A Slayer’s Work: Epilogue

I don’t really remember getting back to the lodge. I vaguely remember handing my mother the sword, to give the Crystal, and the stick, because it was part of the scavenger hunt. I do remember telling my brother Tim that I was going to sleep and that murder was a distinct possibility if anyone woke me without a heck of a good reason. I think Clifton said something about Crystal having also gone back to bed but I was heading for the door and the only part I cared about was that she was back safely.

I woke to the sound of a baseball hitting the cabin wall and Tim growling loudly at either Marty or Mike somewhere outside. I was wide awake now but it didn’t bother me so much – I’d at least made enough of a dent in my sleep deficit to be human again.

I got up and got my toiletries together then headed for the showers. We had a bathroom but it was just a half bath. I wasn’t actually complaining – it beat having to go out at night to find a bush. i waited until I was a lot less smelly and a lot more refreshed before joining human company.

At the lodge I learned Crystal was still asleep. That was no surprise – the one time I’d ever before seen her summon a blade she had slept for the rest of that day. It was a bummer, however. I had wanted to sit beside her at tonight’s campfire.

If you’re wondering, no, I wasn’t even remotely curious about the creature I’d killed. I know it sounds strange but that thing had really ticked me off. Creatures vary a lot – some kill because they can’t stop themselves; some will never kill even if they have to starve. This thing targeted kids. I had no sympathy for it at all. I didn’t care what it was – only that it was dead.

But a lot of that was my mood talking. I did need to get some answers about why we couldn’t sense it and how to destroy them well before they get a chance to hunt. but there would be time for that once I settled down and Crystal woke up.

For the moment, I settled for joining my camp mates in the lake. Even Momma had gotten in – we usually have to drag her into water. I noticed between cannonballs that Mike, Marty, Tina and Jane were playing together – evidently they’d worked out the bad feelings from the day before.

Mrs Abernathy was the only one missing – I assumed she was with Crystal. I was proven right when they both joined us.

I dunked Tim with one hand and Kevin with the other as they too gawked at my gorgeous girlfriend in her modest yet flirty little one piece swimsuit. They fought back for a moment but before they could dunk me, she had reached the pier. We went back to gawking. That girl is something else.

I tussled with my brothers as she got in, thanking God that she evidently had something wrong with her eyesight – I’m not ugly but Brad Pitt, I’m not.

The afternoon went as it should – swimming and playing, having a good time doing camp stuff. Crystal and I won against Tim and Donna in chicken fighting – I honestly wouldn’t have thought Crystal could beat Donna but she did. Mike and Tina took the junior division. Volleyball was a disaster – so we called it a tie and started over. That didn’t improve things so we left the younger kids to their rather inventive version of Marco Polo.

Dinner was burgers and hot dogs grilled over charcoal – Mr Abernathy did the honors but lectured Lisa for calling it ‘barbecue’. That came out later on the following evening – talk about Heaven on a bun!

Desert was eaten in the lodge – I was beginning to wonder just how many sugar cane fields those ladies used up just on deserts alone. Mrs Abernathy’s banana pudding and Momma’s homemade ice cream – I figured if we stayed here another week we’d all be diabetic. None of us would have cared, but still…

Dinner and clean up done, we boys got to work on the campfire. Big campfire – counting new friends, we had twenty six people around it. Ended up with ten more – the campsite is huge but many people had left during the afternoon. With the place practically deserted, people were wandering by to join us.

Which was nice – and they were bringing marshmallows and chocolate and other necessary camp fire goodies. Bert and Hank joined us – they were now off duty but staying onsite. Jose and a couple rangers I hadn’t met before joined us a bit later when they had finished their work.

Good food, good folks and a beautiful girl by my side – I had no complaints at all. Momma announced the various winners of the scavenger hunt – it had enough categories that pretty much every team one something. Our team got the much coveted ‘Funniest Stick’ trophy – which was the stick itself. We also won ‘Most Identified Leaves’ entirely thanks to Clifton. I didn’t even know there were thirty seven different types of trees in that forest.

And we enjoyed the evening. Time crawled by. Folks wandered away to sleep. The guys tended to the fire until there were so few of us left that we decided to just let it die a natural death.

Us now consisted of the rangers, including Jesse and Calvin who were the one’s I’d just met; my brothers Tim and Kevin; Crystal and her cousin Clifton, Momma, which surprised me because she’s rarely up this late, and a guy named Pete who was sitting by Momma.

Momma spoke softly, yet we all heard every word, “If you’re waiting for those who don’t want to understand to leave, you needn’t.”

She had to explain to me later that it had nothing to do with power – like I said, her’s is long gone. It has to do with what people are willing to accept. A person can look straight in the eye of a fully converted werewolf and still not register that it’s not natural. Not everyone, of course, but it’s that ability to disbelieve no matter what that lets slayers and creatures wander through the world with the majority of people never realizing.

I’d done the same thing most of my life so I understood well enough when she explained. At that moment, it struck me as weird – what she said shouldn’t have made much sense to these folks but I could see in their faces, they all understood.

It was quiet for a moment, then Clifton spoke, “Is, whatever it was, really dead?”

Pete answered. “Yep, I checked it out pretty good. No sign of it at all. Boy there did a good job slayin’ it.”

Pete talked like a prospector from the Old West. He was tall and lanky but dressed in just a tee and shorts. Must have been older than Poppa but I couldn’t get a good register on how old he was.

Pete continued, “You boys see ’em often, you say?”

All the rangers exchanged glances, including Clifton. Calvin, the park supervisor, spoke, “We never talk about them… but yeah, most of us have seen them at some point.”

“Most, you say?” Pete screwed up his face in a mix of confusion and distaste, “That’s not good, not good at all. When do you see ’em?”

“Varies. sometimes just hiking, often while working. I don’t know about the other guys, but I see one dang near every time I’m on a search.”

Several of the rangers nodded in agreement at that last comment.

“Isat so?” Pete looked thoughtfully into the fire.

“Yeah, they – we just ignore them but it’s creepy. What are they, anyway? Do you know?” Calvin replied.

“Gretel’s Witch.” Crystal said, more to Pete than to calvin.

Pete nodded, “Yep, that’s it alright. But so many…”

Crystal looked at me, “You emerged more recently – have you ever heard of strange staircases in the woods?”

I shook my head, “No, hadn’t read about them since emerging, either.”

“I have.” Kevin offered. “Scary stories on the Internet supposed to be from search and rescue and park rangers and stuff. I thought it was just to – you know, for fun.”

Pete pulled his phone out of his pocket and began searching.

Bert turned to Kevin, “Any from people who weren’t?”

Kevin thought for a moment, “Yeah, a very few – only one I remember is supposed to be from thirty years ago and it scared the heck out of some kids.”

