I’m actually thinking of heading back. My feet are making me really cold.”


Lunch was a fend-for-yourself event; she went into the cooler and pulled out the bagels and cream cheese. They disbanded in pairs: Tink and Rob ate and then went into the tent to nap, Shawn and Dara took some sandwiches and apples and wandered off into the woods for a picnic. This left Wade and her by the fire. He was quietly poking it with a stick until the end was charred, then writing on stones with it, scratching out hieroglyphics.

When she was finished the bagels, she went over to her backpack and pulled out her book. She sat in the lawn chair with her sleeping bag wrapped around her again. The sun was behind a thin cloud now and the rain had stopped again, so it was not as gloomy as it might have been.

After he had poked the fire enough, Wade started to play with the axe, taking a few pieces of wood out of the pile they had made that morning. He was about twenty feet from her, facing away, hacking at the stumps. She tried to ignore the grunts and the sound of the axe head striking the wood, but the sounds began to mesh too well with the story.

Raskolnikov was standing in front of the pawnbroker.

But what has he tied it up like this for?” the old woman cried with vexation and moved toward him.

He had not a minute more to lose. He pulled the axe quite out, swung it with both arms, scarcely conscious of himself, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, brought the blunt side down on her head. THWACK! Grunt.

She stared blankly at the page for a moment, watching Wade through her peripheral vision.

She cried out, but very faintly, and suddenly sank all of a heap on the floor, raising her hands to her head…Then he dealt her another Grunt! and another blow THWACK! with the blunt side and on the same spot. The blood gushed as from an overturned glass, the body fell back.

She kept reading as Raskolnikov ransacked the pawn shop, and Wade kept at the piece of wood, persistent as a regret.

He suddenly heard steps in the room where the old woman lay…In the middle of the room stood Lizaveta with a big bundle in her arms…Seeing him run out of the bedroom, she began faintly quivering all over, like a leaf, a shudder ran down her face; she lifted her hand, opened her mouth, but still did not scream…He rushed at her with the axe; her mouth twitched piteously…And this hapless Lizaveta was so simple and had been so thoroughly crushed and scared that Grunt! she did not even raise a hand to guard her face…THWACK! The axe fell with the sharp edge just on the skull and split at one blow all the top of the head. She fell heavily at once.

She closed the book and then her eyes so she didn’t have to see Wade holding Lizaveta’s head down with his foot, rocking the axe back and forth to loosen it. She felt like an accomplice.

A gentle snore came at more or less regular intervals from the tent. Putting the book down, she made a show of yawning widely. “I think I’m going to catch the last part of that nap,” she said.

Wade wedged the axe into one of the stumps and turned around.

“Oh, okay.”

She carried her sleeping bag from the chair and crawled into the tent. Rob was lying on his side, taking up space in his and her spot. She dropped her bag in the middle, on top of Shawn’s, and got in. It felt great-not only did she have Shawn’s sleeping bag as padding, but his mattress as well. She would have slept a lot better last night if she had a mattress like this.

Tink’s voice startled her. “Maybe you’ll have better luck than me. I can’t sleep.”

“I think I will. But either way, it sure feels good just laying here right now.”

“Yeah, and it sounds like Wade finally put that stupid axe down.”

They were each quiet, waiting for sleep to come. Natalie was slowly finding it when Tink’s voice came again.

“What’s going on with you and Rob?” she asked.

It was strange to be asked a question like that at the moment before going under, and when he was lying right there.

“I don’t know,” she said quietly, worried that the answer would wake Rob. “It’s all too sudden yet. Maybe nothing.”


They didn’t get to sleep for long. Shawn and Dara were waking everyone up to see if they wanted to go on a walk. She rubbed her hands over her face, exploring the perimeter of her eyeballs with her fingers while the others performed their own private rituals for waking up.

Wade was sleeping in the car with his seat tilted back and the stereo on. They made Tink go wake him up, because Shawn was making everyone go on a walk with him-for Rob, he said, reminding them of Rob’s leg. That was the reason they had come, after all.

