She Lit a Fire by Robert James Russell
2016 Waasnode Fiction Prize Honorable Mention
By the time we arrived back at camp with the squirrel in my hands Sam had squatted to piss behind a crooked white pine like he had something to be ashamed of. I’d wanted this one to be Sam’s kill and he’d sighted it with the Browning .22 while it foraged on the ground near an old rundown farmhouse we couldn’t find on any of the maps. But he couldn’t pull the trigger—which I’d been afraid of. And I wish I’d prepared better for this, but I can’t force him to pull the trigger, to kill something. You have to want that on your own. So I told him maybe tomorrow and she tucked her hair behind her ears and pouted her lips the way she’d been practicing, shrugged, said, “Okay.”
“You should be standing to piss, by the way,” I said looking out over our campsite to the lake beyond. I could just make out a mother loon leading her babies in a row, teaching them to dive. “I don’t want someone to see you like that.”
“I don’t care,” Sam said. She had come and stood next to me and was looking at the squirrel hanging from my fist, limp-limbed and tongue wagged out of its mouth. “That looks gross.”
I don’t know why it had to be so tough between us, but it always had been. There’d only ever been a good couple of years where Sam—then Samuel—wanted to be with me, would run up to me when I got home from work and would cry if I left, even if it was just to take a shower. But now, going on thirteen, dressed all in pink and tying his hair back into a ponytail, hair that, truthfully, I had wanted to snip off while she was sleeping, we’re so far apart I can only just see myself in his green eyes and squared jaw she tries to hide with concealer and those thick arms that’d be great for playing ball and that nose that hooked down at the end, the hallmark of the men in my family since my grandpa’s grandpa way back when.
We’d been at the campsite near the lake for two days and it had been all but deserted besides us and a family of four that kept to themselves. Our site was fifty yards from the lake, hidden from the road that brings you in—which was clear on the other side. My truck, too, mud-spattered and more brown than gray was parked beneath a grove of thin-trunked cedar and completely hidden from view. I had set up the campsite, entrance of the tent facing the lake, and we had dug out a small fire pit that first day and lined it with stones we picked up from Blue Jay Creek about a mile east of us where we’d spend mornings filtering water to drink for the day. The tent, a four-person, was plenty big for both of us and our gear including fishing poles and a collapsible bucket, our day packs, pots and pans for meals.
We set down our packs and walked toward the edge of the lake where I’d set up a large flat rock in the shallows. “I’m going to teach you how to skin this.” Sam kicked the dirt and I looked back at her: pink tank top, tight jeans, boots almost to his knees. “It’s a good skill to have.”
“No, it’s not,” he said. “No one needs to know how to do this. We’re not settlers, Dad.”
I kneeled and set the squirrel on the flat rock and removed my knife from my pocket. “Doesn’t mean it’s not good to know how to do something with your hands.”
“I’m tired of this,” Sam said. “I wish I was back home with Mom.”
“I don’t care,” I said. I was angry. I only got to see Sam every so often as it was, and the last thing I needed was him wanting to cut our time short. “Someone needs to teach you to be a man,” I said. “And it should be your father.”
“You’re an asshole.”
I turned back to the squirrel. “First thing you have to do is get it wet so the fur doesn’t stick to the meat. You don’t want that.” I dunked it in the shallows of the lake, splashed the water over it. I laid it back across the rock and looked at Sam who had her arms crossed, that expression of hers I hated. I wanted this to be a big success, this whole trip, but I knew Sam was right. Even still, there was still so much we had to do and I had to be careful. Couldn’t afford to give up, to let things go to shit.
I let the air idle between us a minute, said, “So next you cut a little slit under the tail here, like this.” I cut and could feel her eyes on me. “You don’t want to go too deep, though. Don’t want to puncture the meat.”
“Have you ever even eaten squirrel?” she asked.
“When I was a boy, about your age, my daddy—your grandpa—used to take me squirrel hunting all the time. His daddy took him.” I stopped wiped my nose with my forearm, looked back at Sam. “Was hoping this was something we could do together, and maybe you could do it with your son someday.”
