Elliott Gish is a writer and librarian from Nova Scotia, Canada. Her work has been published in The New Quarterly, The Baltimore Review, Vastarien, Grain Magazine, and many others. Her first novel, Grey Dog, will be published by ECW Press in 2024. Elliott lives in Halifax, a city full of rain and ghosts.
by Elliott Gish
There is an enormous cartoon squirrel on the sign, its black tail spritely as a flag, its face contorted in a painful grin. MILLER LAKE CAMPGROUND, screams the text emblazoned in a large and cumbersome font across its chest, and then, only a fraction smaller: YOU’LL GO “NUTS” FOR OUR CABINS!!
“Jesus,” Alyssa says, leaning forward in the passenger seat. The sign had been made of wood when she was a child, plain black letters on splintered pine. When had they replaced it with this monstrosity?
“I like it,” says Gabe. Alyssa looks at her husband from the side of her eye, wondering if he is being sarcastic. His expression is suspiciously bland, his fingers tapping along to the song on the radio. “It looks like the cartoon skunk. Pepe, you know. Are the ones here really black?”
Alyssa nods without looking away from the sign. Something about it holds her gaze.
“Those damn squirrels terrorized me and my sisters when we were kids,” she says. “Whenever we had food, they’d chase us until we dropped it. One of them bit Lil right on the ankle. She had to get a rabies shot.” She shifts a little in her seat, her body beginning to voice its objections to the three-hour drive. “They eat each other, you know. The dads invade nests and eat any babies that aren’t theirs. The moms eat their own. And sometimes they hunt each other just for kicks. Squirrels are rats with good PR.”
Gabe shrugs peaceably. “I like rats, too,” he says, and leans over to deposit a kiss on the tip of her nose. “I will get our keys.”
As he bounds out of the car to the reception booth, Alyssa leans out of the window, squinting through the honey-gold light of the afternoon to the grounds that lie beyond the sign. The lay of this land is burned into her brain, twenty years or no twenty years. Behind the booth is a chain-link fence with a wide gate. Beyond that is an old wooden climbing structure with a metal slide that doles out third-degree burns on hot days, and a weedy gravel path that meanders through the woods. It winds around tiny red cabins and splintery picnic tables, then stops abruptly at the edge of Miller Lake and its dirty strip of beach. The lake is slimy on the bottom, blooming with algae, littered with abandoned cans.
This was her family’s place, once upon a time. They came here every year, that one week stretch of campfires and ghost stories and chips for breakfast the high point of their summers. Until the year she turned thirteen.
“Hey, girlie. Where you going?”
Her husband emerges from the reception lodge, waving a chiming set of silver keys. “Number sixteen, three days, two nights,” he calls, chipper as a songbird. “Let’s go, baby!”
The squirrel watches them drive through the gate, its mouth the color of a skinned hare.
The stench from the outhouse hits them as soon as they exit the car, even from twenty yards away. Gabe stares up at the cabin, his grin slowly dwindling into nothing.
Number sixteen has seen better days. Red paint flakes to reveal greying wood beneath. The pointed roof is missing shingles, the glass in one of the front windows webbed with cracks. Grass grows between the boards of the front step, and a bulging wasp’s nest clings to the eaves. As they watch, a black squirrel skitters over the roof and leaps into the sagging branches of a dying birch.
It was Alyssa’s stories about Miller Lake that made Gabe want to come for the weekend, but she can see him shrinking away from the reality of it as he takes in the sight of the cabin. The heat, the rot, the stench.
“I did tell you,” she says. “This place isn’t glamorous. We wouldn’t have been able to afford it if it was.”
“Maybe it will be better inside,” Gabe says, but not very hopefully.
