The Charred Companion

JD twists in his chair and searches for something to toss in the fire. This shouldn’t be difficult. Woods border the site, and sticks litter the ground in the trees’ shade. A good-sized limb rests between my family’s tent and the trail that leads to the playground.

But JD needs something in arm’s reach. He won’t abandon his chair. It’s the only one that can unfold into a recliner. He’s already cleared the area around him. In a minute, he’ll tell me to get up and start gathering. I bend forward and look under my seat. The matted grass holds three dead leaves. I hand them over. He takes them without a word.

The leaves are his. The reclining chair is his. The campsite is his. Got it.

As soon as they hit the flames, the leaves flutter up with a hiss. We observe their flickering descent. JD straightens his leg and snuffs the burning leaf closest to him with his shoe. The other two die on their own. I consider his outstretched sneaker. I’m too big to inherit his things anymore, but anticipating them is an old habit. When I realize what I’m doing, I jerk my gaze back to the fire and feel the heat in my face.

My mother’s got her sister cornered in the camper. Their voices drift through the screen.

“Why bother?” Mom asks.

The blinds rattle over the sink. Aunt Janet’s killing flies again.

I consider his outstretched sneaker. I’m too big to inherit his things anymore, but anticipating them is an old habit. When I realize what I’m doing, I jerk my gaze back to the fire and feel the heat in my face.

It’s September, but the horseflies are still bad. “Not much out there,” my aunt says.

“He reads the classifieds every Saturday.”

Aunt Janet’s laugh sounds like a cough. “Good luck with that.”

“There’s nothing. Nothing he’s qualified for. Then it’s back to McGregor’s on Monday. Goddamn it, he hates that job.”

My aunt swats the screen door, and for a moment, she appears behind the mesh, a trim and sharp-featured woman. Pointy best describes her: pointy nose, pointy chin, a mouth that makes a pointing pucker when she’s thinking. She and my mother don’t look anything alike.

Mom’s round. When it comes to her weight, she blames her depression, tells me she self-medicates with food. I hear a lot about depression, the symptoms, her history with it, the antidepressants. The latest is Zoloft. Like the others, it offers its own special blend of shitty side-effects. Depression keeps her from getting a job. Sometimes I think it is her job. That’s one reason Dad doesn’t quit his. He’s worked as the pub’s manager since I came along fourteen years ago. He’d leave McGregor’s and look for something better if Mom could cover the bills for a few months. She can’t, so he’s stuck. Lately, he complains he’s depressed. I guess it’s catching. I’m glad I’ve got a bike and can steer clear of the house.

Mom and Aunt Janet’s conversation shifts to their brother. Uncle Danny’s a favorite topic. He never married and lives in Brooklyn. He teaches and writes for a living. Last April, he bought a motorcycle. The sisters disapprove. They’re taking turns, charging him with typical maleness and ridiculousness, predicting a lonely old age for him. Their voices make me smile. They might not look too similar, but they sound alike. It could be Mom talking to herself in there.

“Where the hell are they?” JD glares at the fire. My older cousin’s lanky like his dad, sharp-featured like his mom. Tapping his fingers on the arms of the chair, he looks like a king on his throne, waiting for news regarding a battle’s outcome.

I shrug. How should I know what happened to our fathers? They left two hours ago to pick up potato salad and marshmallows. I cross my legs at the ankles and look down. My legs still amaze me. Last year, I was short. Suddenly I’m not. In fact, though JD’s thirteen months older than me, I’m as tall as he is. Technically.

“I want to eat.” He slumps and closes his eyes.

The wind kicks up, and a charred curl of newspaper drifts from the fire and floats all the way to the top of his head. His blond hair, springy and thick, traps it. He looks kind of silly, wearing the blackened bit. The sight cheers me.

I fold my hands over my stomach and sniff. Others have started their meals, and the smell of grilled sausages and hamburgers hangs in the air. From the site to the north, a child’s high-pitched yell breaks through the rumble of men’s voices. On our other side, a radio commercial segues into country music.

It’s not very late, but people eat earlier at the end of the camping season when nights fall fast and cold. Already the sun’s heavy in the sky. Its glow turns the clouds over the yellowing trees into bars of gold. A different kind of cloud, just a wisp of smoky violet, winds through the gilded layers, like a genie set loose in a prince’s tomb. Though the light looks ancient and warm, the late afternoon air is brisk. JD shivers, sits forward, and stirs the fire with a forked metal tong.

