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Julia and Brook West
Originally printed in Enchanted Forests, edited by Katharine Kerr and Martin H. Greenberg, DAW, December 1995.
Crisp mountain air, splash and gurgle of water dropping over a ten-foot waterfall, wind through the trembling leaves of an aspen forest; Angie Lindstrom wished she could capture the smells and feeling on videotape, as well as the silver-green flash of leaves. Odd that there were no bird calls or scolding chipmunks, though.
She turned off the minicam; she needed to help her botany students set up camp. Well, it was Dr. Stoker's class, but they were her students—she was the Teacher's Assistant.
A hand fell on her shoulder, and she turned, twisting out of Dr. Stoker's grip. "I'm glad you're getting the camp going, Angie," he said. "Where did you leave the cans of herbicide?"
Angie was relieved to see her husband, Kelton, come up behind the professor. "I put them over in that jumble of boulders," Kelton said. "What do you need that stuff for, anyway?"
Dr. Stoker turned to face Kelton. "Call it a personal crusade. I feel that eradicating introduced weeds—like dyer's woad and thistle—is important. This valley may look like an unspoiled Eden, but odds are we'll find noxious weeds up here too, crowding out the native plants."
Angie made a face behind Dr. Stoker's back as he went to inspect his precious cans.
"Wish you'd TA for a different prof," whispered Kelton.
"Kel, you know he's on my graduate committee. I had to."
"Well, he'd better keep his hands off you.…"
"Hey, Anj, got a hammer?" called George, a gangling redhead, and one of the better students.
"Sure." She dug it out of her pack for him. "Everybody doing all right? Need any help?"
"What's this?" said Laurie, whose long blond braids hung down into a jumble of tent nylon.
"Just leave that for now; it's the rain fly, and you won't need it unless it rains," said Helen, a tall black girl with her hair in cornrows. "I'll give you a hand; I've used this kind of tent before."
Angie moved on down the line of tents set higgeldy-piggeldy in the open spaces beneath the aspens. "Um, Cory. Pull those branches out from under your tent—you don't want to sleep on them."
"Oh, yeah. Sorry, my dad always put our tent up."
Angie chuckled and went to help Kelton set up. Wildflowers were just starting to bloom at this elevation—a tall spike of bog orchid, tangles of blue clematis in the trees, and freckled monkeyflower blooms. The sparse grass was dotted with spring beauty blossoms.
"Shouldn't be hard for anyone to identify these plants," she said to Kelton.
"Even your oh-so-proper businessman husband?"
"I'll oh-so-proper you!"
Angie looked around at the camp. "Everybody done? Gather in." She ushered the twelve students to a central area where a couple of fallen logs made seats. "We need to set up a few ground rules and discuss tomorrow's plans."
As she outlined cooking and bathroom policies, Kelton moved in behind her. She leaned into his embrace, but continued speaking: "We'll start with a preliminary survey in the morning—identification of common plants, data entry, and such. After lunch we'll begin frequency sampling. Four teams, three people each. You'll each get a chance to set up a grid, map, count and identify." She noticed the professor beside her. "Did I leave anything out, Dr. Stoker?"
"No, that's fine. It's late enough now, you can all relax for awhile, start your dinners. Some of you enterprising sorts might like to get a jump on identifying a few plants.…"
When she got back to the tent Kelton had lit the little backpack stove. Water steamed in the pan over the flame. The valley was quiet—just the murmur of wind through the branches, hushed voices, and the distant splash of the creek. Still no birds or squirrels scolding trespassers; perhaps we scared them off with our noise. So why did she feel watched?
"What's that?" Someone called out, away in the forest—a girl's voice, startled but not frightened. Angie listened, but heard nothing else. Still, unease shivered down her back.
"I'm going to check on the students," she told Kelton. They'd set their tent up away from the others for privacy.
The straggle of tents was a beehive of quiet activity as people prepared dinner. One girl—Colleen—stood looking into the forest, a dripping cooking spoon forgotten in one hand. Helen sat in her tent doorway putting on socks and boots.
"Everything okay?" asked Angie.
"Laurie went between those trees, said she'd only be a minute," said Colleen. "I fixed our dinner, and she's still not back. We were just going to look for her."
"I thought I heard someone out there," said Angie. "Let's call her."
"Lau-rie," they chorused.
Other students gathered around. "Maybe she slipped and fell," someone suggested.
"Let's go look." Eleven students scattered into the trees.
"What's all the noise?" Dr. Stoker poked his head out of his tent, then crawled out completely when he saw Angie was alone.
"One of the girls took a walk, and hasn't come back. Everybody went to look for her."
"While they're doing that, let me show you the database I'm setting up for the valley." He took her arm.
"Um, well, Kelton's almost got dinner done, and you know how quickly food cools at this altitude." She pulled away and hurried back to their tent.
"What's going on?" asked Kelton.
"Laurie's missing. Cover the stew and we'll help look."
"What about Stoker?"
"He's busy with his database. But he's made me responsible for the students."
"Okay. Grab a flashlight, it'll be dark soon."
They started at the end of camp closest to the waterfall and followed the stream up the valley. All around them among the wide-spaced trees people talked or called, their feet swished through the grass, and a breeze whispered through the leaves. But every time Angie felt someone behind her and turned, she saw nothing.
"Angie?" It was Colleen, Laurie's friend. "Can you come here?"
Angie and Kelton—and most of the other students—followed Colleen's voice, found her staring at the base of an aspen. A little pile of clothing lay there, torn and dirty.
"My god," said Kelton.
"They're Laurie's." Colleen's voice broke, and she started sobbing.
Cover design by Danica B. West, all rights reserved. Composited and photomanipulated from: shoes: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dlytle/5411928947/ trees: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tracyelaine/3838336195/ All photos used under Creative Commons license.
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This page created 26 September 2011
Last update 21 March 2014