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Third-Place Short Story Winner: “Homefire”

Adam is not my son, not my real son.  He informs me of this as we sit beside the campfire pit, deep in the West Virginia mountains, about 100 miles from where we live in Northern Virginia. We have checked into a large horseshoe shaped campground with campsites far enough apart that we feel adventurous, close enough that we do not feel too vulnerable. We are from the city, after all, and I am excessively aware of that fact right now. My husband is experiencing manly despair as his obligation putters pathetically before him. The fire will not light. Not even with the help of the newspaper, slightly humid, that we remembered to bring.  It is more than despair, really. He is despondent in only the way that a man who has failed his mission can get. In his defense, he moved around quite a bit as a child, living on military bases in Germany, Thailand, Hawaii  — really when would he have been expected to build a fire?

I should have brought starter logs, he says finally.

I look at him, incredulous.  Starter logs? On a camp out?

I am from Colorado, and although we did not camp out many times as family when I was growing up there, I knew the basic tenets of Rough It Camping:  you must make do with what is available. Even the newspapers gave me pause, but I reasoned that this morning’s newspaper, which would have been recycled anyway is fair game. Starter logs are not.

Maybe some lighter fluid, he mumbles to himself.  I say nothing.

And it is at this exact moment that Adam informs me that I am not his real mother.  Of course I am not. This is not news to any of us; yet, he has chosen this moment to remind me, and I can only imagine why.  In his nine-year old wisdom, he wants to somehow balance the scale.  He wants to make me feel as inadequate in my gender role as his father now feels.  What other explanation can there be?

You are not related to me by blood. My mother said you are not related to me by blood, and I can’t love you.

His mother, the bane of my existence, has set her time bomb to go off in this remote campsite.  The child is an innocent carrier, I tell myself.  Collateral damage.  Still I am miffed.

Well, I say, that pretty much limits you to the people you’ve already met, then.  You won’t be able to love anybody else in your whole life until you have children yourself.

My husband looks at me with disgust.  How could I be sensitive to the barbs of a child who has obviously been set up, his expression is asking me.  I’m wondering the same thing.

Huh?  Adam says.  He has lost the logic of my argument.

If you can love only the ones you are related to by blood, I explain patiently, then you won’t be able to love your Aunt Janie or Uncle Peter. They’re related to you by marriage, not blood.  Even your own wife, when you get one, won’t be related to you by blood.

His face is void of expression.  I have bored him immensely, as usual. I have gone on too long; I have mentioned too many things.  It’s enough for him to know he got under my skin.

When are we going to eat? He wants to know.

I look at his father, and we both look into the fire pit, where a blackened corner of newspaper folds under itself and dies.

I know this is going to hurt you, I tell my husband, but I’m going for help.

His eyes tell me that I have never been so cruel.

Go ahead, he says, and walks toward the tent.  Adam says he wants to go with me, his curiosity stronger than his resentment, apparently.

We walk slowly around the horseshoe path.  No one is at the first campsite, but a huge, billowing fire is practically falling out of its pit.  I try to inspect the contents of the fire, but I can see only huge logs on top, formed in a teepee design.  There are no clues to the origin of the fire.  The next campsite has the first people we have seen.  They are sitting comfortably on lawn chairs. Behind them, a clothesline strung between a tree and a lantern pole.  Clothes hang on the line, over another healthy roaring fire.  I move quickly past, caught up suddenly in a wave of insecurity,  realizing how underprepared we came to this adventure. They have placed their entire eating table under a mosquito net tent.  We have been swatting way those flying insects since we arrived.

Let’s ask them, Adam says, but I push him forward.

Were you looking for something? , a voice behind me calls.  I turn and face a rather large, plain-faced woman.

I am humiliated that I have been spotted peeping at the campsites and I start to apologize.

We don’t have a fire, Adam interrupts

Can’t get it started, I explain.  We’re –

You got kindlin’?  The woman asks.

 I struggle to understand her.  Kindlin?

Kindling?  She says again. this time a little clearer, a little slower and louder, as if she were speaking to a non-native speaker of English. 

I shake my head.  No.

She turns back to the people behind her.   We’ll get you some, she says over her shoulder.

Adam falls in behind me, silently.

The people in her campsite are similar in appearance to the woman.  They are large and meaty people.  The men are in jeans and t-shirts.  The women are in shorts and tank-tops.  They sit on the edge of their lawn chairs, legs spread apart.

Get them some kindlin’ the woman shouts.  A young man, probably fifteen or so, jumps up. He is thin, lanky, sunbaked.

And some newspaper, the woman adds.

A young teenage girl gets up to help him, grabbing a handful of newspaper from a pile near the sun-worn SUV behind her.

I can’t thank you enough, I say, and the tone of my words seem stilted and formal.  Adam is uncharacteristically quiet as he walks beside me, observing the activity we have stirred up.

I lead them back to our campsite where my husband is standing. I can see dread on his face as we approach. 

The boy begins to shred the paper, not wad it as I had or lay it in flat sheets as my husband had.  Then he lays on the kindling pieces – nice, dry sticks to more than a foot long.  He eyes the logs we have leaning against the pit.

Go get some firewood, he tells the girl, probably his sister, I am guessing by now. He pronounces fire like “far”.  We stand uncomfortably for a few seconds.

I say, so that’s how you shred the paper

My husband thanks the boy, says he doesn’t understand why the damned wood wouldn’t start.  I hear an unfamiliar twang in my husband’s words as if he had once lived in Texas.

Woods wet, the boy explains.  Been rainin

The girl brings an armful of logs, rough ones that appear to have been chopped with an axe.

The boy takes the box of kitchen matches that I have picked up and lights the paper under the kindling.  Within minutes, the fire is lit and burning evenly.  The boy lays on two of the logs, steps back and eyes his work.

That should do it, sir, he tells my husband.

Thanks again, we both say as he returns to his people.

In minutes, our fire is bursting with energy.  My husband lays on another log, pokes at it expertly, his confidence reviving.

As darkness sets in, I begin preparing a one-pot meal of hamburger, macaroni and potatoes, tomato sauce and cheese.  It comes together beautifully and as I am about to spoon it from the frying pan into the colorful plastic plates we have brought, a shadow appears.

Had to find my axe or I’d have been here sooner, says a bearded stranger, laying his wood offering near the pit.  Enjoy your supper!

Hey thanks a lot! my husband says as the figure walks away. We look at each other in amazement.

They’re nicer than our neighbors back home, I say

We don’t know our neighbors back home, says Adam.

Mama says we’re leaving tomorrow, and you might need some more kindling, says a voice suddenly to our left. Into view walks the teenage girl who helped with the fire. She is burdened with even more wood and lays it where the stranger left his.

You’re wonderful neighbors, I say, almost tearful.

We eat mostly in silence, each one of us, I imagine, putting into perspective the events of the evening.  Or maybe they are just enjoying the spicy taste of the pan casserole I have concocted.  I am often not certain that these men think the same way I do.  Perhaps my husband is calculating how much wood will be left for the morning.  Adam might be wondering how many marshmallows he will be allowed to eat, smothered in chocolate, before he goes to bed.

I wish we could live here forever,  Adam says.  Camp and fish every day.  Just like this.  No splitting up all the time. No back and forth.

It is a lucid moment for Adam, the nine year old, the sad victim of his parents’ custodial disagreements, and I want to hug him.  I want to pull him close and comfort him because he needs it.  But Adam and I do not touch.  His rules, not mine.

Come here, Tiger, his father says softly, opening his arms.  Adam rushes in, and I feel envious that their love is so comfortable.  My husband does not have to battle for the relationship.  I am glad, though, that they have each other and that my husband is present for Adam.

The tent is musty as we crawl into our separate sleeping bag cocoons.  I listen in the darkness as my husband’s breathing smoothes and deepens. I cannot sleep.  I am too caught up in the night:  the sawing cicadas everywhere around us, distant strange cooing.  I lay in the center of this family that only God could design:  neither of them related to me by blood. 

Adam begins to stir.  He pats the bedding until he finds my face. I have to pee, he tells me.

I help him up and unzip the tent for him to step out.  In seconds, he is back, putting out his arms for me to steady him as he comes back in.

Thanks, he says.

Good night, sweetie.  I say. 

And in my cocoon, with life all around me, tears burn down my cheeks.

 

 

 

                                               

 

About the author: Kathryn Coley Hamman

Kathryn Coley Hamman is a glutton for punishment, a life absorber, and a full-on follower of Jesus. She writes gritty Christian fiction about life and recovery when she’s not tending to the land around her country home or riding her motorcycle through the Shenandoah Valley, where she lives. She loves her husband, her dogs, and just about everyone she meets in her journey.

We ask: What was your inspiration for this story?

“Homefire” expresses the tension and vulnerability of being a stepmother. It came out of my own story of raising another woman’s son with very little experience in being a mother, or even having one.