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by Joe Monfort
“Looks like we have company.”
Brett dropped the heavy, blood-splattered rock in his hand and glanced up at Molly, who was staring across the calm waters of the lake. He followed her gaze to a distant bay blanketed in conifers where a campfire flickered in the gathering dusk. With a shrug, he returned his attention to the walleye still gasping faintly underneath the heel of his boot.
“There are a couple other campsites designated on the map,” he said.
“Strange though, we haven’t seen anyone for a couple days now,” Molly replied, watching in mild disgust as her husband slammed the rock one final time into the skull of the fish.
Brett stood and knuckled his back. He pointed to a small tackle box resting next to their moored canoe.
“Hand me my cleaning knife.”
“I wonder who they are.”
“Our neighbors. I wonder who they are.”
Brett smiled crookedly. “Just some fellow mosquito enthusiasts, I suspect.”
The first seven days of their two week journey into the million acre labyrinth of lakes and portages along the Minnesota-Canada border had all ended the same way. The sun had set. The wind had died. And then a low whine had enveloped the forest as an unholy number of mosquitoes forced them into their tents. Molly was convinced that when they had crossed from Minnesota into the wilder Canadian lakes two days prior, the size and ferocity of the insects had grown accordingly.
“Are the binoculars in here?” Molly asked as she rooted through the tackle box.
“No, they’re in my bag up by the tent.”
“Ok, here you go.” She tossed the sheathed cleaning knife to Brett and trotted up the short trail to their campsite.
Brett stooped and made a small incision behind the walleye’s gills. Then, with a single long stroke he cut under the flesh along the length of the now still body. With a rough tug, he removed the filet and set it in a small pan of water. He could hear Molly rummaging through the campsite in search of the binoculars. Moments later, footsteps crunching along the path signaled her return.
Molly walked to the shoreline and raised the binoculars to her eyes. At first she scanned the water, searching for ducks bobbing and rocking in the waves. Then she lifted her gaze to the already visible crescent moon rising above the tree line to the northeast.
“Just the moon.”
A long, haunting loon call drifted across the lake. She pulled the binoculars away from her face.
“Sounds a ways off,” she mused and then returned to inspecting their surroundings.
“Probably the next lake over.”
The solitary cry disintegrated into the ether but was quickly taken up by another, this time closer, loon.
“That one sounds like it might be on our lake,” Brett said.
On the flip side of the fish he had made too deep of an incision and was now fighting against a tangle of spindly bones. Flecks of flesh and shimmering scale coated his hands. He was too distracted to notice Molly staring intently at the other occupied campsite on the lake until she suddenly crouched next to him.
“What’s the matter?”
“He’s looking right at us,” she said.
“I don’t know.” She nodded her head in the direction of the other campsite. “Our neighbor.”
“He was looking at our campsite?”
“Through a pair of damn binoculars!”
Brett laughed and shook his head. “So, you’re telling me two of the three people on this lake are voyeurs? What are the odds?”
Molly scowled. “You don’t think it’s odd that he was looking at us.”
“You were looking at him.”
“So, the standard rules of the wilderness apply. He’s probably more scared of you than you are of him.”
Brett finished packing the last of the dishes into their burlap kitchen bag. With his headlamp casting a weak halo of light, he navigated the small trail behind their campsite leading to a dense stand of pine trees. When he had mentally counted out several hundred feet, he stopped and craned his neck upward, illuminating a labyrinth of creaking boughs. A large Eastern Pine loomed above the other trees and provided a sturdy branch roughly twenty feet off the ground.
Perfect, he thought.
Unwinding the length of rope coiled at his side, Brett looped it through the kitchen bag, fashioned a simple knot, and flung the opposite end into the air in the direction of the branch. It landed in an unceremonious heap several feet from its intended target.
He stooped and re-coiled the rope, leaving extra slack in the line for his second attempt. This time his aim was true and it arced over the outstretched limb and landed in the pine needles on the opposite side. With a low grunt he pulled the kitchen bag into the air until it hung suspended roughly twenty feet off the ground, more than enough to deter any wandering bears. Brett secured the rope to the trunk and admired his handiwork. The kitchen bag hung suspended like a cocoon, swaying and twirling in the faint glow of his headlamp like its occupant was moments from breaking free and flapping into the inky night.
Brett returned down the path to camp. When he arrived, he gently stoked the fire. A few feeble flames sprouted like magic from the glowing embers but disappeared almost immediately. Angry coals throbbed and hissed in their place like a pool of lava slowly succumbing to cool air. He toyed with the prospect of adding another log. There was still plenty of wood. Several rough-hewn blocks and a bundle of loose kindling were piled a few feet away next to a small axe. But it had been an arduous day of paddling and he doubted Molly would be awake much longer.