It wasn’t really a hike, which would imply a trail through the forest. It was more of a walk up the logging road with trees and shrubs on either side. The gravel followed the river for almost half a mile, and then slowly veered off so that there were more and more trees between them and the water. At one point the road was up against a rock wall which had lichens and moss growing on it, and a miniature waterfall running down the side, and they all began to wish that they had thought to bring a water bottle. Rob began to lag behind, not complaining, but favoring his leg. The rain started soon after, and they all turned back. It started slowly and built up in intensity. By the time they reached camp again, it was a downpour.

Shawn lit a fire while the rest of them shook out their jackets and some of them pulled out dry clothes. The smoke hung under the tarps as though it were hiding from the rain as well.

They played cards for a while and then sat around the fire, talking while they each did their own thing: absently poking the fire, tossing things in and watching them burn, or blowing on the embers as darkness slowly surrounded their camp. Natalie watched the fire play on the faces of everyone around the circle. They said that firelight was the most complimentary light for people’s faces.

Wade stood up. “Anybody want a beer?”

He had taken an old mesh laundry bag along and had loaded it up with beer bottles, tied it closed and hung it in the river. Last year they had tried to make a little storage compartment on the edge of the river, using rocks to shape a wall and keep the beers in, but while they were sitting by the fire, the current had knocked some rocks loose and taken half of their beer.

He thrust one into her hands. It was colder than she expected and the cap didn’t twist off as easily as it was supposed to. It cut through the top layers of skin on the inside of her thumb when she tightened her fingers around it and the bottle still gave its little hiss of pleasure as the cap came off.

She had very few memories of alcohol from her childhood. In general, the only time she had anything to do with it was when it was passed in front of her in church or when she scavenged for empties in the ditches around her house.

A year or two before her brother Scott had died, She was at church with Jenny Vandermeulen after the Lord’s Supper. All of the adults had vacated the sanctuary to talk outside after the service and they had gone from pew to pew, gathering up all the little plastic cups from the specially bored holes in the rack that held the bibles and hymnals in the back of the benches.

They poured the remnants of each cup into one: a drop here, two drops there until she had three quarters of a thimble-full of the blood of Christ. Jenny had balked, leaving Natalie to gulp it down and worry about it alone. She had wanted to see what was so mystical about it, to test whether some kind of change would take effect inside her. She hadn’t noticed one.

Hunting for discarded beer bottles seemed to be on another end of a spectrum-trudging through ditches, digging bottles out of the mud and carrying them in a soiled garbage bag, slung over her shoulder as though she were elf to a pauper Santa. Every so often she’d come across a bottle partly full of beer or cheap whiskey that she’d open and pour out, watching it soak into the earth.

But those were just her earliest memories of alcohol. She had other later memories, most of them more like the current scenario. Friends and beer, beer and friends, and pretty soon it’s hard to distinguish between the two.

But she had to be careful not to sink too far down inside herself here or now. Whenever she did that she came out depressed. Enjoy the now. Let the past bury its own dead. The dead will come back to haunt you later, just like they always do.


Shawn got up off the cooler he was sitting on and pulled out some hotdogs and buns. He skewered two hotdogs on one of the sticks and held it out over the fire.

“Isn’t this the life? Out in the woods, sitting around a fire with beers for everyone, getting ready to eat.”

“Yeah, alcohol and smokies are about all you need and life is good.” Rob leaned over and grabbed the package.

Natalie suddenly craved something to go with her beer. She wasn’t enjoying it much on its own. “Something about camping increases my metabolism, I think. I eat a lot more, but I don’t think I do too much more.”

Shawn looked skeptical. “You’re always a bit of a pig, just admit it.”

She tore open the package for the veggie dogs.

“Those are disgusting. Unnatural,” he said.

“Have you ever tried them?”

“Never have, never will.”

“This from the guy who’s eating hotdogs. You do know what they make those out of, right?”

“Lies. Old wives’ tales. Rumors put out by the people who make those kind of things,” he said, motioning toward the end of her stick with his chin.

