Honey, you can always call us if things get weird, Mom had said to him before she kissed him goodbye. But his father drove past the last, antiquated payphone. Cole didn't have a cell. There wasn’t much else to do but bear it.
At the wheel, his dad grinned. Everything made him grin: the food they picked up on the way in, the brand-new sleeping bags and tents, the campsite espresso maker he noticed on the way out of the giant outdoor store, and the young girl who rang in their order. He'd flirted with her and afterwards had said: the girls like guys with kids, it’s proof we’re fertile and good providers. Cole had grinned back at him through teeth clenched with sand and said nothing.
On the way to the parking lot he'd noted his dad’s pale legs, the paunch straining out of the tucked in shirt and thought: he wants to kill me, he just doesn’t know it. He’s taken me out camping, and before the end of it I’ll be dead. All because mom felt she owed him something after he hadn’t seen me for six months, and I felt too guilty to say no.
His dad had been talking about the camping trip for months; all the time in that awful way like he just didn’t get it; he thought it would fix everything. His mom had gotten leave and took him on his step-dad Joseph’s sabbatical for six months down in Oregon, and his dad had never visited. His mom was incensed that his dad never even made the attempt, just talked righteously about it, but Cole hadn't really wanted him to come. Now Cole was back home, and Dad was owed something, a reward for being good, for being quiet, just this once. A reward for not visiting.
The wilderness was frighteningly close, just ten minutes past a suburb development and then the trees grew tall, like fingers suddenly covering his eyes, the lights going out.
His dad had sworn he had a prime camping spot reserved online, but when they registered at the gate the lady in the kiosk looked blank and told them there were no spots in that area, which was lovely and nestled up next to a mountain ridge. Cole hung his head when his father asked him to stay in the car while he got out and talked to her. Cole rolled his window so he didn’t have to hear any of it: the rising, spitting tone, the subtle threat of violence, the clear willingness to never back down, to take it up as many notches as necessary. It was nothing new and he didn't want to hear it. He knew the woman would start to stutter and maybe her eyes would look a little overloaded as she tried to fight back tears and not cry in front of his father.
Cole expected his father to be heading back to the driver’s seat around now, looking like he just ate a particularly good burger, and they’d head to their original spot as planned as the poor lady back at the gate ran to the bathroom for a good cry. But a mass cruised by the passenger seat, clad in this blue-yellow-green that he recognized as the color of the official park uniform.
She must have been a park warden. She wore a Smokey hat, little granny glasses, and a massive belt. She was not fat, just wide. Cole thought she must have been wearing thick boots, because he’s never seen a woman so tall. He could imagine her good-humored, a tool belt hanging from her waist as she stopped for a bite of lunch on Commercial Drive, but now she looked furious. She strode around his dad and stood at the window of the station, beside the woman his dad had bawled out, and almost blotted out the sun, a moving, female tree.
Cole heard some of what she said. “You will not… all my years as a warden… spoke to someone like that… if you want to be treated properly here you will apologize to her… no one deserves that…” Spoken with a hard, deep delivery; long ago she’d given up worrying about what men thought.
His dad gave back as best he could, but he was no match. Cole expected her to reach for her phone and ask she should call the police; it was one thing that made his dad back down. Once, when Cole was nine, he'd had to beg his mother not to call them. But when his dad started to yell, the warden only dropped her hands from her hips and softly put one foot in front of her, ensuring her balance during attack or defense. No talk of police; just her standing over his father, waiting.
When his dad got back into the car he opened the window to let the air in, and said, “I can’t fucking get through to her. I don’t know, she says we have to go to this other site instead. She wasn’t such a big tub she wouldn’t talk to me like that, I’ll tell you. Whatever, we’ll just drive over to the site we wanted and take our spot. I mean, I reserved it. I went on the computer and reserved it.”
“But dad, if we don’t have the spot reserved, then they won’t let us on the site. The staff comes by and checks peoples’ permits, that’s how it works in the parks system and-”
“I really am not interested in your negativity. I did not plan this whole trip, and buy all this equipment, just to hear you be a sad sack. You want me to turn around? You want me to turn around and drop you off back at your mom’s? Because that’s just what I’ll do. I don’t want to be camping with someone like that. Not like that. So what’ll it be, my friend?”
Cole really wanted to not be here. He wished he were parked in front of his computer. But this was all wrapped up together with a few other things: in his heart Cole was terrified his filial betrayal was somehow responsible for his dad’s problems, and his dad’s problems were evidence that he wasn’t loved. Both were caused by the other, and sometimes Cole couldn’t breath, he felt so horribly squeezed. He felt sure if he chose to go home, his father would somehow be killed in a police shootout because he mouthed off to the wrong cop, or some other stupid thing that happens to men without their sons’ devotion.
“No what, my friend?”
“I want us to stay.” His father looked at his for a moment, bending forward a little; Cole could see the wrinkles in his neck as he searched his son’s eyes for a hint of a lie. He smiled.
