Camping was always something my father loved to do with me. It was our bonding time: while sitting by the campfire in our favorite spot along the Meramac River in Missouri, early in the morning when the sun was rising and mist still hanging in the weeds, we'd talk about anything. It could have been anything from girls to what was the best fishing lure to use to the meaning of life.
But by the time I was a senior in high school we didn't have much time for camping anymore; I was too busy with school trying to earn a scholarship to help me go to college. The summer after my senior year, after successfully graduating and earning that scholarship, my father and I finally found some time in our busy schedules for one last camping trip.
Early in the morning on the first day of the trip we loaded up the Ford Explorer with our camping gear and were soon ready to go. I gingerly hopped in the passenger seat, in a good mood and looking forward to the trip. As I shut the heavy SUV door I smiled. My father looked at me and smiled, too. I noticed, perhaps for the first time in that moment, how long in the tooth he was getting. The crow's feet around his eyes seemed more pronounced and the laugh lines around his mouth looked deeper than normal. Of course, I don't think he changed overnight; I probably had been so busy that I hadn't actually taken a moment to really look at him in the past year or so.
"What?" he asked, half-laughing; he must have noticed me staring at him.
"Oh, nothing," I lied, nervously grinning, "Come on, pop, let's hit the road! Pop in the Aerosmith CD!"
"O.K., son," he said, half-laughing again, giving me that look he gave me when he knew I was fibbing but he didn't really care. Then he put in the CD and we headed off for breakfast. The morning before our first day of camping we always had breakfast at a greasy spoon diner along the way. Our favorite was a dive simply named "Mom's Diner," a quaint, certainly greasy enough establishment almost right off of Interstate 44. It was decorated with Route 66 signs and pictures of Elvis and ran by a really sweet middle-aged lady that everybody called Mom. I never did catch her real name.
I think I was glowing as I walked out of the diner, my belly full of the greasiest eggs, sausage, and bacon west of the Mississippi. It was just like it always had been, as it should have been, as we both hopped back in the Explorer, already complaining how the stuff was probably racing right on through our digestive tracts.
The campsite was just as I remembered it: lush, green grass and leaves, convenient rock trails leading to the river bank, and of course the river itself, flowing steadily, the water glistening in the bright, morning sunlight. Hearing the river gurgle as it traveled through was one of my favorite sounds in the world.
"Well," my father sighed, "let's set up, Tristan."
Then he took off his flannel shirt, as the rising sun was getting hot. I followed his lead. It was early June where the summer mornings were still clinging for dear life to mild spring temperatures. Early summer in Missouri was cold mornings and hot afternoons. Just the way I like it.
The first day was not all that exciting. After we set up our nice-sized, five-man tent, we fished, we talked, and fished some more. By the end of it we had each caught one fish suitable enough to make dinner out of. My mother did most of the cooking at home but I wouldn't want anybody else in the world frying freshly caught fish other than my Dad. After we each cleaned our fish he retrieved his cooking equipment from the back of the SUV and went to work. In a half hour delightfully-smelling, steaming, frying catfish were in an iron skillet over our campfire.
As we ate those wonderful vittles, watching the red summer sun fall below the river, the subject did turn to college and life. I tried to steer the conversation away from becoming too sappy, something I did successfully.
Everything about that day was beautifully normal and as I expected. It wasn't until we rolled out our sleeping bags in our tent that things turned a little weird.
While in my sleeping bag, looking up at the stars through the screened roof of our little nylon dwelling, I began to feel sleep take me. I began dreaming about holding something. At first I couldn't tell what it was, or where I was. It was dark and what I was holding was soft, almost furry. At one point I finally looked down to see it was a little blue teddy bear. It had shiny little black buttons for eyes. As I tried to analyze it some more, a sharp snapping sound, possibly a twig being stepped upon, came from outside the tent; it woke me up and brought me fully back into reality.
Somebody was there.
"Wake up, Dad," I said as I unzipped the door. He didn't seem to hear me, already in a deep sleep. I shook my head and went on outside. That's when I happened upon the last thing I expected to see: a pale-skinned, little girl (maybe five or six years old). In the light of the mostly-full moon I could see her features well: she was dressed in a light blue pair of pajamas, had long brunette hair and round little eyes that were either blue or green. The thing that most alarmed me about her was that she was clutching a little blue teddy bear between her right hand and her hip, the very same one I'd seen in my dream.
"Who…who are you?" I stuttered.
At first the girl was silent and just stared at me, leaving the only response to my question an army of crickets singing in the background.
"What are you doing out here?" I prodded some more, this time kneeling down some to bring myself eye level with her. As I got a better look at her peepers, they definitely looked green.
She shyly shrunk her head in and looked down for a second, then quickly returned to a normal stance.
"My name's Bianca," she finally responded in an eager little whisper, as if she was telling me some big secret.
"Bianca," I slowly said, "what are you doing out here in the woods so late? Where's your parents? Your campsite?"
We were both distracted momentarily by an alarmingly loud hoot of a nearby owl. After glancing up to see if I could tell where it was coming from, I returned my gaze to the girl.
Bianca smiled at me, her eyes bright, as if she'd just come up with an amazing idea.
She took in a deep breath then said: "Let's play Hide and Go Seek!"
