From the outside, the duplex looks ordinary, just another two-family house in west-side Seattle. The sidewalk fronts a neatly trimmed hedge. Two gates and two walkways invite passers-by to come up onto the porch. A swinging chair waits by the lower apartment entrance. A dusty brown, two-door sedan parked in the graveled driveway says someone is home, but the front doors are closed against the early summer heat, and the curtains and shades on all the windows are drawn.
No one stirs in the long hallway, the three bedrooms, or the kitchen in the rear. But down the back stairs from the kitchen, gray morning light from a brick-sized window illuminates rows of quart glass jars of home-canned peaches on wooden shelves.
He sits by a woman’s body on the bottom wooden stairs in the basement.
“I didn’t want this, Mama. I had to make her be quiet.” He smoothes her thick dark brown hair back away from her face and rechecks the knots holding her slight body inside the black plastic bag.
“It’s quiet now. Quiet,” he whispers. “Next time will be better. Mother will understand.”
The hills were empty. Every once in awhile, the yellow mini-van would dip down through a gully with scrub pines and cottonwood trees, their green and yellow leaves fluttering in the slightest breeze, the road edging a small stream, or they’d see pockets of wheat planted as if by accident, but they hadn’t passed any houses for a while.
Rachel looked at the blue sky, so big, so lonely it was almost scary. It wasn’t the landscape she’d remembered when she was small, and her family had traveled on camping trips through northeastern Washington.
“I wouldn’t want to be alone out here,” Rachel said. She shivered, pushing her dark hair back out of her face. She looked in the back seat of the van, where their five-year-old lay slumped over on her side, asleep in a child’s bucket seat.
“Don’t worry, hon,” said Paul. “It will be beautiful by the lake.”
That was Paul, Rachel thought, always seeing something positive. She looked at the freckles scattered across his fair open face, still compelling after almost a decade. He needed a haircut, she decided.
“September’s a good time for a camping trip,” he said. “We won’t run into hordes of tourists.”
“You just say that because we haven’t seen many RVs.”
“Maybe. But I bet they won’t be up by the lake.”
Rachel thought of the twisting dirt road that lay ahead and shivered. “Don’t you miss work a little?” she teased.
“What? And not have this time with you – and the rugrat sleeping so well in the back?” He stretched his back, a little tired from driving all day.
Rachel smiled, pleased. She knew Paul loved his seventy hour weeks, the constant travel, the meetings, and the budget crises. Probably most of all, she mused, he loved creating order out of chaos. “It’s more of a sales job more than a training job,” he had explained. “I kind of motivate them into becoming a team, and then we open another branch. They pay me big bucks, and then we – that is, you, me, and Kerry Anne – get to have a nice vacation.”
The bank sent him all over the West coast to shepherd new branch openings. He was responsible for working with architects, hiring space and staff, coordinating publicity, setting up accounting and then putting operating and personnel policies in place and monitoring the branch’s progress. “Not a bad job for someone who likes to travel,” he had said. But I stay home, Rachel thought. She loved their home, tucked in a corner of an upscale suburb of San Francisco.
“I liked your new secretary,” she said.
“Yeah, Karen’s alright. She’s been with the bank about a year. I think she looks kind of like you. You know, dark hair but she’s a little smaller than you. Except she wears those real short skirts. I should probably talk to her about a dress code.”
“You would notice the short skirts. Is she married?” Rachel bit her lip. My insecurities showing, she thought.
“I'm not sure. Do you remember the guy she was with at the Christmas party last year?”
“No, not really.” Rachel tried to picture him, but all she could see was Karen at the Christmas party, under 5 feet, with dark hair nearly to her shoulders, dressed in a low cut black dress and impossibly tiny, even with very high heels. Rachel remembered that she had a hesitant smile. “She’s always nice to me on the phone.”
“Her husband, or I guess he could be the boyfriend, looks like an owl with his round wire-rimmed glasses. Funny. He kept holding her arm, but it wasn’t like he liked her. He just kept moving her around. I can’t remember his name.”
“You’re usually very good with names.”
“Yeah, I have to be, but not him. I’ve seen bruises on her arm.”
“No, I’m not kidding. She’s a nice kid and does a good job. But I don’t know. I don’t think she should stay with him.”
“I guess I never think of that as a possibility. I mean, sometimes women get into situations that they can’t see a way out of.”
“I think I should talk to her.”
Rachel looked at the road opening up in front of the van as it climbed into a long deep valley following a river, with large evergreens on each side of the road. Talk to me, she thought.
“Paul, I’ve been thinking. I want to go back to school after Kerry Anne is settled in school.”
He glanced at her. “Aren’t you happy staying at home?”
“Sure. Being with Kerry Anne is great. But she’s on half-days now with kindergarten. I’d like to look into going back to school part time. Maybe finish my degree.”
“So, you want to go back to school. Hey, I think that’s a great idea.”
