Please don’t run that way!By Laura SavageIt was just barely autumn and the weather had not yet caught up with the seasons. I could feel the heat rising with the morning sun even at the early hour of six in the morning. But even as the light began its relentless push against the darkness, we are finally on the road again. This time we are going north on ninety-nine toward Oroville, not that I like that area much. Usually I am turned off by how dry and hot it is, but today it just felt right for some reason. The car is so loaded down with gear for the trip that I was not at all sure the roof of the Maverick would hold up under the weight of the wooden box my partner Ernest had designed as a camp box/kids bed. It was stuffed like the car was. Thankfully, the kids were as exhausted as my partner and I were. Both of them were packed into the load in the backseat so carefully they would need help to get out. I am not as fortunate and have Ernest up in the front seat with me, his pet wolf at his feet on the floorboard; who keeps up a fairly constant nagging about my driving, the music on the radio, where we are going, on and on. I just know that someday this will make a really great party story, but not today. Today it takes all my remaining energy to keep my big mouth shut. It would do no good to engage with him now and it might wake the kids in a way that his constant, droning bitching wasn’t. Instead of allowing him to drive me into an irritated and useless defense, I let my mind wander over the past seventy-two hours. It had been complete hell for all of us. Ernest had fought the car to keep it moving every twenty or thirty minutes during the forty mile trip that ended up taking us over sixteen hours to navigate. We must have broken down in every single little town on highway 49 heading south to Sonora. It was quite obvious to me from very early on in the trip that we were going the wrong direction. But Ernest is even more stubborn that I am and the more difficult it got the more determined he was to make it. We were both a little strung out to tell the truth and that always made Ernest all the more hard headed. He had been very happy to take advantage of the meth my ex was bringing into the picture and had been up for most of four or five days dealing with packing for a week or more and keeping the vehicle running. I was very close behind him. When Ernest and the house was tweaking around me I had learned the hard way that it was better to go along. Had I not, it would mean there was a house full of tweakers and no one looking out for the safety and well-being of the home or children. But after sixteen hours under the hood and fighting the car every fifteen or twenty miles, even Ernest was eventually forced to admit that in the least, it would be best if we got the car back home and did a proper job of fixing her. When we did get home there was a message from our friends in Sonora that this was not the best time to come for a visit. There was some project they were working on as a community and they preferred no outside visitors. Why was I not surprised?Neither Ernest nor I wanted to admit complete defeat after our initial failed attempt to escape the city for a while. At this point we didn’t know any more about where we were going than north, but after working for two solid days on the car and only a shower for relaxation, we were back on the road again. Ernest was the worst for wear, but we were both strung out, starving and exhausted. He swore he would sleep and rest once we found a place to camp for a few days. The crank was gone. We wanted to sleep it off, eat some good food and rejuvenate. It took us all day to make the trip from Sacramento up to Oroville and around to the other side of the lake. This time of the year everything was still dry and sunburnt here. The stifling heat seemed to leak out of the plants and rocks, the earth and the asphalt. The air was so hot that it felt warm when you breathed it into your lungs. Then we turned up into the hills above the lake.I had never been up there before. Pretty quickly things started to look green again and there were real trees. We stopped at a little country store in some three store town and while Ernest filled the tank and talked to the locals about good camping sites, the kids and I picked plums from a huge tree and threw rocks into a brisk little creek that ran nearby. It was already after two in the afternoon but with the directions Ernest got we found the correct unmarked dirt road that would take us down to the Feather River Campground. At least we were pretty sure it was the right one.Down being the operative action verb here because this was one crazy, steep road that quickly disappeared around the curve of the mountain and into the dusky forest. Narrow as heck, there was nothing between the road and a fall from unknown heights if one made the slightest error of negotiation. My greatest worry at the start was what if we met someone driving up? About the same time as we found and set off into the wild blue yonder, the first of many potholes bounced us so hard that our wolf dog hopped up into Ernest’s lap and with a huge groan, the roof of the car finally gave in to the weight of the load and started caving in towards us.That was when I gave up the wheel of the car, even though Ernest was still on a suspended license. It was just too much for me to take. I had reached my snapping point. I settled for shotgun and road with both hands over my head on the crumpling ceiling of the car while Ernest took over the wheel. He was furious with me for being what he considered weak and for being dumb enough to think that I would be able to stop the roof from crushing with my bare hands. For the last five or so miles down to the river bed, he berated and chastised me, but I ignored him. I would later blame the meth in both of our systems for our behavior. It would take more than three years from then before I would feel