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will mcmillan

someplace for fear

     At first, I thought it was my mother. Shaking me, attempting to wake me. I couldn’t feel her hands, but my body was thrashing. Next to me, against me, my brother’s body was bouncing. In the deep, numbing darkness of January, I wiggled closer to him, for stability, for warmth. The air I breathed in was freezing, transforming the air I breathed out into tatters of steam. And my body kept thrashing and thrashing. I groaned.


     “Quite…shh…be quiet…be quiet.”


     It’s her voice, my mothers, but it’s coming from some other place in the dark. From the other side of the camper, where she slept with my father and sister on a Formica table that clumsily transformed into a thin, awkward bed. Just like the bed where my brother and I slept not twelve feet away. If she wants me to be quiet, then why was she waking me, why was she shaking me? And how is she doing it from the other side of the camper? 


     “Mom…what? What are you doing?”


     Even in a whisper, her voice is serrated. “Shhh. Be quiet. Don’t move. Stay where you are.” Over the sounds of his snoring, I heard her plead to my father. 


     “Glen…Glen…Glen…” He responded with a snort, a pause…and then continued to snore. Aside from that, her pleas went unanswered. In my bed, I’m still thrashing, my brother’s still thrashing, hard and long enough now that I come wide awake. And aware.


     I’m not the one being shaken. It’s the camper. Something outside, something beyond the thin layer of aluminum encasing us, is jarring the tiny space where we’re living. Two parents, two boys, and a two-year old girl. All of us wedged into this cramped, narrow lozenge. And something outside is rocking it. Beating it. Hard. But not really “something” at all, because I knew what it was. In the dark, I knew they’d returned. They were coming to get us.


     “What do you think?” It’s what my father had said ten months before, when he first showed us the camper. Inside, it reeked of the weeds erupting around it, of the mud where it wallowed, of the rain pouring down from the swath of storming, late winter clouds. Rust infected the campers thin, metal frame in malignant patches of burnt orange frosting. The door refused to latch shut, and both the floor and the cupboards bulged from accumulated decades of moisture. The camper had sat unused and abandoned, a fossil decaying, being absorbed by the elements, flung off the side of a rough, gravel road, at the mouth of a vast wilderness. Until our father laid eyes. Up until then we’d been existing on food stamps. We’d been existing on Welfare. We’d been existing in a one room motel room for our third year in a row. But the camper was a whole new calculation, representing the final sum in an endless series of subtractions. Now, we could subtract the motel room. We could subtract running water. We could subtract electricity. So much subtraction from my family’s equation. Now, here we were, beyond the subtractions, sinking deep into the world of unending negatives. 


     “And look!” My father fanned his hands in the air, as if he were a magician revealing some spectacular trick. “You boys will have the entire forest to play in!” He looked down at me. “What do you think?” 


     Ravens erupted at once from the trees, as if my father’s words had brought them to life, as if they’d been born at that moment from the fat, soaking tree limbs dripping down on our bodies. They swirled in the air, a pulsing, black vortex, screaming down on the five of us as if we were thieves busting into their home. This was their camper. These were their trees, their wilderness, and anyone who entered had to have their permission. But we’d simply barged in. We were intruders and were clearly unwelcome. The camper. The forest. The very air we were breathing. Everything seemed to be shouting, “you don’t belong here.” I looked past the camper, into the forest as far as I could. Shadow upon shadow upon shadow, each one melting into another, a patchwork of black, narrow streaks. 


     “What do you think?”

     I watched the ravens vanish back into the trees, shrieking, into the nothing from which they’d seemed to appear. Shadow upon shadow upon shadow again. I couldn’t see them, but I knew they saw me, saw us all, and were watching. The forest stretched beyond my perception, far beyond what I could see. So much more was hiding out there. Watching. Waiting.  Not wanting us here. That’s what I thought. That’s what I knew. Watching and waiting. Biding its time.


     Ten months away from that moment, and now here we were, ten months in the future, and the ravens had returned in the night to evict us. Dive bombing right out of the sky, trying to break in. Trying to break through. And the camper kept shaking and shaking. 


     “Glen…Glen…” My mothers’ whispers cut the air into ribbons, "Glen…Glen…Glen…”


     Our father had always had a knack for the forest. He’d grown up a hunter, and trapper, and was drawn to those woods beyond our camper as if he were water coming home to the ocean. The wind whipped through the trees in a dull, steady roar, like a monster inhaling, preparing to scream. I wanted nothing to do with that voice, but our dad took note, and replied. It might happen any time of the day. He’d toss open the door of our camper, sometimes in boots and a thick hunter’s jacket, sometimes in just a T-shirt and jeans, his bare feet pallid, bony and vulnerable, and march straight into the thick mass of trees. From the single window in the side of the camper I’d watch him dissolve, watch him submerge into bark and moss painted branches. He’d return hours later, sap on his fingers, his arms, in his hair. Soil baked into his boots when he wore them, his toes when he didn’t. He’d radiate a scent of something fiercely organic, of water, of plants, of the earth, as if the wilderness had digested him whole before excreting him back to our world. 


     “What do you do when you go out there?” asked my brother after one such return. He’d tried to tag along with our dad more than once, but his requests were always denied. After working at the mill every day and being cramped with his wife and children every night, he asserted, he needed some time to himself.


