Although he tried to burrow deeper into his sleeping bag, Jason Kellerman couldn’t escape the finger poking his side. He mumbled, “Five more minutes.”
“Dad, are you going to sleep all day?”
He pried open his eyes and peered up at his daughter’s round face and clear hazel eyes, her bobbed, golden hair grazing her chin. Groaning, he asked, “What time is it?”
She grabbed his phone from beside his sleeping bag and checked the screen. “It’s already six thirty-five.”
Jason groaned again. “Mags, this is supposed to be a vacation.”
“The sun has been up for almost a whole hour. I let you sleep in.”
“Oh, what a kind and generous daughter I’ve been blessed with.” He wasn’t sure how Maggie had ended up a morning person, but she’d woken with the sun since she was a toddler, and at eight years old, it didn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.
“I’ll make you breakfast. But you have to start a fire first.”
“Why did I ever agree to go camping?” Jason rubbed his face and yawned, the air mattress wobbling as he stretched out.
She put on a sing-songy voice. “Because you’re the bestest daddy in the whole wide world.” With that, Maggie pressed a kiss to his cheek and darted out of the tent, the flap left hanging open in her wake.
Jason smiled despite himself. Her sleeping bag was tidily zipped on her side of the small tent, her pillow tucked inside. He supposed she got her neatness and early bird enthusiasm from her mother, since it certainly hadn’t come from his genes. At the thought of Amy, the familiar twinge of guilt rippled through him.
Brushing it off as he did every day, he traded his plaid pajama bottoms and ratty T-shirt for jeans and a sweatshirt and crawled through the opening in their little tent. The sky was a clear blue above the treetops, white-capped mountains soaring high on the horizon. They called it Big Sky Country, and compared to Philly, Montana was a different planet. He breathed the clean air deeply.
“The wood’s ready, Dad.” Maggie fidgeted by the stack of logs and kindling she’d carefully piled, tugging on the hem of her purple hoodie. Her skinny legs stuck out of her too-short capri pants. At the rate she was growing, she’d need a whole new wardrobe to go back to school in September.
Jason’s stomach clenched. He’d spent too much money already on this trip, even with redeeming years of Air Miles. How was he going to afford more clothes and shoes? Maybe he should have put off the vacation until next summer and saved more first. But by the time he’d been eight, he’d already been to Europe, and Maggie hadn’t even been outside Pennsylvania. He had to give her everything she deserved—everything a good father would.
Looking at Maggie’s sweet face, he pushed the worry aside for later. “Good work, sweetheart. Where did you get the kindling?”
“Just from right there.” She pointed to the brush on one side of the campsite. The campground was fairly secluded, and neighboring sites were separated by fifty yards of trees. “Don’t worry, I know I’m not allowed to go off by myself. But I had to pee.”
Jason’s heart skipped a beat as he peered into the dense bush. “Why didn’t you wake me up? It could have been dangerous.” Why had he agreed to go camping? In nature, there were so many variables.
Maggie rolled her eyes artfully. “Dad, we’re in the middle of the woods.”
“I’m painfully aware of that.”
She ignored him as she added, “No one was here. The people next door were still in their tents. Besides, I’m not a baby.”
“So you keep reminding me. But you know we’re in grizzly country. Tomorrow, wake me up when you have to go to the bathroom and I’ll take you over to the outhouse. Okay?”
“Okay, okay. Now will you light the fire?” She held out the box of matches.
“Gladly.” Jason took the box, shivering. He was surprised by how low the temperature dropped at night, and it was still too early for the sun to have had much effect.
Jason boiled a can of water for coffee, missing the old machine in their kitchen that whined alarmingly but still produced a delicious brew every morning. He grimaced as he swallowed the instant crap, but it was better than nothing.
“Dad, where’s the ketchup?”
“I think it’s still in the trunk.” Jason fished the keys out of his small backpack and pressed the button on the fob as Maggie raced over. He was continually amazed at the way she rushed into even the most mundane task with enthusiasm.
“Make sure you seal up the cooler.”
“I know.” Her voice was muffled as she rooted around in the trunk of their Toyota rental car. “Always keep food and toothpaste and shampoo and deodorant or anything that smells locked away or hung up in a tree. I taught you that.”
