‘Inanition’, Kate Kastelein

Illustrations © 2019 Rachel Linn



 [ Hands, © 2019 Rachel Linn ] Everyone says that loss gets easier with time, but no one tells you that during that time you may also lose yourself. In my empty house, it’s the weird things I notice; like that we made so much more trash when we were a family. Now, it’s two, sometimes three weeks before I do the sorting and make the trip to the transfer station. When Hazel was small, we would go to Dunkin Donuts on the way home, a treat I no longer feel the need to indulge in. Bill used to joke that their motto should be, “Everyone gets the runs from Dunkin.” Bill. Five years is a long time, and not very long at all.

I was waiting my turn at the #2 plastic recycling dumpster when I spotted a large sign announcing that the transfer station would be closed on Monday for the Labor Day holiday. How had I forgotten that it was a long weekend? It must have been on the office calendar. The man in front of me threw a trio of milk jugs into the dumpster. I smiled widely at him as he passed by, excited by my discovery of the long weekend. He didn’t return the smile. Probably thought I was crazy. On the way home, I listened to Cheryl Strayed tell someone on her podcast to be more adventurous. She said they should get out and live a little. I decided to take her advice as well. I would go camping.

I hadn’t been camping since Hazel was little, but I still had all of our old camping stuff in the garage, including an old LL Bean tent marked as a 4-man, but I used to joke was a “two adults and one kid uncomfortably.” Everything was as neat and organized as Bill left it. It only took me twenty minutes to throw the tent, plastic storage locker, and a cooler in the car. I thought hard about what else I would need. Maine in September can be tricky: cold nights and blazing hot days or vice-versa. I didn’t have any hiking boots, but I packed an extra pair of sneakers and twice as many socks as I thought I would need. I texted Hazel to let her know what I was up to. It’s weird, the reversal of parent and child that had slowly taken shape since Bill died. Now, I was the one telling her my plans and she was the one anxiously hovering and checking to make sure I was OK.

Hey. I’m going camping for a few days.

Good for you! Where are you going?

Not sure yet. I just decided. Somewhere with hiking trails.

Fun! Let me know where you are, if you are close to Portland maybe I can hike with you. <3

I decided to head away from Portland. East. When Bill and I were young we camped at a place called Tall Pines in Camden. I made reservations through their website; I’m spontaneous, but not spontaneous enough to drive an hour to find that the place I wanted to go was full. They had plenty of spots. On the way out of town I stopped at Hannaford Supermarket and filled my cooler with ice, hot dogs, marshmallows, energy bars, chips, all the indulgent treats a mom takes on a camping trip. I bought two bottles of wine, and a six-pack of Coke. When looking over my items at the checkout I was embarrassed. “I’m going camping,” I blurted out to the cashier. “That’s why I have so many treats. A little vacation for me, you know?”

The cashier, a woman in her mid-twenties had a long, dark braid that swung down her back and a nametag that read “Sheila.” She nodded slightly and continued sliding my groceries over the scanner.

I loaded things into the car and gave myself a quick once-over in the mirror. My short white hair startled me sometimes, even after wearing it that way for almost three years. I started going gray in my thirties and had always dyed it brown, but after Bill died I stopped. When the roots grew out and made me look like a skunk I had chopped it short. I smoothed the shaggy ends behind my ears and inspected the tiny lines spidering out from the corners of my eyes. I slid on my sunglasses and started the car.

I pulled into the campground right after lunch. The campground was more rundown than I’d remembered, but I was still surprised there were sites left on their website, after the number of “no vacancy” signs I’d passed on the way up. Then again, it was a pretty bare-bones place. It didn’t have tennis courts, a pool or a café. It was a spot for people who wanted to camp but were too timid to just walk into the woods and pitch a tent. People like me. People who didn’t go to campgrounds to attend talent shows and meet people.

The tent stank of mildew after being wrapped up for ten years but didn’t have any holes and was devoid of spiders. I gathered some dead sticks from around the site and piled them in the collapsing stone fire-pit. I snapped the table cloth with its elastic corners over the top of the picnic table and rummaged around in the camping locker I’d hoisted into the trunk of the car without even looking in it. I placed two citronella candles in chipped pink and yellow painted glass jars on the table and pulled on a LED headlamp. I found one jar that contained dry matches, and another containing batteries that had all burst. After camp was set up there wasn’t much left for me to do at the site. I stared at the water and tried to relax for approximately five minutes before I decided to check out one of the many trails leading up into the hills surrounding the campground.

