I wake up abruptly to the sound of someone hammering at the metal door of the RV. Neil continues to snore softly beside me. Nothing short of a fire alarm disturbs that one. I peer out the tiny window and see the rear-end of what looks like a very old lady standing on the steps. Contorting myself in the cramped space, I crawl over Neil, who grunts and turns over, cocooning in the worn comforter.
Stepping into my Crocs, I open the door, putting a stop to the incessant noise. The smell of cedar and pine is delicious after the stale air inside. She takes a step back when I appear, perhaps realizing even in her distress that social distancing is important. Her face is dry whiteness, her lower jaw slightly unhinged, she wears jarring colors: purple fleecy pants and a pink t-shirt stretched over breasts that hang almost to her navel.
“Marianne is gone,” she says, in a near-whisper. “I need help.”
“My little girl.”
“Oh my God. How old is she?”
“Okay. What’s your name?”
She turns even paler for an instant, and I jump down from the steps to hold her elbow. We walk awkwardly over to her RV. The door is open, swinging in the early morning breeze. She sits down heavily in a folding chair and stares at her thighs for a long moment. A tiny mouse appears from under the RV, twitches, then disappears.
“It’s a beautiful day,” she says.
“Yes, August is always nice at this spot. Didn’t I see you with your husband yesterday? Where is he?”
“I don’t know where Lewis is.”
A large pileated woodpecker startles us, a flying blur of black, white, and red.
“Mavis, your daughter?”
She looks alert again. “Yes, we have to find her. We have to…” her voice trails off again.
“Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
I jog around the campsite, looking for signs of movement or a hiding child. There are four other RVs, parked at haphazard angles, each with a leafy semblance of privacy. Behind the wall of birdsong there is only quiet.
Though I haven’t communicated with any of the other campers beyond half-smiles and awkward waves, I imagine we are all relieved to be outside, away from the kitchen sink and CNN, in the familiarity of strangers, after the long pandemic lockdown.
I look back at Mavis. She wipes her drippy nose with the back of a trembling hand, staring into space. Stepping back into my RV, I grab Neil by the shoulder and shake him.
“Wake up. There’s a kid missing. We need to find her.”
“Huh? What?” Neil rubs his stubbly black beard, stretches and farts loudly. His “morning trumpet,” as he calls it.
“Get up quick. A little girl went missing from the RV across the way. Marianne.”
Neil rolls off the bed and starts pulling on his boxers.
Outside again, I see that Mavis is waking up other families. She’s standing at RV #5 and the family inside has spilled out, bedheads listening to her with concern. Two moms and three teenage children. Neil joins me.
Before long, there is a congregation of campers assembled in the middle of the clearing, being careful to socially distance. Three campers are wearing cloth masks. Introductions are hastily made. Crisis as the ultimate ice-breaker.
“Do you have a picture of her on your phone?” asks Neil.
“I don’t have a phone,” says Mavis, “She has short blond hair, green eyes, and lots of freckles. She’s only seven.”
“What is she wearing?” I ask.
Mavis narrows her eyes. “I don’t know” she says, at last.
Neil sidles closer to me and I recoil from his morning breath. “Must be her granddaughter, right? She’s way too old to have a seven-year old daughter.”
Neil says, “Okay everybody, you heard the description, let’s spread out and look for this girl.”
The forest echoes with the name Marianne. A deer startles and crashes through the brush. The more we yell, the less birdsong we hear. The sun shines brightly, but even so, it can’t penetrate all the dark places in these woods.
One of the teenage girls, Skye, brings Mavis a paper cup of coffee. Mavis has shouted herself hoarse and now collapses into a dubious plastic folding chair. Skye covers her shoulders with a threadbare red blanket. Her pink t-shirt bunches up around her navel and a bare roll of purple-veined fat is revealed.
Despite the warmth, Mavis clutches the ends of the red blanket around herself, a shield. With her free hand, she reaches out suddenly to touch Skye’s blond dreads, and the girl jerks back, remembering this is a time to keep elders safe.
The campers straggle back into the clearing, defeated.
“I think we should call the police,” says Brenda.
“Anybody have a satellite phone?” asks Neil.
