Natural Light

by Patrick J Crowley

 

They arrived in droves, piloted by sedated and bleary teens, thrusted through the gates of the campground in a heavy blow, a steady stream of second hand cars jumping at the throttle, blown speakers pulsing, slipping fan belts crying like hawks.

Rod Prentiss nearly pissed himself he was so dang confused. He was powerless to stop this nightmare. All those teens. Those children. Rod stood at the little gatehouse, windows open on a June morning. Penny Lake Campground and Picnic Area had opened only a few days prior on Memorial Day and this was still technically the slow season. For one, the “lake,” which Rod had to admit was merely a pond if you wanted to get technical about it, would stay intolerably cold from all the White Mountains runoff until, say, early July. And the other thing…

Shouldn’t all these pissants be in school?

They were still filing in. Sometimes there’d be lulls just long enough for Rod to feel relieved it was over, but sure as shit more would come around the corner and drive right past him. He stayed right where he was in that gatehouse though, sitting in a rolling office chair by the window, watching. 

Many of the teens would smile and wave, some yelled, some held up a can of beer triumphantly. Some spit or flipped the bird or belched. 

Really, all these cars should have been checking in with Rod at the gatehouse. But Rod was at least thankful they just moved along since he didn’t care to converse with each carload of untethered youth. But then a car did stop. A nice young lady, short in height with a wavy, shining mess of brown hair hanging loosely over a thin sundress. She climbed out of the back of a 90s VW, her fellow passengers waiting behind. She held a piece of paper in her hand and smiled. Her eyes were covered by a pair of oversized sunglasses. This is their leader, Rod knew. She has the charisma and the good looks. 

“Good morning, sir!” she said. “I’m Danielle.”

“Mornin’ miss. Welcome to Penny Lake.”

“We have reservations. See, here,” Danielle handed over her folded paper.

Rod studied it carefully. They’re taking over the campground. Just like that. Nearly every last site, but for a handful here and there. “Thank you. Looks like you’re all set. Paid in full. Enjoy your stay and let me know if you have any questions.”

Danielle smiled brightly at Rod then headed back to the VW. Someone inside said something and everyone giggled. The car pulled away with a corroded wheeze. 

Rod returned to the gatehouse, picked up the phone and dialed up Martha, the general manager. He got her answering machine. “Martha. Rod here. We’re gonna need some help. I can see that right now. It’s a goddam invasion over here.”

 

Kenneth Plum was lulled into a trance. It all started with that joint at 6:30 this morning. There were four people who all needed a ride to Penny Lake in Trent Saget’s three-seater truck. Ken was high and they all had to draw straws to see who’d ride in the back of the truck. Ken was high and he knew he’d get the short straw. This was his fate. He climbed into the truck and lay down amid the clutter of camping gear. Trent pulled out of his driveway and their journey had begun. Ken stared up at the world and watched it change from the dirt road canopy to the deep breath of the open-field sky to the mountainous topography and finally to the thick shelter of the deep forest. It passed quickly while Ken opened his mind. His father was a meditation enthusiast and Ken had strained to understand the mindfulness but usually failed to still his thoughts.  That morning, however, staring up from the rusted bed of an old truck gave Ken exactly what he needed. He looked all the way up into the perfect morning sky and saw his future.

 

“When should we start doing the coke?”

“Jesus. I don’t know. It’s 10 in the morning. I don’t want to start now. Just have a beer.”

“Yeah but, like, wouldn’t we want to kind of get all pumped up or whatever.”

“It’s not exactly like that you know. It’s not fucking Scarface.”

“I know I—“

“No. You don’t know, do you Tim? I know you’ve never done coke and you’re just waiting for me to bring out my stash so you can finish high school with another fucking notch in your belt or whatever and that’s fine. I swear to God I’ll share some coke with you, but just chill. Enjoy the day. Have a beer.”

“Fuckin’ A Dwight, I got it, I got it…I just…I just figured, you know, this is Senior Skip Day and I wanted to get a good start and all. I’m sorry.”

“No, I know. Everyone’s all amped. I get it.”

“You bring a tent?”

“No, I’m crashing in my car I think. I don’t know. Why, do you have yours?”

“Yeah. Had to get sneaky to get it though. See, my dad really does think I went to school because he’s an asshole and wouldn’t let me do this. So I had to pull all the tent pieces out of the bag that I got in the basement and then I had to fold it up in a way that would fit into my backpack but still look like I was going to be going to school. And then I went about the day like school and everything all the way down to my breakfast and Craig Rickers stopped by and picked me up at the bottom of the driveway just like every day and everth—”

“Is that fucking Lea Webster? Holy shit. Never thought I’d see the day. So is everyone coming to this? I wonder which seniors actually go to school today? Can you imagine? Not only do they feel like assholes because they’re the lame twats that didn’t participate in a cherished goddamn tradition, but also they feel like assholes because Mr. Principal Muttonchops and the rest of the secret police are gonna be staring down all the stragglers, expecting answers.”

“I have choir with Lea Webster.”