Jason had to smile. “My deepest apologies.” Bacon sizzled in the pan, the salty aroma wafting through the air. Jason glanced around at the encroaching wilderness and fished their can of bear spray out of the tent, keeping it close by.
As Maggie cracked eggs into the pan, Jason grabbed his sketchpad and pencils from the tent. It was silly of him to always keep his pad by the bed at home and stash one in his car—and even bring it all the way to the middle of nowhere. He knew that. He was never going to art school, and he’d never be a real artist.
Standing under the rising Montana sun with pine needles beneath his sneakers, he let himself think of what it would have been like to go to Parsons or CalArts or the Rhode Island School of Design. He imagined being immersed in art, making real friends who understood him, living on campus and going to parties and all the stupid stuff he’d dreamed of since he was a kid.
His prep school friends had gone off to college and careers and forgotten him, especially after he left home and moved across town. He could still remember the gape-mouthed horror on Colin Nason and Richard Wong’s faces when he’d told them he was keeping Maggie and getting his own place, even if it was only a tiny studio apartment. They couldn’t fathom why he wouldn’t let his parents take her, saying the same thing everyone else did.
“But you’re too young.”
Even now that he was twenty-five and an official adult, people still didn’t think he was old enough to be a father. Didn’t think he was good enough. He’d prove them all wrong. He’d made the right choice, even if it had meant no art school.
Shaking his head, Jason snorted to himself. As if his parents would have let him go to art school anyway. No, it would have been an Ivy League business degree for him. A suit and tie and shiny leather loafers in a soulless high-rise. No smudges of charcoal on his fingers, no pencils flying across paper.
He ran his fingertips over the smooth edges of his sketchpad. It was only a cheap one from Staples, although a little voice hissed that he could get them for even less at the Dollartown in the strip mall. Guilt slithered through him. He shouldn’t spend a penny on himself before Maggie had everything she needed and more.
It was ridiculous anyway. He was never going to create story illustrations or comic books like the ones he’d loved to read since he was a kid. His art was never going to be anything. Yet the lure of pencils and paper called to him, and he opened his pad, knowing he should be a better father.
He sat on a fallen log and sketched a few pages of the campsite and mountains rising across the wide horizon beyond the looming trees. Then he knocked off a drawing of Maggie by the fire, optimism and happiness shining from her wide eyes as she lived her dream of coming to Montana. He’d given her that, at least.
After breakfast—mercifully free of any animal visitors save for two little chipmunks that Maggie scared off with her delighted shrieks—they headed to the visitors’ center for a guided nature walk. Jason glanced in the rearview mirror at a stop sign and grimaced as he ran a hand through his messy blondish hair, which was due a wash. Ah, the many joys of camping.
It was also due a cut, and he could imagine his parents’ pinched expressions at seeing him in worn jeans with stubble on his cheeks and his hair shaggy. His mother’s golden hair had always been perfect, even if it was just in a ponytail for yoga. Even on weekends, his dad had worn button-up shirts and his Rolex.
If Jason had chosen differently all those years ago, he’d probably be sitting behind a desk at his father’s firm in a bespoke suit, calling clients and monitoring the stock exchange.
With a pang, he thought of his younger brother, Tim, who’d just graduated Waltham Prep and was going to Harvard according to his Instagram. Jason would love to talk to him and discover the man he was becoming, but that door had closed when their parents made their ultimatum.
Maybe now that Tim was going to college, he’d reach out. And maybe Tim doesn’t want anything to do with me. If he did, surely he’d have tried to contact Jason before now?
Jason gave his head a mental shake as he turned into the lot and parked. He shouldn’t hold his breath for Tim to try and contact him. They were strangers now. Maggie was his family. He’d learned long ago not to dwell.
“Dad? You coming?”
Jason jumped. Maggie had already clambered out of the back seat and now peered in through Jason’s window, hopping a little in place, a grin lighting up her face. He returned the smile and said, “Right behind you,” as he closed the windows.
Every day, he knew in his heart that his little girl had been the only choice. Maggie was all he needed.
She skipped all the way from the parking lot to the trailhead, where about ten people gathered. Jason made small talk with a few other campers as they waited for the guide.
Maggie’s eyes lit up as she tugged on his arm. “Look, Dad. A real park ranger.”
