The following excerpt comprises the first two pages or so of a story called “Photographs,” which was published in New Love Stories Magazine in 2009 and which won 1st place for best short story at the 2010 Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference in St. Louis.The entire story is included in a collection of short fiction I am currently developing for potential publication.
An array of photographs checkers Karen’s kitchen tabletop. She has shoved the children’s cereal bowls, sticky with milk and residue from sugary breakfast fare, to the outer edges of the table to make room for her impromptu photo display. Now she hovers over the collection and frowns, scanning the images for some clue to the mystery.
Here is one she took of an oxeye daisy, and here is some alpine clover and purple waterleaf. Karen likes to photograph flowers and plants close up, capturing with film the petals and pistons and hints of inner workings. Here are images of rock primrose and bushy, blue beardtongue. There are mountain landscapes and a couple of clear shots of a mule deer that had wandered near camp.
But there are pictures of Karen, too: photos of her sleeping in the tent at twilight; emerging, sleepy-eyed and disheveled, from her tent at dawn; crouching beside the fire, heating water for her instant coffee. In these photographs lies the mystery, both startling and frightening for this simple fact:
Karen had gone camping alone.
It had seemed like a brave and daring thing to do, announcing to Jack and the kids that she needed to get away for a while.
“Get away from what?” Jack had asked.
Karen’s heard all the platitudes, the advice to young married couples, the admonitions to “stick it out, because marriage is hard work.” She could conduct her own marriage seminar based on the reams of newspaper articles, magazine stories, and advice columns she has read. “How to Keep the Fire Burning When the Spark’s Gone Out!” screamed one recent headline from the front of a woman’s periodical at the supermarket.
Karen didn’t tell Jack what she had up her sleeve right away. She is sure he thought she would go to a day spa or something, have a massage, get her nails done. Instead, she went online and looked for secluded campsites. She knew just where she wanted to go. From their suburb in western Kansas, the Rockies would be a short trip.
In Jack’s defense, Karen will say that he took things rather well after he saw that she had purchased a sleeping bag and supplies and packed the trunk of her Volvo. Jack likes to joke that Karen could get lost backing out of her driveway, so he made sure she had the proper maps and directions and a fully charged cell phone. She did appreciate this.
And it wasn’t without a good measure of guilt that she left her two children behind for the weekend to set out on her own, although neither is fond of the rugged outdoors. But Karen knew they would get along fine without her for a few days, and she needed a break. Jack would probably say he could use a break from her, too.
Karen crawled from her little tent that first morning, stretching and gulping the cool air as if she’d been imprisoned for some time and was now allowed finally to venture in the open. Just as the ranger had promised, she was far removed from family campsites and well-traveled trails. “You most likely will not even see a ranger, unless you can get cell service and call for one,” he had promised.
After breakfast, Karen found a little mountain stream rimmed with White Spruce and Ponderosa Pine. Recent spring rains had left the ground wet and sticky, but the air smelled clean and sweet. All through the shady, cool hours, she hiked along muddy paths and marveled at rocks green with lichen. She strung Forget-me-Nots into necklaces that she wore until they wilted and fell away. Her eye once caught a flash of white tail, and turning quickly, she spotted a doe who was startled into stunned stillness. They watched each other for a long time, eyes wide, until the doe bounded behind a green leafy curtain. Only then did Karen allow herself the relief of movement, a breath of new air.
She wound her way between trees in an aspen grove, sliding her hands over long white trunks, fingering the green leaves as she envisioned the flashing gold of autumn aspens that she had seen only on postcards and in magazine pictures. The largest living thing in the world, Karen read once, is an aspen tree in the Wasatch Mountains. Forty-one thousand trees grow from one rootstock, making the forest really just one tree with many branches. Forty-one thousand! It was amazing to contemplate.
Karen moved through that day and into the next, growing more comfortable in her own skin, becoming more serene in her solitude. This total aloneness was a delicious feeling—sensuous—and so that evening after dinner and just before dark, she did something she would never have done under other circumstances: she slipped from her clothes and slid into the cool bath of that blue mountain stream. Karen felt wicked as she paddled around, flipping from stomach to back, her pale skin flashing in the glow of a moon that was just beginning to make itself known.
By the time the weekend had ended, Karen had taken dozens of pictures, never keeping track of how many she’d taken and never, ever considering the idea that somebody else was using her camera for an entirely different and possibly sinister purpose.