Small cracks sounded from the fire and the rest was silence. The girl was seated between her parents, the three of them aligned on a log her father had found and rolled to the glade of their campsite. They were alone in this place. The wind seemed to change whenever the girl faced the fire and wraiths of smoke would rush into her eyes, making them scrunch and sting and spill out tears which she’d wipe away with her flannel shirtsleeve. The girl was glad it was so cold as it meant they’d all sleep in the van that night.
The family had visited the beach in the afternoon. It was a short trek south from where they’d parked the van and the route took them through a dense coniferous forest. The girl stayed a few feet behind her parents as they walked, sometimes crouching to pick handfuls of browned spruce needles from the earth and throw them overhead so that they would cascade down like confetti. When the family got close enough to the shore to hear the lap of the waves against the rocks, the smell of the trees was overpowered by something new and entirely out of place. The girl was somehow surprised by the smell, even though she knew it would be there.
It smells like a gas station, she said.
Leaving the forest, the family looked out upon the beach before them, now painted implausibly black. Her mother held the girl’s hand as they walked carefully across the slick, sullied rocks towards the sea. The water was filled with multicoloured swirls which shimmered and shifted with the tide. Iridescent, the girl thought. The word had been picked up from a novel, the name of which she could no longer remember. The girl liked words and read voraciously.
Just look at all those colours, said the father. What do those colours remind you of, sweetie?
He had directed the question at his daughter, who thought for a moment.
A peacock, she said tentatively.
What about a rainbow?
And what’s so special about rainbows?
I don’t know.
Sure you do, sweetheart. Think. When did God give us rainbows?
After the flood.
And why did he give them to us?
To say he’d never kill all the humans again.
Exactly. This is proof that God still loves us. Even when we do wrong. Even after we tarnish this beautiful planet he provided for us, he still sends us a rainbow to show that he’s here, that he hasn’t given up on us. Humans caused this mess, so it needs to be us that clean it up, to repent for our sins and to show God we’re grateful for all he has given us. Now do you understand why we had to come here?
The girl said that she did understand.
She was becoming aware that the fumes were what was causing her headache. Ir-i-de-scent. Irr-i-ta-ting scent. She wasn’t sure if a scent could be irritating, or if the word always meant that the smell was pleasant.
When it was warm, her parents would sometimes pitch a tent and sleep a few feet away from where they’d set up the camper van, leaving the girl alone for the night without the comfort of hearing her parents breathe in their bed below hers. The girl had never asked why they chose to do this because she assumed it was so they could have sex in private, and if the girl did ask and it was true, that her parents were having sex, then she knew her mother would be completely honest with her and tell her forthrightly that that was the reason, and something within the girl didn’t want to hear that from her mother, even though she basically already knew.
The family sat without speaking, staring into the campfire which was beginning to die down steadily. The girl was trying to stay awake so that she and her parents could all go to bed at the same time.
Occasionally, if the girl’s parents had some extra money, they would rent a motel room for a night or two. The girl would usually sleep on the room’s sofa, or in the bed with her parents if there was no sofa, but sometimes, rarely, her parents would ask the girl whether or not she would mind sleeping in the van alone. The family had learned, however, that motel owners were always against people sleeping in vehicles parked in their motels’ parking lots, and so on those nights the girl had to make sure that there were no outwardly visible signs of her occupancy within the camper. She could not turn on the van’s lights, or flush the toilet, and the paisley-patterned curtains had to remain closed until morning. She spent those evenings lying on the van’s floor, away from the windows, reading by the light of a miniature LED torch. The limited storage space of the camper van meant that whenever the girl finished a book she had to immediately give it away, or preferably find someone with whom she could trade it for another. There were, however, two books which her parents allowed her to keep. The first was a copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, the second a beaten and dogeared copy of Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine which the girl had found at a second-hand market somewhere. Her favourite words were usually long words and medical words often satisfied this criterion. When she eventually tired of reading and got into the camper’s bed, the girl would usually lift the curtain by her head ever so slightly and catch a glimpse of the motel’s rooms’ doors, all numbered and evenly spaced. She liked to imagine that these rows of doors had once been part of regular hotel hallways which had all undergone a kind of cosmic bisection that left them open to world.
At the campfire, struggling to stay awake, the girl kept her mind busy by trying to compose a mental list of things she had learned from her parents and things she had learned for herself. Her mother’s voice emerged clear within her memory.
If anyone asks, you’re in the seventh grade. That’s what you say. But only if they ask. You go to Camden Middle School in North Carolina. North Carolina. Remember that. If they ask where we’re going, you tell them we’re on our way to visit your grandmother who’s very ill. With cancer. Here, you need to sit with this map and memorise it. State by state.
She was told the location of her grandmother always depended on where the family happened to be when somebody asked them where they were heading, and this meant the girl had to know the layout of the United States as intimately as she knew the layout of the family’s camper van.
She’s always one state ahead of us, her father had told her.
So if, say, the family were in Kansas and heading west, then the girl’s grandmother would be in Colorado, but if they were in Idaho, going south, then grandma would be living out what sadly looked to be her final days somewhere out in the deserts of Nevada, and so on. The girl’s whole history had been concocted and taught to her by her parents.
She had learned for herself, however, that it was fun, once in a while, to secretly make up her own alternative history, mostly as a way of testing people’s credulity, and had found that Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine was an invaluable tool to this end. Sometimes she told people that she was in third grade, and that the reason she was so tall was because she had Marfan Syndrome. Even if she wasn’t asked, which she usually wasn’t, the girl would explain that this meant her fifteenth chromosome was defective, and the FNB1 gene within it could no longer encode the glycoprotein fibrillin-1, which meant elastic fibres had failed to form within her connective tissue and her bones had continued to grow well after they had reached an appropriate size for her age. Other times she was in twelfth grade and had Laron Syndrome, which meant a mutated GHR gene had made her body unable to produce the growth hormone known as insulin-growth-factor-1. Twice she had claimed that she was actually only four years old, but an adenoma within her brain had been causing her pituitary gland to produce an excessive amount of somatotropin which had lead to gigantism. It was usually only small children the girl told these fictions to, but she would occasionally risk deceiving an octogenarian or two if she thought she’d be able to get away with it. Over time, she had learned to recognise that it was loneliness, more than anything else, that seemed to make certain elderly people willing to accept any untruth as long as it was coming from someone as youthful and spirited as herself. The girl knew that to learn for oneself was to learn heuristically. Her parents had not taught her that either.
This piece is an extract from Cameron’s as yet untitled novel in progress. The work centres around the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and explores its effect on the surrounding community. Cameron currently lives in Berlin where he is struggling to learn German in the hope that he’ll one day be able to read Kafka untranslated.