The following short story is inspired by real news events about a multiracial family, accused of being Antifa activists and being subsequently terrorized while on a camping trip in Washington State.
The townsfolk appeared as we emerged from the Outdoor Emporium, laden with equipment. My daughter, wife, and I each wore hiking packs strapped across our shoulders and waists, newly filled plastic water bottles hanging from the sides, everything stuffed with snacks, flashlights, bedrolls, and tightly-packed sleeping bags.
My wife Betty also carried two tents, also densely packed into their canvas sleeves. I had three camping chairs, folded. They hurt my fingers. Betty’s mother Loretta carried nothing, because you never ask the in-law to carry.
After all these years being married to Betty, I’m still not sure Loretta approves. I think it’s because I’m Irish, but Loretta assures me it’s not—it’s only because Betty and I have been married 15 years, and our daughter Christine is about to turn 17.
Everyone in the store was very nice, and a teenage attendant even tried to sell Loretta a crossbow, though I convinced her it was useless since none of us knew how to fire such a contraption. Shopping took more than an hour. We should have started earlier. The sun blazed orange as it set into the horizon when we got out.
A blue Toyota pickup had been placed so that its high beam driving lights shone right on us, as if we had stepped onto a nightclub stage.
The man I guessed to be the leader stood in front of the truck. He carried no weapons, but his two chubby royal guardsmen—wearing ironic t-shirts that read “Texas is for Lovers” and “Falls High Athletics”—each had semi-automatic rifles strapped around their backs. They stood, hands on hips.
I figure there were three or four folk per car, including some women. Mostly people in their late thirties who look fifty (hard living out here), but I think I saw a car seat in a Subaru, and I wondered if maybe somebody brought a little one along for this. But even they wouldn’t, right?
Betty, Christine, and I put our gear down on the pavement. The girls moved close to me, my wife taking my right arm. Loretta kept her distance and stood her ground, glaring right at the man in front of the pickup.
“This is fucked up, Eoin,” said Betty.
“What do you want?” I asked. “I don’t want to have to call the police.” But we’d have to go back into the store to do that, if they’d let us borrow a phone, because I had banned all networked devices from this camping trip which, I have to admit, I had planned hastily when I realized that our little family’s unity had frayed under the stress of COVID-pandemic quarantine.
“We should go back into the store,” I said to Betty.
“They won’t help us,” she said. “Who do you think called out the militia in the first place?”
“Why don’t we just all calm down,” I said to the leader.
They wore bandanas over their lower faces. They could be the police, for all I knew.
When he said it, we heard the word repeated from all the people behind their cars, but pronounced differently, every time. An-TEE-fa. Anti-FAH. ANT-ifa. However they said it, they were referring to a loosely organized group of people who are against fascism. To be fair, the four of us are also against fascism, but that never struck our family as such a controversial proposition that we’d need to join a group for that purpose unless things got so bad in the world that we needed a draft.
“We’re just a family headed into the mountains for a few nights of camping. We’re not activists, we’re not protesters, and we’re not looking to harm anybody.” I couldn’t even imagine what we’d have terrorized in the middle of nowhere. There wasn’t even a Starbucks.
“You armed?” he asked.
I said, “What business of yours is it?” My wife said, “No!” My daughter said, “We sure are!” My mother-in-law said, “To the whites of our teeth!”
“We’re done talking,” I said. “You all have a good night.”
None of the posses reacted as I picked up the pack I’d lain on the ground and slung it loosely over my shoulders. I looked back to the store, its glowing red sign and the warm orange shopping-friendly light pouring out of the display windows where mannequins depict peaceful s’mores roasting, fishing, and bird-watching. By now, somebody from the store should have seen our plight. But if they’d planned to help, by either joining us or calling or a sheriff, they’d have done it long ago.
“You all have a nice night,” I said.
“You already said that, Dad,” said Christina.
“Go home,” I told the militia. “Wouldn’t want to do anything foolish.”
Like a mother duck, I stretch my arms to gather the family and lead them towards our white school bus, the hippie-indulgence I’d purchased for this very trip, for only $3,000. Let me tell you, this bus drove like I’d gotten a bargain, too.
I guess they didn’t expect us to just leave, so the townsfolk made no effort to stop us. We climbed aboard the bus and I plopped into the high-set driver’s seat, with the big steering wheel near my lap, like a lazy susan in a Chinese restaurant table. I pumped some gas into the engine, turned the starter, and the bus rumbled awake. I turned on the headlights. The cars were parked to block the parking lot exits, but I saw a gap where I could roll right over a planter and so I did that, with no more difficulty than I’d have had cresting a speed bump. Though, mother-in-law did declare, “Be careful!”
“I can’t tell,” Betty said.
“They’re leaving the parking lot,” said Christine, looking out the rear window.
I sped up and shifted into fourth gear, grinding the clutch a bit. “Can’t wait for that mountain air,” I announced.