Jason glanced over at the man walking toward them in a green uniform. His short-sleeved shirt under a darker green vest stretched over broad shoulders, with a gold badge on his chest and leather belt snug around lean hips, green uniform pants hugging long legs. Probably in his late thirties or so, he was about Jason’s height—six feet—but likely had an extra twenty pounds of muscle compared to Jason’s lanky frame.
“‘Dad’? My goodness.” An older woman blinked at Jason and Maggie, an incredulous smile tugging at her lips. “I thought this must be your kid sister.”
Maggie ignored the woman with a clenched jaw, and Jason smiled thinly. “No. Maggie’s my daughter.” Given that his baby face made him look even younger than he was, they were used to this reaction, but familiarity didn’t make it any less damn annoying. He turned away from the woman and watched the ranger near.
The ranger adjusted his tan hat over his short, thick, dark hair. The hat was almost like a Stetson but more round, with a brown leather band around it stamped with USNPS, which Jason assumed stood for U.S. National Parks Service.
The man cleared his throat and spoke in a low baritone. “Hi, everyone. I’m Ben Hettler, and I’ll be your guide today. Welcome to Glacier National Park.” He told them a bit about the history of the area as they headed out onto the trail.
“Does anyone know which variety this is?” He stopped by a gnarled tree with pine needles.
Maggie’s hand shot into the air. When Ben motioned to her, she said, “Whitebark pine.”
His cheeks creased. “The young lady knows her stuff. What kind of bird really likes to eat this tree’s seeds?”
“Clark’s Nutcracker,” Maggie answered without hesitation.
Ben rose his eyebrows and led them farther down the trail. “I see I’m going to have to step up my game here. What’s your name, kiddo?”
The other campers on the hike didn’t seem to mind that Maggie had most of the answers and even more questions, so Jason didn’t try to hold her back. Every so often, Ben would stop and point out certain trees, bushes, or rock formations. He described the various indigenous animals, and gave them the same warning they’d heard everywhere about the potential danger of grizzly bears. Jason certainly didn’t need convincing.
Maggie hiked alongside a game Ben, hanging on his every word. She was in her element, and Jason buzzed with pride. Montana was her dream come true, and it was worth every hour of overtime at the factory to see his baby this happy.
Behind Maggie and Ben as they followed the twisting trail, Jason’s gaze wandered. He noticed Ben was in great shape. The green ranger uniform clung to his butt and powerful thighs, and his cardio fitness was probably excellent with all the hiking and outdoors work he did.
Sometimes Jason found himself admiring other men’s muscles, but there was never time to bulk up himself. He wished his job on the assembly line involved more heavy lifting instead of standing there inspecting cookies. Although his co-worker Ryan was in amazing shape. Jason watched him sometimes, wondering just how much time Ryan spent getting sweaty at the gym.
The day grew warmer with each passing minute, and Jason peeled off his sweatshirt and wrapped it around his waist, glad he’d worn a tee underneath. He gave his bare arms a critical glance before eyeing Ben’s lean, sculpted muscles.
He refocused on what Ben was saying about wolverines being close to reaching endangered status, and Maggie piped up with some information she’d learned doing a book report. Ben surely knew everything she was saying, but he listened avidly as Maggie chattered away, and Jason gave him a grateful smile. Some people were impatient with Maggie’s tendency to talk a lot—loudly and rapidly—about things that excited her.
After the tour ended back near the parking lot, Maggie continued to pepper Ben with questions until Jason intervened to let the guy off the hook. “Mags, I’m sure Mr. Hettler has other work to do.”
Her shoulders slumped. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
Ben smiled down at her. “Don’t be. I have some time, so fire away.”
“Are you sure?” Jason asked. “We don’t want to keep you.”
“Positive. Most of the people on my nature walks nod and smile with glazed expressions. It’s a pleasure to talk to someone as passionate as your sister.” Ben smiled again, this time at Jason. His white teeth were dazzling next to his tanned skin, and Jason found himself grinning back.
“Maggie’s my daughter, actually. I’m Jason Kellerman, by the way.” He extended his hand, and Ben shook it firmly. Ben’s palm was slightly callused, and a strange, tingly warmth skittered up Jason’s arm.
“Nice to meet you both. My apologies for the assumption.” His brow had furrowed, but he didn’t stare at them with disdain or judgement the way some people did.