Rob was rotating his stick as though it were a spit. “Have you guys read anything by Douglas Coupland?” He looked up, but nobody raised their hand. “A few years ago I went through a Coupland phase and read everything of his that I could get my hands on. There was a section in one of them where they’re debating veggie dogs-which lend support to meat culture by trying to mimic it.”

“But the whole point is that they’re not meat,” Tink said.

“I’ll say they’re not; look at that!” Shawn always made a big deal about them. They were somewhat rubbery, and when they went in the fire, they blistered and mutated.

“Yeah, but, why make them look like meat then? It’s like hot dogs are the true thing in Plato’s cave and veggie dogs are the shadows.”

“You have to wean yourself off of meat with things like this,” Tink said.

“No way-you’ve been weaned off of meat for years and you’re still eating that, still trying to fit into the meat culture, which undermines your whole argument.”

Natalie set the dog down inside a bun and reached for the ketchup as Tink turned to her. “Come on, give me some help here!”

“I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”

“Well, if you guys would watch my video, you’d be happy to eat veggie dogs and never touch red meat again. If you saw the look on those cow’s faces just before their eyes exploded…”

“You and your video. You’re preaching about it every chance you get.”

“I am not! I’m just saying-”

“Yeah, yeah. Who wants to watch a slaughterhouse?”

“You should see where your food comes from.”

Wade spoke up for the first time in a while. “Did you know that Indians ate buffalo eyeballs like gum? They’re pretty chewy, I guess.”

“Yeah. I turned green and just about puked in grade eight when we dissected cow eyes,” Rob said.

“Do you know that they hang calves with these big straps, in the darkness, so they don’t ever use their muscles, and beat them with sticks to tenderize them? And then they butcher them.”

“And, let me guess, then their eyeballs explode.”

“Well, if they butcher them that same way. But the point of it is that the meat is so soft you can cut it with a fork on the plate. Don’t you think that’s wrong? To do that to an animal?”

“Maybe it feels like a massage with the sticks,” Wade said, chopping with the edges of his hands in the air.

“I can cut my hot dog with a fork,” Rob said.

“Shut up.”

Natalie swallowed the last part of her bun. “Well?” Shawn asked. “What did you come up with in all that thinking?”

“You know, I don’t think there’ll be veggie dogs in the perfect world.”

“Oh, great. Now Nat’s not even going to eat veggie dogs.” Shawn laughed. “What have we done?”

“I didn’t say that; I’ve got to think about it a little more. In the meantime, I guess I might as well have another, just in case.”

Rob went down to the river and harvested more beer.

Tink was sulking about the argument, but she started cooking another one as well. Rob brought back the entire net of beer, like a catch of fish, and passed bottles around. He asked Shawn to slide over and put the extras in the cooler, then filled up the net with warmer beer. The bottles clinked as he slung it over his shoulder and turned back to the river.


Natalie hadn’t meant to drink much, but it had happened anyway. Everyone had stopped eating except Rob, who was on his sixth or seventh hotdog, claiming that he didn’t get very good mileage. It was dark all around, except for the fire, which tied them all together like a band of thieves gathered in the night. They were taking turns telling ghost stories. She watched the light flicker on Tink’s face. Everyone’s gaze seemed to be drawn to the fire as they told their stories, rising every now and then to double check that everyone else was still there, that they hadn’t silently been taken, or risen and left the storyteller alone, talking to the flames and embers.

Natalie was just starting to tell a story she had read as a child from a collection of supposedly true, unexplained events.

“Okay, the story is set in the Depression. This man was working at a sort of a corner store, and it was a stormy night.”

“Not unlike tonight,” Shawn said in a slow, drawn-out voice.

“Right,” she said. “But for about four days, this thin lady who was dressed in rags had come in-”

“Not unlike Tinker,” Shawn broke in.

“-and she wouldn’t say anything-she’d just stand by the milk bottles. He had noticed she was carrying a baby’s bottle and had decided to give her the milk for free. She had disappeared into the darkness on foot each day. Today, she seemed especially agitated, and he was starting to worry because every day she looked worse, as though she were getting sicker and sicker.