Spiders flee their footsteps as they lug in their cooler and sleeping bags and groceries. A thick crust of dirt on the windows turns the light to fishwater. In the corner is a cracked plastic table and two chairs; the ladder that leads to the bed loft is cracked, too, missing two rungs. The woodstove looks as though it has not been used in years, its top caked with a gummy reddish substance neither of them can identify. The cupboard boasts a jumble of plastic cutlery and a mouse that jumps out as soon as Gabe opens the door. He jumps back as though burned, letting loose a handful of Gallic obscenities.
I thought you liked rats, Alyssa thinks.
“This is terrible,” he declares, and turns to her with a look of anguish. How is it, she wonders, that French men are so easily able to portray such a grand, dramatic emotion as anguish? “Alyssa, we can leave.”
She shrugs, shouldering her sleeping bag and heading to the ladder. “We already paid,” she says. “No sense wasting money. Besides, you wanted to come here.”
She cannot resist this barb, nor the I-told-you-so tone that accompanies it.
The mattress in the loft is covered in plastic, sagging slightly in a rough pine frame. Alyssa reaches into her purse for a serviette to clean the mattress cover. It comes back brown.
“How on earth did you fit five people in here?” he wonders, watching her smooth out her sleeping bag.
“My parents took the loft.” Alyssa takes his sleeping bag from him and lays it out next to hers, matching the corners as precisely as she can. Pillows, they forgot to bring pillows. “Me and Lil and Carrie slept on the floor downstairs. There was just enough room for the three of us at night.”
“But wasn’t that uncomfortable?”
“Discomfort is part of the camping experience.”
Gabe looks at her in wonder and shakes his head. Every now and again in their marriage they run into moments like these—one of them will describe a moment from their childhood that they think is ordinary, even boring, only to find the other staring at them in total confusion. The first one happened on their second date, when Alyssa described sharing a bedroom with her sisters.
“But that must have been awful!” he exclaimed, his accent softening the word into something beautiful, like the call of a bird. “To never be alone, to have always two other people watching you. Was it not hard?”
And it had been hard. She had complained about it often in her girlhood diary, bemoaning the lack of privacy, the claustrophobia of two sisters breathing down her neck. But she bristled at the question, just as she bristles now, looking at him standing in the loft, the curly top of his head a hair’s breadth from the ceiling.
Years of pestering her about Miller Lake, telling her that he would love to see the site of so many cherished memories. Years of mooning over a place he has only ever seen in Alyssa’s old family photos. Years of questions, and wheedling stories from her, and bemoaning his own childhood as the only son of wealthy intellectuals, a childhood bereft of discount campgrounds. After all that, here he stands, disgusted, unnerved, an indoor cat who’s escaped into the outside world and finds it not at all to his taste.
Fucking rich kids. The thought is an echo of her younger self, a reaction to all the children who turned up their noses at her hand-me-down clothes, her kitchen sink haircuts.
“You wanted this,” she says again, and climbs back down the ladder. She is pleased to find that she navigates it with ease, despite the missing rungs. Maybe climbing up and down a bunkbed as a child has kept her agile into her thirties. “We’ll cook outside tonight. I don’t like the look of that stove.”
“I like the look of you.” The voice echoed in the dark, freezing her in place.
She pauses in the doorway, shakes her head to clear it.
Gabe does not know how to lay a fire. Alyssa teaches him, more patient than she would like to be, and they roast hot dogs on sharpened sticks as the sun sinks into the lake. She is not hungry at first, but when she smells wood smoke her stomach is suddenly screamingly empty. Her parents had always been astonished about how much the family ate when they were at the cabins. No matter how much food they brought, her father would always have to make an emergency run in the middle of the week for more. Their first pack of sausages is gone before they know it, and they look sheepishly at one another, their hands smeared with soot and ketchup
“It’s the air,” she says. “Being out in it all the time. It makes you hungry.”
“I always wondered about mammoths,” Gabe says. “How cavemen could eat a whole one. Now I know. It was the air.” He grins, and she reaches up to bury a hand in his dark curls, heedless of the grime on her fingers. Her earlier annoyance has evaporated, leaving nothing in its place but affection.
