The dark settled into the canyon like ink into a bottle and pretty soon the only thing they could still see was the glow of the campfire. Tom gave up first, recognizing that the others were going to stay up talking well into the night, and pointed out the bucket of water to extinguish the flames with before disappearing into his tent. Amanda, Brian and Nick stayed up talking and making s’mores for hours into the night until Amanda reminded them that the burros were waiting for them and plotting their demise in the morning, and all three of them agreed it was time to go to bed so they’d be awake enough to handle the burros.
All had been silent on the campsite for quite some time. They’d each gone into their own little pop tent, each had eventually extinguished their battery power lantern, and a thick silence had fallen over the camp, like an invisible blanket.
Amanda was just about asleep when she heard the scratching sound outside her tent.
She lifted her head up and listened, but when it didn’t reoccur, she laid back down and closed her eyes.
It was Nick.
Zipping and scratching and yelling and commotion ensued as Tom, Amanda and Brian all unzipped their tents and poked their heads out to see Nick, staggering and running at the same time, tripping over the logs they’d been sitting on all night, in nothing but boxer shorts, staring back at his tent as though he’d been shot forth from a cannon within. “Holy shit!” he was gasping for air, clutching the stitch in his chest.
Brian’s head swiveled around, “What? What’s going on? What is it?”
“There’s a fucking lion or something in my tent,” Nick yelled, pointing and jumping. He waved his arms apart to indicate the size of it. “It’s like THIS.”
Tom was already out of his own tent, brandishing a gun. Brian’s eyes widened, “You aren’t going to shoot it are you?” Tom shooshed violently at Brian, who silenced immediately.
Amanda could feel her nerves heightening. She’d never even seen a lion. Not to mention imagined one crawling into bed with her the way a dog might. She was glad it was Nick that’d it happened to, because she was pretty sure she would not have responded as… well, not calmly, but she probably wouldn’t have responded at all, she would’ve just dropped dead of a heart attack.
Nick was hopping from one foot to the other as Tom inched toward Nick’s tent, the gun pointing into it. He was biting his nails. Tom shined his flashlight at the tent, and used the barrel of the gun to push open the flaps of the door. And there, nestled among Nick’s blankets, was a baby raccoon.
“Aww!” Amanda cried as it chattered quietly, holding a graham cracker in its tiny hand. It looked like Meeko from Pocahontas, only tiny and fuzzy the way newborn animals are.
“Nick, your girlfriend thinks your mountain lion’s cute,” teased Brian, sticking out his tongue at his best friend.
Nick stopped hopping from foot to foot and stared, dumbfounded at the raccoon. “Is that the only thing in there?” he demanded, bending forward to look past it into the dark tent.
“Yeah,” Tom said. He looked around, “I wonder where the mother is.”
Brian’s face was red and crinkled from trying not to laugh. He ducked into the tent again, and reemerged a moment later with a camera. He snapped a picture across the fire pit of the little raccoon, curled up with his snack.
“The food attracted him over,” Tom said, pointing at the cracker, “That stuff should’ve been airtight.”
“I fell asleep eating,” Nick muttered.
“Well make this a lesson for you. Tonight it was a raccoon, tomorrow it could be something bigger.”
“Yeah, like an actual mountain lion, Frack,” Brian snorted. He snapped a picture of the disgruntled, angry expression on Nick’s face.
Amanda awoke the next day hating the idea of camping with every fiber of the sore muscles in her back. “Oh my God,” she groaned as her spine and neck made popping sounds, like Rice Krispies, as she stretched and crawled out of the tent in her sweats and tank top.
The sun was already up, peeking its way between the lips of the canyon over head, but the air was still cool and she could tell it was still very early. Nick’s tent was still zipped tight, the light he’d probably left on the rest of the night after getting the raccoon out making it glow like a little paper lantern. Brian, however, was already up and sitting on one of the logs, writing in a leather bound journal.
