Carla parked next to a rusted blue pick-up with a cracked windshield. The kids scrambled out of the car. She caught Sam, and slipped the straps of a small backpack over her arms. Sam staggered, though the pack only held a can of beans, toilet paper, and a flashlight. “You still have to carry your sleeping bag, Sam.” She handed Ben his pack and a sleeping bag. She’d carry the third bag, the tent strapped to her pack, the wood and water by hand. She looked back to make sure the car was locked.
Backlit by the afternoon sun, the ranger stood in the road watching them. She didn’t give a damn what he thought. Sam had embarrassed Carla inside the ranger station. Her daughter had pointed at a poster for a missing person and said, “Ricky’s missing!” “Who is Ricky?” said the ranger, straightening his cap. Carla felt hot. She explained that Ricky was her brother and he wasn’t really missing.
They hadn’t been on a vacation in years. She never had the kids on weekends; she saw Sam and Ben weeknights when she was exhausted from teaching. She’d gotten it together enough to plan this trip for the week before summer school started. The trip had been in the works for six months. Ben and Sam had never gone camping before.
“Let’s go! It’s the Wild Wood, kids.”
Clinging to the straps of their packs, baseball caps pulled low over their eyes, the children walked ahead down the path. Their legs looked pathetically thin rising out of their second-hand hiking boots.
Carla followed them into the crackling stillness and the mossy air. Filtered through leaves, the light was green. She walked a dozen feet down the path and remembered: forests were magical places. Forests were alive and magical and time became fluid, a continuous rippling present. The last time she’d gone camping she’d been a girl, car camping with her mom and Ricky.
The trail wound through the trees so that they could never quite see where they were going. “Sam, let’s stop and tie your boot. And don’t drag the sleeping bag in the dirt.”
Carla knelt awkwardly beneath the weight of her pack and tied Sam’s laces. Sam’s tiny knee glinted with down. Had she remembered the first aid kit? Yes. Ever since the divorce, Carla had become jittery, paranoid about disease, accidents, and car wrecks. She kept in mind what other people liked to forget—a human being was fragile, a wisp of bone and flesh and eyes and spirit that could vanish. That’s what she’d thought when she was a kid and her father had died: her dad, a big, hilarious, hot-tempered guy with huge scarred hands and a smell of Irish Spring soap, had just vanished. And left what? A silence.
A silence that blew in her ear and made her stumble. For weeks she looked in dark corners and behind every door. “Dad?” Because how could you just stop talking to someone like that?
They started down the trail again. The kids walked in front of her, the sleeping bags bouncing off their legs. They passed empty camp sites, dreary and abandoned-looking. “It’s Monday. Everyone else is at work,” she told them. “What’d you do to your leg, Ben?” There was a bright red blossom of blood where he’d squashed a mosquito.
The plastic handle of the firewood bag cut into her hand and her shoulder burned from the weight of the water, but she was euphoric as they walked through a shaft of sunlight teeming with dust and pollen. The rustling aspen and the pine with dark glistening needles had presence, as if they bore silent witness. The trees calmed her.
A crimped, pale green moss grew on the north face of boulders and the trunks of large trees. “That means the air is clean.” Every rock, the tree root curling across the dirt path, a glossy-leafed bush with white berries had a lucid reality. It was as though Carla hadn’t been living in the real world, but it had been here waiting for her.
They passed a grove of vine maples. The branches wove together into a bower, a shelter of shadowed patterns.
“When Ricky and I were kids,” Carla said, “we went camping.”
“How old were you?” Ben crouched next to a toadstool.
“Don’t touch it. I was twelve and he was about five. We camped in Michigan with Grandma. Next to our camp site there was a big tree with branches that hung over a stream. It was like a tunnel underneath the branches. Ricky and I held hands and stepped across the water from rock to rock. The crocodiles couldn’t get you if you didn’t let go.”
“There were crocodiles?” said Sam. She was drawing in the dirt with the toe of her boot.
“No, we pretended. As long as you hung on, you were good. . . .Get up, Ben. Get away from that mushroom.”
It had rained the third day. She and Ricky had draped a tarp over branches and sat underneath and she held him on her lap, her cheek pressed against his small cold cheek. They’d watched the rain sizzle on leaves and drip off the edge of the tarp onto the dirt. Except for the rain, it was so quiet. She held him in her arms.
“Can we go there?” Ben said.
