This story is by Heather Scrooby and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
I closed my eyes tightly, willing them to open on a different scene.It couldn’t be, I couldn’t have, I thought to myself. The almost unbearable thirst was a poignant indicator of the deadly implications the scene before me could represent. I opened my eyes slowly, knowing it was futile, but hopeful none-the-less that I would see something different when I looked again… but it was the same scene. The same tree I had sat under yesterday afternoon. Perhaps it just looks similar I thought, but I knew I was lying to myself. The indentations from where I had sat yesterday afternoon and the scuffle of my shoes when I had stood up again to resume my journey were indisputable evidence. Even the leaves and twigs I had pulled from the lower branches in anger, then carelessly discarded, were still strewn around. There was no denying it – this was the same place… I was LOST.
Until this moment, this little expedition had seemed nothing more than an irrational impulse. But walking off to second camp on my own, late in the afternoon and without any provisions, had been a bad move. And all because I was frustrated with my girlfriend. She made me so mad I could not think clearly. It had been such a simple comment, ‘everyone played their part’ she had said after I had vented my frustration with the rest of my team. We had done well, everyone was celebrating. Great, but they could never have done it without me. Before I had come to help them they had been failing. I had single handedly turned everything around and yet they were clapping each other on the back as if they had somehow done something… ‘Everyone played their part,’ she said in their defense! What does she know? She is a follower, not a leader. Shaking my head in exasperation, I had stalked away from her, off the trail and out into the wilderness.
I should have arrived at the second camp by sundown, sooner if you took into account the speed I had hiked in my anger. I had been so sure of myself. So certain of my abilities. I had no compass, or indeed anything but the clothes on my back, but I was a seasoned camper and explorer. I could not get lost out here in the wilderness, it was just not possible.
Getting lost had never crossed my mind until this moment, not even when the second camp failed to materialize when it should have yesterday evening, forcing me to sleep in a tree. When I had still been unable to find the second camp early this morning, instead of re-evaluating and adjusting, I casually assumed I had merely skirted it. Shrugging my shoulders nonchalantly I had decided to push on to the third camp. The sounds of awe as I told my story to all who would listen in the camp’s communal area later that evening spurred me on. Only somewhere I had gone wrong.
Now, with no food or water, I was walking in circles. I slumped down to the ground and gripped my head in both hands. I willed the terror that was creeping up on me to subside. I should have realized last night that I was in trouble. Again this morning I should have re-grouped knowing I was going wrong… Why had I not panicked until this moment? What had made me think I would effortlessly find the third camp and have a few drinks to slake this unbearable thirst and a large meal to quiet my growling stomach? How delusional I was.
I recalled muttering throughout the day about everything. Angry that I had been reduced to sleeping the night out in the sticks, a reality that severely reduced the awe factor of my feat and the story it would make. I had been so engrossed in my own anger that I had completely lost all sense of time and place.
Since I had been walking in circles and had landed back here, where I had first rested only an hour after leaving Michelle, my best chance was to head back to the first camp. I looked up at the fading sun to gauge the time as I instinctively reached for my compass to check my bearings. A deep-seated dread seized me when I remembered I did not have my compass. In horror I leapt to my feet and ran in the general direction I thought first camp should be. Desperately screaming out for help while I sprinted blindly through the wilderness.
I can not remember how long I rushed along, swatting the branches out of my way and shouting in ever decreasing volume as I ran out of breath. Exhaustion finally brought me to my knees and I slumped in defeat to the ground. The late afternoon sun painted the sky blood red as it slowly faded to my second night alone in the wilderness…
When I eventually managed to drag myself back to my feet, I searched for a tree to climb to get through the rest of the night. While this was not a big five game reserve and there should be no dangerous predators, I felt less vulnerable higher up.
I tried to focus on what I should do the next day in order to get back to the first camp, but I could not concentrate. My tummy grumbled in constant complaint and my thirst plagued me while mosquitoes buzzed and sucked my blood.
Although I had been thirsty and hungry for some time, the promise of camp being so close had alleviated the urgency of these basic needs, making them bearable. But now, with the uncertainty that reality demanded, these needs quickly amplified.