“You do? I was kind of worried.”
“Sweetheart, if that’s what you want to do, we’ll find a way. What, you’re worried about Kerry Anne?”
“Yes, a little.”
“What’s to worry about? You’d probably need a babysitter. So, we’ll find a good one. Kerry Anne will be fine.” Paul looked down the road. “We can project the expenses, and I’ll adjust the household budget for you. So what do you think you’ll major in? History? Teaching?”
“I’m not sure. I’d like to find out,” Rachel said.
“You’ve done a good job with Kerry Anne. I don’t think I could have stayed home. Wow. My wife going back to school.”
"Mommy, I have to go bathroom,” whispered Kerry Anne.
“Good morning, sunshine. We’re almost there,” said Paul.
Rachel twisted around to Kerry Anne. “Can you wait a little longer, sweetie?”
“I can, Daddy,” said Kerry Anne. “If you want me to.”
"That’s my girl.”
“Paul, we do need to stop soon.”
"OK, we’re going to stop,” Paul said. “Just around the next corner.”
“Mommy,” whispered Kerry Anne.
On the right side of the road, they could see a green sign, half covered by a black trash bag. Just the word “camp” was visible.
"That's it! We're here. A few more minutes, and we all get to settle in for the night." He turned right into the campground and drove up the graveled road.
Rachel looked behind her. “Hang on, Kerry-babe. We’re almost there now.”
“Gotta go, Mommy.”
Rachel looked at the empty campground as they drove in. "There's nobody here. It’s like our own private campground, just for us. Look at all the different shades of yellow and green, and the sun kind of reflecting back in the shade."
“I didn’t know there was a campground at this end of the lake,” said Paul. "Could you read that sign as I was turning in?"
"Not really. What do you think of that site?”
"Looks great to me." He pulled the van into a large tent site, under towering pine trees and set the brake. "Here at last. Go ahead to the bathroom, and I’ll get started on the tent. Maybe we’ll have time to explore the beauties of the great outdoors before it gets too dark.”
“All right,” said Rachel, feeling relieved the van had finally stopped. “Come on, Kerry. Let’s go check out that bathroom.” She took Kerry Anne’s hand, and they walked across the road to the small concrete bathroom, their feet crunching on pine needles.
Paul opened the trunk and stared down at the faded green bag that held the tent. He’d bought the tent after he met Rachel. He smiled at the idea of his parents camping, his father didn’t even like to garden, and his mother, Claire, just looked at him. “How could you think of sleeping outside on the ground?”
But somehow after Rachel found out he had never gone camping, she had talked him into an overnight trip just off Point Reyes, at the very edge of the Pacific Ocean. She wasn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty; she’d cooked spaghetti for them as the sun went down and washed the dishes in sand. Just like that, he fell in love.
He thought how funny life was. If he hadn’t returned that book to the library, he wouldn’t have met Rachel at all. The first time he saw Rachel, he felt as if a hammer had fallen, he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. A cloud of dark hair fell to her shoulders. She wore glasses for reading. When she took them off to look at him, he felt a jolt from her intense blue eyes.
He and Brian had happily cruised through the first three years at Stanford, comfortable roommates. They had gone to lots of parties, joined the same fraternity, and lined up a good internship for the summer break following his junior year, even though his parents had wanted to take him to Paris.
Then he met Rachel. A year behind him, she was at Stanford on a history scholarship. She spent most of her time at the library, reading ancient texts, didn’t belong to a sorority, and worked part-time at the bookstore. But Paul only knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. He cajoled her first into having coffee, then he just happened to have two tickets to see a play in San Francisco. She made him laugh, and he felt as comfortable with her as if he’d known her all his life.
He began setting up the tent. Those were the days, he thought. Just the two of us. Long hikes. Trips to the national parks. His parents still didn’t like her, he realized. His mother had taken him aside after he brought Rachel home to meet his parents. He announced at dinner that they were engaged. “Are you sure, Paul? You don’t really have much in common, do you? Maybe the two of you should live together for awhile.” He almost laughed.
They already were living together in Rachel’s one-room walkup, four blocks from the College of Humanities. When she got pregnant, they were married quietly at a justice of the peace in Grass Valley, friends from school the only attendants. Paul didn’t care. He wasn’t sure what Rachel thought.
Paul saw his father when he was in town for lunch at the San Francisco Athletic Club. They talked about everything but Rachel, that is, until Kerry Anne was born, and Rachel stayed home. His parents had helped them buy the house in Walnut Creek; it was larger than they needed, but his father said they should consider it an investment.
Claire especially had shepherded Rachel through setting up the nursery and furnishing their new home so that he could entertain at home properly, when needed. But now that he thought about it, Rachel was very quiet whenever his parents visited. In fact, she was much quieter now than before Kerry Anne. Perhaps that was all part of becoming a mother, he mused. Perhaps going back to school would be good for her.
