Big Bear by Dennis Chen

Friday, February 25, 2022
Steve and Ellie go for a weekend away with friends at a fire-encircled cabin in the woods, and their relationship is sorely tested, in Dennis Chen's amusing tale.

I didn't have many rich friends growing up, so when Ellie showed me the photos of the palatial cabin while in the checkout line at Trader Joe's two weeks ago, I'd gotten the wrong idea and made a quip that we'd have to cover the windows on the lakeview side to afford a place like that.

"No, it's his cabin," she'd informed me. "You remember him, my friend Sophie's boyfriend, the guy who kept calling you Steve-O. We met them that at the party at Bungalow Sur."

"I thought it was the other way around. As in, your friend Kirk and his girlfriend Sophie."

"What? Oh no, that's just Kirk. He's everyone's best friend. So, what do you think?"

"What about your work?"

"My boss already gave me that Friday off as comp for all the weekends I worked last month. And I know you're free."

The cashier had held up a box of yam crisps from the scanner. "You'll love these," he'd assured us. They'd eventually been set aside as rations for the drive and were now sitting in a tote bag in the backseat of Ellie's Prius as we took our place in the parade of aspiration that was eastbound traffic from LA on a Friday afternoon. In the passenger seat next to me, Ellie suctioned the last few boba pearls through her straw and breathed a satisfied sigh as she rattled the leftover ice. "I'm so glad we were finally able to do this," she said. "I just need to get away. Distance therapy, you know?"

"How about Hawaii?" I suggested. "Just the two of us."

She sighed. "If I can ever get away for more than a weekend. Do you think those resorts have good WiFi?"

The implication of remote work reminded me that an invisible dragon followed us near all the time, gliding on wireless signals, roosting in cell towers, clicking its forked tongue with pleasure every time we bowed our heads in tribute. "Oh, I'll make sure it's on one of the remote islands, totally off the grid. We'll be lucky if we get AM radio."

"Ha." She pulled her left leg up onto her seat and stared out the window idly. The cars were bottling up in advance of a lane closure ahead due to construction on the mountain, one of those deals where they'd let traffic go in one direction for ten minutes, clear out the stretch, and then let the other side go for ten. "That reminds me of something," she said, pulling her other leg up. "Remember the first time we hung out and you made the comment to Kirk about those Japanese hermit soldiers who refused to accept the end of the war?"

"I do. One of my better ones, I must say. The guy could not come to grips with losing to us in Cornhole."

"Well, Sophie mentioned it to me later."

"She did, huh?"

"Yes. Look, people that know you well understand that when you say things like that... it's just part of your charm, I guess. But your sense of humor doesn't land with everyone. And you come across as the aloof academic who makes obscure references that you know nobody will get."

"What did she say exactly?"

Ellie sighed. "'Steve's kind of a weird guy, isn't he?'"

A tiny wave of heat went through me. "I suppose that impugns you."

"I wouldn't care," she said. "Except I know that you can be really affable when you want to be."

"Who knew that I'd be held accountable for being nice?"

"Just... make an effort this weekend, all right? Accommodate them. We're their guests after all."

Traffic was moving now, flaring along in stop-start engines and pushing the miles-long backup around the bend of the mountain. "Yeah sure, I'll do my best," I said.

With a mind toward the yam crisps I reached for the tote bag but ended up settling on a box of s'mores flavored crackers. It wasn't until about an hour later that I connected that impulse to the smell of wood burning in the air.

We arrived to find the group gathered out on the back patio, glowing golden in the afternoon sun with faces slicked like seals. It was unseasonably hot. Sophie wore a cantaloupe sundress and looked pleasantly miffed as she embraced Ellie. "I'm furious with you," she whined. "If you're going to be late, you should have the decency not to look better than me." She ran her hands approvingly around Ellie's coral blouse and a newly acquired sun hat that had been artfully arranged minutes earlier.

"Steve-O!" Shades on, sans shirt, Kirk rose to his feet from his deck chair, displaying the sort of craft-molded Californian body archetype that suggested an elite athlete or cowboy actor somewhere in his lineage. As he came to man-hug me, I felt a mild trepidation at the motion of his abdominal muscles, which rippled like a pulsing school of fish.

"Some place you've got here, Kirk. It looked like a bit of a dump from the pictures."

He grinned and slapped me on the back. "You're coming in hot, Steve-O. But I promise you this: we're having a rematch in Cornhole, and you're going down, bro."

