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In other hands these cornball devices would evoke menace, however unrealistically; in the amiable, workaday prose of Churchill (War and Peas, 1996), they merely signal that it's time for the chitchat to focus on the Claypool family, whose mild irregularities seem hardly capable of provoking any of these campers to murder.
"Horse blinders," Jane Jeffry said. "That's what I need when you're driving. Horse blinders. With a flap that comes down in front, too. So all I can see is my lap."
Jane's best friend, Shelley Nowack, eased her foot off the gas pedal. The van slowed slightly. "I've never had an accident," Shelley said. "Not even one that wasn't my fault."
"I don't find that encouraging. It only means all your bad luck is being saved for a really big one. And as dear as you are to me, I don't want to be with you when you have it."
"Just play with your computer and don't look outside," Shelley said, swinging out around an eighteenwheeler as if it were no more of an obstacle than a Honda.
Jane patted the top of the screen of her laptop. It was a recent gift from her parents. Her father was with the State Department, and they moved from country to country as frequently and easily as Jane went to the grocery store-and a lot more cheerfully.
Her father had called from Finland to tell her it was coming. "E-mail, Jane," he'd said. "I figure I'll save the cost of the computers in long-distance bills in a year. "
"Computers, plural?" Jane had asked.
"Mike's getting one, too," he'd said.
Mike was Jane's son, in his freshman year at college. Since Jane was widowed several years earlier, Mike-who was one of the rarest elements in the universe, a relatively sensible teenager-had been a great support to her. Now that he was away, she was missing him like mad. But Mike didn't want to have his dorm-mates overhear him talking to his mother on the phone, and except for the obligatory thankyou notes and college applications she'd forcedhim to produce, he'd never spontaneously written a letter in his life. But E-mail, in the two weeks they'd had their laptops, had provided the solution. And Jane had also enjoyed more correspondence with her parents in that time than they'd had for years.
Just now, however, she and the laptop were engaged in a hot game of gin rummy. And even though she was losing badly, it was better than watching the scenery flash by at a terrifying rate.
"You brought your new boots, didn't you?" Shelley said, almost accusingly.
"The ones you called 'shit-kickers'? Of course. They're actually pretty comfortable, but if you think I'm going to kick shit or anything else with them, you're mistaken. You promised me this trip wasn't anything like ... camping." She pronounced the last word with a shudder. "I went camping once. I was fourteen and I got ticks in my hair. I'm still trying to get over it. Humankind has spent hundreds of generations developing indoor plumbing. I think it's flying in the face of progress to pee in the woods."
"Jane, I've told you this isn't a 'pee in the woods' kind of camp. We'll have our own little cabin with a bathroom. There's even a fireplace. It's more like a somewhat rustic resort."
"But no kitchen, right? You promised me there wouldn't be a kitchen."
"No kitchen. This is a camp for kids, and nobody wants them to do any cooking."
"There aren't going to be kids there with us, are there?" Jane asked, turning off the laptop and wondering if the computer, cheated or whether she just stunk at card games.
"No kids. I don't think you've paid attention to anything I've told you."
"Shelley, I was just glad to get a little vacation. And I didn't know there was going to be a test. So tell me again."
Shelley sighed. "The town council and the school district got together to sponsor a summer-school camp for kids and have researched a ton of them. This one in Wisconsin looks like the best bet, was easy to get to from Chicago, and the best deal for the town financially. Plus, this resort is the one that put the idea in their heads by proposing the plan in the first place. But the council and school board wanted some parents to come check it out firsthand and make a report. I managed to get us in as one of the 'couples.'"
"So what are we supposed to do?"
"Whatever we want," Shelley said. "Or as little as we want. The camp has all sorts of activities craft stuff, hiking trails, even one of those tough 'boot camp' type programs where you crawl through swamps and climb cliffs."
"There are swamps in Wisconsin?"
"I don't know. Maybe they built one. I think there are bogs, whatever they are. But we don't have to do that.
"You bet we don't!" Jane said. "You'd have to hold a gun to my head to get me to crawl through a swamp—or a bog-for fun!"
"I think they've adapted it a bit for adults. Just as a demonstration, we're all going to a campfire cooking class tomorrow night, I'm told."
"Oh, no! Shelley, cooking was one of the things I thought I was getting a vacation from."
"We don't have to cook. At least I don't think so. Just listen to someone telling us about cooking. And then we get to taste the samples when it's over. You like tasting stuff, Jane. It'll be fun."
They were approaching an interchange. Shelley glanced up at the directions she'd stuck on her sun visor and zipped into the right lane, nearly running a tour bus off the road. "It's not far now. We can stop here, get some coffee, go to the bathroom—"
"Why do we need to go to the bathroom here?" Jane asked suspiciously. "Can't we go when we get to the camp? Shelley, are you hiding something from me? We are going to have to pee in the woods, aren't we! "
They left the interstate, took a nice four-lane highway for thirty miles, then turned off -on a two-lane
for another twenty. They missed the turnoff for the county road and had to backtrack a mile or two. This led them into a lushly wooded area. The road curved, dipped, and occasionally crested a rise, revealing tantalizing views of hills brilliant with autumn coloring and the fleeting impression of sun on sparkling little lakes. Out of deference to both Jane's nerves and the beauty of the landscape, Shelley actually slowed down to a normal driving speed.
"About another mile," Shelley finally said. "Watch for a sign on the right."
Jane was encouraged by the sign. It said CAMP SUNSHINE and was large and freshly painted. She'd imagined it would he an old wooden plank with the words scribbled in charcoal and leading to something that looked like the Bates Motel.
They crossed over a picturesque wood-slatted bridge and onto a road, freshly graveled and recently traveled, judging by the haze of white dust drifting above the surface. "Who else is coming?" she asked.
"I'm not sure," Shelley said. "There were a couple of last-minute changes. The Wilsons, who run the bakery, were signed up, but she had to have emergency gall bladder surgery last week, so somebody will have replaced them. And the Youngbloods had to cancel because he's changing jobs and they had to go look at houses in Buffalo. The Claypool brothers and their wives are coming, I think."
"Who are they?"
"Oh, Jane. You know them. They have that huge car dealership."
"I recognize the name, but I don't think I've ever...