“Can you hear them now?”
She pauses, listens, nods.
“What are they saying?”
“They’re saying it’s so good to see you, Adam.”
I know she’s sort of joking, but the thought that they can see me, keep tabs on me, know what I’ve done these last three years, it makes me actually shudder in the warm night.
Mia sees me shudder, looks down. “I know, it’s crazy. It’s why I’ve never told anyone this. Not Ernesto. Not even Kim.”
No, I want to tell her. You got it wrong. It’s not crazy at all. I think of all the voices that clatter around in my head, voices that I’m pretty sure are just some older, or younger, or just better versions of me. There have been times—when things have been really bleak—that I’ve tried to summon her, to have her answer me back, but it never works. I just get me. If I want her voice, I have to rely on memories. At least I have plenty of those.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to have had her company in my head—the comfort that would’ve brought. To know that she’s had them with her all this time, it makes me glad. It also makes me understand why, of the two of us, she seems like the sane one.
I’m pretty sure that when babies are born in Oregon, they leave the hospital with birth certificates—and teeny-tiny sleeping bags. Everyone in the state camps. The hippies and the rednecks. The hunters and the tree huggers. Rich people. Poor people. Even rock musicians. Especially rock musicians. Our band had perfected the art of punk-rock camping, throwing a bunch of crap into the van with, like, an hour’s notice and just driving out into the mountains, where we’d drink beer, burn food, jam on our instruments around the campfire, and sack out under the open sky. Sometimes, on tour, back in the early hardscrabble days, we’d even camp as an alternative to crashing in another crowded, roach-infested rock ’n’ roll house.
I don’t know if it’s because no matter where you live, the wilderness is never that far off, but it just seemed like everyone in Oregon camped.
Everyone, that was, except for Mia Hall.
“I sleep in beds,” was what Mia told me the first time I invited her to go camping for a weekend. To which I’d offered to bring one of those blow-up air mattresses, but she’d still refused. Kat had overheard me trying to persuade Mia and had laughed.
“Good luck with that, Adam,” she’d said. “Denny and I took Mia camping when she was a baby. We planned to spend a week at the coast, but she screamed for two days straight and we had to come home. She’s allergic to camping.”
“It’s true,” Mia had said.
“I’ll go,” Teddy had offered. “I only ever get to go camp in the backyard.”
“Gramps takes you out every month,” Denny had replied. “And I take you. You just don’t get to go camping with all of us as a family.” He’d given Mia a look. She’d just rolled her eyes back at him.
So it shocked me when Mia agreed to go camping. It was the summer before her senior year of high school and my first year of college, and we’d hardly seen each other. Things with the band had really started heating up, so I’d been touring for a lot of that summer, and Mia had been away at her band camp and then visiting relatives. She must’ve been really missing me. It was the only explanation I could imagine for her relenting.
I knew better than to rely on the punk-rock mode of camping. So I borrowed a tent. And one of those foam things to sleep on. And I packed a cooler full of food. I wanted to make everything okay, though to be honest, I wasn’t really clear on why Mia was so averse to camping in the first place—she was not a prissy chick, not by a long shot; this was a girl who liked to play midnight basketball—so I had no idea if the creature comforts would help.
When I went to pick her up, her whole family came down to see us off, like we were heading off on a crosscountry road trip instead of a twenty-four-hour jaunt. Kat waved me over.
“What’d you pack, for food?” she asked.
“Sandwiches. Fruit. For tonight, hamburgers, baked beans, s’mores. I’m trying for the authentic camping experience.”
Kat nodded, all serious. “Good, though you might want to feed her the s’mores first if she gets cranky. Also, I packed you some provisions.” She handed me a half-gallon Ziploc. “In case of emergency, break glass.”
“What’s all this stuff?”
“Now and Laters. Starburst. Pixie Stix. If she gets too bitchy, just feed her this crap. As long as the sugar high is in effect, you and the wildlife should be safe.”
Kat shook her head “You’re a braver man than I. Good luck.”
“Yeah, you’ll need it,” Denny replied. Then he and Kat locked eyes for a second and started cracking up.
There were plenty of great camping spots within an hour’s drive, but I wanted to take us somewhere a little more special, so I wound us deep into the mountains, to this place up an old logging road I’d been to a lot as a kid. When I pulled off the road, onto a dirt path, Mia asked: “Where’s the campground?”
“Campgrounds are for tourists. We free camp.”
“Free camp?” Her voice rose in alarm.
“Relax, Mia. My dad used to log around here. I know these roads. And if you’re worried about showers and stuff—”
“I don’t care about the showers.”
“Good, because we have our own private pool.” I turned off my car and showed Mia the spot. It was right alongside the river, where a small inlet of water pooled calm and crystal clear. The view in all directions was unfettered, nothing but pine trees and mountains, like a giant postcard advertising OREGON!
“It’s pretty,” Mia admitted, grudgingly.