Two other guests were already there, introduced to us as Caleb and Marina. Caleb, mid-thirties by his hairline, had driven up from Orange County and had a bleary expression like he'd rather be playing on his phone in a parked car somewhere. Marina, Russian and bemused, had apparently come from West Hollywood with a friend who had, absurdly, left that same morning for some "drop-ship business".

"You guys see the fires on the way up?" asked Caleb.

"They were insane," added Kirk. "We saw this firefighter covered in black ash, and he was walking toward us like the Terminator."

"Hasta la vista point," I said, not too proudly.

"Steve!" Sophie grabbed my shoulder and looked at me with a sudden thrill, as if she'd just remembered that I was another fully autonomous human with functioning ears and mandibles. "You're a smart guy, right?"

"That's what they tell me."

"Got a little assignment for you."

"Oh, take it easy on him," said Ellie, looping her arm around me protectively. "He came up here to get a mental break from working on his thesis."

"It's just a small thing," Sophie protested, twirling a lock of auburn-highlighted hair. "I need to come up with a cute hashtag for Ingrid and Cassius' wedding. Steve's good with words, so I figured I'd borrow his big brain."

"Ingrid and Cassius..." I nodded. "We can work with that."

Ellie gave Sophie a funny look. "Soph, did Ingrid ask you to be her maid of honor?"

"Inca gold..."

Sophie clasped her hands around Ellie's. "Random, right? But she's such a sweetheart; she asked me with a handwritten letter with stickers all over it."

"Well, you guys have known each other a long time, right?"

"Since grade school."

"I and C... I see wed people." A lone chuckle came from a sunbathing Marina.

"I see wed people?" repeated Ellie, with a tone that said I should have tried harder, obviously.

"Ell, my apologies," said Sophie. "I should have listened to you. Steve, keep working on that thesis." Later that night in our room, Ellie would inform me that Sophie been on-and-off amorous with Cassius, and that she suspected the silver necklace Sophie wore sometimes had been a gift from the still-besotted groom-to-be.

To wash out the taste of my ill-conceived tagline Sophie brought out Moscow mules topped with raspberries. "Here's to friends and a dope cabin," she proclaimed over the clicking of copper mugs.

"Nowhere I'd rather be," Ellie gushed. I swallowed hard and took a second sip. The toast ushered in a period of tribute to the opulence of the cabin and the generosity of our hosts, around which time the heat began to sap my energy reserves. I took a refill with a generous heaping of crushed ice and retreated onto a deck chair. The lake was close enough that the buzz of boat motors could be heard under the voices and laughter of the women, who had cloistered themselves into a separate conversation about people I'd never heard of. Drowsiness struck quickly and rendered the surrounding noises a meaningless farrago. I had just about drifted off when I became aware of Kirk in the chair next to me speaking, his presence like a life vest preventing me from sinking into sleep. He was saying something about me and then about Ellie. I didn't hear his words so much as the undercurrent of them, and I could tell that it was building up to something.

"Trust me, bro, I know that relationships can be tough. You and Ellie are going to get through this."

I jerked my head up and felt the blood rush downward. "What are you talking about?"

"Don't worry bro, shit's totally safe with me. You want to know what I told her? Sometimes you need a Sherpa to get through the valleys."

I staggered to my feet and felt genuinely wretched; it was as if I'd decomposed into disparate elements and my sudden movements had thrown them all into chemical warfare. I stared at Kirk's forehead, which was starting to wrinkle with concern.

"Hey, dude, you're not looking so good."

"I just need to take a walk," I muttered. "Carsickness. Gotta move around."

"OK dude. Just remember that I got you."

As I lurched into the woods I heard one more shout of "Steve-O!"

"Steve?" came Ellie's voice, fainter.

The forest covering the hill leading up to the cabin was pristine, but sparse enough to allow a person to comfortably make their way through its tall pines and stout junipers. Once within its envelopment the urge to vomit flared, then subsided and left me feeling weakly settled. I plotted methodical footsteps along an aimless, winding arc, surprising the occasional chipmunk or swarm of bugs.

I walked for a while, nursing a stunned ego. A burning smell wafted in and out of range, and then began to grow stronger. I followed it and came across a scattering of blackened tree branches, laying conspicuously across an unusually soft and mossy patch. The branches were burnt nearly to shells, with only tiny specks of embers still breathing, but nothing else around the area seemed to have been affected.

Months later, I would chance upon an article describing the peculiar habit certain species of predatory birds had of carrying burning branches to spread forest fires and flush out prey. And I would come back to that memory, the branches an impossible shade of black.