     “I just wander around, explore. Why? What do you think I do?”


     “Aren’t you afraid…” Of the ravens? I wanted to ask, but the words got stuck in my mouth. “Of getting lost? Of what’s out there?”


     “No,” he replied, shaking his head. “I’m afraid of nothing out there.”


     “I’m afraid of everything out there.”


     “Really? Well, that’s you. But there’s nothing out there that can get me.”


     The camper swayed, and now my brother called out. “Mom?!” and I could feel the heat of his breath on my neck. As if at the sound of his voice, the camper bucked harder, and I heard those bloated cupboards clap open, heard something inside them crash to the floor. Something that rattled like boxed macaroni, except why would we have macaroni? That would suggest we had a stove, running water, and the means to prepare something so basic. “Mom?! What’s going on?” My sister, wedged between my mother and father, began wailing. Hard and piercing, her screams seemed to carry a charge all their own, engulfing the camper with her electrified terror. I worried the ravens would pick her off first, attracted to such a bright, violent sound.


     “Be quiet…shhh…shhh…everyone…please…be quiet…be quiet…” 

     Another jolt, the hardest one yet, and the camper lunged forward, scraping across snow and chunks of black gravel. The door that never latched sprung drunkenly open, a blast of dead winter air shrieking in. I waited for claws to rip their way through my skin, for the stink of drenched, oily feathers. The ravens would tear us apart and then carry us off.  The camper, the wilderness, becoming theirs once again.


     In the yawning of that dead winter night, all three of my mother’s children were screaming. 


     That our father could sleep through anything was legendary. A firetruck, wailing. A fight on the street, my baby sister screeching so hard and so long that she stole every last bit of air from the room. He’d hear not a peep. We joked about it, poked fun all our lives. But now…


     Why won’t he wake up?! Why won’t he WAKE UP?!  The thought split through my mind, and then just as fast I knew why. Because he doesn’t want to wake up! Because there’s nothing out there that can get him. The ravens aren’t here to get him, they’re only here to get us. And he knows it! He knows! 


     We screamed. And kept screaming and screaming and screaming. 


     And then a rumbling outside of the camper, like a frustrated growl, and one final bang on slight, rusted metal. The sound of snow crunching right after. Near, and then fading, trailing away from us slowly. Outside, the camper was suddenly still. Inside, the camper was filled with wide, glassy eyes, with long, muffled sobs, with the sound of our dad as he snored.


     “Well, I thought I was dreaming,” said our dad, running his fingers down the side of the camper, down the network of scratches and gouges visible in the late, morning daylight. “Shaking like crazy, I’ll bet!” As a group, we all stood around him and nodded, shivering against a fresh blast of snow. There were those long, jagged scrapes in the camper, but our eyes kept drifting toward the ground, at the wide, muddy imprints standing out in the snow. 


     “Black bear for sure, in this area. Big guy, by the tracks. I’ll bet he got this thing rocking. His den probably got flooded from all the snow, bet that’s why he was on the move. Probably thought he could use the camper for his home.” Something like weeds, something thick and fibrous and the color of tobacco, stuck out from the blanket of snow, from the tracks sunk within it. Our father plucked some out with his finger, holding the strands up to his nose. He sniffed. “Smells like shit. Smells like a bear.”


     “And you thought you were dreaming?” Our mother adjusted my sleeping sister in her arms, holding her close. She stared at the gouges in the side of the camper as if they were also carved into her flesh. “We all screamed, Glen. We all screamed like crazy.”


     He nodded slowly, then shrugged. “I would have woken up if he’d got in. But he didn’t. Your screaming’s probably what scared him off anyway. Bears hate loud noises. Next time, if you want to wake me, you’ll just have to scream louder.”


     My brother stepped back from the tracks, turning to look toward the woods. He’d had no fear of the wilderness either, like our father, or anything that crawled or wandered inside them. He professed to love every creature in creation. He took a slow, steady breath. “But we’ve never bothered the bears. Why would they bother us?”


     “Just because you don’t bother something doesn’t mean it won’t bother you,” said our father, twisting the strands of bear fur in his fingers. “What you love won’t always love you back.”


     My brother looked back toward the woods, and I looked up to the ashen snow clouds in sky. Not a bear to be seen in the woods by my brother. Not a raven to be seen in the heavens by me. I looked to our father, who was already heading back inside the camper. What you love won’t always love you back, he’d said. And I knew that. But what about the things that you hated? What were they prone to do?


     The camper door swung open, and our father trudged out. Hunting coat on his back, heavy boots on his shoes. Not a word to us from his mouth. We didn’t have to ask where he was heading. Watching his figure dwindle away in the distance, I thought of the places I’d been resting my fear and the places where my brother had no fear at all. Together, we found a new fear to share and a new place to put it, which wasn’t something outside after all, but something that was inside already. Something that claimed to have no fear at all, that trudged in and out of the wild, that lay still in the darkness, dreaming its way through our screaming.

27 March, 2021

Will McMillan is a queer writer born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where he still lives today. His essays have been featured or are upcoming in The Sun, Hippocampus, Atticus Review, Rejection Letters, and Into the Void literary journals, among others.

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