The Campsite
rating: +5+x

It's an hour out into the mountains.
You're silent, laid out in the back seat, Russ is curled up in the passenger’s seat. My hands are white on the steering wheel.
I'm driving out to our favorite camping spot, markedly different on a cold winter afternoon than the warm summer sunsets we're used to.

“I’m sorry.”

You made no move to get out of the car, my words hanging in the air between us. I took a moment getting Russ out.
For a second, I can feel eyes watching me, angry and glaring. When I turn around, you’re still in the back seat, unmoving. I grab the shovel from the back of the truck and start digging. For a moment my mind wanders to the legality of it all, and a grin pulls at the corner of my mouth. You were never one for following rules, one of the many reasons I’d fallen in love with you in the first place. I look over my shoulder, back at you in the car. Nothing. The grin dies, and I go back to digging; the sooner it’s done the sooner we can go home and mourn our loss in the warmth there. Not that it’d make much of a difference, at least I’d be rid of this feeling, this foreboding.

I shake my head, the dirt is hard here. Not ideal, but there’s no better place.

I glance at you after you’re finally out of the car, the feeling of being watched hanging around. I can’t tell if you feel it too, your face betraying no emotion. You look cold. You sit there still and silent.
The feeling never quite leaves, but we finish digging. I can almost hear walking nearby, eyes bore holes into my back. It’s a gloomy scene, cloudy. I almost apologize for the weather, as If I had any control over it. As if I’ve had any control over anything; if the past few days have taught me anything, it’s that I don’t.

I survey what used to be our favorite campsite; usually, we’d set up camp, have Russ running after squirrels barking excitedly, tail wagging the whole time. We’d get a campfire going, and knock back a couple of beers and watch the stars. You would smile the way you always did when we’d first started dating, there’d be a twinkle in your eyes as you misnamed all the constellations. Your laughter used to bounce around the trees as we lay there, unable to stop yourself from giggling as I called you out for making a constellation up and trying to slide it in with the others.

This time Russ isn’t running around, and his tail doesn’t wag. It’s getting dark, there are neither stars nor squirrels on this mountain; no twinkle in your eyes, no laughter. I almost don’t recognize you like this. Russ is silent, I reach down and brush some of the dirt out of his fur.

I manage to stumble through some words. You don’t say anything, staring expressionlessly straight ahead. I wish you would speak, but when I look over there isn’t happiness or sadness, or even worry in your face. I cry silently this time. You’re stoic.
I’ve never been a man of prayer, but I try my best after the grave is full and covered. We trudge back to the car, feet heavy.
I settle for a moment in the driver’s seat, unable to shake the feeling of being watched, followed.

The drive back to town is an hour in the silent and dark, headlights barely outlining the curves of the road ahead. My knuckles are white against the blue of the steering wheel cover you gave me for Christmas three years ago. “So you don’t burn your hands,” you’d said before kissing me through a smile; that one snaggletooth at the corner of your mouth caught on my lip and you’d fallen over laughing while I scrambled for a paper towel. You’d laughed so much, so loudly, that Russ had run over and started barking, pouncing onto you. Your laughter etching itself into your face. God, I loved your laughter, I already miss it.

The whale screen printed on the cover is peeling off in pieces, the matching sunshade having lost the sea animals long ago, now retired to the pocket on the back of the passenger side seat. My tongue runs over the scar on my lip. I try not to think about last night, the unexpectedness of it all; how you can lose something so precious so quickly.
The darkness closes in around the car and for once I am glad.

Shades of red, orange and yellow greet us as we reach town, only to glow in the rearview mirror as I turn off the main street towards our home. I pull into the driveway and turn the car off and we walk in slowly, as if neither of us really want to be here.
It’s quiet and cold inside, the warm presence that was once there is gone now.

I hang my keys and coat, lock the door and doggy door behind me. It takes a moment in the dark, I’m not used to it. When I move to turn the light on, I freeze.

I can’t breathe, my mouth opening, and closing, but no sound comes out. I can hear Russ barking.
For the first time tonight our eyes meet over my shoulder in the reflection in the hallway mirror. Yours are wide open and my vision becomes cloudy, as tears gather in mine.

I can still smell the mountain on us, dirt from the campsite still on my boots and tracking into the house. I turn around. Russ’s tail wags and he barks again.

I begin to shake. I look between you and Russ, he trots up to you happily, trailing dirt behind him.
This time when I look at you, there is an expression, emotion; sadness and something else I’d only seen once before.
I try to pray for the second time today.

I’m not one to believe in ghosts, but as I looked between you and Russ, that’s the only possible explanation that could come to mind. My blood ran cold.

Because the door was locked behind me, the house was empty, but I was standing there with you in the hallway, dressed exactly the way you had been when I buried you almost an hour before.

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