Of particular note with this one are the Halls, a pair of RVers. They’re modeled after my grandparents Jean and Leonard Hall, who spent a great part of their lives RVing back and forth from Palmdale to Sam’s Town in Las Vegas. Leonard used to say of his RV that the mechanics dropped all the pieces of the vehicle in the desert and let the wind blow it together.
Good people, and missed dearly. Nana would have a fit about me including them in a book this full of swearing and violence. Hah. And while I’m thinking about it, if you ever read A Shot at Us, the couple that pull up in the Jimmy at the church are modeled after my parents. Fun fun.
Had they known there was a fire ban in effect, Garrett might have pushed for them to spend their planned time in Jasper National Park in a hotel instead of camping. Instead, they were too busy bickering over postcards and packages to their friends and families to notice the huge, glaring signs as they paid their fees to enter the park Garrett was firmly on the side of mailing some of the packages in the town of the same name as the park, but Brianna was set on the notion that the expenses would be staggering and they should just hold off until they were back in the States.
“Brianna,” Garrett said in what he hoped was approaching a reasonable, tolerating tone, “If we cram so much as a napkin in the back end of this SUV, we won’t be able to see through the rearview mirror. And we still have Vancouver and St. George to go through yet.”
“So we’ll rearrange. And what do you mean, to get through? You make it sound like you’re going to war, not vacationing with your wife.”
Still trying not to make little strangling motions with his hands, Garrett said sweetly, “I did rearrange. This morning. You were there. You helped. You sat on the curb and directed me.”
“Oh, now I’m not helping enough?”
The park employee helpfully waved at them. “Hey. You can go on through now.”
Brianna whipped her head so hard to gaze at the man, Garrett wouldn’t have been surprised if she started spitting split pea soup. “Thanks.”
“And enjoy your…” But Brianna was already pulling forward, and the park employee sighed. “…stay in Jasper.” She adjusted her uniform, reaffixed her smile, and waited for the next car, full of happier Australians.
Back in the Durango, Brianna squeezed the steering wheel as she leaned forward and grimaced. “Stupid road butt ache’ll never go away.”
“We’ve got the travel pillows-”
“Yeah, so my knees can bang up against the steering wheel every time we bounce over a pebble. Right.”
Garrett gestured at the mountain spines rising all around the gently curving road. “Oh look, hey, wow, nature, beauty.”
“Same damn mountain range is in Montana,” Brianna snapped.
That stopped him. He thought they’d been mock fighting. But there was a serious edge to her voice. “Okay. Hey. You want to just keep going through the park, that’s fine. I’m sorry I suggested it.”
“I…” Brianna blinked and ran a hand across her forehead. Her fever was back, and with a vengeance. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. Any of that.”
“Are you okay?”
“I… yeah.” She glanced around at the mountains. “They really are beautiful. I didn’t… I want to be here.”
“If you don’t, just say it. We can keep going or go home. But remember what you said to me about not wanting to go anywhere if I’m going to be miserable? That works for you too.”
“I know.” Her tone was harsh again, but she softened it immediately. “I know. I think once I can get out and stretch, and we can do some hiking, I’ll be good. I don’t mean to be bitchy.”
“Hey, it’s not like we haven’t been spending a couple of weeks within feet of each other. Bound to happen.” I guess, he mentally added. Seemed like they were snapping at each other or walking on eggshells more than they were actually talking.
But the Rocky Mountains really did bring back a soothing calm to their world, and in a hurry. The well maintained four-lane highway switched into a single lane road, the groves of aspens gave way to bare-bottomed, top-heavy firs, and with their windows down, the sharp wafting pine scent reminded Garrett of his own cabin. A pang of homesickness washed over him, unexpected and sharp in its longing. As much as he loved the Flats and the state in general, such a feeling had only ever belonged to his family in Florida or when he had to take time apart from Brianna. Homesickness was not something he’d ever applied to a place before. It was new. Beautiful, in a way.
Brianna finally, reluctantly agreed that they should get their friends’ packages out of the way, and they made the titular little town of Jasper their first stop. The postcards were surprisingly reasonable, the packages markedly less so, but at least the Durango was largely livable again. The packaging and mailing took up a solid hour, during which the ghostly child wandered away. Neither Garrett or Brianna seemed to notice their dampened moods lifting, but their snapping and verbal bites eased into a more comfortable quiet as they finished their business.
