By Shawn Wells
Camping in the deep woods was one of Jack Everton’s favorite things in the world. The big sky up above, the trees growing wild and free and tall, the leaves and twigs and pebbles making an uneven surface that nobody but him had walked across in weeks. Maybe months. Maybe longer.
Animals moved around him in the underbrush. He could hear them scampering here and there through the grass looking for food. It was a couple of hours until sunset, but he already had his campfire going, and his tent set up, and he was already thinking about catching some fish for his dinner. This was going to be a perfect night.
The plastic water bottle crinkled in his hand as he finished the last two swallows. Humming to himself, he tossed it aside.
He wondered what kind of fish there would be in that river. Bass, probably. Maybe some trout. Both of them were out of season but he didn’t care. There was no one around to see him, or judge him, or tell him he was wrong…
With a plastic crinkle, the water bottle rolled back across the ground and stopped against his boot.
Now that was odd.
Picking it up, he screwed the lid on tight and tossed it into the woods again.
Just then, a sound of rustling leaves sent a tremor through the ground. Jack rose partway from the boulder where he’d been sitting. That must be a pretty big critter to be making that much racket.
Then the empty plastic bottle came rolling back to him again.
“That there’s for you to pick up, son.”
Jack froze. The voice was like leather creaking under the midday sun. Somehow, it didn’t sound human.
Not far over from where he crouched, a shape had pushed itself up from the ground. It was brownish gray and rounded and at first, he took it for some sort of weirdly deformed tree stump, complete with a hollow center in the front where a twisted gnarl of old growth formed the outline of a…
Then a cloud shifted in the sky above, and the light fell differently, and Jack could see this was no tree stump. That was a shell. What he’d thought was a gnarled hunk of an old tree in the center was actually a wrinkled and scaly body, and a stretchy neck, and a face that looked as ancient as time itself.
It was a creature of some kind, but not one that Jack had ever seen before.
“That,” it said, the mouth forming each word with exaggerated movements, “is garbage. Don’t you go and leave garbage in my woods, sonny boy. Ever hear of pack it in, pack it out?”
“Wh-what are you?” Jack asked. It seemed like a reasonable question, considering.
The creature snorted a barking laugh, and its head stretched way, way out of its shell on that long neck. “Not too many people come camping ‘round here anymore. Most everyone knows to stay away. This is the part of the woods I protect. I’m a guardian of the trees, and the plants, and the animals who live here. Lots of guardians in nature.” It shook its head sadly. “Leastwise, there used to be. People keep tearing up nature. Hurting the wild world of woods and fields and rivers. Leaving their garbage all over!”
Jack couldn’t believe this was happening. A guardian of nature? This was the strangest thing he had ever seen!
Reaching for his backpack, he rifled through his things until he found his cellphone. There was no reception out here, but the camera app worked just fine. He had to get a picture of this…
He turned around with the phone ready, only to see the top of the guardian’s shell burrowing into the ground. It was gone a second later.
Jack stood there, not even sure if he’d actually seen anything at all. It was crazy, right?
He looked down at the plastic water bottle. He really should throw that away. Hallucinations in the woods or not, it wasn’t a good idea to trash a place like this. He wanted to be able to enjoy nature for years to come. Picking it up, he put it inside his backpack. He could recycle it when his camping trip was done.
A rumble under his feet brought his attention to the ground next to the boulder. The guardian’s wizened head pushed up just far enough through the dirt so Jack could see the two black orbs that were its eyes. “I’m kind of camera shy,” the Guardian explained. “Thanks for picking up your junk. That’s a good first step. Now, keep doing the right thing. Oh, and that includes no fishing out of season.”
Then it was burrowing away again, and it was gone.
Jack shook his head at the crazy things in this world that people would never know about. He was extremely lucky to have seen this today. Wait until his buddies down at his local bar heard about this!
Now, time for some fishing. There’s no way the guardian would keep him from enjoying a fresh dinner, even if it was the wrong season.
With a pole in hand, already set with one of his favorite fly lures, Jack stood at the edge of the river and cast his line out. It plunked into the babbling water, and the line drew taut.
And immediately, Jack had a bite.
It took some effort to draw the fish out of the water, but he caught glimpses of it. That was a huge catch! More than he could hope to eat in one sitting. He’d have to cook some of it up, and then throw the rest away. Bury it, of course, but that’s just the way it was. Sometimes you had to waste a lot, to get the part you needed.
All of a sudden, the line snapped.
Jack was thrown backward, landing hard on the ground, swearing to himself at the loss of his line and his lure and his dinner.
He threw his rod on the ground, and got up to his feet, brushing off the leaves and the dirt from his clothes. He stopped when he heard the splashing from the edge of the water. Something was coming out of the river.
To his surprise, that same huge fish was crawling on its strong flippers. Its face looked angry, and its thin lips pulled back to show rows of sharp, tiny teeth.
“No fishing,” it growled. “No fishing, no fishing, no fishing!”
It slithered and pulled itself closer.
Jack tried to turn and run away.
The guardian from before, the one in its shell, burrowed its way up out of the ground and smiled at him.
“Told ya there was other guardians,” it said. “People just don’t listen. They just don’t listen at all.”
Jack ran, back to his campsite and to his vehicle, gathering up all of his stuff in such a rush that he didn’t even bother folding up his tent. He just stuffed everything into the back seat.
Everything, including his garbage.
He doused the fire, and stirred the ashes, babbling to himself hysterically. He did it right, he did it perfectly. Then he left.
Next time he came back, he was going to respect nature, in every way.
Never know when a guardian might be watching.