 

No one really knew who recommended this place. It’s just some sad little campground, Lea Webster thought. It’s just like all the rest. Truly, Lea did not want to be at Penny Lake on a Friday, a school day, in June, surrounded by classmates whom she mostly didn’t care for. The trouble with a regional high school in a rural part of the state was that there were several disparate small towns all sending their high school kids to one central location in the region. Tumble Hill Regional High School attracted all sorts. Peterville—trailer park rats. Bickmont—deep woods hicks and hippies. Kapler—dairy farm stink. Really, Lea only liked her hometown of Lewis, a nice place to live by the river. A sweet, historic village surrounded by pastoral fields and hills. Lewis was different than the rest. It was out of character for the rest of the Tumble Hill District.

But someone in the Tumble Hill class of 2002 had gotten it in their head that Penny Lake, a tick-infested, swampy mess south of the White Mountains, would suit for this year’s Senior Skip Day, an unofficial tradition. Lea tagged along with the few girls she could tolerate, mourning her perfect attendance record, dreading the disappointed looks from her teachers.

Lea would try to belong. Might as well not be miserable the whole time. She unrolled her sleeping bag over a foam pad inside of Danielle Heidl’s mammoth tent that would be housing half the girls’ soccer team on this one-night excursion. Through a screen on the tent, Lea watched as the campground hummed with activity. She unzipped the door of the tent and climbed out, sitting on the picnic table and removing her sweatshirt as the morning sun warmed up the air. Cars were streaming in, the sites all being set up and settled in. There was only a thin line of trees separating each site. She looked left and right. The neighbors in this corner of the campground were people only vaguely familiar. A few people from AP Calculus she knew. Some tenor from Choir was staring at her and she made an effort to mask her disgust. A big red car playing a Radiohead song crawled by. Kevin Bickel, another product of Lewis, leaned out the window and waved. She faked a smile, sighed and climbed back into the tent.

 

Liam Manfred was in his element. Like a pro, he set up his tent in about a minute. Personal best. He fixed up the fire pit, set up the camp chairs, dumped ice into the coolers and arranged the stove and cookware on the picnic table. He cooked a light breakfast, a couple scrambled eggs with shredded cheese and a dash of milk. He washed it down with a beer and felt like one million dollars.

He saw Ralph Eggers’ Thunderbird, that unmistakable big red bullet, crawling down the little campground road, his passenger, Kevin Bickel, carefully studying the numbers posted at the front of each campsite. Occasional shouts and waves were exchanged. Ralph would have honked his horn if it functioned properly. 

Liam waved with his fork in hand, a little tuft of egg sailing off the end onto the dirt ground. Finally they spotted him and pulled right into the site. Too far into the site in fact. 

“You gotta back up, that’s a perfect spot for another tent. Really flat, not many pebbles or sticks or roots or anything.”

“What?”

“Just back up like 10 feet.”

Ralph and Kevin unloaded, tented, ate some of Liam’s egg and cracked beers. Natural Light.

“You come alone?” Kevin asked Liam.

“No, Zach is here somewhere. He walked into the woods right there looking for firewood and disappeared, so I guess he’ll be back later. I don’t know.”

Left with nothing to accomplish, the three gathered in the Thunderbird and roasted a serious jay, followed quickly with Camel Lights all around. Liam always appreciated the smell and taste of cigarettes inside of a car. Even when his stepmother would light up a Marlb Light when Liam was much younger, riding in the back seat of his father’s GMC Suburban, he took pleasure in the second-hand smoke. Now mostly he wasn’t sure how he felt about smoking. Sometimes these Camels would leave this chemical aftertaste in his mouth and he’d get nauseated and lightheaded. Truth be told, he preferred those Marlb Lights, but the last time he bought a pack of those he was mocked by his best friends for being “some haggy bitch in front of the CVS.” Then they did impressions of a woman with a shredded baritone buying cigarettes, a voice that stuck in Liam’s head. He would stick to the Camels.

 

Chasing some wet, gurgling bird call, Zach Tucker dropped his meager firewood collection on the forest floor. Some shadowy bird jumped from tree to tree and Zach followed it. He was truly and entirely devoted to this task and as he pressed on at a brisk pace, the noises of Penny Lake Campground and Picnic Area faded away behind him. Soon the brush thickened. He was far away from the land that had been picked clean by the foraging of campers who had come before him and harvested anything combustable. Now he stepped over fallen trees, scraped through bushes, ducked under low limbs. True forest. He nearly lost the bird, but the call came again, a sound like some heavenly bong hit, sweetly sung in a pleasing harmony. He searched the canopy above and only saw the bird when it spread its wings and took off again. Zach felt he was being summoned. 

After a half hour of pursuit, Zach’s tattered sneakers were soggy and his clothing dirty and covered with burrs. Up ahead he saw some kind of a clearing. He was fairly certain the bird went in that direction. There was a break in the trees and as he got closer, he realized it was a dirt road. He emerged from the wood and searched for his bird but did not find it. The road was quiet, narrow and laid with gravel. The debate of which direction to continue in bothered him for several minutes. To his left the road appeared to lead steadily uphill, to his right it descended. Then another signal. Somewhere up the hill, he heard that call again. 

