Our three days of adventure in the woods of West Virginia were drawing to an end and it was time to load up The Mothership in preparation for an early departure on Sunday morning. Easier said than done when wrangling two great grandparents, a couple of schnauzers, and a black lab that drooled as much as a Hooch dog eyeing a freshly cracked can of beer. It didn’t help that I was moving a bit slower than usual after putting an inch-long slice across the tip of my middle finger while cooking dinner the night before.
“Walker, I said that I need you to take these bags out to the camper and…” I paused and studied his face, which had taken on a sudden pallor. Not the bored, half-listening expression of a pre-teen meandering through the fog of hormones hammering his brain. Not that particular vacant-eyed look he gets when he doesn’t like what he’s hearing and so retreats into a world of YouTube replays on the back of his corneas.
No. This was fear.
“What are you afraid of?” Alli asked, peering at him over the refrigerator door where she had been sorting through the half dozen mustard bottles trying to find ours.
Walker squirmed, eyes shifting left and right and almost going blank, but then settling on the door. He hinges his shoulders and immediately de-aged a couple years as his chin started to quiver.
“Oh lord, just go on out to the camper!” Alli said, heaving a sigh. “You’ll be fine.”
“But it’s… dark out there.” Walker replied. “I can’t see out past the camper. I don’t know what’s waiting to… to get me.”
“Walker, you’re eleven!” Alli exclaimed. She picked one of the unexpired mustards at random and shut the fridge door. “You don’t need to be afraid anymore.”
Walker scowled, but started to emerge from his turtle pose. “I don’t like how dark it is. I like Chesapeake better because…” he waved his hands vaguely at the oppressive darkness pressing in at the cabin walls. “Chesapeake has street lights.”
“Boy! It’s right outside,” his grandmother called from the stove, where she was spooning leftovers into storage containers. “We have porch lights.”
I slid my battery pack across the kitchen island towards Walker. “Click the side button twice. Just don’t….” but it was too late. Walker had already half blinded himself by pointing the flashlight at his face as he turned it on. “Well, now you know how bright the light is.”
He eyed the door as he played the bright bluish-white beam around the room. “But there could still be bears. There’s a lot of dark out there.”
“That’s why you use a light and make some noise,” Alli said. She picked up a tote bag stuffed with plastic plates and dry goods and held it out to him. “The bears and foxes are more afraid of you. People only get attacked when they surprise a wild animal, or if the animal is protecting its young.”
Walker fidgeted with the flashlight, but didn’t touch the offered bag.
“Think of it this way,” I said. “Do people mostly get hurt by animals or other people?”
“People?” he squeaked.
“Right. So out here there are no other people. Sure you want to make some noise outside so that you don’t startle a bear, but you don’t have to worry about people at all. You could go and sit on a log in the middle of the woods and as long as you shine your light around and make some noise now and then you’ll be totally fine.”
“Just give it a try. You’re a big boy now, you can do this,” Alli said.
And so, with a groan of complaint and the aid of a chunky LED flashlight, Walker summoned the courage to grasp the tote bag and open the portal to his inevitable doom. He made his way down ten feet of haunted deck, around the harrowing corner of the access ramp, and across the Driveway of the Shadow of Death to the camper. As he went he shone the flashlight about him, stomped his feet, and occasionally let out the sort of yip that was probably more likely to attract a coyote than scare away a fox. Inside, us adults followed his progress through the cabin windows and shook our heads, remembering what it was like to be young and jittery about the darkness.
His triumphant return was applauded and rewarded… with a bag of leftovers to carry out into the gloom.
After the second trip, the expeditions into the outer darkness became a nonissue and Walker helped carry several more things to The Mothership as we prepared for making an early exit the next morning. All seemed well and we fall into a comfortable rhythm of packing and cleaning.
Until a sudden bloodcurdling scream heralded a slamming door and Walker stumbling into the cabin with wide eyes and a face as pale as a corpse. For an instant we thought that he might have stumbled across an angry raccoon… until Ellie stumbled into the room after him. She had finished carrying tiki torches down to the basement and snuck around to the deck to stalk her brother. She doubled over with laughter as she stumbled into the cabin, following a still terrified Walker who was now leaning against the kitchen island and breathing heavily.
“Dammit, Eleanor!” Alli shouted. “Now he’ll never go out there again.”
She looked to me, seeking an additional parental tirade, and I quickly rearranged my expression to hide my silent laughter. “Terrible, Girlchild. How could you scare your brother like that.”
We could end the story here, with mother and grandmother scolding the teenager and encouraging the tween while the bonus parent looks on with a bemused grin, but that would not be the path of truth or the way of our family.
The way the story actually ends is that an hour later Alli came rushing back into the cabin, her eyes wide and her face flushed while laughing breathlessly.
“You alright?” I asked as she rested a bundle of clean clothes beside her and leaned on the counter, looking askance at the door.
She bit her lip and grinned sheepishly. “I was going into the camper, and heard some critter up in the woods. Nothing to worry about, I told myself. Then as I started to come back out I heard it again, and it sounded like it was coming around the corner of the camper. So… I panicked. I slipped in my scramble backwards up the stairs and slammed the door.”
A half smile creeped onto my lips and she poked me in the arm, shaking her head.
“Don’t tell Walker that I got spooked. We’ll never get him out there again if he knows there’s actually a fox or raccoon snooping around the camper.”
Fear of the dark never actually goes away, it seems.