Jason waved his hand. “It’s okay, we get that a lot. Maggie, what did you want to ask?”
She bounced on her toes. “Okay, so if we see a grizzly bear, will it try and eat us?”
Ben looked thoughtful. “Well, little girls do taste awfully good.”
Maggie giggled. “Be serious. Would it really try and eat me?”
Ben dropped the teasing tone. “The simple answer is: maybe. But remember that bear attacks are extremely rare. If you’re sensible and take precautions, you’ll be just fine. Most bears want nothing to do with us.”
She persisted. “But what if you do everything right and still run into a bear?”
“If you see a bear in the wild, the first thing to remember is not to run. It’ll go against all your instincts, but if you run, the bear will follow, and believe me—bears can outrun anyone.”
Jason tried to laugh. “Gee, that’s a comforting thought.”
Ben smiled at him. “Don’t worry, grizzly attacks really are rare. So if you see one, first you assess the situation. How far away is the bear? Has it spotted you? If it hasn’t, back away slowly. Remember, don’t run. Now, if the bear does see you, just stay still, and talk to it in a calm voice. Bears don’t see very well, so it could help to let it know you’re a human by talking.”
“Could help?” Jason asked.
Ben spread his hands wide. “I’m afraid there are no guarantees when dealing with the wild.” He smiled again, and Jason’s stomach flip-flopped oddly. Talk of bears always made him nervous.
“Daaad, stop interrupting!” Maggie eagerly waited for Ben to continue.
Jason made a zipping-his-lips motion as Ben said, “Okay, so once it’s clear that the bear’s getting aggressive and not leaving, try and make yourself look as big and threatening as possible. Wave your coat over your head and shout, and hopefully the grizzly will decide you’re not worth its while.”
“Maggie, remind me why we came to Montana?” Jason teased. She shushed him.
“Like I said, no guarantees,” Ben added. “If the bear charges, then spray it with bear repellent. Basically pepper spray. Much more effective in a bear attack than a gun.”
Jason frowned. “Do many people here carry guns?”
“It’s unfortunately legal now in national parks. We discourage it, but that doesn’t mean visitors listen to us. You can be a great shot on the range, but it’s a different story when a six-hundred pound grizzly is charging. Bear spray is far more effective.”
“We have some!” Maggie proudly patted Jason’s backpack.
“Excellent. And if the bear is still in the vicinity after you spray, it’s time to curl up in a ball and play dead. Hug your knees to your chest and keep your head tucked in. If you have a pack on, you can lie on your stomach with your hands over the back of your neck. If you’re lucky, the pack will take the brunt of any attack.”
Maggie looked thoughtful. “How long do you play dead for?”
“For as long as you have to. Even after you think the bear’s gone, wait a long while before you move. It’s entirely possible that the bear’s waiting nearby to make sure the threat—that’s you—has been contained. And if playing dead doesn’t dissuade it and the attack continues, you have to fight back.”
“But the bears around here must be pretty used to people. They can’t be that dangerous, right?” Jason asked hopefully.
“Actually that’s when bears are the most deadly, and grizzlies are dangerous no matter what.” Ben patted Jason’s arm, fingers squeezing the bare skin just below Jason’s T-shirt sleeve. “Don’t worry. Like I said, attacks are really rare. Although to properly answer Maggie’s initial question, there have been rare instances of bears stalking people with the sole purpose of eating them. In those cases, you’ll probably never see the attack coming.”
Jason shuddered. “‘Stalking.’ Wonderful.”
Maggie bit her lip. “But that won’t happen in the campground, right?”
Ben shook his head. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. You’re locking up your food tightly?”
She nodded. “Yes! We’re being very careful.”
“Then I’m sure you don’t have anything to worry about.” Ben squeezed her shoulder.
Just then a group of kids nearby whooped with excitement, circled around something on the ground. Maggie switched gears effortlessly as she ran over to see what was going on, any worry over bears forgotten.
Jason laughed. “Sorry, she has an insatiable quest for knowledge. This is basically her Disneyland. She’s obsessed with national parks and mountains. When she was little we rented a nature DVD from the library and I ended up buying her a copy. She pretty much wore it out and the interest never faded.”
“That’s terrific. I wish more kids were interested in wildlife and conservation.” Ben took off his hat, his long fingers toying with the brim. “Where are you folks from?”