Maybe I wasn’t annoyed at all, she thinks. Maybe I was just hungry.
“You’re a funny guy,” she tells him. It is what she said to him on their first date, after he made some observation that probably made perfect sense in French, but whose meaning had become incomprehensibly mangled in translation. It is an endearment now, a way to say “I love you” in public without making their friends roll their eyes.
“And you are a funny lady,” he says, kissing her. His mouth tastes of ash and meat. “Is this cabin one that you stayed in when you were young?”
“Number sixteen? No, I don’t think so. I remember a few other numbers. Five, nine, thirteen. Mom freaked out about that one. She was superstitious.”
“They all looked like this one, though, yes?” When she nods, he shakes his head in disbelief. There is a little smudge of ketchup at the edge of his mouth. “And you still loved this place? Why?”
Alyssa takes a deep breath, her hand still in his hair. It isn’t his fault, she tells herself. He doesn’t know.
Slowly, carefully, she says, “A lot of the kids we went to school with came from families with money. They could go anywhere they wanted in the summer. Theme parks, sleepaway camps, the Bahamas. Their parents could afford it. My parents could afford a week at Miller Lake. In a good year.” She shakes her head, remembering the sound of her parents fighting about money on the other side of her bedroom wall. “We never got to climb mountains, or ride roller coasters, or swim in the ocean. But having that one week to look forward to… it made us a little more like everyone else. That was important.”
Gabe looks at her, some complicated emotion glittering in his dark eyes. Firelight and shadow leap over his face, striping him orange and black. Alyssa feels a pang of guilt, as though she has burdened him unfairly. A squirrel chitters in the distance.
“Plus there were the squirrels,” she adds, hoping that this will lift some of the weight out of the air. “Mom loved them. She’d bring peanuts, feed them by hand. There was one who used to sit on her arm. That was why she liked this place, really.”
Gabe is quiet for a moment. She wonders if it is too late to open the next package of hot dogs.
“Are you angry that I brought you here?” he asks, and he sounds so troubled that she has to kiss him again, just to smooth out the wrinkles out of his forehead.
“How could I be?” she asks. “You’re trying to make me happy.”
He relaxes then, a tension she’d barely noticed disappearing from his shoulders. “Shall we go for a walk in the woods later?” he asks.
The thought makes her shiver. She looks into the darkness behind him, the trees that blot out the stars. “Maybe in the morning. I don’t want to be on the lookout for bears at this time of night.”
“Bears?” Gabe’s eyes widen. “There are bears in these woods?”
“There are all kinds of things in the woods,” she replies, as solemnly as she is able. “Bears, and beasts, and things that go bump in the night. Ghosties and ghoulies, monsters and men…”
And men, she thinks. And men.
“Ah.” Gabe smiles. “You are teasing.”
Is she? Alyssa sees the path winding through the trees, the many things that could emerge from the darkness, and shivers again. Gabe’s hand strays to the back of her neck, stroking gently, and the hairs there lift to meet him. Her body always responds to his presence; no matter what is going on, she wants him to touch her. His mouth strays to her ear, and she closes her eyes at the pleasurable brush of his lips on her helix.
“Maybe you could tell me a ghost story,” he murmurs.
“Wanna hear a story?” he asked. In the dim light she saw holes where there had been teeth.
She jumps up from her seat at the picnic table, her legs tangling in themselves and throwing off her balance. When she stands, she feels like she is going to fall.
“I’m tired,” she says, and her voice doesn’t sound quite right—too high, too fast. “That drive took it out of me. I’m going to go to bed.”
She doesn’t wait for him to answer. He stays by the fire, staring after her, as she all but runs back into the cabin, letting the door slam shut behind her.
Breakfast is cereal, those individual boxes that always tasted better than the regular ones when she was a kid. Alyssa is disappointed to discover that this is no longer the case.