 

“This is madness. I mean…Tim. What time is it?”

“Dwight. 2:22.”

“Jesus. People need to slow down. Pace yourselves people! Look at this. Brandon and Benny are walking down the road with keg cups in their hands and somehow both of them have slipped into a single life vest. Look at this shit. I saw Trent Saget doing laps around the grounds in his truck. There were probably four or five people sitting in the back and another three with him upfront. Everyone was tanked. Ken Plum was standing up in the back, his shirt off, a bandana tied around his forehead. He looked fucked up. Tenney and all those hicks have already started their pallet bonfire, I can see. And of course they have about five truck loads of fucking pallets just so they can spit their goddam chew out and sip their beer all day and say ‘throw another pallet on the fire.’ The thing is, the bonfire is the type of shit that’s gonna get us tossed out of here. Although, now that I think about it, I doubt they’d want to do that. What are they gonna do, ask a bunch of drunk teenagers to get in their vehicles and go drive home, a couple hours away? That doesn’t sound like a bright idea.”

“I could drive right now. I’m good.”

“You are not good, Tim. We’ve been drinking, slowly I guess, but still enough. Plus the coke.”

“Can we do some more?”

“No, man. We can’t…actually fuck it. Then let’s go for a walk or something.”

 

Rod watched Martha arrive in her husband’s truck. She looked freshly showered, her graying hair weighted down and darkened. One of these days, Rod hoped, she would come to work and her wedding ring would be gone. Martha had hinted of marriage trouble a few months ago. Then the affair started. But lately she had said things were going well between her and her husband. No more sex in the gatehouse for Rod, it appeared.

“Alrighty. Sorry it took me so long Rod. Got hung up at home. So what do we have here?” Martha turned toward the campsites and started to scan, squinting as the sun hit her face. 

“It’s a shit show, basically. It looks like a class of high school seniors, from what I can gather. I saw one car that actually had writing on the back window. It said “Senior Skip 2002.” They do have reservations. One girl, this Danielle Heidl, had all the right paperwork. They have 35 of 40 sites,  but most sites are overfilled, too many cars, too many people. Underage drinking, illegal fires, loud music, shouting. Martha, for Pete’s sake, I think I smelled marijuana.” 

“OK. Well. We’ve seen this kind of thing before. I say we keep an eye on the illegal fires you mentioned. We can get them on that. And probably the drug use. I can call the state police and run this by them. See what they think.”

Martha and Rod turned toward the gatehouse door. Rod opened up the door and stepped aside for Martha to enter. Then the firecrackers started. Off near the waterfront. A dozen or so sharp cracks started the noise, then a deeper boom and another. A screaming, high shot whistled and exploded, then more in quick succession. It carried on for a while, Rod and Martha standing outside the gatehouse, shocked. Then when things finally quieted down, the entire campground seemed to erupt in a giddy cheer that drew on for an unnecessarily long time like the encore at some hippy concert.

“And that does it,” Martha said. “I’m gettin’ on the phone right now with the cops. This shit’s getting out of hand.”

As Martha took charge and grabbed the phone, Rod couldn’t help but feel turned on by it all. He liked it when she was feeling powerful. That’s how things started between the two of them when she pulled him aside, confessed her marriage troubles, took the initiative to kiss him and all the rest that followed between the two of them. Rod suppressed a smile as Martha angrily reported the situation to the police. 

 

Against her better judgement, Lea Webster poured herself another drink. From an oversized red thermos, she filled up her red plastic cup with a punchy red beverage. It was V8 Splash with vodka or something ridiculous like that. And it clearly had too much cheap vodka for her taste, but the more stressed Lea became about all the fireworks and yelling, the more she wanted to drink to be eased. 

She sipped as delicately as she could from the plastic and seated herself in a collapsable camping chair. She stared into the empty, unlit fire ring. A few more fireworks went off and while she looked up toward the source of the sound, she saw three boys bushwhacking their way through the narrow strip of forest that separated her campsite from the neighboring one. She recognized these three—Liam Manfred, Ralph Eggers and Kevin Bickel. They were from Lewis, but she had not really associated with these guys all that much. They had been an oddball sort, they had a band together and quite obviously smoked too much pot. Ralph and Kevin were both tall, but Liam trailed behind the two and was a good half-foot shorter. They emerged from the trees carrying a case of beer.

“We come bearing these gifts, good Lea,” Kevin said. He held out the open box, about half full of bottles of Long Trail. 

“No thanks,” Lea said, holding up her cup.

“Alright, well, you ever want a beer, you let us know.”

The boys walked past her and continued their odd trek through the backs of the campsites, wriggling their way through the trees and bushes all while carrying the clanking box of bottles, offering them up to every site they happened upon. 

Lea sighed, then took a large gulp from her cup. Everywhere around her, chaos reigned. She had stopped taking note of every individual act that surprised or startled her. It had all become a din. 

