Chokeleaf

On our first night in the park, we sit around the campfire and take turns screaming into a ficus.

Devin presses the ball of leaves to his lips, and his face goes red with effort. He moves it away for a moment and I can hear him belt out a B-flat. When he brings the leaves back to his lips, the noise vanishes. He moves them back and forth, the sound disappearing and reappearing like a coin in a magician’s palm.

When he’s done, he lets the leaves rest in his lap. He looks pleased, and also a little freaked out.

“That’s uncanny.” His voice is raspier now and weaker, like the leaves clawed it out of him. A mosquito lands on his sweaty forehead, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

“Is it your first time seeing Ficus effusio?” Mark asks. He’s our Trail Captain, in his mid-twenties maybe, with condescension in his voice that even the densest cluster of leaves couldn’t absorb.

“That’s the scientific name for Chokeleaf?” Devin smiles, and it’s apparent to me from the discolored patches on his teeth that he had braces until recently.

“Yes. Ficus effusio.” Mark says it like it’s a magic spell.
Devin peers at the leaves in his lap again. “I haven’t.”

Kennedy reaches for the ball of leaves, the glow of the campfire reflected in her clear nail polish. “Me neither. May I try?”

I don’t say anything. Last year, I had Chokeleaf plants in pots in each of the four corners of my dorm room, because my roommate Celia liked country music and no one else on our floor could tolerate it at any volume. With the Chokeleaf there to absorb the sound, we could blast whatever music we wanted and no RA’s came to our door to remind us that We Live in a Community.

“You got spit all over it.” Kennedy curls her lip in mock-disgust, but holds the plant to her mouth anyway. She takes a big breath in through her nose and then I can tell she is singing or screaming or yelling, because the smooth skin on her cheeks crease, and folds take shape on either side of her face that flank her mouth like parentheses. When she pulls the leaves away from her lips, the sound is so loud my whole body tenses. As soon as she hears her own yell, she presses the plant to her lips again, but even the half-second of noise is like a hand clapped over my eardrum.

Rishi tries next. He tucks his longish wavy hair behind his ears, then holds the leaves to his lips and strains like the singer in a metal band. I can picture him onstage, electric guitars shrieking behind him. When he’s done, he passes the ball to me, then uses the hem of his T-shirt to wipe the sweat from his face. I try to compress the circular leaves, but they are already so dense I can barely make the lump smaller. I press it to my mouth and scream as loudly as I can until my lungs ache. The plant swallows the sound.

The others start talking before I am finished screaming.

“Why did you kids join Trailblazers?” Mark asks. It’s a question purportedly for all of us, but his eyes are fixed on Kennedy.

“I’m on a gap year, and I’ve always been passionate about eradicating invasive species.” Kennedy gives the sort of self-satisfied smile that would fit in well at the end of a job interview or campaign speech. “What about everyone else?”

I continue to scream into the leaves, though my lungs ache. I can feel a pressure in my ears from the screaming, but I can still hear everything that’s going on around me. It is uncanny, to scream without hearing my own scream. When I’m out of breath, I rest the lump of plant matter in my lap. Mosquitoes swarm me, despite the smoke. I watch one land on my arm and I jerk, trying to get it to fly away so I don’t have to swat it.

Rishi plays with the hem of his T-shirt, a faded one emblazoned with the name of some band I’m not cool enough to know about. “I just like being in nature, so I thought ‘hell yeah, I’ll get paid to camp’.”

Devin nods. “Same. I want to learn survival skills, so that I can outlive the impending collapse of this society.”

Mark snorts at that.

“What about you, Steph?” Rishi turns towards me, firelight reflected in his irises.

“I’m taking a break from school,” I say, which is sort of the truth. I’m on involuntary medical leave, my university’s way of saying If you’re going to kill yourself, please do it off-campus.

Mark shakes his head. “You’ll find that Trailblazers is no break. This is demanding work, physically and mentally. But it’s also rewarding.”