He shook his long bangs out of his eyes. Ben was all angles, arms and legs skinny and brown, with thick scabs on his knees and elbows. She hardly really saw him anymore. He was nine years old, and she was busy and tired. The only time they spent together was at dinner and before bed when she read to both of them. She spoke toward him. Ben. He was gazing right at her, into her eyes, if she looked. She bent to kiss him, and nearly fell over from the weight she was carrying.
“What did you say?” she said.
“Can we go there sometime?”
“No.” She set down the wood and the water and stretched her hands; her back was wet. Sunscreen was leaking into her eyes and stung. “It’s in Michigan. I only went there once. I probably couldn’t find it.”
Sam sat on a rock and put her head between her knees; her hair fell across her face. “Maybe Ricky’s camping.”
A muscle in Carla’s back cramped; she leaned forward and pulled the pack’s weight off her shoulders. “Yeah, maybe.”
For the past eight nights, Carla’s mother had sat up on her porch until three a.m. with the cordless phone in her lap. “These kids deserve to have some fun,” she’d said when they stopped by that morning for the tent. The skin around her eyes was grey and creased. She wore her red nylon uniform that stunk like hamburgers. She avoided Carla’s eyes, and held out her heavy arms to the children. “Ricky will turn up. Just go, just go.”
Carla ran her fingers over her forehead; it was slick with sweat.
“There’s a tiny black crab on my leg.”
“Get it off you! It’s a tick.”
When Ricky was a teenager and Carla was in her twenties, spring and summer nights they’d sit out back on the rusted metal chairs under the mulberry tree. In June, they’d smash the fruit under their bare feet, eat handfuls, and pick the hard green stems from their teeth. They smoked and drank beer and laughed over old stories while the light got bluer and bluer. He’d sometimes reach over and hold her wrist while she was talking.
Her wrist was where she’d gotten the tattoo, a bright blue bird with outspread wings, in honor of the divorce. Ricky had talked her into it, and he’d sat on a stool in the horrible yellow light and made faces and told jokes to distract her from the needle.
The last few years with Ricky were sharp and distorted, days like shards of a broken mirror. He lost his job at an auto detail shop, broke up with a woman. He started sleeping at their mother’s on the couch in the den. He was often high or drunk, his eyes dark and glossy, his conversation slurred, boring. At times he was like his old self, but it was as if he was in a boat drifting further and further away. He’d be playing some loud roughhouse game with the kids, and would suddenly stand up and walk out of the room.
One night, Carla sat beside him in the dark den. She muted the blaring cartoons. “Ricky, you’ve got to get yourself together. You’ve got to quit drinking. You’re so young. We love you, Ricky. . . .” Ricky stared at the screen. Bugs Bunny chewed a carrot while Elmer Fudd shot holes through him. Ricky got to his feet, stretched, and walked into the kitchen. She heard her mom’s voice, the back door open and shut.
Every Sunday night, Carla and the kids went over. Her mother bustled around and made supper. Ricky would saunter through, ask their mother for money, head out the back door. One night, his pants were unzipped. Sam and Ben made their eyes big and rolled in their lips. Ricky fell against the kitchen table, and the laughter washed off their faces. They solemnly watched as he attempted to pick up the liter of 7-UP that spilled across the floor. “What’s he on, Mom?” Carla said after he left, as she crouched mopping up the pop with a rag. Her mother’s smile was cold. “Your brother’s struggling, Carla. Just count your lucky stars.”
Sometimes she called Carla, crying, because Ricky had scared her, or Ricky had stolen her medicine. Ricky had fallen asleep on the toilet. He sold her laptop, and she could no longer email her friends in Arizona. Ricky had taken the keys to her car, and she needed a ride to work. She hadn’t seen Ricky in three days. Ricky had been arrested. No, no, no, Carla didn’t have to come over. She would only make things worse. But then things would calm, and their mother would smile, and fold her hands on top of the table. “Ricky’s doing so much better.”
It was as though something enormous, dark, and indistinct hovered over the horizon. Carla had stomach aches; she slept badly. Her mother and brother lived together in a thick, impenetrable bubble. She couldn’t touch them. They could see her lips moving, but they never heard her.
“We only have each other,” her mother said. They went over to celebrate Ben’s ninth birthday a few days early. Carl felt guilty at how disappointed she was at hearing Ricky’s voice in the den.
