Marcus found it difficult to take his eyes off the immense natural beauty surrounding him. He and Ed had managed to snag an absolutely excellent camping spot that sat right at the edge of the lake. He scanned the water's surface, which was clear and smooth in this largely windless day. Every now and then, a fish would break the surface, jumping into the air for a moment before slapping the water and disappearing beneath. Dragonflies and other insect wildlife buzzed the lake, breaking the fragile surface tension, leaving behind infinitesimal waves in their wake. Just down the way, maybe thirty feet to the left, he could see the little wooden dock.
He and Ed had fished off of it all yesterday and a little bit this morning, attempting to squeeze every last drop of fun from the vacation before it came to an unhappy end. Which it had. Marcus could hear Ed behind him, packing their stuff, getting ready to head back into civilization. He knew he should turn and help, but he found it hard to look away. Shifting his gaze from the lake to the forest surrounding them, Marcus promised himself another sixty seconds, then he'd get back to it. Just sixty seconds of peace.
"Hey, you gonna help or what, you lazy bastard?" Ed asked, tossing an empty can at Marcus's back. It hit the back of his dark vest and bounced off.
Marcus sighed. "Thank you, Ed," he said, turning, kneeling and retrieving the can.
"Anytime, buddy!" Ed replied merrily.
Marcus walked over to the big, black bag they'd set aside for trash and tossed the can into it. He turned and made his way over to what remained of his own gear that still needed packing. Crouching, he grabbed his bright orange sleeping back and began rolling it up.
"So, what are you gonna do when we get home?" Ed asked.
"I don't know, maybe go up to the gym, jog for an hour. I don't have to go back to work for another two days. Maybe play some games. I just got Silent Hills before we did this," Marcus replied, finishing tightly rolling up the sleeping bag. He began to stuff it into its canvas bag.
"Oh yeah, I thought I heard you playing it. I still think that's a silly name, but how far'd you get?" Ed asked, struggling with his own sleeping bag now.
"Only like an hour in." Marcus cinched the black drawstring and took a moment to inspect the bag. Satisfied that it was a job well done, he set it with the tent, which they'd already broken down and sealed away, then began to move towards the fishing gear.
"Hey...could you help me?" Ed asked.
Marcus stopped and glanced back. Ed was on the ground, struggling with his bed away from home. Marcus snorted, crossed the camp site and knelt, batting away Ed's hands. "Give it up, man. You screwed it all up."
His dark knuckles whitened momentarily as he took firm grasp of the bed and quickly rolled it up. A moment later, he was cinching a second drawstring and standing.
"How do you do that so easily?" Ed asked, his voice a mix of amiable frustration and mock marvel.
"Practice," Marcus replied.
Ed rolled his eyes. "Sure-oof!" He caught the bag as Marcus tossed it into his chest.
The pair continued to police up the camp site, making sure nothing was left behind. This was their yearly tradition, something that they had carried on now for nearly twenty years. The park rangers were notorious about handing out permanent bans for anyone who violated the sanctity of their park. Not that Marcus blamed them, it really was a beautiful location. So he worked overtime to make sure they left nothing behind.
Already he'd made two pilgrimages to the nearest black-barrel trash can, and he was working to make sure he wouldn't have to make more than one final trek. He made another pass over the camp site. Ed was finishing collecting up all the odds and ends, and it seemed as though they truly had policed up all the garbage.
"Be right back," Marcus said, tying off the black bag and shouldering it.
"Take your time, I'm not in much rush to get back," Ed replied, finishing his task and taking a seat on the white and orange cooler, staring out over the lake.
Marcus looked at him for a moment, feeling a pang of regret and guilt, then turned and began making his way towards the trash barrel. Marcus hailed from what the people of Trumbull Valley, (their current location), called 'The Big City'. It wasn't really all that big of a city, maybe fifty or sixty thousand people. It was about a three-hour drive from their camp site further upstate. For as long as he could remember, his father had continued a family tradition of coming down to Trumbull Valley and camping for a week or two.
When Marcus was six, he'd discovered another six year old, a Trumbull local named Edward Jones. They had quickly become best friends. Each year, Marcus would look forward to coming down and hanging out with his new best friend Ed. It got to the point that they'd switch off hanging out for at least a month during summer vacation. Either Marcus would come down and live with Ed and his parents, or Ed would be brought up and live with Marcus and his parents in 'The Big City'. By the time they hit eighteen, they decided they wanted to live together.
Ed had hit the stage in his life where he wanted out of the small town. His taste of Marcus' hometown had enamored him with city life. So after high school, they both went to a state college, living in dorm rooms for four years, while they both got bachelors degrees in business. When that was done, they'd decided to move back to Marcus' hometown. They'd moved into an apartment and taken jobs at a local office complex.
And so it had been for three years.
About halfway through college, Ed has lost his 'sick of it' attitude towards Trumbull and moved back during summers. Marcus had felt the same pull towards Trumbull: it was his vacation spot. The ultimate nostalgia trip that was all the good things about childhood summer vacations. But that was likely going to change in some capacity.
