Stranger Than Fiction by Catherine Dilts


Aubrey shot a withering look Grant’s way that was completely wasted. He was too busy closing the door on a gray Camry someone had carelessly left open. That was Grant, Pinon Pine troop leader. Always helping people in need. People other than his wife.

“Grant didn’t explain to me we’d be camping.”

“I know,” Madison said. “He made me keep it a secret. How romantic is that? I hope we can be on the same team.”

“Team?” Aubrey asked.

“Yes. We’ll be competing to win treasure chest keys, just like on the old show.”

Sotheara Sok stepped into their circle before Aubrey could explode. The short Cambodian woman was almost unrecognizable without her powersuit and heels. She clutched the straps of a pink backpack that draped over her shoulders. Dressed in summer clothes, her bare feet dusty, Sotheara didn’t look much older than Aubrey’s teenage daughter.

“Hi, everyone. Which way is camp?”

“I’d guess that way.” Madison pointed.

Aubrey turned to see Frank Hardy march under the Survive or Die banner. Grant ran to him and pumped his hand like he was attempting to draw water from a well.

“Glad you finally made it.” Frank could have modeled for an outfitter’s catalog with his close-cropped salt and pepper hair, tanned and craggy face, and woodsy camouflage vest covered with bulging pockets. “Any other stragglers?” He scanned the parking lot. “We’re ready to start.”

“Start what?” Grant asked.

“Strategizing. Ted jumped the gun on us. He’s already formed a team of all the runners in the company.”

“Hang on a second.” Grant loped back to Aubrey. “How about it, honey?” He kept his voice low. “Are we leaving?”

Madison clutched Aubrey’s arm. “You’ve got to stay,” she whispered. “I need an ally. These people will eat me alive.”

“They’re never bringing Survive or Die back to television,” Sotheara said. “This is our only chance to play.”

So it wasn’t the comfy marriage retreat Aubrey had hoped for. Still, a week away from the kids had been a bear to arrange. Surely they could hit the romantic reset button on their fragile marriage as easily at a rugged camp as at their honeymoon B&B.

And then there was Madison, over a decade younger than Aubrey. She couldn’t imagine how the computer geek city-girl had been convinced to go camping, but Madison was right. She needed an ally.

Aubrey sighed with more drama than necessary, letting her shoulders slump. “Okay. I’ll stay. But if it’s as terrible as I think—”

They didn’t wait for her to finish. Frank grimaced as they unloaded luggage.

“I hope you packed the right gear. This isn’t a leisurely weekend at the country club.”

“Had I known,” Aubrey said, “I would have packed differently.” Speaking just loud enough for Grant to hear, she added, “I would have left the silk lingerie at home.”

“Time’s wasting.” Frank studied his elaborate wristwatch, no doubt waterproof, shock proof, and bear proof. “We’re on a schedule here.”

“Hold on.” Grant dropped a suitcase in the dirt. “There’s something on Mr. Bender’s windshield.” He stretched to snatch a scrap of paper from under the Humvee’s windshield wiper.

“What is it?” Frank asked.

“A flier.” Grant studied the paper. “This entire week is Going Batty Days in Lodgepole.”

“How fitting,” Aubrey muttered.

“It’s a fundraiser for bat habitats,” he continued. “Sounds fun.”

Sotheara clapped her hands together. “Bats!” A delighted smile lit up her face.

“Ew.” Madison grimaced as she scanned the afternoon sky, clutching the goofy orange sunbonnet tight over her curly brown hair.

“There’s no flier on my truck,” Frank said. “Edna and I arrived before Bender.”

“There’s something on the back,” Madison said.

Grant flipped the paper over. His green eyes opened wide. Aubrey looked over his arm at the hand-written note.

“Somebody’s not happy.” He handed the note to Frank.

“Bender,” Frank read aloud, “you think you’re gonna Survive, but you’re gonna Die. Die. Die.”

Birdsong and the sigh of the breeze through the pines punctuated the silence as the group huddled around Frank, staring at the scribbled threat. Frank handed it back to Grant.

“Let the games begin,” he muttered.

Madison smiled. “I knew this was going to be fun.”

Guest Post

Stranger Than Fiction by Catherine Dilts

When I first started writing fiction, one piece of advice I encountered was Write What You Know. In my case, I thought that would make for a very boring tale. I was stuck in a dead-end job. There were days when I was certain the hands of the clock were moving backward.

Slowly it dawned on me that although I took my life experiences for granted, most folks had never been inside a factory, worked in a laboratory with scientists, known a real cowboy, or run a marathon. My life was actually kind of interesting. Especially if I threw in a mystery. 

I sold my first short story to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. When it hit the periodical shelves, I couldn’t celebrate too vigorously, because the core of the tale involves the violent death of an annoying coworker. The real-life inspiration for the murder would be none too pleased if she realized I had killed her off. Fictionally speaking.

After this success, I was encouraged to further explore my life for ideas. The seed for my newest release, Survive Or Die, sprouted many years ago when I learned the executives of the company by which I’m employed were going on a team building exercise. Lacking imagination, they borrowed from Billy Crystal’s movie City Slickers and opted for a cattle drive in the Colorado mountains. 

While rank and file workers may have seethed with jealousy – okay, maybe that was just me – I also realized things hadn’t gone all that smoothly for characters in the movie. One of our company executives in particular, the one who got hammered at the company holiday party and fell off a chair, might have been headed for disaster. A cattle drive was ripe with hazards.

Eventually I envisioned a story involving a dysfunctional company holding a team building exercise, but I decided to blend in a little more fiction with the facts. What if factory floor employees were included? What if the team building exercise took place at a camp that once was a survivalist reality TV show setting? What if they went on a field trip to a cannibal museum? What if playing at survival suddenly became real, and participants had to fight for their lives?

In the end, I wrote a book that has been called The Office meets Bear Grylls. I’ll let the reader guess which characters are based on real people, and which events might have actually happened. Keep in mind that real life can be stranger than fiction. 

 Catherine Dilts is the author of the Rock Shop Mystery series, while her short stories appear regularly in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She takes a turn in the multi-author sweet cozy mystery series Secrets of the Castleton Manor Library with Ink or Swim. With a day job as an environmental regulatory technician, Catherine’s stories often have environmental or factory-based themes. Others reflect her love of the Colorado mountains. The two worlds collide in Survive Or Die, when a manufacturing company holds a team building exercise in the wilderness. You can learn more about Catherine’s fiction at