All I had wanted was for Sam to get on board with this. I’d stopped at all the places she wanted to eat on the way, had let her pick the stations to listen to in the car, and all I asked was that she give me a chance, that he try to live off the land a bit. Good skills to have, I told him, but she wouldn’t listen and here we were, with all that attitude, just like his mother.
I made smaller cuts near the tail, said, “You don’t want to cut the tail off because you need that to help get the pelt off, which is the fun part.”
I set the knife on the rock and began to ply the fur from the skin on the hind legs, then stood and put my boot on the tail. I grabbed the hind legs and looked back at Sam who had stepped back some, grimacing. “It’s all right,” I said. “We already bled it, so it won’t be that bad.” I pulled on the legs hard and listened to the pelt rip from the skin as I lifted, peeled it until I reached the forearms. I knelt and put my finger between the meat of the arms and the fur and pinched it free and continued pulling on the hind legs until all the fur was bundled up at its neck like it was wearing a scarf. I was breathing heavy and wiping sweat away.
“See? Man’s work.”
Sam’s arms were at her side, head cocked as she studied the pink thing on the ground. “It looks like a newborn baby,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, “suppose it does.”
I knelt and removed the head arms and feet with the knife, then cut along its belly and removed the guts, tossing them into the lake. “Fish food,” I said. “They love it.”
“Glad someone does.”
I remembered, a week ago, calling Sam up and asking if he wanted to take a trip. He’d been having a hard go of it at school, been bullied, and at first I talked to him about fighting back. But when I saw that was going nowhere, that my kid refused to fight, I suggested instead a road trip to get away. See parts of the state he’d never seen before. He was enthusiastic at first, but I had seen her mood sour over the last few days especially and couldn’t quite figure out why.
“I promise it’s tasty,” I said. “Go get a fire going and we’ll roast it on a stick.”
“I’m not good at that. I always need your help.”
“Then go try to get it started and I’ll be over in a minute.”
She stomped away toward the tent and for a moment I was giddy, that maybe some of this was finally sinking in. I even thought, depending on things, maybe I’d rent us a hotel room, a nice one up in Cadillac, as a treat. And we could eat pizza and drink pop past midnight and maybe she’d understand what I was trying to do here. Then I looked back out on the black sheen of the lake, the water reflecting the pine and cedar as if everything in that reflection was some other world altogether. I wondered what we were like in that place. If things were easier, maybe.
“I don’t get a lot of time with him,” I said into the phone. I had snuck off into the surrounding cedars while Sam slept, grabbed one of the packaged pre-paid phones from the duffel in the truck. Wendy had picked up almost immediately and when she did I started the timer on my watch.
“You can’t just kidnap our child, Tom,” she said. She was calmer now, calmer than yesterday, calmer than the day before. I hoped, a few days from now, she might even come to understand. “You can’t just abscond with her.”
“He’s my kid too,” I said. “And enough with this her shit. It’s just us, okay?”
“It’s kidnapping. There’s no other way around it.”
“I’m his father.”
“And you get visitation every other weekend. That’s it.”
“You don’t need to make a case about this. He’s not in danger. I’m just…” I stopped and looked at my watch: it had been just over a minute. “He just needs a man in his life to show him what’s what. To teach him these skills.”
“She doesn’t need anyone. She’s perfect the way she is.”
“You coddle him.”
“Her, goddamnit. Her.”
“He has a penis, Wendy. A dick.”
“Fuck you,” she said. “You won’t ever get it.”
I waited a second, said, “Cops still there?”
“Yeah, and they can’t wait to snatch you up.”
“Don’t they have better things to do than wait around every night for me to call?”
“I don’t know where you are, but this is a big deal. To everyone.” She cleared her throat. “It’s all over the news.”
“You don’t say.”
“I mean it. It won’t end well for you.”
“I’m just trying to show him how to be a man. How to depend on himself. That’s all.”
“You’re going to get caught.”
I looked at my watch again. The black sky was mottled with even blacker clouds, and I could just make out a fire dying out on the other side of the lake.