Her drink was gone, the empty cup shoved into a mesh cup holder that was built into the armrest of the cheap camp chair. She stood up and noted that she was indeed drunk and she needed a toilet. Most of the girls she arrived with had started the day by using the bathroom down the road. It was a bit of a walk though, so now that they were a little buzzed, most of them had been squatting in the woods. Lea would have none of that. She turned right out of the campsite and started toward the bathroom. She encountered the three boys from earlier, the Lewis boys. They smiled at her and again offered beer. She again declined. She saw other boys staring. She simultaneously felt disgusted and adjusted her clothes to make sure she looked her best. She tossed her hair a little. She had to move aside as a small truck full of people whizzed past, swerving slightly as the mobile party laughed and yelled. That’s dangerous, she thought.

The women’s bathroom was filthy and trash-strewn, but Lea braved it. Seated in a closed stall, she listened as two other girls wandered in. She recognized the voices. Two girls from Peterville.

“I’m so ready to puke already.” 

“Right? I ate too many hot dogs.”

“Yeah. That, and the peppermint schnapps was the worst idea I’ve had in, like, forever.”

“Did you see the people that just showed up in the site next door to us? It’s weird, they’re some of the few people that aren’t with us. Locals probably. Young guys, maybe early twenties.”

“I wonder if they have alcohol.”

“I hope so. Maybe a little bit of something else too, you know?”

The two girls finished up and exited. Lea remained for about a minute before she returned to her campsite. By then, her last drink had really kicked in and she was warm and a little jolly. Three others from the soccer team were around the site in their bathing suits. They invited Lea to the waterfront.

“I forgot it. I forgot my…my bathing suit,” Lea said, her words coming with some difficulty. But Lea liked the thought of water. She thought about it, her reasoning a little weak. The girls gathered up some towels and started to walk away. The mid-afternoon brought the day’s high temperature. The sun shone uninterrupted. It was a festival, Lea appreciated. It was a carnival and she wanted to get on one of the rides. She jogged awkwardly in her sandals to catch up with the rest of her group.

 

“I’m getting out!” Kenneth Plum yelled from the back of Trent Saget’s truck. The truck was getting crowded. As Trent drove around, people kept running up and hopping into the back. Trent never stopped for them to get in or out. He wasn’t going terribly fast, though sometimes Ken felt like it was moving at 100 miles per hour and he would yell for Trent to stop or at least slow down. Trent never did, but mercifully the odd feeling would leave Ken, eventually. But it kept returning with increasing frequency and Ken had to get out. “I need you to stop for me Trent!” Ken yelled. 

“No stopping. Them’s the rules,” Trent said.

“Ah. c’mon I don’t feel good.”

“I am literally going four miles per hour right now, just drop off the back, I swear you’ll be fine.”

Ken was daunted. Four miles per hour seemed to him a drastic lie, but he didn’t argue. He knew what he had to do. He slid his way to the open back end of the truck bed. He sat on the tailgate, his legs hanging over the end, nearly touching the ground. For a good two minutes, Ken stared at the moving ground. Its speed changed in sudden shifts—from a reasonable treadmill crawl to a blurry belt sander at full speed. He tried to predict it, tried to get his timing just right but just when he thought he had caught it at the right moment and pushed himself off the back, the whole world shifted again and he lost his legs. Instead of landing correctly, Ken just rolled, striking the ground with some force and tumbling while Trent’s rusted white truck faded. 

Ken gathered his thoughts, let the spinning stop, and found his place. There was a bonfire near the lake and he could see girls in bikinis around the water. He pushed himself up to his feet and walked toward them. 

 

The trees all seemed to bend over the old gravel road. It was a natural tunnel, a long green cave. Zach Tucker plunged. Zach Tucker spelunked. The road had stretched for miles, winding in various directions and leading to numerous off-shoots that looked like nothing more than logging trails. Zach was not tempted by the side trails. He remained committed to his cause. He was sweating in thick beads, his shirt was drenched and his feet were wet, raw and sore. The mushrooms weren’t packing the punch they had been earlier in the day, he slowly realized. He felt like he had sweated some of the shit out of his system. But for every five minutes of lucidity, Zach would get one quick minute of dementia. Usually that’s when he’d hear that bird call again, but when he felt sober, the direction of the bird call and his reasons for following it, seemed distant. In those moments he became concerned, aware that he was lost, but accepting the fact that following the road was his best bet. 

 

“Is this a tick? Dwight. Is this a tick right here?”

“Let me see…oh, fuck. Yeah dude. That’s a tick.”

“Fuck.”

“And actually, you have another one here, further down your leg and…oh, man, there’s another one! Three!”

“You better check your legs. You’ve got shorts on too.”

“Goddamn it. I’ve got two. So how do we do this?”

“Burn them?”

“Really? Is that how they do it? I was just gonna yank it out. I’ve never had a tick before.”

“I feel like I’ve seen someone burn off a tick before. I don’t know where or when, but I’ve seen it. This is how you gotta do it.”