like I had gotten all of the chemicals out of my system from that period of my life. At the time I was just too upset over the roofs collapse and Ernest’s overly aggressive driving style to care what he said or called me. It was an incredible relief when the road finally leveled out and we rounded one last corner. The scene that unfolded before us made it all worthwhile. A couple of women sat in comfortable lawn chairs while seven or eight kids of all ages ran on the white sandy beach and swam in the clear, blue river. We could hear their laughter and shouting. Some of the kids waved up at the car as we passed. This was what I had in mind the whole time. This was going to be bliss. I was smiling and the kids were talking happily in the back seat. Even Ernest mellowed out as he basked in the glow of what he perceived as victory. Though he was now chatting on about how great this was and “I told you so’s,” I continued to ignore him. Driving past the bridge and up a little hill into a grove of tall pines, it looked like only two sites had any occupants. This was perfect and most of the reason we had waited so late in the year. We headed to the back of the campground and the very last parking space. There were no other cars after we had past the minivan at the bridge. As the Maverick limped up to the curb and heaved to a stop, a cloud of steam belched out from under the hood. Ernest shut it off and we unclicked our seat belts. I was anxious to hop out of the car and open the back door, eager to make sure I could still get the kids out with the roof like it was. The door voiced a horrible squealed when I kicked it open and I hadn’t made it to the back door before I heard a noise behind me and turned around. Someone had slipped up on us as we pulled in and he stood there wringing his hands nervously. He was tall and a little chubby with a pasty white complexion. He wore wire rimmed glasses and had a rolled newspaper under his arm. I straightened up, meeting his eyes. From the other side of the car Ernest also popped up, pushed his own round wire glasses up on his nose and squinted over the roof of the car at the intruder. A cloud of white steam wafted around us in the light breeze. The man blinked rapidly looking from one to the other of us and then back at the wreck of a car we were driving. “Ummm… my name is Clay,” he introduced himself. He gave our rig another quick glance before continuing. “Camp rules say you can only stay fourteen days, I..I live in that trailer right over there. I am the camp host.”“We are just here to camp, Clay ole boy.” Ernest answered him smiling his biggest toothy grin and adding, “We know about the fourteen day rule.” “Ok. It’s just that it snows real bad around here.” “Don’t you worry, Clay. Look at this beautiful weather. We’ll be gone in a couple weeks.” Ernest explained.“Alright, just be careful cause once it starts snowing you can’t get up that road you came in on. There’s no other way out of here.” He was not going to let this go easily I could see.“So, what about you, Clay?” I asked “When are you leaving?”“Oh, I’m not leaving. I stay here all winter. They flew me in a bunch of supplies and I have a radio for emergencies.” He answered, regaining a bit of verve from exhibiting his rugged courage and authority. “They don’t plow this way at all. You could get stuck good if you wait too long.”I left Ernest to continue the conversation and turned back to getting the kids unpacked from the back seat. As I got them unstuffed I heard him asking, “So which one of these sites is the best, Clay? You must know the best ones.”“Well you can’t go past these last three sites,” the nervous man threw out quickly. “This is the end of the campground. But most of the campers are gone now anyway. That is until next summer anyway. Except for the miners in number one down by the bridge, they are going to stay all year like me.” He looked back and forth between us again, and then added nervously, “They have done this before and have stocked up like me.”With a wave of his hand towards the sound of rushing water and one of his “this is an idiot” smiles on his face said, “Clay, I don’t give a rats ass who is staying all winter. I simply asked you which of these sites you would recommend as the nicest and the most isolated.”“The last one is nice. It’s last so…”“There you go. Now be off with you and leave us to our Neat Spot adventure,” Ernest said and with that, turned his attention to his side of the back seat and freed Evan. Then the two of them set off into the forest to find the last site. As soon as I released little Ray she ran off after them screaming for them to wait for her. I set about unstuffing the closest and easiest things to free and gathered a bundle in my arms to carry down after my family. The parking lot was on a rise and the ground fell away fast and steep for about five feet right after the front bumper. From there I could see the trail leading off in both directions. Turning right, the direction Clay had waved, I set off. It was a long walk, longer that I had expected and I saw no sign of any camp sites yet. I was just starting to feel the slightest bit uneasy when I heard the children’s happy cries ringing towards me through the trees. Seconds later they bounded up to me, laughing and happy. “Where are you two off to now? Am I headed the right direction here?” I asked them as they ran up to me.“Yes! Yes! Ernest is at the camp spot. He sent us back to the car for his sleeping bag and a pillow!”