Her mother and the kids went to the store for ice cream. Carla stood stirring a pot of awful-looking chili. She had a sinus infection and her feet hurt. At school, one of the EBD kids had freaked out and swung a chair at her, and she’d had to call for help. Ricky was jittery and paced the kitchen, shaking his keys. He came up behind her and whispered, “I need twenty bucks, sis. Loan me twenty bucks. I don’t want to have to ask Mom. . . .”
His breath smelled of something alcoholic and sweet, stale cigarettes, the thick warm stink of corn chips. Carla detested the insistent, whiny tone of his voice. She turned around, her head throbbing, and said, “What do you want the money for, Ricky? I don’t have anything extra. Mom doesn’t either.” “Bitch,” he said. “Ricky,” she said. “Look at me.” “Bitch.” He looked at her, and she didn’t see Ricky. His eyes were enameled.
He yanked the drainer full of dishes onto the floor. Pieces of plates and glass sprayed around her feet. He crashed through the house. She found her wallet and cards strewn across the walk. He took the hundred dollars she’d withdrawn for Ben’s birthday. She went into the backyard and threw a chair across the black grass.
After that, Carla blocked his calls. She refused to go to her mother’s if there was a chance of seeing him. She told her mother to let him know that if he ever came by her apartment, she’d call the cops on him. She extracted him from her heart like a splinter of glass.
Suddenly, through a screen of cattails, there was the lake. A lake out of dreams or memory glittered in the afternoon sun. The path went on beyond their site, but this was their number.
The lake was ringed with trees reflected in the deep green water, a circle of tree and water trembling in the thick yellow afternoon light.
“We’re here! Can you believe it?”
The pebble beach was edged with reeds. Ben and Sam dropped their sleeping bags and packs and ran to the water. Carla set down the wood and water, slipped off her pack, and felt like she was floating. Their camp site was a small square of dirt and flattened grass carved out of the woods. A stripped log lay next to a fire pit. She sat down on the log and watched the kids. They crouched, dipped their hands in the water, and whispered to each other.
They’d done it. They’d shaken off everything and gotten away.
Ben asked if they could take off their boots and wade. But Carla said, no, there might be leeches. “What’s a leech?” Sam said. Ben put his arm around Sam’s shoulders, brought her back down to a squat, and explained leeches to her. He pointed out minnows in the water. They watched a blue dragonfly with double wings jag through its circuit. Sam followed him to the cattails and after fifteen minutes of stalking, he caught a small toad.
They ran over, screeching. “We found a toad. We have a toad! We found Toad!”
Carla admired the little creature with miniscule webbed feet and eyes like seeds of light. She touched its bumpy back and asked to hold it, but Ben shook his head. “No. Sorry, Mom. It likes it here. I don’t want to disturb it.” Then, as expected, she told them to let it go. Sam and Ben exchanged a look and walked back to the reeds. They’d let it go when they felt like it.
Carla understood. She’d brought them to a place where the world was literally alive. There was now a stark division between the children and the dull, practical adult.
It had happened when she was a kid. When she was a young teenager and alone with Ricky, she could re-enter childhood. Their mother, sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard with her chubby sunburned legs and plastic visor, seemed like a nanny imported from a faraway, less evolved planet. Dirty and covered with scrapes and insect bites, Carla and Ricky played in the bushes and pretended they were panthers. They’d buried dead bugs in matchboxes and once dissected a decaying possum with a stick. Carla could go back and forth until she was fifteen.
Sheets of yellow light lay across the glinting lake. Her children sat on the beach talking softly as they built a tiny altar out of rocks, sticks, and flowers.
It was time to set up camp. She spread out the green tarp and shook the tent, poles and stakes onto it. She remembered how to do this. She pieced the poles together and slipped them into place. When the tent was raised half-way, Ben and Sam ran over. They crouched and hammered in stakes with rocks and silently watched as she tied a slip knot.
Once the tent was up, the kids crawled in, kicking off their boots at the entrance, as she requested. Carla stepped back to inspect the tent. It was a fragile little shelter, much smaller than she remembered. She sat back down on the log and listened to them talking. Ricky had been frightened of the dark and slept in the tent wedged between Carla and their mother.
Carla stood and walked to the water’s edge. The light had dulled and softened. She was uncertain of the time, but it looked about seven o’clock. The water washed against the shore, popping as it passed through the reeds.