“He tried to talk with her, but she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, reply. He told her to wait for a moment and rang the doctor. She began to get very nervous, and looked like she might leave without the milk, but he wanted to keep her there until the doctor came, so he wouldn’t give her the milk. Just before the doctor came, she turned and ran out into the storm. The shopkeeper watched her disappear into the darkness. He stood facing the rain for a few moments and then got his wife from the back.”

“His wife worked at the corner store, too?” Tinker asked.

“Well, the store was attached to their house, I think, so she was just in the house. But he had told her about the lady, and when the doctor came, they all set off in the direction that he had seen her go before she disappeared into the darkness.

“They had lanterns to light the way, and they could follow the footprints in the mud, because she seemed to avoid well-traveled paths. The prints were perfectly clear and led straight to the local cemetery, until they stopped sharply at the edge of this mound of dirt.

“The doctor had turned white. They took a few moments debating what to do, and the shopkeeper told them all again about her child, and how sick the lady herself had looked that night. He decided to uncover whatever was buried here and started scraping the loose dirt away.”

“With what?”

“Maybe he ran back and got a shovel, I don’t know. But it wasn’t long before he hit the top of the wooden coffin. It was a cheaply made coffin, and for a moment he wasn’t sure what to do. He started filling it back in when he thought he heard a sound.

“The doctor was still pale, and explained that he had been at the burial ceremony of a young mother and her child late last week. He moved stiffly, but helped him pull the coffin out and they opened it up. The shopkeeper recognized the dead lady inside as the mysterious visitor of the last five nights; in her arms was a small child who was crying weakly, and beside her in the casket, four empty milk bottles.”

“Oooh.” Tinker said.

“Come on, that’s not scary,” said Shawn.

“Who said anything about scary? It’s just supposed to be mysterious.” Natalie said.

“Oooh.” Shawn said.

“I’m not sure that the guy would have enough motivation to actually start digging there. That’s not quite believable,” Wade said.

Natalie rolled her eyes at him and shrugged her shoulders.

Rob poked the fire with his hot dog stick. “I have a story, but it probably won’t be scary as a story-it was actually a dream I had, and at the time was quite spooky. It might not work as a story though.”

“Shoot,” said Wade.

“Well, it was a kind of a camp-out, and it was a younger version of me and my father together with a friend and his father. We were around a small fire, with the kids here and the dads here,” he said, motioning around the fire with his hands. "His father was telling all these stories, I don’t even remember what about. Escaped criminals, or ghosts, or creatures, or some unknown evil. Anyway, after the story, we all got ready for bed, and we camped a little ways away from the grown-ups so we could feel kind of courageous.

“We were lying there and came up with this plan to scream and see if we could freak our parents out. So we yelled, but then we started laughing. And this is where the perspective of the dream changed. Instead of me looking from my perspective, it swings around like a movie camera, and I’m looking over my dad’s shoulder like I’m hovering there.” He indicated a sweeping motion with his hands and twisted slightly in his seat to show the perspective change.

“I can hear us laughing a little ways up, and the lamp my dad is holding gets blown out. I hear this thump, and the other dad lights his lamp and comes over. He sees my dad’s body on the ground and checks his pulse, then lifts the lamp up and tries to crane his neck to where we are still giggling. I can see us both, like I’m having an out of body experience, looking back down on myself. We look up at his dad, smiling, but then our expressions turn to terror as we look behind him, and it seems like they’re looking at me, at my floating, out-of-body presence. And at that moment, I am hit with the certainty that I’m the one that blew out the light, killed my own dad, I’m some kind of evil presence floating in the shadows, and I’m moving in on them.” His eyes flickered up and he looked past Tinker into the darkness.

There was silence for a moment and everyone stared at Rob, whose gaze had dropped again so that he was staring into the fire introspectively as though lost in thought and wishing not to be disturbed.

BWAAH!” Rob said, jerking his head and bringing his hands up like claws. Natalie had flinched back slightly but she didn’t think it had been visible to the others in the darkness.