Gabe wants to go for a swim after breakfast, and she quickly agrees, relieved that he is not asking her about her behavior the night before. The lake has not changed much in twenty years, although there is less garbage on the beach now, just a few stray cans and wrappers blowing in the wind. She and her sisters made a game of cleaning it up one year, competing to see who could collect the most cans and bottles in a day. When their mother found out what they’d been up to she smacked all three of them, a great heavy clout on the back of the head.
“You can’t do this kind of stuff,” she hissed, her eyes crackling with indignant fury. “People see you collecting cans, they’re gonna think we’re poor!”
“But we are poor,” Carrie argued, and got a second smack for her pains.
She tells Gabe the story as they swim, and he thinks it is funny, although he winces when she mentions her mother hitting them. His parents never hit him. That’s another thing they come up against sometimes, another snag in their conversations.
His life has been easy, she thinks, but without rancor. It is an unreal thought. It has nothing to do with the cool water, the warm air, the buzz of insects skimming over the surface of the lake. She does not let it take root in her mind, but leans back in the water, enjoying weightlessness.
They drag themselves to the shore after their swim and let the wind dry them off, sunning on a flat rock like a pair of lizards. Through half-closed eyes, Alyssa stares up at the tree overhead, the leaves rustling slightly in the breeze.
But no, she realizes after a moment, it is not the breeze at all, but a black squirrel, making its erratic way down the trunk of a birch leaning far out onto the water. Huge, fat, sleek as a cat. It bounds onto a low branch and then stops, gazing down at Alyssa with a look that she can’t help but read as impudent. She gazes back, wishing she had a brick to throw at it.
“Fucking menace,” she mutters. Gabe hears her and stirs, turning onto his side and following her gaze into the tree.
“We have white ones in Montreal,” he says. The squirrel seems to respond to his voice, darting first an inch to the left, then to the right. “Only in Parc Lafontaine. I saw one once.”
“Albino, you mean?” She imagines squirrels with white fur and pink eyes, jumping through trees like acrobatic laboratory rats, and shudders.
“No, not albino. They have the black eyes, but the fur is white. Very rare, much rarer than these ones.”
Alyssa finds a pebble lying loose at her feet and throws it up into the tree, knowing her aim is poor but hoping the noise will scare the thing away. The squirrel seems unbothered by this, leans down as though to get a better look at her.
“Don’t,” Gabe says, nudging her with his big toe. “Let it stay there in the tree. This is its home, after all.”
He stretches, beautifully indolent. There is joy, even after so many years together, in watching his body move, seeing him so lazy and content. He catches her looking and smiles back, his eyes creasing with warmth. Alyssa reaches over to touch his face, feels the rough scratch of stubble under her hand.
His beard is grey. It grows too far over his cheekbones, almost to his eyes, in ragged tufts that leave large, pale patches of his skin bare. He staggers towards her, giggling slightly. There is a smell coming off him, something animal and earthy, that makes her skip a hasty step backwards to get away from him. One hand is in the pocket of his grey coat, clutching something she can’t see. The other—
“What is it?” Gabe asks, sitting up, and she realizes she has stopped moving. Stopped blinking. Stopped breathing. The squirrel chatters overhead, shrill and furious.
“Do you wanna touch it, baby?”
Alyssa wakes with a start, the nylon rustle of her sleeping bag unnaturally loud in the silence. She blinks into the darkness, wondering what woke her, and then hears it again: the patter of tiny paws on the roof, a loud and angry chirruping.
“Menace,” she mumbles. The cabin is grey rather than black, Gabe a faint outline beside her on the bed. He is sleeping on his back, his mouth slightly open, and she smiles to see how the faint lines in his face have eased. Maybe there is a kind of magic about Miller Lake, after all. She reaches down to smooth the curls away from his forehead. In his sleep he leans into her touch in a way that makes her heart clench. Even when he is not awake, his body seeks hers. He loves her so easily he can do it in his sleep.
