Number 13, by Merrily Allyson
He put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. The blast reverberated through the woods. We huddled on the log opposite the campfire and watched his head dissolve in red mist.
Candace shrieked, an unearthly sound that unlocked our frozen limbs, and we bolted for the SUV.
“We can’t leave the fire…” Buddy stuttered.
“The hell…” Candace all but pushed him into the backseat.
I scrambled in and turned the key Jonathan had left in the ignition. The big vehicle started with a roar, and we tore off down the track toward the entrance of the park. The ranger who had booked us into campsite No. 13 was emptying trash although it was after nine o’clock when we reached the office. We boiled out of the SUV and ran toward him, all talking at once.
“Whoa! One at a time!” His jocular demeanor disappeared, and his jaw clenched when Candace blurted, “He’s dead! Just shot himself!”
“Wait a minute. Come inside and give me the details.”
Ranger Waite took out forms and recorded the details before pulling our registration information. Then he led the way back in his jeep. In silence, I drove the SUV over the uneven park road to the area designated for primitive camping, and I realized how isolated No.13 was from other campers.
We had been excited about getting away after college graduation, the culmination of four years of classes and assignments and exams. Candace, my best friend since second grade, bubbled with the enthusiasm of the newly engaged about autumn wedding plans. Buddy would begin work next week for an out of state firm, and Candace hoped to get a teaching position nearby. I had completed my internship and been hired as an under chef at a prestigious New Orleans restaurant. Jonathan—what did I really know about Jonathan?
We’d met just before Easter when he spoke at a seminar on ethnic cooking. He was a bit older than most of the students with dark, vibrant good looks and gusto for life I found fascinating. We were an item within days of meeting. This whole camping thing had been his idea.
I braked hard to keep from running into the jeep as the ranger stopped at No. 13. The fire blazed, casting shadows over our forlorn tents and the camp stove Jonathan and I had set up, each planning to outdo the other cooking.
Ranger Waite stalked around the campfire, and then unhooked his flashlight to look into the tents before walking around the site, peering into the surrounding forest. We didn’t get out of the SUV.
The ranger finished his circuit and headed toward us. His concern had morphed into anger. “Get out and explain the meaning of this hoax!”
We climbed out of the SUV. “Did you know that it is an offense to falsify a report to an officer of the law?”
We stared at him, stupefied.
“We didn’t…” began Buddy.
I stared at the campfire, straining to see the slumped figure on the opposite side of the fire, the headless heap of clothes that was Jonathan.
“No body. No gun. Is this your idea of a joke?” He was in full rant now, his face stern, his voice harsh.
Unbelieving, I walked around the campfire. This is where Jonathan stood. There should have been blood and…
Nothing. Just a campfire surrounded by logs. No body. No gun. No evidence of the scene we witnessed of Jonathan putting the gun to his temple and firing.
Under the wrathful gaze of Ranger Waite, we broke camp, doused the fire, and loaded up. The grim trip back, unlike the boisterous trip to the park, was almost silent. “What was I going to do with Jonathan’s SUV?” I wondered for the hundredth time. “Who could we tell?” The ranger thought we were trying to pull an elaborate prank. I didn’t know where Jonathan’s family lived, or if he had family.
I know what I saw. I can’t explain why there was nothing to find when we returned to the campsite. Buddy, Candace, and I met a few times and asked ourselves what had happened, but we found it difficult to look at one another. Buddy said just shut up about it and get on with our lives. He and Candace were bickering.
Our former relationships shattered like fragile porcelain. Buddy moved on to his new position, but I heard Candace didn’t follow. Candace and I had seen one another every day since we were eight. We had been roommates. Now we rarely spoke. And my relationship with Jonathan? I couldn’t mourn for him. He didn’t exist. There was no body, so there was no funeral, no closure. I couldn’t talk to anyone about him or what we had seen.
One day I put my gear into that big SUV I’d acquired by default , hung up my apron at my dream job, and went on the road as Jonathan and I had once laughingly discussed doing, and worked my way cross country. I had lots of time on the road to ponder what had happened in front of that campfire. I could see Jonathan lifting the gun to his temple and firing. That image haunted me, awake or asleep. Neither his actions nor his disappearance made sense. I replayed the memories of our brief acquaintance over and over in my mind. I was insanely busy that last semester with classes, projects, and my internship at a major restaurant, so we’d meet for coffee, or he’d carry my books to the library and walk me home when the library closed. He even chauffeured me to work in the predawn hours so that I could do the prep for breakfast. We’d laughed like loons and enjoyed the companionship of kindred spirits.
Then the image of Jonathan putting the gun to his temple and pulling the trigger would eclipse all other memories of him. The horror of seeing his head disintegrate and his body slump into a heap of rags in front of the leaping flames would flood my vision. A full night’s sleep was impossible.
Once I called Candace. Her mother said she was out, but I heard her say she didn’t want to talk to me. I maintained the fiction of my wonderful job that kept me so busy I couldn’t get away for a visit to my parents.
I became a nomad, stopping for a few weeks or months in any place that caught my fancy, working as a cook until I felt compelled to move on. I worked myself to the west coast, and hired on as a vegan cook in a soup and sandwich shop near Seattle.
The SUV had held up well, but I began to consider another vehicle. With car shopping in mind, I bought a paper and a double latte and took both out on the patio of an espresso bar near the shop where I worked. It had been a year since the fatal incident at No. 13.
As I leafed through the paper, an item caught my eye.
You will never know how much we miss you.
Your life ended, but
It cannot destroy our memories of you
Without really thinking it through logically, I decided to look for Jonathan in the media.
My shift didn’t start for two hours, so I buried myself in the reading room of the public library, fortunately finding most of the local papers on microfiche. I scrolled through them looking for Jonathans in the obits.
A small piece on an inside page carried the story… “Police were called to the Weston Oaks last night about 8:45 after gunshots were reported on the premises.
Jonathan Ellison, 26, was pronounced DOA at Methodist Hospital just after 9:00. Witnesses stated the popular cook at the five star restaurant in the Weston Oaks Hotel, lured into a game of Russian roulette, shot himself. His death has been ruled death by misadventure.”
I walked out of the library in a fugue. I wandered down the main street from the library to a small park not far from where I worked. They were having a cooking school with several of the local chefs presenting their specialties. I paused to watch a chef in a comical chef’s hat whirl pizza dough over his head. As he expertly placed the dough on the pizza tray, he looked up straight at me. It was Jonathan!
Time unraveled and I was back at the seminar where I met Jonathan. His eyes met mine and the rest is a repeating nightmare. I started to run. Suddenly he was beside me.
“You can’t run and hide. You’re part of this now,” he said softly.
I had driven cross-country only to be drawn into the time warp that trapped him.
Merril Allyson is writing through the empty nest syndrome with her two dogs, her computer, and her books. She enjoys reading, writing, and the outdoors.
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Tags: death, Merril Allyson, paranormal, spirits