“I do.” A deeply-tanned man with white eyebrows steps forward awkwardly. “I’m, uh, Tim,” he says, looking into the middle distance beyond Neil’s shoulder. “I’ll make the call.”
Neil squats on his generous haunches. “I’m going to check the lake for her husband,” he tells me. He straightens up abruptly, swatting a mosquito off his hairy forearm. “Where is he, anyway?”
I walk to the dock to jump on my little tinny. I never bother wearing a lifejacket. Fat floats, they say, and Christ only knows since I made the colossal mistake of becoming a vegan six months ago, I have enough fat to float my own body and maybe two others as well. How many pounds? I can’t even weigh myself anymore.
I putter around Sproat Lake searching for a sign of Lewis and spot him at last, trolling the eastern shore, his motor stopping and starting at intervals, line trailing behind him. A mallard and his wife float by. I pull up alongside Lewis’ boat.
“Are you Lewis, Mavis’ husband?” I ask unnecessarily. There’s nobody else on this lake.
He stands up in the boat and turns to face me, feet wide apart for balance. He’s tall and skinny,
with pointy cheekbones and lots of smile lines in the right places. He seems like a nice guy.
“Yes, that’s me. What’s happened?” His dentures clack softly.
“Your daughter, Marianne, is missing,” I say.
Lewis sighs and sits down hard, almost upending his tackle box.
“Actually, Marianne is dead,” he announces.
“My wife has dementia. Lewy Body dementia. Sometimes she knows who she is and where we are. At other times, she gets confused and wonders where Marianne is. In fact, Marianne grew up, and died of ovarian cancer last year. Mavis can’t remember that and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Lewis polishes his wire-rimmed glasses on the edge of his flannel shirt. There’s a little bit of dried blood on one of his hands.
“So, she has the whole campsite in an uproar, looking for Marianne. Didn’t anybody wonder how such an old lady could have a little girl?”
I push down my annoyance.
“Look, I think we all just assumed you guys were parenting a grandchild, like so many are. Can we go back to the campsite now? Your wife really needs you.”
“I suppose you’re right. Not having much luck out here this morning anyway. The bite’s off. Thanks for coming to get me.”
We boat back in a companionable silence. God, I’m starving. All I can think about is bacon, eggs and coffee with cream. Being outdoors makes me even hungrier than usual. I don’t know why I had to take a stand against animal cruelty. I dream about rare steak leaving rivulets of blood on the plate, mashed potatoes dripping with butter and tubs of ice cream. Ice cream! Cherry Garcia!
But I’ve taken a stand and I can’t back down now. The only way out would be to accidentally on purpose witness a Mafia killing and enter the Witness Protection Program, start all over as a proud carnivore in a new town where nobody knows me.
I’m so tired. I don’t know why Lewis dragged us out here. Marianne is an indoors kid, she hates fishing, it’s so boring for her. But where is she? She’s a good girl. Right now she should be inside the RV reading her Nancy Drews.
Now I see the thing near the big maple tree behind RV #5. A creature, or beast, dressed all in black, features indistinct. Its head is a blocky eyeless rectangle. I’m not afraid, surprisingly. I’ve seen this creature on several other occasions but it never approaches me, only watches. I’m not sure if it’s watching me through the lens of concern or judgement. At home one night I stepped out of my bedroom and walked right into it by accident. I apologized, but it remained silent, motionless. It felt firm, yet soft and pliable, like thick rubber.
Lewis is back. Still so handsome, he strides across the clearing, fish bag hanging empty from one wrist. No luck today, I guess. Worse luck, wait till I tell him about Marianne. He helps me up from the chair, adjusts my t-shirt, goodness was it riding up so much? and enfolds me in a hug. “Let’s go inside and talk,” he says.
Neil walks into the woods and starts yelling, “Everybody come back! Come back!” One by one the search party filters back into the clearing and Neil tells them the news. Mavis has dementia. Their daughter grew up and died of cancer, and she simply forgot.
“Christ’s sake!” shouts Tim from RV #2. Flushed with anger, he goes back inside, a loud slam marking the end of his participation. The two families from RVs # 4 and #5 murmur sympathetic noises and return quietly to their simple routines.
