Land of the Free & Five-Dollar Firewood by September Woods Garland

We spent the anniversary of our son’s suicide tending a fire deep in the wild of the North Cascades, the sound of the Skagit River rushing by a constant reminder of the persistent truth of impermanence.

My husband’s boy scout training emerged in the form of confidence and a methodical approach to fire-making. We stacked logs in formation, two at a time. Poked the burning cuts of wood with a charred stick. Taming the coals and teasing out their heat.

We’d bought the sizable stack of wood on our way in, pulling off the highway at the sight of a roadside stand. Hand-painted signs advertised five-dollar bundles outside a small ranch-style home with a horse trailer and pickup truck in the gravel driveway.

We grabbed five bundles and some kindling, and I slipped crisp bills into the slot of a small lockbox. A figurine sat atop the box. A cat waving an American flag, the words Land of the Free painted in an arch over its ears. An elderly couple came around from the side of the house pushing wheelbarrows full of bundled wood. They smiled as they approached the stack, waved as we pulled away.

Every once in a while, we let the flames die down to throw a foil-wrapped burrito onto the coals or roast a stale marshmallow. Watching the outside layers brown and bubble, we burned our tongues on their molten innards. It rained and we boiled water for coffee. Decaf, on account of our nerves.

We stared into the fire for long bouts of silence. Flames and coals and wood shapeshifted, and I thought of all the ways I missed our old life. Then I let them burn away.

Rain drizzled as we tended our fire under a canopy of old growth trees: pine, cedar, douglas fir. Every now and then we broke the silence.

“Shall I put on another log?” he’d ask.

“Sure,” I’d reply, taking a sip of my coffee from a hot tin cup. “That’s what it’s for.”

I watched him as he grabbed a cut of wood. He placed it in the flames with intention. His hands steady with concentration. Things I hadn’t seen in him since before…

“I haven’t thought about it in a few hours,” he said, poking at the coals.

“Me neither,” I lied, the grit of coffee and grief in my teeth.

He shrugged. It seemed to me the most honest response.

The fire crackled, coals popped, and we both jumped. Hypervigilant, even out here.

“I almost feel free,” he said. “Like something new can happen now.”

Before we let it die for the night, I had a glimpse in that fire. The two of us old and wrinkled. Peddling wood of our own on some lone highway. A simple life. Peaceful. Free.

September Woods Garland is an emerging writer from the Pacific Northwest. Her flash fiction has appeared in literary horror journal Hello Horror and absurdist podcast Weird Christmas. She is currently in the query trenches with her debut novel.