It was late by the time I made my way back, and the patio was empty. Under the slackening sun, the redwood beams of the pergola glowed like candle wax. I skulked around briefly until the scent of pizza caught my nostrils and led me to a side door that opened into the kitchen, where I found the others chatting and eating sedately in the cool unlit space, like monks having a meal between prayers.

"There you are," said Ellie, with no hint of joy or surprise. She was looking at me strangely, fixing on one spot. I felt something tickle my cheek.

"That's a fire ant," said Caleb with a disaffection that only seemed to make sense in the inverse.

"Don't move," Ellie ordered.

I did as instructed, staying very still until the ant, as thick in the abdomen as a baby's knuckle, raced on its perpetuum mobile wire-legs down my shoe and scurried into a seam under the kitchen island, as if that had been its plan all along.

"You know," said Marina, "King Midas was fed by ants as a baby. They brought him corn in his crib."

"Wonderful," said Ellie. "Steve could sorely use a golden touch of his own. His retirement plan is a binder of baseball cards in the closet of his old bedroom."

Kirk and Sophie smirked and giggled, respectively, but both had the good sense not to pile on - perhaps silver spoons were meant to hold back tongues in these situations - which made me all the more annoyed at Ellie for making a crack like that amidst such company. I grabbed a slice and started tearing into it vindictively, realizing in the process that I was famished. I took huge wolfish bites, each one only stoking my hunger further.

"Take it easy, babe," said Ellie. "You're eating like you were raised in those woods."

"You've got a little something there," said Kirk, pointing at the side of Ellie's mouth.

"Where?" She reached for it but came up short, and then, with a tenderness of movement that stopped my chewing motion cold, Kirk brought his index finger toward the spot on Ellie's cheek and gently daubed off the offending tomato sauce.

Ellie blushed and sat frozen for a moment as she stared at the little smudge of sauce held upon a merciless point. She finally looked at me, sheepishly. "Guess I spoke too soon, huh?"

Kirk grinned gleefully. "You take the L on that one. Steve-O one, Ellie zero," he noted, though in fact it was only then I truly started keeping score.

The evening ran its course over terra nota, its inhabitants taking turns drawing water from the gossip wells and admiring each other's handheld stained glass squares. Just as things appeared to be winding down, Kirk began expounding on his newest venture, nominally dubbed Sand Holla, imbued with the mission of "democratizing private beaches" by divvying them up into timeshare format to be consumed by the coastal bourgeois, the influencer cabals, and other chronically underserved patrons of the surf.

"What a terrific idea," Ellie gushed. "Wow, just imagine not having to deal with the crowds, the trash, the parking. You just can't find a spot of peace these days on public beaches."

A sense of déjà vu crept in; I was sure Ellie had mentioned a similar line to me recently, likely after she had gone over to Kirk's parents' place in Calabasas to take some artwork that his stepmom was giving away as part of a turn toward minimalism. The clutter had been "worse than expected", and she'd stayed late to lend a hand.

I turned to Kirk with new suspicion. "I'm with Ellie; that's a fantastic idea. In fact, I'm going to recommend Sand Holla to a friend of mine who works in the waste disposal industry. He'll love the idea of somewhere discreet where you can let the tide carry away your troubles."

Ellie smiled apologetically. "We've had a long day," she offered. Sophie agreed, and the group began to motion toward retiring, taking their last sips and smokes. And the moment came to retire into socially agreed-upon units: Sophie and Kirk, Ellie and I, independent operators Marina and Caleb. It occurred to me that there was quite a lot unspoken in that moment of coupling and decoupling, as each person quickly contemplates how satisfied they ought to be with what they are left with.

Ellie and I had met at an improv group's afterparty, where we'd both been in attendance on behalf of a friend. It was the smile that got to me first, warm and midwest-strong, the kind that lights up the good parts of a room.

From the beginning, ours had been a merger of convenience. Her, the busy career woman on the upswing at an entertainment marketing firm, and myself, the ivory tower loan-out with ideals to go with student debt. She needed an industry outsider in her life as much as I needed the help with rent, which in our case went toward a dingbat corner topper in Los Feliz with an always clean bed and a brown cat.

"I hope Britches is doing all right with my sister," said Ellie, crouching next to the open suitcase. With her reedy limbs tucked in, she looked small and feeble, like a furled flag.

"She's probably freaking out. Do you realize this is the first time we've ever spent the night together outside of our apartment?" I looked around the submaster bedroom, which had a huge wooden overhang which might have been an architectural necessity but looked like the bow of a ship ramming its way through the ceiling.

