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Summer stories: ‘When to Play Dead’

| By Shawn Vestal

They were camping, if you want to call it that. A tent you could stand in, tricked out in geometric shapes. Foot-thick air mattresses, inflated with a battery-powered blower. A propane stove with a griddle and two burners, and polypropylene mats so they could walk around barefoot. And the coverage. Holy crap, the coverage was amazing. Full bars, everywhere in the campground.

“A brown bear will run away if you charge at them,” the father told them, “while it’s better with a grizzly to play dead.”

Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains was where they were. The campground was laid out in a series of loops, four loops with 20 campsites apiece, each loop curled around a new brick bathroom facility with quarter-fed showers. If you walked away from camp, through a break in the lichen-furred rock, you could see across a field of mountains for a hundred miles. For a thousand miles. And still: Full damn bars.

“You must filter water from the stream,” the mother told them, though there was a shiny silver spigot right in their camp, “or you might get giardia. My dad used to call it beaver fever.”

In the tent, the boy was watching a show about wisecracking teenage boys, and the girl was watching a show about wisecracking teenage girls. The father and mother were arranging the equipment, placing the mats, gauging the relationship between cooler and stove. Dinner was chicken and rice pilaf. The father and mother argued about whether the chicken was still a little pink. The father said, The pioneers never worried about pink chicken, and the mother said, Except for the ones who died of salmonella poisoning, and the father said, They didn’t have salmonella back then.

At night, each on their phones in their sleeping bags on their massive air mattresses, they could hear the young people in the next camp. Cans cracking wetly open. Baritone belches. Dude and No way and Whoa. Bursts of aggressive laughter. The loose, awkward strumming of a guitar, and then a woman’s voice, singing, taking itself seriously. It went on and on and on and on. The father turned angrily in his sleeping bag, furious nylon shuzzings, and the mother exhaled as loudly as she could, and the boy and the girl tapped messages on their phones, thumbs spider-legging in the miracle glow. It was almost morning when they heard someone urinating on the fire, hard streams and potent hissing, and then it went quiet.

The father wanted to go for a hike. The girl wanted to know what made a hike any different from a walk. Nothing, I guess, said the father, and the girl said, So why would I want to go for a dumb walk? and the father said, To see a part of the world – the natural, untouched world, in all its beauty and wild splendor – that you might not otherwise see, to give yourself an appreciation for your place in the universe, to be reminded of our infinitesimal smallness, and the girl said, What about bears?

“Bears don’t want to hurt you any more than you want to hurt them,” the father said.

The girl said, Then why did you tell us when to play dead and when not to? and the boy said, What if I do want to hurt a bear? What then? and the father said, I don’t know where you kids are getting this mouth, and the mother said, It’s from the screens, and the father said, Maybe we should take them away, and the girl said, Just try it, and the father said, The smell of your screens attracts bears, your damn precious screens smell delicious to bears, both grizzlies and black bears, so have fun here in camp while your mother and I enjoy our hike, and the mother said, James.

The boy and the girl stepped very carefully and slowly into the camp of the rowdy neighbors. Their tents were silent. Crinkled tallboy beer cans sprawled everywhere. A twisting limb of smoke climbed from the fire pit. A hatchet stood erect, blade buried, upon the picnic table beside a cooler with the lid askew.

“You can always tell which way is north by looking at the moss on trees,” the father said. “The moss is always on the north side.”

The girl wanted to make the stick thingies from the “Blair Witch Project” and leave them in front of the tents for the rowdy neighbors to find. The boy had never seen the “Blair Witch Project” – he said horror movies were stupid, but the truth was that they filled him with horror, as they were supposed to, and made him feel that he was weaker than he was expected to be – and he didn’t see how some stick thingies would scare anybody or be any fun at all. He picked up the hatchet and began looking for something to hack.

“You should never dive into unfamiliar water,” the mother said. “You can’t tell what’s just under the surface, waiting to break your back for you.”

