Learning to Sleep

"What are you still doing up? I thought everyone called it a night an hour ago."

She came from the shadows, into the front of the campfire, wearing a thick coat and a scarf wrapped hastily around her neck. He looked up from the campfire, almost as if just broken from a daze.

She sat down on the log next to him, and stared at the same fire. Finally he said, "Right now's the first time I had all day to hear my own thoughts. I had no idea everyone could be so loud. "

She laughed, and nodded too; eight young people certainly had enough lungs to shake up an entire campground.

"No offense, Jo, but your friends yelled loud enough to wake up those hibernating bears those rangers told us about."

She laughed again, then answered, "My friends? Some of those girls you brought along screamed like they were being physically attacked."

"They're city girls, all right."

"With piercing voices. My dad would have said, 'Sounds like someone's getting a needle stuck up her nail.' ".

"Your dad sounds sick."

"Shut up."

They both did, after a laugh. The three tents and two sleeping bags behind them seemed further away; the night crept up on them and they faded into the background, along with the solemn black shapes of the trees and mountain. All that seemed alive were two feet around the still-roaring campfire. A ring of stones. A shirt draped on a large rock, hung to dry. A tiny, lidded pot, meant for the next morning's breakfast. And the two last waking campers, on an old log, staring at dancing flames.

"Why are you up, Jo?," after a timeless silence.

"It's too early to sleep for me. I don't know. I think that little skinny-dipping after dinner woke me up. I'm still high right now. Too much energy to sleep."

"Oh really? I'm surprised you didn't catch pneumonia, or that other cold....thing. It's...uh..."


"Yeah, that's it. You guys are just... adrenaline junkies. Always looking for that rush."

"And that's a bad thing?"

"No. No it's not. It's just ... interesting to be around."

"Listen, I saw you when we ran to the lake. You wanted to come along too. You just didn't want to embarrass yourself in front of your friends."

"Nonsense. I don't care about what.... I don't even know how to swim."

"You don't? Wow, I didn't think a kid nowadays could grow up and go to school and not be able to swim."

"My parents always said I was special."

"You're special all right. Special in the ... ". Her words fell beneath her breath.

"Special in the ... ?", he continued.

"Look at the night out. The sky is beautiful. I mean, just beautiful.", she said, arching her neck to get a full view of the sky.

"It is. Spectacular. It doesn't ... look this good from the city, does it?"

"Exactly. It's why I love camping out, going outdoors. It's the way to go, let me tell you."

"Go on with yourself, Jo."

"Thank you, I will." She straightened up, as if preparing to address a crowd. "It's like... we live each day in the city. In buildings, on streets, inside rooms with tv's and computers. I mean, almost every hour in the day we're inside, under a roof, between four walls.

"That's just not natural, you know. People used to be more 'outside'. We used to be farmers. Worked on the railroads. Stuff like that. We used to play more too. Everyone went to the park. Played frisbee, walked the dog. Things are different now. No one goes outdoors anymore. Like there's nothing out here. But there is. It's everything around us. Even in the sky. We just have to see."

"Here, here. That was beautiful. Jo. I mean it. Seriously. That was wonderful."

"That's just how I see it. We don't 'partake with our natural wonders as much as I would hope."

"I think if everyone 'partook in your natural wonders', we'd be all in better shape."

She turned to look at him, studying his eyes. Figuring out what he meant, implied to say. He was careful not to look at her, but a smile escaped anyway.

"What...what is it, Jo?"

"I think you have an interesting choice of words over there."

"What, you mean.... oh. I see. That must have been a Freudian slip. Pardon me."

The night shook suddenly when an owl called out, but it was brief, a quick gesture to everyone in the forest that it was still there, still waiting for its mate.

"Why do you keep looking at your hands?"

"Oh... I just have to write something, especially after a day like today. But there's just not enough light out. My eyes are bad enough as it is."

"You write everyday?"

"I guess. I guess I do. Usually about stuff that doesn't matter to anyone else but me. But sometimes..."

"It's about something a little more ... universal."

"Yeah, you can say that."

