He ended the voice recording.
He sent it to her, without listening to it and without questioning why, and turned towards the next task at hand.
The sun was just setting by the time he arrived, its lower edge now touching the highest hill on the horizon. The man turned towards the east and searched for the moon. But she was yet nowhere to be found.
The man breathed a deep sigh, turned left, and drove towards the direction of his camp.
He came to a short distance from the camp, and stopped. Watched. There was another man there. A father, his age, and two young girls with him. Both under 6, probably sisters, and playing a game near the tent.
The man exhaled. “Dammit.” He did not want to do this.
He checked the numbers on his reservation again, just to be sure.
He was sure.
He exhaled another huge sigh. “It had to be #12 today, huh?”
He knew what he had to do. He just wasn’t too happy about it.
He put the car in drive, and drove on into the camp.
He pulled into the small gravel driveway adjacent to the campsite, parking behind the other man’s white pickup truck. The man watched for reactions. Both of the girls stopped playing, and turned to look at him. Their father, sitting in a chair with his back towards the man, did not.
The man turned off his car, still staring at the camp. Their father remained still.
How odd, thought the man.
“Well,” the man exhaled aloud to the air, “You did say 12.” He noticed a German Shepherd sitting in the grass, near the mans feet, with lifted head, staring. “12,” the man chuckled aloud. “Of course it is.” And he opened the door to exit his car.
He walked towards the camp. The dog rose as he did so, and barked a single bark, head forward and ears pointed to the sky. The girls father still did not turn around.
VERY odd, though the man, and he continued walking towards the camp.
The man lifted his hand into the air. “Hello there,” he called out. The German Shepherd, now curious, began trotting towards the man in silence. The two girls, still watching the man approaching, whispered to their father. Their father, listening, did not turn around.
“Sorry to disturb you,” the man called again. The father sat yet still.
The German Shepherd approached the man. Some thirty yards from the camp. The man stopped and knelt, one knee down into the mud, and greeted the dog with stout chest, open hand, and fixed eye contact where nothing is hidden and all is seen between man and beast.
She sniffed the man’s boot, and then his hand, next his arm, and finally his face.
“Good girl,” he whispered.
She trotted back towards the camp, and barked.
The man rose, and continued his walk.
“Hi there,” he called out again.
Finally, the girl’s father turned. He looked but did not speak.
“Hello,” the man said, approaching their table in the center of camp. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but… I think you’re at the wrong campsite.”
“Oh yeah?” The girls father said, sheepishly.
“Yeah,” the man said, “And I feel really bad about that, but I checked again, just to be sure, and yeah – we’ve reserved this site. I can show you the confirmation if you’d like.”
The girls father shook his head, side to side and many a times. “No, no, no…” he spoke to the ground, “its my fault. I shoulda checked. I figured it’d be empty because I checked this morning and it wasn’t booked so I figured it be ok but…”
The man listened, nodding his understanding. He kept contact with the girls in his periphery vision the entire time, feeling terribly sorry for them and knowing this moment, whatever it is about to be, will be one that stays with them forever.
“I mean,” their father went on, still staring at the ground, “most of the time when its not booked in the morning, that means it’ll be open in the evening…”
It should be said that on any normal day, and under normal circumstances, the man – who came here solo – would simply say, “No worries, brother. I’m a father too. It’s no big deal ~ you’ve already set up your camp. I’ll just take another site.”
But this was not a normal day. And the circumstances were far from normal.
“I played a game of roulette,” their father went on, still staring at the ground. “And I guess I lost.”
He stared at the ground, still, as if afraid to look the man in the eye. As if… he was hiding something.
The man spoke up. “Look, I feel really terrible – “
“No, it’s not your fault,” the father said. But… slyly. Soullessly. And without eye contact. Fishing for empathy. “It’s not your fault.”
The man glanced up at the girls. They will remember…..
“No,” the man replied with a sigh, “No, it sure isn’t.”
The father lifted his head. He rose from his chair. He turned towards the man, looked him in the eyes, and laughed.
“It sure isn’t,” he echoed laughing and shaking his head side to side, accepting the facts.
He turned towards his daughters. “Ok girls. I’m really sorry, but we’re in the wrong camp.”
“What does that mean, daddy?” The youngest one asked.
“It means we have to pack our stuff and go to the other campsite.”
He was trying hard to smile.
“I can help,” the man offered. “I’m happy to -“
“No,” their father said. “No. I can do it. Thanks though. Girls, grab that cooler and those chairs and carry them to the truck.” And the father walked away towards the tent, leaving the man there with the two girls.
They looked up at at the man with confused and hurt faces. “Don’t worry,” the man said. “You’re gonna have a great of camping, and the next one he sets up will feel even more awesome than this one. You’ll see.” They both looked away, not believing a word of it, and gathered their things.
For a final time, the man walked towards the father, kneeling down in the ground near the tent.
“Hey buddy listen,” the man said, “I’ve got time. Let me help you break camp. I can even help you setup your next camp. I’d be glad to do it. Also, I’m a school teacher and -“
“I’ve got it,” the father said. “No thanks.”
The man accepted the silence and the space between them, nodded, and looked towards the dog in the distance, still near the girls. .
He turned, and walked towards his car.
He approached the two girls, halfway to the truck and in the middle of the field. One was carrying a cooler, and struggling. She was the oldest one. The strong one. Big sister.
He now walked alongside. “Young lady,” the man said, speaking now in his teacher tone, “I know you’re strong. But let me help you. That’s way too heavy for you.”
She looked up at the man with an unsure face. She the protector.
“Its alright,” the man said, scratching behind the German Shepherd’s ears as she sniffed his thigh. “I’m walking that way too. See? There’s my car. I’ve gotta run to the store for some things.”
She looked at the dog.
“I’ll carry the cooler,” the man said, “and you can carry the rest.”
She lifted her head and looked into the man. Something gave way in her eyes. And her hands let go of the cooler, and it dropped with a thud on the ground.
“Ok,” she said.
The man nodded. “Ok,” he said. He knelt down again and whispered loudly to the dog so they could hear it: “Take good care of them.” And he scratched her ears again.
He picked up the cooler and walked across the field, carrying the ice chest towards the truck. As he placed the cooler in the truckbed, the man noticed how girls and dog hadn’t moved, watching where they stood.
That’s odd, smiled the man to himself as he entered and started his car.
And the man watched the father the entire time, even as he drove away.
Their father never looked.