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The fire blazes candy-apple red and sunlight yellow, igniting their eyes as they sit just close enough to the flame for it to tighten their skin, wrapping them in heat. The burning wood and few licks of fire illuminate a small pocket of the forest, driving away the shadows ever-present on the dark, dark night.

Hiro wraps himself in a hug, breath hanging thick and heavy in the cold air. Rachel throws one of the few remaining logs on the pile. Cooper pokes at it, sending embers flying in the updraft and releasing a plume of smoke. Rachel coughs, trying in vain to chase the sting out of her eyes. "Really, Coop?"

Cooper shrugs, continuing to poke at their fire half-heartedly. "What? I don't want this to go out. Don't think Hiro wants that either, right, Hiro?"

Hiro bites his lip, a hint of burning leaves mixing with the smell of burnt wood and the last few remnants of that night's dinner— foraged mushrooms and scavenged wild onions. Cooper and Rachel both thought it would be fun to go camping, living off the land and "getting in touch with nature before we get stuck working nine-to-five." Hiro thought it would be nice too but after the third day? Not so much. At least they're going home tomorrow— home to warm beds and hot showers.

But no, he doesn't want the fire going out yet and he says so.

Rachel shifts, the outside of her jacket scraping together. She tips her head up, watching the stars blink in and out between the scant gaps in the clouds. "You know, the stars kinda look like little fireballs."

Cooper huffs a laugh. "Rachel, you know that's what stars are, right?"

She shoves them with her shoulder, nearly knocking them off the rock they dragged half a mile to sit on. "Shut up! You know what I mean!"

Hiro hums, a memory from his childhood bubbling up to the surface, long-buried under years of dust. "My grandma used to tell us a story about fireballs. I mean, they were embers, but that's pretty close to fireballs, right?"

Cooper and Rachel snap their attention to him, settling in with rapt attention. "Is it story time?"

They agreed before they set out to each tell a story, just one. One story told sat around the campfire to pass the time before they slipped into the tent, huddling under their blankets for warmth as the red faded from the smoldering coals. Cooper told theirs the first night, a story about how them and their brother tried to hide a foot-long hole they punched in the wall with a milk jug. Rachel went the second night, spinning a fairy tale from scratch with epic dragons and a princess who fought back against her castle to save her knight.

Tonight, it's Hiro's turn. He leans forward, watching the fire crackle and the gleam reflect off of Rachel's glasses, folding his hands and resting his chin. The shadows hide his friends' faces like the blinding, scorching lights of a stage, leaving just him and the words slowly filling his mouth like syrup.

"Well... when my grandmother was little she lived in a village in the mountains. Mountains just like these—" he spreads his arms wide, even as the world quiets and the popping of the fire fades to static— "full of thick, old pine trees."

He sets his arms back down, letting the weight of his family's story fill him. "There was a snowstorm, a blizzard that tore through the village. She used to say it was like the gods showered their village in cold ash. People were locked inside their homes for days, and one day when the wind rattled and clawed at their shutters, they ran out of wood to keep them warm."

A chill rushes through their campsite, the wind caressing their cheeks with chapped fingers. Branches rustle, grinding in hoarse cacophony.

"They had no choice but to send some of the men to try and gather more wood. They had to climb out of their windows because the snow and ice sealed the doors shut, bundled in any fabric they could find." He can't help but laugh. "Grandma said her father even wore her little sister's hat on top of his. Had little bunny ears and everything."

Cooper and Rachel laugh themselves, not near as pleased as the call of the forest and just the slightest bit hollow.

But Hiro's smile turns pensive, strained, as he tries to remember a story older than he is. "Anyway, they went out, except another blizzard hit before they got back. Ancient pine trees bred for the cold snapped like twigs, sap freezing solid and bursting from the inside out. The entire world outside was bathed in bright, deadly white. Of the six that left, two came back— my great-grandfather and a kid barely old enough for high school. I mean, if high school was a thing there."

Hiro clears his throat. "Great-grandfather never really talked about what happened out there, but the kid did— Grandma said that's where she got the story."

"There was a cave. Just as the blizzard hit and the world turned white, they found a cave with a fire burning. Except, so they say, no one was there to tend it. It shouldn't have burned like it did, but it burned bright and clean." Cooper grips their stick tighter, the gravity of their job hitting them like an icicle down the back. "Grandfather didn't trust it and held the kid back with him, but the others went for it. While the others went to the fire, Grandfather showed the kid how to dig a hole and wait out the storm."

Hiro shutters, his grandma's words flowing through his veins. Stories need to be passed on, she said, but that doesn't mean it's a pleasant task. People tell stories for a reason, she said. "When the storm passed and they dug themselves back out, the fire still burned in the cave, so hot it snapped blue at the edges. But the men who huddled around it were just as blue, eyes empty and mouths open and dark. Tiny embers hovered around their skin, dancing like stars as they took the men's heat to keep the fire burning."

Silence descends on the three like vultures, circling and spinning through the air in a heavy waltz.

Cooper breaks the silence first, reality snapping back to them like pine trees. "What happened next?"

Hiro shrugs. "Great-grandfather and the kid brought back what wood they could, and the snow soon melted. There were no signs of the fire or the men or even the cave when they looked."

Rachel chuckles, staring at their own fire with a dart of fear stabbing her chest, the flames just barely flickering red let alone blue. "Good thing we have our own pyromaniac, right, Coop?"

Cooper nods just a hair too fast, jerking like a puppet pulled on strings. "Right, absolutely, yeah. Damn, Hiro, when you go all in, you go all in."

The night closes in as their light dims, sinking lower and lower into the ground. Low enough for them to agree to head in for the night, the temperature dipping lower and lower and the wind picking up just the slightest bit.

Rachel heads in first— it's her turn to set up the bedrolls and chase any stray leaves or bits of dirt out. Hiro heads in second, taking their backpacks in and double-checking to make sure everything's sealed away as it should be.

Cooper lingers by the fire, watching it until their eyes burn. They only follow the others inside when the red fades and the coals smoke, the last few embers twinkling like stars.


Image of Through the Woods


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