I give him a weak smile, then stare out into the forest rather than make any more eye contact. I can see at least six Chokeleaf shrubs from my seated position, all about as tall as me, their thin branches dripping with leaves so small and densely packed they form a dark green wall. I’m used to seeing Chokeleaf in pots. Seeing them in the wild feels different; uncontained, they remind me that I’m in their home, they’re not in mine.

“Let’s roast marshmallows!” Devin springs up from his seated position and rummages through our bear canister of dry goods. When he circles the fire, handing us each a marshmallow and a Chokeleaf branch, I accept both.

I strip the leaves off the branch and impale my marshmallow, then hold the stick so it hovers an inch above the coals. I do not feel like I am camping yet. I feel like I am acting out “camping”, like it’s a word I’ve drawn in Charades.

The other Trailblazers look like they are acting out camping, too, but they are more committed to their roles. Rishi is whittling the tip of his stick with a pocketknife. Devin is poking at the fire, like he’s afraid it’ll fall asleep. Mark slaps his own cheek with one hand, leaving the smear of a dead mosquito in his brown stubble, now auburn with blood. Firelight glimmers off a stray wing, turning it iridescent.

When I was little, maybe eight or nine, I found a dragonfly floating on top of a puddle outside of my house. I lifted it out of the water, marveling at how light it felt in my hand, and rested it in the grass. It moved enough that I could tell it was alive, but it could not fly with its waterlogged wings. I was worried something would come and eat it while it was helpless, so I watched it for what felt like hours as its wings dried in the sun, their intricate pattern of lines and circles glowing purple and green in the late afternoon light. At last, it flew away, just as my parents called me for dinner. I went inside and ate a hamburger, but about halfway through I started to feel the texture of its fat and muscle in my mouth, reminding me it had once walked around. My mother insisted I could not go to my room without finishing my dinner, so I sat at the table with half a burger in front of me until nightfall, when I gave up and ate it because I was hungry anyway.

There’s a sour taste in my mouth as I think about the dragonfly, a taste I know won’t be drowned out by a s’more. Devin stops messing with the fire for a momentand gets up to go inside his tent. When he returns, he has a ukulele in one hand. My mood worsens, something I hadn’t thought possible. He sits down and starts strumming and singing that John Denver song about country roads. His voice is undeniably good, but I still keep an eye on the woods behind his back, secretly hoping that the country roads will show up to take him home.

I realize too late that my marshmallow is charred, the sugary outside burnt black. I eat it anyway, first pulling off the crunchy outside and letting it fall to ash in my mouth.

Mark stands up and moves around the campfire. His hair is shorter on the sides, so he looks like a crested bird. He bobs like a bird, too, when he walks. He takes a seat by Kennedy and leans over to talk to her. I can hear enough snippets to tell it’s a hiking story, something about a time he was close to a bear.

I am consumed suddenly and utterly by the urge to not be here, though I also do not want to be at my parents’ house. I am homesick for last year’s dorm, but now a stranger lives on my side of the room and Celia is living somewhere else with someone else. I pick up the Chokeleaf wreath and press it to my lips again. I scream and scream until it’s time to go to sleep.

***

Seven hours drain away on a leaking inflatable sleeping pad and then I wake with my back indented from pebbles. At breakfast, Mark lectures us over mugs of instant coffee.

Ficus effusio, or Chokeleaf as you know it by its common name, is a man-made abomination, engineered in a lab to absorb all but the lowest frequencies of sound. Since its accidental introduction to Wild Canyon Park, Chokeleaf has caused animal populations to shrink as creatures can no longer find one another to mate.” He shakes the ball of leaves in his hand. “This invasive species is claiming human lives along with animal ones; multiple hikers have disappeared after becoming separated from their friends. We are here for the next eight weeks to take our park back.”

I haven’t changed my base layer from yesterday and everything feels slightly damp, but the upside is that I haven’t had to look at my body in days. The smoke from yesterday’s campfire lingers in my hair, so I smell like a burned witch. I check my phone, but there’s no signal. No text messages have made their way through, or perhaps no one has texted me.

