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The Camping Trip
The purpose of the camping trip was to get away from the house and our ordinary routine, we explained to the boy, knowing he would resist if we said the real purpose was to learn more about his new school and how the other kids were treating him, specifically a bully named “Chuck.” In silence we made our way through the woods. There is a lot to be said about the trees, but we found it hard to focus on this sort of thing when our son was at risk. We followed a series of branching paths until it seemed like we had gone far enough, waiting until the time was right to mention some of the rumors we’d heard from other parents, like the time “Chuck” pushed him down outside the school and made our son proclaim to the other children that nobody had pushed him down, he was simply bad at walking.

     He already had his phone out and was busy wandering in circles trying to find a signal, but that was fine, he wasn’t going to find one, and we didn’t need his help to set up the tent.

     The boy had actually been conceived in this national park. That fact would be jarring if we mentioned it right now, and would achieve the opposite of lowering the boy’s guard, making him feel safe and comfortable around us, which was the effect we wanted.

     “You see that mountain over there?” my wife said. The boy was playing a game on his phone, we think—there was a muffled beeping. “We were about your age,” she continued, “and it was quite a physical expenditure, but we made it to the top. Now that was an adventure we’ll never forget.”

     The boy didn’t look up. “That’s great, Mom. Congratulations.”

     “The accomplishment has always meant quite a bit to us, since a limited number of people make it to the top each year. There used to be a kind of hut up there and a Book of Legends where you could sign your name.”

     “Maybe I’ll climb it too,” the boy said.

     We didn’t always like having to inform our boy about reality, such as the need to start with smaller mountains. You need to start there and gain some practice. Then you can work your way up to something like the mountain we pointed at before.

     “You’re saying I can’t do it,” he said.

     “Not can’t,” we said. “Never can’t. You’re our son. You can do anything if you set your mind to it and go through the proper training regimen.”

     “Do you dare me to go climb it—right now?”

     We looked at each other. “You’re still a boy—a young man. It would be too much for you right now. But one day we promise to take you. Why don’t we make a pact.” I held out my hand. “On the morning of your eighteenth birthday, we’ll climb that mountain together. Deal?”

     The boy had turned his attention back to his phone and was acting like he didn’t see my hand outstretched, but so what? I wasn’t going to take it personally. What would my own father have done in this situation? Well, I can see how that might be relevant, but I’d rather not talk about it. The feeling of him on top of me? No, what I’m going to talk about instead—and I thought this was kind of clever—was how I kept reaching forward until my outstretched arm made contact with my wife’s leg, and while patting her leg, I said that I loved her. It’s good to say things like this in front of your child, especially when they’ve just started at a new school. You’re beautiful, I added. It’s good for him to remember that men still found his mom desirable.

     We should have told you what time it was. Very late, very dark. You have to imagine that to appreciate how the flashlight beam stirred the empty space between us. The crunching footsteps had no body until one abruptly introduced itself and found a place on the log next to our boy. He did introduce himself politely, Charles. He even provided a last name, but we had forgotten it by the time we gave our statement to the police. What must be obvious to you was also obvious to us, how Charles is another name for Chuck, but our boy was too young to see beyond the figure’s appearance, the long knife sheathed in ill-cured hide, furry cuffs on a sod-colored jacket, and a beard that trapped the hard angles and made his eyes stand out, though there was really nothing special about them. It, the beard, moved to accommodate a friendly grin while he explained that he was just passing through, and hoped we didn’t mind if he rested his legs for a minute. “Are you going to use that?” Our son nodded at the man’s big knife. “Are you tracking something right now? Are you a hunter?”

     We didn’t know this at the time, but the man closely resembled the lead character of one of our son’s favorite video games, Wilderness Rampage, otherwise he never would have been so forthcoming with his questions.