“Well, then, that’s a little more like it. You won’t regret it; it’ll be fun. Just as soon as we get out of here and we don’t have to look at that…” and here he angled his face so these last words erupted out the window to the side of the registry office, “big fat fucken dyke!” and then he floored it, tore away down the road. Cole looked back through the dust and saw the park warden walking out to where they had been parked, looking out to where they were speeding away. God, she must be pissed, he thought, but then he brought his eyes back in front and had to contend with the wheels of the jeep as the asphalt devolved to potty dirt road, and his teeth fairly bounced out of his mouth. He laughed a bit, in spite of everything.
The campsite was gorgeous, peaceful, nestled on a plateau, overlooking a steep path down to river beach, a quatrain Cole’s dad hoped they would enjoy. But another tent and truck was already at the campspot, as well as every other one, and soon they were parked near the showers and water pump, his father fuming, reading the park map. “There’s a little path nearby, I know it…was here when I was a kid…”
Soon his dad had picked a path on the map: Cole saw it, a faint dotted line, pale against the fat blue lines of the main roads and the smaller black solid lines of the main hiking trails. It trailed up, away from the three or four campsite warrens near the lake into a densely colored area; when Cole looked closer he saw the close curved lines and solid black meant higher elevations and dense, unchecked forest.
His dad folded up the map and fixed Cole in his sites, and Cole knew from experience, learned indelibly like a language, forgotten but never gone completely, that now was not the time to interrupt his father.
“So… here’s the plan, and I want to hear what you have to say about this, alright? If we camp in the space they have left, we’ll be stuck with a bunch of townies whooping it up for the weekend. I saw them coming in, they brought nothing except tents and towels, and probably a lot of beer. I think we both know that won’t fly, right?”
Cole pictured his dad, at one in the morning, toe to toe with some drunken six and a half foot logger’s son, and shivered in agreement.
“So I want us to try taking this trail up the slope here and over the ridge, and then we can make camp on the other side. There’s this spot my buddies and I used to go when we were in high school, and I doubt anyone else will be there. Beer bottles are probably still around the firepit, just where we left them. It’s a haul, but I paid extra for the light-weight stove, and the tent fits perfectly on the top of my pack. So how about it?”
Cole knew the answer he had to give. This trip would be disastrous, a weekend that would live in familial infamy, but for now he had no choice.
“Alright. Just tell me what to carry.”
His dad was delighted.
Cole had suspected the trail would be long grown over, but the faint path had been worn down enough to be permanently etched on the side of the mountain. A few bits of yellow trail marker appeared, but only occasionally, as if the blazer were drunk, stumbling through the woods in the dark.
Brutal, slippery, winding, tightly curved, the trail tested them; the mountain ridge glimpsed above peered through the branches, but never come closer. The Douglas firs shrunk and wore newer foliage; the ferns vanished as the slope became drier in the middle elevation, the way clearing up the mountain face as they came upon an old clear-cut. They climbed through a dark area, lined with skunk cabbage and Labrador tea, before the sunny face of the alpine meadow spread out, squinting with color: the packed, dense blue of lupine and the frosted paintbrush stems, the monastic Avalanche lilies; the garden of blooms lay like an unfurled flag, and Cole and his father collapsed in its center and ate lunch among the floral scent. His father was too tired to talk, and Cole was grateful: the hike had done this much, at least. They sat, together a single dark stitch in the billowing quilt of the meadow, grunting once or twice as they passed ketchup and water back and forth.
They resumed, a little faster after resting, towards a little copse of trees, past a krummholz scrabbling over a pedestal of dun-colored rock.
His father said, “Holy shit!”, backing off, waving his hand in front his face. Hidden by a bush, the corpse of the deer lay splayed, its chest and stomach a blank bloody space framed by torn fur and sticky bone.
“Wolves must a got it. God, it stinks. Don’t you be afraid, Cole, wolves aren’t dangerous. No one’s ever been attacked by wolves.”
Cole, who read enough books, said, “I’m not afraid, I’m grossed out.”
“Fuck wouldja look at those footprints, never knew the bastards could get so big. Love to see it.”
He was puzzled by his dad’s speech, the cadence changing and roughening, so at odds with the weekend warrior buying gear at the co-op.
They got to the ridge at five, after almost a six hour hike, the northern summer night not even close to beginning, and together, in another moment of not talking, took in the view. The city to the west was still visible, the highrises of downtown shimmering behind an agate haze of heat, and beyond the massive flat band of ocean, a glowing likeness of the faltering sun before the next border of land from the big island’s shore. Farmlands southeast of the coastal mountains made a checkerboard stretching to the black horizon, roads sizzling between, the river a great slumbering streaked aorta feeding out, past the bridges, the terminals, the airport, to the sea. From the valley below came a thundering clap that queried back and forth to each ridge above the lake, industrial machinery sounding. They moved back down to the other side.
