The Ghost of Horribilis

 

“Grandpa, I can’t get any service.”

The little girl was holding her pink cell phone, standing near the shadows at the edge of the campsite.

“Mom said to always make sure we have service, in case we need to call her, and I have no service.”

The old man exhaled heavily from his seat on a rock near the crackling campfire. They were high in the Rocky Mountain forest, with no one nearby. It was just past dusk and the sky still carried a hint of light behind the towering silhouettes of pine trees.

“Come back over here, hun, we talked to your mom a while back, she’s fine.”

It was a small miracle that he received permission to take his only grandchild camping. To appease the girl’s mom, he had agreed to a series of promises:  Maintain cell service, avoid cliffs, avoid poison ivy, watch for wild animals, keep a hat and sunscreen on the kid, and take the damn little dog, which was girl’s constant companion. It was a pug dog, overweight, with protruding eyes like some strange bug. The animal barked constantly. The high-pitched yapping had given him a headache.  

“Be quiet dog,” he said. The dog hushed, and looked at the man, ears back, sensing his critical tone. “Isabelle, come back over here, don’t stray into the forest.”

“I thought you said there was nothing to be afraid of in the forest?” she said, walking back toward him and the fire.

She was ten, and it was her first camping trip. She had held his hand early on, afraid of the woods. He spent half the morning repeating that there was nothing to be afraid of. Poor kid had never been out of the city.

“That’s right, not too much to fear up on this mountain these days. Just don’t wander off. You might get lost.”

The little girl, dressed in a fluorescent green ski jacket with matching stocking cap, her hair tied back in a pony tail, moved in close to her grandpa, sitting right next to him. In the campfire light he saw her look up at him with wide eyes.

“What do you mean ‘these days?’

“What honey?”

“You said there’s nothing to be afraid of ‘these days.’ So did there used to be something to be afraid of up on this mountain?”

The girl was too smart for a ten year old, he thought. He smiled and poked a long stick at the white hot embers of the fire, sending a small shower of sparks rising up into the fading twilight.

“Oh well, maybe a long time ago, back when things were still wild, back in the days of the Indians,” he said.

“You mean Native Americans.”

“Yes, back when the Native Americans lived on the mountain, it might have been different.”

“Were the Native Americans dangerous?”

He chuckled. “Well, not usually. Not unless they were hungry and you were a deer.”

The girl pondered this seriously for a moment. “Were they Apache Native Americans? We learned about them in school.”

The old man considered this. “I believe they would have been Ute. The Ute Tribe lived in the mountains of Colorado. That would have been a really long time ago, back before I was born even. Back when my grandpa and grandma were little kids like you. There wouldn’t have been many white people around then. Denver would have been a just a few dusty buildings. This here would have been a different place.”

He envisioned what the mountain would have been like back then. To the west would have been a vast expanse of wilderness that stretched to the Pacific. He felt it would have been better--wild and pure like God made it. In his youth he had camped on this mountain many times, and even then it was a different place--untamed, mysterious. Now the mountain was just another park, drained of life, full of tourists, motorcycle riders and drunken campers. It was depressing.

The dog barked again.

“Smurf, what’s wrong? the girl said. “Don’t you like the forest?”  

“The little creature is just barking at it’s shadow,” the old man said. “It’s a victim of too much human breeding. Poor thing thinks it’s a wolf, but humans have bred it ‘til it’s brain shrunk. Man shouldn’t mess with nature.”

The little girl giggled. “Smurf, do you think you’re a wolf?”

The pug dog looked at her and cocked it’s head.

“Ok, my little princess, time to turn in. We’ve got a big day ahead of us, have to get some shut eye.”

She frowned for a moment. “All right. But I have to go to the bathroom first. Where should I go?”

“Just go back in the bushes there. Follow me.”

He stood up and pointed a heavy flashlight down a dark gravel path behind the yellow tent, between lichen-splotched boulders and dense bushes. The dog followed.

“Go back over there. I’ll wait here for you.”

“O.K., but I need some tissue.”

“Right. Hold on, stay right there.” He backtracked a few steps, zipped the tent’s front screen flap open, crawled inside, and rummaged through a backpack, finding a small pack of tissues. He zipped the tent back shut and returned to where he left his granddaughter. But she was gone. “Isabelle?” There was a hint of concern in his voice.

“Over here grandpa.” The little girl had walked behind the thick trunk of a pine tree. Look, a flower. She shone her phone light on a little blue flower.

“That would be a bluebell, I believe. Don’t pick it, its against the rules. Ok, here’s your tissues.” He handed her the packet.

“What do I do with the tissue I used?”

“Bring it back and toss it in the fire.”

He waited while his granddaughter disappeared briefly behind a rock, then followed the little girl as she walked back to the fire and tossed the paper onto the glowing embers. She watched it catch and flare then evaporate.

The pug dog barked again, it’s eyes bulging even wider, as it sat on it’s little bed near the fire.