Across the campfire from me, Kennedy pours coffee into her mug of oatmeal and mixes the two with a spork. I look down at my own mug, which contains a similar mixture. The nice thing about camping is that everyone else eats like they’ve given up, too.

Mark is in his element, gesticulating away. “The only positive quality of Ficus effusio is that the trunks are so slender you can easily sever them with just a pair of shears. So, don’t worry; none of you will have to handle a heavy axe or a scary chainsaw.”

Kennedy and I make eye contact and I see her suck in her lower lip as she struggles not to laugh.

“If you do encounter a trunk too thick for the shears, find me and I’ll use my axe.” Mark pats the axe which leans against his foot. “Your goal is to chop down as many Ficus effusio as possible, while leaving the other plants untouched. If you get separated from your partner, don’t bother yelling for one another. Just let off one of your flares. The same goes if you can’t find the campground. Now, finish your breakfast and get partnered up. And remember to leave no trace. I don’t want to find a trail of candy wrappers in the woods.”

Kennedy makes eye contact again, and for a moment I don’t know why. Then, I realize she wants to be my partner.

I scrape the last of my oatmeal into the fire and head over to her. She looks absurdly put together considering our surroundings, like the kind of daughter my parents would have wanted to have. Her dark hair is in a neat ponytail and she’s wearing a cream-colored North Face fleece jacket under her Trailblazers windbreaker that somehow has escaped any traces of dirt.

“Hey,” she says, “How’d you sleep?”

“Good.” I haven’t had a reason to speak today, and when I do I can feel the soreness in my throat from last night’s screaming.

“That’s good for you,” she says, her voice bright. “I barely slept. It’s so cold at night here.”

She looks alert to me, though there is a trace of a shadow under each of her brown eyes. I’m marveling at the fact that I’m even out of my tent. At the beginning of my medical leave, I left my single psychiatrist’s appointment with a prescription for Wellbutrin, and it’s helped with my energy level if nothing else.

Kennedy and I carve a slow path through the woods, stopping to cut down Chokeleaf as we go. The leaves of the trees we cut down are full of water, so our damp clothes grow even colder and wetter as we progress. The forest is so devoid of sound that I become uncomfortably aware of the noises I am making just digesting and breathing. My stomach rumbles like I have an icemaker inside me.

Kennedy talks constantly as we walk, telling me about her family at home and the college she’s going to next year and her five-year plan.

“It’s just nice being here and getting space to breathe,” Kennedy says. “I like my brothers and sister, but it’s good to finally have some privacy.”

I nod, even though a campsite isn’t my idea of privacy.

I spot another cluster of Chokeleaf plants and use my shears to sever the slender trunks at their base. I tuck a bundle of the leaves into my pocket.

“Souvenir?” Kennedy asks.

“Handkerchief.”

“So you can sneeze silently?”

“Yeah. And if Mark says something stupid, I can hide my laugh.”

She grins, exposing a row of straight, white teeth. “That’s brilliant.”

I don’t reply. My palms are already sore from the shears, and I just want to be back in bed.

“Look at that.” Kennedy points and I turn my gaze.

There’s a bird hopping around on the branch of a nearby Chokeleaf tree. It flaps its wings in an exaggerated dance, opening its beak in silent squawks.

Kennedy claps a hand over her mouth to hide her giggle. “It looks so funny.”

I feel suddenly very distant from her, as if we are on opposite ends of the woods with no chance of us ever seeing or hearing each other. I stand there and watch the bird calling for a mate as the forest eats its song.

***

The days take on a pattern. I go to bed stiff from the cold and wake up even stiffer. In the morning, I take my meds, then stuff a sock into the bottle so it won’t rattle in my backpack. I check my phone, but there’s never any signal and even if there was, I can’t imagine anyone would message me. I open Instagram and stare at the blank white squares, images that haven’t loaded. Then, I join the others outside the tent. We gather around the fire and eat oatmeal, which never tasted like much to me and now tastes like even less. I never have to talk much, because the others seem intent on speaking incessantly. In the few breaks in the conversation, the silence surprises me in its immensity.