They did find the camp. It hid on a plateau sticking downside off the ridge like an afterthought, with a bowl in the rock collecting streamwater in a cold chalice before letting it continue on down to the slope to join other little tributaries. The old firepit sat right beside the bowl, a hump of earth and stone beside it with room for several rear ends. Cole felt a tiny loosening inside.
“Someone’s been in my bed!”
“Don’t you remember that? Used to read it to you all the time when you were little. Meant to say someone’s been in our campsite. See, firepit’s been used, and there’s a little stack of wood here for when they come back later.”
“Do they have a permit for this place? Does this mean we have to go back down the mountain again?”
“No, no. This place isn’t an official spot. Only a few people know about it, and a few of them are dead. No, if they come back here anytime soon we’ll just tell’em to shove off.”
They unpacked, Cole surprised to see his dad’s rigid backpack reveal sealed ham and cheese, freeze-dried meals, waterproof matches, a neat emergency box, and countless packs of freeze-dried meals, all wrapped in baggies. The meals, all in their own bags, were around one hundred grams each, and had colorful labels on rectangular packages: spinach cheese omelettes, maple sugar pancakes, ranch omelette with beef, farm frittatas, just add water and cook. The tent was a jaunty Hummingbird, fitting perfectly a safe distance from the fire on a bare flat patch on the little plateau. They decided to accept the previous visitors' generosity, and built a small fire from the little stacked pile of wood.
The sun cast a spotlight before retiring: a peeking beam that swept up the ridge, and pinned them so exactly they fancied their outsize alien shadows ate and chatted on the face of the mountain above the lake’s northern shore. Then, without notice, the sun ducked behind another ridge, and the darkness called up the wilderness noises, made them louder and bolder. Cole drew on another sweater, and asked for a second helping of the rubbery omelette; his dad put down his beer and poured another mess of powder and water on the pan. The wind was so mild they'd left the stove packed and cooked over the open wood fire.
He served Cole his second helping, settled back on his spot, said, “Well, I guess now’s the time I tell you the finer points of making love to a woman.”
Oh holy God no, thought Cole. He almost thought of leaping out into the darkness, tumbling down wherever the drop took him, broken neck or no, anything but to sit beside his dad and listen to the sermon. He could hear the grin, the affection for a captive audience, the thankfulness even, at this lost chance, now regained, to pass on the knowledge.
“Women appreciate gentleness. And you have to take your time, women appreciate that, too. You’re young, and you’re gonna want to get what you want right now, but that’s not the way to get there, you know? You need to take your time, and that’s served me well in this life.”
I’m twelve, thought Cole desperately, what does he think goes on in my life, oh my God. His stepfather Joseph was so perfectly neutered Joseph went so far as to tell him he was never Joe, not even to his mother or brother, but Cole’s dad’s sex life always seemed to be right there, in the undecorated bedroom with its sturdy functionality and tousled pillows, to the shirts buttoned just a little too low and crinkly chest hairs peeking through. And here it was again, and there was nowhere to run, nowhere except this little pocket of flame-lit ground on the mountain.
His dad talked for a good half hour, never going into details, but coming damm close some times. Go slow, don’t rush, be gentle, don’t worry about impotence, once you’re sexually active your beard grows way faster: That’s all Cole remembered, for most of it he was singing songs in his head as loud as possible.
His father was about to tell him of his first time, and Cole was squinting his eyes shut, when they both heard it and stopped. The long swooping note, rising, falling, gathering momentum with several deep barks before launching again, louder, searching: a howl. The other noises, the rustling, the crackling of little dry leaves, almost immortal on sun-drenched mountain stretching out the time, seem to stop and wait, before slowly resuming.
“Whoa”, said his father. “That was wild. Something to remember, eh?”
They heard it again, closer, down the other side of the ridge. Cole felt his skin as thin, uncovered, his bones like charred old branches. They both were quiet, and then, from down in the dark, down the slope that met more meadows, came a soft rolling and clack of a dislodged stone. It trickled and rolled farther down, before meeting a flatter surface, and stopped. In the straining stillness, something shuffled, almost painfully. It waited again, and then they heard soft muffled steps, padding down and away.
“Holy shit,” his father breathed out. “I gotta get up and check that out.”
“No way, Cole, I have to secure the food. Whatever that was, it smelled our food. If it comes back, the food has to be secure, or we won’t have enough energy for the trek back. Fun, isn’t it? Don’t let anyone tell you camping with dad is boring!”
He walked out to the perimeter of the light to the trees. Cole waited by the fire, listening hard, eyes straining to pierce the wall of black behind his father as he checked the rope, pulled it, watched as the bag of chow, suspended twenty feet up and over a branch, jiggled in response. His dad walked bag toward him, Cole looking through his swinging arms, trying to see any movement in the darkness.