“Not tonight,” I said. I hung up and snapped the phone in two and chucked the pieces in the woods. Then I thought of Sam’s phone, which I had dumped in the garbage at a rest stop when we first set up, and how devastated she was when he couldn’t find it. I’d have to buy her a new one, eventually, like I promised I would, at least when this was all over, but for now I walked slowly back to the tent, toward Sam, toward everything I had hidden in the night.
“I dreamed I was an eagle.” Sam sat up in his sleeping bag and looked at me—Samuel looked at me, I could see him in there—then tied his long dark hair back into a ponytail. “What do you think that means?”
“Dunno. What were you doing in the dream?”
“Flying, mostly. Way up in the sky.” Sam squinted at the tent opening, looking out at the lake in the fuzzy morning light, and stretched out a hand as if it was the bird. “Then I rested in the trees and I could see a camp, a family camping, but I couldn’t really make out the details. They were just these fleshy blobs sitting by a fire. But I could hear them and smell them like I was right there with them.”
I hadn’t had a dream I remembered in years, nothing worth remembering, anyway. “Maybe it’s a spirit dream,” I said. “We’re in the woods, anyway.”
I clenched my jaw and smiled, tried desperately to find Samuel in there again. But it was just Sam and she gave me a threatening look as if I had reached out to smack her.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “What’re we doing today, anyway?”
“Well, looks like rain.”
“Might be good for fishing.”
“I don’t like fish.”
“It’s a good skill to have.” I kneeled and changed my shirt. Sam looked away while I did like he hadn’t seen me shirtless countless times before.
“I don’t care about fishing.”
“You’ll thank me someday,” I said, trying to be patient.
Sam slumped back down and pulled the sleeping bag over her head. “I’m still tired. I want to keep sleeping.”
I sighed, didn’t mean to, but there it was anyway. “No, you’re getting up,” I said. “We need to fill the jugs with water and I can’t do it on my own.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “I’m your father and I’m telling you.”
She grumbled. “Fine, but get out so I can change.”
I laughed. “You think you have something I haven’t seen before? That I don’t have myself?”
“What’re you so afraid of?”
“It’s embarrassing. Just go outside.”
“Fine, but you have to get over this. And soon.”
Outside I unfolded the Michigan state map along the hood of the truck and ran my finger along the route we had taken, zigzagged from county road to country road and staying off the main highways altogether. We were near Lake Michigan, forty miles or so inland, and while I wanted to show Sam what it was like, I figured it’d be too crowded, even this time of year—full of tourists and weekend warriors out to see the sights in every shithole town that rolled up against it. And that I needed to avoid, those prying eyes. I thought, then, about what Wendy had said about me being on the news and wondered if anyone could see my side of things in all this. I was sure there was a father or two out there who could understand at least. But I felt, deep in my stomach, a nagging, like maybe I was having a hard time convincing the innermost parts of me that this was okay, that there was a lighted path in all this darkness.
“Well?” Sam said. I turned and she had on some new pink tank top, a shirt built for a girl—an actual girl—but was wearing the khaki nylon convertible pants I had bought her. In her hands were the two empty milk jugs we’d been using for water.
“Hey, those look good on you,” I said pointing to the pants.
She forced a smile and played with her long hair again. “Thanks.”
I folded up the map and put it in my pocket. “Let me get my pack and we’ll go.”
“Can’t wait,” she said and walked toward the fire pit, kicking one of the rocks that made up the border until it fell into the ashes. “Hurrah.”
Sam was talkative during the trek, telling me about her friends at school, her favorite teachers and subjects. Then I asked about Kyle and little Bill, the boys he used to hang out with when he was younger but she said they didn’t talk anymore. That they had gotten mean.
“Well fuck ‘em,” I said. “There’s always more friends to make.”
We were deep in the woods now on a thin trail that snaked back to Blue Jay Creek, worn into the undergrowth by campers over the years. Up ahead was a small incline lined with gray river birch and buckeye that hid the creek from view.
Then, Sam said, “They called me gay.”
I stopped and looked back. “Well,” I said, “isn’t that the correct term?”
“Jesus, Dad,” she said and folded her arms again. “You don’t ever listen.”
I cleared my throat. “I’m listening now.”
“It’s called transgender. That’s what I am. It doesn’t mean I’m gay.”