“Not bad, but not too good,” Wade concluded.

“What can you do,” Rob said. “I tried.”

“Let’s tell happy stories,” Tink suggested.

“Start us off, then, Tink.”

“Well, I don’t know. Maybe we could tell funny childhood stories.”

“Go for it.”

“I’ve got to think about it.”

“Okay, anybody then,” Wade said. “Somebody’s got to have a story. We’re just looking for some plain old stories to get us started here. Did anybody eat their goldfish or shave the cat?”

“It’s not a story, but I have a question about goldfish,” Rob said. “Is it really true that they can only remember the past thirty seconds of life? Someone told me that if a goldfish is out of water for a short time, it’ll forget it ever lived in water.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Yeah, that sounds a little fishy,” Shawn said and Wade hit him.

“I don’t know how they could measure that. It would be a neat thing if it were true though.”

There was silence, and Rob spoke up again. “I have another question about goldfish, and this one relates to something in my childhood. Is it true that the size of the goldfish is determined by the size of the tank-that they stop growing if they’re getting too big for their bowl?”

“I think that that one’s true,” Shawn said.

“Well, either way, I took that theory as a young boy and applied it to underpants.” He faltered, as though he was unsure about whether to tell the rest of the story. Natalie shook her head. She knew where this was going.

“You put goldfish in your underwear?” Wade looked confused.

“No! I just had a parallel theory. Call it the ‘goldfish theory of underpants.’”

“I don’t understand,” Wade said.

Rob looked up from the fire apologetically, scratching his goatee. “This was maybe not a good story.”

“So that’s it?” Wade asked.

“He thought that his penis would get bigger if he wore bigger underwear,” Natalie said, louder than she intended. She set her bottle down to slow her pace.

Rob pinched his eyes shut with a grimace and she burst out laughing. She felt her nostrils flaring and put a hand up to block her nose from view.

Rob’s face lit up. “Man, I haven’t seen that in a long time. That’s awesome.”

“What?” she asked, feeling apprehensive suddenly. How was it that he was laughing at her?

“That thing, the way you cup your nose in your hand when you laugh. I love it.”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Tink broke in. “No changing the subject. We were in the middle of talking about your theory about penises. Penii.”

“No, come on. That was about all. It was just that my mom would always buy me these tighty-whiteys, so I started asking for boxers to test the theory.”

“Did you get them?”

“Yeah, eventually.”

Tink was laughing. “Did it work?”

Rob glanced down, then back up, his eyebrows asking whether he was really supposed to answer that.

Someone started passing more beers around.

Wade gave a little snort. “Anybody else want to tell a story about their genitalia?”

Rob shook his head.

There was a pause again. She was subconsciously counting the pauses in the conversation and tried to stop.

Shawn yawned and arched his back. “The license plates are right. This is super. Natural.”

Natalie was starting to feel light-headed. She took one last mouthful and set her half-empty beer on the ground beside her again. Or was it half-full? She was at the point where the happy buzz she had going was getting ready cross over to the other side. If she drank any more, she knew she’d feel sick shortly.

But maybe she had already had too much. She started to turn inwards again, watching the rest of them but slowly disappearing into her own head. The conversation moved and shifted like smoke, and she silently watched. Here they were, a bunch of people growing old but pretending not to, sitting around the fire. She felt a chill and pulled her jacket on.

She skewered a plastic grocery bag with her stick and turned it over the fire. The plastic shrunk and pulled; holes appeared. She held it in the flames and watched it melt, then catch fire. The bag began to drip from the stick in tiny blobs that trailed tails of fire like meteors or falling stars, and she was tempted for a moment to drop one on her skin like she sometimes did with hot wax.

She was catching only snippets of the conversation. Shawn tried to give her another beer, so she picked up the one she already had. She had planned to hold it just long enough for him to go away, but she took a swig of it like a reflex.

“I’m out of it right now,” she said, and they smiled.

She poked the fire again. They were talking about their families now. Dara spoke for only about the third time tonight, to say that Wade was still living at home, and everyone laughed. Tink complained that talking to her dad was like talking to the radio.