"But—" I tried to say, but she scampered off. She headed off into the brush and leaves and I bounded after her. Soon we were in the woods and I was banging aside weeds, bushes, and saplings as I tried to keep up with her.
"Slow down!" I yelled, "Where are you going, Bianca?"
"Home!" I heard her voice yell. I could no longer see her.
Eventually, as the woods got thicker and darker, I lost her. I could no longer see or hear her. She was simply gone. I stopped at one point, sighed in failure, and collapsed from fatigue at the base of a large oak tree.
I woke up to the morning sun shining in my eyes, laying in my maroon sleeping bag, in the tent. It was as if I'd never gone anywhere. I didn't remember walking back to the campsite.
Maybe it was a dream, I thought. But it was such a real dream, though. I came to the conclusion that I was so exhausted from the running and the camping I'd done that I walked back in a stupor and just didn't remember it. It had to have been real. But, just in case it wasn't, I decided not to discuss it with my Dad; I didn't want him to think I was crazy or anything. So instead we spent the day talking and fishing, much the same as we'd done the day before. The only thing we did differently was some hiking up a hilly trail nearby. It was great exercise and, even though we'd been careful putting on sun block beforehand, we both turned a little red on our forearms and legs (we had both been wearing shorts).
That night, as I began to fall asleep while looking at the stars, I heard some rustling outside again. Quickly, I rushed out of the tent. There Bianca stood, wearing the same pajamas, clutching the same little blue teddy bear.
"Look, if you need my help, you're going to have to not run off so quickly," I said, "Do you need me to help you find your parents? Have you been alone all this time?"
"I need you to help me find my way home," she said in her small little whisper, "I'm sorry. I promise I'll go slower this time."
"OK," I said.
This time, she slowly led me through the woods. It seemed like I followed her for miles, traipsing through seemingly endless weeds, small trees, and stickerbushes. I noticed the sky on the horizon turning a deep violet. I realized I must have slept almost all night before Bianca came to the tent, even though it had seemed I was only asleep a few minutes.
Finally, as orange beams of sunlight began to creep through the gaps in the trees, partially veiled by the low morning fog, we reached a clearing. At first my tired legs and arms were thankful. I felt like collapsing onto the soft grass of the campsite she'd led me to. Very quickly, though, I realized there was nothing to be relieved about.
As I stood there, the mist surrounding my legs, gurgles of the nearby river in harmony with the cooing of nearby doves, I looked upon the site. It seems as if a small tornado had ripped through it. Things were strewn about everywhere: food, equipment, clothing, and trash. I realized as I studied it that Bianca had vanished again. I called her name as I walked closer to where the tent was, or what was left of it. It had been virtually ripped to shreds.
While I approached the tent, I got a better look at the ripped clothing on the ground. To my horror, I realized that they were stained with blood, and something was still inside them. My blood went cold and my knees weakened when I realized what was in them: severed arms and legs. I cried out and brought my hands to my face when I fully realized the blood, the gore, and the flies. I nearly fainted when I saw the torsos and heads of an adult woman and an adult man.
"Oh god!" I exclaimed when I looked into the pale, open, lifeless eyes of the woman, her face contorted into one final look of absolute fear. I'd never seen anything like it; nothing fake I'd ever seen at even the most expensive haunted house parks came close to this.
I had to look away, from both of them, and all their parts, or I'd get sick all over myself. But as soon as I did it I wished I hadn't. There, under a tattered section of the tent, I spotted a red-stained, little, blue teddy bear.
As much as I didn't want to, I slowly walked closer to the tent. As I approached the bear, I noticed a pale little hand clutching it.
"Bianca!" I yelled. Frantic, I dug my knees into the ground and ripped the tent away from the hand. There she was, dead, her blue pajamas half-ripped from her body. Her head had been partially severed from what looked like a huge claw wound. It had been delivered by whatever animal had wreaked this bloody havoc. At that point, I did vomit. I sobbed as I spit out the last of the burning, putrid liquid from my mouth.
"It was a bear," said a small little voice beside me as I was wiping my chin off.
I think I screamed as I catapulted into the air, almost jumping out of my skin. And there was a very alive-looking Bianca, peering at me with a wanting look in her eyes.
"What?!" I exclaimed, not knowing what else to say. I looked back at her body to make sure it was still there. Then I realized that the impossible was true: it must have been her ghost standing next to me. These people, judging by the flies and state of the bodies, had been dead for days and according to Bianca's ghost, the culprit was a bear.
"Will you help us get home?" Bianca asked me, looking up at me, as if expecting me to give her something. "Please?"
"Uh, um," I stuttered nervously, "y-yeah."
"Yay!" Bianca said happily, jumping up and down, her ghostly figure making no noise on the ground.
"You're happy?" I asked, pointing at her body.
"Yeah," she said, pointing at her body, "They get to go home, and I get to go home."
It seemed that she was referring to herself and her body as two different people. Then, as I looked into her deep green eyes, I somehow understood why she had needed to bring me here.
"So-so you get to go home, when they do?" I asked.
"You got it, Tristan!" she said, somehow knowing my name, pointing at me with confidence, "And, don't worry, it didn't hurt much. I'm all better now!"
Then Bianca giggled, turned, and ran to the bushes on the opposite side of the campsite. Before she reached them, she faded away.
"All right, Bianca," I said in a shaky voice, as I reached into my pocket, fumbling for my cellular phone, "it's time to go home."