Marcus frowned at that thought. Up ahead, he spied the trash barrel. He tossed the trash in there and turned to look out over the lake again. It wasn't that he didn't still appreciate nature, that he didn't still love the relaxation and isolation it offered. He didn't bring his laptop and his phone had been turned off, since there was no reception up here anyway. Being cut off from the world was its own reward...though maybe not as much as it once had been. Marcus heaved a sigh, turned and began walking back.
All this trip, he found himself thinking more and more about how he wanted to get back to the city. Back to cars and video games and the gym and the people. There was, he supposed unhappily, a real truth to that old saying 'You can't go home'. He could keep coming back here and doing the exact same things year after year, but it was him that had changed. Was this growing up? Getting older? If it was, he hated it.
Marcus felt confident that he could squeeze at least another year, maybe two, of enjoyment out of this, and who knew? Maybe he was just overreacting. Maybe it was just his state of mind and he'd keep it going. But there was a small but sure part of him that felt this vacation sounded the death knell of the past, of his childhood. He continued along the path, seeing Ed up ahead, who hadn't moved, still sitting on that cooler. He stood up as Marcus approached.
"That it? Ready?" he asked.
"Yep, it's time to get heading back."
Ed turned and looked at the pile of stuff. "Ugh," he muttered, kneeling and grabbing his backpack. He shrugged into it.
"What?" Marcus asked, first attaching his bedroll to the top of his backpack, then slipping it on over his shoulders.
"Do we really gotta carry all this stuff back?" Ed moaned. "I mean, like, all of it? All at once?" He frowned unhappily at it.
"Yes," Marcus said, rolling his eyes. He knelt and passed Ed one of the two fold-out chairs that had, like everything else, already been packed into a canvas bag. "We do. And besides, it'll be a lot lighter than when we brought it in. We ate and drank all the supplies, pretty much. Now, quit bitching and help me."
"You're starting to sound like Mister Parkhurst," Ed said.
"Gee, thanks," Marcus replied.
As they finished gathering up their gear, Marcus thought unhappily of the man who ran their division of the office building. Parkhurst was a grim, old unhappy man of fifty five who had climbed the corporate ladder through sheer grit and determination. A classic, old-school case of a man who had no problem sacrificing friendships to get ahead and who took a special kind of perverse pleasure in shitting on those who worked beneath him.
They finished packing everything up and balanced the tent atop the cooler, which they carried between them. Marcus took one final look around and, satisfied, began to move away. He and Ed walked in silence for a few moments, listening to the quiet calm of the forest as they moved through it. Ed spoke up suddenly.
"Hey, I had a thought. How about we stop by the bait shop again before we head out of town?" he asked.
Marcus laughed. "No, Ed. No, for the both of us. That was just embarrassing. I know you think you're Mister Suave or whatever, but...no way, man. And besides, I mean, how old was she? Seventeen? Maybe eighteen."
"Eighteen is legal," Ed said after a moment's contemplation.
"And not worth it. What if she gets pregnant? Besides, you live three hours away! Why do I even have to explain this to you?" Marcus asked.
"Okay, okay! No need to get all worked up over it," Ed replied.
Marcus opened his mouth to respond, then stopped dead as he suddenly caught a whiff of something absolutely wretched.
"Whoa!" Ed cried, yanked back by the cooler they carried. The tent fell forward onto the ground. "What's the deal man? Your brain stop working?"
"Did you smell that?" Marcus replied, his face twisting up in disgust. It smelled like rotted, maggot-ridden meat you might find in a hot dumpster. But already the smell was fading. Marcus looked around for the origin of the offending odor.
"No," Ed replied, "smell what?"
"I...don't know. It's gone now. It was like rotting meat. It was so bad."
"Well, whatever, probably a deer or a squirrel or something in the underbrush. Come on, help me get this tent back up."
Marcus hesitated a moment longer, then did as asked. Once they were on their way again, Marcus found that the awful reek had knocked loose some unhappy and curious memories. They'd been out here for two weeks and had only gone back into town once, and that was three days after they'd arrived. Since that one trip in, they hadn't really left the camp site, definitely not the forest. About eight days ago, Marcus had woken in the middle of the night to gunfire. A lot of it. And shouting. He'd been half-drunk still and exhausted, and Ed hadn't even woken up. In the days that followed, he'd passed it off as a bunch of college kids going nuts with booze and guns.
It wasn't uncommon.
But now, having had time to really examine it, Marcus wasn't so sure. Those shouts hadn't really sounded like shouts of joy, the whooping and hollering of drunk idiots having a good time. Now, he thought they sounded more like screams of pain and fear. His heart beating a little faster, he wondered what had been going on that night.
"Hey..." Ed said, slowing, then stopping. "I just realized something."
"What?" Marcus asked, a little more harshly than he meant to.
"I...there's like no sound out here," Ed said.
"The animals. Nothing, I don't hear anything. No birds chirping, no insects buzzing, no animal calls. It's like...dead silent. I mean, right?"
Marcus listened. They were close to the treeline now. "Yeah...maybe it's just...a quiet day," he murmured, still thinking.
"Isn't that like, bad? I mean, everything shuts up right before natural disasters. Like tornadoes or earthquakes. It's one of the warning signs."
"Okay, look, let's just get back to the car," Marcus said, picking up the pace again.
Ed started walking again as the cooler pulled him along.
They were nearing the treeline.