I could swear it took me twice as long to set up camp than it originally did before. I looked over the wide grassy field, shielding my eyes from the afternoon sun. There was nothing much in terms of actual shade though at least this time we were near water. The air in the valley had a pleasant tree scent with just a hint of residual wood smoke.
Eddie was already knee-deep in the small stream. I laughed at the way he pounced at the fish swimming below him, splashing water all over. The surrounding valley was very beautiful, perfect for photos. Yet again, something was odd, the nagging feeling stronger.
I sat gazing at the area past the lake, taking pictures as I coasted the time. I used the zoom lens as binoculars, spying on odd shaped plant-life in the not so far distance. A wide, clear area, bright green with close-cropped grass, sloped gently down to the water.
It began to hit me. The reason some of the valley looked strange was because there was something “perfect” about it, a manicured, kept up look. It was the center of this area that caught most of my focus. A large hollow oval of bare earth, like a thick capital O, had been carved out of the grass with a rectangle of lawn in the center.
“What the,” I mumbled, looking through the lens again. An area of nearly flat land was cleared, the exposed soil forming ridges in the landscape. As I zoomed in, I recognized plants that I knew did not belong in this valley. Corn, rice, and other vegetables formed what looked to be a modest garden.
The dog was still playing in the water. Eddie was too distracted to notice me walking away, which was what I wanted. I needed to explore this phenomenon up ahead without having a wet, silly dog trample everything.
Taking pictures as I went, I was shocked as to how tidy this mini-farm was with life-size crops. Straight tiny paths with even tinier stone barriers separated the perimeter.
Seeing the O shape in the grass, I studied it closer. The rectangle of lawn was marked with white lines and circles. At either end a pair of white wooden posts supported a dangling net. A miniature soccer set? I then realized the well-worn ring around the field was a running track.
I couldn’t take pictures fast enough. Was this some kind of a joke? Who would come to the middle of a secluded valley to make miniature sets? The detail was amazing. The track really did look like it was being used. I continued around taking extreme care to not disturb anything. I didn’t want some crazy old-man-of-the-mountain getting on my case because I accidentally knocked over one of his projects.
A glittering caught my eye. I looked over at what seemed to be holes in a rock bed. As I took more pictures, the shutter suddenly refused to budge. My roll was finished and I didn’t bring extra film on the impromptu expedition. I headed back excited at my find.
Who would go to all this trouble in the middle of a nature preserve, especially without the super-protective rangers finding out?
As I rolled the film back into its hard plastic shell, the camera slipped, bouncing onto the grass. Much to my horror, the back popped open, the almost rolled film jumping out. I lunged for the roll as it made its way to the stream, luckily grabbing it in time. Unexposed film was still peeking from the canister, ruined. I only hoped it wasn’t some of the good images I was able to capture.
“Rats,” I cursed.
I returned to the tent, Eddie lying in the grass next to the opening. “Yes, you lie in the sun and stay there,” I mumbled to the wet dog.
The bundle of flannel was moving. The rat was sitting up, taking care not to put too much weight on the bandaged leg. She had been grooming, as she looked a lot less frazzled than when I first found her.
I snapped a piece off of my granola bar, holding it out, wondering if she would take it. At first she hesitated. I bit into the bar myself encouraging her to take the piece. I was amused at how dainty she ate the sweet granola.
“I wonder if you belong to someone,” I asked the rat. “It’s not everyday I see animals dressed up in the wild. Then again, I’ve been seeing a lot of strange things in this valley.”
The rat paused, looking at me with her brown beady eyes.
“Would you believe someone built a garden by the rocks?” I said, cleaning off the camera, making sure nothing was broken. “And a soccer field. Of all things a soccer field!”
The rat stopped eating all together, staring to the point of unnerving me.
“I didn’t touch anything,” I added with guilt in my voice. “Just took pictures. That’s my job. For a magazine. I’m a photographer. National Parks Magazine? You wouldn’t have heard of it?”
I stopped myself. I was talking to a rat. Not only that, I was expecting an answer. Well, how couldn’t I? Those little eyes looking at me shone with an intense awareness. Would I even dare say intelligent? And the fabric she was wearing. Not once did she try to remove it. In fact, she had smoothed it out. I can’t even put a bandanna around Eddie’s neck without him freaking out and here was a rat wearing a shirt.
Feeling extremely self-conscious, I turned my gaze away as a headache came on. This whole trip was a mistake. The whole assignment was a mistake. Ever since I got into the valley it had been one weird thing after another. I wondered at what point I was going to see a white rabbit with a pocket watch run by me. Or worse, Rod Serling.
My chest tightened with anxiety.
What is going on here? Why am I feeling like a dozen eyes are on me? My head ached convincing me a nice nap was in order. Yeah, that’s it. Maybe I’m just stressing myself out. Here I am in the middle of nowhere working on a job that’s a thrown bone. I’m spending more time thinking about it rather than just working getting it over with.
Grabbing the first aid kit again, I popped some aspirin. I didn’t want to risk falling dead asleep, ending up wasting another day. By lying on the sleeping bag instead of in it, I would force myself to wake up in about an hour. Placing my forearm over my eyes, I drifted off to the sound of the running stream.