Albert Einstein reportedly said that imagination was more important than knowledge, his quote ran through my mind as I watched firelight play across the face of a woman I had just met. Two of my best friends were sending sympathetic looks my way as I imagined innovative ways to torture my ex and his new flame.
Our cozy little group consisted of my best friends and their spouses who were gathered around our fire. We've been camping at Devil's Lake as a group since 1995 and I had been looking forward to the trip until I found out that my ex was going to come. No one mentioned he was also bringing a guest and as I watched my friend Celeste lean forward to grab another couple marshmallows I thought that the least she could have done was tell me.
Celeste was expecting baby number three which had been a last ditch attempt to get a girl. The weight in front of her made it difficult for her to bend. All evening my friend Shelia had been staring at her belly, she really wants a baby but the pituitary gland tumor blossoming in her brain messes with her hormones and fertility.
Doug was sitting closer to the tents than the rest of us. His wife Kelly has asthma so the smoke followed her regardless of where she sat. Erica's husband hadn't been able to make it since he had been called in to work at the very last second. She was sitting by herself and I think I'll always love her for the hug she gave me when she saw that my ex had brought his new friend along.
Alex was the only other person who was new to me. Under the almost full moon I watched him shove dark hair back. Supposedly he was a friend of Erica and Jason's, Kelly had made a comment about him earlier although he seemed nice enough to me. Of course all I had asked him to do was pass the mustard but he had asked if I wanted other condiments as if anticipating my needs.
Orange coals were slumbering beneath a smog of ashes when I announced I was going for a walk. Either I was hypersensitive or the chemistry was off that night. A couple people offered to accompany me, I turned my back when I heard my ex telling his new friend about the sleeping arrangements thinking that he could go fuck himself. It was tasteless of him to have come, behavior that was in keeping with the past and a large part of why I had left him.
Eventually Erica, Alex and myself headed for the now dark trails. We had been camping there so long our flashlights weren't really necessary but I held mine tightly as if it would protect me from whatever else this weekend had in store for me. None of us said much as we followed a fork that skirted the lake. Every year I tell myself I'm going to be in better shape for the steep climb up the bluffs. Being sick hadn't helped, Erica slowed when she saw I was struggling.
Alex didn't necessarily deserve an explanation but she gave him one anyways. Her story was a glossy version of what had really happened however I was grateful for her lighter tone as I didn't want him thinking he was on a trail with a madwoman who might lose her shit at any second. By the time we reached the first plateau I was winded. Erica said she wanted to rest for a while which was probably a lie. Gratefully I sank into the pungent needles that carpeted the forest floor.
Sitting together we consumed the rest of the provisions we had packed. Alex gave my homemade jerky two thumbs up. Sitting there dipping warm dark chocolate into peanut butter brought back some of the good times I had had with this group. Gradually air filled my empty lungs, I heard Alex say something about the moon that I didn't quite catch. Erica said he mentioned the moon would be full the following night.
Saturday went better than Friday had. Shelia had come into my tent for a quick morning gossip. We talked about my ex, Shelia is so nice she even had something complimentary to say about his new girlfriend Emily. Mornings are hard on me because my joints are still stiff. It takes me a couple hours to really warm up so I hung out in my tent until I absolutely had to go to the bathroom.
Last year we had nicer bathrooms but they were further away. I took some time to count my blessings because Doug had been put in charge of the grill. He made sure none of my food touched anyone else's besides Kelly's. She was giving the gluten free diet a trial to see if it calmed down her asthma. We sat around eating, someone had made tea and I gripped my mug thankful for its warming presence.
Normal protocol involves everyone hiking up to Devil's Doorway. Over the years all of my friends except Shelia have camped while pregnant. Depending on how far along you are it can make the trip more frustrating. This year both Celeste and Shelia said they'd rather not go hiking. Celeste's husband Ian was going to hang out with her but Kelly said she had planned to rent some canoes since she wasn't up to hiking with her asthma.
Most of us girls decided to hit the lake and avoid the trails. We packed up lunch, a variety of snacks, and intoxicants for those interested in raising their blood alcohol levels. Out on the lake we talked about people who were there and the upcoming class reunion. Technically Shelia was in the class beneath us but she had married a classmate of ours so she was always included in class reunion plannings.
