I didn’t want to ask Annika if she was some kind of autistic the first night we spent together, because that would have been inappropriate. But by the fourth night, I had to, because it was either that, or she was being a serious b-word. I would never use that term, but it was the most accurate descriptor. She was being a bitch.
We sat across the campfire, both of us still thick with bug spray because the mosquitoes wouldn’t retire for another hour. When we made camp right before dinner, we set up our tents as far away from each other as we could while still borrowing some of the fire’s light and protection. At our orientation and training weekend, Forest Service Pete explained how to collect and log test tubes of water from the Boundary Waters’ most remote lakes, near the Minnesota-Canada border. Almost as an afterthought he offered some tips for staying alive in the wilderness. He warned us about bears and raccoons and snakes, and both of us had camped enough that we weren’t consciously worried about critter visitors, but we still felt safer within the flickering circle of the fire’s reach, just at twelve and six, zero and one-eighty.
“Hey,” I said, “what’s the name of that syndrome that’s like autism, but not as bad?”
She looked up from the copy of Harry Potter #4 that held her attention every moment we weren’t portaging between lakes or collecting water samples. “I don’t know.”
“Yeah you do. You know, the kids in school who used to just be weird are now diagnosed with… it’s on the tip of my tongue. I think it starts with an ‘a’ or something?”
The fire reflected off her glasses, hiding her eyes. The old acne scars on her cheeks cast shallow shadows over the rest of her face in the firelight. “Asperger’s Syndrome.”
“Yeah! That’s it.” I dog-eared the corner of my page in On the Road, then set the book down in the dirt. “Asperger’s. Do you know anyone with Asperger’s?”
“I know several people with Asperger’s.”
“Do you know any of them really well? Like, family, or people you see every day…”
“Are you sure?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Just something I read. I think one of the characters might have it, so I was curious.”
Annika looked back at her book. I would go read in my tent, but the batteries in my flashlight-slash-lantern might not last, and we still had three more days out in the woods before we looped back to the old Forest Service pickup truck parked in one of the dirt lot entry points. I didn’t know why Annika stayed by the fire with me. It sure wasn’t because she wanted to talk.
“How many times have you read that book?” I asked.
“Why do you want to know?”
“I don’t know. Just something to talk about.”
“Fine. This will be twenty-two… twenty-three times.”
I pulled my knees up to my chest. “Wow. That’s a lot. Have you read the whole series that much?”
“Which one is your favorite?”
“What’s your favorite part?”
“All of it.”
Nights in the Boundary Waters were either unbelievably dark, when it was overcast, or unbelievably bright, when the moon and stars were out. Tonight was one of the dark nights. During the day, I would imagine that just over the tree line was a highway, maybe a gas station, just like there was over every other tree line in my life. But at night the scope of our isolation was startling and profound. If the fire went out and the flashlight ran out of batteries, and I had to find help because Annika had a seizure or broke her leg or, I don’t know, had a desperate, crushing panic attack, I was one-hundred-percent screwed. The humidity kept the bug spray on our skin moist and sticky, layered over five days’ worth of sweat, so sitting by the heat of the fire felt gross. But I wasn’t going to sit anywhere else.
“Did you see the movie?”
“Number three was my favorite. Prisoner of Escanaba.”
“Really? What’s Escanaba?”
“City in Michigan.”
Annika wouldn’t go to bed before I did. I tested it on nights two and three, staying up until midnight the first night, then 1:30 the next night. She waited and read and stacked more branches on the fire when it got too dim. But tonight she looked tired, so I nodded at her, unzipped my tent, and crawled in.
* * *
I had this strange feeling like we were going to find a body, because the Boundary Waters would be the perfect place to dispose of a victim. It would be a ton of work, for sure. Each portage would require two trips, even with two people. When Annika and I portaged between lakes, I carried the canoe and she carried the food and other common gear in her pack, which meant her load got lighter as the week went on, while mine stayed the same. It was fine. But if each time we had to retrace our steps back to the beginning of the hike to pick up some two-hundred-pound corpse, that would have been a devastating amount of work. If I were trying to cover up a murder, though, it would be worth it.
So when my foot hit something firm and curved and springy under the water, I yelped and scrambled back toward shore. Annika had finished her breakfast and was striking her tent. She stood up and looked at me like my mom used to when I left fruit snack wrappers on the floor of the living room.
“We need to get going. Now,” she said.