On a foggy morning in our third week in the park, Kennedy and I walk into the woods together. The silence presses down on us. It feels equal parts suffocating and comforting, like a weighted blanket.

A strand of hair has escaped from Kennedy’s ponytail and she brushes it out of her face. “I’m so sick of sleeping outside. I don’t know why people do this for fun.”

I nod. I think people like camping because the novelty of being miserable all the time is interesting to them. It’s not for people like me, who are already miserable.

Kennedy continues to talk. “At least it’s not as bad here as being at home.”

I nod again, even though I’m not sure I agree.

Apparently, I don’t need to say anything to keep the conversation going, because she keeps talking. “I can’t wait until college.”

She stares off into the distance, as if she’s looking at a bright future and not endless trees.

I keep my eyes on the underbrush. “College is better than high school, definitely.”

She uses her shears to chop down a Chokeleaf plant. “So, you like it?”

“I liked parts.” I squat down in order to sever a trunk at the base, already regretting participating in this conversation.

“Which parts?”

I’m starting to feel like I’m being cross-examined, but when I glance up at her she’s still smiling. Leaves overhead cast a shadow pattern across part of her face so she looks like she’s wearing a lacy mask.

“I had some really good friends,” I say, thinking of Celia. I had other friends, of course, but they forgot about me sooner. I didn’t answer their texts my last semester, didn’t show up to our shared classes, and pretty soon they weren’t trying to reach out anymore.

Kennedy turns away from me, so she sounds much quieter, none of her soundwaves bouncing back to me from the forest. “If you like college, then why are you taking time off?”

I feel something solid in my gut. “Because I was having a hard time.”

“Oh.” She is silent for a moment. “That’s pretty mature, to realize that something is wrong and do something about it.”

“It wasn’t my decision,” I say. “My school told me I needed to take time off until I was better.”

“And you don’t agree?”

I look down at my feet. “I think it was easier for me to handle things at school.”

She turns back to me. “Why? I mean, isn’t college stressful?”

College hadn’t been perfect, but it was better than my childhood house, a dimly lit and silent place. My mother had awful migraines, so intense that at times she hallucinated a bright light like the headlight of a train barreling towards her. In the throes of a migraine, she would lock herself in her dark bedroom and insist that no one make a sound. After she had recovered from a migraine and stepped back into the rest of the house, she would frown if she saw anything out of place, like the crust of a sandwich on my plate or a toy in front of the sofa. When she went to lie down and nurse her migraine, I would tiptoe around the house, cleaning up my messes. I felt like a spy, trying to sweep away my tracks as I moved through the house, trying always to look like I had never been there. Even when she was fine, I treaded carefully, searching for the signs in her brow and gaze that she was on the edge of developing a migraine. Each small noise I made, from joy or sorrow, could cause her pain. Even speaking was scary to me; my voice could easily be too loud, or there could be an unintentional impolite meaning to my words that would cause my mother to turn away and pretend I did not exist. It had been liberating to move in with Celia and share a room with someone who wanted me to exist, and sometimes even to exist loudly.

Kennedy’s voice jolts me out of my thoughts. “Why were things easier to handle at school?”

“My roommate was always there for me.” I think about Celia, how she would sneak orzo salad and bananas out of the cafeteria for me when I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed.

“She sounds like a good friend.”

My eyes tear up at the thought of Celia, and how I’ve disappeared from her life completely. “She is.”

“Is everything okay?”

“Yes.” I regret saying so much. I stare at my grimy hands.

Kennedy is quiet for a moment, and I realize just how silent the pocket of forest is where we are standing. I can hear my pulse hammering, so loudly I’m worried Kennedy can hear it, too.

Her brown eyes are full of sympathy. “I’m sure she misses you a lot, too.”