We ate lunch at a sandbar. I thought about going out for a swim because the sun was hot overhead, it was hard to believe it had been so chilly last night. Back at camp most of us headed for the tents so we could get naps in before the boys came back. I must have fallen asleep right away. When Alex came to let me know supper was going I nodded, salivating over thick slabs of well marbled meat. I sat up, yawned, grabbed a light jacket and went out to grab a bite.
Alex sat down next to me after he filled his plate. Talking with him was interesting. I heard about his job, he was the general manager at a fitness club several towns away from the one where I lived. His hair was slightly shaggy, he kept pushing it back when he talked, once I caught my friend Shelia winking at me in a knowing way and I wondered again why Alex had been invited.
After supper Alex suprised me by asking if I wanted to go on the hike I had missed earlier. Photography was a hobby of his and he wanted to get some shots of the Devil's Doorway at night. My mind hadn't been made up until my ex stepped in with his unsolicited advice. He warned me against going out at night especially with a strange guy that none of us really knew.
Kelly and Erica both offered to go with us, by that time Jason was there and he since he had missed both the hike and canoe trip he was up for some fresh air and exercise. He had also given me a warm reassuring hug when he saw that my ex had not come alone. Despite his conversational tone I shivered when he asked about the accident. Bloody bodies flashed before me when I shut my eyes. Determined to give up the ghosts of the past I made plans with Erica, Alex and Jason.
It was just my luck that Erica and Jason got into a fight right before we were supposed to leave. I didn't hear what precipitated it but the fight went back to the first camping trip we had gone on as a group. Jason had not packed shorts, he had forgotten to get cash before they left, the weather was shitty and we all got soaked rafting. Doug had driven and he made Jason strip down and sit on a towel since he didn't want his leather seats to get wet.
Periodically someone will bring up that first disastrous trip, I filled Alex in on the details while we discussed our options. He said he would understand if I didn't want to hike up to Devil's Doorway at night with a complete stranger. A full moon cast a Poetic glow around him. Impulsively I said I would show him how to get up to the Devil's Mailbox which is a lesser known but, far more interesting, attraction.
My ex brought up the picture I had posed for, reminding our group of the time he had gotten drunk and told everyone we talked about sex on top of the rocky formation. I didn't bother responding to him and smiled to myself when I saw that he had left his new love interest sitting by herself. Alone with Alex, I walked into the welcoming forest.
He was a good companion, neither of us was willing to disturb the nocturnal stillness so we traveled the paths silently. Although I still wasn't sure what he thought of me it seemed as if we were on the same wavelength. Together we covered ground that led us higher, into the thinner air. Stretching my lungs heightened my awareness of the night and the man I was with. My imagination started working overtime with me picturing us as one with the forest of furry beasts.
When we reached the summit before the Devil's Mailbox we were both breathing harder than we had been. Beneath my coat I was warm and breathless. I watched a new Alex smile noticing the red of his mouth and the gleam of his teeth. Alex turned out to be a quick study, minutes later we were both crouched on top of the Devil's Mailbox. A flash in his eye came and went, as if I could read his mind I started climbing up toward the top of the Devil's Doorway.
Off to the right were tiny campfires, mere pinpricks at this altitude. Due west was the forest, below us were sheer cliffs and the flat black glass of Devil's Lake. I can't explain what came over us next. Perched on top of the doorway to hell we were exhilarated, panting, unable to get enough of the night. Possibly we thought about going back however we had reached the point of an unlikely return.
Anxious voices pulled us back from the vortex, flashlights illuminated us while my ex-husband's voice carried a warning up to my burning ears. With half of the group below us Alex nodded at me again. With focused clarity I realized that my friends belonged to my past. Tiny pebbles fell forward, jealously I watched their descent. A feral snarl brought me back to Alex whose shaggy fur was as coarse as my own.
Bodies of our fellow campers were never discovered. Some of the girls were more trouble than they were worth, yielding little meat. We tossed aside my ex and his lover, Alex's blood soaked chin dripped enticingly so I followed him over to where Doug lay. Our meal left us sated. We thought about heading out but after our gorge we returned to his lair and dug a pit for the bones. If you're ever in the area feel free to stop by; Alex and I both enjoy meating new people.
Author's note: No werefolk were harmed during the creation of this writeup.