“DEREK!” I screamed again, my throat growing more and more raw each time. “DEREK!” My screams were getting weaker as smoke infiltrated my lungs and made it difficult to breathe. The speed of my running was slowing, the tears streaming down my face increasing. I felt like I was in an oven, the temperature increasing every second as the forest burned around me. My lungs felt like they were on fire themselves from the lack of oxygen and overuse. I was inhaling more smoke than air and I could only assume I’d already gotten several burns from all the close encounters, but shock and adrenaline muted the pain.
I was doing my best to remember how to get back to camp; I assumed Derek would head that way too if we couldn’t find each other. I was trying extremely hard to steady my breath and think of which direction I had come from, but at this point, I was just trying to get away from the fire. It was in all directions, devouring everything in its path and I was completely disoriented. My legs were about to collapse any minute but I begged them to keep going.
I tripped on an uneven part of the ground, landing on my knees. I nearly let myself just curl up on the ground to die - just let the flames eat me. It didn’t seem like I was getting out of this. I looked up one more time and saw a break in the fire slightly to my left where it was dark, about 15 feet away. I used what tiny amount of energy I had left to get to my feet, but my legs refused to run. Stumbling as quickly as I could in the general direction of the clearing, I just focused on getting to the flameless area. How fast was I moving? Was I actually moving at all? I felt like one of those cartoons where my legs were making the motions but I was completely stationary. I was a little surprised my lungs hadn’t given out yet. Just a little bit farther... I’m almost there.
My feet hit water. Cool, glorious water, unaffected by the fire. I didn’t waste a single moment, I just dove directly into the small pond, submerging myself in my little sanctuary of safety and relief, untouchable to the burning trees around me. My body relaxed ever so slightly as I closed my eyes and sat still for a few seconds, basking in my little piece of heaven surrounded by hell. My limbs gained a little bit of strength and it became slightly easier to breath, though some of the smoke still reached me.
I didn’t want to open my eyes again, afraid that I might see the water catching on fire. Cracking one eye open, I was glad to see the fire eating the trees lining my safe, wet haven but staying a comfortable distance away from me. I worried about Derek, where he could’ve gone, whether my other friends had gotten out, and if our camp had been eaten by the fire.
Startled, I opened my eyes and looked up toward the noise. A blazing branch directly above me was losing its grip on the trunk, and rained fire right on top of me. A scream ripped through my aching throat and I closed my eyes as tightly as possible.
“What the hell are you guys doing up there? Get down here and help!” Gavin called out to us from where he and Melanie were setting up our camp.
“You know you don’t want us to help!” Derek called from beside me as I giggled and took a swig from our Merlot bottle. Camping and wine - a perfect first date, right? Well, minus the other two.
“The least you could do is pretend to be useful!” Melanie responded as she knelt down to flip through the booklet that came with the 6-person tent we got at Target. She would, being the practical one. She was even wearing ugly hiking books that are super logical to have out in the wilderness, but are detrimental to her style.
“I’m not that great an actor!” I’m so witty, I thought as Derek chortled loudly, though that might’ve been the wine - the bottle was nearly empty.
“The tent is lopsided!” he called with a smile.
“You don’t say!” Melanie looked up in exasperation. “Maybe you guys could go look for firewood or something instead of getting drunk in a tree.”
“Maybe we should get down before we’re too inebriated to climb,” I muttered to Derek, quietly so as not to alert the other two of my practicality. I had a reputation of recklessness to uphold.
“All right, give me the bottle. I have a higher alcohol tolerance than you do so I’ll be able to hold onto it.” Derek held out his hand. I looked at it, took another quick swig then handed it over.
“You better not finish that without me.”
“You don’t trust me?” He gasped and put a hand to his chest in faux offense.
I rolled my eyes before ungracefully finding my way to the ground. I watched with exaggerated concern for the bottle as Derek made his way down, the Merlot tucked into the overly huge pocket of his shorts. That is so unfair, I thought as I stuck my hand into my own 2-inch deep pockets. Stupid women’s clothes.
His feet hit the ground and he shot me a huge grin, taking the bottle out triumphantly. “Ha! See, Layla? Safe and sound.”
He put the Merlot into one of my hands and took the other one, leading me into the dense forest. “We’ll go look for firewood then, Your Majesty!” he called as we wandered off.
We took turns sipping on the remainder of the wine and walked, totally ignoring the fallen branches and sticks that would make great firewood. We chatted about school, graduation, our future plans, and other light topics before the conversation turned to us.
“So what convinced you to ask me out?” Derek asked. “We’ve been friends for years, why now?”
“Oh, c’mon, we’ve been flirty with each other our whole friendship.”
He nodded as he swallowed his last swig. “Ok I’ll give you that. But why now?”
“This is the first time we’ve both been single at the same time. Seemed like an opportunity to me.”