A wind suddenly licks up then flattens the flames. As the gust stirs the branches, the trees make a sound like rain. I’m watching leaves skid sideways through the air when a girl’s laugh travels our way. The leaves’ twisting tumble, the way the wind jolts them, is so playful and animated that for a second, it almost seems as if the laughter could have come from them.

But then JD straightens. I follow his gaze past the trees. Three girls amble down the road. 

Tapping his fingers on the arms of the chair, he looks like a king on his throne, waiting for news regarding a battle’s outcome.

We’re in the C-loop, close to the main stretch that leads to the registration building and campground entrance, so we see plenty of people wander this way. But not so many our age—at least not in September when most families quit camping and shift into school mode. Aunt Janet’s a diehard: she won’t let Uncle Jerry winterize the camper until the end of October. In the fall, she sticks to this campground, Roosevelt Beach. It’s only fifteen minutes from their house, twenty from ours. The proximity means camping won’t interfere with the school soccer schedule. My cousin’s schedule, not mine. I don’t play.

JD is staring hard at the girls.

I hear the laugh again and realize the middle one’s responsible. She’s cute. “Do we know them?” I don’t, but JD might.

“Nope.” He stands, his expression alert. “But we should.”

He heads that way, and I rise to follow. The girls don’t stop for us, but they don’t exactly go either. They manage an awkward shuffle to give JD time to intercept them.

Since they’ve focused on him, I’m free to look. At first, I peg them as juniors. But as I get closer to the road and peer past the makeup and clothes, I change that to sophomores. It’s hard to tell. Despite the cool temperature, they all wear tank tops, black layered over white, and though one girl is all bones, the other two have breasts that make their scooped necklines interesting. The middle one’s the prettiest, not just curvy but golden and fit too. I wonder if her breasts happened quickly and took her by surprise, like my long limbs startled me.

I glance at my cousin. He’s studying her, as well.

Once JD and I reach the dirt road, the five of us exchange nods and heys. I kick a rock. JD sticks his hands in his jean pockets. While the skinny girl on the right takes her time texting someone, the busty one on the left makes a show of kneeling to lace a sneaker. Her tank top inches up. A small roll hangs over her shorts. As soon as she stands, the roll disappears.

Only the pretty laugher looks at us steadily. The two who flank her glance breezily at each other, at their phones then quickly, like they don’t want to get caught, at JD and me. The peeks might be brief, but they’re intense, and the fake-casual routine, so at odds with their dolled-up faces and hair, strikes me as funny.

When the middle one catches my expression, she links her hands behind her, like a teacher waiting for a student’s answer. She raises an eyebrow.

I stop smiling. “Heading to the beach?” I cross my arms over my chest and jerk my chin to indicate the end of the loop like I need to remind them that Lake Ontario’s to the north. I feel stupid.

“Nope.” She gives her golden hair a flick and sends it down her back. “To the park.”

Then she smiles like I’m invited.

JD shoots me a frown. “The trail behind my site goes that way. Want a shortcut?”

She gives her hair another toss. “Sure.”

My cousin leads. The girls go next, the pretty laugher first. I’m last, but with the girls ahead of me, my position beats JD’s.

When we get to the camper, my cousin pauses and, looking uncomfortable, casts a quick glance at the girls behind him before leaning into the screen door. “Mom? We’re heading to the park.”

Our mothers’ curious faces appear on the other side of the screen. They take in the girls then smile at us. In that moment, they actually look like sisters. Their expressions—embarrassingly, tenderly amused—match.

“Okay, sweetie,” Aunt Janet says. “Don’t be too long.”

Hyacinth’s smile widens. She catches my eyes, and I can tell from her expression we’re conspirators, bound by the secret of the charred decoration.

JD winces and glances at me, a second-long look that says, How many more years until we escape this? Then he hurries away from the door. We continue single-file around the campfire, where the burning logs are giving way to red coals, past my family’s old black tent, and onto the trail. The brush makes the route a narrow pass. Pink fruits that look like miniature apples hang off thorny branches, and the trees arching above the bushes cast quivering shadows over the girls’ bare shoulders. Ahead, JD walks slowly. His hair still traps the blackened curl of paper. I wonder if the girls notice too.