They crawled into their tent not long after. Cole, earlier hoping for the privacy of a little pup tent, was glad to have someone sleeping beside him. When his dad switched off the flashlight, the blackness was like cement weighting down every bit of his eye, and the world was nothing but the wind luffing the edges of the fly, the ground teetering on the pivoting ridge up where gravity could lose grip for just a moment and Cole would be suspended, arms and legs immobile in the sleeping bag, and then fall through the dark. He lay there, heart pounding, to proud to ask his father for comfort, and somehow fell asleep.
He heard the clank of pans and cutlery and knew he was still alive. Sweaty from last nights waking nightmares, he unzipped the bag and crept out to see his father making pancakes on a white gas tripod stove. He sat stiffly in the cold morning air and ate, the food in the fancy packaging tasteless. He chose to leave his watch in his pocket, for it was some ungodly hour, up with the sun and all that. It was unnatural to be governed by sunup and sunset.
They left the camp and headed onto the other side, a flat alpine area, filled with acres of bright flowers and shallow lakes. The sun took off its kid gloves and sucked the dew off the leaves and grass with a flaming tongue; they broke out the hats and sunblock, Cole’s dad taking off his shirt, Cole watching from behind as the sun feasted on the exposed parts, leaving the shaded flesh white and painting the exposed almost blue with burn. More evidence of the same others: a small raft moored in the deepest part of the mountain lake, an arrangement of logs around a tiny, flowery garden busy with flowers, downward pointing blue bonnets on green damp stalks.
“Who the hell’s been out here,” mused his father, noting the cleared area off the lake, perhaps for a future cabin, and showed Cole damp patches of fur nearby, scattered but also stuck to the ground, the scene of prey caught, everything eaten, nothing wasted.
“Hold it! Don’t move.” His father grasped his shoulder. “Just saw something, bear I think. Over there, by those bushes. Hope those aren't berrybushed, or we should be going. Nothing worse than a messing with a bear’s food. There, you see it?”
Cole saw something, anyway. He saw a light-colored patch of hair rise and slip away.
His dad approached the bush, said, “No berries here, just some common bush. It was checking us out.”
“Of course it wants to take a look at us. Wouldn’t you. It’s used to privacy, probably thinks we’re here to hunt it. We just have to keep our eyes open out here in bear country.”
The alpine valley ended with another slope stretching to a peak, and for fun, to say they climbed two mountains for the price of one, they climbed to the top and almost sat almost astride it, looking down the other side. The mountains stared back, unamused, white-haired giants in green robes, the tiny waterfalls like jagged drinker’s veins. Cole, standing there on the edge, looking over to the opposite side, felt things could turn for them, and entertained idle dreams of living with his father during university years, his father delivering popcorn to Cole and his friends during movie night. The fatal sense of embarrassment faltered, and perhaps died.
The day waned, calling them to the reality of a land without neon and lit drugstores, nightlites and pulsing highway, and his father suggested they get back for dinner, and maybe even some marshmallows and graham crackers. The hike back was longer, hills appearing where none were before, the reverse bell shape of the walk deeper. Overhead a float-plane buzzed by, ignoring their waves, continuing north, towards floating fishing huts and bear-hunting camps.
When they reached the little plateau on the ridge, Cole’s eyes strained to find the road-sign orange of the tent; when he couldn’t he looked over to his dad, saw him running towards the camp.
“Sonavabitch,” his father yelled, picking up pieces of long slender bits of tent, the pegs uprooted around him, the fly gone and blown down the slope towards town. The pack of food stuck up in the tree was still there, the stove was dented but still fine, and the scattered sleeping bags just needed rolling up. Only the tent was destroyed. The spot where the tent had been was soaked by a pungent stain, the smell stolid in the air despite the wind, drawing tears with its wild tang. The camp sat on solid, sandy mountain soil, like the surface of the moon, but here and there prints turned up: a large central pad with five larger pads above it, the claws on top drawing deep gouges as whatever it was had braced and tore down the tent.
Over dinner his father fumed and grumbled, using language beyond even his standards; the easy silence of before was gone, like it had never been. He snapped at Cole over little things: the cleanup, not saying please, homework. Peaceful no longer, the quiet of upper altitudes ground on Cole’s stamina, making that left unsaid louder. Cole was twelve, older now, almost as tall as his dad. He would soon embark on adult things: girls, sex, cars, jobs, all things on which his father would dearly love to give advice. But a tenured professor of linguistics lived in Cole’s house and he would get the job because he was simply there. The camping trip was, to Cole’s dad, the heralding of the end of days, his son becoming a man, more alien, and not talking to the unnecessary person who once taught him to ride a bike.
Cole’s dad, seated at the fire, muttering into his roast potatoes, looked up at Cole with eyes he recognized as the precursor to something said without thinking, meant to tear down walls but succeeding only in building more. “You know, Cole, my friend, I think I made a big mistake when I let your mother have custody when she left.”
For once Cole chose to hold his own, rather than placate.
“And the point of that is what? That was years ago, and I consider Joseph and Mom’s house home. I don’t see-”
“I want you to move back.”