I was trying, I was, but I felt a flush in my cheeks so I turned back toward the creek, tried listening for it. “Almost there,” I said.
“I like boys but I’m not gay, okay? They’re not the same.”
“Just stop all that,” I told her. Then she looked at me, right at me. “Anyway, I was thinking maybe we could get a hotel room in Cadillac for a night. What do you think?”
“I want to go home.”
“Soon,” I said.
“Couple days, okay? But quit asking. Makes me think you don’t want to spend time with me. That you’d rather be home on your computer or with your friends. I’m not getting any younger, you know.”
She was quiet, kicked the dirt with her boots. “Don’t forget the phone.”
“I know, we’ll get you a new one when we get back into town.”
We climbed up the hill and eased our way down the other side to the creek, a small tributary that cut down through the slopes of green and brown with whips of flotsam highlighting where large rocks had been stuck in the sediment and poked out the top of the lapping waters like well-placed granite totems. At the edge Sam bent down with the jugs, ready to fill them, when I pulled her up by the arm.
“What?” She was alarmed and I pointed upstream to the carcass of a dog, what looked like a lab, half in the water, half on the bank as if it had tried to crawl free but couldn’t make it. Three crows were picking at its flesh and, standing still, you could hear the buzz of flies getting their fill, too.
“Can’t get the water here,” I said. “Need to go upstream past it.”
Sam stood up and behind me, protected by me. “What do you think happened to it?”
“Don’t know. Might be a runaway. Might’ve gotten lost.”
“But how’d it die?”
I didn’t answer, just studied the dog’s mangy fur and the already-hollowed-out eyes. The crows took turns pecking at it and looking back at us and cawing, but they weren’t afraid—they didn’t seem to mind. Just letting us know it belonged to them. “Damn crows,” I said. “They’ll eat anything.”
I put my arm around Sam and we walked along the bank like that a bit, careful to step as far away from the dog as possible. It was the first time we had hugged like that since he was little.
“They’re the same family as blue jays,” she said.
“What are, crows?
“Don’t say.” Once we were past the dog I removed my arm and we walked another few minutes before settling down on the bank again. I took one of the jugs and filled it with water and removed the iodine pills from my pocket, dropping two inside. I told Sam to do the same with the other jug and she did, looking back down the creek every so often at the dog, the crows. I was pissed, pissed that the normalcy we had for a moment, that I strived for, was already gone.
“And they have the same brain-to-body mass ratio as apes,” she said.
“That means they’re real smart.”
“Lots of animals are smart.”
“Yeah, but I’m just saying—”
“Look,” I howled. “I get it, I just don’t want to talk about it.” Sam looked at the ground, then away. I cleared my throat, rubbed my eyes clean. “It is neat, though. I meant that.”
“Where’d you learn all that, anyway?”
“School.” She looked at me, head cocked to the side, mouth open, then tucked her hair behind her ears.
“Due for a haircut, I think.” I watched the iodine pills dissolve in the water then took out a granola bar and ate half before looking up again.
“I’m not cutting my hair.”
“It isn’t the Seventies. Shit, even the Eighties. Back then, everyone had their hair long, you know? Hard rock bands and all that.” I took another bite, looked up at the trees while I chewed. “That’s just how it was. But not now.”
Before she could say anything else we heard a noise, a rustling. We glanced toward the slope behind us and watched until that family of four, the ones we’d barely seen, emerge from the woods, all of them all wearing neon yellow parkas. The parents—around my age—and two kids, two boys—both teenagers—smiled when they saw us.
“Hello,” the father said waving. “Sorry to startle you.”
I finished chewing, forced a smile. “Hey,” I said. “No worries.”
They trudged down the slope slow, careful, and Sam and I studied them: the mother, very plain, was thin like a runner. The father, thin too, had a gut on him still, the kind of hard-as-rock bowling ball gut men my age start to get. His boys were wiry like their folks, probably never played a sport in their life but I admired them for being out here anyway.
“Just here for some water,” the mother said. “Same as you, by the looks of it.”
When they got to us and got a good look at Sam they stopped for a minute—I could see it in their eyes, the confusion, the judgment. They looked to me, smiles faded, and cleared their throats.
