Marty Lester swore quietly at the fire he couldn’t get started. He’d lost track of how long he’d been striking flint against steel, watching the small spray of sparks fall onto his kindling only to die there. He tossed useless tools aside and swore again, louder this time, hurling the mother of all f-bombs at Counselor Todd, who was probably sound asleep in his nice warm cabin on the grounds of Camp Wannanoogie.
“Guess who’s going on a snipe hunt tonight?” Todd had announced to the campers as Marty straggled into the cabin, out of breath and coming in last place for Todd’s homegrown “warrior race.” Marty was covered in mud and mosquito bites. There was a welt on his left arm where a pine bough and sprung back at him.
“Marty! Marty!” the campers jeered.
“Loser gets to go hunting, Marty,” Todd said, a sadistic grin on his face.
Todd dumped him in the woods just outside the camp bounds, just before dinner. The counselor handed him a knapsack with a flashlight, a sleeping bag and a little backpacker’s tent, three cans of no-name beef ravioli, a fork, and the flint and steel.
“Can’t I have matches?”
“Weenies don’t get matches,” said Todd. “Don’t come back until you bring us a snipe.”
“How will I know I found one?”
“The snipe’ll probably find you first. You look like lunch.” And then he laughed and laughed as he drove the little camp tractor back to the cabins.
It only took fifteen minutes for Marty to get completely lost. It was completely dark by the time he gave up on the fire and settled into his tent, huddled for warmth in the thin sleeping bag.
He was two bites into a can of cold ravioli when it dawned on him that they hadn’t even left him anything to hunt with. Jerks.
Marty hated the camp; hated that his parents shipped him off there one week out of every summer; hated the food and the bugs and the swimming and the outdoors; hated the boys who somehow towered over him despite being the same age.
And, god, how he hated Counselor Todd. Seventeen, stupid, and mean. There was no way he should have been put in charge of twelve-year-old boys. But he put on a good show when adults were around, so the camp owners and the parents all loved him. And he had cool rocker hair and a cool black Camaro and an inclination to indulge the baser instincts of junior high boys. He’d offer campers a shotgun ride in the muscle car as a periodic prize for pulling cruel pranks. So, of course, most of the campers thought he was awesome. But only most.
Snipe hunt. Marty whispered unkind words and hunkered deeper into his sleeping bag.
He had just drifted off to sleep when the air shuddered and a huge wave of a rumble passed overhead.
Just my stupid luck, thought Marty. Thunderstorms. I bet this tent isn’t even waterproof.
He made sure everything was zipped up tight and sat up waiting for the sound of rain to pelt his shelter.
Minutes passed, but the rain never fell. Then the rumble sounded again, softly at first somewhere behind him, and steadily growing louder, and with it a glow in the sky that lit up the inside of his tent. For a moment, Marty thought it was lightning, but it didn’t come in quick flashes. It was persistent and growing in intensity. His curiosity got the better of him, and he slowly unzipped the tent flap and peeked outside.
The clearing in the trees surrounding him glowed like daylight had come early. Overhead the rumble grew louder. Marty stepped out and looked up toward the source of the noise. He nearly stumbled at what he saw but just managed to keep his feet beneath him.
It was hard to judge how big the saucer was. It blotted out the moon as it passed overhead. It moved gracefully and quickly, soon passing over and then beyond Marty’s little clearing of sky above the treetops. Soon it was hundreds of yards further into the woods, taking it’s bright light with it and leaving him awestruck and once again in the dark.
Marty kept watching as it sailed along and then as it paused, a sudden stop with no deceleration. It stood there above the trees for a moment, and then a bright light, brighter than the saucer’s daylight glow, pierced down into the trees. He thought he heard an electric hum. And then the light and the hum stopped. The saucer hovered there, still and glowing. And then just as suddenly as it had stopped it shot up into the sky, so fast that Marty barely had time to register the motion. The light of the saucer disappeared into a tiny speck and lost itself in the starscape above. He paused for a moment, and then rushed to pack up camp.