“Wait till you see the view from the top of the ridge. You up for a walk?”
Mia nodded. I grabbed some sandwiches and waters and two packs of watermelon Now and Laters and we traipsed up the trail, hung out for a while, read our books under a tree. By the time we got back down, it was twilight.
“I’d better get the tent up,” I said.
“You need some help?”
“No. You’re the guest. You relax. Read your book or something.”
“If you say so.”
I dumped the borrowed tent pieces on the ground and started to hook up the poles. Except the tent was one of those newfangled ones, where all the poles are in one giant puzzle piece, not like the simple pup tents I’d grown up assembling. After half an hour, I was still struggling with it. The sun was dipping behind the mountains, and Mia had put down her book. She was watching me, a bemused little smile on her face.
“Enjoying this?” I asked, perspiring in the evening chill.
“Definitely. Had I known this was what it would be like, I would’ve agreed to come ages ago.”
“I’m glad you find it so amusing.”
“Oh, I do. But are you sure you wouldn’t like some help? You’ll need me to hold a flashlight if this takes much longer.”
I sighed. Held my hands up in surrender. “I’m being bested by a piece of sporting goods.”
“Does your opponent have instructions?”
“It probably did at some point.”
She shook her head, stood up, grabbed the top of the tent. “Okay, you take this end. I’ll do this end. I think the long part loops over the top here.”
Ten minutes later we had the tent set up and staked down. I collected some rocks and some kindling for a fire pit and got a campfire going with the firewood I’d brought. I cooked us burgers in a pan over the fire and baked beans directly in the can.
“I’m impressed,” Mia said.
“So you like camping?”
“I didn’t say that,” she said, but she was smiling.
It was only later, after we’d had dinner and s’mores and washed our dishes in the moonlit river and I’d played some guitar around the campfire as Mia sipped tea and chowed through a pack of Starburst, that I finally understood Mia’s issue with camping.
It was maybe ten o’clock, but in camping time, that’s like two in the morning. We got into our tent, snuggled into the double sleeping bag. I pulled Mia to me. “Wanna know the best part about camping?”
I felt her whole body tense up—but not in the good way. “What was that?” she whispered.
“What was what?”
“I heard something,” she said.
“It was probably just an animal,” I said.
She flicked on the flashlight. “How do you know that?”
I took the flashlight and shined it on her. Her eyes were huge. “You’re scared?”
She looked down and—barely—nodded her head.
“The only thing you need to worry about out here is bears and they’re only interested in the food, which is why we put it all away in the car,” I reassured her.
“I’m not scared of bears,” Mia said disdainfully.
“Then what is it?”
“I, I just feel like such a sitting target out here.”
“Sitting target for who?”
“I don’t know, people with guns. All those hunters.”
“That’s ridiculous. Half of Oregon hunts. My whole family hunts. They hunt animals, not campers.”
“I know,” she said in a small voice. “It’s not really that, either. I just feel . . . defenseless. It’s just, I don’t know, the world feels so big when you’re out in the wide open. It’s like you don’t have a place in it when you don’t have a home.”
“Your place is right here,” I whispered, laying her down and hugging her close.
She snuggled into me. “I know.” She sighed. “What a freak! The granddaughter of a retired Forest Service biologist who’s scared of camping.”
“That’s just the half of it. You’re a classical cellist whose parents are old punk rockers. You’re a total freak. But you’re my freak.”
We lay there in silence for a while. Mia clicked off the flashlight and scooted closer to me. “Did you hunt as a kid?” she whispered. “I’ve never heard you mention it.”
“I used to go out with my dad,” I murmured back. Even though we were the only people within miles, something about the night demanded we speak in hushed tones. “He always said when I was twelve I’d get a rifle for my birthday and he’d teach me to shoot. But when I was maybe nine, I went out with some older cousins and one of them loaned me his rifle. And it must’ve been beginner’s luck or something because I shot a rabbit. My cousins were all going crazy. Rabbits are small and quick and hard for even seasoned hunters to kill, and I’d hit one on my first try. They went to get it so we could bring it back to show everyone and maybe stuff it for a trophy. But when I saw it all bloody, I just started crying. Then I started screaming that we had to take it to a vet, but of course it was dead. I wouldn’t let them bring it back. I made them bury it in the forest. When my dad heard, he told me that the point of hunting was to take some sustenance from the animal, whether we eat it or skin it or something, otherwise it was a waste of a life. But I think he knew I wasn’t cut out for it because when I turned twelve, I didn’t get a rifle; I got a guitar.”
“You never told me that before,” Mia said.
“Guess I didn’t want to blow my punk-rock credibility.”
“I would think that would cement it,” she said.
“Nah. But I’m emocore all the way, so it works.”
A warm silence hung in the tent. Outside, I could hear the low hoot of an owl echo in the night. Mia nudged me in the ribs. “You’re such a softy!”
“This from the girl who’s scared of camping!”