Anna dropped to her stomach and peered over the hill. She scooted forward, her forearms itchy from the grass. Some guy about her age—college age—stood in the meadow below, near the water, pulling silver packets of food from an enormous, dusty backpack. He glanced her way and she lowered her chin, desperate not to be seen spying on him like a weirdo.
When she looked again, through the slanted light, through the tall grass thick with clovers, he was crouched at the base of an oak. She watched him gather dry moss and sticks into a tinder bundle. That meant he was definitely staying the night. She was hoping he would leave so she could have the river to herself.
No matter what, she would have to camp by the water; it was almost dusk, and the river was the only water source for miles. Her two stainless-steel bottles had been clanging together, empty, for the past day. The best she could do was walk down the other side of the hill and camp farther upstream. But no matter how far she walked or how hard she tried to avoid him, there was nothing she could do about the outline of his tent in the open distance of the plain. So much for her wilderness experience.
It was her last night and she wanted to be alone. Really alone, one last time. She hadn’t seen another human for six days, and she didn’t want to start now. That was why she had decided to go for a week-long backpacking trip in the first place; for the cottonwood fluff blowing over the river, past the bowing heads of scouler willows; for the honks of red-winged blackbirds on their cattails at dusk; for the pale reflection of stars on the water. Not people. She didn’t want this random guy around. He probably didn’t want her, either; as far as she could tell, he was camping alone. Maybe that was because he was secretly a killer, or a rapist. Who knew. Maybe he was just an annoying frat guy. Best to avoid him.
A bug crawled over her thigh. She brushed it off without looking and wriggled carefully backwards, away from the crest of the hill. Then it stung her. She jumped up and screamed—abrupt, high-pitched, echoing against trees and sky. It was her first sting from either a bee or wasp, whatever it had been. She felt like she had been shot in the leg. Anna rubbed the bump as she limped hurriedly to her backpack. She hoisted it to her shoulders and rushed down the hill, her worn hiking boots slipping every few steps. When she was safely under the cover of wide, sun-soaked leaves, she sat and surveyed the sting.
“Shit,” Anna muttered, because the pain had subsided to an ache and there was no bullet wound—it looked like a mild rash. She felt stupid for screaming.
For a moment she listened to the robins’ songs, already shifting from the glistening trills of afternoon to the dusk gathering calls. She felt the earth beneath her and relaxed a little. The winds changed direction, transitioning, too, for sunset. Anna breathed in the sticky, sap-warmed breath of the forest. She stood, unsure of where to walk next, or where she stood in relation to the guy.
She chose a direction and plodded through the forest. Suddenly the branches of a nearby vine maple shivered. Anna froze. The guy, the same guy she wanted to avoid, emerged, looking pale and out of place. He wore a striped tank-top and cargo shorts, and his hair was cropped to near-baldness. To Anna, he seemed especially harsh in contrast to the gentle lighting of the forest; unreal, like a clunky cartoon character.
The guy stepped timidly around the bushes, inching toward her until they stood on either side of a fallen, shin-high, moss-covered log.
“Hi,” he said.
Goddamn it, she thought. Her week-long streak of solitude was ruined. Just leave, guy, she thought. Just leave. “Oh—uh, hi.” Anna coughed, her voice dry and out of use. “Nice to see a fellow backpacker out here.” She waved. It felt robotic.
The guy smiled, exposing slightly crooked front teeth. He didn’t seem threatening. Definitely not a killer or rapist.
“Yeah, how’s it going?” he asked. “I haven’t seen anyone else nearby, but did you hear someone scream not too long ago? I came over to see if they’re okay, but I don’t know where it came from. Sounded brutal.”
Anna wondered if she would go running toward a screaming person. Probably not. “Oh, that was just me,” she said. She tried to keep her voice low and steady. “I got stung by a bee.” She pointed to the top of her thigh, feeling infinitely stupid for screaming—it would be so easy for him to make fun of her.
“Well that is brutal. I hate bee stings—I would’ve screamed like that too. You got the stinger out, right?”
Anna was grateful that he didn’t make her feel worse. She wanted to be polite, but she also didn’t want him to think she was interested in this conversation—she wanted him to leave so she could be alone with the earth. So she could stop making a fool of herself. She rested her foot on the spongy fallen log. It smelled like rot. “There was nothing in there, not that I could see,” she said. “But maybe I missed it.”
“Maybe it was a wasp. They don’t leave stingers,” he said.
“Yeah, probably. I don’t know. It was my first time being stung. I didn’t really see what it was.” She crossed her arms, then uncrossed them and took off her backpack, just for something to do with her hands.
“You’re lucky, then. Wasp stings are always better than bee stings. Last backpacking trip I ran into a whole bee hive. I just barely stepped on it and they actually chased me. It was ridiculous. They chased me until I jumped in the lake I was camped by. I got stung at least thirty times. But I was just like, hey, being stung is part of the wilderness experience, right?”
“Everything out here is part of the wilderness experience,” she said, laughing.
“Exactly. That’s why I love it so much.” He looked up. The maples were moving slowly, their branches scratching against each other. “All of it, all of this. It’s everything. Being out here… it makes me feel strong. Alive. Connected. You know?”
Anna nodded vigorously, unsure of how to express how deeply she agreed. “Like we’re animals again.”
“Exactly.” He smiled and shifted his weight.
Anna said quickly, “What was your name?”
“Greg,” he said. “You?”
“Anna.” She crossed the corpse of the fallen tree so they could shake hands. Both of them had dirt under their fingernails. His skin was softer than she thought it would be.
“Nice to meet you, Anna.” He pulled away. “Well, guess I’ll be on my way. Get a fire started before dark.”
“Good idea. Have a good night,” she said, and he walked away, stomping over fallen branches, flailing his arms to brush away spider-webs. Anna crouched down, ignoring the prick of her wasp sting. She pretended to tie her boot, and she watched him wind clumsily through the forest until he was out of sight. She sighed, then, as the color left the trees, as the robins chirped louder for the setting sun. Because she realized having someone around wasn’t so bad after all.