Cheery Jasper seemed like a bit of a tourist trap, but in a national park, that was to be expected. Still sore from their long drive, Brianna wanted to take a walk, so they wandered the town’s main street. Traffic was fairly light – it was noon-ish on a weekday – but a handful of people meandered here and there, largely hitting up the varied gift shops and a women’s clothing store. Neither of them felt like much shopping after their days at the West Edmonton Mall, so they kept their purchases to the town’s small Super A grocery store. There, they stocked up on some of their favorite camping staples – chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers for S’mores, cheap hot dogs, a pound of hamburger, condiments, and a loaf of bread. They debated on eggs for the mornings, and decided to risk it. After Garrett ran out to check their drink supply, they added a gallon of water, a few six packs of beer they hadn’t yet tried on the trip, and a couple of bags of ice.
Back at the SUV, Garrett unloaded the cooler while Brianna hoisted the bags, glancing around at the scenery, humming a little. When he turned to start loading their drinks, the sight of her there in the sun holding the grocery bags brought back a memory in a rush. Gently, he took the bags from her, set them on the ground, and embraced her, his hands finding each other around her back and not letting go for a full half a minute.
“What’s that for?” she asked as he pulled away.
He scratched his chin. “I hate to bring it up.”
“It’s okay. Tell me.”
“After Danny died… I was being kind of a selfish ass. I should have been focused on you, and all I could think about was that we were pulling apart.”
She smiled sadly. “I remember. Hard days.”
“Yeah. Then there was this morning, I woke up, and you were heading for the door, trying to be sneaky and not wake me up. And I thought that was it. That was the moment I’d lost you.”
She frowned, trying to remember, and shook her head. “I don’t-” Then it dawned on her. “Oh right, I wanted to have dinner with Rose and Ed. Do something normal again.”
“Right! And you left a note for me on the table. I was so wrecked I couldn’t even read it.”
A laugh bubbled out of Brianna, pretty and soft. “And all it said was ‘gone for groceries. Dinner with E and R?’”
Garrett’s own smile gleamed as he lost himself to the memory. “Murphy thought you’d gone too. He was just standing there, watching over me curled up on the couch. And when you walked back in, I… I don’t even know what I thought. I was so wildly confused. Everything in me said you would run. I thought for sure it was over and up until then, I might have thought you’d be better off.”
“No, let me finish. I know in my head I’m not good for you. But that day, when you came back, it was the first time I didn’t care. I knew I had to have you in my life. Even if it means someday something horrible happens, I had to stop thinking I needed to push you away. I know I’ve tried a couple of times since then, but… I’m glad you always came back.”
For that, she gave him a kiss and a hug of her own. Into his ear, she whispered quietly, “Will you do something for me tonight?”
“Would you read your vows again for me? Please?”
His vows. He’d written them the day after their first date, though at the time he hadn’t known they’d someday become the words he’d speak to her on their wedding day. They were words of love and gratitude, ill-written in his childish handwriting and badly spelled, but still the greatest and hardest words he’d ever put down. There was more to them – instructions for her if something happened to him and a few contacts and phone numbers – but the words were the important part.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get to keep his promise to her that night. He would make good on his word the next night, but their first night at the Pocahontas campsite north of Jasper belonged entirely to the strange Rogier Mesman.
* * *
After setting up their tent at their campsite, they headed first for Whistlers Mountain, which not only afforded them views of the surrounding valleys and mountains, but had a chairlift over to another peak which sounded amazing in theory. But only an hour into their climb up the beautiful trails cutting through groves of trees, Garrett caught sight of a pair of squirrels racing diagonal rings around a fir and was laughing too hard to see the sharply jutting rock right in front of him.
The ankle wasn’t broken, Brianna told him but he wasn’t going any further up the mountain, either. There wasn’t much they could do for the ankle up there on the mountain aside from letting him rest for a bit, but a pair of youthful parents leading a small horde of children and teenagers crossed paths with them not long after they started down the mountain gingerly. The father and his oldest boy hustled back down to their van for a first aid kit. Brianna bandaged Garrett up, and by that point, a ranger had been notified and was on his way with a pair of crutches.
Red-faced and feeling more than a little stupid, Garrett tried to pay the couple, but they insisted that it was their duty as Good Samaritans. That got them a ferocious hug from Brianna, and a mumbled, almost bashful round of thanks from Garrett to all the kids and their minders. They looked after the family as they charged up the hill, all smiles and shrieking and laughter and laughter. Brianna turned to start down the trail, but it was a long minute before Garrett tore his eyes away from the family. Had Brianna really doubted he wanted a family with her? Good God, he was ready for eighteen kids right then and there.