She was right. The schedule Pete gave us left little time for anything except paddling and walking, interrupted by brief moments of relative rest while Annika kept the canoe steady so I could retrieve fingers of lake water, then label the test tubes and record temperature and depth information with grease pencil on the laminated sheets.
“But I think I felt something.”
Swimming felt great. The water stripped off the grime and cooled my tortured muscles. Apprehension over our schedule had prevented me from trying it before this morning, but this would be the newest part of my deep woods morning routine. Annika could just deal with it.
I took small steps back towards the body. My foot touched smooth rock, then more smooth rock, then the offending object. It moved in the water, easier than a corpse. I ran my toe along the rounded edge and felt the ridges.
“No way,” I said, then took a big breath and dove in. I grabbed the tire and jerked it upwards. Above the surface it got much heavier, as full of muck and water as it was.
“Annika! Look at this!” I shook it out and sloshed it under the surface.
“Is that a tire?”
“Yeah. How far is the closest road?”
“At least sixty miles.”
“How did it get here? Why would someone carry a tire all the way out here?” I walked back towards the shore with the tire in both hands. “I don’t get it at all. Maybe it fell out of a plane?” The unlikely piece of litter offered few clues. The writing on the side was eroded flat. “Do you know anything about tires?”
“I wonder how old it is.” As the rubber dried in the sun it felt brittle and rough. Flipping it over again and bouncing it off the smooth rock shore offered no more hints of its origin. “Crazy. That is a crazy mystery.” Then I dropped it back in the water.
Annika stood up fast. “What are you doing? We have to take it with us.”
“I didn’t bring it out here.”
“This is a wilderness area. There’s not supposed to be any evidence of human occupation.”
I laughed, because she was being ridiculous. “We’ve got plenty to carry already. I’m sure it’s been there for decades.”
“Pick it up.”
“Pick it up.”
“Pete said we can’t leave anything. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. It’s your responsibility.”
I sighed. “Are you going to tell him?”
I went back in the water and retrieved the tire.
* * *
Pete said our most important piece of equipment was the little cooler bag that held the test tubes. When we set out from the shore of a new lake, it was the first thing secured in the canoe. When I went to sleep at night, my hand rested on it. When we walked down the trails that permeated the deep woods like capillaries, it hung from my neck and clinked in time with each step. I composed a melody that accompanied the rhythm of the glass and the plodding of my feet, and I hummed it from the moment I hefted the canoe onto my shoulders until I dropped it at the next lake. Unless one of us had to stop. When Annika had to re-tie a boot or take a drink of water, I paused with her, and my song paused too. When I needed a break, she kept walking, which was fine, we were going to the same place, except that meant we weren’t together when she found two strange guys on the trail.
Their voices leaked out of the trees like springtime sap.
“What brings you out to the wilderness?” asked a sharp, bass-heavy male voice.
“Why do you want to know?” Annika replied.
A different male voice answered, this one hoarse and harder to hear from so far away. “We haven’t seen anyone in over a week. Just wanted to chat.”
Annika’s sigh was as robust for the new guys as it was for me. “My partner and I are collecting samples for the Forest Service for a long term study on the effects of forest fires on water quality.”
The deep voice chimed back in. “Does that make you a forest ranger then?”
“I’m a forestry student, my partner is a chemistry student. At Duluth.”
“So, what, this is your summer job?”
I came around the curve fast but still couldn’t see them with my head in the canoe, so I stopped and let it roll off my shoulders into the bushes along the side of the trail. It rocked back and forth a few times before settling, and Annika and the two guys were still twenty yards farther down. She stood with her arms crossed, like usual, and the two guys sat on the edge of their overturned canoe. They were both tall and tan and intensely skinny like greyhounds, with clothes that used to fit cinched up with twine. But the most noticeable things about them were their mythical beards. They were huge and puffy, like developing mushroom clouds of facial hair. The rest of them almost didn’t matter behind their impressive, entrancing beards.
“You must be the chemist,” said the guy closest to me, the one with the big voice. His face was a little rounder, like he could lose weight everywhere else but his cheeks. “I’m Jupiter.”
“I’m Dane,” said Jupiter’s partner, whose face was more angular, harsher, meaner. Even though they looked like hermits, like woodland crazy people, they had dirty but expensive hiking boots. They knew what they were doing.
I lifted the mosquito netting and bunched it up on the brim of my cap. “That’s me. Phil. Nice to meet you.”