Natalie didn’t feel like contributing to this one. Her family was not as much a group chat topic. Your little brother is trying to decide which schools to apply to? My brother drowned when he was fifteen. Your mom still treats you like a child? My mom suffers from severe depression and blames everything on herself. Your dad talks like a radio? My dad ran off with a lady from our church, and then came back a few years later because she wanted to be near her family. Hello ex-family, we’re going to be neighbors now, isn’t that swell? And here she was, going to be solidly in her late twenties in a few weeks, still acting like a child, sitting around a campfire and getting wasted. Not sure what her life was for. She worked in a second-hand store. The product of a model Christian home. She tried not to think about her family unless she was alone, because it made her no fun to be around.

Rob was staring at her. “You okay, Nat?”

“Yeah. Well, no. I don’t feel too good.”

She had the impression that she was about to vomit. “Thanks. I think I’m going to go for a walk in the trees for a bit.”

She stood up and made her way out from under the tarp, trying to discreetly hold back whatever was trying to escape from her throat.

She had to go all the way out to the road to get to the trees, unless she wanted to squeeze through the brambles. She began to pick her footsteps carefully on the rocks. Everything was black except for the glow of the fire behind her. The air was cool. She was halfway to the cars when she heard a burst of laughter from behind her.

Wade called out, “Choose your spot wisely!”

She leaned a hand against a rock to balance herself. She wasn’t going to have much choice about it. She bent down to minimize the splash and vomited onto the rocks. She felt better and she felt worse. She spit and wiped her mouth, then continued toward the road.

Her eyes had begun to adjust to the night, and she could pick out faint shapes now-the bridge, the road, the trees. She crossed the bridge and entered the trees on the other side, tripping on the roots, the uneven ground. She went far enough that the road was no longer visible.

Not that anything was fully visible. It was the idea of it. She sat down on a seat of moss that was growing on an old log and the water soaked through her pants immediately. It was a connecting point and it brought her to attention. She imagined that she was becoming a part of the area, drawing water up from below. She curled her hands around the bottom of the log she sat on, gripping it as though her fingers were roots, searching for something.

She became like the trees, and the trees became almost human. Her fingers were roots, their branches were arms. She stretched upwards, they stretched upwards, bent down, twisted and laid flat. If trees had thoughts, she wondered whether the saplings ever wondered what to do with their lives, or wished to fill a space in the sky that right now they could only look up at. Or if they ever felt like they were growing in the wrong place.

Did fish ever question whether or not this was really the right river to be in? Did they ever just want to give up and let the current take them? Did unsprouted seeds sometimes think that maybe it would be more comfortable to just sleep down in the little bed they were in instead of pushing up to the surface? Were there ever any bees who decided a life wasn’t worth sacrificing for a fraction of a tablespoon of honey?

But they all seemed to keep going, for the most part. She tried to trace the outline of a tree with her eye. The saplings kept growing, pushing against the sky like salmon against the current, slowly making headway. And in the process, each young tree grew and was shaped, becoming stronger, filling a hole in the sky. It was all slow, and much of it behind the scenes, not dramatic enough to make the news, but it happened, and it kept happening.

The branches dug into the sky like roots, tasting it, drawing energy from it, while under the soil, roots stretched into the ground like branches, and worms made nests in them. Perhaps young trees sometimes felt like they were growing with the upside down, or maybe they eventually realized that they were really downside up. This thought helped; sometimes she felt that way.

She didn’t know what time it was. She started back toward the road. It was cold. Time spent in this way was like a conversation spoken in hints and nudges, an unseen force molding her thoughts, shaping her impressions as they grew.

A gentle rain began again, and she crouched in the middle of the bridge, looking up at the sky, at the stars which she knew were behind the dark of the clouds. She felt her equilibrium going and sat down, leaning back on her arms. A raindrop landed on her forehead and she closed both eyes, but kept her face upturned as more drops found her. For a moment, the rain felt like a blessing and then it ran into her eyes.

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