The ranger walked with them back down to the Durango. An irritated, grumpy man, he pointed out several of the mountain ranges around them as they walked, grunting the syllables like he was a sergeant belting out the morning’s commands to his troops. When asked where they could get firewood for a campfire, he stopped completely, practically up on the balls of his feet like he might take a swing. He told them, his words clipped, that if they’d read the signs, they would know there was a fire ban in effect. At the parking lot, he took back the crutches, gave Garrett a once-over, and muttered, “Next time, don’t be an idiot.”
It was, by and large, some of the soundest life advice they’d received in Canada so far.
* * *
Back at the campsite, Brianna made Garrett rest and elevate his foot while she worked up a makeshift ice pack to treat his ankle. He grumbled that he was fine and that he could go hiking if she wanted, but she turned that right back around on him and asked what he’d want to do if she was the one who had been hurt. That shut him up for a while before they started in on what they should do with the burger and dogs they’d bought now that they couldn’t cook them.
The solution for that came from the Halls, two retirees from southern California traveling North American national parks much the same as Brianna and Garrett were traveling Alberta. They were parked in a nearby RV hookup site, and struck up a conversation with the younger couple while they were strolling around the campsites. Garrett offered them the still-chilled foods in danger of spoiling, but the couple instead offered to cook dinner at their campsite. It worked out well for both parties, since Garrett and Brianna had the food and the RV had a stove.
With full stomachs, Garrett and Brianna headed back for their campsite. A man strolled along the road, his long coppery hair tied up in a bun atop his head with a rubber band. His lips cracked apart in a smile as he ambled towards them, bony knees bobbing up and down rhythmically, as though he were keeping time to a tune inside his head. “Wotcher, folks!”
Brianna gave him a polite, friendly smile and a wave. “Hi there!” Garrett echoed her, but his hands were full with the cooler, even more packed now with snacks and plastic baggies full of leftovers. The Halls had been as doting as long-lost grandparents.
“Name’s Rogier.” The stranger pronounced it raj-she. “I smelled the food down in my camp. I thought I would take a stroll, see if I could find the source of this magnificent scent.”
Rogier’s accent was all over the place. Garrett couldn’t pin down if he was French, French-Canadian – an accent they’d heard from a few travelers in Edmonton – or someone doing a bad impression of a New Orleans accent. Rogier never quite settled on any one of those, brutalizing his consonants and trying to sing his vowels.
“Well,” Garrett said uncertainly, but Brianna jumped right in.
“Would you be interested in a bite? We’ve got plenty of extras.”
“I would love some, if you do have extra.”
Brianna gestured at the cooler. “Sure! We’ve got plenty. Got a last name, Rogier?”
“Mesman. And your name, kind lady?”
“Brianna. Moranis. And this is Garrett.”
Garrett grunted something vaguely approaching friendly and headed towards their campsite. Rogier trotted along behind them like a puppy, glancing all around with wide eyes and an easy smile. “Ah, Americans!” he exclaimed when he saw the license plate on their SUV. “Just out for a Sunday drive to our national park?”
Brianna laughed politely. “Something like that. We’re on our honeymoon. Traveling through Alberta and a bit of British Columbia.”
“Get out,” Rogier exclaimed. “Your honeymoon? Congratulations!”
Garrett settled the cooler on the wooden table, and Brianna opened it to offer him a burger, a small bag of chips, and a beer. Rogier made what should have been a short meal into a grandiose affair, asking them question after question about their trip and where they’d been. Not long after he started talking, the ghostly young teenager flickered through the woods, walking towards Garrett with a sullen expression on her face, like she’d been told she was grounded. One beer for Rogier quickly became three after an hour, and when he finally finished off the chips, he gave the cooler a mournful glance.
“You’ve been such good hosts, and I’ve nothing to offer you,” he said. “Can I at least take a picture with you both? I’d love to have this moment to remember you by.” When Brianna cheerfully agreed and Garrett reluctantly nodded, Rogier patted his pockets and swore. “I must have left my camera back with my truck. Perhaps you could take one and send it to me.”
Brianna hopped up and dug out her cell phone from the Durango. The three of them stood together, doing a variety of goofy smiles and poses. Brianna insisted on giving him their leftovers, and finally Rogier bid them a good night. When he was out of earshot, Brianna said quietly, “You sure weren’t friendly.”
“He wasn’t exactly shy about wanting something from us, Brianna. I don’t think our neighbor was such a nice guy.”