“OK. You come straight back until we know our way around. And don’t drag anything on your way back.” “It’s pretty easy, mom.” Evan assured me, smiling. “You just go down to the end of this trail. There are only a couple spots. We picked the last one.”The kids continued on their mission back to the car and I went on down the path. Still the trail went on. The trees around me soared above my head but they were not very densely spaced and the floor of the forest was dark and hard packed. I could hear the river somewhere off to my left and it smelled amazing. It reminded me so much of the smell of the American River and the levee where I grew up. This was going to be a good stay for us I could tell. That Ernest wanted the kids to bring him something to crash out on was even good. I would get a lot more done without him harping at me every step of the way. Then I came up over a low rise in the terrain and saw Ernest and the camp site they had picked for us.The spot was beautiful. There was a nice sized level area with a large cement fire pit. A heavy metal grate covering half of the pit would be a perfect place to cook meals around a fire. The picnic table was not far from the pit and was an easy reach to the pantry box with all our food and utensils I had made such an effort to finish for the trip. Ernest would see that it was a useful addition to our camp kitchen. On the far side of the table I saw a huge Madrone tree reaching for the sky, one enormous branch jutted out from the trunk and ran horizontal to the table several feet above and off the cliff behind it. Curious, I walked around the table. Here the ground cut away sharply, twelve or fifteen feet above the rushing river. There were only a couple feet of room next to the table on that side and no railing. I looked over the edge and saw a narrow strip of rugged beach littered with large boulders directly below me. That was a fall that would be any mother’s nightmare. But I would tell the kids and they were pretty careful. Who wants to get hurt like that? I would just have to make them look. Later when I did get them over there all they wanted to talk about was how perfect the huge Madrone branch would be for a rope swing. Ernest was already passed out cold by the time the kids got back with his sleeping gear, nestled between two large, warm boulders off to the side of camp. He had picked a spot out of the way and I could go about unloading as much as I was able to with the help of the kids and not disturb him. The far side of the campsite slopped gently down and around a small hillock then it smoothed out into a sweet little beach. It was perfect for the kids and kept them entertained when they weren’t helping me unload. We got as far as we could with the unloading and then I turned my focus to finding firewood and making some dinner. There wasn’t a lot of campfire sized wood nearby at this time of year, probably already scavenged by the earlier summer campers. I found some big stuff though and dragged it back to camp. We could do a better search tomorrow. Earlier I had retrieved Ernest’s diggy-hoey-choppy tool, a piece of pipe with a flat wedge of steal welded to the end of it. I was pretty confident I could break down some fire wood. I was even feeling proud of getting the beginnings of camp set up without bugging Ernest. But after wailing away at the chunks of wood for over a half hour and not even a decent pile of kindling yet, I was pooped out. It was getting dark when I finally decided to try waking Ernest up. He hadn’t moved an inch since passing out but I had checked his breathing a few times and all was good. Now I crept up to his hunched form in the growing darkness with trepidation. Biting my lip I reached over to his shoulder and gently shook him. “Earnest, baby, wake up honey. I got the car unloaded, mostly anyway, but I can’t get this wood to chop.”The body under my hand began to thrash and his hand reached over to slap at me. He made a noise that sounded a lot like a wounded angry tiger and barked out, “leave me the hell alone. Go the fuck away.”As I had feared it wasn’t going to work. He had been up for too long and the fiddler had to be paid eventually. I didn’t keep trying. It wasn’t going to work anyway and the last thing I wanted was to spend any more time with Ernest until he had slept off his mean streak. If he woke up now there was a great risk he would wake up a complete psycho, raving at me the way he had in the car, or worse. Besides, I reasoned with myself, what did it matter if we passed out like him; without a tent, without a fire and without a hot meal. Tomorrow would be soon enough to get the rest of camp set up. We were all exhausted anyway. I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for me and the kids. After we ate I used the last of our blankets to set up a nice bed for the kids and me next to the fire pit. The kids fell to sleep quickly. It took me a little longer. I was just starting to drift off myself when out of the blue and with absolutely no warning, Ernest popped up from where he had been sleeping and shined the only flash light we had with us into my eyes as he stomped over to where I had laid down with the kids. “What in hell do you think you are doing getting all comfortable? Now that I am finally up after all you’re constant bitching at me! Get up. If I am going to go unload the car in the middle of the night- then so are you!”Completely confused by his sudden outburst, all I could say in response was, “What?”“Don’t play stupid with me.” he snapped, roaring, “GET UP!”“I am not getting up, Ernest. I have done all the unloading I am going to do today. It is the middle of the night, honey. Come back to bed.”“You must be completely cracked, woman! You bitch at me for hours to get up and unload the freakin car, I finally do it and now You want to go to bed.” His laugh was harsh and his smile unfriendly, “Get up I’m not doing this by myself.”I laid there between my kids looking up at him in the dark with only the flash light for illumination. The glaring shadows it made twisted his face into an ugly mask. Tall and thin with his dark, angry features I realized I was afraid of him suddenly. A cold chill ran up my spine. I was going to have to be careful now what I said and how I reacted. Not that it would make any difference. Once Ernest went off like this there was no stopping him until he passed out again, and we were alone with him this time, out in the woods. There was no big sister to call to come rescue me tonight. “Ernest, I did not wake you up to unload the car. I did that already. The kids helped.”