Chimera

Donna Laemmlen

I tried to contain my annoyance. She had been such a gifted storyteller when I was a kid, creating captivating worlds full of exquisite detail and enchanting characters. Now she was lapsing into unreasonable generalities.

“We shouldn’t reserve this campsite anymore,” she continued. “It’s too close to the forest.”

“Mom, how can you be too close to the forest?”

“Well, you know that man who works here, the one that looks like Kenny Rogers? He said he saw an honest-to-God chain gang walking along the railroad tracks just last week. Everybody dressed in orange jumpsuits, smiling and singing as if they weren’t some kind of criminals. Who knows what could happen out there?”

No one argued with her. Or agreed. Her words simply evaporated. I looked toward the forest, hoping Ben and Nina would return soon, and return triumphant. That would be the only way to get her attention now.

“How’s Jake?” my dad asked Lila, even though we already knew the answer.

“He’s a good dad. The girls love him.” She hesitated. “But, you know, he’s an asshole.” She smiled sweetly, and then added, “We should all go camping together sometime.”

I wondered if Lila ever saw Sevens now. When I had last seen her, right before Nina was born, she had decided to abandon Sevens altogether, at least until her children began to beg for the stories.

“I’m tired of them not adding up,” she had lamented then.

“But that’s the key,” I had reminded her. “You don’t want them to add up.”

She had stared at me blankly. “But that’s what numbers do, and the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can get on with your life.”

I was so saddened by her comment. She had shown such promise when we were young, favoring words like jillion and zillion and umpteen, but with an attitude like that, I doubted she would ever be able to find Sevens again. Worst of all, I shuddered to think of the stories she would eventually tell her daughters.

I half-listened to the pros and cons of being a stay-at-home mom. “I always thought I’d go back to editing after the children were born, but who am I kidding? I’m a housewife,” she said, nibbling on a handful of pretzels.  “Working with writers can be great, but they’re so fragile. If I’m going to baby-sit anyone, it’s going to be one of my own kids.”

And there it was, the faulty stone in her calculus. Some people couldn’t see it any other way.  Artistic fragility should be diapered rather than nurtured. I was about to challenge her when the campground suddenly darkened. It was one thing to hunt for Sevens during the day, but if you were caught in the woods when that last bit of light had fallen behind Sutter’s Ridge, Sixes could be a problem.

“Girls? Where’s Nina?” Lila looked to her other daughters, who were playing Uno. They shrugged their shoulders in unison.

A quiet panic laid into the camp. My mother looked directly at me. “How long has she been gone?”

Lila stood up from the table. “She’s gone?”

I wrestled with how to mitigate their concern, wanting to give Nina every chance to find her Seven, but I worried that Ben and Nina would disturb a horde of Sixes suspected of living down by the river in an abandoned teepee made of branches and bark. Sixes were notorious for ganging up and prowling in the dark. They were the only numbers to calculate at night, fueling intense rumors about their occult status, and they were trouble. If they found out about the Seven, well – it was too much to imagine. Ben knew what to do in case of a numerical haywire; at least, I hoped he still remembered. Branches of pungent bay leaves would protect them against most sudden clashes, but only if they reached the sanctuary of the Cathedral Redwoods by sundown. If I were to lose Ben to a haywire, I could always take solace in knowing he went willingly. But Nina wasn’t ours to lose.

 “Maybe twenty minutes,” I answered, knowing full well it was closer to an hour by now. “Don’t worry. She’s with Ben.” I knew that would calm everyone down. Who didn’t trust Ben? He was the grounded one, the reasonable one, everybody’s go-to guy. He made everyone feel safe. They assumed this about him because of his steady years in hotel property management. Little did they know how desperate the fire drills and overflowing bathtubs had made him.

 “Anyone getting hungry?” my mother asked. Eating was her lifelong remedy for calming nerves or any other volatile situation for that matter. Out came the ribs, the salmon, the corn on the cob and the watermelon. “Nina will be fine, “ she said, mostly to herself. “If I was going to traipse through the forest again, I would want to be with my son-in-law.”

Though I, too, would want to be with Ben, I still seethed when I heard this slight. It was no secret the whole family considered my perception of things to be unreliable, a result of having devoted my life to the “financially unsound pursuit of the indefinable,” and I often had to restrain myself from challenging them with mathematical countdowns.

Lila fidgeted with her cell phone, which was useless out here, but I waited quietly for her to figure that out.

“She’s looking for a Seven, isn’t she?” she said finally, biting her cuticles.

Had Lila refused to help her daughter?

“Why are you worried? Don’t you remember? When we were kids, Seven was always the hardest to find, even though we knew it came right after Six.”


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