Susan Midlarsky

author • consultant • tutor | inspiring excellence
Campfire image

Halloween Story, October 2023

This was written as a serialized story, just for fun, in October 2023. It’s reposted here in one part.

So I’m sipping my coffee and taking in the dry but hilly landscape from my faded old camp chair. I found this spot a few miles from Lewis Peak a couple of days ago, and I hiked the peak yesterday, so my body’s a bit achy. I stand up and stretch my arms up high, and then I fold my body in half to put my hands flat on the ground, stretching my back out good.

Old gas station

It’s another clear, warm autumn day out here in Utah BLM land. That’s Bureau of Land Management to you, although I had some fun times poking people when they would sputter on social media about that acronym. I’d say, “What do you have against the Bureau of Land Management?” They’d never spell out what they meant. But that’s enough of that. Social media is not my friend out here.

Today I want to go in another direction, a trail that crosses some old abandoned tracks in a hilly area. When I filled up my gas-guzzling camper van at the last station, the Navajo attendant and I gabbed a bit. He asked me about my plans, I told him — “not too many” — and he recommended a couple of places, like Lewis Peak. He also mentioned this other area but in a warning way — he said to stay away from that one. So of course, in my ornery way, I have to check it out.

I put my coffee press and cup into the bucket I use for a sink, pee in the composting toilet, use some hand sanitizer, and start loading up my pack for the day trek. Snack bars, water, mini first aid and snake bite kit. My walking stick. Water is precious out here, so I save it where I can, even though the gas station let me fill my water tanks for five bucks. Drinking is the most essential use for it.

A girl hiking

I lock up the old Ford after putting away the chair and pat it. It’s been a good companion so far, only breaking down a few times, and I got it for a steal. So what if it guzzles gas and some oil? That’s what my savings are for.

As I set off to trek through the brush toward the hills, walking stick in hand, my mind goes back, again, to what brought me here. What a mess it was. Those foolish book banners, and all I did, as school librarian, was let some kids check out “banned” books and take them home in paper bags. The books were awesome, award-winning, nothing controversial at all unless you object to reality or learning about history. I had a huge amount of support, but not against the stupid, stupid laws.

I pause and freeze as I notice a moving diamond pattern in the low grasses. It’s a rattler, but it doesn’t seem to mind me as it continues its S-shaped progress across the path. I’m glad I don’t have to wield my stick against it. I’m not Moses, but I can defend myself with my staff.

The snake stops after it has crossed the path and rises up on its coils to look at me and flick its tongue my way. Its yellow slitted eyes seem to be saying something, but I can’t decipher what. We stare at each other, and its rattle remains silent. After a moment, it slithers away.

I’m a little perturbed, not sure why, but I take a deep breath and a swig of water, and then I continue walking. 

The path here is pretty faint and overgrown, but it’s visible enough to follow. Maybe other people are smarter than me and listen to the gas station guy. If I wasn’t like I am, maybe I wouldn’t be in this mess. But I wouldn’t be having this adventure either.

Turned out that being fired for letting kids read meant that even with a shortage of educators, I couldn’t find a new job anywhere. Not even in other industries besides education. I’m not sure why I hit such a wall, being personable and with an advanced degree, but I have a theory. The HR person would ask why I left my last job, and I’d be honest. I’m no good at lying direct to a person, and besides, a quick web search would bring up my name in an instant. So I think maybe they’d think if I was brave enough to let kids read, I would do something like whistleblowing at another job, which might or might not be true, I don’t know. But I guess all those companies have something to hide.

So I gave up, got rid of a lot of stuff, put what I wanted to keep in cheap storage — I’ll be lucky if it’s still there in a few months — bought a used camper van and brought the minimum with me, and set out to have my own personal retreat. Just me and the woods and my wonderful walking stick, which I found used in a thrift store, hand carved and with a top made of real silver and decorated with turquoise and carnelian. Maybe it’s superstitious, but I feel safer with it, not to mention it’s practical for hiking, self defense, and a weapon against the creepy crawlies. 

In a few months time, maybe I’ll have a strategy to reclaim my life. There’s lots of good thinking time on the trail, when I’m not masticating over what happened in the past. Also, American attention spans are short, so maybe what happened won’t matter as much in interviews in the future.

I’ve been walking without paying attention for a while now, and suddenly I hear a child’s voice singing. That’s unusual. This land is so big and spread apart that you rarely encounter other people here, but it happens sometimes. 

I keep hiking, and soon I find her. She looks about eight or nine, with flyaway light brown hair and skin that’s surprisingly fair for this sunny country. She’s wearing a dress that looks almost straight out of the show Wednesday, with a white collar and buttons down the front of her dark green dress. But that’s not too odd, because most of the people who come out to these areas are a bit odd themselves.

“Hi!” she calls to me. “My name is Callie.”

I wave and hike on. I know the dangers of talking to strange children, especially when parents might be nearby and armed.

“What’s your name?” she asks, coming closer. Okay, I have to talk to her. I stop walking.

“My name is Ann. Where’s your family?”

She waves in the direction that I’ve been going. “They’re over there. Want to play with me?”

I shake my head. “Do they know you’re by yourself over here? It might not be so safe for you.”

“Yeah, they know, and it’s fine,” she says. “But if it makes you feel better, you can come and meet them.”

Hillside with trees

“I just want to make sure you’re safe,” I say, the educator in me rising to the top. I’m not maternal, but my training in schools has made me very safety-aware where children are concerned.

She starts walking with me as we continue in my direction. The area gets greener as we go, with more grass and trees as the hills get higher and more rolling. 

“How far away’s your family?” I ask. 