“I don’t recall staircases like you boys described – the ones I saw went into the ground. Swallowers, we called them. You can guess why.” Momma offered. “Death Wells are the correct name – Dawn, if I remember rightly. But you said these go up.”

“It’s a Gretel’s Witch, Mrs Scarlotti – it’s just happenstance they see stairs.” Crystal said.

“Happenstance?” I asked.

“Yes – mostly rangers see them because a ranger was the first to notice the queen. They appeared historically as little houses, usually very unusual ones.”

“Like the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel?” Tim asked.

“Exactly – that’s where the name comes from. They can only appear as small things – tiny cottages and the like. But the purpose is to get people to notice them. Most people won’t notice creatures, even close up, without direct contact – it’s a human defense mechanism. Gretel’s Witches appear as something a human can’t ignore. They were supposed to be nearly extinct but a queen must have gotten loose…”

Pete looked up from his phone, “That’s right, Miss.” he turned to the rest of us, “Whatever the queen is first seen as, the brood will pick up on. They read images from the person’s mind and become that thing – so if the queen first became a staircase, the brood will look for images of stairs that don’t seem natural to the first person – and appear as that.”

“Is that – sometimes people have climbed on them. Some get hurt; some don’t. But if it happens when we’re on a search…” Clifton said carefully.

“You lose the trail.” Crystal told him.

“Exactly.”

“It depends on if it’s hunting you or already has a victim. They prey on children because children can easily see them where adults will only see them if they work at it. They need to be seen – that gives them the power to hunt. But once you touch them, that hunt is complete – they gain the power to pull their victim into their world. It can also happen if you pay them too much attention – attention, especially adult attention, is like rocket fuel for them.”

“So Hansel and Gretel… is a true story?” Tim asked incredulously.

Pete nodded, “Yep, mostly. They’re the only known survivors to get free from the creatures’ dimension.”

“So that’s why Mike kept seeing something?” I asked.

Crystal nodded, “He’s just young enough to see it more clearly but old enough to begin to disbelieve what he’s seeing. You got a glimpse because you’re a slayer, I imagine.”

“True slayer – normal night slayer wouldn’ta seen a thing – not a movin’ thing, anyhow.” Pete corrected. “Them tracks wuz probably ’cause you both saw it. Made it more substantial than it meant ta be, is my guess. Them stairs – or whatever it appears as – appear only at the conjunction between the worlds. What part of ’em that hunts only has the form the viewer gives it. More’n one can make ’em messed up.”

“Another reason they hunt kids – kids give them nicer forms since kids are more trusting.” Crystal added.

“So they are day and I presume can conceal?” I asked Pete.

“Naw, they’re twilight – nasty things. A bit easier for us Day’s to see than you Night’s but not by a lot. Yeah, they can conceal – hunting buddy of mine, his daddy was a Twilight. Saw him slay a Flicker when I was a lad – they’re similar in that they are based in other dimensions. Know a bit about Gretel’s Witches from him, the ornery old cuss.”

Jose shook his head, “Wait – it would have been able to reach those stairs long before either search began…”

Pete shook his head, “Don’t matter – that’s their weakness. To hunt at all, they need to be seen by an adult. The first viewer probably only barely makes it out – it takes time for them to get a good enough foothold in this world to make themselves clearly seen. but the sting in the tail for them is that the kid has to see the stair case or whatever exactly as the adults see it. If the kid can’t see it, the kid can’t be pulled across into the other dimension.”

“So David couldn’t see it?” I asked.

“The first young ‘un?” Pete asked. I nodded. “Yep, that’s right. The critter’ll walk the kid past a hundred times but if the kid doesn’t see the conjunction properly, the kid’s no use. Some, like that little feller, are just abandoned. Others… well, them critters don’t deal well with frustration.”

Bert got up and ran for the tree line. The noise left no room for doubt as to what he was doing there. Clifton was turning several shades paler and greener as well.

Pete nodded sympathetically, “Yep, I figured you fellas would have seen some of those kids, too.”

Jesse s[poke for the first time, his voice like steel and eyes on fire from his fury, “So what do we do? How do we kill these &%*^$^&?”

“You ignore them – you make sure everyone ignores them.” Crystal told him, “Then you pray. The Gretel’s Witch only has the one weakness – you can’t slay them and you’d probably get killed messing with a conjunction. So pray.”

Crystal was emphatic – she meant prayer as an action, not a retreat.

“What good will that do?” Jesse demanded.

“Twilight has the fewest slayers and they are the most – unreliable.” Momma explained calmly. “But God is not troubled by such small details – you ask Him, He’ll send you a slayer. Doesn’t matter if you ask specifically for a slayer or an angel – He’ll send what you need, when you don’t realize you need it.”

Bert rejoined us, not looking any better. “Is that why you folks are here, you think? ‘Cause after we found that … after what i saw, I’d been praying really hard.” He looked at the ground, trying to keep from crying, “I was about to give up. I thought maybe He didn’t care.”

“He cares – that’s why slayers exist at all.” Momma assured him.

“You aren’t the only one, you know.” Clifton told Bert. “I mean, I knew enough to ask my cousin about it a couple years ago…”

“But I didn’t know enough then – and hadn’t seen one…” Crystal finished the sentence. “I didn’t even consider a Gretel’s Witch until I saw the conjunction – I hadn’t even connected the two things until then.”

Clifton nodded, “Since she didn’t know, praying was all I had – you can’t fight what you don’t understand, right?”

“What about when we see them on searches?” Calvin asked.

“Stay with it – but don’t look at it or think about it. Don’t touch it – just stay there while the others search. You won’t see the thing but you will find the kid – it won’t kill unless it cannot get the kid to see the conjunction – otherwise it’ll wait for you to leave. If you don’t leave…”

“Eventually, we find the kid.” Jesse affirmed. “Got it – so crazy distances – we see one, go ahead and search farther afield?”

“Look for track – get dogs if you can – but yep, if you don’t find the kid close, keep expanding. It is gonna try its dangest to wait you out.” Pete answered. “If the conjunction disappears, stay there – wait for the kid to be found. It’s probably trying to get you to leave.”

“There’s only one thing else you should know – if the child dies while trying to reach the conjunction, the conjunction will disappear permanently. That won’t usually happen – it traps the creature on this side where it will die eventually. But if you find – well, a body, that was why.” Crystal explained.

“Not to be a jerk, but what good does prayer do, then?” Jesse asked.

“Two things.” Momma answered, “first, it gets more slayers mobilized – we don’t know how that part works but then, we rarely know why it is we are in the right place at the right time. Second, it will allow you to save lives while slayers do their work.”

Momma shifted to lean back in her folding chair, “You can gather for yourself how complicated Twilight creatures can be. That’s why they are among the rarest creatures and so few Twilight slayers are ever born. Every so often a window opens – humans stop merely disbelieving and become contemptuous – that sets off a rather complicated series of events that ends with certain humans becoming more vulnerable. A powerful creature – like a queen Gretel’s Witch – can push through that vulnerability and start a new cycle of infestation.”

