AoM Chpt 23: Reunion at Camp

Steve packed in the evening, giving first thought to toothpaste, comb, extra underwear, and deodorant — items he usually remembered last, if at all. The gaming books came next, along with a couple sets of dice, his notes for the next stage of the adventure, and Megaera’s character sheet. T-shirts, jeans, shorts, a windbreaker, a knit hat, socks, and sunscreen rounded off his essentials. He normally wouldn’t have remembered the sunscreen, but his arms, cheeks, nose, and forehead were now pink from his stint of field labor and itched.

That night, he dreamed of holding Tess’s hand staring out at a lake that reflected the starry night sky. He looked up, but the stars weren’t there, and then he realized that they were on the shore of the Nightwater. For a moment, he worried about monsters in the surrounding dark, but they seemed to have the area all to themselves. He remembered that he had wood and matches in his backpack. They walked down from a firm bank of volcanic tuff and made a fire on the shore in fluffy white sand. Steve left for a few minutes to hunt sowbugs, which he knew came out at night. Not far away, he found one almost a foot long crawling in a tide pool over some starfish. It curled into an immense plated ball as he picked it up. They cooked it on the fire just like that. When it was done, it steamed and opened up slightly, its many small legs bristling out. They cracked it on a rock and took turns stripping out the back meat and washed it down with Cokes from his pack. It was just like lobster tail.

“When does the sun come up?” Tess asked after they’d finished and cleaned their hands in the water.

“Never, not down here.”

“Fine with me,” she said, and took his hand again. But the sun did come up, blazing, through the immense, distant mouth of the underworld. She sighed. “Too good to last,” she said. A moment later, she turned to him in alarm. “Wait, did you really just feed us a bug?”

He woke to morning breaking over the mountains and stayed in bed a while to watch the sun on the shoulders of Hood. It would be full light on the east side where Tess was. The desert chill would be lifting, the air still cold but the dusty ground already hot. A tent would be warm inside. Rei was in the fields, which lay still half in shadow. Steve glanced at the digital clock radio next to his bed: 7:26. Rei had been out there almost two hours already, poor guy. The clock, one of the new GE ones with backlit plates for the numbers, made a faint electric whirr as the motor switched out the minutes with a click: 7:27. He heard footsteps overhead. “Time to get up!” his dad called.

* * *

They took the Jeep and hit the road just before ten. Steve sat in the back beside a wall of gear. His parents had been up for hours yet still seemed low on energy. Each drank coffee from a travel mug in silence.

They took the same route the berry bus had. Steve’s dad gassed up in Gresham. A dark-haired girl about his age sat reading in a station wagon on the next island over. He watched her absently. After a few seconds she looked up at something out of his view, and he saw she had compact, tight features not at all like Tess’s. She went back to her book, unaware of his attention.

As they passed the turnoff that led to the berry fields, Steve felt a mixture of relief and guilt. They’d driven about a mile further, into a rolling country of nurseries, when his dad said, “Are you berrypicking in one of those fields we went by?”

“Yeah. A ways back, just out of Gresham.”

“It’s nice country. We thought about moving out here once, but the commute into town is really long….”

At last his parents began talking, about past trips over to the east side of the mountains, about plans for future vacations. For the first time in a week, Steve didn’t feel pissed off at them. The Jeep had shed the frantic city and its major suburbs, and now fields, forests, and hills bore them into a different mental landscape, more peaceful mostly but harboring doubtful portents amid the trees.

By turns, Steve felt contemplative and then slightly nauseated by a churn of emotions: excitement, apprehension, hope, fear, self-consciousness. Time stretched when he paid attention to the view, and lurched ahead when he drew inward to contemplate Tess and their game. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to get there fast or slow.

They’d been on the road maybe twenty minutes. It was a three-hour trip.

Five miles from Gresham, they reached Sandy and the highway forked into one-way streets climbing at a gentle slope, with businesses between them: restaurants, a grocery store, ski shops. Past the town, a farmer market and berry field reminded him of the Hayatsus. Would Rei change his mind and hold a grudge when he got back? Minutes later he realized the shadow that had dropped over him was literal: they’d descended through a long corridor of tall trees.