When I checked in, the small store was empty. A sign on the counter read, Family emergency. Be back soon. Use the honor system. You’re on camera. An envelope labelled with my last name was propped against a coffee can. The envelope contained a hang tag for my rearview mirror, a map of hiking trails around the campground, and a notice from the State of Maine about deer ticks. I slid the papers into the back pocket of my jeans. I started to leave, but noticed a display featuring small bobbing compasses that attach to your clothes with a safety pin. On impulse, I picked one up and deposited $2.00 into the can.

I fastened the little compass to my shirt, and now it bobbed on my chest as I stepped onto the trail. I decided to hike about a mile up the mountain, as the trail was well-used and easy to find. The map indicated that it ended at an outcropping of rocks that had views to the ocean. Small pebbles came loose as I made the ascent. Due to the hundreds of miles I had logged walking after Bill’s death my fifty-year-old legs were handling the exercise much better than my thirty-year-old ones would have. The air was warm and humid. Typical for Maine in early September, but I was glad for the thick fabric of my jeans as brush and brambles scraped against my legs. I thought of a documentary I’d seen years ago that showed ticks waiting in a field of grass, their front legs extended, the back ones barely holding on to the stems as they waited for the slightest touch of a mammal walking by to glom onto. I’d doused my legs from toes to hips with the bug spray I’d brought. I hope it worked. Lyme disease terrified me, especially after seeing my best friend Amanda deal with it for years. She didn’t even know she’d been bitten, and suddenly a woman, who’d run the Boston Marathon, twice, could barely make it out of bed. It took three years of antibiotics and naturopathic treatments before she could even walk around a grocery store. I didn’t know if I could fight through something like that for so long. All those pills and pain.

I glimpsed a young woman on the trail ahead of me. Her waist-length black hair was held back from her face with a red bandana. She disappeared around the next curve under a canopy of trees, and I couldn’t help but think of ticks leaping into that long mane of hair. I wondered if I should say something to her if I caught up to her, but quickly abandoned the idea. I was not her mother.

I rounded the same corner she had disappeared around and came to the end of the trail. A stone bench perched on the side of the hill atop a large flat rock offered a place to sit and take in the view. A vast sea of trees rolled out softly to meet the actual sea, or rather, ocean. The sky was turquoise and the ocean, a rich royal blue, rose to meet it in a hazy line at the horizon. I took my shoes off and shook out the small pebbles that had gathered in the toes. I turned at a sound behind me. The girl I’d seen earlier was leaning against the ledge. Her matching white shorts and shirt were dirty and worn, as though she’d been hiking for a long time.

“Hi,” she said.

“Oh, hi. Sorry,” I said. I was embarrassed for staring.

“What are you sorry for?”

“Interrupting your quiet enjoyment of the view,” I said, although sorry was more of a verbal tic than an apology. I sorried everyone, from waiters to car mechanics to doctors. I constantly apologized for eating, needing my car fixed, my health. Bill had said it was very British of me.

“Don’t be sorry. I’ve seen this view tons of times.”

“Do you come here a lot?”

“Yeah. I like hiking.”

“Me too.”

There was a long silence as we both stared out at the ocean. Seagulls drifted on the air lofts. They were so far away they looked like the little white Ms that represent seagulls in paintings.

“Are you staying at Tall Pines?” she asked.

“Yes. It’s simple but I like it. Are you staying there too?”

“No.” She turned and walked back up the trail leading away from the campground without another word.

“Well, that was weird,” I said aloud into the empty clearing.

On the way back to my site I decided to wake up early the next morning and take a thermos full of coffee and a pack of powdered donuts up to the top for a sunrise breakfast. I remembered I hadn’t texted Hazel yet to let her know where I’d ended up and made a mental note to do so. I worried about her worrying about me.