“Let’s get this over with. I’ve got my lighter. Who’s going first?”

“This little walk around the lake was a stupid idea.”

“Hey, fuck you, this is better than watching Trent Saget do laps around the grounds and Tenney lighting shit on fire all afternoon. I’ll go first. Ah…damn it. Ah…AH FUCK! Alright. One down. And…two. Ok, here you go.”

“…”

“How are you not screaming right now? That hurt like hell for me.”

“Because you held it too close to your skin. Watch, just get it close enough so they’re too hot and…bing! There he goes.”

“Onward then?”

“Onward. We’re just about halfway across the lake now, might as well go all the way around.”

 

It was late afternoon and hot by the time the road that Zach Tucker was walking along ended. It came to a lake. A pond, really, and oddly familiar. The road gradually faded into a old unkempt grass that descended gently to the pond. He reached the water, stripped down to his underwear, and walked in. He washed off all the sweat. He kept his head underwater and while down there, heard a dull thud. He emerged from the water and looked around. Then a louder crack and more followed. Across the pond, on the very opposite end from where he swam, was a waterfront busy with his classmates. He watched and listened for a few minutes, everything below his nose remaining underwater. 

Then he heard voices. Someone nearby yelled “fuck.” Zach grew more attentive, finally getting out of the water. He wished he had a towel. He sat on the old rough grass, under the sun, drying. 

Then he saw the two that he’d heard. One very tall figure he couldn’t recognize and a shorter one. They saw him. 

“Tucker!” the taller one said.

“Dwight Rizzo,” Zach responded when he recognized him. “And Tim Foley. What are you guys up to out here?”

“Catching ticks. What about you? I didn’t even know you came, haven’t seen you all day,” Dwight said.

“I got lost and somehow wound up here via that road right there,” Zach said, pointed behind them.

“Where does that go?” Tim asked.

“All over. It winds around the mountain or something. I don’t recommend it. How did you get over here?”

“There’s a hiking trail that circles the lake, the pond, whatever,” Dwight said.

“You mind if I walk back with you guys? I just gotta get my clothes on,” Zach said. 

While Zach put his clothes on over his still-wet body, Dwight and Tim fidgeted. Tim, in particular, seemed a little jumpy. He kept shaking his hands around and flicking his fingers. Zach figured they were on something. Zach noticed then that he finally felt like the mushrooms were fading further away. He was tired and slow, but clear headed. Then for a moment he wished he found the bird he was chasing. He started to drift off in thought when Dwight spoke again.

“What are those assholes doing over there? Holy shit, I can see the bonfire from over here. Seriously, look at this,” Dwight said, pointing across the water.

There was a rising pyre, brushing some nearby trees dangerously. Zach could see tiny shapes of people backing away from the fire. Looking closely, smaller fires could be seen, gaining strength. This is trouble, Zach thought, though he wondered whether he said it aloud and was unsure. Zach didn’t like destruction and violence. He didn’t like the feeling he got that a riot was about to start. The flames were being fanned. The people on that distant waterfront wanted more. Zach, standing near his two acquaintances, could hear the yelling and the frenzy. Throw another pallet on the fire.

 

There were only two cigarettes left in his pack, so Liam Manfred knew he’d be bumming smokes soon and he knew it was a good thing he was good and drunk and a good thing that others were as well because they’d give him all the smokes he wanted.

At the waterfront, Liam sat on the sand with Ralph Eggers and Kevin Bickel. They were drunk enough to be chain-smoking now. Liam was nervous, and he could see that Ralph and Kevin were as well. There was a group of drunk rednecks, led by Tavis Tenney, who had built their fire up too high. Other ancillary fires nearby were burning as well. Of primary concern was the great central bonfire, which had been only a mid-level fire until Tenney threw four more pallets on top. The top reaches of the orange flame were gaining on some branches from a large, half-dead pine tree nearby. Not too many people nearby looked overly concerned. Everyone was just too drunk.

Liam, of course, was also too drunk. There was an outward-facing part of himself that cheered this on because everyone else was, but the closer that flame got to the branches of that huge tree, the more Liam’s conscience, as sedated as it was, urged caution. This will end badly, he eventually admitted to himself. He watched for a while, then decided to speak up.

“This will end badly,” he said.

“Oh, yeah, it’s looking that way. For sure,” Ralph said.

Liam was temporarily distracted by a retching sound behind him. He craned his neck around and spotted Lea Webster in her underwear, on her hands and knees, vomiting into the sand. A friend of hers walked up behind her and covered her up with a towel. Another girl pulled her hair back. Lea emptied her stomach and fell to her side, curling into the fetal position. She sobbed quietly.

“I didn’t even know she drank until today,” Kevin said. “Now this. What a day.”

Liam stared back at Lea, feeling terrible for all the beer they had given her when she showed up on the waterfront already looking too drunk. Meanwhile, there was a crescendo of concerned shouts coming from the area around the bonfire. When Liam turned back to face forward and looked, it was clear that the bad ending he had predicted had commenced.

