Throughout the school year, Autumn’s classmates often returned from weekend getaways, regaling her with tales of pitching a tent, hiking through a forest, and hearing stories around a fire. Camping quickly captivated Autumn’s imagination, a great American tradition the six year old wanted to experience herself.
Of the joys of camping, however, one garnered Autumn’s attention the most. S’mores. She longed to eat the gooey, marshmallow, chocolate, graham cracker treat.
On a hot afternoon in June, Autumn arrived at a mountaintop camp with her father, Marshall, his girlfriend, Chloe, and Chloe’s brother, Will, ready for her first outdoor overnight adventure.
Their over-stuffed car came to a grinding halt at the entrance to the park, where Marshall stepped out to check in with the ranger.
Meanwhile, Autumn stood by and swatted flies buzzing around her head. In the time her father talked to the ranger, she was bitten by two mosquitoes. Intuitively, Autumn started to wonder what other ‘joys’ she could look forward to on her maiden voyage into the wilderness.
“Okay, I think we’ll try that hike tomorrow morning …” Marshall said, concluding his conversation with the ranger.
The ranger, a white-haired lady with piercing blue eyes, bent down so she was eye level with Autumn and said, “How about you, dear, what would you like to do on this trip?”
“Eat s’mores!” Autumn said.
“Yes, s’mores, of course, what is a camping trip without them?” the ranger said, and she began speaking in a hushed voice. “But Beware, young lady, a ghost is said to inhabit these woods. They call him S’more Boy. He likes to eat the treats of our camp guests, so be sure to clean up after your mess, so you won’t be visited by an uninvited pest!”
“That’s one way to keep the trash in the cans,” Marshall said, “and another way to keep the kids up at night. Thanks, a lot.”
“You bet,” the ranger said with a grin, waving to Autumn as her father tugged her away. “Have a nice trip!”
“Is there really a ghost?” Autumn said as they walked toward the car.
“No,” Marshall said. “I think she was just saying in a roundabout way that we need to keep our site clean, unless we want bears or something to ruffle through our stuff.”
Marshall realized that between the ranger’s comments, and his own, there was little that put a child at ease.
“You have nothing to worry about,” he said, patting her head, buckling her tight in her car seat. “Never mind what that lady said, or me, all right?”
“What was that all about?” Chloe said as Marshall put the car into drive.
“Ghosts and bears are coming to get us tonight!” Autumn said.
“Oh, boy,” Marshall said.
“No, S’more Boy!” Autumn said.
They found their site and pitched the tent. Well, actually, Marshall, Chloe and Will pitched the tent while Autumn scrambled up some boulders until her father yelled at her to get down. He asked her to collect sticks for the fire instead.
That was a task Autumn managed handily, finding stray branches and twigs until there was a pile so big waiting to be lit that it was larger than Autumn herself. After that, Autumn wasn’t sure what to do. There were no TVs or pizza parlors or water slides, like there were in the big city life of Los Angeles. Not only was camping hot, with a lot of bugs, but it was also boring. Some trip this was turning out to be.
“Now what?” Autumn said.
“Looks like you’re going to have to entertain yourself,” Marshall said.
Autumn did. Life in the woods took a little getting used to, true, but once Autumn came to terms with the fact she didn’t have the usual gizmos and artificial amusements to keep her occupied, she adapted well.
First, she gathered an assortment of rocks — big ones, small ones – lined them along the campsite, and went into business.
“Who needs magic crystals?” she yelled, to everyone and no one in particular. “I have red ones, blue ones. I have crystals that heal you, and crystals that make you fly …”
None of the neighboring campers seemed to appreciate Autumn’s wares, but Will offered to buy a rock, which made Autumn happy. For a moment. Then it was on to another game …
Autumn chased bunny rabbits. She sang and danced in a makeshift theater she carved into the dirt with a stick. She even made a fishing pole with a branch, string and rock for bait, trying to lure tadpoles from the pond.
When it was time for the hike, Autumn led the charge. She climbed hills, strolled fallen trees, skipped rocks.