Marty Lester was not the timid boy that Counselor Todd and the other campers thought he was. He was awkward, yes, and not particularly athletic, and in the brains of his adolescent tormentors that translated into an overall dweebishness of body, mind, and spirit. But Marty was curious, and unafraid of seeking out new things to learn and taste and experience. Something had happened in the woods where the saucer had paused.
And an alien has to be a better find than a stupid old snipe, he thought.
Packed up, Marty crept quietly through the woods in the direction he’d last seen the saucer. He kept his flashlight pointed low to the ground, avoiding tripping over branches while trying not to spook the local fauna. Or the visiting fauna.
He was several hundred yards into the woods and just on the edge of another clearing when the grumbling stopped him short. Marty ducked behind a large fallen tree trunk and shut the flashlight off. Somewhere off in the clearing something was making grumbly-growly noises, raspy and high-pitched. There was a vehemence to the tone, and for a moment Marty was convinced that whatever it was was unhappy. He sympathized.
Slowly, Marty peeked up over the fallen trunk. In the clearing was a small geodesic dome. It was made out of some strange metal that reflected and amplified the moonlight. The beginnings of a fire pit were scribed out several yards from the dome. The growling sounds grew louder, and Marty gasped as he caught sight of their source.
The alien look, well, like an alien – short and gray and hairless with a noseless face dominated by two huge black eyes. Just like the cover of some alien conspiracy book, he thought. If his adrenaline wasn’t running so high, Marty might have almost been disappointed.
The little gray creature carried a bundle of sticks gathered from the woods beyond. It stomped toward the fire pit, grumbling, it seemed to Marty, under its breath. It tossed the sticks onto the pile with a huffy shrug of its shoulders, then stomped off into the dome. A moment later, it emerged carrying a metallic tube in its hands. It aimed the tube at the fire pit and a bright blue light shot out from the end of it, igniting the kindling in half of an eye blink.
Startled, Marty ducked back down out of sight. The growling stopped, and after a few moments he realized that he could see the light of a rather nice fire bouncing off the trees around him. Again, Marty peeked over toward the clearing. The alien sat on the ground near its campfire, staring into it. Every so often, it would pluck up a handful of grass and old pine needles and sullenly toss them into the flames.
Marty found himself staring deep into the fire. He was all of a sudden painfully reminded of just how cold it could get in the evenings here, even in summer. Man, it’d be nice to sit down by that fire, just for a bit. Before he was even aware he was doing it, Marty was moving carefully toward the clearing.
The alien startled at the sound of Marty’s foot snapping a twig and scurried around the pit to put the fire between itself the uninvited guest. Marty stopped dead and threw his hands up in the air in the the (he hoped) universal sign for “I come in peace.” The two faced off for several tense moments until the alien sat back down, its eyes still on Marty.
Marty took two deep breaths and then started again toward the fire, slowly, hands still above his head. Coming to the edge of the circle, he shrugged his backpack off his shoulders as he lowered himself to the ground.
The two stared at one another through the flames for a long time, each trying to decipher in the other whether harm was in the offing. After many minutes, Marty’s stomach started to growl. Caution forgotten, he dug into his backpack, pulled out one of the remaining cans and popped it open. He was so invested in chewing on cold ravioli that he didn’t notice his campfire host crawling around the circle to him. He looked up from a bite to find the alien staring pointedly at the can.
“Hungry?” Marty asked. Big black eyes looked up at the sound of his voice and then quickly back down at the can. He stabbed a hunk of gummy pasta out of the can and held his fork out toward the alien. Hesitantly, it reached long, gray fingers out and gently pulled the proffered food off the fork. It stared at the ravioli, tilting its head this way and that before shoving, lightning quick, into its slit of a mouth.
Marty jumped back as the alien lunged toward the can, staring him in the eye and pointing down into the food. He dug more out and offered it again. This time the alien didn’t hesitate. The ravioli disappeared in a hungry sleight of hand. He laughed at his dinner companion’s enthusiasm, and put the can down in front of it.
