A small campfire crackles, blending with the nighttime melody of crickets, rustling leaves, and hooting owls. The limbs of the surrounding trees encroach upon the fire from every angle, reaching out as if they are trying to snuff out the flames.
Five men huddle around a little campfire, including you. All of you are wearing standard U.S. army uniforms, though the many days you’ve spent in the wilderness have caused them to be thoroughly caked with dirt. With drooping eyelids you scan the faces of your four comrades.
Ben Wendelin is eighteen years old and fresh out of Albuquerque high school, same as you. But that’s where the similarities end. Where you are quiet and solemn, Ben’s body language exudes arrogance and buoyancy.
Alger Willard is physically a few years older than you, however, you suspect that his emotional maturity lags several years behind yours. Alger has a snub, snout-like nose, thick glasses, and anxiety etched onto his face like a tattoo.
Llewelyn Wright is a man that you feel sure would probably be playing for some major football team if he hadn’t joined the army. Barely reaching five foot three and in possession of a head more square than round, he’s the kind of guy that you imagine eats bricks for breakfast. He’s tough, and in these dangerous parts, that comforts you to some degree; but you make sure to keep your distance all the same.
Tyrel Prosper is the only one sitting by the fire who shows no signs of anxiety or fatigue. He told you when you first met at basic training that he had spent many a night camped like this, but you didn’t believe him—at least, not until he started naming all the different types of trees and plants in the area and you saw him scurry under the practice course’s barbed wire like a weasel on the run.
And then there’s you, a lanky little boy with a head of closely-cropped black hair that somehow still manages to look unruly. But that’s where your wildness ends. The rest of you, from your slender hands to your dutiful posture, exudes an aura that often had parents and teachers cooing about how well-behaved and polite you are. Despite your best efforts, as you sit in the middle of these dark woods on this desolate night, you still look like a fish that has suddenly found itself flung into the jungle canopy.
Tyrel glances to his side. His expression makes you think that he’s momentarily forgotten where he is. “Boy, my brothers would love this.”
The others around the fire ignore him, but you look at him with open intrigue.
“We used to go campin’ a lot. We’d go for days and days without touching civilization. We fished, swam in the lake, built campfires and forts.” Tyrel smiles at the ground.
“You think this is a little scary?” He gazes at the four of you. “Me and my three brothers were caught in a storm once, while we were hikin’ on a trail not far from our house. I musta been ’bout eleven at the time. That’d make my brothers thirteen, fourteen, and seventeen respectively. We were only a few miles into the hike, and keep in mind we’d had our fair share of debacles in the past, so we weren’t the type to panic easily, and we got out of most issues slick and smooth. But when things got ugly that day, the miles might as wella stretched across the Mississippi River.”
All the other soldiers are listening now, though they’re pretending otherwise.
Tyrel continues. “We heard there was goin’ to be a storm that day, but the weather was…well, the weather. It came a few hours earlier than expected, and it was much worse than predicted. We’re comin’ down a hill, and two of my older brothers, Jim and Loyde, are talkin’ shit about their recent bow hunt. My oldest brother, Stan, looks up and makes a remark about how dark the clouds are. The other two, of course, don’t make a big deal about it. ‘They’re so far away’, they say. ‘We got time’, they say. I act cool, but I whisper to my oldest bro that I’m concerned as well. He sees the worry on my face and promises that there’s no need for me to be afraid. I believe him. Then, the clouds get close. They get close fast. We turn back, but within minutes, the clouds are overhead. It’s right at that moment that they decide to let loose their power.”
Tyrel’s eyes are glazed over now, lost in memory, and his grin has dropped into a soft smirk. “The raindrops are heavy. They batter us until it feels like we can barely breathe. We are drownin’, on land. Trees fall all around us, landing with deep, echoing thuds like a cannon going off. We run, but the ground starts turnin’ to mud, and when we try to climb back up the small ravine we came from, we keep slippin’ and slidin’. Pretty soon, we decide to take shelter in an alcove. We all seem to be in agreement that we should just hold out there. But after a minute, Stan gets up and says we have to get goin’ or we’ll never make it out. We protest, but Stan has a way of saying something that makes everyone around him believe that what he’s sayin’ must be so. So we ditch our shoes and backpacks and scramble up that slope. We claw at it, our hands and feet sinkin’ through the mud. The hill would normally take us two minutes to get up, but scalin’ it durin’ that hellish storm took half an hour. We beg Stan to let us turn back, but he refuses.”
Ben scoffs. “Sounds like he was being a little paranoid.”
Tyrel’s smile is now just a ghost. He shrugs. “We thought so too. Sure, the ravine had a good few inches of mud and debris in it by that point, but it didn’t seem too bad. Then, right as we were reaching the top, the flood came spillin’ in from all the edges of the ravine. We crested the hill not a moment later. We asked Stan why he didn’t tell us it was goin’ to flood like that. ‘I figured only one of us needed to be afraid’, he said, shootin’ me a wink ‘cuz he knew I woulda been the first to panic if he’d a told us. I’ve thought about that day a lot. If we’d chosen to just sit there on our laurels, we woulda ended up drownin’ in filth.”
Llewelyn snorts and puts down his empty bowl, then gets up and tidies his sack before lying down and resting his head on it. “Mud. I’m sick of the mud,” he mumbles. “Sick of the dirt. Sick of all this shit. No stupid stories are gonna get me out of this forest.”
Tyrel replies softly. “I thought it might...put us at ease.”
Llewelyn’s voice drips with sarcasm. “Oh, yes sir, it did. I’ll sleep like a baby now. Many thanks for the bedtime story, Corporal.”
Tyrel stares off at the stars, and suddenly you’re desperate to hear what he’s thinking. “Get some rest, men,” he says. “We’ve got another long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
The Four Boys In The Storm