Annika looked at me for a moment, for part of a second, then kept walking. The two woodsmen watched her with raised eyebrows, like she was the confusing one in this little happenstance encounter.
“What’s her problem?” asked Dane after she had walked a little ways, probably not far enough that she couldn’t hear him.
“Oh, you know, she’s just… She takes the job really seriously, and our schedule doesn’t give us any time to kill. She’s fine.”
“Are you two hooking up? Out in the woods alone… that sounds like a pretty good deal.”
I shook my head fast. “No.” I lowered my voice a little, just in case. “I mean, at the beginning I kind of assumed we would, but she’s different. So I don’t know, maybe, but not yet.”
Dane looked down the trail after her, and Jupiter nodded slow. “You seem like a pretty cool guy. I can tell a cool guy when I see him.” He talked to me like impressive people talked to each other, like we were old friends. “We’re going to tag along with you two for a little while. If you don’t mind.”
“Sure, man, it’s a free country.” I walked back to retrieve my canoe while they donned their old canvas backpacks. Carrying the boat was fine, but lifting it was terrible. Pete taught me how to grab the far side, lift it to my waist, then flip it up on my shoulders. I couldn’t do that. I flipped it upside down on the ground, deadlifted one end, then snuck under the side and placed my shoulders under the yoke. The tire was still wedged under the front seat, right at my eye level. Then I lifted with my legs as much as I could, teetered for a moment, and took a big step forward.
I could only see Jupiter and Dane’s feet when I passed them. “Whoa,” said Jupiter, “you’re a tough guy too. A beast.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Dane laughed. I didn’t think I did anything funny.
* * *
They set up their camp just down the shore from us, but they sat at our fire for dinner and asked questions about Annika and me without sharing much about themselves and offered us hits of acid on little squares of paper like a fancy dessert. By that time Annika was deep in Harry Potter #4, so she acted like she hadn’t even heard the offer, even though she must have. I almost accepted, because I had always been curious. My roommates and I back in Duluth smoked weed more than a few times, and once in high school I tried a dose of mescaline. A half-dose, actually. But it was unbelievable dark again, so I declined. Dane and Jupiter took their after-dinner treats like communion wafers on their tongues, and then we all sat silent and stared at the fire.
After twenty minutes, Annika tented her book over her leg. “I would appreciate if you two went back to your own camp now.”
Dane didn’t look up from the fire. Jupiter smiled. “Seriously, Annika, what are you scared of? We aren’t bad guys.”
“I don’t know that. I don’t know anything about you.”
“What do you want to know? We’re on vacation. We like meeting new people.”
She paused to process the information, to add it to her mental contacts entry for each of these men. “I still don’t know anything about you.”
“Sweetie, come on, I don’t know what you want me to say.”
Jupiter looked at me with a commiseration smile, asking for backup with his raised eyebrows.
“Yeah,” I said to Annika, “they’re cool. They can sit here for a little while.”
Annika looked at me like my mom again. “A half hour. Then they need to go,” she said. She set her watch, and we all sat silently for another thirty minutes. When it beeped I shrugged and Jupiter stood up to leave.
Jupiter pulled the prescription pill bottle with the little squares of paper out of his pocket and held it out. “Are you sure, pal? It’s pretty boring up here. Your night will get a lot more interesting.”
I considered it, seriously. Why not? I didn’t have much to do tomorrow, except walk a bunch and fill a few more test tubes. And Dane and Jupiter would take care of me if anything went wrong. “I don’t know, man, I don’t know…”
“If you change your mind, you are more than welcome down at our place.” Jupiter patted me on the shoulder, helped Dane up, and disappeared into the woods.
Dane started screaming an hour later, as Annika and I were still reading, just after the sky faded to full, deep, incomprehensible darkness. The first outburst was at full volume, more like a battle cry than that of a horror movie victim. Both Annika and I jumped, and our books ended up in the dirt in front of us. A noise like that out of nowhere creates some strange reactions. I wanted to run towards him to see what was wrong and to try to help, and I wanted just as much to run the other way and hide in the underbrush and cower, should our drug-saturated neighbors come looking for our food or our blood.
His first scream lasted until he ran out of breath. His second one started as soon as he regained his air, and he strung the shouts together like that for about ten minutes. When he stopped, the singing started, led by Jupiter’s meaty baritone. They didn’t sing words, nor did they follow any pattern or melody. They sounded like old Native American guys. Their song made sense to them, but not to me. Then they took a break. Then Dane started screaming again.