“Take it,” said Marty. “I don’t really like it cold, anyway.” His new gray friend snatched the can up and dug its long fingers in, emptying it into its belly in seconds. Dinner finished, the two sat a slight distance apart, staring at the fire.
After a while, the alien drew closer to Marty. He tried to slink back out of the way until he realized his new companion was holding its hands out in his same earlier “peace” gesture. Marty sat still.
The alien reached out its hands and rested its fingers across Marty’s forehead and temples. There was a bright flash inside his head, and then he just knew.
“You too?” he asked as his friend released its hold.
Dropped off on my own in the wilderness, said a voice in his head.
“Sent on a snipe hunt?”
A rite of passage, they said. But I’d rather not pass.
“We call it ‘hazing’ here. They’re not supposed to do it, but everyone does.”
And have you found a snipe?
“They’re not real.”
I suspected as much. Why do it, then?
“Gets me away from those assholes for a night.”
The alien pondered that for a moment.
Yes. It is nice to get away from my crew, as well.
“Until they come get me, at least.”
Yes. They’ll come for me in a quarter rotation, as well.
They sat for a minute in companionable silence.
“We should prank them.”
“Play a trick on them. Make them think we found the snipe.”
A ripple like laughter rang inside Marty’s head.
Yes. We are one another’s snipe.
“We fought for hours.”
“But not before grabbing a souvenir.”
Marty started to explain, then stopped, turning toward his backpack instead and rifling through it. He pulled out the flint and steel.
What is it?
“Fire starter,” said Marty as he scraped one against the other in a shower of sparks.
Ah. A dangerous primitive weapon. Marty wasn’t sure, but he thought he could hear sarcasm in his head.
“Yeah, you barely escaped getting tiny burns all over you.” Again the laughter rippled.
The alien crawled into its dome and rustled around for a bit, then came back to fire. It held out its hands to Marty. In them was the odd metal tube he’d seen earlier.
Fire starter, it said. You barely escaped getting very large burns…
Marty fell over laughing.
They sat and watched the fire until it died, then turned and bowed in thanks to each other.
“Nice meeting you, Snipe.”
I am glad you stumbled onto my fire, Snipe.
By the time dawn came, the aliens campsite was gone. Marty looked around for any traces that it had been there, but all he had to reassure him he hadn’t been dreaming was his “snipe” souvenir.
In daylight, it was easy to find his way back. He kicked himself when he discovered just how close he’d been to the main road. He hiked up toward the direction of the camp until he heard Todd’s ATV coming in his direction.
“Get on, butthead. You are in so much trouble.”
Marty said nothing all the way back to camp.
Parked outside the mess hall, he found a crowd of boys waiting for their arrival, jeering once again as he returned.
“You’re gonna be on latrine duty for the rest of the week.”
“Cuz you weren’t in your cabin for lights out.”
“You sent me on a snipe hunt!”
“Yeah, and I caught hell for losing track of you.”
“Not my problem,” said Marty between clenched teeth.
“Shit rolls downhill. It’s the unofficial law of camp.”
Todd turned toward the mess hall.
“What if I told you I found the snipe?”
Todd turned back and got in Marty’s face.
“I did. Found it in a clearing. We wrestled for hours.”
“Sure. Then what?”
“It got away.”
“But not before I grabbed this off it.”
Todd stared at the silver tube.
“What did you do, cover a toilet roll in tin foil?” Todd doubled over laughing.
“This is a deadly weapon. The snipe nearly got me with it.”
“A deadly weapon. Ha! What’s it do?”
A slow smile crossed Marty’s face. He aimed the tube off in the direction of the parking lot. Even in daylight, the flash from its end was epic.
There was a giant “FOOMPF” sound, followed quickly by a noise that sounded like a deer being swallowed whole by a coyote but which turned out to be Todd screaming.
Everyone looked across the way, the boys agape, Marty with a triumphant grin. There was a melted heap that had once been a black Camaro, burning with a fire of a most interesting color.
Marty got sent home from camp early, and he’d never felt happier.
Nobody at Camp Wannanoogie ever went snipe hunting again.