 

Rod Prentiss stood in the doorway of the gatehouse, listening to Martha’s conversation with the State Police Trooper, a gigantic column of muscle bulging against his olive greens. Rod didn’t care for how close Martha was standing to the man. How she intently gazed into his brown eyes.

“I’m telling you, if we kick them all out right now, we’re going to hear about a handful of car crashes, some of them fatal, from drunk drivers that we couldn’t catch. So then if we don’t just clear them out like some house party, we’re left with mass arrests. We’re a small barracks. We can’t house all these kids.”

“But listen to them!” Martha said. “They’re raising hell over there. They’re just doing whatever they damn well please! You’re saying you’re not going to do anything?”

“I didn’t say that, ma’am.”

“Martha.”

“Martha. I didn’t say that. Now what we can do is be more targeted. You say there’s a bonfire on the beach. OK, we can probably shut that down and get the guys who started it to calm down. We’ll get anyone who’s been driving around. We’ll get anyone openly doing drugs. We’ll establish a presence and you’ll be pleased with how quickly that will settle things.”

“If you say so,” Martha said. “I just want them gone.”

The Trooper nodded and turned away, speaking quietly another Trooper behind him. One of them radioed back to dispatch. Martha hadn’t asked Rod what he would do through all this. Early on, Martha had taken a “wait and see” approach. She had wanted to catch a crime in the act, then get the police involved.

Rod didn’t speak up, but he had wanted to start putting pressure on the kids early on. Start scaring them with threats, assert confidence and control, establish a steady presence. Keep those little fuckers under his thumb. 

Martha had sent Rod out on runs, but advised him not to take action. Rod thought of his errands as scouting missions. He’d do a lap in the pickup and come back to the gatehouse with the report: small fires on the waterfront that were growing; they appeared to be running out of fireworks; the open drinking had truly ramped up; someone in a truck had a keg; plastic cups littered the grounds; the scent of marijuana was everywhere.

Martha just waited it out, for what, Rod couldn’t say. The Troopers came after the fireworks initially, but weren’t all that impressed and claimed that other matters begged their attention. Martha called back and insisted they return, so they did, and here they were.

The smell of smoke was getting stronger, so Rod walked out from under the overhang by the gatehouse door. Then he saw it.

“Uh…Martha. We’ve got another problem. They’ve set a tree on fire.”

The Troopers, looking away at the time, heard Rod and turned toward the campsites. Silence fell over the group of adults. 

The flames reached the top of an old pine tree by the water front, a great big match stick by the lake. Other trees were at risk. The huge Trooper radioed for the fire department right away, hopped in his car, and sped past the gate into the campground.

“What do we do?” Rod asked Martha once the Troopers had gone.

Martha did not say a word. She froze. 

What do we do?” Rod yelled.

She failed to respond again and Rod ran. He took a straight shot through the picnic area and playground, through a few sites where confused teenagers stood around. Their mood was a mixture of shock and delight. Usually the more drunk the kid looked, Rod noticed, the funnier they thought it all was. 

Rod arrived near the water front, the Troopers clearing people away from the area. Just pushing people back. Many had already fled back to their sites in an effort to conceal the blame. Rod knew, however. Rod had done his reconnaissance and remembered the faces of the burly young men who had started the biggest of the waterfront blazes.

One of the Troopers was trying to wake up a girl on the sand who had passed out. She wouldn’t wake, so he picked her up in his arms and carried her. A towel fell off her back and revealed that she was in her underwear for some reason. The Trooper placed her in the back seat of his cruiser, ran back to the sand, and returned to place the towel over the girl.

Rod approached the Troopers while they stood back, watching as charred branches fell from the tree still aflame. Another tree was slowly catching.

“The guys I saw starting the big bonfire earlier were those guys over there,” Rod pointed toward a site nearby. A half dozen guys in work boots, canvas pants and an assortment of dirty t-shirts and ball caps stood around large pickup trucks with beer cans still clutched boldly in their fists. One of them spat brown juice onto the ground and Rod looked away.

“Thanks, we’ll talk to them eventually,” the big Trooper said.

There was nothing to be done until the fire trucks came but watch as more old pine trees caught fire. When the firefighters did arrive, they hooked up to a hydrant near the picnic shelter and started spraying down the trees and the various fires around the waterfront. It took more than an hour before they were confident they had stopped the spread of flame. In the end, about half a dozen tall pines had burned. 

While the fire department did their work, the cops had been doing theirs. After questioning, three of the six guys that Rod had pointed out were arrested. During the process, a few other kids were taken into custody as well—for drunk driving, possession of marijuana, possession of cocaine and other drug charges.

The sun was setting when Rod began to walk back to the gatehouse.

 

It seemed to Lea Webster that she had worked hardest in her young life to avoid shame. 

She wouldn’t want her parents to give her grief over poor grades. 

She wouldn’t want to try and stand out in choir; she wished only to blend in to the singular voice. That was safe.

She wouldn’t want her entire senior class to see her swimming in her underwear then proceed to vomit and pass out and have a State Police Trooper carry her away, seemingly lifeless, into the back of a cruiser.