     “Forgot I had that on me,” he admitted to us, offering a sheepish grin. “Had I been thinking more about that, definitely would not have plunked myself down between you folks. Hope I didn’t scare anyone. This is for bears.” He took the knife out to give our son a peek, then quickly resheathed it. “Just kidding. Knife like this wouldn’t hardly scratch a real bear. I keep it around for the visual effect, you know? So that nobody in the woods would ever f—would ever mess with me,” he said, catching himself, and then giving us another, closeted little grin, like a wink but a grin. It was after we returned this grin in kind, since we were happy that he stopped himself from swearing in front of the boy, that Charles rose and bowed an awkward goodbye before resuming his march through the forest, mentioning he’d be out and about over the next few days and it was possible that our paths might cross again.

     After something like this happens, you have to think carefully about how to frame the encounter for your child. Here is what we almost said:

     “He seemed like a nice man. A little different, but so what? We’ve told you this before, but maybe now is a good time to remind you. You will never see the best in people unless you learn to expect it from them.”

     Why didn’t we say this? Well, we wanted him to stand up for himself. If there was bad in some people, and there definitely was, then he needed to accept that. We couldn’t afford to say all people were good or had the potential to be good, not if we wanted to end his bullying.

     Don’t forget, we were still looking for an opportunity to discuss what was happening at school.

     “You are probably unaware of this,” we said, “but the name Chuck is sometimes given as a nickname for Charles. This has always seemed ridiculous to us, since they take the same effort to pronounce.”

     Because we failed to frame this encounter in a meaningful way, and because we were afraid the man who intruded on our site would eventually return, the camping trip was cut short. The boy did not seem to mind. And as things turned out, it would not be so long before we returned to the park and spent another weekend in the forest.

     Before this happened, some parents came to us with a new rumor about our son. Chuck swapped mechanical devices with the boy, they said, unsure if you still called them mp3 players or if the name of such things had been updated. We checked our son’s backpack while he was sleeping. Sure enough, his mp3 player was now a shitty off-brand. I was so angry that I almost did what my father would have done, crushed the cheap player in my fist, but since I am not my father and never will be, well, my wife made sure the player found its way back to the same inner compartment of the boy’s backpack, and then helped me to withdraw from his room without making any sound.

     The early stages of the next camping trip were similar to what happened before, hiking past the trees and so on. This time nobody interrupted us when we were getting ready to sleep.

     Any dreams? That was the first question for the boy. We gently shook him awake the next morning. He was too groggy to answer the dream question, but no matter, we told him, since there is nothing in the world as refreshing as a cold, bracing swim at first light.

     They beat us to it, unfortunately, the perfectly chilled lake we had been steadily approaching since we roused the boy from sleep. We mean that there was a couple out there now. We told the boy to hang back among the trees with us and wait for the couple to finish up.

     A man and a woman, we observed. You couldn’t tell how old they were or what kind of shape they were in, not from this distance. A minute later they swam closer to shore. The male was certainly not aware of us, as he was the bottom half. But the top half worked herself into a frenzy. It was only kissing, we think. She didn’t notice us watching among the trees. Not until she threw her head back at the end. We couldn’t think of how to frame this as an educational episode—the satisfied couple wasted no time gathering their gear and retreating into the woods—and you don’t always have to analyze and discuss everything, do you?

     “I don’t want to go in there anymore,” the boy said.

     “Don’t be afraid,” we said.

     “Afraid?” He liked to look at us like this, like he still hadn’t quite figured out who we were supposed to be. “Me—afraid? You don’t have any idea, Dad. I’m almost as big as you.”

     “Almost,” I said, using a playful maneuver from my wrestling days and laughing once I got him immobilized, but he wriggled free and took a few steps away, breathing hard, saying nothing but also kind of warning me never to try something like that again.

     “Are you worried about how cold it’s going to be?”

     The boy sat down at the base of a tree and said go ahead, we could go in if we wanted. He wished us a great time and everything, but he was not going in there after what he just saw.

     “You’re worried about diseases in the water,” we said. “Take it from us, it doesn’t work that way. Even if one or both members were infected and released something into the lake during their union, well, the virus would be consumed immediately by lake bacteria.” He was still ignoring us. “Son? We only want you to feel confident that you’re not going to catch anything from that couple.”