I squint up at Neil. His face is blurry against the background of midday sun. “So, Mavis has dementia? Why would Lewis leave her alone when she’s so confused?”
Neil mulls this over. “He’s probably going nuts himself, living with that kind of crazy. Can you imagine being stuck inside all day long with her during the pandemic? Fishing might be keeping him sane, when you think about it. I don’t blame the guy.”
I scuff my flip-flops back and forth, raising a small cloud of dust. “Well, he should have brought someone along to babysit her, or he could have mentioned his wife’s condition to us.”
Neil twists his nose to the side in that odd way he has, like there’s an extra joint in the bridge. “But the minute you share information about your wife’s illness, it seems like you’re asking for help, and he wouldn’t want to burden anybody with that. He knows we’re all here to relax.”
I swallow and it’s uncomfortable. “My throat hurts. I think I’m getting sick.”
“You too?” says Neil, “I’ve had a sore throat for three days.”
I roll my eyes. “You know, I’ve noticed something, Neil. Everything that’s wrong with me is wrong with you too. I have a cold? You have one too. I have blood in my shit? So do you. I’m sorry you don’t have a uterus so you can’t claim simultaneous cramps every month! And by the way, don’t you dare go to the physio for your fucked-up shoulders! What would we ever talk about if you fixed your shoulders? The endless vistas of empty silence!”
Neil’s face flushes deeply and his lips iron themselves into a flat line. He stalks off into the bushes, away from the lake.
Looks like I’m alone again this morning. Has Lewis gone fishing? I open the door and witness the world made new. The sun rises quickly, a fiery ball hurtling above the edges of the mountain peaks and lighting up the clearing. A rainbow of maroon, blue and yellow extends itself over the morning sky, and ripples away like a ribbon. Everyone else is asleep, windows and souls shuttered in darkness.
I’m standing on the steps and a rush of cats is coming at me. Cats of every description: skinny mangy animals, fat and sleek, fluffy, hairless. They’re running at me, hundreds upon hundreds. They manifest out of thin air, rubbing cold noses and warm flanks against my bare legs. The cats mince past me into the warmth of the RV to fill it from floor to roof. I close the door at last and walk into the clearing. A bird twitters and stops suddenly. Nobody else is up yet.
I walk past the other four RVs and towards the end of the beaten path in the forest. The woods are thick with fir, hanging mosses and salal.
The black shape leans against one of the RVs, watching me.
Now I hear a child wailing. He or she is crying fit to burst, and the sound is coming from deep in the forest. Is there a small person lying alone and afraid in the cold dew? Could it be my daughter? When I think of Marianne, there are thick stone walls around that name inside my mind.
I strike off the path into the woods, pushing branches aside, breaking trail. The child makes a sobbing noise. Once in a while he or she pauses for air. Is the child hungry?
Carefully moving around a stump, I notice a gray squirrel staring at me. Standing stock-still on a branch, he makes disconcerting eye contact with dilated pupils. An owl hoots and this breaks the squirrel’s reverie. He turns and darts into a large hole, bushy tail whisking out of sight.
I wish I could hide in a cozy hole too.
Abruptly my legs freeze and I almost fall over. I sit down on a log to rest. A brown owl flutters down to land on a tree across the clearing. His chest is a feathery calendar containing all the months of the year.
The log shimmers and shakes beneath me. Now I am lying in the soft wet moss. The dew soaks through my shorts. At last I glimpse the baby, nestled inside the hollow log. A little girl, with toffee skin and liquid eyes, bareheaded, dressed in a white sleeper. I reach into the log and pull out the baby. She’s burning with fever. I can’t get up, so I lie on my back and tuck her inside my cardigan. She stops crying and snuggles into my chest.
I’ve found her. Grasping starfish hands, warm breath against my neck, her tiny heart hammering bird-like against mine.
Looking up through the tree canopy, my spine relaxes into the damp earth. A spider runs over my ankle, but I don’t care.
We are breathing in sync with each other, me and my baby, we are falling asleep together, and it doesn’t matter anymore that a pink chicken dances in a nearby fir, the cats are destroying my RV and the black shape approaches from the edge of the clearing.
Let him come.