For those of you who don’t know, I’m finishing up my BA in Creative Writing right now (finally!) and I wanted to share a short story that I wrote for one of my classes. This story links right into the travel blog I write with my husband and in-laws, Little Wanderers (shameless plug, I know) and the campground I write about in this story is based on the place I grew up camping at, North Skookum Lake. So, pour a cup of coffee, curl up with a blanket, and enjoy!
Fate by Jen Melland
Rocks crackled under my tires as I drove my Subaru along the curves of the dirt road as it wound up the hillside, towards the Selkirk Mountains on the Washington/Idaho border. The road, which had been smoothed and nicely graveled since the last time I’d driven on it, would eventually turn treacherous as it carved its way up the mountain, full of deep channels cut by streams of melting snow and packed with the boulders that had come with it. Luckily, I wouldn’t be driving that far.
To my left was a meadow, sprinkled with blue and yellow wildflowers. On my right was a sharp ledge, so thick with fir trees that you couldn’t see the bottom. When I was a teenager, fresh out of Driver’s Ed, I was always afraid of accidentally driving off the cliff.
Now, I could only think about moving forward.
Grief can be a peculiar thing. When my grandma died almost a year ago, I felt like I had nowhere to turn. I stood there at the open casket, staring down at the closed eyes and folded hands of the woman who was more of a mother to me than my own ever was. There was so much of me in her face: her brown hair and eyes stare back at me every day in the mirror, evidence of my inability to separate myself from the grief. I felt the pain and sadness envelop me, and I ran.
I didn’t run away physically. There wasn’t anywhere I could go that would take the hurt away. I went back to my one-bedroom apartment and I tried to pick up the pieces of my now broken life, but it felt like I couldn’t muster the energy. Seattle no longer felt like the right place for me. After Grandma’s estate was settled, I found out I had received a bit of money, and surprisingly, her house. So, I packed up my bags and moved back across the state to my hometown.
It wasn’t the house I’d grown up in. It held no memories for me, except for the faint trace of Grandma’s perfume still on the air. The walls were empty now, all of her belongings having been sold or donated. My aunt had thoughtfully kept a few things for me she knew I’d want: Grandma’s Coke kitchen glasses, which she’d collected when I was a kid from the local Arby’s, a painting I’d made her when I was about 12, and a desk magnifier in the shape of a turtle which had graced her roll-top for as long as I could remember.
Still, I felt empty. My grandmother had always been there for me when my parents hadn’t. Even through their divorce and the years that followed, everything had been okay. Without her, I didn’t know what to do.
An answer came two weeks ago in the unexpected form of another death.
Jake Bishop had been the owner and caretaker of the campground my grandparents had frequented when I was growing up. I spent the majority of my summers there for a solid decade, before Grandpa died and Grandma couldn’t take sleeping in the hard camper bed anymore. The last summer I’d spent there had been the one after I turned 17.
Jake’s wife, Mary, had preceded him in death by about five years. Cancer. I’d sent a card expressing condolences that weren’t really heartfelt. I hadn’t understood then, how death could be so devastating. Much like my own grandparents, Jake didn’t have a great relationship with his children. So, for some reason that wasn’t really explained by his will, he had left his privately owned campground to his grandson, Noah, and me.
Noah Bishop lived with his parents somewhere down south. His parents were busy impressing their friends at the country club and didn’t want to deal with their son during the summer, so they shipped Noah off to stay with his grandfather for three months out of every year. We’d known each other since I was about six, Noah being about a year older. He had always been my best friend in the campground. It wasn’t a summer camp—you didn’t generally have kids who came back year after year—and I didn’t make very many friends that stuck. Noah stuck.
I pushed away the thought and focused on the road ahead of me, dedicated to finding the familiar landmarks. My pulse quickened as I drove around the last bend, my eyes immediately landing on the turnoff I needed to take.
Why had it been so long since I’d been here? There wasn’t a summer during my childhood that I hadn’t spent days, sometimes even weeks or months, exploring Waanaki Lake and the forest that surrounded it. As silly as it seems, this place held a part of my soul, and after all that had happened in the past year, I wasn’t going to let it take it back.
I turned slowly and carefully onto the road that would lead me to the campground. It was rough, worse in condition than I ever remembered it being, and I was thankful for my all-wheel-drive as it shifted the traction in my tires.
I slowed down and prepared for the view of the lake I knew I’d see right around the corner. It was a tradition, slowing down and stopping as soon as I caught a glimpse of the sparkling cobalt water. Too impatient to drive the mere quarter mile to the entrance of the campground, I parked my car as soon as I saw a hint of blue. I had a sudden urge to prove that this was real, that I really was here again.
In the past ten years, the landscape had changed—trees had fallen, new brush had grown—but the second I got out of the car and breathed in the sweet, spicy smell of the forest, my heart calmed. It was like coming home, even if that home had changed. My gaze found the familiar trees covered in moss, ones that I’d hidden behind during hide and seek, or that spot a few hundred feet into the forest where Noah had taught me to use a saw so we could build a fort.
Standing there in the middle of the road, I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the blue herons cawing in the trees and the rustle of the wind beside me.
This. This is what I’d been searching for.
