Unmanned (a very short story)

Unmanned - squirrel

We were camping. My neighbor Joe and I didn’t want to be camping – that night or ever, really – but our ten-year-old sons begged and pleaded and even did extra chores, so we had to take them camping.

Overnight. In the mountains. Sleeping in tents. But not really sleeping. Trying to sleep.

It wasn’t all bad. The moonless night was warm and clear, and the thick blanket of stars we saw above us between the treetops was amazing. But for me – apart from the disorientation of being off the grid, with no Internet and no cell service – it was all about the fire.

The fire kept the animals away, or so I supposed – bears, coyotes, whatever. Somebody said there weren’t any wolves, but there were bobcats and mountain lions here and there. Eventually we’d have to put the fire out. I was more than nervous about that, but only a little afraid.

Joe was a different matter altogether. He was paranoid, neurotic – not in a clinical sense, perhaps, but not in a particularly manly sense either. Park him in front of a computer or hand him a golf club or make him give a speech in front of 5,000 people, and he was right at home. Take him into the mountains or onto a body of water, and he turned to pudding. Not one of your quieter puddings.

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His only reliable comfort was a bag of walnuts from the tree in his back yard.

After a dinner of unevenly cooked tin foil meals – the boys had mocked our suggestion that we get a bucket of fried chicken or a couple of pizzas on our way to the canyon – our ten-year-old taskmasters insisted on s’mores. They were messy, which made us more nervous. We couldn’t see how we could clean up enough to avoid attracting the bears which, according to three signs in our campsite alone, had not been seen in the area but could be attracted by food.

We did our best to uns’more our campsite when they were finished. Then we put all the leftover food in a cooler, hauled it and our garbage down to Joe’s SUV, and locked it in. Everyone washed his hands and face — for safety’s sake, not hygiene’s. Our hands, faces, and camp were officially food-free.

Except for Joe’s walnuts.

As we sat around the fire, the boys tried to scare each other with grisly stories. We tried to think about other things — not how little sleep we’d get, despite our air mattresses. Or how, when we finally put the fire out and turned off our flashlights, the clear line between light and darkness would disappear, and there would be only darkness. Or how humans were the least adapted to darkness of all the forest’s predators.

Wielding his trademark nutcracker, Joe cracked and ate one walnut after another. He offered me some, but walnuts weren’t really my thing.

“Look, a squirrel!” said my Tyler, after we had all been uncharacteristically silent for almost a minute. He pointed to the trunk of the nearest very tall pine tree.

“I think it’s a flying squirrel,” said Joe’s Ryan.

“Now how can you tell that?” I asked, more skeptically than I meant to. Neither boy answered.

We followed the squirrel with our flashlights as it climbed up into a tree-shaped space that seemed darker than the sky. Then it spread its wings – flaps, whatever – and flew to the next tree, eerily illumined by our flashlights like a spotlit B-17 over Germany.

“It’s flying! It’s flying! It’s flying! Awesome!” sang the boy choir.

“That’s pretty cool,” said Joe. “But you know it wasn’t flying, right? It was just falling with style.”

Even by the flickering firelight, I could see the boys roll their eyes in unison.

Toy Story, Dad? Really?” asked Ryan.

Joe shrugged and resumed cracking his nuts.

About the time I noticed that the stars had disappeared, Ryan and Tyler announced that they were ready for bed. I made them help me police the campsite one more time by flashlight, looking for anything that might attract bears. Joe kept cracking his nuts.

The boys were sharing a two-man tent. They assured us they didn’t need any help getting ready for bed, so we stayed at the fire and listened to them for a while. The chatter, laughter, and other sounds of boys getting settled in sleeping bags took half an hour to die down.

Joe cracked his nuts, and I stared into the fire, wondering what there was about it that supposedly repelled wild animals. Why would a bear be intimidated by a campfire? A forest fire, probably, but a campfire? That hadn’t even scared the squirrel.

We sat at the fire until 1:00 a.m., not because the conversation was scintillating, but because we didn’t want to put the fire out and go to bed. Finally we doused it thoroughly and headed to our respective tents.

I lay awake for a long time after that. Joe was already snoring – would that attract large mammals or repel them? – but between his seismic scrapings, every distant animal noise or nearby rustling of trees or brush riveted my attention. I listened intently for a pattern that would suggest something approaching our little campsite. At times I thought I heard a large animal walking around, but the sound never seemed to get closer.

I must have dozed off at some point, because the screams awakened me. First I noticed the boy’s screams, but something in my panicked brain said they were secondary. The boys were screaming because Joe was screaming.

Joe was definitely screaming. Something thrashed around out there, too. My mind flashed back to a news story years ago about a bear attacking someone through the wall of a tent and dragging him away and killing him – in this very canyon.

For the first time in my life, I understood why people owned guns – and I no longer understood why I didn’t.

Some of Joe’s screams were intelligible. “My nuts!” he shrieked. “He’s got my nuts! He’s got my nuts!”

Automatically, I grabbed my oversized flashlight and exited my tent as quickly as humanly possible. I rushed to Joe’s tent, passing the boys’ intact tent on the way. Theirs was still zipped.

I say “automatically” because my brain would probably have stopped me, had it thought that I had no weapon. The flashlight was plastic and lightweight. It would be of no use against large, attacking mammals.

Joe’s tent was partly unzipped, and his body was half out of the opening – the upper half of his body. A wave of horror engulfed me, and I cast my eyes about for a good place to vomit.

Then I realized that I saw no blood, no severed limbs, and no fierce animal … just Joe, not the least bit disemboweled, pounding on the dirt with his fist.

“What’s going on?” I asked, panting.

“Stupid raccoon. Unzipped my tent, grabbed my nuts, and ran off with the whole bag. Camping totally sucks. He’s got my nuts!”

“Your nuts?”

“My walnuts.”

By this time, the boys were standing beside me, contemplating the spectacle.

“Wow, Dad,” said Ryan sarcastically. “Nice one.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Joe asked heatedly.

“Just wow, Dad.” He turned to Tyler. “Let’s go back to bed.”

Which they did, but Joe and I didn’t. We built a new fire and stared at it until dawn came. Then we made breakfast, fed the boys, struck camp, and headed home. We spoke less than a hundred words in the process.

Joe pulled the Expedition up to our garage and told Ryan to get out and help us unload our things.

Before he got back into the vehicle to go home, Ryan turned to Tyler, as if I weren’t even there, and said, “I’m sorry my dad is such a freaking coward.”

“It’s not like my dad is much better,” Tyler said. “But it must suck to go camping and come home without your nuts.”

Ryan rolled his eyes. “I won’t tell your mom if you won’t tell mine.”

“I’m sure they already know,” Tyler said, “but okay.”

I was miffed – at my own invisibility, if nothing else – and I opened my mouth to object.

Ryan spoke first. “Next time we go camping, let’s take our moms instead.”

“Deal,” said Tyler. “Our other moms. Maybe they can show us boys how to be men.”

I closed my mouth and went inside.

Photo credit: Artem Sapegin on Unsplash.

From the Author

David Rodeback

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