It was approaching 5:00 p.m., and with the sun nearing the horizon, the temperature dropped. The tent had lost most of its musty smell, and I mashed the sleeping bag and egg-crate mattress into it. I lay on my back for a few moments, staring up at the trees through the mesh top of the tent. I heard the high-pitched whirring of a few mosquitoes buzzing around the inside of the tent, but other than that the campground was silent. Where were the other campers? I expected to hear the boisterous laughter associated with too many Budweisers, and the delighted squeals of kids eating gooey toasted marshmallows. But save for the mosquitoes, the campground was silent.

I climbed out of the tent and zipped it shut. I strapped the LED headlamp to my forehead. I located the lantern and switched it on. No cranky old oil lanterns for me. This one was also LED. I unscrewed the top from one of the bottles of white wine chilling in the freezer and dug out the package of hot dogs. I snapped off my headlamp and peered into the darkness. Nothing. No flashlights, no campfires through the trees.

I burnt my hotdog over the hot coals of my campfire and ate it in a squishy white roll with mustard and ketchup. I dug into a bag of ruffled chips and devoured a pickle before deciding on a second hotdog. I’d forgotten how wonderful a junk binge could be. I finished a red solo cup of wine and had just poured another when I heard the sound of footsteps on gravel behind me. I turned and the girl from the trail earlier held her hand up in front of her face to shield her eyes from the bright light of the headlamp which I’d forgotten I still had on. I switched it off.

“Sorry.”

“I’m the one surprising you in your campsite. You should really reconsider your apologies.”

“I thought you said you weren’t staying the campground?”

“I’m not, but I just came down from the trail and I saw your fire.”

“How did you know it was me?”

“I didn’t. Sometimes I meet cool people by stopping by their fires.”

I removed my second hotdog from the fire; it was charred even worse than the one before, and was dry and wizzled. I pulled the dog off the stick and was about to toss it into the fire when she said, “Don’t waste it. I’ll eat it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I should offer you something to eat. Let me make you another one. This one is a charcoal briquette.”

“Nah, it’s fine. I’ll put a lot of condiments on it.” She pulled the hotdog from the stick and jammed it into one of the buns, and doused the whole thing with ketchup and mustard. She ate the entire thing in three bites like an anaconda swallowing its prey.

“Are you hungry? I can make another one.” I said.

“No, I’m good.”

I hesitated for a moment, unsure of her age. She looked so young, younger than Hazel, but Hazel was thirty now. “Do you want some wine?”

“Sure.”

I poured some into a cup and handed it to her. She took a tiny sip. We sat and stared at the fire.

“Is this place always so empty?”

“Yeah. It doesn’t book up like the other places. Most I’ve ever seen is fifteen campers at once, and there are like fifty sites here.”

“Oh. I guess people like campgrounds with pools and tennis and things.”

“Probably. What brings you to this place?”

“I didn’t want to spend the whole long weekend at home by myself.”

“You don’t have a husband or kids or anything?”

“My daughter is grown. My husband died.” I refilled my cup with wine. “Hey, I didn’t get your name? Mine’s Jessica.” I extended my hand.

“Serene,” she said, but didn’t take my hand.

I lowered my palm and rubbed it on my pants, as though I’d stuck it into something dirty. “You must have some friends to hang out with,” Serene said. “I think it would be fun to be your age and be alone. You could, like, start your life over or something.”

I didn’t want to start my life over. I wanted to keep it going in the same direction. “I don’t have a ton of friends. I used to have a best friend. She was my friend almost my whole life, but I haven’t talked to her for a long time.”

“What happened? Did you have a fight?”

“It was more than a fight. My friend, she had Lyme, and she—“

“Lime? Like the fruit?”

“No, Lyme, the disease. You get it from ticks. You don’t even know you’re bitten and then months later you have these symptoms like MS. I’m surprised you don’t know about it if you do a lot of hiking. There are posters about it all over the state parks.”

Serene shrugged, “I must have missed them. I don’t read a lot of bulletins and such. Anyhow, your friend had this Lyme?”

I swallowed more wine and said, “Yes, and she was very sick. For a while we thought she might die. One night I went to take her a casserole and some flowers, and she told me that she and my husband had been sleeping together for almost twenty years.”

“Damn. What did your husband say?”

“Nothing. I never brought it up. He died two weeks later.”

“Whoa. How did he die?”

“He had a stroke.”