Sam and Ben, their faces streaked with dirt, climbed out of the tent and stomped around in their untied boots. “We’re hungry.”
“Okay,” she said. “Just let me look at the lake for one more minute.”
She turned back to the lake and saw a man standing on the other side. Although he was far away and appeared very small, he looked amazingly like Ricky. In fact, from this distance, he looked exactly like Ricky. He had the same lean build, his slouch, Ricky’s bright bushy hair. He even wore a black baseball cap, a black t-shirt, and jeans faded white – Ricky’s uniform.
The man was joined by two others and they stood together talking. Ben and Sam appeared on either side of her. “Can we make a fire now?” said Sam. She swung her entire weight from Carla’s arm. “We’re starving.”
Carla staggered, and pried off Sam’s fingers.
“Guys,” Carla said, “does that look like Ricky to you?”
She watched their faces. They squinted.
“Not sure,” said Sam, scratching her cheek. “I thought Ricky was missing. You said. . .”
“It doesn’t look like him,” said Ben. He rested his boot on top of the water.
“You don’t think so?” Carla shielded her eyes with her hand. “My God, I think it looks just like Ricky. And those look like some of his friends.”
They were pulling on her. Reluctantly, she turned away from the lake.
“Okay, we’ll build a fire. You have to gather sticks.”
Ben and Sam stumbled around and each brought her a handful of twigs.
She tore open the plastic bag of wood. “I need a lot more than that. We need a lot of kindling to get this fire going. It’s called kindling. We need more. . . .”
While the kids gathered sticks, Carla got out the park map. There was a walk-in site on the other side of the lake that she’d rejected as being too far. Ricky knew about this camping trip. For months, she’d raved to her mother about how beautiful this park was supposed to be.
Ben and Sam had collected a large pile of sticks. They crouched beside her as she built a little teepee of twigs around dried leaves and balls of toilet paper. The fire took right away. Ben and Sam gravely watched as it flared up; she’d earned a token of their respect with her fire-making ability. She showed them how to add small sticks, and they took turns laying twigs on the crackling little structure.
She stood, stretched, and walked back to the water. It was almost dusk. The men were still standing by the lake. They were drinking beer—she could see the glint of cans as they tilted back their heads. Ricky went camping. He went out into the woods with his buddies and got wasted.
“Ricky,” she said. “Ricky.” But there was no way he could hear her.
“Ouch!” said Ben. “Ouch. Crap!” Sam began the high-pitched whine that would turn to crying. They were jumping up and down as they brushed off their legs, arms, and faces. The mosquitoes had come out.
“It’s okay, guys. Stand in the smoke. Let’s spray you down. I told you there would be mosquitoes.”
They stepped into the smoke and coughed as she sprayed them with repellent. “Don’t touch your eyes or your mouth!” Sam turned in a circle whimpering. Ben kept slapping his head.
“Get in the tent and change into jeans and jackets.” The kids climbed into the tent and accepted their clothing through a small opening, which Ben immediately zipped up.
Carla crushed a layer of mosquitoes on the back of her legs, and pulled on her jeans. She sat on the log with her face tilted out of the smoke and set a pan of water and a can of beans on the grate to heat. Her legs, wrists, and neck began to itch and swell. She licked her lips and tasted DEET, and regretted not bringing a bottle of wine. She wedged a piece of wood into the fire. A plume of smoke rose from the site across the lake.
The wood was going fast. She got up and wandered around the edge of the campsite looking for sticks. She waved mosquitoes out of her face, reached into the bushes behind the tent, and nearly stepped on a small animal.
With its deep brown fur, the animal looked like a forgotten toy in the stiff grass. It didn’t move. Her chest tightened as she picked up a stick and poked it; the stick sunk into the fur. How could she have missed it? The dead animal lay a foot from their tent. She crouched to look at it and the mosquitoes settled on her back.
“Mom, is that you?” Ben said from inside the tent.
“Yes, it’s me.”
“Is dinner ready?”
“In a few minutes.”
Carla turned the animal over with the stick. It was a little monster, a mole with a face like a fleshy burst star, or a hand that had too many fingers. Its scaly paws, clutched under its chin, ended in long, curved nails.
She studied its strange eyeless face and lush fur and thought of the Wild Wood, and Mole and Rat in their boat searching in the night for the little lost otter, and how it never bothered her when she was a little girl that Mole could see.