He looked around the site. It wasn’t a bad campsite, and the campground was definitely quiet, though their yellow mini-van seemed out of place here somehow, like a giant caution light.“There you are,” said Paul as Kerry Anne and Rachel came around the corner of the van. “Our little tent is already up and looking almost like a palace. Next year, we’ll go first class, a hotel with beds every night.” He smiled. “There's no substitute for luxury and babysitters."
"Why don’t you take a quick walk down by the lake while I get dinner started. You haven’t hiked around this side of the lake, have you? It will take me about half an hour here.”
“Are you sure? I’d love to stretch after all that driving.” Paul leaned over and hugged Rachel and Kerry Anne. “But I’m not kidding about hotel rooms next year. Both my girls deserve a little luxury.”
Rachel watched Paul amble down to the lake, his tall body lost under the pine trees that towered above him. She still loved him. That was the problem.
"I want to help, Mommy," said Kerry Anne.
"Sweetie, I need some flowers for our dinner table. Would you like to get some?”
"I will. I will," shouted Kerry Anne. She bounced around the campsite like a jumping jack, her arms waving up and down.
"All right. See those flowers right across the road there? Pick all you want. Just stay where I can see you." She smiled at her daughter and began carrying the food boxes to the table. First the tablecloth, she thought. She smoothed the red-flowered cloth over the rough hewn plank table. Paul had teased her when she first brought it out. A tablecloth for camping. We’ve had this from the very beginning. Rachel set up the camp stove on one end of the table.
“Mommy, mommy. Look what I got.”
“What pretty flowers. Let’s put them in some water.” Rachel took an empty jar from the food box and filled it with water. “They’ll look nice on our table.”
Kerry Anne grabbed her teddy bear. “Alice wants to help too.”
“And so she shall.” Rachel hummed as she worked, stopping to give Kerry Anne a hug or to ask her to carry something to the table. “Do you like our tent?” she asked. “Tonight we’ll sleep under the stars.”
“Alice wants to sleep under the stars, Mommy. And can we sleep in the trees? Alice wants to sleep in the trees too.”
Paul walked toward the lake, enjoying the quiet. The trail stretched beside little hills, wound along coves, and through groves of mixed Ponderosa pines before dipping down to the lake. A nearby stream had a low, rushing sound that slowly grew louder. A few fall flowers still lingered, some Indian paintbrush, their tiny red flowers faded; cinquefoil and cow parsnips snaked between the weeds.
The late afternoon sun cast a golden glow through the brush bordering the lake. He could see occasional ripples on the surface of the water where fish surfaced. He could smell the pine trees around him and the impossibly fresh air. How good to get away from the city, he thought. He spotted some wild iris. Pretty late in the year for wild flowers, he thought. Rachel and Kerry Anne would be hunting for more.
He checked his watch. Fifteen minutes out and fifteen minutes back. Time to turn back to camp.He headed back to the camp ground, back along the trail, but other than a stellar jay squawking for attention, he couldn’t hear Kerry Anne or Rachel.
When he reached the campsite, the propane stove was hissing, its blue flame flickering, but covered pots had been placed on one end of the wooden picnic table. At the other end, a flowered tablecloth and bright dishes were set. A little flower bouquet had been placed in the center of the table.
“Honey, I’m home,” he joked. He scanned their site. No response.
“Hello, Rachel. Kerry Anne. Where are you?” Had they decided to play hide and seek?
He quickly searched the camp site. The tent door hung open. Inside, the tent was empty.
“Rachel. Kerry Anne,” he called more urgently.
He ran through the empty campground, shouting their names over and over. “Where are you?” He stopped to scan the campground more thoroughly. Think. Where could they have gone?
The campground was almost entirely encircled by forested hills, with higher mountains behind. The only road led back to the highway, except Paul could see the road winding at the far end of the campground into the lower hills.
With the lake and campground behind him, Paul followed the road where it turned into the woods; tall, dry scrub pine trees mixed with brush grew close together. He could hear a woodpecker somewhere high in the pine trees, his tat-tat-tat echoed in the early dusk.
The road narrowed until he was following ruts through the woods. “Rachel. Kerry Anne” he called again and again.
As he ran down the old road, overgrown with grasses, the forest opened up into a meadow, high with brush. They couldn’t have come this far, he thought.
“Rachel. Rachel, answer me,” he called again.
As the afternoon light faded to evening, he walked rapidly toward a rock in the middle of the road. That almost looks like someone sleeping in the road, he thought. “Kerry Anne. Rachel,” he yelled.
Paul hurried up the road, now gleaming white with the dark rock in the center.
As he got closer, he could see it was a body. He ran up, terrified. “Oh my god,” he said.
A young woman had been wrapped in a large black plastic trash bag, her hair pushed back from her face, eyes closed, her arms crossed at her breast, tightly roped together with square knots.
“Rachel. Kerry Anne,” he screamed.
Copyright 2007 by Beth Camp