     We ooed and ahed and splashed each other like people always do when they’re enjoying the water, because we wanted the boy to come join us. At the same time, the camping excursion itself was much larger than a single activity, meaning that if he wanted to sit this one out, fine, it didn’t make the whole excursion a failure. That’s what my father never understood. We don’t have to talk about my father, and besides, it was kind of nice to get away from heavy topics for a while and let our minds drift to something neutral. Those encouraging noises we described before, which we soon resumed, along with more playful splashing, all of that couldn’t have been more innocent, it wasn’t like I was touching my wife below the water or anything, but when it became clear that he had no interest in joining us we soberly emerged from the water and prepared for our next activity.

     But there was a setback. That’s what we’ve decided to call it. The gin was missing.

     I noticed this while digging through my backpack for another towel. The little bottle of tonic was there but not the little bottle of gin. We didn’t really need another towel, we needed the gin. Was it possible that I would pack the tonic but not the gin? No, we knew the boy had gotten his hands on it while we were swimming.

     But what could we say about it? The flask of gin and tonic we were going to pass back and forth between us for the rest of the day was supposed to be our secret, and if we made a big deal out of this, the boy might believe we needed to be slightly tipsy in order to spend a full weekend in his company.

     You may be thinking that we deserved this, since the camping trip was only a ploy to discover the boy’s secrets. There is always a feeling of justice when a scheme has been reversed, we agree, but what you have to remember, about how much we loved the boy and only wanted what’s best for him, well, it probably wouldn’t do much good at this point if you’ve already decided against us, so instead we’ll focus on the next part, what some might call the worst part, and which later became the statement we gave to the police.

     We trod onward in silence toward the rocky assortment and the waterfall we were going to show him next. “Do you have anything to drink?” we asked him.

     “Me?” He was making a face that reminded us why we used to call him angelface when he was younger. “You guys are in charge of the supplies, remember?” To support his argument, he held his hand out for another cereal bar. “Fuck!” we all screamed.

     A body was lying crooked among what regular visitors to the park had coined the rocky assortment. The head was missing. Not decapitated, we hope that image didn’t flash into your mind, but the width of the frothy waterfall had enveloped the head, you see? From another angle, we might have seen the body entire, but from where we were standing presently the waterfall was pulsing down upon the head. That, we told the boy, was what accounted for the strange twitching of the body’s limbs.

     “I’m going to find out if it’s still alive!” our little hero cried as he ran toward the body.

     Then something miraculous happened. The body rose to its feet, as it had only been lying supine like that in order to get a fresh drink from the base of the waterfall? No, the body was dead. This was a dark miracle. Another figure was perched high, nestled at the top of the waterfall where the body had probably fallen. We noticed the figure only for a second before it receded. It needed only a single, slow step to recede entirely into the shadows and disappear from view.

     Charles? Chuck?

     We were interviewed by the police about this.

     We let the boy do most of the talking. He was first to discover the body, he said, which we did not contest. The boy was animated now, gesturing confidently as he spoke. The police had a bucket of candy they let children take a fistful from after an interrogation, but our son said no thanks, he was too old for that, and the cop said he also thought the boy looked pretty mature, but he had to extend the bucket of candy due to regulations.

     So far the kid had remained awfully well-composed after what he had just been through, the cop added, and shook our son’s hand and said nice work, champ, and said to come find him if he wanted to talk about a career in law enforcement after he turned eighteen.

     What happened after he turned eighteen? He was actually still a boy, though we no longer used that word to his face, and on the morning he turned eighteen we found the boy and said that he could have a gin and tonic with his parents if he wanted.

     Or maybe he wanted me to finally dig up the pictures of his grandfather, since I had always denied that any pictures existed prior to today?

     Son, we’re proud of what you said that morning. You opened your gifts from us, all the climbing gear. Even though you’ve never been interested in the mountains like us, you put it on. You never actually used any of that stuff, but you buckled all the straps and modeled it for us that morning, you walked back and forth and said you couldn’t wait to go on another camping trip.

Rob Walsh is the author of Troublers, a collection of stories. He’s from Seattle.