The trail widens to a field. Flat and green, the clearing stretches, acre after acre, uninterrupted, except for a stone building by the distant parking lot and, squarely in the middle of the open space, a single, elaborate construction of interconnected slides, bars, platforms, and swings. The stone building is the rec center. It’s closed for the season, and its glass panes darkly reflect the stand of trees separating the park from the campsite. No one’s here but us.

JD pauses to let the girls pass. The three sashay around him and do a giggling huddle a few yards ahead. After smiling at us over their shoulders, they go back to being sophisticated and saunter to the playground, their shaved legs flashing and hips swaying and arms swinging at their sides.

I’m impressed. Do they practice?

As soon as we reach the playground, the attractive one climbs a set of metal rings to the lowest platform. She turns and leans over a bar to smile down at JD and me. Her hair swings forward, and the sun behind her makes the wavy length brilliant, a gilded red. The other girls race to the end, lunge for the swings, and wiggle their butts onto the belts of plastic. Clinging to the chains, they trot back and grin at each before swooping forward. They look like kids.

“What’s your name?”

I peer up, glance over at my cousin, look up again, and blink. She’s talking to me. “Benjamin.” Benjamin. Ben would have been better. Why didn’t I just say Ben?

“I’m Hyacinth.” She slides her eyes to my cousin who’s standing stiffly at my side. I see her eyes touch his hair, and a smile quivers on her mouth. “And you’re?”

“JD.” He strides forward and jumps up to grab a bar. He lets his body swing there for a moment then maneuvers his hands to the next bar then the next. When he reaches the platform opposite hers, he nimbly propels himself onto it.

I’m tempted to clap. He showcased the biceps he’s been working on with the free weights in his basement and looks lean and strong. Plus, he’s nailed the expression: disdainful disinterest. He must be punishing her for paying attention to me first. The problem is he’s got that blackened curl of paper, perky as a bow, tucked in his hair.

Hyacinth’s smile widens. She catches my eyes, and I can tell from her expression we’re conspirators, bound by the secret of the charred decoration. Then she straightens, clasps her hands behind her again, and starts asking questions.

She gleans the basics. No, we’re cousins, not brothers. And no, we’re not the same age. Though we attend the same high school, JD’s a sophomore. I’m a freshman. JD, clearly still smarting, keeps his bored look steady but somehow manages to establish that he plans to go to medical school, takes advanced placement classes, plays goaltender for his soccer team, and succeeds at most sports, so well that the soccer and baseball coaches yanked him out of JV last year to include him on their varsity teams.

By the time he finishes sharing his resume, he’s breathing heavily. He leans against the ladder of metal rings that lead to the next platform and swipes his forehead. The action jars the blackened paper, and I wait for it to flutter to the ground. Instead it crawls forward and takes up residency over his bangs. It looks like a baby bat caught in a net.

A laugh escapes Hyacinth. She nods slowly and shifts her amused gaze to me.

The action jars the blackened paper, and I wait for it to flutter to the ground. Instead it crawls forward and takes up residency over his bangs. It looks like a baby bat caught in a net.

“What about you?”

“Me?” What about me? I sit on the grass and stretch out my legs. There they are again: my long legs.

One of the other girls squeals. They have the swing chains twisted. The skinny one yells, “Now!” And at the same time, they lift their feet and spin.

I glance back at Hyacinth. “Nothing.” I yank out a blade of grass, trap it between my thumbs to make a whistle, and blow. The trumpeting sound, honking and discordant, like a duck quacking and farting at the same time, seems to sum up my life. I toss aside the blade. “I don’t do much. Just ride my bike. Try not to fail any subjects.” Except math. Math’s hopeless. No point in killing myself over logic proofs. “Avoid my parents. That kind of thing.”

She settles an approving look on me.

I frown and mentally review what I just said to search for what could have possibly dazzled her. Nothing. I shake my head.

JD looks baffled too.

Hyacinth starts drilling us with camping questions to determine how long we’ve camped, what we like to do when we’re camping, if we’ve ever switched the Hershey’s chocolate for Reese’s peanut butter cups in s’mores. She slips under the lowest bar encircling the platform and, as graceful as a gymnast, leaps to the ground. When she sits next to me, she draws up her legs and rests her cheek on a knee. “Where do you usually camp?”

I don’t answer right away. I want to make the moment last, her eyes, bronze like a lion’s, her slightly parted mouth, her smooth cheek, its edge reddened with the last of the sunlight, and her interest in me, her inexplicable interest—this dumbfounding, unprecedented preferential treatment. I get the sensation I experience sometimes when I’m bicycling, pedaling as fast as I can, and heading down a road I’ve never travelled before, where maybe no one knows me or my parents or JD. It feels like more than freedom. It’s possibility.

