Their regular campsite was at the end of the State Park’s clearing — far enough away from the family sites that they could make some noise and not be troubled by a Ranger about it. The small group would be left to their fun, regardless of its underage drinking, along as the party didn’t get so out of hand that the other campers complained. So, just beyond the malodorous porta-potty, their obnoxious behavior exacerbated by inebriation was limited to a 20’ by 20’ area they staked as their claim.
Following the old adage of “liquor before beer, never fear,” the girls usually started with a few Cherry Sloe Gin & 7Ups before they broke out the Bartles & James wine coolers and Michelob Lights. Two solid weeks of waitressing tips were enough for Tina and Jenae to spring for booze, cigarettes and the $4 site fees. They’d been looking forward to this trip all throughout Springtime before it finally got warm enough to spend the night outside. A sharp chill still set in after dark that made them grateful for the flames alight in a pit centered between two tents.
Besides their own, only a single lantern’s light shown from across the clearing. At least one other campsite was occupied but much further away by the big wooden shelter house where they’d all gone on day trips with Scouts when they were kids. It was a beautiful night to kick off the summer, and the two couples looked forward to partying the night away.
Everyone enjoyed the rare unsupervised freedom, which usually involved a few Jello shots and a rousing game of Truth or Dare. Tina had the Deepwoods Off handy to spray Adam down before he lost his last piece of clothing and had to take a naked lap through the middle of the clearing. It was early in May, but Midwestern mosquitoes still find a way to the most delicate anatomical crevices not protected by heavy-duty Deet.
With its chemical residue mixing into the aroma of woodsmoke in the air, the group settled down for a stint of embarrassing challenges and humiliating inquiries. Adam and Eric were full of hormones and pissed off at the girls only agreeing to Truth and its questioning amidst their squeal of tipsy giggles. ‘Yes,’ Jenae was the one who overflowed the girls’ locker room toilet during Freshman gym, and ‘No,’ Tina hadn’t really been sick when she skipped school last year. The guys slammed back their beers and took every provocation as it came. Eric accepted another dare, held his breath, and then bravely licked a fat brown toad found lurking behind the cooler. Unfortunately, doing so didn’t have the psychoactive effect he’d heard old hippies swear they’d known.
Hickory logs crackled in the pit, and the grass was just beginning to dew up with the onset of night. Adam half-stumbled across the dampness to the treeline to avoid the longer walk needed to take a more civilized piss in the modernity of a green plastic outhouse. He was further enveloped in the deepening darkness with each staggering step he took away from the proximity of their enclave. Soon the others couldn’t see him anymore at all. It had been cloudy earlier in the day, and a gray haze lingered into evening, so no moonshine lit the desolate park.
Jenae was the first to notice her boyfriend had been gone what seemed too long and shushed the others so they could listen for his return. The resultant absence of sound was unnerving. How odd to not hear a single cricket’s chirp or wail of a cicada but only the burning wood’s crackling as if wax paper were being crumpled in a fist. The trio was void of noise, too, with not a word between them. They sat slumped in their camp chairs but leaning forward and peering back and forth hoping to spot Adam.
The girls moved their seats closer together and held hands in frightened solidarity. Tina put a comforting arm around her friend’s shoulders in support, silently wishing they’d given Adam their only flashlight for his bathroom trip. She felt Jenae’s body shiver slightly under her touch. Eric squinted tightly to spot any movement over by the edge of the woods.
“Hey, there!” a voice boomed from their flank. All three campers jumped up at once, startled, and sucked in a triangled gasp for air all at the same time. They spun around to see a dark figure clad in green approaching them on foot. A human form of Smokey the Bear, complete with olive drab campaign hat atop its head, walked into the firelight. A man removed his headgear and said, “Sorry to startle you folks, but I’m the Ranger here.” His height towered from over six feet tall, his authority poised above them as well.
The campers each heaved sighs of relief, and Eric offered, “You scared the crap out of us!” Both girls whimpered nervously, afraid they were busted for the alcohol containers scattered across the ground. Imaginations ran amuck with thoughts of their parents being awoken by a call from officials.
“You should be scared,” the Ranger admonished. “I think I found something that belongs to you. There’s a young man in a horizontal heap over by the shitter. I suspect he’s your buddy, and he seems quite inebriated.” The look on the man’s face was enough to make Jenae sniff back a sob. He continued, “Perhaps you collect him, lay low for the rest of the night, and we’ll call it even.”
The young trio nodded in agreement and rushed off into the dark to claim their friend.
*This week’s writing prompt was word at Studio 30 Plus.