“Did your friend die?”

“No.”

“Do you wish she had?”

“Sometimes.”

Serene moved a little closer to me on the bench. “Do you wish you had died?”

“Sometimes.” I clamped my hand over my mouth as soon as the word slipped out.

“That’s really messed up,” said Serene. “Well, I gotta go.” And without further discussion she slipped off into the darkness.

I picked up her nearly full cup of wine and drank it in two gulps, then moved on to the rest of the bottle. When the wine was gone, I threw a few cups of water on the embers of the fire and crawled into my sleeping bag.

In the night I woke and Serene was in the tent with me. Crouched with her face next to mine, not in a sensual way, but in the way I imagined a cat would position its face to steal your breath, as my grandmother had warned me my cats would do to Hazel when she was a newborn. I sat up with a start, and she was gone. I pressed the button on the headlamp and the tent was empty save for a few mosquitoes I hadn’t killed earlier. I squished as many as I could before I pulled the sleeping bag up over my head.

I slept way past sunrise but decided to hike up to the overlook with some coffee and donuts anyway. It was almost noon by the time I’d started a fire, percolated the coffee, and dumped it into the thermos with a liberal pour of cream. I changed my clothes and attached the little compass to my shirt. I wasn’t in any danger of getting lost on the short trail, but the bobble was comforting. Once at the top I sipped my coffee and made my way through the package of donuts. When I stood to brush the powder from my jeans, I saw Serene leaning against the rocks, where she’d stood yesterday. She wore the same clothes. Her hair was pulled back with the same red bandana.

“You’re very quiet,” I said.

“I didn’t want to bother you. You looked like you were enjoying your snack.”

“I was just about to head back.”

“Your story was very sad. You must be super lonely now. No best friend, no husband. Camping by yourself.”

“It was a long time ago. I’ve gotten over it.”

“Too bad your daughter couldn’t come with you.”

“She’s busy and happy. Besides, I enjoy doing things by myself. I spent a long time doing things with other people. You’re by yourself, you must like it also.”

“I get terribly lonely sometimes. That’s why I’m always eager to meet interesting new people, like you.”

“Oh, thanks. Maybe you should camp where there are more people if you are so lonely.” I said.

She shrugged and slipped back up the trail, leaving me alone at the top.

When I got back to the campground I finally texted Hazel, but received no reply. I crawled into the tent and fell asleep.

I dreamed I was running through the woods, the sun high in the sky. The branches of the trees clawed and whipped at me as I ran by. I tried to steer clear of them, but I stumbled, and one caught me up in its long branches. Instead of ripping me to shreds, it enclosed me in a tight embrace. “You will never be alone here,” it said.

I woke up crying. I brushed the tears from my eyes and sat up. The sun was still out but it was low in the sky. My breath turned into small wispy clouds when I exhaled. I lit a roaring fire and sat as close to it as I dared while I read a few trashy magazines before dinner. Hot dogs again. I wouldn’t eat hot dogs again for a year. I decided against opening the second bottle of wine that night after the strange dreams I’d been having. Determined to see the sunrise on my last day, I ate a few marshmallows, brushed my teeth, and went to bed bundled in every piece of clothing I’d brought. The campground was completely silent, and I slipped into a dreamless sleep.

I woke up early. My campsite was shrouded in a thick mist. I made coffee, hopeful that I would be able to see the sunrise from the lookout, that the mist would dissipate when I was above the tree line.

I knew Serene was there before I saw her. The hair on my arms prickled when I sensed her. On my way up I’d realized that she always came from the top of the mountain, past the sign noting the elevation and a warning from the park service to take your trash with you. There were no trails beyond that sign, only craggy granite cliffs.

“Hello,” I said without turning around.

“Good morning.”

“Here to watch the sunrise?”

“Yeah, I like to catch it whenever I can. It’s pretty cool. You’re leaving today?”

“I am.”

“Why?”

“That’s a weird question. Because I have responsibilities, and I can’t live at a campground, obviously.”

“Are you sure? Are you sure you want to go back?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

“Afraid that all your best days are used up.”

“Nope,” I said. But her words were a punch in the gut.

