There is a sleeping bag, a tent, a smoldering fire.
There are no people.
The smell of supper, cast-iron bacon, beans and onions, curls from the pot. You listen for the snap of twigs, for laughter, for footsteps and screams. It’s the third campsite you’ve found this way, abandoned mid-stride, too late for check-out, sunrise half a night away. The entire forest seems dim.
You’re supposed to warn campers of the dry season, of elevated forest fire risks, making sure they have buckets of water in case the flames get away from them. It doesn’t take much to spark the leaf litter.
Park ranger wasn’t what you set out to be, but the degree in psychology, BA not BS, didn’t yield many options. You took the three year course, then the cumulative test. You like the outdoors, the birds and the squirrels and the trees. Night’s aren’t great, but they were never like this.
You radio Cal, your shift partner, but you are met with a single electric note crackling from the walkie-talkie. You do it a second time. No reply.
If you’re smoking weed in the fire tower again… you sigh, before moving on to the next site, growing closer to the pond, to the fishing pier and the floating foam dock. There should be shouts, teenagers thrilled from an hour away from their parents, hormones cranked high, the full moon not helping anything. But they aren’t there. You can see the pond through the pines. It is still. No ripples spread. When you get close, you toss a rock just to prove it remains water, that it hasn’t frozen solid in the summer heat. The rock sinks, the plunk more like a scream than the sigh you desire.
You track through ten more sites, each left mid-meal, tents and campers with lights bleeding through windows and canvas flaps. Shadows haunt the trees ringing the packed earth clearings.
Why didn’t you get certified, pursue the psychologist path? They don’t spend their nights navigating wooded plots, reminding drunks they are still flammable, probably more so with the liquor swimming in their blood. Every doubt surfaces as you head towards the fire tower, every fork in the road that would have made sense, both monetarily and mental health wise. You love the woods, but you love it during the daytime, not the night, and the night is all you seem to know anymore.
Lights are on in the tower. You climb the steel steps, boots echoing off the metal. The air cools the higher you go, stars winking around the edge of the platform. You were never good with constellations. You search for the North Star, for Draco and the Big Dipper, but you can’t find them. It’s hard to concentrate. They are just pricks of light, incalculable distances away, fuel for other lives and other existences. You don’t dwell on it. The sudden exodus is enough for the moment.
The hatch on the underside of the tower is open.
You poke your head through, grasping the handle on the inside, pulling yourself up.
You’d kill for that stink of weed, the beers Cal isn’t supposed to drink on the job, but nevertheless find their way into your evening routine. You love that half-drunk surveillance, noting fires below, making sure they don’t spread, but still leaving campers alone. They all work full time jobs, all put in more hours than anyone should, storing away days for a long weekend at a cheap campsite in a state no one really wants to visit. You never wanted to visit it yourself, but it’s where the job was. You wanted adventure, and travel, and new sights, and now you’re a hundred feet in the air, in an empty fire tower, alone, watching fires die below, each flickering into the dark.
Eventually, all you see is the tops of trees painted silver by the moon, its mirror image reflected large on the lake. You want just one cloud to pass over its gaping retina, but the atmosphere doesn’t heed your desire. You wonder where everyone else has fled to, whether their bodies dematerialized or subtly slipped through the pines. Should you have followed them out? Was that ever an option? Were they ever really there? The emptiness settles in your stomach, a yawning dread opening at the thought of a world removed, at being left behind.
All you need is one person. One person from your past to sit at the railing: an old friend, an ex-lover, that one relatable co-worker, it doesn’t matter. Someone to tell you how messed up it is, how the world really is empty, how we each live in our own realities, rarely bumping against one another. You’d feel the heat of their skin, hip to hip, feet swinging out into the emptiness. You’d laugh and agree.
My world isn’t their world I guess, you’d say.
But you wish it was, your friend would reply before pretending to slip under the railing, the joke-fall never humorous after the pantomimed motion.
That’s not funny, you’d say, smacking their arm.
Maybe not in your world, they reply, but in mine, it’s hilarious.
Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian. He is the fiction editor for The Cape Cod Poetry Review. His work has been published in The Southwest Review, Catapult, Tiny Nightmares, Redivider, Wigleaf, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Flash Fiction Online, Bourbon Penn, and elsewhere. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com
image: MM Kaufman