She leans down and kisses his ear. “Wake up,” she whispers, and he moans a little as she moves down to his neck, his eyelashes fluttering open.
“Good morning,” he murmurs, and she leans in to kiss him properly, to hell with morning breath.
Sex is the glue of their marriage. Alyssa would never admit that to anyone—she won’t even admit it to Gabe—but what really makes them work, what made her realize that this was the man she wanted to marry, is how easily they get lost in each other’s bodies. When they first went to bed together, she broke off a kiss to warn him that it was hard for her, sometimes, and she might not get there, and if she didn’t it totally wasn’t his fault, it was just her stupid body being stubborn, so…
Gabe listened patiently. As soon as she was done, he leaned down and kissed her again. “Don’t worry,” he said, his mouth pressed against hers. “It will be good.”
And it was. As she unzips his sleeping bag and straddles him, Alyssa wonders what it is about sex with Gabe that feels so good, if it is a matter of technique or stamina or sheer animal attraction. The only answer she has hit on in their seven years together is that he is the only man she’s ever met who seems to genuinely love her body—not just the parts of it that provide safe housing for his orgasms, but all of it. When he kisses her belly, his eyes shine; when he trails his fingers down the broad expanse of her back, he hums with contentment; when he buries his face between her thighs, she can hear him moaning, feels the buzz of it through her body when she comes, her hands clenched in his hair. Often this is enough to make him come, too, her pleasure spurring on his own.
“Touch me,” she whispers, and he groans into her mouth, his hand trailing down her belly and into her pants. He hesitates at the band of her underwear, and she spurs him on with a roll of her hips, eliciting a soft, gasping curse. He reaches for her.
That hand, fingers curved into claws, reaching for her. That mouth, smiling.
Dull brown blood in her underwear later, smearing the tops of her thighs.
She is off the bed before she knows it, stumbling backwards in the dark and just missing a terrible fall down the ladder. Gabe starts up, staring at her through the dim. She can imagine the look in his eyes, arousal and frustration at war with concern, but she can’t quite see it, not from this distance.
“Alyssa,” he says, but the pitch of his voice sets off a persistent alarm in her head. Deep. Dangerous. A man’s voice.
“I need air,” she says, and almost falls down the ladder again in her rush to get out the door. He calls after her once, twice, three times, and then she is gone and cannot hear him anymore.
The air is blueish and thick with lingering dark. It is not dawn, not quite, but a feeling of sunrise surrounds Alyssa like a cloud as she walks past the other cabins with their peeling paint, past the scatter of weathered picnic tables and the lake with its trash-pocked shore. No lights burn. No other person walks the path that takes her deeper into the woods. It is as though she is the only one left alive.
She liked to do this as a girl—slip out of the cabin while her parents and Lil and Carrie were still asleep, creep past the other campers and into the trees, luxuriating in the silence and the dark. Her mother never caught her at it. No one ever chased her.
Is Gabe chasing her? She wonders if he lost his way in the dim light, if he is waiting for her outside the cabin or in the car. Or if, perhaps, he stayed in bed where she left him.
Bears, she thinks, and breathes in deep the scent of wet and rot, pine and dirt, and beasts. Ghosties and ghoulies, monsters and men, men, men. She had never been afraid of those when she was a child.
“Hey, girlie. Where you going?”
The voice comes from behind her. At first she does not move, thinking that perhaps if she stays frozen in place, there will be nothing there. But then she hears a shuffling, a snickering, smells that animal smell, and she knows. Turns.
Impossible that it could be him, but it is: the same man in his worn grey coat, his beard growing almost up to his eyes. She sees the holes in his mouth, hears the wheezy giggle catching in the back of his throat. No older, as far as she can tell, than the first time she saw him. Less than a meter away, swaying slightly. One hand is tucked safely into his coat. The other, outstretched, grasps at the air. At her.