I force a smile. “Maybe we’ll get back out of the woods and I’ll have a million text messages from her.”

She nods again. “That’s probably right.”

The idea makes me feel a little better, though I doubt it. I didn’t respond to any of Celia’s messages in the weeks after I moved out of the dorm and before I started Trailblazers. I’m not even sure why; I just knew it would ache to talk about any of it, about what we had—if we had anything—and about my life now.

I look around for more Chokeleaf to chop down. There’s a cluster just a few feet away from me, but the trunks are far thicker than any I’ve seen before. Some are as thick as my torso.

“Look,” I tell Kennedy.

She follows my gaze. “Those are giant.”

I step forward without thinking, walking right into the center of the grove. I thought the rest of the forest was silent, but surrounded entirely by the trees, I now understand what true silence is. I close my eyes and watch red shapes swim across the insides of my eyelids as I listen to nothing, true nothing. The quiet is such that my brain attempts to fill it in. I can hear things that aren’t real now; a distant ringing, a slight murmur, almost a song, like the ones Celia would play in our dorm.

Celia’s cheeks were red and wisps of her hair floated as we danced around the room to Follow Your Arrow. Her body had a sixth sense—she could dance without running into the dressers or wardrobes or hampers or beds that crowded our tiny room. She grabbed my arm and spun me in a circle, then dipped me. I shrieked with laughter, not worried about anyone outside hearing us. She sang along, Make lots of noise, kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls if that’s what you’re into. She pressed her lips against mine and I was breathless. When she broke away, I let out a whoop, knowing the Chokeleaf would swallow it. The Chokeleaf plants kept our joy contained, where it could be just for us, none of it leaking out of the room where it could be mocked or resented. There is no joy with me now, in this grove, but there is peace and a silence so deep it conjures the memory of music.

There was music playing a week after the kiss, when I finally opened up to Celia about how empty I’d felt the past six years. I feel like I would be doing the world a favor if I just disappeared, I told her as we both sat cross-legged on her lofted bed, illuminated by the strings of lights that zig-zagged across the wall. She squeezed my arm. I’ll dial the number for Psychiatric Services, she told me. And when they pick up, I want you to ask for an appointment. She dialed the number, then placed the phone on the comforter between us and we sat there, listening to it ring.

I jump when I feel the touch. I turn and see that Kennedy has extended her hand into the grove to grab my shoulder. She motions for me to come towards her.

I pull myself away and step out of the grove.

A tiny furrow appears between her brows. “I yelled and yelled, and you just stood there.”

Her voice sounds loud to me now. I can’t tell if this is because she’s annoyed at me, or because I became used to the absolute silence of the grove.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “It was just so peaceful.”

She stares at me, her strong jaw set and her lips a straight line.

“They’re too large for us to chop down,” she says. “Mark can come get them tomorrow, with his axe.”

I look back at the trees, standing so resolutely in their cluster, and think of them lying on the ground, leaking sap.

***

We gather around the campfire that night and make dinner, chopping peppers, potatoes, and sausages and wrapping them in foil before nestling the packets into the coals.

“I never thought I’d miss microwaves this much,” Rishi says as he flips his foil packet with a stick. The stick pokes a hole in his foil packet and a hunk of potato falls out into the fire.

“Better get used to living without one.” Devin grins, showing the ghosts of his braces again. “It’s just not sustainable for Americans to keep living the way we’ve been living. We need to return to the basics, or else face inevitable collapse.”

Rishi arches a brow, though the rest of his expression remains neutral. “That’s not true. We have enough resources for everyone to have a good life, if we just distributed them better.”

Kennedy cuts in. “I think what Devin’s saying is not that we don’t have enough to go around, but that the methods of producing these products aren’t environmentally sustainable.”

