Curtis emerged from his tent and relieved himself behind a nearby tree. He wiped longish hair from out of his eyes with the back of his arm. His clothes, soggy and heavy with dew, clung against goose-bumped flesh. He shivered and returned to the campsite. He pulled four split pine logs he had wrapped with a small blue tarp the night before and stacked these over three large handfuls of fresh pine needles which were kept protected in a plastic Walmart bag inside his tent. He struggled with his lighter and patiently waited for the small flame to take hold of moist kindling. Once the fire blazed hot, he sat next to it a few moments to warm up. He set up his ancient, fire-stained coffee kettle, poured a can of beans into an aluminum skillet, and roasted the remains of a rabbit shot the night before over a spit. He looked out from his perch high atop the Smokies and watched grey tendrils of steam rise to meet the obscurity of the grey, predawn sky. He thought about his pregnant wife Sharon and how she hated camping and smiled.
There were only ten miles between him and Sharon, but that was a good day's hike away through a winding trail of steep mountainous ascents and descents. He was completely severed from her, completely free. She was down there with her sister, Jenessa, and her best friend, Cathy. They were enjoying the tourist traps and shopping while Curtis enjoyed the real joys of a Smoky Mountain vacation: nature and isolation and absolute freedom.
He breathed in the wet morning air, inhaled the scent of dew-soaked pine, the acrid smoke of the fire, the sweet stench of roasting rabbit flesh, and fresh coffee. He exhaled and reached into his coat pocket for the flask containing some homemade applejack that his brother Jimmy had whipped up a week before this trip. He sipped the sweet liquor, grimaced as it burned on the way down, and twisted the lid back into place.
He turned the spit a few times, grew impatient, and ripped away a chunk of medium rare rabbit flesh. Warm, thin rivulets of blood dripped down his stubbled chin. He gobbled the entire can of beans. A pleasant and satisfying ache throbbed in his extremities from the previous day's exertion of hiking and hunting with a heavy backpack. He poured thick black coffee into a pewter cup and sipped as he examined his gear. He took a moment to oil his rifle. He sipped his coffee again. He pulled out his fold-up fishing rod and light tackle. He drank the last drops of his coffee before lifting some nearby rocks in hope of finding some worms, grubs, salamanders, or other bait. He found a few large worms and placed these with some dirt into a Styrofoam cup: litter from a previous camper he was more than happy to recycle for another use. There was a stream down the hill, and he hoped to be able to catch a bass or trout for lunch.
He picked up his rod, looked down over the mountains again and noted the rising steam. He now understood why they called this range the Smokies. He examined the skyline and found where Gatlinburg would be nestled in a hidden valley. The smoke seemed thicker there, too thick. He squinted and realized the steam rising from the direction of the city was black, not shades of pale white like everywhere else – too thick for pollution. Besides it was a tourist city: no factories, no mines, no industries. There was nothing in the town below capable of making that much smoke.
He rushed over to his tent and pulled his cell phone out of his backpack and turned it on. There were seven messages:
Hey baby. Hope you're having fun. Me and the girls hit the shops this afternoon. I bought some stuff. Hope you aren't mad at me, but I found the cutest little baby dress. It's white with all these ribbons and will be perfect for the Christening. It was a little expensive, but those pictures are going to last forever you know. Anyway, hope you're having fun up there, you wild mountain man you.
Hey Curtis. We just left the aquarium. You would have loved it. They had the biggest catfish I've ever seen. They were from South America or somewhere like that. Simply huge. There was this thing were you stood on a people mover and moved through a shark tank. There were even hammerheads. It was neat to be able to see the sharks up close, from the side and even from below. They're really cool animals. Anyway, we're heading out to eat at a little barbecue place back in Pigeon Forge. Janessa says they have the best ribs. We'll see. Anyway, I'll call you later. I wish you'd leave your phone on. I miss you. What if there was an emergency? Anyway, I love you.
It's gotten dark. I hope you set up your campsite in time and didn't forget anything. I know you probably didn't. "Be prepared" and all that Boy Scout crap you're always going on about. Well, we're eating funnel cake and sitting across the street from the Ripley's Museum watching the drunks walk by. There are a bunch of drunks tonight. There are so many people stumbling around stupid, incoherent, asshole drunk. I'm surprised with all the Baptists around here. This always seemed like a family friendly place before. This one guy bumped into me and didn't even seem to notice, no apology. He was looking up at the sky and drooling. It was kind of creepy, like Night of the Living Dead or some shit. Speaking of, Janessa told me that Jimmy whipped up some of his spirits before we left Gadsden. I hope you're not drinking too much up there all alone or doing something stupid like that. Remember, you've got a little girl on the way. I don't want to raise her as a widow because my irresponsible husband got drunk and fell off a mountain.
Are you ever going to turn on your phone? Seriously, what if there was an emergency? Fuck! Curtis, you can't do this shit to me anymore! We have a baby on the way. You need to take this seriously. I need you. You can't just go running off into the woods all alone all the time once we have kids. You need to be more responsible. Mom and Janessa say you'll never change. You say you don't like when they say that sort of thing. Well, prove them wrong! Man up. Be there for me. That's all I ask. Just leave on your phone for me. That's not too much to ask, now is it? A baby step, okay? Anyway, I'm sorry. It's just been a weird night. It's like the whole town decided to get smashed. It was weird, creepy. We're back in our cabin now. Janessa and Cathy tried to enjoy the hot tub, but had to come inside. Even up here we can hear the drunks in town down the hill. They're loud, but it's weird. They don't sound like they're partying. There's no music, just screams. You know in movies when some girl's about to get raped or killed or something. I keep hearing stuff like that. I'm kind of scared. I wish you were here. Anyway, I don't mean to lecture. I don't want to be some bitchy nag. I hope you're having fun. I really do. If you get this message, please call me, okay?
Shit! Please turn on your phone...
There's a fire! Curtis, there's a forest fire! I called 911, but there was no answer, just a busy signal. Earlier we saw people outside and some of them were on fire, but they were still walking. They're walking up the hill and spreading flames. There are some drunks outside right now pounding on the doors and windows. I don't know what they want! We asked them but they won't talk. They just moan. We locked the doors and propped furniture against the windows, but I'm scared it's not enough. Fuck! Wish you were here. Screw you for not being here! Fuck you, asshole! Fuck you!
Curtis, it's me. I hope you can hear me. I've got to be quiet. Janessa's dead. They ate her. Cathy and me locked ourselves in the bathroom, but they're right outside. We have a kitchen knife, but that's it, and it wasn't enough for Janessa. Screw you for not being here, Curtis! Fuck you, asshole! Shit! They're banging on the door now. I don't think it's going to hold. Damn it! Where are you?
Curtis put the phone down. He looked at it. He dialed Sharon. No answer. He dialed again. No answer.
"What the fuck?"
He wiped a tear from his cheek as his pulse quickened and grew erratic with panic.
He picked up his shotgun, left the rest of his gear behind, and ran down the trail towards a burning town. He paid no mind to the views and the natural world around him that he had enjoyed so much the day before. None of that mattered. His freedom no longer mattered. He no longer wanted to be alone.
He ran for two miles before he realized he was screaming. He fell over, exhausted, unable to catch his breath. He grew silent and listened to his own fading echoes as they bounced off the empty mountains.
He rose to his knees and screamed. "Sharon!" It was a plea and a prayer and completely meaningless. He understood she would never return his call.