I stood and started down the path. She started after me, but I didn’t speed up. I wouldn’t let her know I was scared. I tripped and stumbled into a bush at the side of the trail. When I righted myself, I was covered in ticks. Hundreds of them in all sizes. I tried to brush them off, but they just stuck to my pants and shirt with their tiny black legs. I could feel them on the back of my neck and behind my ears, crawling through my hair. I ran. I should have taken off my clothes right there, but I was still wearing nearly everything I’d brought, and didn’t want to slow down. I thought I heard laughter behind me, and when I glanced over my shoulder, Serene grinned. Her smile was much wider than I remembered it. I burst into my campsite, stripping off my clothes as I ran. The majority of them landed in the still smoldering fire pit, including my shoes. I ran to the pond that I’d deemed too slimy to swim in yesterday and jumped in. I frantically scrubbed every inch of my bare flesh, but the ticks were gone.

I bolted from the pond dove into my tent. Nude and huddled in my sleeping bag, I took a few deep breaths. OK, I had stumbled into a tick nest. I’d read about them before. Everything was fine now. They were gone. I was cleaned up, and in a few minutes I could be on my way home. When I popped my head out of the sleeping bag, Serene was crouched next to me, just as she had been in my dream. I drew my head back in and popped it out again just to check and make sure I was really seeing her.

She rolled her eyes. “Still here,” she said.

“What do you want?”

“I want you to stay. Just think about it. You could just stay here. Stay here with me. Take hikes. Meet new people,” she said. She studied me with silver eyes.

“No.”

“But, Jessie. There is nothing left for you. Your husband is gone. Your best friend is gone. They lied to you for years. You are nothing but a burden to Hazel. Think how much better off she’d be without you. You should just stay, and rest.” Her voice was a soft coo, like a mourning dove. The temperature in the tent plummeted. My body shook uncontrollably, and I felt my eyes starting to close.

“You know your best moments are over.”

There it was again. That phrase. Maybe she was right. Maybe my best moments were over. I could say for certainty that my best days all lay behind the wall I’d erected separating my life into the periods before and after Amanda’s confession. I started to drift off, and it felt like I was floating in a warm sea even as my body convulsed with cold. A sharp pain penetrated my outer thigh, as though someone had poked me with a needle. I reached down to find a hard ball with a pin attached. I turned it over in my fingers, trying to figure out what the gumball-sized object could possibly be, and realized it was the compass. It must have fallen off my shirt when I’d gone to bed, fully clothed, the night before. Serene continued cooing her cruel lullaby. “They betrayed you, for years, right under your nose. You will never have peace. Their dishonesty will haunt your days.” She was probably right, but I didn’t care. I bent the pin on the compass until it was straight out, and clutching the tiny globe in my fist, I took a deep breath and burst out of the sleeping bag.

 [ Serpents, © 2019 Rachel Linn ] Serene was crouched in the same position as before, her head and face now a blinding white. Her breath unfurled from her mouth like serpents made of ice. I’d been so sure up until a few minutes ago that she was a run-of-the-mill psycho. I lunged forward and drove the pin deep into her eye. It shot a stream of deep blue blood, which turned into thick, ropelike icicles that encircled my arm from bicep to wrist. Serene screamed in agony and whipped her head from side to side. She screamed and covered her eye with her hand. I worked the door zipper a quarter of the way around before Serene grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me backwards. Ice dripped from her eye and onto my shoulder, where it left tiny burns.

I plunged the compass into her other eye. Her screams followed me out of the tent as I dove past her through the small opening I’d made in the flap and pulled it all the way open. I wriggled out, my naked torso instantly covered with dirt and pine needles. I pulled myself up and lunged for the car, only a few steps away. The locks snapped into place when I pressed the power lock. I shoved the keys in the ignition and tore out of the campsite.

The skin from my wrist to my elbow, where the ice-snakes had wrapped themselves turned a deep purple and itched furiously. I switched the heater on full blast and turned up the heated seat so high I could barely sit. I stepped on the gas and didn’t slow down until I hit Camden, when my phone, left in the console, made the chirp indicating I had text messages. I pulled over and watched the little bubble click up: 20, 30, 40.

Mom, where are you?

Mom, I’m worried.

Mom?

I swiped the phone on and typed:

I’m here.

I’m OK.


© 2019, Kate Kastelein

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