“Is not!” hissed six-year-old Hannah to her eight-year-old brother.
“There is too! I read it on the internet. We’re camping right on the Ice Age Trail and look here.” Ethan held his tablet up for his sister to see. “Ice Age Trail Bigfoot Sightings” read the title of the YouTube video. Uncertainty clouded Hannah’s face.
“There’s even one video that shows how Bigfoot,” Ethan leaned closer to his sister in the backseat of their parent’s car, “sneaks into the campground at night,” lowering his voice, eyes widening, “and kidnaps children! BOO!”
Ethan rocked back in his seat laughing, savoring the terrified look on his sister’s face.
“MOM!” screamed the gullible girl, who tended to believe everything that her big brother told her. “Tell Ethan that there is no Bigfoot in our campground!” she pleaded.
“I didn’t do it!” claimed her antagonist.
Bob Rogers reached up and adjusted the rear-view mirror to reflect his daughter.
“There are some that say that such things are true.” he said in his best Boris Karloff impression.
Tammy Rogers left hand whipped out like a striking cobra, back handing her husband in the chest.
“Oooooof.” Tom pouted with a devilish twinkle in his eye. One that apparently had been inherited by his son.
“Honey, there is no such thing.” Tammy reassured her daughter.
“If you get scared you can always sleep in the big tent with Mommy and Daddy.”
Bob rolled his eyes, a look not lost on his wife as her hand shot out again. A fake, but it accomplished the desired flinch.
“Look around Ladybug. Lots of open fields, not exactly the kind of place Bigfoot would hang out.” Bob assured her as they turned into the Southern Unit campground of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. It actually did lie along the route of the twelve-hundred-mile footpath that wound its way across the state of Wisconsin.
The Rogers were tent campers, so while Bob erected the spacious family tent, with matching cots for both Bob and Tammy, Mom helped Hannah with her first all by herself tent. It was a pink pup tent complete with Dalmatians from one of her favorite movies. It took two sleeping bags and four pillows to allow her to create a comfortable burrow, but once inside she wasn’t seen by the family for the next hour.
Ethan considered himself a self-sufficient camper, and insisted on pitching his own pup tent, camouflage by his choice. He busied himself by exploring the perimeter of the site and collecting a small gathering of kindling. Behind his tent and Hannah’s, he kicked a fallen acorn into the green tangle beyond their clearing. He heard a rustling in the groundcover and saw the movement of ivy leaves marking some creatures' path. He bent and picked up a stone, throwing at the spot where the movement had ended.
Silence. He thought that there had been all the normal sounds of a campground until a moment ago. It seemed that even the insects had ducked for cover and were holding their breath. Ethan crept quietly backward, and the sounds of the forest slowly came back. He turned and ran to the fire ring and picnic table where his mom was unloading supplies.
“Mom, what do we have for snacks?” demanded Ethan.
“Here, you can choose for yourself.” She plopped a grocery bag in front of her son, and turned her attention back to several other bags, paper and plastic, that held last minute necessities.
Ethan rummaged through the bag and sneaked a peek up at his mother, snagging an unopened package of cookies. Returning to the area behind the tents he tore the foil bag of mini-cookies open.
“Here little fellows. Come out, come out wherever you are!”
Ethan tossed a cookie into the undergrowth. In response two separate trails rustled beneath the leafy tangle, both making a beeline to the spot where Ethan had tossed his cookie. There was a brief commotion then all was still again. This time he dropped the cookie merely inches from the cleared edge of their campsite. Sudden chaos erupted in the undergrowth. There was hidden movement from all directions that converged on the site of the treat. This time Nathan saw a tangle of tawny coats wrestling for the morsel in a ball, one suddenly disappearing with the prize.
“Hannah! Come here, you have to see this.”
Ethan unzipped his sister's tent and stuck his head in.
“Halt! In the name of the Queen.” declared Hannah with a commanding show of her palm.
“Well, your majesty, would you like to come see the creatures that surround your castle?” Ethan knew his sister's soft spot.
“Creatures?” Hannah’s eyes widened. She felt a maternal instinct to all creatures and even claimed that she was an animal from time to time.