Yet the circumstances of her day had led her there, and the shame she so had so cautiously and deftly avoided finally bared itself. It was raw and wounding.

She had only a vague recollection of the tree catching on fire. She was on her side after having vomited up her entire day into the sand. What truly made her sick was her ill-conceived decision to start drinking the beer that those boys had offered her. She didn’t tell anyone, but it was her first taste of beer, though she was modestly experienced with mixed drinks. She threw up all that beer and felt so tired that she suddenly shut down, but not before she had a chance to see the first branches of that pine tree catch. The reaction was mixed. Many laughed. More were frightened. Most ran away right as the cops showed up. Her friends had encouraged her to get up, but she couldn’t. They must have left her. Lea was too tired for all of it. She had decided to sleep and the next thing she knew she was in a cop car and couldn’t get out. That was about when the first fire trucks arrived. Their sirens had blared and their engines rumbled enough to awaken her from her semi-unconsciousness. She was covered up with a rough, dirty beach towel. There were firefighters and police all around the car, but none paid her any mind. They talked amongst themselves. The waterfront had been cleared, most campers had returned to their sites. 

After cautiously watching a bit of the action from the car, Lea again decided to sleep.

 

He woke to the sweet, sour smell of an extinguished fire. 

Kenneth Plum didn’t know how he got there, but had been passed out on his back on a small floating dock, just past the far end of the waterfront area. His first sight was of an orange sky. The sun had just gone down and Ken did not feel very well. He rolled onto his side and vomited into the water. He felt badly dehydrated and knew he ought to find his campsite. 

Once he stood up, he thought it odd that the waterfront, so lively and loud earlier in the day, was completely deserted. Then his eyes were a little less blurry and he saw the charred remains of several tall trees and the mystery only grew. Ken knew nothing of any of this. He didn’t recall those trees being burnt before. This would explain that smell, too, he realized.

He saw a few cop cars and knew something had happened. He felt even worse.

The day started in enlightenment for Ken. He knew now that it was the drugs, but he thought he saw a glimpse of his purpose. He was so excited for the end of high school, for the start of college and the real world beyond. Now he just felt like a sick kid, dumbed down by too many drugs and too much drinking. His destiny was lost to him.

So was his campsite.

He just did not remember which one he was supposed to be in, so he walked, though his body came close to giving up a couple times and he sat in the middle of the road. Once, a cop car came up behind him. Some officer spoke through a loudspeaker, Ken illuminated in the headlights.

“Get up kid,” the voice said.

Reluctantly, Ken got up and moved to the side to let the car go past. Ken looked into the back of the car. There was someone in there. He squinted to get a clearer look. It was Trent Saget, staring back at Ken with a sad look on his face.

“Trent, where’s our campsite?” Ken yelled, but got no reply. “Trent, I can’t find it.”

Ken had to keep looking. The mood of the campground had darkened along with the day. There was some music, but it was subdued. There was still drinking, but it was low-key. The yelling had stopped. Some people were eating, some were asleep. 

He wasn’t sure, but Ken suspected he had done at least two full laps in his search for the campsite. His sense of direction was off. Finally, all trace of daylight gone, Ken found Trent’s white pickup. His friends were there, sitting around a small campfire. The friends noticed him, but did not speak. They looked concerned.

“I’m done,” Ken said.

 

For the second time, Lea Webster woke in the police car in a confused state, still drunk. Now the fire was mostly knocked down. One of three fire trucks departed. A few of the guys that had lit the fire were arrested. Lea saw one burly classmate—she couldn’t remember his name—put up a minor fight as they tried to lead him away. A huge Trooper brought the kid to his knees in a quick motion and then pushed him face first into the dirt. Other Troopers ran in and the show was over.

For a while, Lea was content to just remain in the back of the car, hiding, laying down when anyone got near.

A good hour later, after Lea had drifted back to sleep, a Trooper opened the back door near her head. 

“What site are you? I’ll just bring you back if you think you’re OK. Are you OK?”

Lea couldn’t make any sound with her voice at first. She cleared her throat. “Yes. OK. Drank…too much.”

“What site are you in?”

“Don’t remember,” Lea said. She never even opened her eyes during the exchange. “There’s a Volks…a V.W. Green. Jetta?” Speaking seemed to drain her again. She fell asleep.

She woke when the Trooper opened the door again. 

“I think this is it maybe. Can you look? Miss?” he asked.

Lea sat up and studied the cars and tents around her. It was dark, but the headlights and campfires gave her a good look. It also gave a good look to everyone else. Lea felt crushed. She did not answer the Trooper as he waited at the door.

“Is this it?”

“Yes,” she said finally. “This is it.”

 

“Holy Hell. Lea Webster gets out of a cop car wrapped in a towel. And she looks miserable.”

“Don’t stare, Dwight. I feel bad.”

“No. I know. I feel bad too. She looks sick. And here come her friends to help. I wonder if Lea knows that her friends fucking ditched her when the shit hit the fan.”

“You said that sorta loud.”