Annika and I sat across the fire from each other for a few more hours. Each time the noise stopped, our eyes met for a moment of shared relief and reassurance that we were both equally as hopeful that the two woodsmen were done for the night. But then it always started again, sometimes singing, sometimes yelling, sometimes chanting.
“Good night,” I said to Annika after one of the bouts. If I could dive into my tent and get to sleep before the next one started, maybe I could sleep through it. Pete had scheduled a long day for us tomorrow. Three portages, and one was a mile and a half long.
After lying awake for an hour, during a round of call-and-response grunting and shouting from the wild animals down the shore, I propped myself up on an elbow and quietly zipped my tent flap open a few inches. I watched Annika finish her book. She turned the last page, looked at the back cover, then flipped it over and opened it again to page one. As long as our neighbors were awake, she wouldn’t go to sleep. Maybe she could finish her book one more time before dawn. At least, she could get close.
* * *
I awoke with the birds and the sunlight flickering on the gray nylon of the tent roof, then snoozed a few times. At some point in the middle of the night I had drifted off, before Dane and Jupiter fell asleep or passed out or died or whatever the hell finally quieted them. Annika must also have been dozing because she wasn’t puttering around the campsite yet, cleaning up and finding breakfast. Pete wouldn’t approve of our lazy morning, but Pete hadn’t told us what to do if we encountered intimidating druggies out in the middle of the forest, so it was partly his fault.
I got dressed in the tent, then found my toothbrush and arranged my mosquito netting around my hat and stepped out, and the scene was far more upsetting than Dane and Jupiter’s screeching. Annika was gone. Her tent was gone, her pack was gone. That meant the food was gone. The canoe was gone.
I got this job because I was in Boy Scouts. That’s what Pete said, because there were plenty of qualified candidates from my chemistry program at school. But there are two types of guys in Boy Scouts, and I was not the wilderness type. I had no idea how to survive in the woods by myself with no food, so that left two options. I could go sit in front of Dane and Jupiter’s tent and wait for them to wake up and follow them around for the rest of their vacation. Or I could race like hell down the trail and catch Annika and apologize for letting the two strangers join us. But if she had already reached the next lake and launched off into the water, and by then Dane and Jupiter had taken off in some other direction, then I was done for.
I hadn’t decided after I finished violently repacking my gear. I hadn’t decided by the time I collapsed the little one-person tent and clipped it to the underside of my pack. I frantically scanned the campsite for any litter and kicked through the fire embers for any hotspots, as if following Annika’s rules would summon her back.
She really was a sweet girl, even if she could be a little Asperger-y. She hadn’t actually shown me any sweetness yet, but it was there. We needed each other. She had the food. I had the keys to the truck. Pete had given us both copies of the map, in case we got separated, so I pulled mine out. If I could catch her on the trail, everything would be fine. If she had started paddling out on the next lake, I could shout to her and maybe she would come pick me up. If she was on the trail at the other side of the lake…
The cooler case of test tubes clinked as I let it fall around my neck. After a few dozen yards of running down the trail, far too fast for my melody to apply, the bouncing of the pack threw me off balance. I could still walk fast though, heel-toe, arms pumping.
In the middle of the trail I found the tire, which had to be a sign. She would never leave it. That would be totally unlike Annika. She was up ahead, somewhere, reading her book while she waited, just like every other time she got ahead of me. I just needed to catch up. I picked up the tire and continued on to meet my partner.
I returned from a childhood family camping trip to Lake Superior’s Madeline Island with two unlikely souvenirs. The first was a cat that we watched steal hotdogs from a neighbor’s picnic table. The campground owner said she was a stray, and we were welcome to take her. We named her Madeline, she lived to be 19, and she was the best cat we’ve ever had. The other memento was a neon green lizard magnet, which didn’t make any sense because Wisconsin doesn’t have many lizards. That thing is still at the bottom of the junk drawer, waiting to have its magnet glued back on.
Eric Rasmussen teaches high school English in western Wisconsin. He is pursuing an MFA from Augsburg College, and his work is featured or upcoming in Mulberry Fork Review, Brevity’s website, and Volume One Magazine. Whenever he sees a shooting star, he panics and wishes for something he already has. theotherericrasmussen.blogspot.com