She sipped her drink before continuing, “That’s what’s been happening. An infestation began that had few slayers to attend to it and the only ones to know about it were a population of humans that didn’t know what they were up against. Crystal is quite right, a human stands no chance of slaying one of those things – they are much too powerful.”

“But, you needn’t worry about that. Today, you gentlemen saved two lives. But God gave you far more than that – He provided slayers in the right place at the right time and with the right skills to not only help you save those two but identify the threat. More importantly, now the threat is known and it will take precious little time to spread the word to those who can slay those creatures.”

“We’ll handle that – you just need do two things besides your prayers. Obviously, your own jobs – that’s so very important, do not forget. But also, you need to stop the spread. Tell your friends that it’s a prank or that only idiots see them – whatever they will believe strongly enough to let them defend themselves naturally. Given a good enough reason to believe they are seeing nonexistent things, they will quickly stop seeing them altogether.”

“The spiritual world that lies so close to our own is not for humans – not yet. Prying around in it makes people more likely to lose sight of what is really important in this life – and the life to come. It’s best that people can convince themselves not to see what should not be there and to leave the few creatures that would do harm to those born with the ability to deal with them.”

“How’s that work?” Clifton asked, studiously not looking at his cousin. “I mean, the slayers have to know about this kind of stuff, right? Why doesn’t it endanger them?”

“Slayers are born with gifts just like regular folks.” Pete spoke, “One gift all slayers get is the ability to detach from the spirit world – ta us, it’s just a job, no different than leavin’ your work at the office. That’s why you won’t find slayers playin’ with ouija boards or watchin’ scary stuff on that internet. It’s not interestin’ ta us any more than readin’ a ranger manual would be to you.”

Momma sighed, “Perhaps we should make sure someone does – I had to read the National Enquirer for five years just for the occasional leads it would provide.”

I grinned, remembering the stacks of tabloids that Momma had kept when I was very small. I hadn’t thought about them in years.

“I’ll email Mr. Ethan about it.” Crystal offered.

The rangers had a few more questions but from there the conversation turned to other things. Slowly, everyone else departed until only Crystal and I were left by the smoldering embers.

What happened next is just between her and I – and her over protective father and my nosy sisters. You’d think in the middle of nowhere in the wee hours of the morning, a guy could get some private time with his girlfriend. Well, family spies or no, I will say that the rest of that night had nothing at all to do with supernatural creatures.

Told you slayers were the worst ghost story tellers of all, didn’t I?

 

 

 

 

 

A Slayer’s Work: Part Five

I’m a slayer – it’s part of the job description that I don’t get creeped out. But looking at something so incredibly out of place was giving even my spine something to think about.

We were in fairly thick woods. It was bright and sunny but that only dappled through the leaves. I wouldn’t call it dark but the canopy above us was thick enough that light only filtered through. Still, there was an awful lot of it so there was no difficulty at all with visibility. Not that that would matter – slayers also see incredibly well in the dark – but it made this thing all the more incongruous.

It wasn’t old. It did not belong to the landscape. It did not belong here, nor would even the most determined of pranksters have built it here. The only scary thing about it was how totally and completely it did not belong where it was.

Yet, there it was. No amount of blinking or vaguely hoping I was day dreaming made it any the less real. It was there, where it had no business being and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and take notice.

I turned to Crystal but she already had a finger to her lips. I hadn’t begun to decide how to interpret that when I heard footsteps approaching from the direction we’d come.

I must have tensed up because Crystal quickly leaned in and whispered in my ear, “They’re human. Don’t look at it. Don’t talk about it. Don’t acknowledge it at all. I’ll…”

She stopped talking as they rounded the curve in the path. I presumed ‘I’ll tell you later’ was the rest of her now unspoken message as I sized up the two rangers approaching us.

These guys reminded more of Clifton than the other ranger I’d met this morning, Bert. They didn’t look at all unsure of themselves – instead they looked  like guys who have been on a job long enough that they know what they are doing. Bert had only a year under his belt, so it’s no insult to him. I just had the impression these guys were a lot more professional.

I hadn’t seen them this morning so I also assumed they were some of the guys that had been called in. We greeted the newcomers and i suddenly felt really silly. The younger of the two, Hank, looked over my shoulder. I knew what he was looking at. So, evidently, did Jose, his partner, who glanced that direction then pretended not to see the thing.

Crystal is two years younger than I am but has been a slayer a lot longer than I have. I wasn’t surprised that she took the lead – I just had no idea where she was going with it – or how the heck she guessed a few things.

“You’re looking for someone?” Crystal phrased it as a question but it sounded more like a statement.

Hank nodded, “Another little boy. Went missing about two hours ago, just after we arrived.”

Crystal nodded, “We haven’t seen him. How old is he?”

“Eight.” Jose offered.

Here it got really weird. These guys were both obviously older than either of us – by at least five, six years. They were the authority figures here, yet subtly, Crystal began questioning them as if the situation were reversed. I love the girl but she can be weird sometimes – that wasn’t what struck me as so very odd. The weird part was that two experienced rangers were answering to her as if she were their superior.

Something clicked in my memory – something I’d read in one of the too many books that both Crystal and my mother had loaned me. It isn’t a command power like mine, but under the right circumstances, humans will comply with a slayer, usually rather than acknowledge a creature, if memory served. I realized I was seeing that in action.

That made matters worse to my mind – I had no sense whatsoever of a creature within a hundred miles of us.That thing in the woods that we were all ignoring was weird as heck but it was inanimate – and I really didn’t sense it as I would a creature. Its presence was weird enough to set off a few nerves, that was all. It couldn’t be a creature… Yet, if I was remembering right, a creature would have to be in view or have been in their view.

Crystal got a complete description of the boy and a run down of the search efforts. I just listened – when in doubt, don’t muck up the people that actually know what they’re doing. That’s what Poppa taught me and it seemed prudent now. Besides, I had nothing to go on at this point.

Crystal smiled reassuringly at the men. To my mind, it was a cat patting her befuddled kittens on the heads before heading out to get that danged mouse. That was my impression before she finished speaking.

“… just wait here with Jack and I’ll be back in a jiffy!” she purred. “Jack will keep you company, won’t you?”

I nodded dutifully at my girlfriend with no clue what she was up to. Evidently, I was staying here. She kissed my cheek and whispered a repeat of her warning not to acknowledge the thing. I kissed her cheek and whispered ‘what thing?’ to let her know i understood.

Under any other circumstances, it would have been the most awkward conversation of my life but frankly, as Crystal disappeared down the trail, I swear the forest seemed darker – a brooding eeriness settled over the glen and all three of us felt it.

