The Fire

The fire wasn’t the problem; the problem was that Brad was being unreasonable. When I suggested we turn back he said no, let’s wait it out, let’s see what happens. When I wanted to heft a flaming cedar limb and wave it at the helicopters flying overhead, he said they probably have more pressing business elsewhere. He said just let them do what they need to be doing. When I suggested we let the dog off her leash so that she could make a run for it, he gave me a look that made clear his feelings about my abject stupidity. And when I let the dog loose anyway, he threw up his arms and laughed and said oh great oh perfect. Now he’s sitting on a stump with his back to me eating M&Ms out of the trail mix. He’s picking out the raisins and flicking them into the fire.

It had been my idea to come out here in the first place, and I chose this date for its calculated randomness. It meant nothing. It seemed like the kind of date that we could easily forget, that we could overlook without even trying. We would never write it down. We would never have to think about it. Brad was unenthusiastic from the beginning but went along for reasons I could not immediately divine. And now—staring at his back, watching his neck pulse as he chews—I realize that he has probably come along out of spite.

I find my own stump and sit. I let the pack slide off my shoulders and plop onto the ground. The fire in front of me is like the surface of the ocean, tilted vertically; it roils and churns. Every living thing inside of it crackles. I drink from the Camelback and then unzip my pack and take out the urn I have carried here. I shake it just to remember what’s inside.

Brad turns and is looking at me, his face expectant. The fire spits and pops around us, blows the bangs from our eyelashes. I unscrew the lid, pour a small pile of its contents into the palm of my hand. It doesn’t look the way I thought it would.

Brad stomps his foot; he unlaces his boot, slips it off and throws it into the fire. He checks my response. He peels off his damp sock, throws it in too. He looks around helplessly and then grabs his pack by the straps and heaves it in, and with it our lunch, our extra layers, the rest of the trail mix. He takes an unsteady step and before he can take another I put my palm to my mouth and chew. Brad and the fire do not react.

I put the urn to my lips. I swallow everything in it. I wash it all down with a drink and then I let the urn drop. Everything and all of us are streaked with ash. Brad’s arms go weakly up and I step into them. He’s weeping. I know that what I’ve swallowed will rot me from the inside, but that it will be long and slow and it will take years.

The fire closes listlessly around us, curling the hairs on our arms. Brad holds me tight. He is euphoric. He will celebrate this day for the rest of our lives.

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About Joe P. Squance

Joe P. Squance is a writer, editor, and teacher in Oxford, Ohio. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Everyday Fiction, Monkeybicycle, Juked, Cease Cows, Lost Balloon, and elsewhere, and he has written essays for Salon, Runner's World, Rodale's Organic Life, and Serious Eats. He is the recipient of an Award for Individual Excellence from the Ohio Arts Council for a collection of flash stories in second person narration. He lives in Oxford with his wife, their young daughter, and the ghost of an old dog.