"That's not true. What about when we went down to Ensenada last September?"

"We stayed in separate rooms, remember? You were on final prep for LibraFest and you didn't want to disturb me in case you had to get on an extended call."

"Oh, right." She grabbed some clothes from the suitcase and got up to hang them in the closet. Working quickly in repetition, she fitted each shirt over the hanger and lining it up on the bar in one deft motion.

"So, Kirk told me something interesting today."

"Oh yeah?"

As I started to reply, a shirt dropped to the ground and she knelt gracefully to retrieve it. I watched her liquid movement and imagined Kirk admiring the same long slender torso, the silken black hair, the buttersoft features. Would Kirk take a moment like this to pick her up and throw her on the bed in a wild surrender to passion? Perhaps it had already happened. Kirk's parents' house probably had an attic, full of tight spaces and piled high with mounds of lapsed couture making for a plethora of inviting impromptu landing spots...

"Is that it?" Ellie was facing me now with her hands on her hips.

"Well, yeah. I guess I didn't realize you guys were close. How's his stepmom doing, by the way?" I asked.

Ellie shrugged. "She's been in Cabo for weeks."

"Just to confirm then, you were alone with Kirk that night, talking about our 'problems'. That's what you're telling me just now."

"Look," said Ellie, sharpening her tone to head off my rising paranoia, "he's a friend, and he gives good advice. There's really no need to be jealous."

I snorted. "Good advice? Nothing against the guy, but I don't see any wisdom coming from him that he didn't recite off a meme page."

"How very like you to say something like that." The bitterness of that retort seemed to confirm my worst fears about the seriousness of their rapprochement. I was crestfallen.

"I don't mean to be a jerk, I just didn't appreciate being blindsided. I know we've had our blips here and there, but I didn't think there was anything that warranted you taking outside counsel."

"Well, that's usually how these things go, isn't it? There's always one side that sees the trouble brewing before the other."

"I suppose you're right. Now that the cat's out of the bag, so why don't we just have it out, here and now?" It was a tack I immediately knew would fail when I saw her gaze turn subtly toward the door; she didn't want to risk contaminating the cabin air with any spores of discontent.

She sat down on the bed next to me and folded her hands across her lap. "Let's just enjoy the weekend. We'll talk about it when we get back."

That was that, and within an hour Ellie had powered down into a slumber that left me watching her as if she'd just slid her body through under a closed door in some inconceivable magic trick. Sleep - for Ellie, as simple as pulling a chthonic lever - was elusive for me under normal circumstances; in the high elevation redoubt of Robin Hood of the beach, it was nigh impossible. At half past three, I slipped downstairs for some water. The lights were still on in the living area, a cavernous space with suitably outsized furnishing; the bookshelves required a ladder, the coffee table tree rings a paleontologist, and the chandelier was a genuinely breathtaking contraption of antlers and dinosaur egg-sized bulbs. Bunched up on the horseshoe couch in a Brazilian flag tee shirt and pink shorts was Marina. I waved at her and she smiled back as she plucked out her left ear pod.

"There's always one in the group who can't sleep," she mused.

"It would appear that there are two."

She shrugged. "I'm usually up this late. Only time I can really focus."

"What are you listening to?"

"Here." She handed me the ear pod, and I obliged. To my surprise, it was her own voice, captured from a stage mic.

"So, you do stand-up comedy." Her recorded self was in the midst of dissecting the differences in the ways Americans pronounced "vodka" in various states of drunkenness. "You're pretty good."

"Ugh." She shook her head. "I hate pandering to stereotypes, but when they hear my accent they all expect Yakov Smirnoff."

"I guess we're not just products of our culture, but prisoners."

She nodded appreciatively. "It's all so limiting. I prefer to think of people as their own individual cultures. The Steveri, the Marinaiads. The Ellie-o-lithic: wonderful farms but mediocre pottery."

I blanched a little at her bluntness, which caused her to giggle softly.

"Do you always go back over your shows like this?"

"Yes. I analyze everything: tone, timing, crowd reactions - if there's video I check if I need to dial my sexuality up or down." A stutter and subsequent fumble of a joke caught her attention and her eyes got large, the whites stark against bronzed skin. Using the clip editor, she biopsied the mistake and began playing it on a loop. I suddenly felt very uncomfortable, like I was watching someone wash their hands in scalding water.

I took the pod out of my ear and handed it back to her. "I wouldn't be able to do what you're doing. I can't stand the sound of my own voice."


"You're a masochist then."