He stared into the fading coals. How terrifying it must have been to be prehistoric man alone in the wilderness without fire, he mused. It warms. It lights. It holds the beasties at bay.
“Brett?” Molly’s soft call drifted up from the lakeshore.
He snatched a thermos of water and emptied its contents into the fire pit, sending smoke and steam billowing into the atmosphere.
When he reached the canoes, he found Molly reclined against a rock with her legs crossed in front of her. She again had the binoculars clutched to her face.
“Don’t you think that’s enough,” Brett scolded as he sat down. “People come to the woods for privacy.”
Across the lake, their neighbor’s fire was still clearly visible. A single, discordant flare in an otherwise unbroken expanse of dark shoreline. The crescent moon, now high in the sky, cast just enough light to add shallow depth to objects around them. An unfathomable number of stars blanketed the heavens, shining freely with ethereal intensity. Even the Milky Way was visible, flowing like a sediment-filled cosmic river through the visible universe.
“He’s just sitting there,” Molly finally replied.
“What do you do when you camp by yourself?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never camped by myself. Whittle maybe.”
“You’d feel better if he was handy with a knife?”
Molly dropped the binoculars and fixed him with a familiar irritated glare. “Don’t be an asshole.”
Brett brought a hand to his forehead and massaged his temples. “I was just kidding.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Her voice was softer this time.
She again looked through the binoculars, staring fixedly at the fire still dancing and sputtering on the far shore.
“Oh my God.”
“He’s standing on the beach looking right at us.”
Brett snatched the binoculars out of her hands and brought them to his face. Almost immediately he began to softly chuckle.
“Why are you laughing?”
“He’s pissing in the lake.”
Molly wrinkled her nose. “That’s disgusting. That’s something boys do, isn’t it?”
“Twice today already.”
He handed the binoculars back and lay down on the loose rocks to take in the night sky. A few satellites hurried across the firmament like runaway stars. Miles away, another melancholy loon cry rose above the lapping of the waves and then vanished into them like droplets of rain.
“I always thought those post-Apocalyptic movies were sort of silly.”
“Hmmm…?” Brett stirred. He had begun to drift off, his aching body gladly submitting to the peace of the surroundings.
“You know, two survivors meet in the smoldering wreckage of Los Angeles or New York. They’re always immediately suspicious of the other.”
“I guess they have to be because they just don’t know.”
Brett struggled to stay invested in the conversation but his consciousness was quickly ceding ground to the gentle tug of waiting dreams. Still, he managed, “Don’t know what?”
“Which the other is,” Molly murmured, “a good guy or a bad guy.”
Molly’s eyes fluttered open and she gasped for breath. Her heart was pounding violently in her chest and even with the top of her down sleeping bag flung open she was covered in a thin veneer of sweat. Was the sound that had awoken her real or the lingering wisp of a dream? Next to her, Brett rolled over in his sleeping bag, still asleep. Outside, all was quiet. No wind shook the tent and no creatures skittered through the underbrush. She held her breath, straining against the silence to detect any new sound, any wrinkle in the calm. Several seconds passed.
Then, she heard it again. A distinct noise separating itself from the background: the sound of a paddle slicing through water. She could even make out the gentle drip, drip, drip of water droplets cascading off the paddle when it was removed from the lake. The strokes were unhurried, careful even. Whoever was out there was in no rush or trying to pass by unnoticed. The paddle dipped into the water again and was followed shortly by the low grating sound of a canoe sliding onto a rocky shore.
“Brett!” Molly whispered intently, shaking the warm form slumbering next to her.
“What?” Came the muffled reply from the depths of her husband’s down sleeping bag.
“Sorry, sorry. What is it?”
She leaned in, “There’s someone out there.”
“What?” Brett was now fully awake and reached for the flashlight.
“No, don’t do that!”
“We don’t know who it is?”
Brett lay down and shimmied into his jeans, then pulled on a flannel shirt.
“What are you doing?” Molly hissed.
“I’m going out there. It’s probably just a deer or bear.”
“No, it’s in the water.”
He paused in the middle of tying his shoes and looked at his wife. She was taking short, ragged breaths and was clearly scared. “So it’s a fish jumping or beaver slapping its tail,” he replied calmly.
“Listen to me,” she grabbed his shoulder and he was surprised to feel her shaking. “It’s someone in a canoe. I think they just landed on our beach.”