“What kind of creatures?” Her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Small harmless creatures! Hurry up Hannah before they disappear!”
At the thought of not even seeing them at all, Hannah crawled from out of her hive and followed her brother behind the tents. He stopped suddenly and held his arms out to prevent Hannah from running past him.
“Holy shit!” Normally a word like that from her brother had her running to Mom immediately to report the violation. This time she was too stunned to notice. She stood staring at the ground behind their tents. Dozens of chipmunks scurried about searching for more morsels. Suddenly they all froze, and at some quiet command scattered into the brush.
“No! Come back chipmunks!” cried Hannah. “ I want to pet you!”
“It’s okay Hannah, watch.” Nathan pulled a cookie from his pocket and tossed it on the cleared ground, not five feet from them. In only seconds a face poked out from it’s cover. Then another. Then suddenly several more appeared, the bold creeping out of their cover, noses twitching, their glassy eyes tracking the kids every movement. At the sound of some invisible starter’s whistle they all broke into a frantic run for the cookie. Over a hundred of them milled about for scraps left by the victors. They seemed to ignore the children, until suddenly they all reared up on their haunches, tiny front feet held out in supplication. More than two hundred beady eyes stared at Nathan.
“Awwwwwww. They are SO cute!” cooed Hannah. “Come here little babies, let me pet you.” The furry front lines fell back as she stooped and reached out her hand. “Come here sweeties.” she coaxed.
“Kids! Time for dinner.” Announced their dad as he rounded the tents finding the kids standing alone.
“Daddy! You scared them away!” Hannah ran off to have her mother wipe her tears.
“Scared what away?” Bob asked his son.
“Just some chipmunks. You know how she is. She wanted to take them home with her.”
“I know exactly what you mean.” Bob said as he started for the dinner that was waiting. He stopped and turned to his son as if remembering something. “No matter what you do though, don’t feed any animals at the campsite. Little thieves will be into everything.”
“I wouldn’t do that!”
Bob thought his son objected too loudly, and too quickly, but giving him a father-knows-you look, he simply added, “Let’s see what your mom has cooked up for dinner.”
It was later that evening, while her family gathered around the fire making s’mores, that Hannah grabbed a cellophane bag from the groceries. She crept to her tent, then hiding her secret, she returned to her family. It was late after her parents had become quiet for the night in their tent that she dared to open the bag. She was terrified that the crinkly paper would betray her intentions. Finally successful, she grabbed a handful of the shelled peanuts and crept from her tent. She left a trail for her furry friends that led up to and into her tent. She left the zipper open just enough she felt. Snuggling into her nest, she clutched the bag of peanuts tightly, and drifted off to sleep.
That night Hannah dreamt. Legions of chipmunks spread before her as she sat in a throne made of willow boughs. The chipmunks danced happily and moved to the waving of Hannah’s scepter. The music’s tempo increased, and the chipmunks moved faster. Suddenly she noticed that every chipmunk was wearing shoes made of crinkly paper. As they danced faster and faster, they got louder and louder.
“Quiet everyone. You will wake my parents and they’ll make you leave. Then I’ll never get to pet you!” The frenzied pace of her furry subjects only sped up, until her throne began to swing and sway with her. The giant chair shook back and forth, and she woke to her brother shaking her shoulder.
“Hannah, wake up!” Nathan implored his sister. “Sheesh, you woke me up all the way in my tent!”
Hannah sat up, and the dream was pushed from her mind. She looked down at her hand to find that she was still clutching an empty bag of peanuts. Other than a scattering of shells across the floor of the tent, there were no traces of the nuts.
“They came! They were here!” she squealed.
“You didn’t feed them, did you?” he asked, spying the empty bag.
“No silly! They fed themselves.” she clapped her hands in joy. “They were here, they were here!” Suddenly a cloud crossed her sunshine. “I did want to pet them so.”
“Sheesh! Dad said not to feed the animals.” Nathan chastised his sister. “They’re going to come around begging now, knowing what a softy you are.” He stopped as he saw tears welling in her eyes. “Aw come on, I won’t tell on you.”
“I want them to come back! I want to pet them!” She shrieked even louder.