But then I glance at JD. At some point, he abandoned the platform. Now he slouches at the foot of the slide and scrubs his sneakers against the circle of packed dirt where landing feet have worn away the grass. He studies his loosely folded hands. On his bent head, directly centered above his forehead, is the burned paper. In the dim light, it could be a stump, blackened with blood, the remains of a stolen horn.

His slumped stillness stirs a memory. When we were kids, for the longest time, JD went through a Toy Story stage. He craved anything related to Woody: boots, toy gun, cowboy hat, vest. He must have been six or seven, maybe six and seven. His obsession seemed to last forever. In fact, he grew out of his favorite shirts—T-shirts with Woody plastered on the front—long before he moved on to his next interest.

Aunt Janet, of course, passed along the shirts to me with the rest of his outgrown wardrobe. I promptly insisted on wearing the one that sported Woody and Buzz. I liked Buzz better than Woody and, though I didn’t have the matching action figures or toys, usually played Buzz whenever JD and I got going on our Toy Story games.

…I remember getting what our parents likely didn’t: that growing too big for something doesn’t mean we’re ready to give it up.

I don’t know now if I realized, as I pulled the T-shirt over my head the morning we left for the camping trip, that JD would go nuts. Maybe I was a smug little shit and did. I’d rather think it was just plain old idol worship that made me want to dress like my cousin. Anyway, his punching, pushing, shirt-yanking, screeching meltdown got him a timeout. Through the screen, I watched him sitting in the camper, his chest heaving and face wet and red. And I remember getting what our parents likely didn’t: that growing too big for something doesn’t mean we’re ready to give it up.

I glance at Hyacinth. Instead of gazing at me, waiting for an answer, she’s looking at her friends on the swings. Her face wears a peculiar expression, wistful and boastful at the same time.

“I like camping here,” I finally say. This campground is no KOA: it doesn’t have a pool or movie nights or a giant trampoline. But Roosevelt Beach State Park has Lake Ontario. And it’s got great trails through the woods and lots of open space—fields like this one.

I look around. The beginning of darkness, like steeping tea, softens the playground, the grass, and the swinging girls. The trees in the distance have turned black. And the three of us: We’re darker now too, shadows moving among shadows. The moon, white and nearly full, is rising. I rise, as well, and brush off my jeans. “My family camps wherever JD’s does. They let us pitch our tent on their site.”

Hyacinth gives me another one of those assessing, approving smiles. “Real campers use tents.”

I snort and stride to JD. “Poor campers do.” His face is sullen, and he starts and pulls back when I reach for his hair. I follow, detach his charred companion, and hand it to him. “We’re basically squatters,” I say over my shoulder. Sponges, takers, moochers. For now. Someday I won’t be.

JD doesn’t seem to hear me; he’s scowling at the black remnant in his hand. When he does look up, he stares at Hyacinth. This time, he’s not faking his expression. It is pure dislike. Glancing away from her, he stands and says, “No you’re not, Ben,” even though he’s the one who came up with the nicknames. He drops the burned paper between us, and I grind it into the ground.

The moon has shrunk. Strange how the moon grows smaller the higher it climbs, an interesting diminishment, like a balloon on the loose. A freed balloon… At first, you’re pissed you let it slip away, but then you start thinking about where it’s heading and how far it will fly.

My stomach growls. “I’m hungry.” Starving, actually. “I bet our dads are back. Ready to go?” Since JD’s still frowning and quiet, I add, “How about we race?” Nothing cheers up JD faster than the prospect of a race.

He nods abruptly and crouches, his body angled for a sprint.

When he gives the go-ahead, I shout goodbye to the girls then save my breath for panting. We pound across the grass and head straight for the trail. Though we can’t spot it in the inky trees, we don’t have to. We’ve gone this way a hundred times or more. JD’s quick, but I’ve got these new long legs. They make me fast, faster than I’ve ever been before. JD might win. But I could win. Now I could win too.

Melissa OstromMelissa Ostrom teaches English in rural western New York, where she lives with her husband and children. Her fiction has appeared previously in Lunch Ticket as well as other journals, including Corium, decomP, Monkeybicycle, and Juked. Her first novel, Genesee, is forthcoming from Macmillan in the spring of 2018.