Bill sat in an old folding chair and stared at the glowing embers of the campfire. His wife, Nancy, had always told him he needed an upgrade, one of those fancy bag chairs with cup holders. But he never gave in. Now he sat alone, the dead summer air so still that smoke rose like a decaying tree trunk, fading into the night sky.
It was an odd feeling, sitting by the campfire without his family. All the memories of camping trips past came rushing back to him. Where the embers burned brightest, there should have been a marshmallow on a stick turning golden brown. And next to it, a Hobo Pie maker with a cherry-filled pie toasting inside. Kids running into the darkness, playing ghost in the graveyard. Nancy, in her bag chair, pulled up next to him so close she would occasionally place her hand on top of his and give it a gentle rub.
Bill leaned back and looked to the heavens. Out here, the darkness allowed for a proper viewing of the night sky. As he scanned the campground, the other fires reminded him that he wasn’t completely alone. Then he heard the door of the small cabin creak. His cabin. He sat up and stared as a slender old gentleman strode out of the cabin and sat in a chair across from him. The old man wore a cabbie and a light brown jacket. He held his hands close to the fire. When he noticed Bill, he startled.
“Sorry. Didn’t see you there.” The old man rubbed his hands together. “Harder to get warm these days.”
Bill adjusted in his chair, sitting up straighter. “Welcoming fire, isn’t it?”
The old man nodded. “Always loved a good campfire.”
“You staying nearby?” Bill asked.
The old man chuckled as he rose from his seat to grab a poker. He pushed the logs and embers this way and that, rousing the fire.
Bill had never seen himself as the welcoming sort, but this old man felt as welcome as an old roommate. It was odd, but comforting to have another person sitting by the fire.
“I love a good fire, myself. My favorite part of camping,” Bill said.
“I like a good piece of roasted meat,” the old man said. “This is about as big a fire as I make. No roaring fires for me.”
Bill considered the man for a moment. It was almost as if he were claiming to have made the fire. The old man’s skin looked ashen in the firelight. And the more Bill looked at him, the more peculiar his clothing looked. His patchwork cabbie hat looked even more worn than he’d realized before.
“Where’d you say you were from?” the old man asked.
Bill thought for a moment. Where was he from? He didn’t really claim anywhere as home anymore. “Spent most of my life in West Michigan. Here and there. How about you?”
“Worked on the railroad. Moved all over the country. My Penny was with me for most of it.” The old man stared at the fire, his eyes dull-looking.
“What happened to your Penny?” Bill asked.
“She was headed to see her folks on a steamship. It went down in a Great Lakes storm.” The old man adjusted his cabbie.
Bill wondered how long ago steamships were commonplace on the Great Lakes. “Sorry to hear that.”
The old man nodded. “Well, I suppose.” He leaned the poker stick against a nearby tree. “Time to sleep. I’m so tired.” He cracked a smile. “Always tired these days. I wish you well, friend.”
The old man floated toward the cabin, his easy stride unsettling. When he entered Bill’s cabin, it looked like he’d simply walked through the door, like an apparition. Bill stood to go after him, but the glow of a flashlight and two approaching men gave him pause. Their uniforms marked them as park rangers.
“Hey,” Bill called. “A drifter just sat by my fire and entered my cabin. Not sure if he’s ill or mad or what.”
The ranger shined his light on Bill’s fire and approached.
“I appreciate your help,” Bill said.
The ranger with the light surveyed the entire site. “You think the site should just be closed down? Save us the hassle.”
“It’s my favorite site,” Bill protested. “One drifter shouldn’t spoil the fun for everyone.” Fun? Was he really having fun? Either way, he’d protest if anyone tried to shut this cabin down.
“After what happened here, I’m surprised it’s still on the website,” the other ranger said. “Hasn’t been rented for a year. This place gives me the creeps.”
“You remember the old codger who obsessed about this cabin?” the ranger with the flashlight asked the other, shining the light on the cabin door. “No more lonely fires for him.”
“Now, wait a second.” Bill held up his hands.
“Yeah, name was Miller, wasn’t it?” The ranger scooped dirt and doused the remaining fire embers. “Darn kids, keep sneaking up here.”
“Miller. That’s right. Bill Miller.”
J.R. Roper is the author of The Morus Chronicles, a Moonbeam Award winning series for middle grade readers. Roper’s work has appeared in Coffin Bell Journal, ChildGood Magazine, Families First Monthly, and in anthologies by Caffeinated Press, CHBB Publishing, Horrified Press, and Thirteen O’Clock Press. His abnormally high caffeine levels have been rumored to change vampires back to human form and there is a rumor floating around about him living in the belly of the dragon.