“I can clear out the office beside my bedroom; I can have a futon there by next week.”
Cole at once saw his two choices: to say yes would be to give up the life he had, his comfy room, the brand new computer, the yard with cherry trees, and to say no meant he didn’t love his dad anymore. At least, that was how his dad would see it.
“Well? What’s it gonna be, Cole? Are we going to get at what’s between us, or you gonna quit on me?”
Cole almost spoke, the single word on his lips, when the sound from down the ridge, on the other side where the slope headed to the roads and campsites, snuck from the dark and grew to fill the air. A deep growl, somehow offended, and Cole wanted to run but didn’t know where. Cole reached into his pocket and got out the Huntsman, eleven functions for all camping needs, and popped out the largest blade. He looked to his father and saw the black handled blade in his hand, easily a foot with straight edge on one side and serrated teeth on the other.
“Dad, where did you get that,” he said, and his dad jumped back with, “internet, figured I might need it, now shh, quiet now,” and he crept away from the fire and out towards the ridge.
Cole got up, figured safety in numbers when facing a wild animal, and walked towards his dad. His father had the outrageous blade out in front of him like a flashlight, easing forward on the balls of his feet. Cole was about to reach over to tap him on the shoulder, to let him know he wasn’t alone, when the darkness grew shades lighter and something came out of the darkness and grabbed his father. Cole made out a huge humped shoulder, covered in glossy fur, saw a paw clasping the back of his fathers neck. He stood there for a few seconds, and saw it all. His father’s arm looped back, the black stained steel almost invisible in the dark, and thrust forward, once, twice, and after the third he heard the roar that twisted up into a high scream of rage and pain. He saw his father stumble forward, and fall, and then the shape farther back in the dark hunched for a moment and pulled his father away from the light towards the ridge.
Cole stumbled back towards the fire, knowing what he was: a little creature with soft nails and teeth meant for chewing grass. He grabbed his sleeping bag and crouched next to the fire, brandishing the knife, looking and listening for any sign in the dark that it might return. He spent hours like that, achieving a fugue state where he passed out for lengths of time before jolting awake, afraid to look behind or to the side. He searched the darkness what seemed a million times that night, as the wind and grass drew rustles from the air, and he heard clicks and snaps that he imagined an army of monsters. He piled log after log on the fire, the fresh air fueling the fire so it grew tall and bright and it ate up the wood in no time flat. He resorted to throwing on shirts and socks and his old fleecy: they burned in different chemical colors, crowding the air with an easy stink. The fire waned and grew fainter, until it only glowed, still giving off light but with none of a fire’s talismanic strength. But by then the pure black curtain at the edge of the fire’s light drew up, and Cole could see a purple hue trace the slumbering black peaks in north-east, the brush of the sun adding more of the primaries, finally turning them green and white.
When Cole finally stood up from the dying fire his back ached and his legs were numb from strain. He jogged on the spot for a few minutes, drank from the thermos, and had two energy bars before rolling up his sleeping bag and strapping it to his back. He started off towards the homeward slope, the industrious knife in his right hand, the largest blade out and ready. He looked for his father, wondering if life would be any different if he found nothing; his eyes scanned the trail, the bushes nearby, the ground for footprints, and he saw nothing save for a spattering of blood on the ground just beyond the camp. He was glad to get walking, for the whole area smelt of some ugly musk, the smell of a large wounded animal.
He reached the edge of the little plateau and started to inch his way down, the pack balanced on his back making him jittery with the changed equilibrium, the water in the flask sloshing in his ear. He reached the lower meadow, with its acres of flowers, snarled trees, the trip and dance of dusty little hills rippling across the flat plain between the wild bouquets.
The cry of Cole reached him. Nestled into a depression was his father, on his side, panting, red-faced from sun and thirst, holding out his hand as Cole ran to him. A long tear ran down the left side of his neck, scabbed over, and his knee hung limply, but didn’t appear broken.
“Cole, jesus, I can stop worrying. Did it try to get you? Fuck, that wasn’t a bear, I don’t know what it was, but I nailed with the K-bar a few times. Won’t be coming back, that’s for sure.”
“Dad, can you walk?”
“I have to, don’t I? Help me up, wouldja? Guess we’ll find a stick, and I can gimp it down.”
They got a stick, dry and almost petrified to steel from wind and sun, and together they made their way down the trail, slow as worms, as the sun rose. They took small sips from the thermos and the hike wasn’t so bad. The arm around Cole’s shoulders was the first time and longest time Cole had been in close comfortable contact with his father, and the pain of his injury kept the conversation light and easy. They talked of video games, the X5 versus the Explorer versus the Toureg versus the Cayenne, trips to Mexico, Chinese food and Sushi, and his dad didn’t mention sex, probably because Cole would have let him fall to the ground if he did.