“Hey you,” Amanda said, approaching and sitting down beside him on the log.
Brian looked up, “Good morning,” he said, smiling. Amanda noticed his eyes were damp, and wondered what was wrong, but figured it was best not to ask. “Did you sleep well after the event?” he asked, smirking and nodding towards Nick’s tent.
“Yeah, surprisingly. Usually I spook easy, but… it was a cute little fella, wasn’t it?”
Brian laughed, “Nick stayed up all night with that lamp on, and every once in awhile I heard him jump up in the tent, probably thinking he heard something.” He shook his head, “Nick’s quite a guy. He’d try to pat one of the mountain lions if he saw it in his backyard, but because he’s camping and he’s supposed to be spooked, he is.”
“So Nick likes animals,” I said, smiling.
“You’re only just noticing? Lesson one, Nick likes animals a lot,” Brian agreed, “Particularly fish. If you’ve been to his apartment I’m sure you’ve seen the fishtanks.”
Amanda nodded, “I’ve never seen so many goldfish in my life.”
“They all have names,” Brian said, “And I might be crazy, but I’m pretty sure he knows which one’s which.”
Amanda laughed. “That would be a full time job.”
Brian wiped his eyes as casually as he could, as though he’d only just now noticed he’d been crying before she started talking to him. He smiled, drew a marker across the page he was writing on, and closed the journal before reaching down behind him and pulling up his Bible and closing that as well.
“I’m sorry, was I interrupting you?” Amanda asked.
“Nah, I was done anyway.” Brian stood up and tossed the two books into his tent. “Tom went to go get the food,” he explained.
Amanda nodded. “He’s a nice guy, Tom.”
“He knows his stuff. He’s been working here for twelve years he said, and he’s seen a lot of stuff. He said he used to hike here before he got the Ranger job even.”
“Yeah, he was interesting to talk to. He said there’s eagles and vultures and lions and all kinds of stuff in the canyon that we could see over the weekend, not just raccoons.”
“I’d like to see an eagle,” Amanda said wistfully.
Brian looked at her. “You like them?” he asked. He could tell there was a reason behind her words because of the tone she’d said them in.
Amanda looked at Brian, considering him judiciously, then said, “My brother loved eagles. American bald eagles were his very favorite. He got to do a Make a Wish and they let him work with an eagle trainer at the San Diego Zoo. He was so happy.”
Brian smiled sadly, putting together the Make a Wish reference coupled with the past tenses and looked into the sky, squinting at the sunlight as it filtered down through the hazy dust. “Maybe you’ll see one today and you can dedicate it’s flight to your brother.”
Amanda smiled, too, “That would be nice.”
They talked for awhile longer, Amanda discovering the intuitive, genuine kindness that Brian possessed and for which so many adored him. She found it easy to talk to Brian, something that she hadn’t expected even after spending almost four days with him already. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected from Brian once she’d met him and discovered he wasn’t the hyper ball of energy she’d always seen on TV. But she’d never dreamt that the intimate, quiet moment in the middle of the Grand Canyon would ever happen.
Nick’s tent unzipped suddenly and he poked his head out, the hair disheveled in every which way. He blinked blurrily up at the two of them, sitting on the log, and yawned before crawling out, scratching his lower back as he staggered over and sat down.
“Mornin’ Nick,” Brian greeted him.
“Coffee,” Nick muttered.
Brian patted his friend’s head and ruffed up the hair. “Tom went to get food. I’m sure he’ll bring coffee along, no worries.”
“Okay.” Nick let himself fall to the ground in front of the log and leaned back, laying his head on it, closing his eyes.
Amanda looked down at him, “Are you ready for the burro ride?” she asked. The more she’d thought about the burros, the more excited she’d become. She only could wish that they could wear little Mexican sombreros.
“Not without coffee,” Nick muttered. “Maybe not even then.”
Brian smirked, “Lesson two, Nick’s a grumpy monster before he’s had his coffee.”