My guess was that these guys were probably violating a dozen regulations but they chatted with me like we were back in the lodge with nothing going on but deciding what games to watch tomorrow. They seemed to know they weren’t acting normally but also seemed good with it. What they clearly weren’t good with was that thing we were all studiously ignoring.

It was still there. I didn’t actually glance at it but I did glance down the path and could still see it in the corner of my eye. And I kept right on ignoring it. I talked with Jose and Hank about football, not the missing kid. I stopped letting myself think about creatures, slaying, weird effects on humans or eerie things in brightly lit glens – tomorrow afternoon’s game schedule was all we pretended to care about.

Jose was from Dallas and Hank from Seattle which gave us plenty to debate since none of us backed the same team. Someone brought up the Steelers which made it seem all the weirder as things got worse – the air was getting heavy, thick with an almost palpable gloom. The sun was as bright as ever but the shadows seemed to be looming larger and more insistent. Something wanted us to leave.

The winds cut through the trees like a knife as Hank and I debated who’s team would beat Green Bay in the coming weeks. The mood was changing – even I could feel it and it was definitely having an effect on the guys. The beams of sunlight waving through the leaves seemed out of place – like a clown at a funeral. It was bright and airy but the mood in that glen was dark and somber.

Which we men continued to ignore. Jose had gotten quiet for a moment but he just deliberately turned his back toward a tree to lean on it – so that he could no longer see the thing in the glen. It was disorienting, like stepping into a house of mirrors after being through the barrel – nothing felt right.

We were talking about football, ignoring something that had no earthly business being where it was. The sun was shining beautifully in a lovely glen that could best be described as unsettlingly eerie. Like a puzzle that has pieces from three other puzzles mixed in – nothing really fit.

I heard something coming back up the trail. In that instant, I felt my face flush in anger. There was no mistaking it now – something was definitely here and it was definitely unhappy in the worst way. For the very first time, I had an inkling of a creature’s presence. it wasn’t a night creature and it hadn’t dropped concealment but it was definitely there.

The conversation stopped. The air was too heavy to ignore now. Crystal appeared on the trail with a large bundle in her arms. We silently watched her approach, feeling the seething anger of the thing grow with her every step.

Crystal seemed immune. She simply smiled triumphantly at the rangers and handed her bundle to Jose.

“Okay, Jimmy, Mr. Jose here is going to take you back to your parents now. I’ll be along in just a moment and go with you. Don’t fret – it’s perfectly okay now.” She didn’t miss a beat as she looked up at Jose and Hank, “Take him back now.” she commanded, “I’ll catch up in a minute.”

Without a word, the two men took the boy, turned and left. I didn’t feel slighted – I wanted them gone. Crystal turned to me and shook her head, “Not yet.” she told me.

She pulled a sword out of tree behind me. It’s a special talent of sword singers like Crystal – one that takes a lot of her strength so she rarely does it. She handed me the sword she’d summoned – one of hers she named Samantha. Big thing – way too big to tote around, but perfect for what I wanted to do right now.

She pressed her sword into my hands and her lips to my ear, “Not yet. You’ll know when. Wait – it’s critical that you wait.”

I nodded in acknowledgement. I did not want to wait – but I would.

She nodded and went after the rangers. Her eyes were heavy with exhaustion – she’d really had to work to get this sword here.

I just stood there, watching the now empty trail. I could feel the thing’s anger and frustration. I felt its growing fear – fear of me. I could almost hear it wondering why I hadn’t left yet. I could feel it – a raw mass of fear, anger and frustration – and hunger.

Crystal had stolen its meal. It was beside itself – I could understand bits and pieces of the emotional turmoil that filled the air around it. It had finally found a suitable meal – but it was going away. The thing tried hard to bring it back – I can’t tell how it thought it was doing that or what it was actually doing. I just knew that was what it was trying to do.

And that Crystal was making sure it would never succeed. Ages seemed to pass as its emotions swirled around me and I watched the trail, forcing myself to ignore the darkness and the fury.

Then, there was something – I can’t describe it really. It was like nature reset itself. The child was safe – out of the woods literally. The forest that had been holding its breath in the wake of this thing could breathe again.

I didn’t think – couldn’t at that speed. The sword was out of its sheath before I finished turning around. In a blur, I was on top of that thing, slashing it into oblivion. Faster than any human has a right to move, I’d destroyed it. After another minute of my hacking the bits into smaller bits, it dissolved into nothingness.

Only an errant sword strike or two into the soft earth gave any indication that a second earlier, a short, seven step flight of carpeted stairs, straight out of someone’s newly built home, had been there.

I stood there for a moment to recover, then walked back to the tree. I put Crystal’s sword back in its sheath, tossed the strap over my shoulder, picked up our funny stick and walked away. I had just slain a stair case and my only regret was that I couldn’t have done so sooner.

A Slayer’s Work: Part Five

I’m not sure what Lisa, the last of my four sisters, had been up to this morning. Probably helping search since she is an avid hiker. She’s spent most of the trip up here glued to her phone texting her boyfriend. He’d had a freelance project that had to be finished – meaning he couldn’t risk an uncertain wifi connection – and had stayed in NYC. I had a suspicion he’d have gotten more done had he come along.

That was probably why she wasn’t now glued to her phone – he actually had to work. Lisa does three things: talks to her boyfriend, studies and walks. She’d sleep on her feet if she could. So where normal people would have had enough hiking for one day, she  was now ready to go on the group hike we’d planned.

There really should have been more groaning. We’d all been up since dawn or too close to it, in my case, and on our feet pretty much all morning. But no, not only was there next to no complaint – and I’m not sure we should count Mike’s since he just didn’t want to give Jane and Tina a shot at getting even – everyone seemed to be excited about it. I didn’t want to be the only one griping, so despite a strong preference for an afternoon nap, I was making darn sure Crystal was on my team.

I succeed there – ended up with Kevin, Clifton and Tim to round it out. This was Donna and Marty’s doing – neither of them like just hiking so they had lobbied well before the trip for a scavenger hunt of sorts. We would have three teams, each with a copy of a field guide, and we would have four hours to find ten different types of leaves, one funny looking stick (extra points for the funniest) and assorted other things you can easily find in the woods and not make the park mad at you.

I was feeling tired, not competitive, which was probably why I wasn’t enjoying it as much as the others. Still, it was better than our last family trip when Lisa dragged us halfway up a mountain to see a dried up creek bed.

We found a trail and set off. We had completed most of the list inside of the first thirty minutes – Clifton got all the leaves before we were ten yards down the trail. But the ‘funny looking stick’ was still eluding us. With my parents as judges, I knew what would amuse them most – but the woods weren’t yielding any likely candidates.

