Summer Fiction: Short Story Fiction Contest Winner #2 — Theresa Ann Wallace

Camping At Mont Tremblant is one of two works of short story fiction, which was published in OTTAWA Magazine’s Summer 2015 print edition. Theresa Ann Wallace is one of two winners in the Magazine’s first ever Short Fiction Contest.

Camping At Mont Tremblant

My dad seemed better. He’d stopped wearing his wool zip-up buffalo sweater in the middle of the muggy Montreal afternoons, explaining to us with a little shiver of his shoulders, “It was 110 degrees in the shade on the Gaza Strip, and after almost a year, my blood’s a little thin.” And for at least a week, I hadn’t heard him in the night patrolling the hallway connecting the front door to the kitchen at the back of our flat.

But I still felt like crying as I flapped my hand out the back window of our baby-blue Volkswagen Beetle. My mom was standing on our front steps. She waved goodbye to us with one arm and balanced baby Elizabeth on her hip with the other. Her housedress and face were lit up by the late-day sun. It had taken all day for Dad to pack up, and she looked relieved to see us finally go.

When I opened my eyes the next morning at Mont Tremblant, my dad was shaking my brother Duncan awake. Duncan was thirteen years old, skinny and small for his age. He had a buzz cut and freckles splashed across his face. Dad was dressed in his desert clothes — a soldier’s khaki shirt and shorts and a hat like a baseball cap except it had a squared-off peak. He looked serious. He moved to the next sleeping bag and dug his thumb into the space just above Jimmy’s collarbone. Jimmy, eleven years old and a smaller and skinnier version of Duncan, woke up coughing.

“Up. Get dressed. Then I’ll show you how to wash in the lake. Move it!” He knelt over his kit bag, unpacking army rations and supplies. He had short red hair and a matching moustache. He was squat, with muscles from all the boxing and wrestling he had done while growing up in the Verdun neighbourhood of Montreal. He liked to hold his palms out, study them, then look up at us and say he could kill a man with his hands. We believed him. His wrists were as big around as Jimmy’s upper arms; even his fingers looked powerful enough to crush bones.

“Ann, you’re confined to barracks. You’re too small. Stay with the tent.”

“I want to go home now,” I said. I had a sick feeling in my stomach. The ends of my fingers hurt from chewing my nails to the quick in the night. A beachhead of pink skin that my nail should have been covering throbbed at the tip of each finger. My sleeping bag was twisted around my shoulders. My back felt stiff from lying on the groundsheet without an air mattress or pillow.

A week ago at supper, Dad had gone on and on about the camping trip. He gripped the chrome edge of the kitchen table and leaned forward like this was the most important mission he’d ever planned.

“You’re going to swim. And see wild animals. And toast marshmallows over a campfire you built yourselves!”

“I want to go home now,” I said again, louder and bolder this time. “You said if I didn’t like it, you’d bring me back right away.” The morning sun glowed red on the walls of the tent behind my dad.

“We just got here for Christ sakes,” he said.  He snapped aside the tent flap and snarled up his lips at my brothers. “March!”

Liar, I breathed.

I yanked down the zipper in my sleeping bag and bit my lips shut so that I wouldn’t cry. I was still wearing my sleeveless blouse and cut-offs from the day before. I hunched over to make myself small and followed the boys out. The plastic sandals my mom had bought for me at Woolworths were lined up by the door of the tent. I sat on the ground to put them on and then squatted by the tent. Dad didn’t notice me.

Our tent was in a clearing alongside a beach. The open camping area stretched along the edge of the lake. Behind the campsites was a dirt access road, then lots of trees and the outhouse I’d visited the previous evening, holding my nose and throwing up into my mouth at the terrible smell.

As I watched from the tent, Dad ordered the boys to follow him into the woods. Every so often, they came out with an armload of branches that they piled a certain number of feet from our firepit. By the time they had finished, the sun was up over the trees and my stomach was rumbling.

“Sit down. I’ve put out your breakfast.” Dad pointed to the picnic table. I tucked in across from Duncan and Jimmy, feeling as if I was getting splinters in my legs from the seat. My brothers hung their heads and stared at the Rice Krispies in our plastic bowls. We ate the dry cereal and drank purple juice that tasted like Kool-Aid. Nobody dared ask for milk for the cereal. My dad stood behind my brothers, watching the way he did when he supervised their math homework, ready to cuff both of them on the side of the head when one of them made a mistake. During homework time, I hid in my room. But now there was nowhere for me to go. I curled my toes under my feet inside my sandals and wished silently for our camping trip to end.

Heads lowered, we finished eating without saying a word. “Here, Ann. You go with your brothers down to the lake and wash the breakfast dishes.” My dad handed me a bashed-up metal basin but no dish soap. “Use sand,” Dad said. “That’s the best thing.”