I tune them out, focusing instead on fishing my packet of food out of the fire. Using two sticks instead of Rishi’s one, and holding them like tongs, proves effective. I open the packet and place a potato chunk in my mouth, but it’s burning hot like a coal and I spit it back. I glance around, but no one is paying attention to me. I tune into and then out of the conversation. Mark is talking now, about how kids these days are so self-righteous it bores him to death. Kennedy objects and they bicker like siblings. I don’t know where they get the energy for all this arguing, when it’s wearing me out to just listen. I am unnecessary to this gathering, and everyone seems to have forgotten I’m here. I feel myself fading into the background, like the accumulated dirt on my skin has camouflaged me. I get up from the campfire, and no one glances at me.

“They’re letting girls be Cub Scouts now!” Mark says to Kennedy as I walk away from the fire. “It’s not fair to—”

His voice is cut off mid-sentence as I step into the forest, like I’ve slammed a door in his face. The silence is less menacing now that I’m on my own. It’s almost relaxing, how it amplifies my breathing to the point where I cannot ignore it. I walk through the forest. The light is fading, and the world feels manageable, sound and sun held at bay. Maybe the reason the others talk so much is because they’re afraid of this silence. For me at this moment, it feels like a respite. I walk until I find the grove, the cluster of thick Chokeleaf trees dark against the landscape.

I step into the center of the grove. The scent of my body, musty and rank, fills the tiny space in the center of the ring of trees. I can hear the saliva traveling down my throat when I swallow and my blood travelling through my body. I can hear everything in this tiny enclosure and nothing outside. The hush feels anticipatory, like the trees are waiting on me to speak or scream or sing, to feed them with my noise.

I feel like I am in a portal, like I am between places. For a moment, I just let myself exist in the silence. Then, I lie down in the center of the grove, a space just large enough to contain my body. I am completely alone in the dark, not even a bird song or the rustle of the wind to keep me company. A leaf falls onto my face and I rub it between my fingers, feeling the tiny ridges shaped like triangular prisms. I lie there in silence and watch the last traces of light drain from the sky. There is little difference in the darkness when my eyes are open versus shut, but I keep them open. I wonder why there aren’t more stars, as far from the city as we are. I’d always wanted to see stars as a kid, to see any sort of nature beyond backyard insects, but we were too close to the city. I would have loved Trailblazers as a child, but now I don’t like anything that requires effort. I wouldn’t have even called my campus psychiatric services if Celia hadn’t dialed the number for me.

I only ever had one appointment, with a therapist who seemed more on edge than I did. She wore a light-blue cardigan and her hair was up in a tight auburn bun. The art in her office was nondescript, landscapes in calming colors. I wondered if this was even her office and her art, or whether it was decorated by the school and shared by multiple therapists. I tried to imagine myself opening up to this woman, and reminded myself of what Celia had told me. Take it one step at a time. The first step is showing up. I was out of bed thanks to three alarms and an assist from Celia, but I didn’t have the energy to give any expression other than neutral. She smiled at me, nervous energy sparking off her very white teeth, as she launched into a robotic intro.

“There are just a few questions I need to ask before we begin. In the past few weeks, have you wished you were dead?”

Without thinking, I nodded.

“Have you been having thoughts of killing yourself?”

I nodded again, even though I didn’t really think of killing myself. I just thought of myself already dead, lying in the woods somewhere with moss reclaiming my body. The thought was peaceful to me.

I failed the suicide prevention screening, or passed it, maybe, depending on how you frame it. The therapist told my school I had a plan to kill myself, so I was placed on medical leave. The administrators say medical leave isn’t a punishment, but it’s the same thing they do to people who’ve broken the rules: make them leave campus for a while.

I didn’t speak to Celia at all as I packed up my side of the dorm room. Tears and snot ran down her face as she told me again that she hadn’t thought I was going to be kicked out. I didn’t look at her. I wasn’t angry, exactly, just numb, and seeing her face sent a stabbing pain through my heart.