They’d now been half an hour on the road. Two and a half to go.

* * *

A wide slot of river valley opened a panorama of the surrounding hills, intermittently blocked by sun in the windshield as they flashed in and out of shade. He thought of Tess breathing it in, like she had the view from his yard. The highway climbed up through grassy verges; then the trees closed in again as it ran a straight gauntlet of forest corridor, interrupted by an incongruous bank and strip mall. Hadn’t they left all the stores behind? Shouldn’t they be further? A few minutes later, they passed the familiar outpost of Zigzag, with its ranger station and a skillet-eatery that had once been a logging camp, then Rhododendron with its last-chance gas and a Dairy Queen.

They’d been on the road an hour.

A third of the way. Two hours to go.

Now they were going up. And his stomach fluttered. The change in landscape had grown serious. The subalpine forest had become scraggly, mixed with short pines hung with lichen; the soil, tan and rocky. After a straight run, a wall of granite sprang up on the left and the land fell away on the right into a canyon of firs. They rounded a bend, and Mt. Hood towered ahead, glaring white across a quarter of the sky. Had she caught this view, or been deep into a book? He’d made this drive before. How had he failed to see what fantastic country it was? The road got steeper, twisting up among piers and outcrops of rock. The road leveled and got straighter as they approached the summit. High meadows spread between the tree stands, filled with purple lupine, orange paintbrush, and banks of pink heather interspersed with the islands of last winter’s dwindling snowpack.

The air sparkled with a clarity that struck him as diamondlike and surreal; wind buffeted the Jeep. They went by the Government Camp rest rooms: a long, straight building, with steeply pitched tin roof. People hurried in from their cars, heads down, clutching windbreakers and parkas. A few hundred yards later, off to the left, the exit to Timberline Lodge marked the crest of the pass. A parting gust shook them, and they wended down among sunny, becalmed slopes.

Steve fell into a contemplative mood, his stomach tightening a little now and then at signs of progress. They crawled through the heart of the Cascades and the alpine lake country, with exits a few miles apart reading Frog Lake, Timothy Lake, Clear Lake. The ghost of his reflection in the side window brooded over the flickering scenery: the fir trees mixed with golden aspen and pine, an understory of vine maple. Did he have a good face? It was broad but starting to flatten at the cheeks and along the jaw. His blond hair flashed in the sun gaps between the trees; his wolfish amber eyes seemed deep, eyes a girl could maybe take seriously.

He noticed pine had replaced the firs, with sagebrush here and there among the mottled boles. A sign to the Kah-Nee-Ta resort, a tourist destination on the nearby Warm Springs Indian Reservation, pointed off to the left.

An hour and a half to go.

The flat ground broke in wide fissures, and the highway dropped through rimrock mesa canyons into rocky desert of bunch grass, lonely junipers, and sagebrush. They reached Warm Springs. The Deschutes River cut along the bottom of the main canyon beside them. Rafters spun slowly by in flotillas, and fly fishermen lined the bank, wading the shallows and plying the water. The jeep had grown hot, and his dad rolled his window down. Over the river and the highway swarmed giant stone flies, three inches long or more; a half dozen of them smacked the windshield, leaving long yellow smears. Steve felt a little disoriented. Time had slipped by.

“How much farther?” he asked.

“A while,” said his dad. “We’ve got Madras in about fifteen minutes, then Prineville well after that.”

Steve rehearsed the reunion in his head. He’d be casual and let her talk. Or maybe ask what she thought of the drive. Nah, she might think that was lame. Had camping have made her relaxed and approachable or uptight and surly? Having all the adults around would be awkward….

He marked the A&W drive-in, but otherwise barely noticed as they went through Madras, or even when they arrived through the brown hills into the little oasis of Prineville. But as they skirted the public park with its ball fields, he realized he was looking at the Crooked River meandering just beyond. His stomach butterflies returned in earnest. They climbed slowly above the water. Fishermen occupied almost every flat stretch. Farmland drifted by, along with ranches where cattle grazed on broad greenswards. They entered the bottom of a mesa canyon. Now and then, just downslope, a stand of old junipers sheltered a riverside campground. Steve wiped his sweaty hands down his jeans.

