Camping is known to bring loved ones closer together, but what happens when your relations include a treacherous sister, murderous brother, and their savage offspring? Steve Friedman leads his clan into the Rockies to resolve five decades' worth of sibling rivalry and simmering resentment.
After our tents are set up, hammocks situated, a kitchen area built, and general campsite preparation taken care of, the rain returns, so we all retire to our tents. While Dr. Comfort sleeps, I listen to the tapping of rain. A few minutes after the tapping stops, Isaac opens the tent zipper and sticks his head in.
“Java Junkie?” he says.
“I think I heard a feral dog pack down by the lake. I think they might be getting ready to attack the camp!”
And so it comes to pass that Ice and I “secure the perimeter,” which involves peering toward the lake and throwing rocks at bushes and, after making Ice promise not to tell, splitting a chocolate bar I steal from the group food bag. After that we stroll down to the lake’s edge, where we sit on a slab, stare into the crepuscular gloom, and skip rocks.
“Junkie,” my nephew asks, between throws, “do all criminals smoke?”
“I don’t think so.”
“In the movies, they seem to.”
“Good point, Ice. Maybe later, we’ll try to make a list of history’s worst criminals who didn’t smoke. I think Attila the Hun didn’t smoke, for example. And Jack the Ripper.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember when you told me about him.”
“And Hitler. Don’t forget Hitler.”
“Cool,” he says. Then, “Junkie?”
“What are the approximate chances an asteroid will hit our campsite tonight?”
I skip a rock. I regard my philosophizing nephew. My fellow seeker.
I tell him I consulted some cosmological websites and took some sextant readings from New York City while I was planning the trip, and that we’re definitely safe here for the next day or so, and then we skip some more rocks.
We throw stones in silence for a while, and an hour later, the rain stops, and we gather for dinner. Everyone but Quisling, who, the Captain informs us, is not feeling well. She’s suffering from a headache and upset stomach.
The Captain heads out over the soaked landscape on a doomed mission to gather wood, and Dr. Comfort starts to work on dinner. That leaves the children and me. I glance toward the tent, estimate the distance, and decide Quisling is likely out of earshot.
“Now, kids, you need to be really quiet, and promise not to tell Mommy the secrets I’m going to tell you tonight. Do you know which tribe of Indians was renowned for making torture an art form, for how the tribe’s warriors could strip a man’s flesh until all that was left were nerve endings and eyeballs?”
“I think they’re called Native Americans, Stevie,” Ice says.
“His name is Java Junkie!” Jaws says. “And you’re stupid! And I am very angry. Very Angry!”
“Both of you are right,” I say. “They are called Native Americans, and because we’re in the wilderness, it’s better to stick with our trail names.”
Then I tell them the terrible secrets of the mighty Comanches, and my sister threatens to throw the kids in my tent if they have nightmares, and I tell the kids that Mom is a little cranky sometimes.
“Dinner!” Dr. Comfort yells, and after Jaws runs to her mother’s tent (where she will also be sleeping), and reports that Quisling will not be getting out of the tent anytime soon, the rest of us gather to eat Dr. Comfort’s noodles with salami. Then Dr. Comfort boils water for hot chocolate and distributes it to the kids. I go off in search of s’mores ingredients, and after conducting my first futile hunt for marshmallows, I tell Dr. Comfort that I would like some hot chocolate, too, so he prepares me a cup. Only after I take a gulp do I notice that the water he has used for my hot chocolate is heating, but not bubbling.
“Has this water boiled?” I ask.
“I think so,” Dr. Comfort says.
I take a seat and spend a few moments envisioning the giardia and other invisible but virulent bugs currently backstroking through my digestive system. Then I notice the moonlight is no longer so light. Clouds are massing over our campsite again. The Captain returns with a huge armful of wood, which should make me feel grateful, but instead sparks envy and anger that he found wood in this misty hell.
I seek. I seek hard. Why do I so seldom find?
My hands are shaking and I notice myself stumbling and gasping more than usual. Altitude? The cold? Jet lag? Or the fastest case of water poisoning ever? I still can’t remember where I stuck the marshmallows. Will the kids notice if we have marshmallow-less dessert? Maybe the kids won’t remem…
Finally, after Jaws feeds on some chocolate, and screams some more, and I find the marshmallows, we all settle around the now-blazing fire. I suggest we join hands and pray to the mountain gods to keep rain and predators away tonight, because I think it’s good for children to grow up with faith in some sort of divine power. Then I get back to the bloodthirsty Comanches.
As I settle into the story, the moon rises across the lake and the wind dies and the only sounds are the crackling of the fire and the lapping of water on the rocks. The moment feels sacred.
“Children,” I say, “I’m not sure I should bring this up, because there are grown-ups around who don’t think you’re old enough to hear this story.”
“Sweet!” the Hulk says. “Is it time for I Want My Liver?”
“I’m old enough, Uncle Stevie,” Iris says. “Really, I am. Seriously!”
“OK, Jaws, but before I start the story, everyone’s got to promise not to tell Mom, OK?”
They agree and I reflect silently on the subtle and varied types of trust one encounters in life, and how my sister might regard the telling of the “I Want My Liver” tale as a technical violation of the trust she has placed in me. I worry about this for a second or two, then I share the story of the well-meaning but mischievous little Billy, his dead and suddenly liver-less grandmother, the bloody Swiss Army knife gripped in little Billy’s sweaty fingers, and the lessons we can all take from the tale.
Then we visit Quisling in her tent, where Jaws mentions to her mom that some Native Americans used to strip flesh from their victims and maybe the Native Americans used to camp right here and my sister cuts me a nasty look, and then we all retire for the evening. A few hours later, I wake with a splitting headache, an urge to puke, and a suspicion that Dr. Comfort has poisoned me.