They finally got around to last night, and what happened, or what his dad thought happened, it was hard to tell in the dark. He had been dragged out into the dark, feet tailing the ground, and felt like he had been towed by a large truck. It pulled him to his feet, and for a moment, in the faint light of the fire still visible, he'd seen this face, with yellow eyes and a long snout, teeth thick and grayish-white. He could only stare back, not really afraid(“You have nightmares about this sort a thing,” his dad said, “but when it really happens you’re interested more than anything else”), and then felt its front leg move up his body and hold him still. When the head lunged forward and bit him in the neck, really bit down, he knew he had a second before it would rip it back out again; he'd slid the K-bar in like he was mining for gold and pressed it there as hard as he could. It hadn't even screamed; it just gasped and let him go. He fell, bumping and rolling, until he came to a stop. He'd lain there all night, barely able to move, the dark covering his eyed like a blanket, a country mountain dark. He hadn't been sure he’d make it to the morning, so instead he lay there and worried about Cole.
“I think that thing was a bear, because they do that sort of thing. The black bears got longer muzzles than Grizzlies, and they’re all sorts of colors. Strong too. Pro wrestlers got nothing on those suckers, you feel like a little baby takin’ on a pit bull.”
Energy bars were all they had left; they passed on the patch of berries nearby that looked a little like blueberries but not enough. They made lousy time, even downhill; Cole’s shoulder aching, exploding, he had to switch sides several times, poking the cut in his dad’s neck. Injury worked for his dad: he complained less, bore the pain and the stumbles with good humor.
The forest loomed ahead, the medium trees the fifth business roles broadcasting the arrival of the principles: the big firs, preening on the edge of the lake in the spotlight, menacing roads, feeding with their roots on a gruel of clay, sand and flesh of brother trees long dead.
At the edge of the forest proper Cole saw the body. He alerted his dad, sat him down, walked over to see it. He approached it, looked away automatically in respect for the naked body of a woman, and then looked back harder. She wasn’t a delicate victim, but large, a powerful woman, the broad span of her shoulders as she lay on her side reaching beyond Cole’s knee. He saw the short buzzed hair, and recognized the park warden, the one that faced down his father the other day. He got a little closer, saw the wounds in her abdomen: Not gunshot wounds, not rips from teeth, but thin slits of punctures, four or five of them, it was hard to tell.
He got back to his dad, told him, “It’s that park warden. You know, that woman who yelled at you when we arrived.”
“Her? Shit, really? I feel bad I badmouthed her. How did she die, can you tell?”
“I think she was stabbed. Only a few times.”
“Oh.” Then, as he thought through it, he said it again, unhappily. “Oh.”
They both decided, without saying anything, to stop talking. It all shut down from there; they kept quiet when they found her round-lensed glasses fifty feet down, and beside that a folded neat pile of her park uniform partly hidden behind a rock. The nametag on the top said Dolores T. Perkins, the perfectly normal name humanizing the hulking woman with her tattoos and short neat nails.
They hit bottom and drove the car to the gate office. While they were waiting for the ambulance Cole’s dad quietly mentioned the body, and who it might be. By the time the ambulance arrived two people had headed up to get her, and the rest of the staff quietly wept.
Cole’s dad healed like a trooper, with great humor, praising the hospital food and the pretty nurses during his short stay. He left under his own steam, no infection, no aches, and started calling Cole more often. He’d learned something up there, Cole wasn’t sure what; he was easier on the phone, suggested easy things to do, movies Cole liked to see, and Cole swore the Professor made a few jealous remarks over dinner. He told that to his dad, and his dad grinned all day.
Cole wasn’t sure what prompted his dad’s sudden success at work, with new younger women, but at least he could stop worrying. He could stop seeing his dad if he wanted to, and nothing would happen to him. His single most frightening and patently ridiculous nightmare, of finding his father raving on the street, begging for spare change, no longer plagued him.
But history is unmoved: the unannounced visit, the third in a month, with Joseph the professor unhappier each time, came in September, at dinnertime. The clothes his father wore flattered his newly svelte body and oozed money and privilege. Cole only knew he was at the door because the wind blew up the back of his shirt, bringing goosebumps. He came to the door to see the silent spectacle of his father staring at Joseph, not talking, his eyes reminding him of something: the cold stone promise, fear of consequence gone. Cole thought of the promotion his father achieved last month and thought he knew why. Why talk, why threaten when that stare is all you need?
But this was Joseph’s home, and he wouldn’t back down here where he might have elsewhere. Cole’s arrival prompted him to end the stalemate.
“Now, look here, I thought you and Lydia had agreed that you are to see Cole every second weekend-”
“I never said I was here to pick him up. I only wanted to talk to him for a moment. The arrangement was always informal, never set in stone, Joseph. And there’s Cole now, so why don’t you move along. How about it Cole? A little walk. Just something I want to put past you.”
Joseph was looking at him, hoping Cole would use his influence, his filial privilege, to tame this beast standing with one foot so insolently on the threshold. Cole didn’t know what to do; to leave would be a betrayal of Joseph of the patient support, the tutor for English assignments, the fluid center when his parents were warring, and to say no would reverse everything with his father and make all progress meaningless.