“What, you’re pissed about me giving away our food? Garrett, I’ve seen you leave a twenty-dollar tip for a Coke.”
“No, not the food. Did you see the way he got you to dig out your cell phone? He was looking to see what kind of model you had.”
“Oh come on, that’s a stretch,” Brianna protested as she ringed one of their solar lamps around the driver’s rearview mirror. It would be dark soon, and they’d want the light.
“Really? When you got up to grab some napkins from the car, did you see him cataloging the stuff we had inside? Brianna, he was practically drooling.”
She laughed and crossed over to him, cupping his cheek with one hand. “Baby, relax. You see the rotten shit people do so much, you’re imagining it now. Some people are just… people. He needed food and company, we gave it to him. That’s all. You’ll see.”
* * *
The small pup tent retained some of the day’s warmth even after the night threatened to drop down into freezing temperatures. Brianna snored softly – well, for her, anyways – tucked away in their roomy two-person sleeping bag, a travel pillow tucked under her neck. She dreamed of her father and Ransom Galbraith, an old nightmare by now, still wicked but lacking its sharp ugliness. When she came to the part of the dream where Ransom came around the corner of the door, his gun in hand and moving faster than her own – unlike real life, when she’d managed to draw down on him first and put down the psycho fuckstain – she whimpered and came awake, aware for the first time that she was alone.
Just gone to the bathroom, she thought blearily. He’ll be back in a second. Then she heard the voices.
* * *
Given the soft solar lamplight, there weren’t many places Garrett could have sat in waiting comfortably, so he took up a position near a tree further in the darkness, hoping like hell a bear didn’t make him its dinner.
Just as he thought, someone kicked dirt on the road an hour later. For a moment, he thought it might be the Halls – it was coming from their direction, and the thought of the elderly couple being the ones to show up and steal from them would have made an amusing twist. But no, Rogier was just being clever, circling the whole camp and coming around from the other side.
Almost lazily, Garrett rose to his feet, keeping loose. Rogier tested the Durango’s back hatch. No luck. The back door on the passenger’s side. Still nothing. The front passenger door? That was unlocked. Garrett left it that way.
Though not as trained in wilderness tactics as he was in urban stealth, Garrett had enough practice moving through the woods silently from various cases with Murphy that he effortlessly crept up on Rogier until he was just feet away, still ringed in darkness. “You’re a disappointment, you know that?”
The would-be thief jumped hard enough to bang his head on the oh-shit handle. “Motherfuck-”
“Keep your voice down,” Garrett whispered. “Accent’s gone, huh?”
“Fuck you,” Rogier muttered. Now he sounded just like a thousand other Canadians they’d heard in Alberta – that was to say, he had little accent at all.
“You know what I’d do to you right now if it wasn’t for my wife? I’d break every bone in your good hand. We already gave to you, and you’d take more.”
“If it’s a lecture or the bone-breaking, I’ll take the pain.”
Garrett grinned in the darkness. “There was a time I would have obliged you, asshole. But that woman in there, my wife, she still believes in goodness, in decency. I love that about her and I never want it to change. I’m not about to break her heart and neither are you.”
“In that side compartment, there’s a notepad and a pen. Get it.”
Rogier scuffled around and came up with both. “Okay?”
“Write her a thank you. A nice one, but keep it short. It’s cold and I want to go back to sleep.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You’re going to thank my wife for the food and her generosity. Leave it under the windshield wiper. Then you’re going to vanish, whoever the fuck you really are. If I see you again tomorrow, I’ll get you alone and make good on all my threats.”
Rogier scribbled out a note. Garrett approached out of the night, took it from him with two fingers, gave it a cursory look, and passed it back for him to put it in place. Garrett gestured at the road, and the man took off, practically running. A flick of the Durango’s lock later, and Garrett was headed back for the tent.
At the flap, he stopped to take off his shoes, and stepped in gingerly so as to not drag the muck of the forest floor with him. Brianna was as he’d left her, snoring, her arm outstretched across his side of the sleeping bag. He lifted it gently and slid in with her. She murmured a sleepy question, and he quietly told her nature had called. Slowly he dipped back into sleep, never seeing her smile in the dark.
* * *
In the morning, across the table as they ate Fig Newtons and boxes of tiny cereal dry, Brianna couldn’t stop smiling at him. Garrett tried to frown, found it was an abject failure, and finally asked with an amused lift of his lips what she was smiling about.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just thinking about how good people can be in this world.” And she was. Not Rogier, not like Garrett thought she meant, but him. Always him.