“That was the point, Tim. I was…never mind. Anyway, this is how it’s going to be the rest of the night. I hope those fucking farm boys are happy. This could have been an epic evening, man. Now the cops are just going to circle around to keep tabs. You watch. They’re just going to drive around, maybe flash their spotlights at people they think are getting out of line. Everyone’s gonna just sulk and sip whatever beer they’ve got left when the coast is clear. Depressing.”

“We could go see what Zach and those guys are doing. They’re over there now, I see.”

“Not a bad idea. Looks like a good old fashioned weenie roast. I can dig it. Welcome to Senior Skip 2002. Weenies and S’mores and campfire songs. Fucking church camp.”

 

Somehow, six people had managed to fit inside Ralph Egger’s Thunderbird. Liam Manfred occupied the front seat and he was grateful, even as cramped as his leg room had become with the seat pushed up nearly as far as it would go. Behind him were Zach Tucker—who had disappeared all day and still wouldn’t say what happened, Kevin Bickel and the two guys from a nearby site, Dwight Rizzo and Tim Foley. They were good guys. Dwight was a bit of a smart ass and somewhat offensive from time to time but he was fun to be around. 

The group had finished off all the beer they had, not much left after all. Then, after a bit of debate, they felt comfortable enough with a little weed smoking. 

But it turned into a lot of weed smoking, because Dwight chipped in to what Liam, Kevin, Ralph and Zach had brought. A small joint turned into a full quarter of an ounce rolled into several papers. They fired the monstrosity up and it took very little time for the car to be filled with the sour silver smoke of burning marijuana. 

“This is better,” Dwight said with a mouth full of smoke. “I thought the rest of the night was going to suck. Everyone is so subdued now. Scared to do anything else after that disaster with the bonfire.”

“Yeah, that and the handful of drug busts,” Kevin said.

“Although, I must say, I kinda feel like the dudes who were busted with drugs were probably being stupid about it,” Dwight said.

“There was plenty of stupid to go around,” Liam said.

There was a knock at the driver’s window. Liam had the joint and threw it onto the floor in front of him, stomping it out violently. Ralph cautiously lowered the window, allowing clouds of smoke to escape. There was a sweaty, portly kid at the window, leaning.

“Rub my arm,” he said.

“No thanks,” Ralph said.

“Naw, man, rub my arm. I’ll wipe it off first.” The kid wiped off his shimmering forearm on his shirt and pressed it closer to Ralph. 

“No thank you.” Ralph raised the window. The sweaty kid stayed outside the car for close to a minute, then suddenly ran away.

After his odd departure, the car erupted in confused laughter. No one could identify the kid that wanted his arm rubbed. He was not seen again.

 

It was usually the time for Rod Prentiss to go to sleep in the ranger’s house. But he didn’t expect sleep to come. Not with the looming threat of further violence and destruction out there. 

Maybe the State Police had taken off the worst of the trouble makers. Rod still didn’t trust a single one of these kids. He struggled to complete a crossword puzzle at the desk in the gatehouse. 

Martha was long gone. When Rod returned from watching the firefight, she was gone. She left no instructions, nothing. He did try to call her house, but her husband answered the phone and Rod hung up. 

The State Police came and went. They had apparently built the campground into their rounds for the night. Every hour or so, a car would come in, Rod would stick his hand out the window of the gatehouse and wave and the cops waved back. They were just doing laps, making their presence known. A tactic Rod approved of.

Yet as relieved as he felt that the shit stain kids appeared to have calmed down for the night, Rod still failed to sleep. He pictured the look on Martha’s face when she saw that fire. Her defeat. She didn’t know how to deal with it. And Rod didn’t know how to deal with her. He wasn’t sure he could see her all the time and not have her again, though their moment together was unfortunately brief. When the fire lit up those trees, Martha looked like she lost that power that Rod liked to see. It was that power that turned him on and convinced him he had to sleep with her when she suggested it. He liked to have a strong chain of command in his life. Rod wasn’t sure she’d still have that when she came back to work again tomorrow.

 Rod awoke startled. A car passed by the gatehouse, exiting. The morning sun had come up. Rod never noticed that he had fallen asleep at his crossword. Soon more cars were leaving. There was none of the enthusiasm that these kids came in with, no music, no revving engines or hoots and hollers. They exited with a resigned sigh. No one bothered to stop and check out. Not that Danielle girl or anyone else. Rod figured that was fine. Just go. Get out of here and don’t come back.

Rod knew then what he would have to face. Their destruction. The invasion had been a fiery hurricane, leaving trash and half burnt wood all over the formerly beautiful campground.

Two hours into his cleanup of the ruined grounds, Rod grew angry at the thought of some noted author or political figure standing up and addressing those terrible kids when they graduated. Their smug faces only waiting to get high afterwards. Some would be high during the ceremony, of course, just for the hell of it. Then they’d be free to scatter across the country and do more damage like they had done to Penny Lake Campground and Picnic Area. 

You are our future. Go forth, and serve.

 

© 2014 Patrick J Crowley. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction.