Megan O’Byrne (fiction)
They learn about magic fire in the Arizona desert. It is the spring of the Hale-Bopp comet, and everyone in the world is amazed and awed by the phenomenon, but the oldest doesn’t find it beautiful or intriguing. She thinks it’s a bad omen, and when the cult members all kill themselves in San Diego—everyone dying in the same black-and-white Nike sneakers—she knows she was right. As the family sits around the campfire, she declares that the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide is another example of corporations capitalizing on death. She is certain that Nike’s sales will go up because of all the free advertising they’re getting from the press coverage. She has just discovered Marx and is eager for any opportunity to extol her newfound anti-capitalist values. The mom, the dad and the three other girls eat their franks and beans, not saying much. The mom and the dad humor her political views, hoping it is a phase.
As they eat and the conversation fades, the family listens to the cracks and pops of the campfire. The smell of the wood burning is familiar, and the warmth encircles them. They are a relatively big family: a dad, a mom, four girls and a yellow lab for good measure. They are a family that camps. Every few weeks the dad announces, “Next weekend we are going camping.” They pack up their sleeping bags, the portable gas stove, ingredients for s’mores, and all the rest. Then they head off into the mountains or, if it’s a long weekend, to a nearby state; Utah, Arizona, Nebraska, Idaho. They spend the weekend eating canned chili, hot dogs, eggs and toast. They hike to waterfalls, fish in streams, swim in lakes. The girls become “outdoorsy types,” or so they will describe themselves later, when they are old enough to realize this is something men often find attractive. They learn every card game imaginable; they sing to Billy Joel cassettes in the car; they learn to pee squatting above the forest floor; they play lawn darts and hide and seek; they learn to pitch tents. Camping is a type of home: the family has its biggest fights and most tender moments in campgrounds sprinkled throughout the Mountain West.
The dad sits close enough to the fire to poke it every so often, not because it necessarily needs poking, but because he is the dad and his job is to tend to the fire. He looks at his family: the mom, the four girls. His heart swells. This is his family: four daughters he is certain are bound for success and happiness. He imagines them as teachers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, architects. He thinks about the camping trips they will all take, even when they are grown with their own children. He looks into the fire and watches the flames jump and hears the shrieks of his grandchildren as they dart in out of the shadows of a future campfire. But he will never witness such things.
The second-youngest daughter has a stomachache. She has had it since earlier in the afternoon when the dad loaded the family up in the car and took them to several convenience stores. Each time they’d pull up to one, the mom and the dad would go inside and then come out empty-handed.
“What’re ya looking for, Dad?” the girls asked after two Conocos and one 7-Eleven.
“Nothing you need to worry about, darling daughters,” he replied.
While the mom and the dad were in the fourth store, the oldest daughter leaned over and whispered in the second-youngest’s ear, “They’re trying to buy weed.”
The dad and the mom came out of the store empty-handed again, but afterward they headed back to the campground.
That was the start of the stomachache. The second-youngest doesn’t want to believe the oldest, but the oldest knows a lot about these things; she is probably right. The second-youngest spent the rest of the afternoon certain that at any minute the police were going to come and take the mom and the dad away. There would be lights and sirens and handcuffs. She’d go visit her mom in prison where a glass wall would separate them. She looks at her mom and tries not to imagine her in an orange jumpsuit.
Ten years later, sitting around a Thanksgiving dinner table, eight years after the dad has died, the second-oldest will remember this night. She will remember how happy the dad is. She will remember the slight chill in the cool desert night, the clear sky, the bright stars nearly eclipsed by the brighter comet that seems stationary but is somehow moving at an incomprehensible speed. She will remember how, earlier in the night, the youngest beat her at Gin Rummy, the first time the second-oldest has ever lost. At that Thanksgiving in the future, the second-oldest will look around the table at the mom and each of her sisters, their individual unhappiness nearly tangible through the fake chatter. They will live in different parts of the country, and family holidays will be spent making small talk. She will wonder what happened to the family that camped. The intimacy of sitting around the campfire in the cool desert will seem like something she made up. She will have trouble remembering that they once knew how to make each other laugh, real laughter from the depths of their beings, and that they knew how to hurt each other, real pain that stung because they loved each other so much. They will have become a group of strangers in a room eating a bird (except for the oldest, who has become a vegan and doesn’t eat birds, or hot dogs, or toast and eggs, or almost any camping foods).
Sitting at that Thanksgiving table, the second-oldest will almost find God. She will consider that maybe there is something more than just randomness. It will seem like some sort of master plan that required the dad to die while they were all still children—a heart attack that killed him in front of another campfire in the middle of another night on another camping trip. She will think that if he hadn’t died, seeing what his family had become would have killed him.
In the Arizona desert, the mom listens to the fire with her eyes closed. When she was a girl her family owned a cottage by a lake in Montana, and she spent her childhood summers running wild with the other lake children. Gangs of kids swimming, boating, fishing. Every night there was a fire. The adults drank beer and talked politics. Someone always had a guitar, and each night there would be singing. She only agrees to let the dad take the family camping so that she can sit in front of the campfire. She closes her eyes and pretends she’s thirteen again and the boy from a cottage on the other side of the lake is holding her hand for the first time.
The girls’ bickering brings the mom back to the cool Arizona desert. Now her depression is a weight that she can hardly bear, and it feels as endless as the desert surrounding them. She looks at her family: the dad and the four girls. She feels trapped and hates herself for it. She imagines getting up and heading straight into the endless desert, walking until she collapses and everything fades.
A little while later, the family camping on the next plot over comes and teaches them how to make magic fire. The other dad puts a rubber hose in a copper pipe and sticks it into their campfire, and chemistry, which no one watching understands, causes the flames to turn colors—first a brilliant blue, then a deep green, and finally a rich purple.
The youngest daughter stands as close to the fire as she can, completely mesmerized by the flashing colors. Her tummy is full of dinner and s’mores. She is warm; she is safe. Her mom, her dad, and her sisters are close by, and now she is witnessing the most beautiful thing she has ever seen in her short life. Decades later, on a camping trip with her husband, she will remember this night as the last time she was truly happy.
by Megan O’Byrne