“Then what did you have to keep nagging and bitching at me for? Huh?”“Again, I didn’t wake you to unload the car. I needed help with firewood.”“AAaaarrrrggghhh! Fucking Bull Shit!” He screamed at me and turning, he abruptly ran off into the darkness, roughly in the direction of the parking lot. I heaved a sigh of relief and took a second to tuck the kids and check if Ernest’s tirade had woken them. Then I rolled over and closed my own eyes again. He would go up to the car and see that I had already unloaded many things. Hopefully he would come back calmer and I would be able to talk him into going back to bed. I was just drifting into sleep again when I heard crashing in the brush coming towards us. Opening my eyes I could also see the stream of light. It was him. As he got closer I realized he was screaming, cussing and yelling for me as he made his way towards us through the trees and underbrush. “…show that …..ouch, fuck…shit…” crashing and bashing accompanied by the sound of Ernest screaming frustration. “GET UP bitch….. ouch, son of a bitch……you are going to help me……”About then, he burst through a small bush and back into the camp clearing. He still had the flash light and in addition to shinning it in my eyes he was waving it about wildly. He had something else in his other hand now and I struggled to see what it was in the darkness. As if reading my mind he thrust it out towards me saying, “Did you say you needed me to chop something up?”His smile changed quickly into something scary again and he brandished the hatchet he had brought back from the car, “GET UP! I am not going to get that freakin box off the car by myself.”“No Ernest.” I said with as much bravado as I could muster. I did not want him to know I was afraid of the weapon in his hand and his hysteria. “I am not going to go anywhere now. I am going to sleep.” “Get Up Bitch.”“No. Ernest. No.”Turning on his heels a second time, Ernest ran off into the darkness again. Again, screaming bloody hell the whole way. This time I followed the flash lights jerking progress through the woods until it disappeared. I could only imagine what the camp host was thinking of his newest occupants. Several minutes later I could see the light returning and hear his angry cries. When he came crashing back into the campsite once again we had a repeat of his last outburst almost verbatim before he ran off yet again. This scene went round and round several times and I couldn’t figure out what to do to stop this.I had had enough of this stupidity. I had told him multiple times that I had no interest in unloading the car, making him unload the car or bitching at him tonight. It felt like he wasn’t going to be happy until he provoked me into a dangerous and stupid domestic disturbance out in the woods. Ridiculous! When he burst into the clearing the next time, screaming for me to get up, It was the last straw. He was going to keep going and nothing I did or said would change it. I just looked at him and said “Fuck this shit.” And turning over in my bedding I snuggled up to the kids ignoring him.This made him go bug nutty and when he turned to storm off again, he had somehow shifted his stance so when he took off that time it was towards the picnic table and not into the woods. I noticed his change of direction and sat up, calling to him, “Ernest, please don’t run that way!”But it was too late. The light and the raging suddenly cut off and I heard the sickening sound of a coconut being hit with a stick, followed by a grunt and then pitch black silenced. My brain flashed the picture of his head hitting the low branch of the big Madrone tree just off the cliff. It was so quiet after all of his previous screaming and I was filled with foreboding. After several long minutes had passed with no sound, I couldn’t take it anymore. He was such a drama queen I could see him waiting down there for me to go and save him. Not.“Ernest.” I called into the dark not even getting out of bed. When there was no response I made a quick decision “Ernest, you had better listen good. You were acting like a complete ass and you fell off that cliff with the only flash light and an AXE! I will not be climbing down there to check on you in the dark. Either you climb back up here on your own or stay down there until morning.”I waited for a few more minutes then added, “Sleep tight, Ernest.”It stayed pretty quiet as I checked the kids one last time and lay down to make myself comfortable. It wasn’t too long though before I heard the sounds of a man grunting and groaning to climb a cliff in the dark. If he had bothered to check out the camp site before passing out he would have known about the cliff and that he could have walked the ten or fifteen feet to the little beach, but I declined to offer him any assistance. Eventually he made it to where I slept with the kids and passed out there on the edge of our bedding. I finally fell asleep when I heard his moaning quiet down to heavy breathing. The next day the sun rose warm and cheerful. Ernest had slept off the worst of his exhaustion and even with couple broken ribs managed to enjoy himself. We set up the tent and gathered more firewood. We swam in the river, collected rocks, roasted marshmallows and we rested. Ernest made friends with the miners and they brought us fresh trout for dinner. We met the comfortable ladies with the kids on the beach. It was hard to leave the Feather River and say good-bye to Clay the camp host. Ernest’s ribs healed well. We had an awesome fourteen day vacation that none of us will ever forget. My only advice for you all after that trip would be to check out your campsite for cliffs and other possibly dangerous terrain before dark if possible.
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