“Shhh! You’re going to wake Mom and Dad, then I won’t have to tell on you! Now quiet down.” Nathan thought for a moment. “I’ll be right back.”
Nathan crawled from her tent and crept noiselessly outside of his parent’s tent. Under the picnic table there was a cooler. He peered around the campsite having a feeling that he was being watched. He assured himself that all was quiet, except for the noise that was supposed to be, at night in a campground. He stealthily raised the lid and pulled a jar from inside. Checking for sounds of life from his parent's tent, he slipped back to her tent.
“Here, I got this for you. If you really, really, want to pet a chipmunk, well, just put this on your finger.” He handed her the jar of Skippy Peanut Butter. “Only a little bit, mind you. And only on one finger! " Nathan started to leave the tent but looked back, only a silhouette to his little sister, and whispered, “You’ll have them eating right out of your hand.”
In her dream she had returned as Queen of all wildlife, and she sat upon her throne. The legions of chipmunks before her dwarfed her previous audience. She wore a throne of wildflowers and a billowy gown, a bright red stone set in silver upon a finger of her right hand. One after another the wide-eyed chipmunks would come before her to kneel, where she would pet each animal as she pleased. When she was ready to move onto the next, she raised her hand and the grateful creature would kiss the ring.
The line of supplicants seemed to stretch beyond the eyes ability to see. She began to feel warm as the heat rose with the rising sun, a bead of sweat rolling down her cheek from underneath her crown. She looked down to find that the shiny red stone of her ring had turned into a peanut. Each in turn now took a nibble instead of a kiss on her ring. She struggled to pull her hand back, but it refused her command. Several other chipmunks pounced onto her lap to gain a vantage point from which to feed. She felt heat rising in her hand as the chipmunks nibbled faster at her ring. Her beautiful chipmunk subjects now looked like rats, and they gnawed at her hand with abandon. A fire raged from her fingers.
The little girl's screams woke everyone. A wave of terror washed away the sleep of every camper at the park like a tsunami wiping away a town. All woke to thoughts of their loved ones and there was a general scramble of unzipping tents and slamming campers doors as fear drove them out in the pre-dawn light. One dog began barking, then all others took up the chorus, egged on by the continuing screams of a child.
Nathan was the first to his sister’s tent. His parents arrived moments later, but Nathan was already backing out of her tent. He saw the horrified look on his parents faces as they saw their daughter inside. “I didn’t do it!” he screamed and ran away from her tent unnoticed. His parents both stood stock still as if frozen in time, unable to comprehend what they saw in their little girl’s tent.
Hannah sat upright on her sleeping bag, bathed in blood. Her left hand gripped her right wrist and held her hand before her face.
“I just wanted to pet them.” Hannah stared at her hand. Her little finger and ring finger were gone, white bone peeking through the red. The top third of her middle finger was missing, and the tip of her index finger lay open, shredded. Blood ebbed from all four, dripping down her arm. “I just wanted to pet them.” She said before she passed out.
“So do you think your nightmares come from a feeling of guilt about your sister’s...accident?”
The room slowly came back into focus as Nathan’s memories crawled back into a cobwebby corner of his mind. He was laying on a couch, and seated nearby was the Doctor...who was it this time? He thought he remembered his name for a moment, but that too, slipped away. A ceiling fan above him circled slowly like a vulture.
“Yes.” The seventeen-year-old boy's voice came out like a squawk.
“I was asking about your nightmares. Do you think they are caused by a feeling of guilt over your sister’s death?” The bird-like man leaned forward in his seat.
“No... no. I keep telling you, I didn’t do it, and I don’t know why she did it!” He pushed himself up from the couch. “I don’t know why she did it!”
“I know Nathan, I know. Remember though, part of our action plan is to not focus on why your sister did what she did. Isn’t that right?”
“Well, uh, yes.”
“Do you remember what it is that we agreed should be our focus?”
“I do.” Nathan held up his right hand to examine it with curiosity. His index finger was heavily bandaged, a red stain showing through the fresh dressings. It looked quite a bit shorter than it should. “We are supposed to focus on,” he continued as he flicked his tongue out to caress the stubs of his other three missing fingers, “on why I, do what I do.”