Written in between gigs, influenced by own childhood and adolescence, Fertile Ground is an attempt to capture the qualities of sleep away camp that have colored my life and closest relationships. Three characters over two timelines find self-discovery harder than the baseboard cots.
The road wound about the way a young boy’s mind might as he's driven down it. Each bend a new pocket of wonder. What could hide in this here wood? Depending on the boy, that thought is either one of great adventure or worry and for Mark Steiner, it was unquestionable worry.
What was out there, waiting? What vicious beasts? Serpents for sure. Monsters coiled under tall grass. He had read in "A Young Scout's Guide to Wildlife" about the coral snake's red, yellow, and black rings, and how the sequence with which they appeared indicated how dangerous they might be. ‘Red touches black, you're in luck jack.’ ‘Red touches yellow, you're a dead fellow.’ Or was it the other way around? He was doomed. Mark imagined seeing even a non poisonous snake and his throat clenched. He told himself then that he would not consider of the Adirondack Black Bear and its massive paws.
This grizzly thought had, of course, passed through his mind on a number of occasions in recent weeks as he considered, in disturbing detail, whether his head or gut would be taken first. He must have conjured the image a hundred times, seeing it at dinner, the bathroom sink, the front school bus seat, his locker, and, most frequently, during the free period known as recess. He was what some administrators called an "inside body," someone whose soft mitts were made for nestling beautifully bound parchment not splintering equipment. His standardized testing scores advanced him a single grade in elementary, and while his peers flooded the schoolyard after lunch, forming a circle around dead squirrels, poking them with sticks, hurling insults and red balls at each other, jumping, running, and diving, dirtying their hands and knees and hair and face, Mark stayed in. He searched the Internet on the library computer or sat quietly with any of the Harry Potter books, which he had read three times each. Lately though, he'd searched for and read more about nature and wildlife than any one subject or any number of them combined.
Mark's thoughts shifted from outside the car to the leather seat he was in. He felt a smooth draft coming from the back seat vents. These luxuries were fleeting, he knew. The winding road ticked another second off their expiration dates with each pebble they passed. Considering the finality of what lied ahead, his pores grabbed at the air conditioning and his rear clutched the tan interior; his cheeks embracing the cushion firmer and firmer still. Maybe, if he concentrated hard enough, his 118 pounds could become one with the cushion, sink into it so far that he would live the rest of his days in this temperate safe haven.
"You nervous?" he heard his dad ask, watching him crane his neck backward as he spoke. With all of his being he knew he was. He could guarantee it. Because when he got nervous, Mark began to sweat at both of his temples, his lower back and his sternum and experience life with debilitating intensity, both of which traits he felt coming on now. He took in his father's face. The green eyes, combed hair, and half smile; that suggestive body language that might only be an eyebrow raise or a subtle wink, something to say that everything was and will continue to be alright. Mark always found comfort in this smile, and so his brain began to function properly once more as he thought of a passable way to say that he wasn't nervous, even though, clearly, he was, and lying would only make it worse.
But as he opened his mouth to answer, the car stopped short, and he saw, as clear as ocean water, his dad's twisted form jerk forward and crash back. "I forgot this is a two way street," his mother murmured from behind the wheel, to no comfort to those in tow.
"You okay hun?" she asked as the sedan sat idle. A massive truck inched past them, the driver offering a wave, and the whole while, Mark imagined the two tons of steel they were encased in careening over the road’s steep edge, down into the cavern below. As soon as the words "bear food" entered his thoughts, he shoved them out. It was true, that with such brain power, Mark could convince himself to unthink something if only momentarily.
After a minute, Barbara Steiner stepped her foot back on the gas, reengaging the air conditioning's death clock. "I'm not nervous" Mark blurted out, half remembering the question, half attempting to convince himself it was true. But his assertion went unheard, or in utterance it had become a garbled mess, for instead of acknowledging it, his mother, in an elongated high pitch tone said simply, "We're alllllllmost theeeeere."
This “there,” was an inevitable fate that Mark had been coming to terms with since early March, when he and his mother had sat in Dr. Torissi's office discussing Mark's scraped right hand and badly bruised knee. To him, Brett Whitlee’s “aggressive behavior and empathy issues,” as his red-haired therapist put it, was an issue needing personal attention from Brett and his parents. One day, at the librarian’s suggestion, Mark had gone outside to "enjoy the sun and the air a little!" He brought a book with and was reading in uninterrupted peace, bothering no one as far as he could tell. Why Brett had ripped the book out of his hand tossed it 20 feet and pushed Mark down as he went to retrieve it was not his problem. How could it be? But Dr. T and Mrs. Steiner agreed that Mark's social skills were in need of improvement, he needed friends his age, and the upcoming summer was the perfect time to work on both.
The road turned from asphalt to dirt and the blue BMW passed a small shack on the right, then a large wooden barn on the left. There was a man in an orange shirt, brown shorts, a light brown beard, and eyeglasses waving them forward. He smiled at the car and Mark's stomach filled with dread. The car crept along and the forest receded showing a bright open field and a large brown sign that read in yellow lettering "Welcome to Camp Birchenbeth," which Mark read and repeated in his head as "Camp Certain Death" once more.