I wish I could hear her voice now. I’m alone with the Chokeleaf, and the thought should make me feel sad, but instead I feel something else, or maybe what I’m feeling is nothing at all. I stare up at the dark green leaves above me, knowing that I could sing or scream or yell. The knowledge of all the possibilities makes me want to do nothing at all. I remain there, cradled in silence, as my breathing slows and a sense of deep calm washes over me.

***

I awaken to water dripping on my face and I open my eyes to the dense canopy above me, which is not quite dense enough to keep raindrops from hitting my face. For a moment, I struggle to remember where I am and how I got here. A wave of panic washes over me as I realize I have no idea how long I’ve been gone from camp. My blood pounds through my veins, thrumming loudly like the soundtrack to a horror film. I dig my fingers into my arm. You idiot, I think, as I realize how stupid it was to fall asleep among the trees. If anyone noticed I was gone and called for me, there was no way I could have heard them. They could have walked right by me, a foot from my head, and I would not have known. The thought makes my stomach twist.

I get to my feet and run out of the thicket. Outside of the grove, the wind whips my face. Rain is coming down hard, in diagonal sheets. I squint against the water blown into my face. The storm blows raindrops into my eyes like I’m crying in reverse. I run in the direction of the campsite, the world appearing before me in momentary flashes before my vision is again flooded. Twigs and brambles scratch at my ankles. The terrain is uneven and marred with branches and roots. I crash through clusters of trees, trip, right myself, and trip again.

Dread rises in me as I realize I’ve been running for too long. I should be at the campsite by now, but I’m not. I don’t know where I am. I swing around and attempt to retrace my steps, blinking raindrops from my eyes as I scan the undergrowth. The Trailblazers could be calling for me, and I would still be unable to hear them. The idea is almost as horrifying as the more likely one, that they’re not looking for me at all. The rain soaks through my windbreaker, which traps the water against my skin.

I stumble through the woods, none of it familiar. My boots are full of water and I’m shaking now, from the cold and from my fear. At last, I reach a copse of Chokeleaf. They’re not as large as the ones in the grove where I slept, but their thick leaves provide some shelter from the rain. I step inside the thicket and the sound of the storm vanishes. I’m alone with my thoughts again and all I can think about is the others, the warmth of the campfire and the sound of their voices as they argue and complain and joke and bond. I’m tired of being alone. When I see another person, I want to sing and scream and talk until they have to acknowledge me, until we are forced to hear one another.

***

When I open my eyes, it’s too bright sunlight, barely diluted by the canopy overhead. I’m confused for a moment about where I am. Then, I remember the previous night, the grove and the storm and my struggle to find shelter. The sun is directly above me, and harsh enough that I feel dizzy. It’s day, perhaps even midday. My body is damp from the rain, and now I’m sweating, too, as I think about the others.

I get up and look around, hoping that in the light of day I’ll be able to recognize my surroundings. I don’t, and I’ve left multiple trails from crashing through the undergrowth the night before. I pick a direction and walk in it, hoping I’ll see something familiar. My wet clothes chafe against my armpits, and my boots smell like someone died in them. I glance back and forth as I walk, searching for some clue to where the campsite might be. Everything is both familiar and not; each cluster of Chokeleaf looks like the last.

The sun sinks in the sky as I wander. My stomach aches from hunger, but my fear pushes me forward and I walk endlessly, hoping that over the next hill I will find the camp and its warm pocket of noise.

I continue walking into the evening, as the sky shifts to pink and then a deep blue. When I end up back at the same stand of trees where I slept the night before, I sink to a crouch and rock back and forth. I hug myself tightly and feel a cylindrical shape in my pocket.

The flare, I remember with a jolt. I pull it out. Matches are in an interior pocket of my jacket, where they’ve thankfully remained dry.

I strike the match and hold it to the flare. The flare must have gotten wet, because it doesn’t light. I smell smoke, a wet, burnt smell, but the flare does not go off.

I strike another match and hold it to the flare. This time, the flame takes. As I watch the light arc across the sky, I wonder who will come to get me, if anyone comes at all. All I know is that I won’t be able to hear them coming until they’re already here.