"Well, if you write to put stuff down, stuff you, or anyone else, can read later on, then why don't you write with me. Just tell me what you were going to write with your hands. I'll be your sole listener."

He stared off into the fire. It danced and flared, flickered, weaved. Sometimes it would lull them with a slow, heavy burn, then suddenly it would wake and rush out at them; fiery tentacles rising, snapping at the frigid air. His eyes were glued to this single flame's dance, a looping, jumping thing that verged on supreme height then death, but managed time and again to return to normal. He stared at it, and after a while said:

" 'It started with a waterfall that wouldn't go down.'

" 'First of all, it wasn't my idea to throw our backpacks across the river. That would be insane, risky, a stupid idea. It was Jo and her friend's idea.' "

She laughed, hitting him with her elbow.

" 'Naturally, I tried to change their minds. Trying to convince explain to them that it would be easier to just walk up the river and until it was shallower and easier to cross, but they would have none of it. I felt like Moses trying to hold back the over-eager ones who wanted to cross the Red Sea before it had parted.'

" 'I had no effect on them, and they threw bag after bag across the other side of the river, the side we should have been on, had it not been for a costly left-instead-of-right turn at the park entrance, thanks to Miss Jo and her amazing map skills.' "


" Shhh. 'Now, it came down to my bad and sleeping gear. Their plan had inconceivably gone well. Still shaking my head at the preposterous nature of it all, I heaved my pack across the mighty river, in true form of an Olympic hammer or discus thrower.'

" 'When the applause died down, I picked up my sleeping bag, and attempted to send it on its way. Notice the word 'attempted', instead of 'done, because as I was in the middle of my spin, a bystander close to me, still unknown to myself, choose to point out at that time that a lace on my shoe was untied. I, being distracted at the comment, looked down, while releasing my bag. It went about halfway across the river. About halfway to where I wanted it to be. '

" 'The river, the one thing we had tried to avoid during this whole thing, simply took my bag and left us standing there like scarecrows on an empty farm. '

" 'We gave chase, almost futile because who can run as fast as water, until we saw the river disappear up ahead. It fell into a deeper river; a four-foot fall, and then into this lower, deeper river, which ran much slower. Slow enough that some of us with the skill could swim into it and retrieve my wayward bedding.

" 'It was lodged among some rocks right on top of the waterfall. We waited, deliciously licking our lips at the impending bag-falling. It crept to the very edge of the fall, water bouncing behind it, nudging, pushing it over. But it didn't. We waited but it would not fall. Physics and nature failed us. Failed me. I was to go cold this night, as my protection-in-slumber lay in the clutches of this mad river....' "

"Do all your stories go like this?"

"What.... Oh. Sometimes. Why?"

"I think I should be heading off to sleep now."

"Oh. What makes you say that, now of all times?"

"Well, that was just this morning. I'm afraid you won't be done with the whole story before everyone else wakes up."

"You're going to miss all the good stuff then. The action, the violence, the witty dialogue, the sexual tension..."

"Sexual tension?"

"You didn't notice it? I thought it was rather .... obvious."

"Between who? Robert and Tina? Or was it John and Barbara? I thought they kind of hit it off..."

He leaned in a bit closer to her. Just staring into her eyes, silently grabbing her attention. She trailed off, and waited for him to say...

"I can't tell you if you're going off to sleep now. It would ruin the story."

"Oh, good night."

"Good night, Jo."

He turned to face the fire again, now a bit smaller, a little less bright. Dying slowly but not caring. It would do its job till the very end, it didn't know anything else to do.

"Hey, you're still up," she whispered, making him jump a bit off the log.

"So are you," he whispered back. "That was a whole fifteen minutes, Jo. Must have been a heck of a nap."

"I know. It was that stupid story of yours. You make the simplest things sound so dramatic."

"Sometimes they are."

"Not all the time. Stuff is usually simple," she continued to whisper, as she sat back on the log. "Usually plain. It is what it looks like. You can take it or leave it."

"Nothing more?"

"Not usually. You overthink things too much. Just let stuff happen. Don't worry about consequences. Worry about what's right there. The stuff right in front of you."