“We’re doing this?” said my wife. “We’re sleeping outside, with those people around?”
“I do wish I’d bought that crossbow,” said my mother-in-law. “I used to have a pearl handled revolver for my purse. Couldn’t hit nothing because of the kick, but it made a loud noise. Thought that was for a different world.”
“They’ve had their fun,” I said. “They’ve protected their homeland. They’ll go home, crack open some cheap beer and tell tales of their bravery while dreaming of the glories of Valhalla or something. Me? I want a hotdog cooked on an open flame, and I want to wake up tomorrow to pre-dawn bird calls.”
“I suppose we can’t let a bunch of unemployed hillbillies with fragility disorders tell us what to do,” said my wife.
“Amen,” said her mother.
“Wish we had our phones,” said our girl.
We climbed, and I swore I could hear the engine strain as we turned the switchbacks towards the higher elevations but soon we found a clearing created by the Forest Service that I’d been to before, decades ago. That’s where I stopped the bus and we disembarked into the darkness, surrounded by pines with high branches, covered by a canopy of stars and the white stripe of the edge of the Milky Way that, as a child, I thought was the path that departing souls took to heaven.
With the lantern and the flashlights, we set up our camp. Previous campers had left a fire pit, which I cleared out and fortified with stones. My wife and daughter set up the pop tents. Mom had planned to sleep in the bus.
We worked efficiently and happily and without difficulty. Soon, we were all around the fire, sitting in folding canvas camping chairs, drinking bottled water. Later, I figured I would take out the bourbon. Just a little. I wanted to be clear-headed and awake before dawn, to see the sun rise and to let the natural world remind me that it always rebounds. 2020 had been a failure of a year but we’d been saying this about years since at least 2016 and I needed hope.
“Those people,” I said, rummaging through the cooler for the hot dogs.
“Let’s not talk about those people,” said Betty.
Instead, we talked about what we would do when the quarantine ended and about how we were all so surprised that while we missed movie theaters and concerts, we were fine without restaurants and enjoyed our own cooking. My wife missed her office and her co-workers, but I preferred logging in from the basement and hoped that would last forever.
Her mom felt the country had overreacted and that we had seen and been through worse. “But you’re most at-risk,” I said.
“That’s what they say,” she said.
As I was about to remark on the vastness of the sky above us, which I admit is both corny and obvious, and that observing that the sky is large is like remarking, “Some rain we’re having,” during a storm. We heard laughter in the darkness, and then the rumble of a chainsaw, and then many chainsaws, and a distinct hoot and rebel yell into the air.
They seemed to be coming from all around, even from the sky, as if people were on the tops of the trees, cutting them down. I knew this was an auditory illusion, but I couldn’t get the thought out of my head.
We heard intoxicated laughter.
“Are they coming after us?” Christine asked.
“Ridiculous,” I said. But still, I poured bottled water to extinguish the fire and directed the family to turn off their flashlights as I doused the lantern. We took refuge in the bus, leaving our cooler and tent and gear outside.
I pulled the door shut, and in the darkness we huddled on the floor, next to the rear bench seat, keeping lower than the windows, wishing we could stay the night unseen.
“They’ll burn us in here,” said Loretta. “They’ll set the bus on fire.”
Christine cried softly. Betty hugged her. She looked to me, and her eyes said she agreed with her mother.
“I suppose they think they’re fighting a war,” I finally said. I went to the driver’s seat and started the bus. “We’ll come back tomorrow for our gear. When it’s safer in the light of day.” Grinding the engine into first gear, we bounced and bumped out of the clearing and back onto the paved road. I kept my eyes on the 6 feet or so of visibility the headlamps provided in the darkness as we took the first switchback down. I almost ploughed the bus into the three thick pines that had been knocked down to block the road. Even at a low speed, the collision would have destroyed the engine.
“They trapped us up here,” said Betty.
“I can’t back up that hill and turn,” I admitted. We can leave the bus here and hike back to camp.”
“Are they still out there?” asked Christine.
“No way to tell.”
“Can’t go up and can’t go down,” said Loretta. “Our only choice is to make a stand.”
With that, she climbed out of her seat, walked to the bus door and demanded I open it. Reluctantly, I agreed. I’d trapped us all in a tin can on a narrow road. “I’m sorry, everybody,” I said. “This was a mistake.”
“Not time for regrets, Eoin,” said Loretta. “You wanted to be part of a black family. Welcome.”
We exited the bus, close together. With the engine off and the lights out, we were again in darkness and even the cicadas had stopped their pulses. I turned on the Coleman lantern. The women turned on flashlights.
“Show yourselves,” I demanded.
We left the bus and climbed back to our camp. The women shared one tent, and I sat outside, listening and watching. I doubt any of them slept, though they tried. I barely closed my eyes to blink but I did hear the morning birds, and we were alive.