The father found himself unable to enjoy the splendor of the hike. He could see a range of mountains that he knew the name of, with an off-kilter peak in the center of the range that he also knew the name of. They stomped past a field of unusual wildflowers, erect and columnar like cat tails, with bursting purple heads. The father knew the name of the wildflowers. The mother wanted to talk about the loud kids in the campground next to them. She said, If they’re not gone when we get back, someone really needs to talk to them. The father said, Someone will.

The rowdy neighbors had two old-fashioned pup tents. The boy wanted to chop the guy wires on the tents. He thought that would be funny. The girl wanted to pull out the stakes. That would be just as funny, wouldn’t it, without ruining their tents? The boy wanted to ruin their tents. Ruin them a little bit. It’s not like cutting the guy wires would ruin the whole tent forever. The girl said when the boy got older he would have more respect for other people’s belongings. They both wanted to videotape whatever they did, and post it online. Because the coverage was so good, so very strong, the girl looked up “scary stick thing blair witch” on her phone and showed the images to the boy. Those are stupid, the boy said. Why can’t you see how stupid those are?

The father had hiked way ahead of the mother. The mother wondered whether he would hike out the anger that made him such a miserable person to be around about half the time. She came around a switchback and found him sitting on a log, looking at his phone. He said he was just checking a few emails. He said, Can you believe how good the coverage is? She sat beside him and held up a phone to take their picture. Don’t post that, the father said. We don’t want people to think we’re up here on our phones.

“Check your whole body, every inch, for ticks,” the father said. “Once a day at least. No. Twice. No. Three times. Seriously. Look everywhere. Feel around.”

The girl rubbed a blackened campfire log, and smudged her face. The boy listlessly chopped at the picnic table. The girl shushed him. It was almost noon, yet neither one feared awakening the rowdy neighbors. The boy put down the hatchet and began picking up the beer cans. Ice House, the bent cans said. He arranged them in rows upon the picnic table. They sure drink a lot of beer, he said. The girl opened the spigot on a plastic bladder, letting the water run out. The boy took one of the folding chairs and carried it into the woods, and then came back for the others. The girl began scrawling messages in the dirt. HELLO LOUD PEOPLE. And, GO TO BED EARLY, DUMMIES. And, YOUR GUITAR PLAYING IS ATROCIOUS. The boy finished arranging the chairs around a tree in the woods, facing the tree like they had been facing the fire pit. He returned, got a stick of his own and wrote, YOUR BURPS SMELL LIKE FARTS. He opened the cooler and began removing the items and throwing them into the woods: hot dogs, cream cheese, peanut-butter-filled pretzels. Someone in the tent stirred. The boy and the girl stopped still. From the tent came the sound of nylon sliding on nylon, and then a zipper, and then a groggy voice, saying, Can you believe the coverage? The boy walked quietly to the side of the tent and hacked at the guy wire but the hatchet bounced off the rope. The boy widened his eyes at the girl, and then reached down and yanked out one stake. A corner of the tent slumped. He yanked out another. The tent collapsed, then tipped. The boy and girl raced back to their camp, both noticing now how close they were, how easy it would be for the rowdy neighbors to hunt them down.

When the father and mother returned to the campground, they were surprised to find their son and daughter running back into the campsite, breathless and thrilled. The boy had a hatchet by the handle, swinging it as he ran. The father prepared to say something about that – “You should never run with any bladed tool, son!” or “Why can’t you think before you act, young man?” or “How long will I be saddled with this burden, this knowledge that I may fail to give you the very instruction that will save your careless life?” – but then he saw a boy from the neighboring camp, emerging from a fallen tent with hair like scrambling furry worms, and now heading toward him, and he remembered that they needed to be spoken with, these rowdy neighbors, that they needed to be reminded of how decent people treat each other when sharing the same corner of God’s wild and beautiful world.

Lead photo credit: