I tapped my thumbs on the steering wheel, keeping beat with the radio as I drove out of the city. With each kilometre outside city limits, my agitation rose until I was practically humming with nervous energy. I felt like I’d been chugging espresso since yesterday. Everyone I knew seemed to think camping was a beautiful thing, an exquisite vacation, but I only heard spiders, snakes, and rabid moose when they prattled on about reconnecting with nature. As I glanced at my phone to make sure I was still on the right road, I wondered if moose could get rabies. I mean, raccoons and cats could get rabies, so that meant moose could, too, right?
My heart dropped when I saw a hastily erected sign announcing the road was closed ahead. I wasn’t even sure where I was going under normal circumstances, now they wanted me to detour down a dusty road? I glared at the retreating construction guy. There was no one behind me, so I slowed and rolled my window down.
“Yo, hey! Dude! Come here!” I shouted, my hand automatically pressing buttons on the steering wheel to silence Ed Sheeran. I shifted into park as the guy with the orange vest and hardhat turned, glaring at me. I swallowed hard. “Um, hi.”
He hesitated for a few seconds, looked behind him, and I guess he figured he had no excuse to ignore me because he sauntered over, his construction boots scraping pavement with each step. “What’s up?”
I arranged my features into the same mask I wore when dealing with rude salespeople. “I could ask you the same thing. What’s with the detour?”
“Road’s closed.” He shrugged, starting to walk backwards.
He stopped moving, his eyes roaming over my hybrid car. I guess he saw the camping gear I’d unwillingly agreed to bring, because he nodded and approached me again, bending low so we were eye to eye. He had the most amazing eyes, brown, but flecked with gold and yellow, like whisky or a cat’s, I couldn’t decide. “Going camping?”
My mouth went dry, my brain chugged and stalled. “Mm-nn-ye-huh.”
Amusement flickered in his gorgeous eyes, and I noticed little lines fanned out when he smiled. “There was a herd of wild boars go through, road’s covered in piss and feces. Gotta detour down that road, about a klick. Go right another klick, left about four klicks, then left again seven klicks, left again about four klicks, that’ll bring you to the highway again.”
“Klick? And really?” I felt my tummy clench and decided I’d just pull a U-turn and head back to the city, to civilization. Kristen and Beth could make a tent out of trees and vines and whatever else they found. Get the real camping experience.
He took his hardhat off and scratched his head. His brown hair glinted gold and red in the sun. “Klick – kilometre. And no, no wild boars around here.”
I nodded, feeling my cheeks flush at my stupidity. I knew the slang for kilometre, and I also knew that boars weren’t an issue in Ontario, though I read a blog once that said they were making their way across Canada which wasa scary thought. “Can’t I just stay on the highway? My car is light.”
He stood, shaking his head, and muttered something that sounded like citiot, whatever that meant. “If there was a road, maybe. Bridge over the river collapsed about a half hour ago. That’s why the hasty detour. If you go back the way you came for about forty klicks you can take a better route. Take you about an hour longer that way, but no dirt roads to dirty up your fancy car.”
I considered, calculated, and finally shook my head. “If I go down this road, turn left, then right?”
“Turn around and go back, the signs should be posted by now. Guess that’s why there’s no one behind you – or did you miss the signs?”
I might’ve been looking at the GPS app on my phone every other kilometre, but no way I’d admit that to this jerk. “I’m a good driver, and I pay attention to road signs.”
“About as well as you listen to directions, then. Go down this road a ways, turn right. Then it’s all left turns, but a long stretch between turns. You wanna write it down?”
I mentally reviewed, lifting first my right hand, then gesturing with my left several times, committing the directions to memory. “Nope, got it. How much extra time is this going to cost me? My friends are waiting for the tent and stuff.”
He put the hardhat back on and shrugged. “Depends. You drive like it’s a paved road, you might not lose much time, but your car’ll need lookin’ at before your next maintenance check. Drive for the conditions? About half an hour extra – that’s including the time you’ve wasted bugging me.”
I flipped him the bird then smiled sweetly. “Thanks, I guess.”
He shook his head as he walked backwards. “You sure you’re up for camping, Princess? Might break a nail, wreck your make-up.”
I bristled as I glanced at my fresh manicure. “I’m from Toronto, there’s nothing the country can throw at me I can’t handle.”
He snorted, shrugged, and turned his back on me. I put the car in gear and headed down the road. I realized he’d been right about one thing; my little Prius couldn’t fly over the ruts and bumps. I turned the radio up and glanced at my phone. The app reconfigured as I watched. Like an ominous omen, a little voice said, “Turn around, go four hundred feet, and turn right.”
I considered shutting my phone off and heading home instead. My sister and her best friend shouldn’t have let me bring the food and tent. If they’d been reasonable, agreeing to only one or two nights, we could’ve all fit in Kristen’s SUV. They wanted two weeks of camping at some park named after wild animals and I wasn’t about to give up a chunk of my summer for that. A new, disturbing thought intruded. I had to pee. Where were we supposed to pee at wild animal world or wherever we were going? I eyed the narrow dirt path on the right and groaned. Was this the road cat eyes meant? I slowed, saw tall grass growing on either side, and decided it must be someone’s driveway because the path was too narrow to pass any cars coming in the opposite direction. I kept driving, but the road got narrower, and I finally decided that I should turn back, go home and grab a chai crème Frappuccino (after using the bathroom) for my efforts when I spotted a dirt road. I signalled, slowing to a crawl to make the turn, and congratulated myself when I missed a huge rut in the road.
I glanced at my phone and gulped. The app had given up trying to direct me. I stopped in the middle of the road and tried to find another app but my signal was dead. I tossed the phone onto the passenger seat and kept driving. How hard was it to make a bunch of left-hand turns?
The road was so messed I had to drive slower than in a school zone. My heart raced when I saw a deer ahead and slowed even more. If I hit a deer, my car would be toast. I hadn’t seen any houses anywhere. I let out a nervous giggle when I realized the deer was just a couple of dead trees poking out of the tall grass and weeds.
I turned left at a road much like the one I was on – in other words, cleared dirt wilderness. I picked up my phone, not bothering to stop because small children could walk faster than I was moving. Still no signal, but I noticed my battery was low. I reached over to get my charger from the glovebox. I couldn’t lay my hand on the charger, but I spied another road going left and turned. If I were a taxpayer in this municipality, I’d be at every town meeting complaining about the state of the roads. The tax dollars earned could at least pay to put up signs to let unsuspecting and lost tourists know where they were.
The area was heavily wooded on either side of the joke of a road. No houses, no cars, no sign of life at all. I took my eyes off the road to search the glovebox again. No charger. Where the heck had I put it? There was a clearing ahead on the other side of the road. I veered over and parked the car. I unlocked the doors, got out, and stretched. I saw a rabbit speed across the road and into the woods opposite. I squatted, feeling under my seat. I found a toonie, but no charger.
I had to pee in the worst way. I shielded my eyes from the sun and scanned my surroundings as far as I could see. No sign of civilization anywhere. I could hear birds in the woods, but that was all I heard. .
“Hello? Hello, anyone hear me?” Birds took flight at the sound of my raised voice but no response from anyone else. I grabbed my purse, made sure my keychain with the fob to run the car was in it, and locked my doors. I hadn’t peed outside in…ever. Okay, there was one time in university, but I was drunk and all the businesses nearby were closed. That barely counted.
I kept my ears tuned for sound, my eyes darting left and right for signs of human life, as I wandered into the woods. A fallen tree blocked me from going deeper. I huffed out a breath, looked back at my car to get my bearings. If I navigated around the fallen tree, I could squat and pee, hidden from view.
“Of what?” I muttered to myself. “It’s not like there’s a line of cars passing.”
I found the spot where the tree had split and climbed over the splintered end. I couldn’t see my car anymore but the bright sunlight was a beacon. I was about to pull my pants down when I remembered the videos I’d seen on YouTube of people’s trail cams picking up wildlife. I scanned the surrounding trees to make sure there weren’t any before I bared my butt for a bunch of crazy nature nuts.
When I’d relieved myself, I groaned. What to wipe with? I rooted in my purse until I found a ripped Kleenex. Better than nothing. I was pulling my pants up when I heard a snap and a crack, like a branch, or a twig, or a tree – panic spiked my heart rate, and I envisioned a wild boar busting down trees to get to me. Did the scent of female urine attract male animals the way I’d read male urine scared raccoons away?
I took off running, not knowing which way I should flee other than away from the sound. I ran with my pants at my hips, my purse bouncing off my side, branches scratching at my face. The smell got earthier, the light waned because of the thickness of the trees, and my ears picked up the sound of movement, the rustle of leaves, the crunch of wood, and scuffing of feet on dirt. I leapt over a rock, stumbled, and hugged a tree as I fell face first.
I lay there, panting, praying, preparing for certain death. Any second a bear, or a boar, or a rabid moose was going to bust out of the shadows and attack. I’d been so close to the campsite. If that bridge had only lasted a few more minutes, I’d have been with Kristen and Beth by now, sipping wine while they put up the tent.
As my heartrate slowed to a pace slightly higher than a cardio workout, I sat up. My head swung in every direction as I searched for what had chased me. Nothing moved, nothing breathed. I realized I was holding my breath and willed myself to calm down, inhale.
“You idiot. You were scared of the noise you were making running.” I shook my head in disbelief. Saying the words aloud, I realized they were true. I’d spooked myself.
I was filthy, bleeding, and my pants were falling down. I got to my feet and fixed them, then brushed the dirt and grime off as best as I could. The contents of my purse had scattered when I’d fallen, and I frantically searched for my keys.
I tried to figure out which way I’d come from, but the forest had swallowed any signs of my trek. Something glinted on the ground ahead of me, where I knew I hadn’t been because the tree had stopped me from getting there. I made my way carefully, wincing as my ankle panged as I moved over the uneven ground. A small spot of sunlight reflected on my mirror. I picked up the cracked glass and checked my appearance. I had streaks of dirt and scratches on my cheeks. My hair was no longer in a neat bun, and I pulled a few bits of bark tangled in the loosened strands. I slipped the mirror into my purse. A foot away from the mirror, I found my wallet. Great, I could use my money or one of my credit cards to buy my way out of this mess. I laughed wildly as I spun around in circles. No one there to take my money, not unless that squirrel staring at me took plastic.
“Booga booga,” I muttered. The squirrel continued to stare at me. I blew a raspberry. I must’ve looked deranged because the squirrel tore off up the tree beside me. I hurried away, scared the squirrel was preparing for an overhead attack. I felt something hard just as I heard the crunch of plastic. I moved my foot and found my lipstick, now a waxy mess. “I just bought that tube!”
I wrapped the remnants in a leaf and carefully stowed the garbage in the side pocket of my purse. I wasn’t a litterbug at home, why start now? I found my mascara, another tube of lipstick, and my foundation as I searched for my key fob. Every time I heard a noise, I froze. I’d swear the squirrel was purposely lumbering around just to freak me out. I’d seen him three times already, just watching. Laughing, if the sound he’d made the last time was any indication.
“You know, squirrels in Toronto are a lot nicer.” I’d collected everything I could remember being in my purse (and some I hadn’t, like the paper wrapped paper straw), but no key fob. Which, I supposed, was fine saying as I didn’t know where the car was anyhow.
I settled down on the ground (after checking for snakes and spiders) and let the tears come. I was lost. Even if I found my way back to the car, I was still stuck. I’d locked my doors, and the key was the only way in. My phone was surely dead by now; even if I managed to break a window, I had no way of calling for help. At least I had a cooler with food in the trunk. I wouldn’t starve to death while waiting for someone to drive by. I was so hot and thirsty now I’d even eat the ice keeping everything cool.
I dug out the broken lipstick. I marked the tree closest to me with a huge red X. I got to my feet, studying the mark, and decided it wasn’t good enough and put an arrow pointing to where I’d found the lipstick on the ground. Moving felt like doing something, so I kept going. I got turned around a couple of times marking my progress, but overall I’d done okay; I’d only re-found trees twice. The rustling of leaves, cracks of twigs, and crunching of decaying nature beneath my feet were no longer scary. Even the tittering of the squirrel was pleasant, took away the loneliness.
The light was fading. I should’ve been well and truly drunk with Kristen and Beth, laughing and having a good time while we ate hotdogs cooked over fire. Beth and Kristen had the marshmallows, they were probably roasting them by now. I had the chocolate in the cooler, so no smores for them. My tummy rumbled, reminding me I hadn’t eaten since breakfast (a protein shake with frozen fruit), unless you counted the free samples at Costco while we’d shopped for our trip. I could handle some of those perogies now.