Life was good, despite the heat and bugs, and in time even that didn’t bug Autumn as much.
Eventually the sun set, a fire made. Day turned to night, the weather cooled, and even some of the bugs went away. Marshall, Chloe, Will and Autumn ate. They sat under a canopy of stars, surrounded by darkness, and gazed at each other across the orange glow of firelight. When they weren’t talking, there was only silence.
Chloe, Will and Autumn took turns telling stories. They roasted s’mores, and they were better than Autumn imagined they would be. She loved pushing the gooey marshmallows through a stick and roasting them over the fire.
For a while, camping was heaven. Then, Autumn couldn’t take anymore. She was done, she realized. Exhausted. She didn’t even think about cleaning up her mess; she dropped her gooey marshmallow stick and approached her father, arms raised in surrender.
“Daddy, put me to bed,” she said.
Marshall brushed his daughter’s teeth, changed her into her pajamas, and laid her into her sleeping bag. He told Autumn a story about a little girl who is given a special gift for her birthday, a box that allows her to travel in time. Autumn loved the story, but even so, in the back of her mind, she hadn’t forgotten about S’more Boy.
In the middle of the night, she woke. Something scratched along the tent, and she heard a faint voice.
“Give me more,” said the voice with a low, frightening moan. “More s’mores, more s’mores …”
The next morning Autumn startled awake, frightened by her nightmare. But it may not have all been in her head, because there were small footprints around the camp fire.
“Probably your own,” Marshall said.
“Daddy, can’t you see, S’more Boy’s for real!” Autumn said.
She found her stick. Licked clean.
“See?” Autumn said.
“Probably from you,” Marshall said.
Camping that day was little different than it had been previously, including the relentlessness of the heat and bugs. The games continued, but instead of them being shorter, Autumn, Will, Chloe and Marshall found ways to make them longer.
For example, they made wreaths out of twigs to decorate the makeshift theater Autumn made and sang and danced in the day before.
“Camping requires a lot of improvisation,” Will said, and they laughed, including Autumn, once Will explained to her what ‘improvisation’ means.
That night, after Autumn enjoyed her s’mores, she was not as willing to go to sleep as easily as she had been previously, however.
“Daddy, I’m scared,” she said, sobbing in her sleeping bag. “I’m afraid S’more Boy is going to get me!”
“Oh, sweetheart, it’s okay,” Marshall said, rubbing her hair. “Don’t be afraid. S’more Boy is just pretend, remember?”
“But I heard him …”
“You cleaned up after yourself tonight, right?”
“Yes,” Autumn said, wiping the tears from her face.
“Then you did everything the ranger told you to do,” Marshall said. “You have nothing to worry about.”
That night, Autumn slept soundly until she again heard scratching along the tent. This was no nightmare, either. She startled upright in a panic, and shook her father.
“Daddy, Daddy, S’more Boy’s here!”
Marshall rose, groggy, and listened. He didn’t hear anything except the wind rustling in the trees; certainly there was no sign of a ghost looking for a treat.
“False alarm, sweetheart,” Marshall said. “Now quit scaring yourself, and get some rest.”
Marshall’s head was about to rest on his pillow when he heard it. Faint, and not so much the moan of a boy, but a boy’s fiendish cackle. And the boy was getting into something …
Marshall sat upright, no longer groggy. He grabbed his flashlight, and Autumn clutched his arm as he unzipped the tent and shined the light toward the smoldering campfire.
Smacking a s’more in the fading glow of the firelight, the pest turned and faced them.
“Is that a bear?” Autumn said.
“No, a raccoon,” Marshall said, smiling. “How about that? I guess the ranger’s tale got to both of us.”
“You were scared too, Daddy?” Autumn said, loosening her grip on her father’s arm.
“A little,” he said, “but there’s nothing to worry about, after all.”
Father and daughter laughed.
Marshall shined the light around the campsite, to see if there were any more raccoons, but there were none.
When he shined the light back on the campfire, ‘S’more Boy’ was gone.