This story is by Bonnie J. Lupton and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sandpoint was the only community in Idaho with an Amtrak station. The Empire Builder traveled from Chicago to Seattle via Sandpoint. The train rolled to a stop near the stunning Lake Pend Oreille. Eighteen-year-old Chelsea stumbled down the bi-level super-liner train car as she rubbed the sleep from her eye. Goosebumps had formed on Chelsea’s arms. The air was cold, and she could see her breath. Chelsea spotted her aunt’s waiting car and galloped toward it like a gazelle. It was the first time she had made the 48 hour train trip. There was so much to tell her favorite aunt. Over a coke near Wolf Point, Montana, she had decided she would be a famous writer.
Aunt Sadie, a retired acquisitions editor, believed her. Sara Tate’s forty years in publishing meant she knew people. People who would help Chelsea. In the morning, Sadie would introduce Chelsea to her friend Alexandra Hilary. Alexandra would become Chelsea’s mentor. She was head faculty editor facilitating the prestigious Literature in the Wild workshop. The workshop was an intense boot camp for young writers. Nine writers and three faculty editors would live and camp in The Scapegoat Wilderness in Northwest Montana on the traditional lands of the Salish and Kalispel peoples.
August 20th came sooner than Chelsea wanted. She loved wilderness camping, hiking, and writing. She enjoyed six weeks of being “unplugged”, no cell phones, no electricity and no running water except for the creek. During the workshop Chelsea learned the craft of writing. She also learn how to divert unwanted advances from the creepy assistant.
Dave Smith’s application to attend the writers had been rejected. However the director impressed with his woodsman skills offered him a job. At the last minute the camp’s roustabout had opted for the higher paying job of fighting forest fires. Dave’s job duties were mundane. Dave would drive to Sandpoint weekly and drop off the participants notebooks at the printer to be copied while he did the grocery shopping at Safeway.
Dave slipped the steaming cup of black as coal espresso. coffee at Starbucks. Slowly he read and reread Chelsea’s weekly writing projects. To the other campers Dave’s infatuation with Chelsea was obvious.
During the last campfire of the session Chelsea killed his infatuation. She offered Dave a charred gooey marshmallow. It was still flaming. “Give me what you’ve got, baby,” said Dave. He was still leering at her when she dropped the glowing marshmallow on his scrotum covered only by the thinest REI cargo pants.
On the last day of camp, rain pelleted the writers/hikers. The campers rushed to close up camp and headed for the vintage Bluebird bus, waiting for them. Chelsea had a ticket on the midnight Amtrak train traveling east towards Chicago and freshman week at Northwestern University. Somewhere in the badlands of North Dakota, Chelsea opened her backpack. She wanted her notebooks containing her wilderness stories. She screamed like a banshee. Her notebooks were gone.
Five years later – Low Bar Montana
Sadie glanced at the text. Her niece Chelsea had pinged her while making her rounds with the ice cream truck/Bookmobile. “I have a happy surprise for you. It will arrive this afternoon. Take care. Love you a big tall mountain of love, Chelsea. It was a mystery as to what her niece in Chicago was sending her. The two women had a special bond. They shared the common belief that words were magical.
On the second Saturday of each month Sadie Tate went about her mission. Inside the faded yellow ice cream bookmobile she turned on the music box jingle. She was Low Bar, Montana’s pied piper of books. The ice cream was her bait to get young minds hooked on books. The shuttered small-town libraries meant books were often in high demand. Jeff, the town mechanic’s son Lars, was having trouble deciding between books. The book monger broke her rule of one book per child. She handed six-year-old Lars the two books he was considering. Plus a frozen Snickers ice cream bar and a dog biscuit for Scout the family Blue Heeler. It was time to close up shop. A happy surprise from her favorite niece was always like Christmas Morning.
She had turned off the melodic jingle when she saw her “happy surprise”. Chelsea stepped off the curb to cross the street headed in her direction. Chelsea was standing in the middle of the highway 200, waving with a big smile, as big as her surprise visit.