It was a nice hike. good company, something entertaining to do – it really wasn’t bad at all. But I still wasn’t really feeling like I should. I kept thinking it was just the tiredness but now my nerves were playing with me. I felt – off. Not uneasy, not like we were being watched, just like things weren’t right.

No one else seemed to have similar feelings. Crystal was absolutely bubbly – that right there made the hike worthwhile. Kevin and Tim were having a good time learning from Clifton about tree sap – I’m just reporting the topic; I wasn’t paying attention to it. I was the only stick in the mud, doing my best not to show it.

We’d been out about two hours when Clifton’s radio buzzed. The ranger’s office was asking him to come back in but didn’t say exactly why. He figured paperwork since he’d helped with some of the organization for the morning’s search parties. Tim decided to accompany him and take our finds back to the lodge – and dragged Kevin with him. God bless that brother of mine.

That left my gorgeous girlfriend alone with me to find a funny looking stick. A well marked trail, a lovely afternoon and a beautiful girl all to myself – NOW I was feeling it!

Walking and talking, we followed the trail. Crystal spotted a fallen tree just off the trail and we found a broken branch that looked like an old couple trying to kiss – but missing. Two branches had grown together and one had died before the tree – at least that’s how Crystal explained the weird formation. We took it – it was honestly the only stick that had struck me as funny all day.

We still had time so we went further down the trail instead of turning back. I was really enjoying myself for the first time. I don’t get to be alone with Crystal like this much – families are that way – so I was in no hurry for it to end.

In the back of my head, something bugged me. That feeling again – something was just not right. But it was way back in the back of my head – even weirdness has a lot to compete with in Crystal. Still, it started to grow. Not right became really not right. Really not right became uneasy.

Lovely splashes of sun through the lush green trees took a somber note for no real reason. Chatting love birds grew quieter in each other’s company but neither knew why. The noisy woodland became eerily, even deathly quiet. Something was wrong.

Crystal and I looked at each other, knowing now that we both were having the same experience. I sense no creature and neither did she, but the forest felt heavy, dark. Something seemed uncanny about the day – the sun was still bright, the breeze still perfect and yet it was as if we’d stepped into another, similar but sinisterly different dimension.

We came to a bend in the trail and went around a large tree growing in that bend. Just past it was a clearing – a tiny glen, Crystal says. Still overshadowed by trees but with no undergrowth to speak of. It did have something in it – you just won’t believe me when I tell you what.

Heck, I don’t believe me and I was looking at the thing.

A Slayer’s Work: Part Four

“Come on, Jackie Boy, rise and shine.”

I was not in the mood to do either of those things. Turns out that even in nice cabins, camping involves an obligatory lack of sleep. “Five more minutes, Poppa.” I told my father as I pulled the pillow over my head.

“You said that an hour ago.” He told me as he began to shake my shoulder, “Come on now. Let’s get a move on.”

I knew it was a losing battle but I stubbornly hung on a moment m,ore before conceding defeat and sitting up. My father does not believe in sleeping past sun up. It’s a religion with him – no wasting of daylight in our house. I went through most of grade school with bags under my eyes. It didn’t matter what time I went to sleep; I am simply not a morning person.

But Poppa was still calling me ‘Jackie Boy’ knowing I hate it – which meant he was to the point of trying to annoy me into getting up. A glance at the clock told me the sun had been up a couple hours. I was not inclined to join it but I wasn’t getting a choice.

Before ten am and coffee, I’m not much of a person regardless but I stifled the urge to argue with my father as he insisted on me getting dressed and coming to the lodge. Evidently, he wasn’t convinced I could do that all by myself as he was still in the living room when I emerged from the bedroom, fully if not happily, dressed.

“Your Momma wants to talk to you.” Poppa informed me as we walked.

Great. Firing squad at dawn. She probably thought I really did hit that little idiot.

Entering the lodge improved my mood. It was still filled with the wonderful smell of breakfast. I knew I was probably too late for the cinnamon rolls but I also knew Momma wouldn’t kill me on an empty stomach.

I was wrong – Momma had saved me two rolls to go with Mrs. Abernathy’s French toast. I knew then I was doomed but I wasn’t sure I cared. At least my last meal was great.

Momma came and sat across from me as I finished the last of my toast. I looked at her expectantly – stalling only makes it worse with Momma. Besides, i hadn’t actually hit the little turkey.

“What did you see last night?” she asked, direct and to the point as usual.

It caught me a bit off guard. I was expecting a talking to about not bullying my youngest, most annoying brother. It took me a second to answer.

“I saw something big right outside the window but I didn’t get but a fraction of a second’s look at it, Momma. I can’t describe it – it was just a blur.”

“Your Crystal said none of you knew what it was but thought maybe a day creature under concealment?”

I nodded, “Yes, Momma, I know how dumb that is but we can’t sense anything and Clifton is sure it’s nothing natural – or Bigfoot, whatever that is, if it is.”

“So he said. Any sense at all?”

I shrugged, cleaning my plate, “I woke up because it felt like I was being watched – but it didn’t feel anything like a creature. Mike started yelling almost the second I woke so I could have been wrong – but I really don’t think so.”

“Tell me about it.”

I filled her in on what had happened, including how I woke up. Ever since she found out about the mess up regarding who my mentor is, Momma’s taken a rather keen interest in anything I might not understand. her own power is long gone but to be honest, her experience is invaluable. If she hadn’t asked, I’d planned to ask her later in the day – much later, of course.

“Day or indeterminate.” Momma told me. “Some day creatures stalk at night – a few even hunt at night. Were you concealed?”

I shook my head, “I practice every day but I haven’t gotten to where I can do it asleep yet.”

“Did your father tell you what happened this morning?”

I suddenly had a feeling of dread wash over me. Now that I thought about it, none of my usually boisterous and noisy family were present. I had just figured they were playing around the camp but I hadn’t seen anyone walking over here, either. “No, Momma.”

“A boy went missing. His parents and he were heading for the boathouse and he stopped to pick up a rock. they walked past and when they turned to call him to come along, he was gone. I spoke to the couple they are staying with – the woman saw the boy stop and turned to get something herself. She heard his mother call for him a second later – no more, she says she’s sure.”

I’m no woodsman, but you don’t need to be in this campsite – the trees are spread out and all the undergrowth has been cut – you have to walk at least a hundred yards in the opposite direction from the lake to get to where the undergrowth is. A kid couldn’t disappear that quickly.

“How old?” I asked.

“Six.”

Old enough to walk alone but no where near old enough to do a hundred yard dash without anyone seeing him.

Momma was already answering my next question, “I know several – four I can reach. Two can’t come, one can’t come until Wednesday and I’m waiting to hear back from the fourth.”

I nodded, getting to my feet. We wouldn’t have a day slayer to help today. “Where?”

“They were organizing a search from the main office. Donna is keeping the youngsters busy and I’m going to help with the kids so more people can volunteer.” Momma told me as I took my plate to the kitchen.