Our next few meals were pork and beans, wieners and rice, and some canned army food that tasted like Klik and Kam and looked like a block of raw hamburger with lots of fat in it. At every meal, my teeth crunched down on more and more sand. It got harder for us to keep the dishes clean by using sand and harder to rinse off all the sand. When Duncan pointed this out, Dad said, “Just use more sand.”

After we learned how to roll up our sleeping bags and tidy the tent for the day, Duncan and Jimmy’s wilderness survival lessons started. Dad stood by the heaped branches they’d gathered. Making circles with his outstretched arms, he said, “Come here, boys. I’m going to show you how to make kindling for a fire.” He took out his special hunting knife. He kept this knife in a little holster on his belt. It had an ivory handle. It didn’t look like a Swiss Army knife but more like a knife to kill animals and maybe even people.

I decided to walk down along the beach even though I hadn’t brought a bathing suit. I was seven years old. I had never been camping or to a beach. And I’d never spent a night away from my mom except when she was in the hospital having my sister. I missed her. I wondered what she was doing just then. She had beautiful jet-black hair and perfect white skin, and she was always kind to me — except for right now, when she’d sent me on a camping trip that should have been boys only.

The day dragged on, with me mostly watching what the boys were doing from down on the beach. The late-afternoon sun moved across the sky. I started to feel hot.

When I looked down at my arms, they seemed really pink. I poked my left forearm with my right index finger. My finger left a white impression. My brain felt boiled. I knew my dad would be angry with me for getting sunburned, so before supper, I snuck into the tent and put on Jimmy’s long-sleeve sweater so my dad wouldn’t see my arms.

The evening passed slowly. I lay awake deep into the night, staring at the roof of the canvas tent, listening to the wind move through the trees outside. I felt alone. My dad’s snoring had a pattern. He started wuffling quietly, then got louder and louder, then stopped and made a whistling noise through his nose. The whistling was exactly like the sound you hear on Saturday-morning cartoons when one of the characters runs off the edge of a cliff and is falling through space. Then he started all over again with the soft snoring. My brothers looked as though they were so weary and were sleeping so deeply, they might never wake up.

The next morning, after a silent breakfast, my dad said, “Boys, go get more firewood. I’m going to find out where I can rent a canoe for the day.” I headed for the lake’s edge again. I heard my dad talking and laughing loudly and making friends with the other campers. The water felt cold on my ankles. The day had turned cloudy. After a while, wavelets smacked against my shins. The wind off the lake bent the trees. Sometimes it seemed to blow in circles. The trees on the other side of the lake were jerking back and forth. The sky above them darkened to blue-black. The lake was the colour of dirt, and the waves had white spitting tops on them.

I looked back at our tent: it was flapping in the wind. The sand on the beach between the water and our tent swirled in the air. I walked faster along the shoreline and remembered Hurricane Hazel. My family had been living in a trailer in Camp Borden, a military base north of Toronto, when Hurricane Hazel killed people and tore buildings apart in the Toronto area. I was born a year later, and I’d often overheard my parents and their friends talk about Hazel. I didn’t really pay much attention. But I knew in some place in my mind what a hurricane was and what it could do. I wasn’t sure if a hurricane was coming now. But I felt a tight ache in my chest, and it got harder to breathe. I needed my mom.

“Ann, come here and help me, for crying out loud!” Dad was tugging on a rope tied to the outside of the tent. His knife was in one hand and a hammer in the other. My legs shook as I ran. Big raindrops spattered on my head.

“Get inside!” A gust of wind pulled his hat off his head and tossed it into the trees.  The tent lifted up. It billowed into the air like a big balloon tugging to get free. Only a few pegs were still in the ground. Our clothes and sleeping bags were tumbling toward the gap between the groundsheet and the tent walls. I grabbed as much of our stuff as I could. Then I threw myself spread-eagled on top of it.

“Duncan! Jimmy! Come back!” My dad sounded mad, like he was that time my brothers accidentally set the back shed on fire.

I could see my dad’s army boots stomping around  outside the tent. He pulled on the ropes and pounded the pegs in. All the while, he yelled at the boys to come back, come back. When the storm died down and the rain lightened up, they did come back. Our father was bent over, breathing hard, one hand on each braced leg as if he’d just run a mile cross-country. Rain braided with the snot hanging from the end of his nose. His shirt stuck to his chest. But he’d managed to keep the tent — and me — from blowing away. I was sitting on the ground beside him, limp and pale, holding onto his shoe with one hand.

My brothers walked slowly toward the tent. Dad looked up.

“Where’s the wood?”

“Oops, we forgot.” Duncan slapped his hand to his cheek as though he’d just developed a toothache. He looked apologetic.