Brett looked at her and then at the side of the tent that obscured the shoreline from view.
“Ok, let’s just take a look out and see if we can see anything.”
Brett leaned forward and snagged the tent zipper. Slowly, quietly, he opened the fly. The moon shed enough light so that objects appeared shadowy but still discernible. Trees were distinct entities, not just darker shades of black. The pair stared out into the night, willing their vision to adjust more quickly.
“Screw it.” Brett snatched his flashlight and exited the tent. Within seconds, a powerful beam of light swept this way and that, illuminating shadows, exposing them as nothing more than innocuous rocks and bushes.
“Do you see anything?” Molly called from the tent.
She could see Brett, framed by the glare of the flashlight, standing near the fire pit peering down toward where their canoe was tied off. He turned and brought a single finger to his lips then stooped and picked up one of the heavy unused fire logs.
“Brett,” Molly whispered as loudly as she dared. “Come back.” Tears formed at the brims of her eyelids.
He disappeared down the trail to the beach and with him went the light. She cowered back into the tent, too afraid to make a noise. A dim, bouncing glow and the sound of two feet shuffling along the pebble-strewn beach were all that marked his progress up the shoreline. Suddenly, a loud splash punctured the stillness and Brett yelled.
Molly sprang out of the tent and rushed down the trail toward the source of the commotion. Brett was waving his arms wildly at something in the water. When she reached him, he pointed at a small collection of exposed boulders ten feet off shore.
“Just some damn birds after the fish bones.”
Several large, animated gulls were glowering at them from the safety of the rocks.
“Something must have dug up the carcasses,” he said, kicking at the skeletal remnants of several walleye at his feet.
Molly drew closer to him. “What would do that?”
“Half the damn forest. Bear, raccoon, fox, sasquatch.”
Despite a still racing heart, Molly laughed. “I swear I heard someone paddling a canoe.”
“Night can do funny things to a person.”
He switched off his flashlight, plunging them into darkness. Almost instantly, Molly noticed her other senses prickling. Sounds became sharper, more ominous. The trees and hills seemed to lean menacingly in about them. The hackles rose on the back of her neck and she felt like somewhere in the forest, something watched them.
Brett flipped on the flashlight. “Let’s go back to bed.”
They walked back down the shoreline toward the trail. When they arrived at their canoe, Molly looked out over the tranquil waters. On the far shore, barely visible, a low fire still burned.
Light streamed into the tent and Brett opened his eyes. The crust that had accumulated at the seams of his lids cracked. When he sat up and blinked a few times, the crumbles caromed down his cheeks and chest like runaway boulders wrenched loose from their mountain aeries. He looked around the tent. Molly was nowhere to be found. Hopefully she got a head start on breakfast, he thought as he stuffed his icy feet into equally icy socks and shoes.
“Brett!” His wife’s panicked scream tore through the crisp air, robbing the morning of its innocence.
He shot out of the tent and looked around.
“Where are you?” He cried back.
With a gait made awkward by his untied shoes, he lumbered down the trail to the beach. When he arrived, he found Molly staring at the empty shoreline.
“The canoe is gone.” She was frightened.
“So it is,” he replied with feigned nonchalance despite a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Where is it?”
“I don’t know. Must have come untied somehow and floated off.”
He took off his shoes and socks and waded several feet into the frigid Canadian lake. Raising a hand to shade his eyes from the rising sun, he peered up and down the shoreline before high-stepping it back to the safety of the shore.
“Wow, that’s cold.”
“Brett, what are we going to do?”
He thought for a moment. They were a long way from cell phone reception and the nearest outpost was the small customs station for those canoeing from Minnesota into Canada as they had done several days prior. That’s probably twenty five, maybe thirty miles to the South, he mused. He stared at the impossible warren of trees and scrub and rock surrounding the small clearing where they were camped. We could do the miles but not without getting lost.
“I’m thinking. Hold on.”
“Brett?” She pleaded.
“Okay, okay. Grab the binoculars. Maybe we can signal our neighbor and get some help.”
Molly returned to the campsite. While she was gone, Brett paced up and down the shoreline, going over the options in his head. They had enough food for several more weeks. They had shelter, warm sleeping bags. Really, they were in no immediate danger. He was so lost in thought that he did not notice that his wife had returned and was now gazing out over the water.
“Brett.” There was something odd in her voice.
“He’s looking at us again.”
“That’s good. See if you can get his attention.”
She dropped the binoculars to her side. Her face was ashen and scared.
“Why not?” He asked, irritated.
She handed him the binoculars.
“Because he has two canoes.”