Just before dawn a thin layer of moisture covered everything around me. Instinctively I put my hand to my mouth and licked the dew from the back of my hand. Quickly I started reaching out to the leaves closest to me, almost toppling off the branch, desperate to get the smallest drop of water. With no more leaves within my reach, I hastily climbed down from my tree and searched for anything to get as much dewy moisture from as possible. But the tiny droplets of water that reached my tongue only seemed to make my thirst more prominent and my search more carnally desperate.
When there was no more moisture to be found, and the humidity that followed the evaporation of the dew made the heat almost unbearable, I re-focused my thoughts. I had to have a definite, fool-proof plan to get back to first camp, but how? I had no compass nor any idea where I was and my natural navigation was flawed; clearly evidenced by the fact that I was walking in circles.
My mind kept wandering back to the moment I had left Michelle by the path. We had rested under a tall tree surrounded by harsh wilderness grass. I remembered walking along the shadow of the tall tree as I strutted away from her. That was it! Shadows.
It made sense that walking with my shadow behind me would take me in the direction of first camp. The problem was still: how far off course was I? It all depended on which direction I had veered in the hour between leaving Michelle and sitting under that fateful tree. If I was not careful, I could overshoot the camp and get lost in the wilderness behind. While I pondered on this, I started walking towards the sun, making sure my shadow was directly behind me.
If I passed to the south of the camp, I would come to the road that would lead me directly back. Even if I veered too far south, I would come out on the main road, leading to the camp road turn-off. Either way, I would know where I was. But if I passed north of the camp, nothing but wilderness lay ahead. If I was lucky, I might come across a hiking trail. But there was no guarantee of that. I immediately adjusted my path, making sure my shadow, while still behind me, was offset at about forty-five degrees to my left. This adjustment would give me a higher chance of being caught in the road triangle that lay to the south of camp.
Having focus and renewed hope, my hunger and thirst, although relentless, were more bearable. It was surprisingly loneliness that put an extra stagger in my step. I had always been a lone ranger, able to do anything on my own, never relying on anyone else. But now I realized with shock that I missed the gentle thudding of Michelle’s feet as she followed right behind me. Her heavy breathing a rhythmic reminder of her presence in the silence that I demanded.
I always treated her like a hindrance, she was either too loud or too slow. Suddenly I realized, that far from being something I felt obligated to drag along, Michelle did much more than just keep me company. She gently guided me at every turn. I could almost hear her melodious voice as she asked quietly when we would be changing course. I would grunt in response, but her soft reminder forced me to take my bearings and almost always I would have to adjust our course.
I missed her now with such intensity it hurt. We had been together since we were teenagers. I thought of her as my shadow, someone who I needed to guide, protect and lead, but I had been wrong… It was not Michelle who needed me, but I who needed her. I needed to be in charge, to feel like I was indispensable and important. She was my confidence, my self-worth, but she was also much more than that. Although she sat quietly in the background and let me take center stage, she was infused and instrumental in everything I did.
I could not believe I had never seen her for the incredible person she was. I always thought of her as weak, but I saw her now clearly. She was soft, yet unyielding when needed. I could remember her taking a stand on certain points, and I buckled to her every time, convincing myself I was just indulging her. How self involved and conceited I was. I was still grappling with these sudden insights when I stumbled upon the road.
Tears welled up in my eyes and, with renewed energy, I headed towards the camp. Within minutes relief and joy enveloped me as I spotted the camp and forced myself into a semblance of a run.
Someone must have seen me and realized I was in trouble, for within seconds people were running to my aid. Suddenly there were people everywhere. My arms were flung over two young men as they helped me towards camp.
“Trevor!” Michelle called, her voice loaded with relief as she threw her arms around me.
I pulled my arms off the young men who had been supporting me and gripped her tightly in return. When we parted, I fell down on one knee. The men leapt forward to assist me but I waved them away. I watched Michelle’s concern for me flicker on her beautiful face as I knelt before her.
“Will you marry me?” I asked.