Ben was at her shoulder. “What is that?”
“God, Ben, you scared me. It’s a Star Nose Mole.”
He frowned. “Is it dead?”
“No. No, it’s not dead. It’s sleeping, Ben. Let it sleep.”
Ben stared at her, shifted his jaw, and turned away. Carla didn’t know why she’d told such a stupid lie. She hated when mothers did stuff like that. She tried to push the mole into the bushes with the stick, but finally scooped it up with her hands and tossed it. It landed lightly like a ball.
While Carla scrubbed her hands with gravel from the lake, Ben and Sam crept behind the tent. “Where’s the dead mole?” Ben called.
She stood up. “Get away from it! It’s got diseases.”
Swarms of gnats rose and fell over the water. The three of them huddled together on the log; they pulled the hoods of their sweat jackets up over their baseball caps and took turns slapping each other’s backs. After eating a few bites, the kids climbed back into the tent. Carla handed in bags of candy, and dinner was over.
The air had turned a deep blue. Clouds of mosquitoes hovered a few inches from her sprayed skin and clothing. She stayed in the smoke, coughing, her eyes burning. The ranger had been right—she was going to use up all the wood tonight. The kids lit up the inside of the tent with a flashlight.
“Guys, do not use up the batteries on that flashlight. Turn it off! We’ll need that in an emergency.”
“What kind of emergency?” one of them said. The light went off.
Earlier, it had been so warm she couldn’t feel the air, but it was cool now. It was suddenly dark and through the trees she could see the fire across the lake flickering and shifting like something alive.
She was surrounded by trees, tall grasses, strange crackles and sighs. All she could smell was smoke. The insects churred and buzzed. A bat scuttled overhead. She looked at the blue bird inked onto her wrist, and realized that although they’d heard birds, she couldn’t recall seeing any. Except for the bat, toad, minnows, and the dead mole, they hadn’t seen any animals. The animals were hiding or they had died or run away. She felt the forest hovering, breathing, watching as if it concealed a secret.
She walked over to the water. Pine trees jagged against a deep blue ocean of sky. The stars had come out.
“Come out of the tent and look at the stars! Just for one minute, guys.”
But the kids wouldn’t come out.
The fire moved inside the trees. Ricky was her little brother. If she concentrated, she could hear his voice. She could see his hands, his eyes, his bright glassy hair. She could see him, years ago, pushing toward her through a crowded party, a beer in each hand, sideburns like curly lamb’s wool coming down his brown cheeks, a new chip in his front tooth that made his smile goofy. “Carla!” he shouted, and everyone turned and smiled because everyone loved Ricky.
A couple of weeks earlier, he’d called her on her mother’s phone. “So, you’re washing your hands of me?” he whispered. “Just like I’m dirt.”
She walked into the bushes and peed and mosquitoes bit her bare ass. They hadn’t brushed teeth or washed the dishes. This was really camping.
Carla crawled into the tent, kicked off her jeans, and lay flat on her back.
“Mom?” It was dark, a solid darkness her kids hadn’t seen before and they wanted to be her children again. They pressed against her, breathing on her, clinging with their small tenacious hands. It was almost unbearable.
“Mom,” said Sam, “tell us a story from your childhood.”
“Please don’t ask anything of me. I’m so tired.”
Mosquitoes tapped against the fabric of the tent. Suddenly, from across the lake, there was a hoot, then a wild cackle. She heard her name. Carla!
She sat upright. “Did you hear that?”
“Who was that?” said Ben. The kids sat up.
She laughed wildly as if she was drunk. “It’s those guys across the lake! It’s got to be Ricky! He’s playing a joke on us. I’m going to go see.”
“No, Mom.” They pulled her back, but she shook them off. She climbed out of the tent, zipped it back up, and ran barefoot to the edge of the lake.
The only light came from the stars; there was no moon. Darkness moved in waves over the water. She could see the fire lighting up the trees. The mosquitoes began to swarm. Each let out a tiny piercing shriek as it came in for the kill.
“Ricky!” she yelled. “Game’s over!”
She stepped into the cold water. The gravel gave way to a terrible silky mud she sank into. She took another step and sank up to her knees; there seemed to be no bottom.
“Ricky!” she shouted.
A small figure, black and indistinct, stood on the other side of the water as if listening. But he didn’t say anything and then he disappeared.