That meant she and my sister Donna would handle the nursery duties so available and willing adults could lend in the search. Logistics was Momma’s specialty – she’d probably already arranged for a lunch crew as well.

I gave her a kiss on the cheek as I left. I’m no woodsman, but I am a slayer. If nothing else, I’m an able bodied male who can beat bushes as well as the next guy. Since I couldn’t track whatever it was as a slayer, I could darn well provide the extra boots.

Four and a half hours later, I was cresting a hilltop alongside one of the park rangers when he got the call. Little David Withers had been found, safe and sound, ten miles away.

I only got that last bit because Bert, the ranger, couldn’t believe it when they told him on the radio where they had found the boy. He’d blurted out that it was ten miles away.

The good news is the boy is safe – that’s the important part. But there’s no way in heck a six year old walks ten miles in about six hours. At that age, they don’t have the stamina to keep walking like that. A grown man, sure, no problem in half that time or less. But a six year old kid? No way.

Whatever had taken him hadn’t decided to keep him – or hurt him. That ruled out every night creature I could think of and most of the few day creatures I’d read about. I didn’t like this. I hadn’t liked it before – I liked it a lot less now.

I tried not to show it when we reached the office – the crowd was understandably jubilant and there was no reason to ruin the mood. Same thing when I got back to our lodge, now full of volunteers along with our group. Momma was in the process of feeding them, of course. I got a ham sandwich and a soda and went to find Crystal.

I only got as far as the porch – she and Clifton were headed our way. We got them food, picked up my brothers Tim and Kevin along the way and set out for the pier in hopes of having a somewhat quieter place to eat.

Excepting that my sister Donna and her new friend Melissa had beat us to it, it was quieter – at least quieter than the madhouse our lodge had become. The girls chatted as we ate. Kevin made Tim fill him in on all he’d missed the night before. Clifton provided the official story – he just didn’t look like he believed it.

Neither did I. Those tracks weren’t human, that much even I knew but the official story had a stalker lurking around overnight and managing to spirit Little David away this morning. Made no sense – an adult couldn’t have disappeared with a kid that fast either – but that was the story they were sticking to ‘pending further investigation.’ Translation: they had no clue, either.

I suppose I can’t fault them for wanting to keep people calm. They were going to have extra rangers on hand for a few days and lock the park gates at night. They were doing their best and my sarcastic thoughts about how a locked gate with no fence was surely the best protection from a giant that can out sprint an Olympic gold medalist while carrying sixty pounds of dead weight weren’t going to help. I kept them to myself.

Donna and Melissa finished first and wandered back to help finish up whatever they had going with baby sitting duty. Kevin decided he’d better corral Mike and Marty before they got bored and started mischief. That left Tim, Clifton, Crystal and I, and none of us were doing much talking.

Tim, strangely enough given how quiet he usually is, finally spoke, “Not a dang bit of that makes sense. And neither of you killed anything, right?”

Crystal and I confirmed his suspicions. I went ahead and told him that Momma had called for back up.

Crystal then had to explain the difference in periods to her cousin – and my brother. Heck, I wouldn’t know either if I didn’t absolutely have to – weird and useless information unless you kill supernatural creatures as a hobby.

Clifton finally motioned for her to lean over. She did and he whispered in her ear. She shrugged, “I don’t know. Did anyone…?”

Clifton shook his head, “No, I’m sure they didn’t. No one talks about it but they always have the funny look about them. I was there for the debrief – none of them looked like they saw anything weird.

“I’ll ask the day slayer when they get here – otherwise, I’d have to see it.” Crystal told her cousin.

I didn’t ask. Whatever he was nervous about, Crystal was confident it wasn’t our troublemaker. I’d ask her later, if and when we were ever alone.

Which wasn’t going to be now. Kevin, Mike, Marty, Tina and Donna were on the shore hollering for us to come. I knew as i got up we were going to have a busy afternoon.

Normally, well, busy is normal for my large family, so it rarely bothers me. But now, I felt uneasy. I glanced around seeing only lake and trees but still, it felt like there was something in the air – something heavy and dark.

A Slayer’s Work: Part Three

At two am when Mike started screaming again, I seriously regretted not putting him in the cabin with the girls.

I should explain. I was already just waking up – something felt wrong. I wasn’t sensing a creature but still, it felt like someone was watching me. Being a slayer, I rarely get the creeps but this was just enough to wake me – and really annoy me.

My eyes had just opened and I was staring at the wood paneling beside my bed when Mike began his wailing. What happened next took a lot less time to happen than it will for you to read this. I threw myself over, tossing the covers as I did. I looked at Mike but knew instantly he was looking at the window so I spun in that direction as my feet hit the floor.

Outside, there was something. Big – really big – was my only impression before it disappeared.

Slayers are inhumanly fast at times. that’s how I could do all that in a fraction of a second. That’s also how I could catch my now infuriated youngest brother as he went for the window with a stick he’d found earlier.

It was a good sign, really. He was past being afraid and well into being ticked off by whatever had been messing with him. But it was gone and I wasn’t at all sure he was going to bother with niceties like opening the window before trying to hit the thing that wasn’t there anymore.

“Whoa, whoa, calm down!: I ordered as I got a hold of him, “It’s gone.”

Mike said words I won’t repeat – and promised later not to tell Momma about.  He’s the family runt, troublemaker and hothead – and right that moment, he was twisting my arm half off trying to get at the thing.

Marty was on his feet and had enough sense to go get Tim in the next room. Tim told me later he was coming out of his room when Marty got to the door. They got back quickly and Tim and I wrangled Mike together until he finally started to talk sense. To his hotheaded credit, it only took a minute or so.

Leaving Mike to Tim, I borrowed the stick to go investigate. I grabbed my flashlight along the way and met Clifton in the living room. He had pants and shoes on – I was still in PJ’s but honestly doubted anything was still out there. wordlessly, we went onto the well lit porch and then into the darkness.

I gave up doubting things when I became a slayer – I kill vampires, who am I to doubt other weirdness in this world? I admit, the prints in the dirt were not what I was expecting but I promptly rationalized that they were just bear tracks. Really big ones.

Clifton knelt beside the tracks and looked closer. He looked none too happy once he got back up. “Let’s do a walk around in case it’s still here.”

I nodded. Bears do not belong in the campground. If it were still here, it needed to not be.

But a complete walk around the campsite, with the obligatory poking into every dark corner, produced no bear or anything else furry. I did see a tree frog I stopped to quietly move from my sister’s cabin window to the edge of the woods so both of them would live a lot longer. Otherwise, nothing. No critters, real or unworldly, at all.

As I finished my frog rescue, Clifton spoke, “What do you make of those tracks?”

“By the window tonight?” I was still convincing the frog that he could safely let go of my hand.

“Those and the others on the dirt road.”