“This is my kid, Sam,” I said. “I’m Tom.”
“Howdy,” the father said. “I’m Joel, this is my wife Jackie, and our kids Brian and Evan.”
I nodded. Silence again. Then I said, “There’s a dead dog just down a ways.” I pointed. “Crows are having a go at it. I wouldn’t try the water down there.”
The father squinted his eyes downstream. “Good to know.” He looked back at the wife, then to Sam and me. “Just the two of you out here?”
“Yup,” I said.
“My dad’s teaching me how to be a man,” Sam said. I looked back, glared. Her arms were folded again. She was smirking.
“Yup,” I said. “That’s right.”
The boys, too young to know social cues any better, couldn’t stop staring at Sam, her clothes, the blue eye makeup she had put on that I had only just now realized was there. The wife, Jackie, tugged on Joel’s yellow sleeve and he snapped out of it. “Oh, yes, well, we’ll be on our way then. Head upstream some to give you some privacy. That’s why we’re all out here, anyway.”
“Right,” I said, and for a moment I thought of defending Sam and telling them to mind their own damn business, but the last thing I needed was more attention. Any attention. So instead I said, “Well, take care.”
I grabbed the jugs of water and Sam and I trudged back up the hill, through the line of birch and into the woods. I could feel their eyes on us the whole time.
That night it took me a couple tries to actually call Wendy and when I got through something was different in her voice, like she was real pleased with herself or something.
“You’re acting weird,” I said. I was at the edge of the lake this time, talking softly and trying not to wake Sam. “What gives?”
“Nothing gives,” she said.
“What, you’re done being mad? Just like that?”
“No.” She cleared her throat. “I’m mad as hell, Tom. Just calm.”
“Well, calm is good,” I said. “I wish you could see it here. I think you’d like it.”
“You never gave me a real chance, you know that?” I thought about that, our three years of marriage, and how quickly it had all gone.
“I’m not getting into that,” she said. “This isn’t about us.”
“It is, in a way. It’s about Sam, and Sam is ours.”
“Oh, ours, is she? Now you want to play dad all of a sudden?”
“That’s not fair,” I said. “You know it’s not.”
“What I know is that you pick and choose when to come by. And it’s not like you even have to all that often.”
“I just don’t know how to talk to him.” I paused. “Her.”
“She’s still the same kid,” Wendy said. “The exact same. Nothing’s changed.”
“Everything’s changed.” The sunset that night had been spectacular and Sam and I had watched it over the lake, the way the sky blazed up. I’d caught her smiling and then we fished a little, a good skill to have for a man, I told her. I said, “Sam caught a perch today.”
“Couldn’t keep it, it was too little, but she was happy. You should’ve seen her.”
Wendy cleared her throat again. “I’m glad this is all fun and games to you.”
“She doesn’t know anything’s up,” I said. “To her we’re just camping. This is just a vacation.”
“Not to me,” she said. “Not to everyone who matters.” Then she hung up. She had never hung up, not once in the week we’d been gone. I looked down at my phone, then my watch: Just over a minute. I broke the phone in two and tossed the halves into the lake as I puzzled over everything.
Back inside the tent I crawled in my sleeping bag. I heard Sam moving around and was worried I had woken him. He had always been a light sleeper.
“Dad,” he said quietly. “What were you doing?”
I hoped he hadn’t heard me call, didn’t know about the phones in the truck. “Nothing.”
I flipped onto my back and looked up at the roof of the tent. “Sorry if I woke you.”
“I wasn’t sleeping.”
I put my hands behind my head, cleared my throat. “Hey, I ever tell you about my dog, Rocky?”
Sam propped himself up on his elbows. In the faint nighttime glow I could make out his face, that strong, masculine face. “When did you have a dog?”
“This was before I met your mother,” I said. “Years before. Anyway, I had this dog, found it on the side of the road.”
“Just a mutt. Followed me everywhere. We’d go camping, like this, and he’d sleep in the tent with me. Got me through some hard times.”
“When my mom died,” I said. “She was a good woman. But I couldn’t handle it so I just took off and went camping in the woods for a while. Everyone was worried.” I laughed. “Your mom always hated that about me. I always wanted to have an adventure, take a trip.”