A black Escalade SUV appeared, speeding towards Chelsea. Sadie pounded her horn. Chelsea looked up and froze like a deer in the headlights. Sadie gripped the bookmobile steering wheel and lunged forward into the Escalade’s path. She braced for the impact and the sound of crashing metal. Instead, there was the sound of screeching tires and the pungent smell of burnt rubber. Scurrying from the stalled yellow box, Sadie ran towards Chelsea. The girl was safe. The SUV had speeded away toward Interstate 90.
Aunt Sadie pulled Chelsea so close she could smell the lavender shampoo in her hair. Sadie motioned her niece to the back of Bookmobile.
“That maniac could have killed you,” said Sadie. “Auntie the driver was Dave Smith, or Holland Abbott. Whatever he calls himself. Dave Smith would prefer a world where I am dead,” said Chelsea. Sadie cocked her head and headed to the back of the bookmobile. The plump woman settled down on the overstuffed sofa. Chelsea pulled a hassock over. Looking into Chelsea’s sea-blue eyes, Sadie said, “explain.” ” Auntie, I didn’t come to Montana to surprise you. I wanted to confront Holland Abbott.”said Chelsea. “A coworker at Coeval Publishing gave me a copy of his book”. Chelsea slipped back into the little girl voice she used when pleading with her aunt. “Auntie, the book was a collection of stories. Not any stories, my stories” Chelsea hit the sofa with her clinched fist. He even included my short story “Do people shit in the woods.” Chelsea looked up imagining herself in the wilderness five years ago. The assignment that day was to write about the first thing that happened to you that day. Exiting her tent Chelsea had grabbed the box with toilet paper. She headed to the “Groover,” an open-air wall less latrine a hundred yards from camp. When she was finished she looked up and across the creek. Looking back at her was a black bear. Both the bear and Chelsea we’re surprised to see each other. After breakfast, Chelsea wrote: “Do people shit in the Woods.” A narrative from a lazy bear’s point of view. The protagonist, the bear, had woke up late from hibernation to find a golden-haired girl in his forest.
When I read Abbott’s book, I knew I had to confront him. So I googled him and discovered he was having a book signing at the Otter Books on Higgins in Missoula. I was there this morning when to store opened, and I confronted him. When I saw him, I knew it was Dave Smith. The greasy, stringy ponytail was gone. He was bald and had a beard. I told him I knew he was Dave Smith. He laughed at me and said, “Dave Smith sells cars in Kellogg.” “He didn’t recognize me. I told him I was Chelsea Rhea, and I was the person whose stories he had plagiarized. Auntie, I never saw a person turn white before, but he did. He got up and left without saying a word. He left me standing there with nobody to fight with”.
Sadie, a woman who made a career of choosing words, chose not to say a word. She started the bookmobile. As she pulled into her drive, she said, “Baby girl, let’s have some coffee. Would you make it while I find something?” Sadie returned, grinning and brushing cobwebs from her hair. She flipped her wrist using her favorite rock skipping move, landing the battered envelope in the middle of the kitchen table. Chelsea opened the clasp and withdrew pages of photocopies of college-ruled notebooks. Wide-eyed, she stared at her own handwriting, the lost wilderness stories.
“Auntie, you ARE my fairy godmother.” Said Chelsea. Embarrassment had kept Chelsea from telling her aunt she that had lost her stories. Wide-eyed, she asked, “How?” My friend Alexandra made copies.” said Sadie. Do you remember you would give the facility leaders your notebooks? The leaders would send them to a printer in Sandpoint and have them copied. Each advisor would add their critiques and suggestions to the copies. When the workshop ended, Alexandra sent me the copies of your stories.”
Chelsea watched as Sadie wheeled her power. Not the power of a fairy godmother’s wand but the power of a woman people respected. Aunt Sadie lifted the phone and began calling the Managing editor of Green Eye publishing. She was about to make Holland Abbott’s writing career disappear.