I finished and stood up. “I didn’t see the others – I’m not exactly Paul Bunyon, but the ones i did see looked like a really big bear.”

We started toward the front of the cabin, but he was gawking at me, “Bear?”

I sighed and shrugged at the same time, “I only know what they look like from a book we used in Scouts. Never seen anything like one before tonight.” I paused as it hit me, “Um, but what else would be that big out here?” Not knowing Clifton well, I did not want to voice my second choice.

He just shook his head, “A grizzly couldn’t make a track that big. I worked out of Tacoma last summer and got to see a few in the wild. Bear don’t make tracks that large unless they are stepping on their own tracks – but that isn’t what those were.”

I stifled the urge to sigh again. Clifton works search and rescue for the Forest Service – he’s a trainer and an expert woodsman. I’m the guy a rabbit managed to spook when I was a kid – he’d know better than me but he didn’t seem to want to put a name to option two either. I decided it would be quicker to just get it over with, “Okay, that leaves what, bigfoot?”

He shook his head again and abruptly changed course, “No, I … saw some of those, too. These were… Heck, hang on.” He hopped up on the girls porch and tapped twice, followed by three more.

He stepped back down to where I was. We could here movement so we just waited.

Crystal’s voice was speaking as she opened the cabin door, “Yes, I’m sure. Go back to sleep, it’s just my cousin.”

I heard Jane’s voice reply but didn’t catch the words.

“Night.” Crystal responded, then closing the door, turned to us, “This had better be good. Do you know what time it is?”

Clifton nodded, “Sorry, Crysie, but I need you to look at something. It’s got to be from your side of the street but neither of us recognize it.”

Crystal joined us, pulling her robe around her in the chill morning air, “What? Can’t be – I haven’t sensed a thing. You?”

Meeting her gaze, I gave an emphatic shake, “No, but something woke Mike and me – it was at the window. I didn’t get a good enough look. It left tracks but I don’t know what they are either.”

“Why does it have to be a creature, Cliff?” Crystal turned to her cousin.

We were almost there. “Let me show you.” he replied.

We got to the spot. The light was out in the window but the other cabin lights were still on. We showed Crystal the tracks.

She did pretty much the same stuff her cousin had as she knelt beside them. The Scouting program down south must be better than ours, I concluded. Crystal took a lot longer than her cousin had before she finally got back up.

She shook her head, “It’s nothing I’ve seen before – not a creature of the night at all. I mean, it could be a creature of the day, those are hardest for us to sense, but it gets less than ten feet from a true slayer, even one from a different period? That seems really unlikely. Could you track it at all?”

Clifton nodded, “Yeah, just a short distance – I’ll show you where they end.”

“Okay. Just to be sure, those Sasquatch things don’t have claws like that, do they? I mean, I’ve only seen casts in videos…” Crystal asked her cousin.

“No, they don’t. That’s why I figure it has to be something you guys deal with – it looks like a cross between a pigeon toed bear and a bigfoot with a limp. Here, I’ll show you.” Clifton took one step more before kneeling in the roadway, “See?”

I saw dirt with scratches in it. Mostly dirt. Crystal knelt beside her cousin so I joined them, but they proceeded to talk about the tracks they were looking at in ways I couldn’t follow.  Even with them pointing out features, it was just swirls in the dirt to me. The gist was the thing was really big, walked funny and was definitely dragging one leg just a little bit.

I was silently apologizing to all those film writers I’d  laughed at over the years because I didn’t believe you could get that much from lines in dirt as we reached the end of the tracks. We all knelt again but this time the cousins were a lot more animated about their findings.

I loaned Crystal my flashlight and they split up, trying to find more tracks. I just knelt there, trying to think back to my first sensation after waking. It hadn’t been a creature, I was certain. At least, it hadn’t felt like one. Then again, I’ve never met a day creature. Sonia, the day slayer I have met, says the sensation of period is pretty close between slayer and creature – so a creature of the day should feel a little like her. But I’d just emerged when I met her and had almost no sensation of her.

I was considering if it could have been concealed when the cousins returned. It was kinda fun, listening to them squabble like siblings. Clifton was the closest thing to a brother that Crystal had and it showed. But they weren’t actually angry with each other – it was frustration and predawn hours taking their toll.

Once again, they’d found no further sign. That bothered them both because the loose dirt hadn’t ended; the tracks had. Even with the huge steps it seemed to take – Clifton tried to imitate one and couldn’t make the same distance even stepping as far as he could without losing his balance – there should have been more tracks to the wood line.

At least according to them. Crystal and I briefly mulled the idea of concealment. That seemed to explain it best – although why a concealed day creature would stalk a cabin with a true slayer in it in the middle of the night was something we couldn’t explain at all.

Which left me with nothing to tell my siblings as I returned to the cabin and Clifton walked Crystal back to hers. They were my brothers, so I was stuck with the job but I would much rather have been with my girlfriend, even if she was still fussing at him when we parted.

Getting Mike calmed down took another hour. Clifton, once he returned, helped considerably. Mike gave his word more credit – he’s an expert; I’m just his dorky brother. But he wasn’t happy when he finally agreed to go back to sleep. He took one of the couches and I took the other. Marty joined Kevin, who slept through the whole thing, Tim and Clifton in their room. I couldn’t honestly blame him.

I managed to stay awake until Mike drifted off. I was right behind him.

A Slayer’s Work: Part Two

Dinner was pure heaven. Enough food for everyone to have thirds – and we did. Momma’s cannoli, Mrs Abernathy’s coconut cake and a mountain of wonderful food in between – bliss.

Well, as ‘bliss’ as you get with a huge crowd and younger siblings.

I had to convince Tina that frogs were not carnivorous and couldn’t eat her toes. I threatened Mike with sleeping outside in a wet sleeping bag to get him to stop telling her that nonsense. Crystal’s cousin Clifton was gracious enough to explain the difference between insectivore and carnivore when my nitwit little brother Mike brought it up. I meant it when I told him one more word and I’d let him explain this mess to Momma.

Really should have sent him to sleep in the girl’s cabin at that point. I let him sulk off instead. I had my mind on Crystal and not Mike’s penchant for sister torment.

The dishes were all done and I was looking for Crystal to suggest a visit to the pier when the screaming began. Counting Momma, three slayers were present along with a total of six men, and yes, we’d come armed. Clifton and Tim both had rifles, Poppa had his handgun and Mr Abernathy had a baseball bat. I grabbed a stick – being an eclectic slayer means I don’t have to worry about carrying a weapon, whatever is at hand will do just fine.

But I was the only one to grab anything – girl screams at night with Mike and Marty around were not likely to require weapons. I knew that as well as the others – I just wanted something to poke my idiot brother with.

