“There’s something outside the tent.”
Lauren’s boyfriend sits up. His words linger in the air. It’s nighttime. Probably near midnight.
Lauren rolls off her left side to face him. Her sleeping bag crackles with static. She was almost asleep a second before.
“I heard something,” he says.
Lauren’s sleeping bag keeps her warm. Her eyes are heavy and tired. She doesn’t want to get up.
“Whaddaya mean?” she asks.
He raises a hand to stop her from speaking. He lowers his head, closes his eyes, and they both sit still—listening.
The night sounds hollow. Noise echoes around the tent. Leaves whisper. A tree branch groans. A twig snaps. They both hold their breaths.
“I don’t hear anything,” she says.
Lauren feels around on the ground for her glasses and puts them on.
“You weren’t awake,” her boyfriend says.
She opens her mouth to object. But pauses. She was still awake before he had spoken. She was certain. The ground was hard and a rock was pressing into her hip. The first night camping was not easy. Maybe she couldn’t be certain. The edges of a dream may have formed. Her focus may have slipped.
Lauren’s boyfriend peels his legs from the sleeping bag and reaches for the tent’s zipper.
“Wait,” Lauren says. She says it without thinking. She’s too tired to think straight.
An owl hoots. The stream gurgles. The outdoors echo with silence.
“Wait for what?”
Lauren does not know. She wants to say it’s silly to go outside. The woods. Middle of the night. An unexplained noise. Isn’t that how horror movies start?
A breeze shakes the bushes. The cicadas crescendo. A loon calls out, long, lonesome, and distant.
She considers her boyfriend. Could this be a prank? This was their first camping trip together. She had found his humor and good sense very attractive. But also his seriousness, how grown up he always seemed. A prank was the sort of thing her old boyfriends would pull but not him.
“I’ll need to go outside at some point,” he says. His hand returns to the zipper. “To go to the bathroom,” he adds, putting the argument beyond the scrutiny of further questions.
His hand begins its descent, opening the tent. He’s moving slow and steady, and she wonders if he’s afraid that a quicker movement might startle the monster that’s outside their tent.
“Wait,” she says.
Her voice brushes out of her mouth. It’s a whisper so soft that she’s afraid he might mistake it for the wind.
But he hears her.
His hand stops.
He peeks back to see what is the matter. His eyes bulge from his face with focus and intensity. Could it be forced? Was he really on edge?
“Your shoes,” she said. It was a practical impulse. She feared her boyfriend would open the tent, but not be prepared to exit into the wild night. “Put them on first.”
Instead of sighing or acting annoyed like her old boyfriends, he nods, and relaxes away from the zipper. His body language tells her she is right. He should put on his shoes first.
First the right.
Then the left.
He returns to the half-opened zipper.
“Wait,” she says. She cannot help but stop him.
He didn’t have a flashlight.
What good is inspecting a noise at night (even if she hadn’t heard it) if he doesn’t have light to see it with? She hands him the yellow plastic one she’d had since childhood. She had been embarrassed to bring it with her because it screamed “I am not the cool, outdoorsy girlfriend I sold you on that dating app.” But now Lauren is glad she brought it.
She hands him the flashlight. He nods.
He reaches back towards the zipper. His thumb ready to press the flashlight on.
She finds it odd that they haven’t heard anything in several minutes. She wonders why her boyfriend had not thought to grab his flashlight if he was so worried about what was lurking outside. She worries that the look he’d given her when she had first asked him to wait was not a look of concentration or worry, but the look of a man trying not to laugh.
He turns on the flashlight.
In the white circle of light, they see nothing. The ashes from their campfire. Trees and bushes glowing green in the false light. Their backpacks hung high beyond the reach of bears.
Her boyfriend lifts his legs over the tent’s threshold. First the right. Then the left. He squats and shifts the flashlight around. The white circle of light touches rocks and trees and the cloudy night sky. But no monsters.
He stands up and walks away, out of her sight.
She wishes he had said where he was going. She tracks his journey by the flashlight. The white circle of light moves to her right, getting smaller as it zigzags through the trees.
Their first date had been at an upscale Mexican restaurant that made guacamole fresh next to your table. The waiter had presented them with a bowl of avocados, cilantro and lime, before making the dish from scratch.
“Have you ever been to Mexico?” her boyfriend asked.
She shook her head.
The waiter cut the avocados in half, removed the pits, and flung their innards into the molcajete.
“We should go backpacking there,” he said.
The waiter chopped some cilantro and added it to the avocado.
“Is it safe?” she asked.
The waiter beat the avocados and the cilantro together.
“In Mexico, I mean,” she said
The waiter cut open the lime and drizzled its juice over the guacamole, now taking shape.
“Is it safe anywhere?” he asked.
The white circle of light goes out.
Lauren stares out into the empty darkness.
She wonders if it’s safe to call out his name. She hadn’t heard a sound when the flashlight went out. Is he going to the bathroom? Had the batteries run out? Is this part of the prank?
The nearer sounds. The tiny sounds. They all echo around her.
The crash, enormous and deep.
The roar, sonorous and long.
The rush, quick and frightening.
And she wonders one last thought before it all ends.
Are monsters real?