"I see," he said, turning away to face the dim campfire again. Even the night grew silent, down to a whisper along with both of them.

"Sometimes, I guess the voice in my head drowns out the voice of my mouth. I want to say something, but my mind says something else."

"Sounds like you have a conflict inside. 'War of the Words.' That'd be a good soap opera to call you."



"Nice to see you care enough to make that observation."

"No problem. Considering you were about to put all that stuff about me in your story. You make it sound like I was the cause of all your misery."

"Who says you're not?"

"What? What have I done to you?"

He sighed, letting his mouth move too quickly from his brain again.

"Nothing Jo. I'm just drowsy, that's all."

"I bet. Aren't you going to go in and get some sleep?"

"I don't know. That story kind of woke me up, too. Thanks, by the way, I've never written out anything with my mouth before. It was pretty weird for me."

"No problem. It was pretty good too. I was just kidding before. It was funny. You should let me read some of your other stuff, when we get back."

"Sure, why not?"

"It's so quiet now. Look's like the forest finally went to sleep."

"Maybe we should stop whispering and wake it up again."

"Hush. It's so dark now. I might not be able to see which tent is mine anymore."

"Its the one not snoring as loud."

"What?...Yeah. I'm going to get a big laugh at them tomorrow."

"Maybe we should call it a night. This fire's about to choke out on us."

"I know. You've been staring at it for hours. Thought you were hypnotized by it or something."

"No. Maybe......I've had this thing with flames. Ever since I was a kid..."

"Oh no. A pyromaniac's childhood...."

"No. I hope not. They're just....been always so interesting to look at. They're never the same, always moving. At different speeds, taking different shapes. Sometimes they're real quiet, and then they go and act up, be real loud. Whipping and striking out. Then they go still and quiet again. They're like every person in the world, all in one flame. Living out whole lives, all condensed into a few minutes or hours.

"It's like I hear they're stories when I look at them, all I do is listen when I stare."

She had leaned in closer to him as he whispered, so she was nearly talking to his cheek when she said, "That was really beautiful."

He turned, caught by her proximity. The dying light caught her face in such a way that he couldn't look away. Her cheeks glowed smoothly and pale in the flickering light. Her lips perfectly drawn in, holding her breathe. Her eyes cast down at the flames, a portrait of her he had never been this close to, never been so drawn in by.

Almost saying something, she looked at him, catching his lips move from the corner of her eye.

He hesitated, then said, "I guess this is one of those times where I shouldn't say what I want, but I'm saying over and over again in my head."

She grinned a little bit, then looked back at the campfire. It was her now, studying these flames.

"You just say what you want to say. What you're saying in your head. Its got to be important, if that's all your thinking about...."

"You... look....so beautiful."

Her eyes turned to him, then widened. They studied his, looking for some hidden meaning, for a hint, a vague clue, something that might say ... he was joking. Her eyes studied his, searching for false sincerity. When she couldn't find it, she sighed inside and wondered what an interesting point now, between these two friends.

"I think we should go to bed now."

She froze, felt his eyes glued on her. Nothing made a sound, even nature held her breathe after that. The shock of what she said was still etched on her face.

"You see what I mean, " he finally said.

Both managed a silent laugh, not wishing to break the pristine night air. The light grew dimmer till it seemed they had to be inches from each other to tell the expression on the other's face. That seemed important to them that night, not wanting to miss the extra words their faces said.

So close were they, that when he thought the light was nearly dying out, that he would go with it too, he kissed her on her lips, not too quick but not too long. She thought that a nanosecond was too long, because it wasn't expected, but nothing interesting ever was, so when he let go, she did too.

"I think we should go inside," she finally said.

"My sleeping bag is still wet, outside", he answered.

"I think 'we' should go inside now."

"Oh...oh. Okay."

"Don't forget to put out the fire."

"Are you sure you know the way?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. I'll just feel my way around, and I'll know when I get to the one I want."


"Yeah. That's how I always look for the things I want."

"How ... interesting."

"Yeah, I know. Say good night to the sky now."

"Good night, sky."

By Don Bernal

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