This time Jane was in hysterics because something had been scratching at the window and jumped out at her when she’d tried to see what it was. I did actually make it to Eagle scout, even if I can’t tell a acorn from a sapling. The soft ground under the window and the hastily discarded ape mask told the tale. The trail was all of fifteen feet – Mike was still hiding behind a shrub when I poked him.

It was his turn to let out a blood curdling scream. That only annoyed me more – Momma was gonna think I’d hit him. Then I noticed he wasn’t moving – he just sat there, staring into the woods.

The others were running up as I knelt beside him, “Mike?” It took four tries and a good shake to get him to look at me. For the first time since he was six, he threw himself into my arms and started crying.

I carried him back to our cabin. I didn’t know what this was, but he was gonna be embarrassed enough when he came out of it. Poppa got Momma and sent her in. I left Mike to her – he wasn’t talking yet and when he did, it would be better if Momma took care of it.

The whole thing ruined the mood for the night. And it meant that I ended up on the pier with Crystal, her cousin and three of my brothers. Crystal caught me up on the girls’ side. Jane and Tina were now sleeping in the same room with her. Tina is only scared of things that don’t have fur. Jane isn’t easily frightened, either. But they’d already had enough.

Kevin made a couple stupid wise cracks about not telling ghost stories around the fire tomorrow night. Not that that was a possibility – half of us don’t scare and the other half end up waking Momma in the middle of the night if we spook them, which has gotten our backsides tanned more than once.

Slayers make the worst ghost story tellers anyway. Ghost shows itself, gets slain, the end.

A good horror tale should leave you wondering what’s in the dark at night. Ours leave no room for doubt – then it dies. The end. Yeah, pretty poor stories if you’re trying to scare someone.

Crystal asked me about Mike and I told her what had happened. I didn’t have to ask – she hadn’t sensed anything any more than I had. If she had, she’d have hunted it down and killed it already.

Of course, there are a lot of things in the woods that aren’t creatures – at least not the kind we hunt. I figured he’d seen a raccoon or something staring at him and freaked out from the eye shine. The first time I went camping in the Scouts, I woke up late that first night and came face to face with the biggest rabbit on the planet as I tried to find a place to relieve myself. None of the guys ever knew but I had been spooked for a moment with the light first hit it. Glowing eyes just look wrong.

We did have a nice time looking at the moon and stars over the lake. But it was way too short – and had far too many people for my taste. I like my family – but I also want time with my girlfriend. A lot of time with my girlfriend that involves moonlight, stars, soft music and nothing trying to kill us. I usually only get the first and the opposite of the last.

I ended up bunking with Mike and Marty.  Clifton and I switched after Momma promised Mike I’d be close. I didn’t razz him about it – he was already looking like he couldn’t decide which was worse, the fear or the embarrassment.

But I really should have made him sleep with the girls.

A Slayer’s Work: Part One

I’m a city boy and proud of it. Nothing wrong with the country or the South – I’ve got a girlfriend that comes from both – but I do best around concrete and noisy people. I can in fact sleep on the subway – although I don’t so that my younger siblings don’t learn the habit from me. I can negotiate all five boroughs of New York with ease.

I’m not afraid of the country. I like trees. I can even mow grass – that skill having been acquired years earlier when my brothers and I were trying to earn extra money while staying with my Aunt and Uncle for a month. I don’t have anything against country – other than I stink at it.

I get lost in Central Park if I get too far off the paths, okay? Trees are nice – but they all look the same. I hated camping as a Boy Scout – oh, loved the hiking and fishing and goofing off – just not the danged Map Reading, Using a Compass or any of the other ‘get there from here’ type badges I had to earn. Give me a street map and I can get anywhere – marking a trial and you might as well just go ahead and call Search and Rescue ’cause I’m going to get lost.

I know this had come up in conversation – although I admit, I doubt Crystal realized just how bad I am at this. Still, you would have thought at least she’d have tried to convince her parents that a weekend with both our families in the Adirondacks was a bad idea for my sake. But no, she was looking forward to it.

I am one of nine kids. She has three cousins visiting. Counting parents, that’s seventeen people – how can camping possibly be a good idea?

I was wondering that for the millionth time as my brothers and I finished packing the rental bus. Tim has a CDL so we didn’t have to pay for a driver at least. I didn’t know the details – my Momma  had told me to fork over $75 and I’d done so dutifully. Coming from a large family does prepare you well for knowing what battles to pick – there were sixteen of them versus one of me. Not a hard choice, really.

I suppose I was softening up a bit on the trip up there. Country is beautiful, I have to admit and the gorgeous girl seated beside me certainly sweetened the deal. I never get tired of looking at Crystal. Even when she’s ready to take my head off – which only happened the once – she’s still a show stopper.

I softened up a little more when we checked in at the lodge. This was fairly nice – rustic in appearance but not reality. I’d known we were supposed to have cabins – Momma had told me that much – but ‘camping’ still meant ‘pup tents’ to me so I’d envisioned ramshackle shacks and outhouses. Actually, I was hoping for outhouses – we hadn’t packed any spades.

I softened to butter when we got to the cabins. AC, electricity, running water and kitchenettes – this was the best version of ‘camping’ I’d ever seen. Sure, I was sharing a cabin with my four brothers and Crystal’s cousin but two bedrooms and seven bunks? I could live with this!

Unpacking wasn’t much of a chore – I had visions of lazing under a shady tree by the lake and quiet, star lit evenings with my best girl running through my head. Oh sure, my day dreams were punctuated by shrill yells as the girls discovered a frog by their cabin door and lots of questions and comments from my younger siblings – but that was my normal life. This could work.

Crystal and her cousin Terri rescued my two youngest sisters from the frog. I finally convinced my brother Mike that sleeping in the other bedroom with Marty and Crystal’s cousin was not the same thing as eating at the little kid’s table since Crystal’s cousin was older than me. I was stuck with Tim, who cannot sleep without tossing and Kevin, who keeps defying medical science with his freight train snore and perfect sleep test findings.

In hindsight, I should have just let Mike sleep with them.

The five cabins – one spare had no beds – ringed a communal lodge with a full kitchen. We’d finished unpacking, saving my sisters from wildlife, corralling everyone and the general chaos of large group arrivals so we decided to head for the lodge to check it out. Opening the door, I realized it was official – we were in Heaven. Momma and Mrs Abernathy had already found the kitchen and begun the process of transporting us to culinary bliss.

Southern cuisine and Italian cuisine are both wonderful in their own rights – although being my Momma’s boy, I do lean partially toward Italian – but together, they are something else again. If I’d had known this was what a kitchen would smell like with the two of them cooking at the same time, I’d have built them a joint kitchen somehow.

Sitting in the lodge, holding Crystal’s hand, listening to the happy blather and reveling in the ambrosial scents wafting from the kitchen, I was the happiest camper in the place.

But I’m also a slayer – of course, it couldn’t last.