His eyebrows rose, his eyes rose a bit with them before he stopped in his tracks and his smile vanished.
“What?” I followed his gaze but didn’t see anything.
“Is there a campground in that direction?” His brow furrowed as he pointed above the trees in the direction we were headed.
I looked closer and saw smoke rising above the trees. “I don’t think so...Google Maps said this area should all just be forest.” The amount of smoke increased as I spoke, like there were at least five campfires burning.
“You wait here, I’m gonna go check it out,” he let go of my hand and started walking.
“Is that the best idea?” I called after him. “Maybe we should just go back to camp. You know, away from the possible forest fire?”
“I’m just going to investigate quick, it can’t be that far,” he turned and flashed me one of his brilliant grins. “I’ll be right back. You can have the rest of the wine.”
“WOULD YOU PLEASE TURN THE MUSIC DOWN?” Melanie yelled at us from the back seat. Derek had volunteered to drive, which meant I got shotgun and therefore control of the music.
“WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THIS AWESOME PLAYLIST!” I mocked.
“I CAN’T REALLY HEAR IT, CAN YOU TURN IT UP?” Derek shouted from the driver’s seat, making me snort my diet coke.
“FOR GOD SAKES, TURN IT DOWN!” Gavin chimed in.
“FINE…” I conceded and reached for the volume dial, bringing it down to reasonable levels.
“Thank you, jeez.” Melanie sighed.
“I thought you liked that song, Mel?” I said.
“Not when it’s causing permanent hearing damage.”
“Ah, what’s a little hearing damage if you had fun getting it?” Derek chuckled and glanced at Mel through the rearview mirror.
“Man you guys even have the same self destructive attitudes, you’re totally perfect for each other.” Gavin interjected.
“Remind me why we allowed Derek to drive again?” Melanie asked Gavin in a mock whisper.
“Because my Jeep is awesome and was the only car big enough to fit Layla’s cot with everything else.” Derek reached over and squeezed my thigh while he spoke.
“What can I say I’m a creature of comfort.” I took his hand and just held onto it.
“Well if you get too cold for comfort tonight, you might have to ditch the cot and sleep on me instead.” He winked. I blushed. Melanie and Gavin hooted from the back seat.
“But please warn us if you start getting too comfortable and we need to take an impromptu evening walk!”
“Nuh-nuh-nuh-no, there will be none of that!” I shot to the backseat before I turned to Derek and added, “FYI,” and gave him a pointed look.
He gave me a sideways glance and smiled. “That’s fine, we’ll have plenty more opportunities in the future.”
“I swear to God, if Shakespeare wasn’t already dead, I would kill him myself,” Melanie said, clicking her pen repeatedly out of frustration.
She, Gavin, and I had occupied the same table in the university library for almost six hours in our frantic study session for our only common final: Shakespeare.
“What were all the plays that Falstaff shows up in?” Gavin asked no one in particular.
“Hell if I know,” Mel responded gruffly.
My gaze drifted to other tables in the library as Melanie and Gavin began squabbling like an old married couple on how to properly say “I don’t know” in a respectful way so as not to piss off your already-stressed boyfriend.
After a minute of zoning out, I realized I was staring straight at my friend, Derek, head down as he studied what looked like a big science textbook.
“Hey, can I invite a date to go camping this weekend?” They abruptly cut off their bickering to stare at me.
“A date?” Melanie shockingly asked. “Who?!”
“You don’t have to act quite so shocked at the idea,” I gave her a look. “And I was thinking of asking Derek. He broke up with his girlfriend last month, right? Plus I bet his Jeep would hold everything.”
Both of their eyes swiveled over to where Derek was sitting.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve always thought you and Derek should go out.” Melanie said.
“And yes, he did break up with his girlfriend last month,” Gavin clarified.
I gave a mischievous look as I gingerly set down my pencil and rose from my chair dramatically. “Wish me lu-uuck!” I sang before sauntering over to Derek’s table.
I glanced back briefly and saw four enthusiastic thumbs up and cheesy smiles. I chuckled quietly and tapped him on the shoulder. He whipped his head up with a start before grinning and removing his headphones.
“Hey! God, you scared me, these are noise-cancelling.”
“Sorry,” I brushed my brown hair from my face and tried to give a confident smile. “Can I sit?”
He gestured to the empty chair next to him. “What’s up?”
“What are you doing this weekend?”
“As of an hour ago, nothing, why?”
“Well, Melanie, Gavin, and I are going camping, and I was wondering if you want to turn our tricycle into a Big Wheel?”
He gave me a puzzled look. “Turn your what into a what?”
I felt my face flush at my bad analogy. Push through, I thought. “Do you want to come? So I’m not a third wheel?”
“Oh!” Excitement lit his face, then mild confusion. “Would this be like a…”
“Date?” I smiled sheepishly as I finished the question.
His smile got bigger. “I’d love to.”
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