The story of Jenny's campfire was incomplete without her there to tell how it ended.
|590 word Co-win entry for the September No Dialog Contest
Jenny Anthony felt completely lost. At first, she didn’t know what the flickering shadow light through the forest trees was. It was so faint through the rising mist it seemed to pulse and glow. The storm had left her chilled and with a fever that made reality appear too bright, surreal.
With feet that moved robot-like, refusing to stop, she made her way through the undergrowth, using the gentle smell of smoke as good a direction finder as any. There was no path. She’d lost that days ago along with her outdoor camp.
The weekend getaway into nature within the Utah High-Uintahs was supposed to be a late fall time to replenish her spirits. The first big snow of the season robbed her of that. Jenny hadn’t seen a living soul since arriving and making her campsite.
Hungry, wet, and coated with mud from her most recent fall, she stood listening to the first crack of a dead branch followed by another. This was no beast of prey lurking nearby. It was made by human hands.
Steam rose over a half-hidden blaze cupped in a shallow break in the trees. It paid to be cautious of strangers. Jenny’s stomach growled at her. The smell of hot coffee lifted her spirits. There had been plenty of water in her surroundings but a few careless berries left over from summer did not a meal make.
The sound of eggs frying drew her into hesitant motion. One hand clutched at the survival knife at her side. The sizzle of bacon almost drove her mad. How long had she been out here? She had lost count.
A low chuckle joined the feast of sound. A shadow more giant than a man could be rose above her reflected in the fading mist.
The tent she observed from her careful observation point behind a solitary boulder looked much like her own. The man kneeling over the campfire had his back turned to her, but he also felt familiar in some way. Perhaps it was just the fact of there being another human being where she had not expected to find any. Her feelings were not her own lately. They scattered, wandered, lost in thoughts she feared to follow.
Unsure of what to do next, she forced herself to circle the encampment, making sure the man hoving over his meal was alone.
Was she hallucinating? The Jeep at the far end of the little field looked so much like hers it made her heart ache. Jenny found herself sobbing, catching each breath, trying to hold onto her silence in fear she would be discovered before she knew it would be safe.
Long moments afterward, Jenny realized she had dropped her knife in her stumbling exhaustion.
The man jerked with the startle of Jenny’s appearance like a forest wreath coming out of nowhere into the firelight. His hands dropped the rifle held in a firm grip. The barrel no longer pointed her way.
Jenny stared at the face of her father. Only he knew the best likelihood of finding his daughter. Other searchers had either given up near getting lost themselves or were out roaming in in assigned place within the well-organized search party.
Jenny’s father knew those who get lost, often walk around in circles. The campfire she had been drawn toward was her very own. The meal had been prepared from her own supplies. No family reunion had ever felt better than the hug her father embraced her with, warming her heart and soul in welcome.