Feeling a rush of hope and determination, I got back into my car and drove the rest of the way to the campground. I went slowly, not wanting to kick up dust, and approached a handmade wooden sign that read “Campground Closed”. There was a chain barring me from driving any further, so I pulled off to the side. I got out and grabbed my backpack and sleeping bag from the trunk, not bothering to lock my car before walking the rest of the way to Jake’s cabin. I didn’t anticipate anyone else showing up, unless Noah…
Jake’s cabin was worse for wear. His lawyer had said that Jake had been in a senior care home for the last few months of his life and it showed. When Mary had been alive, she’d tried to make the place a home away from home, planting petunias and violas in brightly colored pots outside on the patio, her wind chimes catching the sun that had filtered through the trees. All traces of her were gone now. The weeds had started creeping up towards the porch, a faded flower pot sat broken in the corner.
The key was right where the lawyer had said it was, taped unimaginatively to the inside of the deck post. The inside of the cabin had been emptied of everything except some worn furniture, presumably by whoever had been the trustee of Jake’s estate, and was clean other than the musty scent in the air that marked the time that had passed. I walked throughout the rooms, opening windows and flipping on lights to make sure they worked. There was only one bedroom. I threw my sleeping bag on the bare mattress, remembering that Noah had usually slept in a tent in the campsite adjacent to the cabin.
I left the cabin and headed down through the campground towards the docks, making a mental note to grab the bag of groceries I’d bought out of my car on the way back. Just as the urge had enveloped me as I drove into the campground, I needed to see the lake, up close and personal.
The docks were new, probably having been replaced in the last five years or so, made of that plastic that resembles wood. I remembered the old, gray wooden docks that were here before. During a particularly bad storm, one of them had broken away from the shore and floated across the lake, coming to land in a bed of lily pads. I used to row the boat to it on the really warm days and lay on it, sun tanning, away from the noise of the other campers. I peered across the lake, trying to see if it was still there, but the sun was starting to hide behind the trees, casting the lily pads in shadow.
I stared across the lake, listening to the water lapping against the docks, letting memories enveloping me; the time my grandfather and tried to take my cousin and I fishing and ending up capsizing the boat, throwing us into the water by the docks where the fisherman cleaned their catch. I’d utilized the camp shower that day until the water ran cold, and it had been a story we’d tell whenever we got in a row boat to go fishing for years after, even after Grandpa had gone.
I remembered the time where we saw a moose swimming from the west shore to the peninsula, as we called it, to the north. Grandma, so fierce and strong in so many ways, refused to go out on the lake for at least a month.
Now, the memories seemed bittersweet, stinging a little less than they did back in civilization. I took it as a sign that I was on the right path.
The crunch of tires behind me broke me out of my reverie. I turned to see a late model Ford truck approaching from the opposite direction I’d come, parking on the road behind the docks. It bore the unmistakable signs of dust that proved the owner had driven way too fast on the dirt road up here. I started to walk forward, feeling uneasy, until the door opened and I saw who it was.
The years had sharpened his features and broadened his shoulders, but Noah Bishop was just as handsome as I remembered. He wore a flannel shirt and blue jeans, looking every bit like a piece of the past.
My heart leapt into my throat. This wasn’t the past.
“Sam.” His voice was deep; a trace of amusement in his tone telling me that he wasn’t surprised to see me in the least.
“I didn’t think you’d come.” I’d tried to look him up online, but he didn’t seem to have any social media accounts. The lawyer had told me what he knew from Jake—that Noah ran his own construction company in his hometown in Louisiana, but hadn’t come back for Jake’s funeral, nor had he answered any of the lawyer’s calls or letters.
Noah was close enough now that I could see the twinkle in his dark blue eyes, encircled by deep laugh lines that hadn’t been there before.
“Of course I came,” he said simply. Noah stopped beside me on the dock and looked out across the lake, his expression serene. “Are you sure you want to do this, Sam? There’s no going back. This isn’t some fancy job in a big city—it’s going to be you and me, running this camp, driving each other crazy, forever.”
Forever. I smiled, mimicking his words from a moment ago, “Of course I’m sure. When have you ever known me not to have a plan?”
“Never…that’s what concerns me.”
He was right, but I didn’t need to tell him that now. When I’d left the house two hours ago, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do. But here, now, I didn’t feel like there was any other choice.
“You said it, Noah. It’s you, and me, driving each other crazy forever. I think that’s a pretty good plan, don’t you?”
Noah smiled back at me and our gazes held, unspoken memories passing between us. I saw the girl I once was, in love for the first time, heartbroken for the first time. I was 17, and, still wounded from my parent’s divorce, I’d latched onto him. I’d told him I loved him, and he didn’t return the sentiment. I was devastated then, but I know it wasn’t really Noah’s fault. We were young, naïve, excited for the prospects of our lives. I’m sure at 18 he hadn’t seen his future with me.
Now, I had to wonder if it was for a reason. What if we both had to live our lives, work through our hurt, just to meet here again?
It felt like fate. Somehow, I was always meant to end up back here with Noah.
Grief is a peculiar thing. It can upend your whole life and leave you searching, but it can also lead you to a new beginning, a beauty from the ashes. Noah held out his hand and I took it, smiling as he laced our fingers together. We were starting a new journey together, wherever that path may lead us, thankful for the pain that had brought us here…home to Lake Waanaki.