Cole was saved, if that was an appropriate term, by his mother’s arrival from upstairs, her face telling Cole she already knew what was transpiring.
“Hi, Lydia," said his father. "Just having a conversation here. Nothing to get excited about. Why don’t you go back to what you doing?”
Fine. If his father was going to boss around his mother, then Cole had to take her side. Honor asked no less of him, but his father expected him to walk out the door.
He had been gritting his teeth less. His grades in Math and English had improved to well above average all because his father had straightened up. His father had been calling at respectful hours, dropping Cole off on time, and speaking politely to his mother, and once, even Joseph. But not now: the beast had behaved well enough, received a mouthful of stinking salmon, and now wanted to play: Tug-of-war, wrestling, a good tackle leading to something deadly: all these things played out on the anthracite shadows shifting and locking on his father’s face.
He said, “Dad, dinner’s almost over and then I’ve got a book report. It can’t wait. Why don’t I call you tomorrow?”
Polite enough, giving his dad an out, but it wasn’t working.
“No, Cole. Uh-uh.”
Soft, slow shake of the head from side to side, jaw hung slightly to the side with a sly hint of teeth peeking over the bottom lip, the eyes stationary on Cole. His mother, looking blank, trying not to betray herself in front of a man she once feared. Joseph, not really understanding the situation, confused, and finally Cole, unhappy, hopes dashed at seeing the return of old dad.
“No, Cole. I need you to come outside. Right now. It’s just a little conversation I want to have. So… if you’ll oblige me? Put on your shoes and come out here please. Now.”
“Dad, I already said no, I mean, I said I couldn’t.”
His dad stepped over the border of the door, was at the stairs in a second, and grabbed Cole’s arm. His fingers dug in; Cole felt the vessels in his hand almost burst with pressure. His knees gave way. He thought it was shock, but saw his father moving with him, he was moving Cole’s weight with one hand, with a queer, half-moon smile on his face. Cole did not see Joseph approach, only saw one soft, keyboard-conquering hand grasp his father’s shoulder before he father moved his free hand to the side and shove Joseph in the chest. Joseph flew back into the living room; he hit the ground, the chandelier jingling above him. Cole had no idea where his mother was at that point, probably reaching into the knife drawer, getting that huge curved blade that had never been used, not even for turkey. Was this why she'd bought it?
Cole’s father stopped as he was marching him out the door. The two policemen were walking up the front step, belts like medieval armor clanking below their vests.
They were nice, but their stance betrayed wariness of his father. His father, nice right back, said placating things, smiled and somehow knew that calm speech and direct talk cleared things up nicely with cops. A huge misunderstanding, he said, but I felt I had to defend myself against the professor here. No hard feeling, Joe. Really. How about I not call for a week and let things cool off? The cops, so very tired of domestic crap, were thankful someone had take the lead. They left, wishing all a good evening, after his dad turned the corner in his new car.
The conversations in the living room went round and round later that night: his mother furious, spitting tacks, mentioning moving to the states, restraining orders. Cole thought she might head out back for the first cigarette in ten years. Joseph was quiet but breathing hard, only realizing now the man who once regularly beat on his wife had just walked into the house and laid him out. Cole tried to escape, but was drawn back in and practically accused of collaboration. Again and again they asked him what he really wanted. Cole told the truth, which was: just let me go upstairs and read, check my messages, watch an American Idol on his hard drive, and go asleep. I will trouble you not, I will do anything you say as long as it involves not doing anything.
They understood, and let him ascend under their hot and silent glare. He was honest: he went to his room and did everything he said he would, and went to bed.
In his dream, his mother was there, cooking something in the kitchen, Joseph sat at the table, reading, and Cole was trying to tell them something. He was so anxious, and distracted by the strangest sound. The scratching had no source; no kitchen appliance made noises like a fork on wood. The dream seemed to freeze; his mother and Joseph seemed impatient at his dream’s inability to progress, so Cole woke up, aware of the ceiling, the sweaty sheets, the utter silence of the house. But he still heard the scratching.
It stopped for a moment, and then he heard it again, changing pace, a little more urgent. It wasn’t a branch blowing against the window in time with small gusts of wind, it wasn’t his old lamp, buzzing with its rusting bouquet of bad wires. He looked to the window, and saw nothing. Then he realized that the streetlamp outside should have washed his window in soft light, as it had every night for years.
The streetlight glimmered through the window for a moment, then disappeared; something curved and hunched moving back for a moment. The window was already open, just a crack, and alongside the draft came a yellow, curling odor that filled the room. The slightest whisper came through the window, like a little plume of smoke from a dark cave. “K…,” came the whisper, then again, the consonant and then the gust of wind, “K…,” and then again with something more, “Ko…,”and Cole realized it was trying to say his name.