“You got rocks in your head? You’re both so stupid. You’re useless. You left your sister all alone and you didn’t bring back any wood.” Dad butted Jimmy on the back of the head with the heel of his hand and told them both to pack up the tent. Then he started banging and crashing around the campsite, swinging the metal roof rack onto the Volkswagen and slamming things into the trunk.

Except for the sounds of my dad huffing, the car was quiet, the kind of hold-your-breath quiet where no one dares speak. I sat in the back seat with Jimmy. Duncan sat in front. Sand was everywhere — sand on the leather seats, sand on the floor, sand in our clothes.

Dad looked over at Duncan. He’d turned his back. With his index finger, he was drawing quick lines in the condensation on his passenger-side window. A game of X’s and O’s.

“You are such losers. All of you.” Dad swung his head around to look in the back seat. The car bobbled a little. “One time on the Gaza Strip, we were out on patrol and a sandstorm came up. We crawled under a tarp in the back of the Jeep to wait it out. In a sandstorm, you end up with sand in your teeth. In your boots. Up your ass. Everywhere. It blinds you. In the desert, if a sandstorm comes up and you’re away from shelter, you die.

“But Canadian peacekeepers are the best in the world. We did our jobs. And we watched out for each other. Not like some people. Some people would just leave their little sister all alone.”

“Well, we knew she was safe because she was with you!” Jimmy said, smiling bravely at our dad.

“How do you mean?” Dad’s head lifted sharply. He glared in the rear-view mirror.

“We knew she was okay, Dad,” Jimmy said, trying to compliment him. “We were watching from the outhouse.” Jimmy swiped his tongue back and forth over his front teeth.

I was sitting right behind my dad, watching the cords in the back of his neck. They stood out like thick ropes pulled tight. His head and shoulders jerked around.

“What did you say?”

“We stayed in the outhouse to get out of the storm,” Jimmy said, his words slowing down as though he sensed danger but couldn’t quite see where it lay. Dad turned his eyes back to the road. His shoulders squared as though he was bracing himself for hand-to-hand combat. His fingers squeezed the wheel and went white.

“You hid in a shitter? If there was a world war and everyone in Canada did that, what would happen? So if we’re ever invaded, you two will say, ‘Okay, everyone run to the shitter!’ ”

All the way home, we listened to how tough he was and how soft we were. He stabbed his chest with his index and middle fingers when he talked about himself.

“Do you even know what a camp sergeant major is? I was in charge of every Canadian soldier over there. I kept them all safe. I shook hands with the king of Jordan.”

Every once in a while he’d repeat, “But there was no sand in the shitter, was there?”

As soon as the car stopped at our place, I jumped out and ran to the front door. I kicked off my sandals and ran down the hallway to the kitchen. Wet sand speckled the linoleum behind me. Mom was sitting at the table. Elizabeth was beside her in her wooden high chair, smiling and banging a book on the tray so hard, her little blond curls shook. My mom had a teacup in one hand and the other rested on the newspaper in front of her.

When she saw me, she opened her mouth in a surprised “Oh!” and spread her arms out for me. I jumped into her lap. She hugged me close. I saw her look at my dad as though she was confused. He was hurrying right behind me.

“We had a great time, Mom. It was really fun. We wanted to stay longer. But we had to come back home because there was a storm. The tent blew down. It almost blew away, but Dad saved it.” I spoke really fast. I didn’t want my parents to fight. My dad looked at my brothers, his eyebrows raised.

“Yeah, it was good.” Duncan took off his socks and shook sand into the sink. Jimmy, leaning against the fridge, was scratching sand out of his scalp. My mother and father smiled at each other over my head. Then, looking at her all the while, my dad reached out both his hands and took one of my mother’s hands away from where she was hugging me. He held her hand against his heart. We all stayed where we were, not wanting to move on to whatever would happen next.

One of the kids has asked why I don’t like camping. I never could tell a story sitting down, so I have gotten up from the dinner table to act out the narrative: washing dishes with sand, the blowing tent.

I finish and look around the table at my husband and four children. “Quite the family, eh?” I laugh. I was an army brat and proud of it. I ended up resourceful and smart and funny because of all those family adventures. And misadventures. I found out later that after my brothers ran for cover in the outhouse, they took turns standing on the toilet seat lid, looking out the ventilation hole at us and describing what was happening, both of them laughing so hard, they could barely stand up straight. For years, the mere mention of the word “outhouse” would make us hysterical.

“Hey! How come nobody’s laughing?”

My daughter has tears in her eyes, which confuses me. My brothers and I always thought this was an extremely funny story.

Theresa Ann Wallace has been working as a freelance researcher, writer, and editor for over three decades. She lives in Old Ottawa East.