- Collect wood. Look for fallen branches, as dead wood burns better than live. Keep your eyes on the forest floor, and hope for a pocket of dry sticks somehow protected from the pattering rain. Never look back at camp. Never look at your future suitemates—at Hana from Chicago fuming with the tent poles, and Liza from Boston crouching by the river, examining a forked birch limb, her back soaked navy.
- Separate your collection into tinder, sticks, and branches. If needed, break the wood into footlong lengths. You’re five miles from the car. Five miles from a roof, five miles from heat, and more than two dozen from a gas station, from fire-starting logs. A freshman mistake, not bringing one, even if it was supposed to be sunny. So much for being a sophomore. When Liza and Hana snap sticks in silence, don’t apologize for the forecast, even if your whole body throbs: you can’t control the weather. You can barely control your own hands, which want to brush a circle of lichen from Liza’s forearm, a gesture too intimate for your clumsy fingers, slick with water and bits of bark, mud.
- Examine the firepit. If the ash inside is soupy, find four or five flat rocks to elevate the base of your pyramid out of the water. Dig stones from the earth and laugh. You really thought you could impress them. Show off your fire-starting skills, your knowledge of bird calls and mountain trails, make up for all the times the three of you played Liza’s video games and watched Hana’s movies—finally you had something to offer—but nothing has changed since high school: you’re perpetually unprepared. Today it’s the fire-starting log, the kick of your heart when Liza brushes close, and last summer at Manny’s it was Gracie from Waterford, your uncertainty no matter how close she leaned—just a gal being a pal, probably—until, in the shadows flanking the bonfire, she kissed you. Your first girlfriend, you thought. You didn’t know what to do with your hands or what you were supposed to talk about, but you did know to get her number. Even so you stumbled through it. When she ghosted you—because why wouldn’t she, after all your stammering—you stayed in a bed for a week, unable to explain to your mother why you weren’t up for dorm shopping, your lips aching for the soft smudge of Gracie’s kiss.
- Crumple newspaper or dry leaves into a ball, and center it on the flat rocks in the firepit. Lean twigs against each other over the paper to create a pyramid—a cage. Squeeze into it any and all distractions: the silence, the cold cling of your jeans to your thighs, the water dripping from Hana’s hat, the little point of Liza’s nose, the moment—back at the car—when she handed you your pack and you noticed, for the first time, the freckles on her biceps, the trill in your chest. Crush it like paper. Focus on your handiwork instead: add a layer of sticks next, and then a few branches.
- Strike a match. Ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Light the newspaper low so the flame can dry the wood above it. If the kindling smolders and Liza grabs your forearm, her fingers tense against your wet skin, use birch bark or bits of pine to keep the fire alive. Blow gently on the flame. Do not acknowledge the fat drops of moisture plinking on your back. Do not give up. Do not walk away from this burgeoning hope of heat and dryness—because if you look away for even a moment, the spark will die, and the air will fill with smoke.
Natalie Schriefer often writes about sexuality, women in sports, and the outdoors. She loves asking people about their fictional & celebrity crushes (hers is Riza Hawkeye from Fullmetal Alchemist). Natalie received her MFA from Southern Connecticut State University and works as a freelance writer and editor. Home base: www.natalieschriefer.com.