Abruptly, his dad turned the Jeep off the road down a steep bank. His mom braced against the dash. They pulled into a flat lot next to a canopied Chevy truck and a Volkswagen Rabbit. A cloud of fine, tan dust curled around the flanks of the Jeep and pressed in through a gap above the windows. Steve’s mom made an impatient shooing gesture. Steve inhaled some dust, but he realized his throat was already dry and constricted. They all got out.

Cicadas buzzed in the heat, and a rich, baked-earth smell overlaid with juniper berries filled his head. The last curl of dust wafted into a tree stand, where a boy of three or four chased his brother, who was maybe twice his age, around a wooden picnic table. Shaded and inconspicuous, a woman in a lawn chair read a crime novel, sunglasses on her forehead. As they approached, she put the book aside and sat up. She had long auburn hair like his mom’s, but in a ponytail. Her face was lean and almost deerlike in its prettiness. A red tank top and tan Capri pants hugged her shapely figure.

“Hi, Tina,” said Steve’s dad. Steve recalled that he’d been to the Harrisons’ before.

The woman got to her feet and nodded. “You must be Gale.” She came forward, shook hands with Steve’s mom, then turned a keen gaze on Steve. “I’ve heard a lot about you. You’re quite a storyteller.” Her soft brown eyes sparkled.

Steve smiled and shrugged. When he cast about, Tina Harrison laughed, smooth and low. “She just got back from a walk, and she’s either napping again or reading again. It’s the blue tent.” Steve dithered and noticed Mrs. Harrison staring at him in amusement. An uncomfortable second passed, and then she urged him off with a nod. He looked to his folks, but they had already dismissed him from their attention. “Alex is fishing,” Mrs. Harrison began to explain to his folks as Steve left. “He’d gotten a ways downstream, last I looked….”

The young boys ran ahead of Steve toward two large canvas tents, one orange, one blue, pitched at the inside edge of the tree stand. A few yards beyond, the ground ended in a ledge of dirt. “Tess!” yelled the oldest boy. “Someone’s here, Tess! Te-ess!” Steve’s heart pounded in his neck.

The tent flap hung loose, and when the boy drew near Tess batted it aside and thrust out her ponytailed head. “Boo!”

Steve was caught by surprise and stumbled. The little boy didn’t react at all. “I want you to take me to catch frogs, Tess. Jake’s throwing rocks. I’m tired of him.”

Tess nodded up at Steve, her eyes still on the kid. “Maybe Steve will take you to catch frogs, but first I want to talk with him for a while, okay, Adam?”

“Will you, Steve?” he asked, as if they’d known each other all along. “There’s a place with frogs where the river makes a pond. There’s tadpoles, and Daddy saw a snake. I can’t go near the river without a grownup, mommy says. Are you a grownup?” He looked doubtful.

“No snakes, Adam,” said Tess sternly. “There are rattlesnakes here, and they are poisonous. Stay away from snakes.”

“Stay!” said his little brother as he reached Adam’s side, and pushed him. Adam poised a fist but let it drop. Steve thought it was a close thing.

“Jake! Adam!” called Tina Harrison. “Don’t bother Tess and Steve right now. Come back and play.”

As the boys ran off, Tess jerked her head in invitation. “Come on in, but take your shoes off. Dust gets into everything.”

* * *

Tess had created her own Apartment in the Woods. Beside her sleeping bag on its thick foam mattress, she had tidy stacks of many cassette tapes, like the skyline of a play city. A brand-new Walkman lay nearby with its padded headphones. Beyond the tapes, lava rocks bookended a two-foot row of titles that included Dune, The Lord of the Rings, the C&C Player’s Guide, and several he’d never heard of, including a couple by Sigmund Freud and a book called The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler. On the other side of the sleeping bag, an open suitcase revealed her neatly arranged clothes; and next to it, she had her denim jacket thrown over a small camp chair.

Tess motioned for him to take the chair, and threw herself backward on her sleeping bag, bunching up the pillow under her head so she could watch him. She had on an oversized T-shirt, red sweat pants, and dirty white socks. The T-shirt bore the decal of a teenage girl playing a guitar and was labeled “The Runaways.”

