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Maria Sorrentino

Into Ash

The fog is quite strong today. My surroundings and I are engulfed by different tones of gray, brown, black, and white. I clasp my hands together and blow warm air into their intertwined form. It’s morning, I’m still in the woods. What’s left of them anyway. The wildfire destroyed almost everything in these parts. Not much is left despite scorched black trees sticking out of the ground in place of where their former vibrant selves once stood. The land is flat and covered in a soft blanket of soot. Still unclear how the fire started. Lightning couldn’t be the culprit since there were no heat storms in the area when it went ablaze. It finally ceased two days ago.

The fog is so thick I can barely see a few inches in front of me. I brought my wrist to my face. My watch read ten past 8. My body is stiff from the cold night. I have been gone for almost 14 hours now, surely the other rangers are looking for me. Ted and Phil, two other park rangers, and I were to start making piles of dead wood that would be removed later. We stayed relatively close to each other, no more than a few feet, but I must have taken a step too far. I shouted for them, “Ted? Ted! Phil!”. I screamed. My calls were left unanswered. Little did I know, instead of making my way back to the others, I wandered farther into the park.

 I’m the newest ranger on the team…and the youngest. I can picture it now, my night lost alone in the park becoming the contender for the next long-running joke. I sat down leaning against a tree and carefully listened for my name. Silence. Did they even know I was lost? As the hours passed, the fog lifted just enough to see the landscape. I am still unaware of my location. 

I’m armed with a flashlight, a compass, and a knife. I took out the compass that failed me last night. It cost me all my energy, taking me in circles with its inaccurate readings through ash and charred bark. I feared I’d be led astray again. Despite my poor vision, I couldn’t sit here waiting. My water bottle is half full and all I have to eat is a breakfast bar and a handful of sunflower seeds. I hope I make it back by noon… 

I take a sip of water and pop a few seeds in my mouth to satiate the hunger. Preserve the provisions. My compass spun around slowly and indecisive. I put it on the ground near my feet until it stopped. The direction was clear, northeast. I followed the guidance of the little device in my hand, but not as trustingly as last time. I turn around and walk straight, I keep walking straight. 

– – – – – – – – – – –

I check my watch, almost 4:30. Was I even walking straight anymore? My compass betrayed me once again. My throat also felt scratchy from yelling.

It didn’t make sense. How could I have wandered this far off? Exhaustion was setting in. I’m almost out of water. I finish off the seeds, saving my bar for the last possible moment. I have to be found by dark, I have to. This doesn’t make sense.

I sit down abruptly, causing ash to fly into the air. I coughed, itching to gulp those last three sips of water. The air had made me cough all day and didn’t make the trek any easier. I close my eyes to concentrate on breathing to calm myself from the strange world I found myself in. I was welcomed by the strangest sight when my eyes opened.

A tree. A tree completely untouched by the fire. No sign of black scars or ash near any part of its being, even down by the roots. A tall wide pine tree, covered in rich green needles. It was as if the wildfire had skipped it purposely. It was intriguing. 

I slowly rose and approached this sign of life I’d seen in miles of the gray, brown, and black. Closer, a shadowy outline appeared. It was big, not an animal… a piece of clothing maybe. A dress? A picnic blanket? It was blocked by the other side of the tree and I couldn’t get a clear look at it. 

Getting closer, the outline begins to take form. It was a small yellow tent perched on its side. It was a part of a small campsite, and in the center was a pile of wood for a fire. There were other tools in the site too; pots and pans, a pair of boots, cigarettes, and a lighter. I carefully placed my hand above the wood. Almost warm. There had to be someone else out here with me. A lost camper, perhaps. I called out with what little voice I had left. 

“Hello? Hello! Is there anyone out there?!”, I yelled. I took a few steps out, making a giant circle around the campsite to expand my reach. Only silence. 

It was getting darker. I turned the tent right side up and fixed the belongings inside. I hoped they wouldn’t mind. There were cigarette buds littering the sleeping bag and the scent lingered in the small area. The mysterious camper also had no food or water from what I searched. Maybe they took their pack with them to avoid the presence of animals in the campsite. What a strange place they picked to stay. 

Before the sun went down, I took my knife to a few branches on the living tree to prepare a fire. I  grabbed the liter from the tent and even chuckled thinking about how smoking was actually helping a life today. The campfire lit in record time, much faster in comparison to my primal routine. 

It felt nice to be near the warmth and the sounds of the crackling wood. The days had been warm, but the nights here were another story. It was also nice to get a break from the silence. After swallowing the last bit of my breakfast bar, I crawled inside the tent and fell asleep. 

– – – – – – – – – – – –

 SNAP.

I shot up in the sleeping bag, awakened by a loud crash. The sound resembled that of a dead tree branch snapping off and falling to the ground nearby. My heart pounded in my chest. A few seconds passed and I slowed my breath from the scare enough to brave the other side of the tent.

The fire must have gone out because it was pitch black. I opened the zipper an inch and peeked out. My suspicions were confirmed and I crawled out of the tent to restore the flame. Using my flashlight, I illuminated the tree, stole a few more branches, and re-lit the fire. I felt cold, colder than before. It was well past dark, but it was more frigid than the previous night. A gust of air sent me straight back towards the comfort of the tent. As I opened the zipper, I saw the outline of a figure in the sleeping bag. I jumped back and shouted. The quick movement caused me to trip and fall back. The person awoke from the commotion. It was a middle-aged man, he sat up, staring at me. 

“I’m so sorry I used your tent. I’m lost in the woods, and, and I…” I trailed off.

The man snickered at me. He reached over to grab a cigarette and a lighter. He had traces of gray in his black hair and in his shaggy beard. I tried to calm myself down again. When did he crawl in there? How did I not hear it? 

He put the cigarette in his mouth and lit it. Then he looked over to me.

“I’m lost here too.” He said with an exhale of smoke.

Something felt odd. I couldn’t place what was wrong…or locate my knife. I wanted to retreat, but I couldn’t leave him. 

“How?” I said shakily. So much for proving to be a brave ranger. 

He turned his head over until his eyes met mine. His face became very coarse. He stood up and stepped out of the tent stepping towards me. I crawled backward. He reached his hand out to me. I denied his hand. I stumbled to get up but fell. As I got up and turned to face him, his hand suddenly turned black. The diseased color spread over his entire body like trails of lightning. He removed the cigarette and flicked it behind him. His body began to disintegrate into ash, starting with that hand. The cigarette ignited the tent and soon, the rest of the camp. I forced myself up prepared to flee. The pine tree was up in flames. I ran. I ran as hard as I could but the fire was faster. The smoke had filled the woods and the fire even covered the dead trees. I was in shock but I didn’t stop moving. Farther and farther, faster and faster. I couldn’t feel my legs. The combination of stiffness from the cold and exhaustion felt agonizing. 

I sprinted but the smoke still enclosed me. My eyes burned. Smoke filled my lungs. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. I fell to my knees gasping, gagging for clean air that couldn’t find me. It hurt. It wouldn’t stop hurting. I laid on my stomach and covered my face with my shirt though it didn’t help. The woods were no longer silent. Crackling, booming fire. Branches breaking, trees falling. The sound of footsteps snapped my head up. Through blurred vision, I could make out figures. I heard their feet hit the ground, I could feel their pace. My vision was dimming and turning black. I sunk back to the ground. 

The figures, they were approaching quickly. I saw nothing but darkness. I was grasping for the smallest sliver of air I could obtain. The pain was becoming excruciating. With every second I faded: my sight, my breath, my ability to move. All I could do was listen to the footsteps crunch the ashy floor as they drew nearer.

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