Feathers Over The Fire
Don't think of black smoke. Don't think of blood.
Pink sky leaks into black water. A wave licks my muddy thigh as my feet sink further into the river’s soft bottom. The smell of dead turtles and salt covers my body like a heavy blanket against the cold air. The silence is cut by her voice; “ If we don’t go back now, it’ll be too dark to find the path.” The heavy blanket lifts as I feel her approach, stopping just short of the waterline. A few more steps and small pink waves flick my belly button. Her stare pierces through my spine as I let my legs give out under me, falling into the water. Everything is dark and silent. What would it take to stay here, at the bottom of the river?
I hear her calling my name beyond that pink and grey rippling portal above my head. I let myself be pulled towards it. When I pierce the surface I see her there, dressed in all white at the forest edge. My clothes hanging from the branches behind her. When I leave the water I’m punished with a brutal wind and an equally cold stare from Michelle, who leads our way through the woods. Stealing one last glance at the bleeding horizon, I follow the bright white hoodie that covers Michelle’s body until glowing embers rise from her shoulders and her soft edges are outlined with a bright orange glow.
The fire grew taller while I was at the river, the flames now threatening low hanging branches. I sit naked on my blanket and roast my skin by that excited fire, reaching for the flask in my tangled clothes. I inhale the burning liquid, letting it extinguish everything that lives inside of me. “Remember when I got you that?” Michelle asks from across the fire, her form veiled by a haze of heat. Of course, I remember. My fingers trace the silver compass on the side of the flask, a gift she gave me long ago. One that came with a promise. I can still picture her sneaking it to me after our last day of middle school, with a note that said ‘where to first?’ I offer her the flask after taking one more long drink.
“You know I can’t,” she rolls her eyes, “thirty-five days sober!”
She doesn’t have to remind me, I keep the exact count. Thirty-five days ago we shared our last bottle of fireball whisky, the childhood classic. Thirty-five days ago I heard a sound so loud I thought it was my skull imploding. Followed by a worse sound, a shriek, Michelle’s shriek. I hear it now, echoing between my eardrums. I offer myself to it. Black smoke drifts up from my memory. Thick black smoke being pushed into the early morning sky by my flame covered truck. The memory holds me in it now, forcing me to see Michelle’s twisted body shaking beside me, her head turned away and out the shattered window. Her skin split open like a ripped seam down the side of her face. Even while the fire grew closer and closer, I remember being frozen cold, frozen still. I follow Michelle’s half-lucid gaze to the mighty oak my truck smashed into before falling into a small ravine. The tree’s roots scream in protest before giving up. Michelle is lost in the shadow of the tree. One more scream. We stumble away from the wreckage as blue and red flashing lights arise from the distance.
I fall, my bare back thrashing against the moss-covered ground of my campsite. The grip of claustrophobia releases my throat when I realize I’m no longer in the stomach of my crushed truck. Michelle isn’t covered in blood and shadow. “Are you okay?” She asks, pulling me up to stand. “It’s just an owl!” Laughing at my fear, she nods towards the forest around us, where a shrill cry emerges from the darkness. “It must be hunting,” She adds. Above us, a barn owl watches from his branch. His feathers reflect the orange glow of a fire - just like that night, thirty-five days ago. “Did you know that there was an owl there that morning… I don’t know if you saw it. It was just like that, just watching from the trees.”
“Oh, that’s what you were thinking about? I shouldn’t have brought up the thirty-five days thing.” As she speaks, the puffy pink scar on her cheek rises and falls. “Yes, I remember the owl. Looked just like that one. Hey-” her voice becomes low and dramatic “-maybe it’s the same one... watching over you!”
The owl hoots its melancholic song as I tare open the last bag of granola, pouring it into a simmering pot of dehydrated milk and water. We are running out of food, but the town is a far journey from camp. I can’t go yet.
While I untangle my pile of dirty clothes Michelle sings in her chair, her voice almost matching the owls as she chants in an unknown language. When I bend over to hand her a warm cup of granola, hot needles pierce my hips and lower back. “Still?” She asks with a grimace, “You really should have gone to physical therapy after the accident. Here, you take the chair.” Instead, I sit on the mossy patch across the fire and sip from my flask. Her voice interrupts its burn.“About the accident…”
35 days of being fused back together and still falling apart into a million pieces of dirt. I’m a desert. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
“What are you so afraid of?” She asks, her eyes reflecting the flames between us.
“Your family wants to kill me. A lot of people do.”
“Kill is a strong word” she smirks lightly “but it might be the right one.”
“I can’t face them.”
“Sure you can. You won’t be alone you know.”
Her family’s hatred frightens me, but Michelle’s would burn through my chest. “I don’t want you to hate me.” I finally admit to her, taking another drink.
“I don’t hate you! Look at me.” She demands.
I look at her over the fire, meeting her gaze.
“Do I look that miserable?” She asks.
Aside from the puffy pink scar- she looks beautiful. It even frames her face in a way that is almost romantic. There is something different about her eyes, too. They are bigger, a deeper shade of hazel. She’s more beautiful than a photo, or a favorite memory.
“No, you really don’t.” I admit, making her giggle at my surprise.
Suddenly, a cold breeze grips me. The wind picks up fallen leaves around me and throws them to their fiery deaths in the flames between us.
Don’t think of black smoke.
Don’t think of the blood.
“It’s too cold to sleep out here tonight.” Michelle wraps her arms over her chest and stands as if we can just walk away. “No!” I scream louder than my dry throat should allow “we’re fine out here, I’m okay.” Above me, the owl’s cries grow louder and louder. He begins to shriek. Just like the shriek that escaped from Michelle before the tree stomped it out. The rock closest to my foot looks heavy and sharp. I throw it towards the branches, amazed when it almost strikes the speckle feathered beast. “Why won’t that thing shut up?”
“You shouldn’t waste energy like that” Michelle steps closer to me as she speaks, circling too close to the fire. What she’s really telling me is that time is running out. Even when there is so much left to say. “That night…” I start over the screeching owl, growing louder and louder and louder “I didn’t realize I was that drunk. I thought I had slept most of it off! Or I never would have driven us back!” The owl extends its wings and flaps them manically without taking off. It knows that I’m lying. Michelle knows I’m lying.
“Okay,” Anxiety eats away at my stomach like a wild boar “I just didn’t care. I guess I didn’t care if I lived and I was too afraid to go alone.” I wait for a reaction on her face but nothing comes. She takes another step towards me. I imagine taking her hands and pulling both of us into the fire, feeling her hand in mine as I turn to dust. A freezing cold breeze picks up again as if emanating from something at the camp, from Michelle or that shrieking owl. I turn and run into my small red tent, zipping it shut again behind me, watching Michelle as she disappears behind the red fabric.
“It didn’t work out the way you planned, did it?” A soft and serious voice lifts from behind me. I turn slowly to see her there, laying back in my sleeping bag. The canvas casts a red glow onto her skin. I shake my head, letting my knees give away under me. feeling pulled in by her gravity, I crawl the short distance between us and push myself into the sleeping bag beside her. “I wish I could go back. I’d switch with you. I never wanted to be without you.” I whisper, knowing she can hear me.
“Then you won’t be.” She whispers back, kissing the side of my head. Outside the tent, the fire grows even taller, dancing in the icy wind. The shadow of the owl flies across the top of the tent and into the blazing fire.