I woke up to piss.
The tent zipper was caught on fabric but after struggling, yanking and cussing, I tore it free and stepped into the cool August night. The grass was wet against my bare feet but the dirt was hard and dry. A pebble stabbed my heel.
Above, the night was cloudy and dark. Even with my glasses I couldn’t see stars but a plane flew overhead—how many tourists would make a wish?
I exited the camping site without getting dressed, counting to fifty delicate steps so I wouldn’t ram a tree or stub my foot on a grizzly. Fun fact: bears like the salty smell of urine and so even if there’s an outdoor latrine, you should spray a rock or a tree and use the latrine only for poop. Otherwise a bear will go digging for your urine and you don’t want a shitty bear charging you.
My stream caused steam to rise from the moss between the roots of an oak. I was leaning against the bark and the steam warmed my face. It smelled awful though so I stood without leaning.
I couldn’t identify more than the outline of my oak. The forest behind it might’ve been empty save the darkness. The foliage above was a black mass. My toes were only visible because I was pale.
However, something lit the night in the distance. Perhaps the forest ranger’s truck or a helicopter’s searchlight. Maybe frat boys had gotten lost on their way home from the bar and their drunk driving, while dangerous on the road, had saved them from hitting trees because they swerved around them in an attempt to drive straight. Probably not but it was late and I couldn’t think straight.
So I stepped towards the light with my piss still flowing—I stepped in the mud I had just made. Trees were lined up like someone had gone down a row and planted them, but the light didn’t pass beyond the trees. It didn’t illuminate the knots in the wood. It didn’t glisten on the wet leaves. It stayed behind the row of trees, hiding. I stared at it. It was blinding, but I stared anyway. Smoke wafted from the light.
Fire! A fire! It must be a raging fire!
But I felt no heat. I felt no danger. I stepped towards it with my pants unzipped and my penis poking through my boxers’ barn door.
The smoke was odd. I had been camping a long time—I was a scout since second grade and worked at Philmont every summer between college semesters—and this smoke didn’t behave like smoke I’d seen. It didn’t rise. It ran round trees like a river. It didn’t disperse in the air; it was tightly clumped and there was only one stream and when I stepped into it, it didn’t choke me, though I had asthma.
I followed it to its divinely bright source. I bumped against trees; scraped my elbow on bark; chipped my toenail on a root; banged my knee on a rock; twisted my foot in a rabbit hole; bashed my head against a branch, and I didn’t stop walking—though I cussed with every injury.
When I was at the row of trees that hid the light, I peeked around them. It was day behind them. I circled one tree, passing through day then night then day then night. If I went in reverse it might turn back the clock. But I couldn’t figure out why this section of the forest was lit. It was surrounded by trees that were just wide enough to squeeze a slender man between. I sucked in my gut to make it.
Inside, the dew on the grass shone. Ladybugs munched on fallen leaves, skipping the veins. The bark on a birch tree peeled. The leaves above were easy to spot and identify: red oak, black oak, silver maple, river birch, sycamore, gingko.
At the center of this enclosure was a stone gazebo, except the walls were bricked shut. The smoke wafted around the sides and into the forest. I circled it to find an entrance but I missed it the first time. The entrance, an arched doorway, was dark. There was a curtain of black that the light couldn’t pass beyond just as it couldn’t pass beyond these trees. I stuck my hand through and it disappeared in the dark. I yanked it out, fearing that without eyes on it, it might get gobbled by a wolf.
I couldn’t face the darkness head-on, so I backed into the gazebo. I could see beyond the veil now, well enough that I could count the blades of grass if I had that sort of patience. But I didn’t. I thrust my hand through, to the light, and I could see it. But when I stepped outside, the entrance was dark again.
It was late. My mind, fevered from exhaustion and pickled from alcohol, was puzzled. So I kept exploring hoping for an answer.
The gazebo wasn’t particularly spacious as there was a pedestal in the middle. It was big enough to fit a baseball, and there appeared to be a baseball on it. Except it was black. It wasn’t dark brown or dark purple or dark blue or dark grey—it was black. If you’ve never seen, you won’t understand the difference. It had no detail other than being spherical and black and small enough to throw sixty feet and six inches at 90+ mph with a little practice.
I reached for the orb, like one might reach for an apple. I looked at it—brought it close to my face so it nearly touched the tip of my nose, then set it back down. It wobbled on its pedestal. I steadied it.
Then, it sounded like a firecracker exploded behind me. And three more. Each stung twice, my back and my stomach. I recognized the sound vaguely from my days as a scout when I was earning my rifle shooting merit badge.
My jaw hit the pedestal. My hand knocked the orb from its resting place and it shattered on the stone. I lay on the stone. Blood pooled around me—I was cold but it warmed me. It trickled into the cracks in the stone. My boxers were stained and my dick was still out.
And I died, slowly.