6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Projector

          The plunk of a small stone hitting the pond is all it takes to attract an emerald-headed drake and his dainty, tan hen. Like synchronized swimmers, the two ducks slice across the murky brown water and into the concentric circles of expanding ripples. Both birds swivel and bob their heads in a frantic, fruitless search. Timberline’s waterfowl had long grown accustomed to being fed by townies. So certain of receiving handouts, a growing population of mallards never even bothered to migrate. The second delicate splash brings them closer to a darkly dressed man seated on a rusted park bench. His lips twist into a terse smile.

          “Stupid ducks,” Tyler mutters while flinging a final stone. He flinches involuntarily, taking a quick intake of breath as the rock leaves his hand with more velocity than intended. The projectile splits the couple, barely missing both birds, and splashes them with shimmering droplets of water.

          “Sorry,” Tyler offers as the ducks, somewhere between flying and running, splash across the pond’s surface towards the opposite bank. Their strong wings slapping the water feels like a noisy intrusion in the otherwise calm, warm air of late summer. Again displaying their harmonious instincts, the birds touch down at the exact same moment and settle in at the pond’s far edge.

          “Where is she?” he wonders aloud, experiencing a momentary envious pang for the mallard’s natural ability to find a lasting partner. “Bet you never have to put up with this crap.”

          Renae is supposed to be meeting him for lunch. Hell, it was her idea. Tyler checks his watch for the third time in the last two minutes. Seven minutes late. Scratching his patchy blond facial hair, Tyler’s eyes narrow. “It’s just rude,” he mumbles. “I don’t make other people wait for me like I’m some goddamned king.”

          Their last phone conversation had been thick with tension. Ever since she spent Labor Day weekend with an old sorority sister in Seattle, Tyler had felt a growing chasm in their relationship. He hadn’t been happy about not being invited, and suspected something was amiss when she didn’t respond to his messages until the night she returned. When Renae had finally touched base, she seemed distant. In the back of his mind Tyler wondered if she had met someone, or even rekindled some old college flame.

          Tyler’s attention is drawn from his spiraling thoughts as the ducks suddenly dart across the pond towards another rusty bench. A frail, hunchbacked man appears from an overgrown, tree lined path and gingerly pulls up a seat. He looks to Tyler like a sack of bones held upright by faded jeans and a torn flannel shirt. In his gnarled hand is a plastic bread bag. Expressionless, the ivory-bearded skeleton scatters white chunks across the water and the mallards gobble up every morsel before the bread can sink.

          Things could be worse, Tyler thinks. At least I’m not that guy. The thought escapes his mind before he can channel it through any kind of politically correct filter. Tyler feels guilty for thinking that way but can’t help acknowledging the brunt assessment. Stealing sideways glances at the depressing scene, Tyler feels like he should try to be a little more patient with Renae. The younger man wonders if the elderly gentleman ever blew his chances with a possible soul mate, or if he’d ever experienced a genuine connection with another. Maybe the old man once found the love of his life and she had died leaving him in this wretched state. Who knows? Tyler looks away, unable to bear the thought of feeling so miserable. So all alone.

          Tyler checks his watch again. Nine minutes late. Surely, anything over ten begins to push the threshold of understanding. It’s not like she could blame traffic, not in the tiny mountain town of Timberline. A bear attack would come off as a more believable excuse. Maybe her battered Datsun had finally given up the ghost. The oxidizing piece of purple shit had been running ragged for months. Still, her cabin was a half mile from the park; she could have walked by now.

          In the corner of his eye, Tyler detects movement on the same path from which the old man recently emerged. His slumped posture straightens and Tyler feels the swirling doubts creeping back into the corner of his mind. He begins to stand and instinctually brush the hair from his face when the figure comes into view. The new arrival is a woman, but certainly not Ranae. This lady is hunched over and supporting her slow, shuffling steps with a cane. Her wild mop of curly hair is even whiter than the man’s beard.

          As the old man notices the woman’s arrival, Tyler folds his arms and sits back on the bench with his shaking head cocked sideways. Slowly, the brittle fossil twists in his seat, and by placing one hand on the backrest while the other pulls against the arm support, manages to drag himself to his feet. Despite the effort it takes to stand, Tyler sees the worn countenance transformed. The old man’s weary, blank expression has been replaced with a broad grin. He bows slightly and offers his forearm to the woman. Returning his smile, the old lady accepts his gesture and allows herself to be seated at the bench. Her partner hands over the plastic bag and then rests his palm on her thigh as she begins to feed the impatiently circling mallards.

          Tyler turns away so that he no longer has to witness the ancient couple’s public display of affection. Or the pitifully domesticated ducks. He checks his watch once again. Eleven minutes… almost twelve. “Seriously,” he hisses. “What the hell is the wrong with people?”

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