I climbed over a fallen tree; it had to be the same one where I’d peed earlier because I found my brush.
“Must’ve fallen out when I ran.” I spoke to a squirrel (not my buddy, he was black, this one was grey). I spent a few extra minutes searching for the fob, hoping it had fallen out here, too. No luck. I climbed over the tree stump, sure I’d see my car, but found…more trees.
I slapped at my arm when I felt something tickle it, convinced I’d just walked into a spider’s den. Blood bloomed on my palm. Great. Mosquito. I marked the fallen tree and kept walking. I heard a musical, magical sound – water. The river the collapsed bridge crossed? Obviously, I was going in the wrong direction from my car, but at least I could quench the building thirst. I blocked out the little ‘ew’ echoing in the back of my head. Not all water was polluted I reminded myself as the trickling got louder. I marked another tree when I realized I was moving away from the sound and resumed my search.
In the fading sun, I finally found the source. This couldn’t be the river they’d built a bridge over – this barely constituted a creek. I stepped out of the woods and froze. Three deer were drinking less than ten feet from me. Males, with antlers that could gore me to death. Several squirrels twittered from behind as I stood, rooted to the spot by fear and wonder.
Either they scented me, or the squirrels were warning them, because all three heads turned in my direction. Stupidly, I waved. Like what, they’d nod their heads like the guy at work who cleaned up after the kids went home? Two of them went back to drinking, but the third kept watching me. Were deer like other animals, where eye contact meant a challenge? I blinked several times and turned my head enough that we were no longer having a staring contest, but not so much that I couldn’t see if he charged me. After a minute, he drank again, then the three of them ran off across the creek into the woods on the other side.
I went into the clearing, staring down into the shallow water. The source of the tinkling was about fifty feet upstream, where the water divided and trickled over some rocks.
I was trying to figure out if I could bring myself to drink from the creek the way the deer had (what if they’d peed in the water?) when a loud cracking in the woods made me gasp. The last time I’d heard a loud sound, I’d run and look where that had got me. I stood my ground, turning to study the shadowy woods. Bear? Boar? More deer?
I didn’t see anything moving. I strained to hear more, but even the squirrels were silent. I positioned myself at the water’s edge, preparing to dunk my hands in.
“Hey, don’t drink that.”
I screamed. Leaping to my feet, I spun and fell over with a loud splash. Cold water shocked me into motion. I jumped to my feet as I registered that words had startled me. Unless Smokey the Bear was out here, the words had come from a human.
He stepped out of the woods. I barely resisted the urge to run to him, hug him, promise to have his babies. “I’m thirsty.”
I was horrified at myself. He shook his head derisively and I was reminded of someone. “Go ahead then. I was going to offer you this, but you wanna drink with the water snakes, have at ‘er.”
I leapt into the air as if a snake had slithered up my soaking pant leg and ran towards the man. I skidded to a halt a few feet in front of him when I realized who he reminded me of – only it was him. “You.”
I eyed the water bottle he’d unclipped from his belt as my eyes narrowed. “Did you plan this?”
He tossed the bottle to me, shaking his head when I missed and bent to pick it up. “Plan what? For you to get epically lost and end up here? Oh yeah, that was my dastardly plan all along. I even dropped the bridge to snare you.”
Thirst won the mental battle I waged of should I, shouldn’t I. I drank my fill and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “What are you doing here?”
He caught the bottle I tossed back. “You wanna ask questions, or do you want your key and get out of here?”
My eyebrows rose when he held out my keychain. I took the remaining steps to where he stood and grabbed my fob. “How’d you get that?”
“Found it, right next to a wad of Kleenex.”
My face flamed as I remembered using the Kleenex to clean myself. “Huh. Well, thanks. I, er–“
His catlike eyes twinkled as he watched me. The more amused he got, the hotter my face. “Want to find your way back to your car?”
I wanted to tell him no, that I’d find it myself, but my mouth had a mind of its own thankfully. “More than anything.”
We started walking – not into the woods, but beside them. “How’d you find me?”
He scratched his head and shrugged. “Pretty smart to mark your path with, what? Lipstick?”
I nodded, showing him what was left of the mashed tube. “I was just thinking I’d have to pull out my good tube to keep going.”
He held up a hand and slapped my arm. I glared at him; he had no right to hit me. He held out his blood smeared hand. “Mosquito.”