“She doesn’t even like to leave the house.”
“And I don’t like to be in the house. Anyway, Rocky was pretty dumb, had no real instincts, you know? But one night I had let him out to do his business, and he came back to the tent and was pawing at it. I opened it up and he hopped in and dropped something he had in his mouth.”
“What was it?”
“A chipmunk. I thought it was dead then the damn thing came to life and ran around. Rocky was going nuts, trying to pounce on it, thought it was a game, and I was worried it had rabies or something, so the two of us were running around trying to catch it, me trying to get it before the dog—which I finally did, I might add—and the whole tent ended up collapsing. Had to sleep in my Toyota that night. The tent was ruined.”
I was chuckling and looked over at Sam who was watching me, straight-faced. “That’s not funny,” she said.
“Well, I mean, can you picture it? Your old man chasing around a chipmunk?”
“It was probably just scared. It was trapped.”
“Right,” I said, but you’re missing the point. It’s just something funny that happened one time, you know? Thought you’d like that.”
Sam lay on her back and rolled away from me, said, “I don’t like hurting animals.”
“I didn’t hurt the stupid thing,” I said. “You’re thinking too much about this. You’re being too sensitive.”
“I am who I am,” she said.
And that really got to me, for whatever reason, like I didn’t know my own kid, couldn’t talk to him about anything, so, I said, “Tomorrow, let’s not wear any pink. Let’s practice wearing some boy colors, the clothes I got you. And I’m taking you shooting again and you’re going to goddamn kill yourself a squirrel for us to eat.”
But there was no response, just silence, and I couldn’t tell if she was silently cursing me or had fallen back asleep, but I figured it didn’t matter either way.
Sometime that next morning—I wasn’t sure when, my watch had died during the night—I woke up and Sam was gone. “Sam?” I called out. I pulled on a shirt and opened the tent and saw the fire going, crackling and hungry. In that moment I was proud—proud that she got the fire going all by herself, that she didn’t need me at all. I called out to her again.
I stood outside and stretched. It was a clear morning, still early, I figured, and it took me a second to hear the noise behind me, the hushed conversations. I turned and saw two county sheriffs’ cars, their blue lights dancing off the nearby cedar trunks, and four deputies huddled around Sam, one of them with the Browning in his hands. All had turned to look at me, waiting to see what I would do. Had I left the truck unlocked? Had Sam found my bag of burners? Then, behind the cars, I saw the family: Joel and Jackie and Brian and Evan, standing tall, proud, like they did us this huge favor. Jackie had her arms crossed and was shaking her head.
I couldn’t help but laugh. One of the officers moved toward me, stepping slow, one hand out, one hand on his gun. He was saying something but I couldn’t hear him, it was all mute to me, so I put my hands up in the air like I figured they’d want me to do and waited. He handled me roughly, read me my rights as he forced my arms behind my back. I tried not to wince, didn’t want to show Sam I was in pain—that it hurt and hurt bad—then I was lead to one of the cars, and I was going to say something to Sam, but I couldn’t, nothing came out.
In the back of the sheriff’s car I watched the family of four talk to Sam, to the deputies, no one making eye contact with me now. Sam stood among them, wearing that pink tank top, those tight jeans I was positive were ladies’ jeans, arms crossed. But she didn’t look upset, not really. Maybe he had gleaned something from me after all. Maybe it was all worth it. I wondered what would come next, and then one of the deputies, a younger-looking guy with a nice smile and sweet eyes, lead Sam away, back toward the lake. She watched him and tucked her hair behind her ears, her too-long hair, and he smiled at her and she beamed. And after a minute Jackie joined them, put her arm around Sam while she pointed at the still-black water, the reflections—that other world I hoped was a bit nicer than this one—the three of them there, ghosts on the shore.
Robert James Russell is the author of New Plains, which will be published in 2017 by Dock Street Press. He is also the author of three previous books of fiction: Mesilla, Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out, and Sea of Trees. He is the founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP and serves as co-director of the Voices of the Middle West literary festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in a wide range of journals, both print and online, and has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. You can find him online at firstname.lastname@example.org.