“Huh?” Jason jerked his gaze up from Ben’s hands. “Oh, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia area.”
“I’ve never been. What’s it like?” Beneath long lashes, Ben’s sea-blue eyes were focused on him, and Jason went hot to the tips of his ears.
He stammered, “It—uh, well it, you know, it has its pros and cons.” So eloquent. “Great museums and stuff.” He winced internally. He sounded like a dumb kid, and turned the conversation back to Ben. “Philly feels like another universe compared to how wild it is Montana. Are you from around here?”
“I am. Born and raised in Kalispell.”
“Population twenty-two thousand, right? First established at the end of the nineteenth century after the railway was built. There’s a dragon boat festival in September.”
Head tilting, Ben smiled quizzically. “Sounds about right.”
Why am I being such a spaz? “Maggie did her term project on Montana last year and couldn’t stop talking about it. Guess some of the info sunk in.” He jammed his hands into his jeans pockets.
“Nice to have visitors who’ve done their research. Is Maggie’s mom here too?”
Jason kept his tone even. He despised talking about this. Hated the pity and questions that followed, and the incredulity that he could possibly be raising a child alone. “No, her mother died when Maggie was a baby. It’s just the two of us.”
Ben blanched. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have…”
“No, no, it’s okay. You didn’t know. Obviously.”
Ben scratched at his head, mussing his thick brown hair, and Jason had the insane urge to reach up and straighten it. Fortunately he kept his hands in his pockets as an awkward silence stretched out. He waited for Ben to ask the usual questions, but Ben only fiddled with his hat, those long fingers smoothing over the band of leather.
Finally, Jason blurted, “I like your hat.”
“Thanks.” Ben’s low chuckle sent a shiver down Jason’s spine. “Want to try it on?”
Maggie called, “Dad! Come see this!”
Feeling oddly guilty, Jason whipped around and squinted at where the kids were gathered over something in the dirt. “Apparently there’s something I’ve got to see. I should let you get back to work anyway. I’m sure you have plenty of other…rangery things to do.” He hesitated. “It uh, well… It was really cool to meet you.” Oh my God, I am so lame. “We’ll be sure to lock our food up tight. Thanks for the tour.”
“Anytime. Which site did you pick?”
“Bear Creek. Not very reassuringly named, by the way.”
Ben grinned. “That’s one of the sites on my route. At night, I make sure everyone’s food is locked and confiscate it if it’s not. Maybe I’ll see you around. And I’m doing another hike tomorrow morning on a different trail. I can change the focus and give Maggie some new info.”
“Really? That would be great.” Jason’s voice rose excitedly, and he cleared his throat. “As long as it’s not any trouble.”
“No trouble at all. I like to mix things up anyway. So I’ll catch you tomorrow? Nine o’clock. If I don’t see you tonight first.”
“Uh-huh. See ya.” Jason waved and came alarmingly close to tripping over his own feet as he hurried off to make sure Maggie wasn’t getting up to any trouble. She grabbed his hand and pulled him into the circle.
“Look, it’s a fossil!”
Jason examined the strange-looking rock the kids had found. He was pretty sure it wasn’t a fossil, but didn’t want to burst their bubble. “That’s awesome!”
Maggie looked back to where Ben was heading toward the ranger station. “He’s nice. I like him.”
Jason followed her gaze. “Yeah.” Ben had stopped to talk to a young couple, smiling at them and pointing toward a trailhead. Obviously he was kind and helpful with everyone, and there was no reason whatsoever Jason should be feeling a ripple of…disappointment? Jason was just another camper Ben was being friendly to. It was the man’s job, after all.
“Can we have lunch soon?”
He refocused on Maggie’s hopeful face. “Lunch? It’s barely ten o’clock! I don’t know where you put it all.”
She shrugged and skipped off toward the parking lot. Jason glanced over his shoulder and watched Ben disappear inside the ranger station. Ben was only being nice, but it would be cool to hang with him again. Jason didn’t get the chance to have many grown-up conversations, and Ben was great with Maggie. Why shouldn’t Jason want to see more of him?
As he followed Maggie to the car, Ben’s baritone rumbled in a loop in Jason’s mind.
“If I don’t see you tonight first.”
For some reason, it sounded like a promise.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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