“They never bothered me until about half an hour ago. I bet I’m covered in bites.” I slapped my neck.
I stopped walking when he did. He pulled a can out of the holder on his belt and uncapped it. He sprayed a steady stream as he walked a circle around me, putting his hand over my face when he ended his assault at my head. “That’ll help.”
Instinct told me to say thanks. “That stuff stinks.”
He gaped at me. “You’re welcome.”
My face reignited. “I’m not usually so –”
“Rude?” His eyes twinkled again.
My mouth opened to argue but I snapped it closed again. I was rude, something about this guy brought out the worst in me. Wrong footed me. I shrugged as we walked. “Off work?”
“Long time ago.” He pulled a flashlight from his waistband.
“So, what, you come hiking here after work?”
He shrugged. “Not usually. When the crew didn’t see your car come out on Seven Mile Road, I wondered if you’d headed back to the city. I kinda felt bad for lying to you – the bridge wasn’t out we were just doing a fast pothole repair. I could’ve let you through, but you pissed me off.”
I glared at him. “You mean I didn’t need to drive through the jungle to avoid your work?”
He laughed. “Nope. The detour was about five minutes back, would’ve taken you ten extra minutes to get around us. And we were letting local traffic through.”
I debated pushing him, kicking him, hurting him, but he knew where we were and I didn’t, so I kept my hands to myself. “Let me guess. You thought it’d be fun to mess with the city chick?”
He studied me for a second before shaking his head. “Hardly. I’m from the city myself. I work for the company that has the contract for maintaining the roads. I alternate between the city and here; the big boss knows I’ve got a cottage up here, so he puts me on the country crew as needed. I messed with you because you were a princess.”
I wanted to argue, but he was right. “I’m honestly not that rude normally. My sister, Kristen, picked camping for her birthday. I offered to rent a cottage but –“
“She wanted glamping?”
I frowned. “What’s glamping?”
“Glamorous camping. Let me guess, you were headed to Buck and Doe campground?”
“How’d you know?” I gaped at him.
“Party glamping. Even got a pump for people to blow up their air mattresses.”
“I’m terrified of snakes. The last time I went camping, I found a snake in my sleeping bag – about three hours after I’d gone to bed.”
Our pace was a lot slower now that it was dark. The flashlight illuminated a short distance ahead of us but not enough to let us trundle through at a fast clip. “I hate camping, myself.”
I swung my head to look at him. I couldn’t see much of his face because of the dark. “Really?”
“I like indoor plumbing and electricity.” His shoulder brushed mine when he shrugged. “My ex-wife loved glamping. Said I was boring because I was working to turn the cottage into a home, defying the definition of cottage. Blah, blah.”
“I do too, and beds.” I had no idea how much farther we had to go, but I wasn’t as scared as I’d have been if I were alone. “And I know people who think rustic is what a cottage should be but I figure we’ve come a long way since pioneer days, why waste the hard work of our forefathers?”
“You got kids?”
The question surprised me. “About twenty-three, give or take.”
“Ah, I should’ve guessed. You’re a teacher. What’s your name, anyhow, Princess?”
“Amelia. And I don’t usually have fake nails. My sister insisted we do the beauty thing before camping, which I thought was stupid but my baby sister always gets what she wants. What’s your name?”
“Tyler. And we’ve walked entirely around the woods now, so I guess I should let you go.”
I blinked in confusion as I followed the beam of his light. My car was sitting, facing the wrong way on the side of the road. “What do you mean, we’ve walked around the woods?”
“Ah, well. If we’d gone the other way? We’d have come out there in less than three minutes.” I looked where the beam shone.
“More fun and games for you? Make the city girl walk for an hour?”
Tyler shook his head. “Nah. I liked talking to you.”
I heard my doors unlock as I approached the car. “You want a lift?”
Tyler shook his head no, then peered up the street. “You’ll pass my cottage on your way to the highway, so sure, why not?”
“Mind if I use your cottage to clean myself up first? Don’t want to scare my sister and her friend.”
Tyler and I got into my car and I waited for him to answer. “Yeah, I should probably feed you, too, to make up for sending you off into the wild.”
I closed my door and pressed the button to start my car. “You got a spare room? Maybe I shouldn’t drive in the dark.”
“You know, that’s probably smart. Never know what you’ll run into in the north country.”