Callie points to the third hill in the distance. “Just over that hill,” she says. We chat about camping and Utah. “I just love all the stars at night,” she says. “I can hardly fall asleep with their shiny glitter.” We talk for a bit about favorite stars and constellations.

Train tracks with leaves

As we approach the last hill, I notice remnants of train tracks. This must be where the very old line passed through, and they never removed these tracks as they were so remote. Callie runs to skip on them. But as we summit the hill, and I see her family in the dip below, I notice we’re on one side of a chasm. The broken tracks continue on the other side.

“Callie, how do we get across?” I ask.

“It’s easy! We have to catch a train. Come on, I’ll show you.” She goes to take my hand. I step back for a moment and look around to see if there is a bridge somewhere. When I turn back to her, she’s on the other side.

“How did you do that?” I ask. She just smiles and runs to her family. Her mom waves at me but doesn’t come close to the chasm so I can talk to her, staying with Callie, what looks like a younger brother, and probably Callie’s father. They’re dressed in odd clothing like Callie, so they’re probably from some religious sect or something. They’re busy collecting sticks and wood near a tent, probably for a campfire. It’s too far away to shout to them, so after searching for a while for a way over, I give up and head back to my van.

It’s a good two-hour hike back to the van, farther than I realized. When I get back, the sun is fairly low in the sky, so I begin my evening preparations: basic washing, making a meal of canned tuna, packaged rice, cheese, and dried fruits, and cleaning up from the day. I can’t stop puzzling over what happened.

When the sky goes dark, I sit outside for a while and gaze at the sparkling stars. There are so many in this open sky with no humidity or light pollution. I wonder what’s out there, and I think of Callie and what her life might be like. And how the hell did she get across that chasm? 

Stars at night

Of course my sleep is full of odd dreams of trains and chasms and camping people. I have to investigate, so I pack up again in the morning and head to the same direction as yesterday. 

Today the skies are cloudy, but rain is rare, so I’m not worried. I have a parka in my pack just in case, though. I trek along the path, seeing more now that I’m not as preoccupied. I pick up a couple of Indian arrowheads and spot some vibrant orange, late-blooming wildflowers. I breathe in the clean air and find some peace in myself.

After a good while, in the same spot as yesterday, I hear Callie singing the same song as yesterday. Now I can tell what song it is: it’s “Daydream Believer” by The Monkees, of all songs. I call out to her. “Hey Callie!”

She appears on the path ahead of me, over the rise. “Hi, Ann! You came back. I was hoping you would.”

I smile at her. “Yeah, I still want to meet your family. It looks cool over there. Also I want to figure out how to get over that chasm.”

Callie huffs. “I told you. It’s the train. It’s easy. I’ll show you this time if you let me.”

Something inside me is uneasy about that, because I need to understand before I do, most times, and there is obviously no train that can cross that gulf. But curiosity gets the better of me. “Okay, I’ll let you show me.” 

Chasm image

She gives me a big smile and skips on ahead, around the rocks and the plants and trees. “Yay! We’re going to have so much fun.” 

When we arrive at the chasm, I look down. It’s a very long way down, and it’s pitch black at the bottom. It must be twelve feet across. Can Callie jump that far? I have long legs, but I’m not at all certain I could make it. Maybe with a good running start. Maybe I could sort of pole-vault using my stick. I’d want to practice first, though, before trying it for real.

“Are you ready?” Callie asks me. “Leave that here, you won’t need it,” she says, pointing at my stick.

“What do you mean? How do we get across?”

“Just take my hand and close your eyes.”

I’m definitely nervous now. “I’m not sure about this, Callie.”

“Trust me,” she says. “It’s easy.” She grasps my hand firmly. 

I close my eyes and we take a step. “Open them,” she says. I look around. We’re on the other side! And somehow, it’s really beautiful here. Everything is more colorful, greener and brighter, with a glow to it. I start to understand why the family is camping here.

Campfire image

I shake my head, mystified, but courtesy comes first, and I walk the rest of the way down the hillside to meet her parents, who greet me with big smiles. It turns out they’re pretty laid back and don’t mind at all that Callie has been hanging out with me. They don’t know how long they’ve been camping. There’s water nearby, and the dad, Dave, says he doesn’t have trouble getting provisions. They go back to their tasks as I spend time with the children.

I end up playing hide-and-seek and tag for a couple of hours with Callie and her younger brother, Joey. It’s more fun than I’ve had for a while. I’ve shed my worries for this time. Maybe that’s part of my solution: try to let go of the past and be a bit childlike.

But then the sun starts to get lower, and I realize it’s a long hike back. I tell Callie it’s time for me to head back. She grabs both of my hands and says, “Noooo! You can’t go. Stay with us! We really like you.” Joey nods his agreement.

“I have to, honey,” I say. I shoulder my pack and look toward the hill. From this perspective, there’s an illusion that the train line continues without a break. I start walking up the hill.

Darkness with leaves

“You can’t,” she says again, and there’s something in her tone. I look back. The family’s faces look different now. The parents are still smiling, but it doesn’t seem so friendly anymore. I’m not sure how to describe Callie’s expression. In this light, her eyes seem… all black.

When I reach the top of the hill, there’s no sign of the chasm. I don’t understand. I cross on the tracks to try to find my walking stick. I don’t see it. When I turn around in a circle to look for it, I can see the chasm.

Now I think I understand. I look to Callie’s shadowed face. “Why?” I ask. 

She shrugs. “We get lonely, and you’re fun to play with.”

I look down into the chasm, and with the fading light, I saw my reflective hiking gear shining around my broken corpse.

I head back across to join the family and play with the children for unending days.


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