God I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “Jacob and Adam have been bugging me all week. Tina’s miffed at me for ducking them the last two days, but I’ve had enough. If they want a nanny, they can hire one. So what’s up with you? I see you’ve gotten some sun. You look all sporty.”

“I’ve been picking berries with Rei.”

“Rei has berries?”

He opened his mouth to explain, then caught her wicked smirk, and shut it.

“Sorry. So are you making money or what?”

When he’d given her the highlights, that he’d forgotten lunch that first day, froze his ass off in the mornings, and gotten hounded by Liz the Berry Boss, she said, “Damn, and I thought it was a drag out here. I was actually jealous of you being home in your cave, and — hey! Your arm!” She scooted over and motioned for an inspection. When he got up, she gripped his wrist, peeked under his forearm as if to find something hanging there, and then let go. He sat down, and she plopped back on her pillow. “You’ve been scamming us. It looks fine.”

Steve didn’t let her provoke him. “You look good,” he said. The tip of her nose was slightly red and peeling, but her skin had a healthy glow.

“Gah!” She covered her nose. “I look like the rotting mummy.”

He shook his head, resisting, barely, the urge to make an insipid protest. “So what have you been doing for fun, beside reading and listening to music and going for walks?”

“Thinking of you,” she said, and laughed as he swallowed hard. “Just kidding. Actually, that’s about it, but come here, listen to this.” She turned sideways to face her cassettes, her legs trailing off the sleeping bag. As she put on her headphones, she watched him kneel down hesitantly on the bare tent canvas by her bag. She slapped the spot next to her in impatience, and clicked the queue button, sending up a squirreling noise. He got down on his belly beside her, shoulder to shoulder as she fiddled with the player, eyes intent. Her cheeks were red, both sun-chapped and flushed. He turned his head and inhaled to catch her scent. She was gamey under a coating of flowery deodorant. His eyes watered, whether at the deodorant or her stale sweat, he didn’t know, but it was her own assertive smell; it didn’t bother him. Tinny music leaked from the headphones.

She knocked her head sideways into his, painfully.

“You going to sleep? Here.” She took off the headphones and thrust them down over his ears. It was the first time he’d ever listened to a Walkman, and the sound — like his parents’ expensive hi-fi system — amazed him.

A lilting piano intro yielded to a female voice, assertive and imploring at the same time. He’d heard this before. The intro gave way to plunging drums, and hammering keys. He closed his eyes and could almost see the band, lost himself in the emotional push, and then, self-conscious, felt himself blush at how the lyrics, about lovers in the night, seemed to express his yearning for Tess.

“Isn’t it awesome?” she said at last as the song faded out, and he removed the headphones. Her eyes were large and excited.

“Yeah. I like that. It’s beautiful… and, and gutsy.” He felt immediately stupid, having groped for a word and gotten the wrong one, but Tess just nodded.

“Who is it?” he asked timidly.

“Patti Smith. My mom loves her. That song’s on the radio a lot, I know. It’s more pop than most of her stuff, but I really like it. She’s a genius.”

“Why’d you want me to hear it?”

Tess’s expression went blank, surprised. She rolled away and sat up. “I just like it, that’s all. I just knew you could appreciate the quality of it, you know. I mean…” She colored slightly. “That’s all. You’re smart, and we’re friends, and I just wanted to share some music.”

“Sure. Yeah, cool.”

She nodded in apparent agreement with herself and relaxed.

“Hey, Ste-eve!” his dad called from some distance away. “How about helping to set up camp?”

“Sorry,” he said to her. Having his folks around was going to be a drag.

“No problem. I’ll help too.” She picked up her leather sandals, stripped off her socks, and then balanced gracefully on each foot in turn as she put them on.

“Hey,” Steve said, unsure how to broach this next topic, which had weighed heavy in his mind for days.

“Yeah?”

“I heard you’re—I mean, I heard Mr. Harrison got a job in Ashland.”

“Yeah, but don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere. Mom’s up in Portland; I can’t leave….” She stopped and studied his face. “What?”

“I’m just relieved, is all,” he said. But he felt a chill despite the heat.

“Let’s not talk about it anymore, okay?” she said.

“Sure.” And he followed her out of the tent.

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