Shelter

Second place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2009. 

Shelter

By Lorrie Klosterman

An hour past sunset, a sliver of light still hangs on the western horizon, a half-moon caps the mountains to the east. Salted winds fly high over the coastal scrublands. Less than a mile away, over the dunes, the surf drums. I drive the campground loop to find a campsite: every one is vacant. I have the place to myself. I pull into a campsite, slide out onto tough sand studded with baby grass. I haul out the little tent but leave it rolled up, then climb onto the car’s hood and lay flat for a long time, basking in constellations.

When the night is deeper I stroll the campground loop. I’ve been here before, but not for decades. In lunar light, it’s a mystery of shapes and shifting edges. Troupes of cat-sized rabbits work the grass of every campsite. Dwarf deer appear and vanish like magicians. A great-horned owl watches from a weathered wooden sign in a closed section of the campground that nature is reclaiming, burying charred fire rings in thorny thickets and laying nets of vines across the pathways. I start down a path to the beach, but a stream has cut a wide gash across it.

As the wind picks up I hasten along the loop, back to the car. At the last curve, a towering hedge of cypress trees marks an out-of-the-way campsite I hadn’t seen before. A large white van is parked there, one of its flanks against the trees, the other facing wide open scrubland and a cluster of campsites, including mine. The van glows eerie blue in the moonlight, except for three dark, uncurtained windows. They would have seen the zippy red rental car that arrived late. They surely saw a woman emerge alone, take out a tent, lay flat on the hood for a very long time, wander off. Next they would see her return, put up a tent, zip herself inside it, as if protected from anything and anybody. The animals here are harmless, but to an unknown camper she is like a rabbit on sand in owl territory.

A woman thinks of these things, makes adjustments. I walk to the car, rummage in the trunk for clothes and a sleeping bag, then get into the back seat. It’s a small car to sleep in, but walls of steel beat walls of nylon at such times. I watch the van a while. A tiny gold spark appears, grows to dim candlelight, passes behind one of the windows. I lock the doors and settle deeper into the shiny red shell like a beetle. The car’s windows gradually fog up, the constellations dim.

In the early morning, I step into sun, stretch and unrumple. The rabbits have gone, the wind is still, and it’s warming. A massive dog comes snuffling its way along the loop, head down, until it’s almost upon me. Then it senses me, comes bounding over, lavishes greetings. A big man follows and reins the animal in. The man is the campground’s host, living with his wife and dog in a little trailer at the edge of the property. He saw me come in but didn’t want to bother me at night. I pay him for the stay, and we talk a long while. The closed campsites, he explains, were set aside for a recently discovered population of mountain beavers—secretive, rare diggers in the night who plumb for fresh water deep beneath the scrub. We talk deer, rabbits, owls, dunes, the shifting stream, the plovers being protected along the shore.

I ask about the other camper, concerned about walking alone later on the dunes and the beach. We look toward the van. A folded lawn chair leans against it. The windows are black, no sign of anyone. He’s a pleasant fellow, the host says. He comes every so often for a few weeks at a time, just him. He goes up the coast a while too, to other campgrounds, sometimes goes inland, then comes back. A decent guy. But he’s a little different, the host says. He doesn’t talk. Literally. If he wants to converse he writes notes, but speaks no words. A Viet Nam vet, the host adds.

My assumptions avalanche. A man who doesn’t speak because, maybe, something so disturbing happened that one cannot go back to speaking. One cannot live with others, maybe. An empty campground far up the coast is the only manageable place, in a lockable metal box against a dense wall of cypress—cover your back, keep your eyes on what’s approaching. I hoped now that he had seen me drive in late and alone, wander the campground without a flashlight, disappear into a shell. I hoped he saw something familiar in it.

I took a while at the campsite that morning. Ate some fruit, organized the car, balanced on fallen old bones of cypress. I stayed in the open, where I would be seen. I thought of my brother who faced the draft for that war. His number was high, he didn’t get called. But it frightened the family. He was the only son, a young man who had stopped hurting anything since the day, as a boy, he finally hit something with his BB-gun: a poor gray bird that plummeted from its perch to the pavement. My brother retrieved the warm, soft body, the only bird he’d ever handled. Its head drooped as it died. It was not just dead, but killed.

Later that morning I crossed the dunes to the beach, meeting deer, seagulls, seals, red-tailed hawks. I was hoping to find the other camper walking, too, on the beach, maybe. I would talk, certainly listen. The surf was thundering, the sand a tawny velvet with not a person on it. The dune paths were pocked with deer tracks smoothed over by the night’s wind. Finally, I came upon a set of shoeprints, quite fresh, leading toward the campground, heading toward the van. He would have had to be out very early to have made them before mine.

 

 

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