That animal better keep quiet tonight or I’m gonna tie a handkerchief tight around its muzzle, the old man thought.

“Brush your teeth, then it’s off to bed,” he said.

“O.K.” The little girl picked up a small pink-flowered backpack and pulled a toothbrush and tiny tube of paste out of it.

“Use this water to rinse,” he said, handing her a clear plastic bottle. “Then spit the water on the fire. We’ll have to put it out anyway before we turn in.”

“Why?”

“So we don’t burn down the mountain. It’s dry up here, and if the wind kicks up some sparks, it could start a forest fire.”

She went over to the fire and spit onto the red hot coals, causing a soft hiss. She smiled, sipped more water, then did it again. After the third time, her grandpa grabbed the bottle from her.

“Save some of that in case you get thirsty in the night.”

He opened the tent and motioned for the girl to enter, shining his flashlight on her sleeping bag. She crawled into the tent.

“Take off your shoes and your coat and get into the bag.”

“But it’s cold.”

“Do it quick.”

“Shouldn’t I put on my pj’s?”

“Not tonight, we’re roughing it.”

The girl grinned, quickly pulled off her coat and little hiking boots, and scooted into the sleeping bag. The dog, leaving it’s warm spot by the fire, scampered over, hopped into the tent and curled up next to the girl.

“Good boy, Smurf. You sleep right by me and we’ll keep each other warm,” she said. The dog’s little pink tongue licked her hand. “Wait, where’s Bruno?”

“Who’s Bruno?”

“Bruno is my Teddy Bear, grandpa,” she said, exasperated that grandpa didn’t know such a basic thing.

“Of course.” He rummaged through some clothes and coats and produced the worn little stuffed animal.

“There you go, don’t let him get cold,” he said. She hugged the Teddy Bear and pulled it into her bag.

The contentment and joy on the child’s face was heartbreaking. It had been a lifetime since he experienced such innocent pleasure. But even after so many years, he still recalled the feeling of being a child and snug in a sleeping bag in the great outdoors.

“When are you coming to bed?”

“Real soon. I’ll make sure that fire is out, then I’ll come in too.”

“Ok.”

The girl’s eyes were shut. She was nearly asleep already. As he was closing the tent behind him, he realized he hadn’t seen the dog pee in hours. He didn’t want it waking him up in the middle of the night.

“Come on, you little Martian, he said. “Let’s go take a leak.”

The dog looked at him imploringly, not wanting to leave its warm nest.

“Get out here,” he whispered, an edge to his voice.

The dog followed him out. He shone the beam of the flashlight on the pine-needled ground and followed the same path as earlier, but walked further, past the scraggly, dead lower boughs of Douglas Firs.  There was no moon, and stars now sparkled in the high altitude sky. He went some fifty feet from the tent, the curly-tailed white dog trailing. He stopped to relieve himself, the flashlight clamped under an arm.

As he was zipping up, something on the ground nearby caught his eye. He shone the beam on it and illuminated a huge coiled mass of dark excrement. The old man had spent enough time camping to recognize the burgundy seeds interspersed in the pile. It was bear scat full of berries. But it was a monstrous pile--might fill half a gallon bucket. And in the light he saw something that made his pulse quicken...a soft whisper of steam rising from the scat into the chill night air. The massive dropping was still warm.

He stood staring at this image, his mind spinning. He noticed a thin white object partially immersed in the pile, something that didn’t seem to belong. He eyed it for a bit, trying to make sense of it. A piece of cloth maybe. He picked up a nearby stick and carefully poked at the white material, dragging it to the ground nearby. It was a ripped piece of fabric no bigger than his wallet. On it were two letters. Part of a word. It was a bit of a torn t-shirt.

After a moment’s thought, the old man reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a small ziplock bag left from the sandwich he had for lunch hours ago. He pulled out an apple core and napkin and dropped them on the ground. He then crouched down, and stick in hand, pushed the strip of shit-soaked shirt into the plastic bag, sealed it, and put it back in his pocket.

He made his way back to the campsite, the fire now reduced to dim ash-grey embers. He walked quickly back to the tent. Opening the tent flap, he entered and saw his granddaughter was sound asleep, her little lips slightly parted. Finding his backpack, he pulled out the Smith and Wesson handgun, and put it in his coat pocket. Then he backed out of the tent, zipped it behind him, walked over to the fire, and threw on some kindling. He tossed on a larger log. He would spend the night sitting by the fire.

Just then he remembered the dog. He walked to the tent and glanced inside. No dog. He shone the light around the perimeter of the campsite and into the blackness beyond the trees.

“Dog,” he called out in a hushed tone, not wanting to wake his granddaughter. “Here dog, come on boy.” He took a few steps into the surrounding forest, spraying the light around him, then walked back to the opposite side of the campsite, peering into the impenetrable black wilderness beyond. “Come on dog.” He felt a queasiness in his stomach. “Shit,” he whispered under his breath, “Where’s that goddamn little dog?”

Mark Gaffney