by Marianne Su
She watched her mobile phone disappear as she pushed the drawer closed. Mike thought it was funny that she’d want to take it with. She knew that there wouldn’t be any mobile coverage there but it was still hard to leave it behind. She stared at the drawer, forcing herself to embrace the spirit of camping, to be separated from the trappings of civilization, absorbed in the wilds, reminded of how vulnerable we could be.
Mike honked from the driveway. Sarah spun to face the open front door. Locking the door behind her, she felt like she was forgetting something but she didn’t have much to bring. Mike had planned the whole trip. Camping was his thing.
She slid into the passenger seat, pushing back the sleeping bag that invaded her space from the crammed back seat. She met Mike’s smile with one of her own until she landed on the sun-drenched leather seat and jumped up. Sarah rubbed her thigh, trying to erase the burning feeling.
“That’s my girl,” Mike said. “We haven’t even left the city yet and already the elements are getting to you.”
She met his teasing smile with a glare.
“And those?” Mike asked, staring at the high tops on her feet. “You did bring other shoes for hiking, right?”
She punched his arm and pretended that her fist didn’t hurt with the impact. The truth was she liked the teasing. She even liked his sarcasm now that she was getting used to it. It had only been a few months since they started dating but Mike was different from other guys she dated. Mike brushed loose blond strands from his face. If she let herself, she could stare at him the entire trip north. Instead, she tried to focus on the long straight road ahead, a single grey column glistening in the sun.
Sarah sighed and settled into her seat. She was looking forward to being alone with Mike. His family. His friends. He was always so private. There was something about a campfire and a lake that could make people open up. That’s what Sarah was hoping for when she agreed to go camping for the first time. Mike turned the radio louder as the forest of trees got thicker. The last road stop was an hour ago. A faded sign up ahead was illegible until they got close enough to read its cracked painted letters. It seemed like they would never arrive at the camp site and Sarah shifted in her seat with relief that she was wrong.
“We’re here,” she sighed.
The Jeep followed the arrow left. Rebellious grass and weeds threatened to take over the narrow gravel path. Neglected tree branches scratched across the window as the car struggled to stay out of their reach.
“This really is out of the way,” Sarah said, gripping the door handle.
Mike grunted agreement as he pulled up to a shack. It was the check in office according to the sign on its roof. A light breeze teased the door as it swung on one hinge. Mike slammed the car door behind him. Through the dry grass, a lake was visible, lonely in its quiet solitude, the sun glistening on its glassy surface. Sarah tried to imagine families with children in its waters, canoes afloat on a perfect summer day. A single bird’s call in the distance made her wonder where they were.
Sarah opened her window as the air in the car grew hotter. Suffocating. A whole week without air conditioning was ahead of her. A pinch on her arm reminded her that she forgot mosquito repellent. She knew she was forgetting something. She watched Mike climb the steps of the decrepit shed. He peered inside. Sarah could only see blackness beyond its dusty windows. Mike turned and shrugged, casting a shadow over his eyes as his hands shielded them from the sun. A thin smile crossed his face.
“Let me guess,” Sarah said, sounding less than amused. “No one’s there.”
“How the hell do you know this place? It looks totally deserted.”
Sarah struggled to calm her frustration. “Mike. No one’s here. What now?”
“I know my way to the site I booked online.” Mike started the car, releasing a violent burst of air conditioning as the car jolted into drive. “I’ll just take us there.”
The crackling gravel under the tires was the only sound as the car rolled along the shore line under a canopy of maples until they finally reached a clearing. Sarah opened the car door and stepped into a scene she’d only ever expected to see on the cover of tourism catalogues. Soft shade grass became mustard coloured sand as it reached the lake’s water. A lone loon drifted on the lake in the late afternoon sun, its lonely shadow rippled along the surface. Its call echoed off the line of trees that surrounded the scene on both sides.
She didn’t hear Mike approach from behind. She jumped when he slid his hands around her waist. Shivers tingled along her spine as he leaned in to whisper, “It’s nice here, huh?”
Sarah swung around with a grin and slapped him in the chest with both hands. “Now that I’m here, I never want to leave.”
A smile slipped from Mike’s face as his eyes narrowed. “You’re so hard to please,” he said slowly. Sarah searched his eyes for the sarcasm that she expected to find. His hands tightened their grip on her hips. The loon’s call came from farther in the distance. Lonely.
“Mike. I just meant—”
“Nevermind.” Mike released her and turned his back to walk to the Jeep. Sarah wrapped her arms around herself, protection against the sudden cold breeze.
Mike opened the back of the car. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” He pulled out bags. “Let’s start with the tent.”
Sarah pretended to help but Mike did most of the work. He’d done it before and it showed. The poles slid through the slits like they knew where they were going. Mike swung his hammer at the pegs, driving them into the ground, trapping the tent where it stood.
The sun was retreating behind the tree line as Sarah watched Mike at the campfire. He knew exactly where to put the logs. A match ignited the kindling with a flare, its spark like a warning to the wood, the threat of impending annihilation.
Sarah stared at the setting sun. Living in the city with electric lights, she never noticed how quickly the sun disappeared. In what seemed like a moment, it escaped, throwing them and their lake into darkness. An orchestra of insects buzzed. The faraway rumble of an airplane reminded her that the two of them weren’t alone in the world.
So far away.
She jumped at the sound of his voice.
He laughed. “So jumpy. The night got you spooked?”
“No. Maybe. Just seems so remote out here.” Sarah turned toward the gravel road where the Jeep was still parked. “I haven’t seen any other cars. Do you think there’s anyone else at this park?”
Mike stared at the fire. “Maybe not.”
“Something’s not right about that. I mean, why would we be the only ones out here?”
“You sound scared.”
“I’m not scared.”
“Why not? How well do you know me anyway? Haven’t you heard the stories? The ones people tell around campfires? The murderous crazy guy lures his prey to a remote camping spot. It’s perfect here.”
“See. You are scared.”
The flames fought amongst themselves within the ring of rough rocks. Erratic shadows crossed Mike’s face as he crouched by the fire.
“It’s a good campfire story. My favourite.”
“I told you to stop.”
“You don’t have to believe it. Most people don’t. But that’s the fun of campfire stories.” Mike picked up a long stick at his feet and poked the logs. Angry sparks flew into the air, disappearing as they fell onto the dirt below.
Discarding the stick, Mike dropped to his knees and crawled toward Sarah. With the light of the fire behind him, she couldn’t see his face, just the vague outline of his form inching closer.
Sarah reached for the flashlight she knew was nearby. Her hands searched the ground at her feet. Dirt lodged in her fingernails and pine needles pricked her hands until finally Sarah’s fingers gripped hard plastic. Her thumb pressed the button. Light spilled onto his face, unrecognizable as the man she knew.
His arm fell, hitting her hard across the head, throwing her still body into the dirt.
The loon was gone. The insects buzzed louder. And somewhere far away a mobile phone rang in a drawer.