The fear didn’t leave; it merely retreated to a safe place while he crept to the window. He was terribly aware of the two other people in the house: vulnerable, throats barely visible in the dark, blood beating through veins, ears, eyes and nose sensing nothing. Will he listen to me? he thought. He had avoided thoughts of the mountain, like the thoughts of his father and anything related. But he might have predicted this, given his father’s behavior.
The thing at the window sat on the roof over the kitchen and looked into his room. The dark hid much, but Cole saw the ears, rich with fur, on the huge snouted head. The shoulders were hunched forward, not square, and fingers, not paws, clenched under a brindly pelt of fur. The eyes were round and sad above the panting slash of mouth, The teeth jagged and long, curving, a phalanx of swords crowded in brocaded red hall.
“Cole,” it finally said, and the upper lips curled up in a memory of a smile, the teeth stealing all the light in the room and throwing it back in Cole’s face.
“Dad, I don’t understand. What do you want? Do you want me to come out there? To do what?”
Again the grimace, and a desperate soft cry, and suddenly Cole knew: beyond what his father had become, beyond the thing in the window, there were dreams of trips, of car-rides that took his son to school every day, birthday parties, camping trips, canoe trips, Christmases never questioned, summer holidays never disputed, and Cole could imagine his father looking in the mirror the past months, not even questioning it, just thinking, I got one more chance to make it work. Now he sat outside the window,not even knowing why he wanted Cole outside in the dark.
“Oh, Dad,” said Cole, and choked back tears. “Oh, Dad, can’t you see? I don’t know what you’ll do to me. Just go. Scram, before the police get here. Go!”
It jerked its head back, and the black wet nostrils flared. No paternal instinct was in those eyes. The mouth clamped shut, and it looked at him slyly before it was gone. A soft thud in the backyard the only sound after that.
They found his dad a day later.
His mother came to his room to tell him. Cole had seen the news online at dawn; he had been checking every hour. Someone had found him in a ditch in Surrey, naked, hit by a truck. His car and clothes were nowhere to be found, and no driver had come forward to confess.
Many details were kept from the press, but a police detective paid them a discreet visit. He told them his father had almost been evicted because his apartment stank. Once he heard the complaints, his father had somehow made it stop, but the smell had disturbed the other residents so much the landlord was planning to evict him anyway. That was the reason on paper, but tenants had told the police of coming off the elevator on his father’s floor and seeing him standing there, bristling, with dead eyes, saying nothing as they struggled to get into their apartments.
His job was at risk: the success had been short-lived, only due to an explosion of go-getting behavior that was soon attributed to nothing but aggression. Personal attacks and bathroom confrontations had merited him warnings. He promised to improve, and they gave him a grace period. Cole could almost feel the strain, the absurd balancing act as his father strove to return to where he had once been.
One more thing.
In his father’s desk they found plane tickets, for two people, no return. To a northern city, above the province, in the Yukon, bought on the same date he had requested for a transfer. The flight left two days after his father's visit to Cole's house, and in his apartment his suitcases were packed with his clothes, Cole's clothes, two sets of toiletries, a portable DVD player to amuse a thirteen-year-old boy bored to tears on a long slow plane-ride, numbers of northern schools to call, even information about the new medical school in Prince George, in case Cole showed interest, in case he wanted to make his dad really proud.
In the following weeks Cole, now freed by his father’s absence to really think without guilt and fear, wondered about his father’s true motivations. He thought of the yawning space of the north, its merciless trees, white mountains giving back the face of the stars during endless winter nights. Their house, a tiny burning speck of light against the endless plain of white and dark, would have been a one long trial of shut doors and exhaustive silence, insomnia and cabin fever. Best-laid plans. And if Cole ever came back, he would be taller, able to skin a deer in five minutes, a crack shot, nothing like the boy raised by his mother and a college professor. The old Cole dead, transfigured forever by a northern boy.
And then his father might be unaware of his own inner plan, the thing in him reaching out, fooling him with fake dreams. Cole and his father, alone in a house, the north night laughing down: It would have a delicious, drawn out hunt, with blank stares, long hunting trips, torturous nights in the tent. Finally, with no more pretending: after a long chase through the woods, no one around, the fear-smell like chicken grease on the snow, Cole and his father would finally have it out. It might not be completely at odds with what his father had always wanted: to root out what fought his essence within his son, to ingest it and make everything the way it once was.
Cole thought he might never have children, although he might donate half of anything he earned to charity for kids unlucky enough to be fatherless. He read voraciously, filling his head with readings about fatherhood, about Electra and Oedipus, inner-city neighborhoods of fatherless boys destined for prison and lethal injections, bumbling idiot dads on TV. Confused, conflicted, he tried to forge in his mind a memory of the man he knew when little, of bike-rides, movies, special restaurants, gifts of comics, and nothing more.
Except that one day on the mountain, and half a day after that, when everything had been perfect. His father had taken him there, and what happened after was not his father's fault. Cole wished he could tell his father that.