Flames rose into a dancing pyramid that sent thick smoke into the night sky. Chad sat cross-legged a few inches from the circular barrier, adjusting the stones confining the blaze. The heat warmed his cheeks, but the chilly November night pushed back, nipping at his ears.
A charred log rolled off the burning pile in the heart of the blaze. Chad scooted it back in place with a crooked branch, knocking off a layer of ash and scooting several scorched pine cones towards the burning center.
"Quit messing with it," Drake said, waving a skewered marshmallow over the bonfire, tanning its sticky white flesh.
"It's dying. Dad needs to hurry back with more wood."
"If he catches you messing around with the fire, he'll take away both of our video games. I'm not getting in trouble for your stupidity."
"I'm fine. I can handle it."
Chad grabbed a flat, oval stone poking out from the blanket of ashes inside the pit. Heat zapped through his gloves, and he dropped the rock with a yelp.
"See?" Drake took a bite from his perfectly browned marshmallow. "You're an idiot."
Chad rubbed his hand, his pride hurt more than anything else. Secretly he wished he could roast the marshmallows as good as his older brother. Drake always cooked them evenly and with the right amount of squishiness. Every time Chad brought one near flames, it ignited and scorched, leaving the treat's crust crispy black and the interior molten hot.
Thank goodness Mom always brought graham crackers and chocolate to mask his flawed cooking.
Drake jabbed another marshmallow on a thin, pointed stick and tossed the bag to Chad. "Try not to burn the forest down."
"Who is burning down the woods?" Dad asked as he entered the clearing carrying an armful of lumber. "I told you both to be careful with the fire."
"We are." Drake's eyes darted to Chad. "I'm just picking on him."
"Well, knock it off. No bickering on this trip. You're getting too old for that nonsense. Is your mother still not back from the showers?"
Chad and Drake both shook their heads.
Dad stacked the wood on a neat pile beside Chad. "I don't know who that woman is trying to impress out here."
"Probably you, Dad."
Dad rubbed Chad's shaggy hair. "You may be right."
Chad skewered a marshmallow on a longleaf pine branch he'd whittled to a point. The weight of the confection bent the branch, and the sugary puffball bobbed as he positioned it near the flames.
The fire popped, and several burning embers soared upwards. Where they fairies escaping the blaze, or could the fire be communicating with them? Chad closed his eyes and absorbed the singing fire, listening for messages hidden its music.
"Your marshmallow is burning," Drake said.
Chad snapped into reality and blew out the burning ball at the end of his spit. Scorched flakes peeled off the treat's overcooked exterior. He huffed.
"You got to watch them." Dad sat between the boys and stretched.
Drake held up his skewer, showing off another perfectly cooked puff. "Keep daydreaming and all of life will pass you by."
"Easy, Drake. Without dreams, man has nothing to reach for."
Dad tossed a few logs on the fire. The flames parted before embracing the new wood.
Chad bit into the snack, filling his mouth with sugary smoke.
"Are we playing commandos later?" Drake asked.
Chad perked up. The nighttime hide-and-go-seek game highlighted his family's monthly camping trips. Dad waited fifteen minutes as the boys disappeared in the woods before he went looking for them. If they could remain hidden for an hour, they won. No matter how well they hid, Dad always seemed to track them down, as if he could see in the dark. By the time they finished, Mom would have hot cocoa ready.
"Sure, but we need to call it an early night. Tomorrow I want to go fishing before noon, give your mom time to read and relax. The deer have been active around dusk the past few nights, so we need to hit the prairie then."
"Think we'll bag a big one?" Drake asked.
"Maybe. You going to help me clean it?"
"The real question is if Chad will stop being a sissy and help us."
Chad stuck his tongue out at his older brother.
He took no pleasure in hurting animals. The gore was gross enough without the sadness surrounding their deaths. Colorful fish pulled from the water dulled after dying on the dock; brilliant blues, greens, and yellows faded into gray as their gills stopped pulsating. And deer—the spark vanishing from their soulful eyes broke his heart. Chad had never seen a dead human, but he suspected the same thing happened when a person's spirit left their body.
"He'll help us when he's ready." Dad wrapped an arm around Chad. "No rush."
His father's assurance didn't quell Chad's embarrassment. He liked shooting rifles and guns at targets, cans, and bottles. He just couldn't bring himself to hurt another living creature. Drake didn't believe that animals had souls, but Chad knew better.
Dad pointed up. "Away from the light pollution in town, the stars really come out."
"Orion is king of the sky tonight." Chad loved constellations and their ancient stories. He regretted not bringing his telescope along—the new moon allowed the dimmest stars to come out and play.
"It's just a bunch of stupid flickering lights," Drake said. "Balls of burning chemicals hurdling through nothingness. One day, one of them will crash into earth and wipe everything out. What will you think of them then?"
"Won't happen in our lifetimes."
"What makes you so sure?"
"We'll blow ourselves up with nuclear missiles or poison ourselves with pollutants first. Mankind is its own worst enemy."
"Boys, enough. The world's not ending anytime soon. I swear, all those video games and horror movies are rotting your brains. Aim your thoughts at bigger concepts. Use your energy to change the world instead of imagining its doom."
The fresh logs had finally ignited, increasing the flames so that they lit more of the campsite. One of the pine cones crackled in the intense heat. The wood inside the inferno reminded Chad of his mother's stories of Hell. Though Dad and Drake didn't believe in God or the Devil, Chad saw the beauty of the world and wondered where it began, where the spark of consciousness originated in all living things.
"George, we have to go." Mom's panicked voice startled Chad. Shadows cast from the fire exaggerated the stress line creasing her brow. "Get what we need, and grab the boys. We have to get back to town."
Mom flipped on the lantern on the picnic table and picked up the cooler filled with sodas and hotdogs, spilling its contents onto the sandy ground. Chad's heart raced as she grabbed the dirt-covered sodas and shoved them into the cooler. He'd never seen Mom so scared.
Drake shrugged and skewered another marshmallow.
Why wasn't he scared, too?
"Calm down. Honey, what's wrong?" Dad rose and helped her pack up the folding chairs surrounding the fire.
"I was listening to the radio in the showers. Something bad is going on everywhere. People are attacking each other, and they're closing down the roads. We have to get back home before the highway patrol shuts the interstate down."
"All right, boys. Party's over. Break down the tents."
"Screw the tents George. We have to go now."
Chad shuddered, not from the cold, but from how loud the forest seemed. Crickets, wind, and the fire came together in an unholy symphony. An owl hooted in the distance. Tree branches snapped.
The sounds of nature suddenly had teeth.
As if in a dream, Chad followed Drake to the van. Mom, running, slammed the door.
Dad stopped her, pulling her close.
"Christine, for Christ sake, relax. Let me drive. You're too wound up."
She handed Dad the keys and jumped into the passenger seat. Dad got in and turned the ignition, looking back at the boys. "Everybody in? Seat belts."
Chad noticed something he'd never seen in his father's eyes before.