“I like the look of you,” he says. Said. He is saying it here, now, and he is saying it then, twenty years ago, to a young Alyssa in a sleep shirt and terrycloth shorts. She feels the trembling starting up in her guts, the same trembling she’d felt at thirteen when he had appeared before her on the path, shattering the silence she’d gathered to herself.
“Wanna hear a story?” he asks.
“How is it you?” she whispers, or tries to, but there is no voice in her throat. There wasn’t then, either, she remembers. Her screams had somehow never made it into the air.
“Once there was a little girl,” he says—he said—the same now as then, same voice, same uneven, gasping cadence. “There was a little girl, and she went for a walk in the woods.”
The man in the grey coat licks his lips. His tongue is thick with white slime. There are white crusts at the corners of his mouth.
“She thought she was alone,” he says, and what is his hand doing underneath the coat? She knows, she remembers, but her mind shies away from the reality of it, from knowing what is going to happen next. “She thought she could walk under those trees and no one would see her—no one would know she’d slipped away into the dark, like a lost little lamb. But someone saw.”
That laugh again. In the trees above there comes a skittering noise, a rustling of leaves and twigs. When Alyssa looks, she sees the branches overhead heavy with tiny bodies, the leaves filled with winking black eyes. They have an audience. Black squirrels, dozens of them, are watching the man shuffle towards her.
Had they watched her then, too? She can’t remember.
“She thought she was alone,” he says, and his reaching hand opens and shuts and opens again, like a pulsing heart. “But she wasn’t.”
She had been too polite to move, too terrified to flee. After, she returned to the cabin her family had rented and retreated to the loft, huddling in a corner and refusing to come down. Summer was cut short. They left the next morning, Alyssa enduring the rage of her parents and sisters on the ride home as well as she could. She could not explain herself, could not recount the story of the man in the woods or how, why, it seemed connected to the blood that began that day to flow from her.
She could not explain it. All she could do was put it away.
“There’s always someone watching, girlie,” he says, and now he starts to reach in earnest, now his fingers are snatching for her flesh. There is more, she remembers, to the story.
She opens her mouth, and the sound that comes out is not a word, nor a cry or a whimper. It does not, in fact, come out of her mouth at all. It comes from overheard, a screaming like that of a baby, a high-pitched squawk that echoes through the dark. A choir of tiny voices, chittering in rage, a loosed tide of sciurine fury.
Alyssa cannot say no.
The black squirrels say it for her.
From the trees the animals fall, as one, onto the man in the grey coat. He disappears under a flood of streaming tails, scrabbling paws, pink mouths opening and closing. Yellow teeth sink into flesh. Beneath the noise of the squirrels, the man may be screaming. He may be laughing. But there is nothing beneath the noise, not really. The whole world has narrowed down to the sight of those animals swarming, the sound of their chirruping triumph.
There is a collapsing, a releasing of air. The squirrels, as though reacting to some command she cannot hear, stream away from the path in the curious bounding way of squirrels everywhere, disappearing into the underbrush. For a moment Alyssa thinks that she can see the grey coat standing by itself with no one inside of it, a boat whose captain took his chances and jumped overboard. As though he is a crab that has been eaten until only the shell is left.
And then even that is gone. There is nothing in the path, no one in the woods. Just one black squirrel left, sitting on its haunches, sniffing at the dawn. It looks at her with round black eyes, and suddenly her voice is back. Hoarser, thicker, as though she has been crying.
The sun is rising. The dark is getting thin.
“This part didn’t happen before,” she says. Its ears twitch. “Did it?”
The squirrel regards her for another moment before turning away. With a jerky leap, it clambers up the trunk of a tree, stopping on a low branch to look at her once more. There is nothing to read in its face, its posture, no hidden meaning she can grasp. It is just an animal, doing what animals do.
“Thank you,” she says, and the squirrel disappears into the leaves overhead.
Copyright 2023 by Elliott Gish