She shrugged. "I would be so lucky. Who gets more enjoyment out of this world than masochists?"

I pondered this earnestly. "Kids in moonbounces," I replied.

"Hm. Only if you're jumping at the right times." She looked thoughtful for a moment and then released a small stretchy yawn, like an opening in rolled dough.

"You're tired," I said. She smiled apologetically.

When I got back up to the room Ellie was snoring softly and I remembered I had meant to get a glass of water.

The wildfires advanced steadily through the night, and by morning the smell of smoke hung thick in the air. I woke to a text message from a five-digit number advising to keep a twenty-four-hour evacuation plan "current and actionable."

Ellie was in the shower. On the nightstand sat her phone, blinking calmly, at once helpless and supreme, like an honored pet. I picked it up - nature abhors an unattended touchscreen - and saw that the charge meter was drained about a quarter of the way down. Ellie usually nursed her phone's battery life as slavishly as a desert nomad did a lone canteen of water.

I laid back down and listened to the rhythm of pulsing water through the wall, steady and monotonous. I imagined Ellie standing motionless as it pelted her, agonizing over the prospect of death by inferno weighed against her obligation to her friend. I figured she'd spent the early hours scouring her constellation of social networks for guidance.

She came out with her hair wrapped in a towel and her electric toothbrush in hand, wreathed in a light steam. "I know you probably think we should leave, but I'm inclined to play it by ear today," she said.

I knew what that meant. "Could be risky," I said.

"Let me talk to Sophie and feel her out, at least." This was a deference that was decidedly out of character for her, but in line with how she'd acted around Sophie this weekend.

"Sure. But ultimately, I would think, she'll understand either way."

"Of course. But I don't want it to look like we're bailing at the first hint of trouble. I mean, fires happen all the time here, right? How bad does it really get? I feel like we'd be sitting at home tomorrow, and meanwhile they'd be sending us pics from the hot tub saying 'you guys should have stuck around!'"

"Ell..." My obligation to strike up her courage against Sophie now felt almost as imperative as escaping the ring of fire bearing down upon us. "Fuck what they think. I'll back you up if you want to leave. I grew up in Rancho, remember? I've seen people lose their homes. There's no shame in playing it safe here."

Ellie sighed. "I'll see what she says."

After I finished washing up, I made my way to the breakfast table to find the two of them parked on adjacent stools, murmuring at close range. Cast in morning light, Ellie looked striking with her effortless classical beauty in contrast to Sophie, whose looks were hard-won through artful makeup and precision styling. It was easy to imagine Sophie as the schoolyard governess jealously guarding the affections of her bosom mate from overstepping boys. The two of them snuck a furtive peek at me before resuming their conversation, taking turns whispering into each other's ears. Taking the hint, I took a seat at the other end of the table and picked at a plate of desiccated berries.

"So, we decided it would be best to stay," Ellie announced suddenly, in the way of a teacher informing her class right before the bell rang that the quiz would not be rescheduled after all.

"Is that right?"

"Yup," said Sophie. "My PIC knows a smokejumper who's on scene, and he says the burn wall will be effective by tomorrow. If you leave now, you'll get the worst of it along with all the other faint hearts clogging up the road."

"Well, I guess that's settled then. Where are the others?"

"They're on the water already. We'll join them when you're done eating." She flashed a smug smile. "No rush."

When Sophie left to get the wetsuits, I asked Ellie what they had been talking about before I arrived.

"Nothing," she replied without looking at me. "Girl stuff."

By the time we arrived, the lake was already crowded with boats, parasailers, and jet skis, all enacting a Pompeiian scene of frivolity against the backdrop of faint towering smoke columns in the distance. We hopped aboard the house Kawasakis and spotted Kirk first on a jet ski that was orca black in contrast to everyone else's yellow mounts, and sounded like a rocket engine as he gunned it full throttle, swerving in loops around us and laughing with obnoxious glee.

"No Kirk, you eat my vapor!" shouted Ellie, eagerly joining his game. Soon, they were racing like banshees, leaving long tails of foam behind them as they went, while Sophie snapped action shots on a waterproofed phone. When she got tired of doing that, Sophie gave the phone to me, taking the liberty to hop over to my vehicle and brace herself on my shoulders so that she could attach a wrist strap to secure it. "Hey Steve," she whispered, her glistening face close enough to drip water onto my arm, "what if I told everyone that you tried to kiss me?"

"Uh... I really don't think that's -"

She laughed uproariously and gave me a playful punch in the chest. "I'm just kidding! Like Ellie would even believe me." She swung back over to her jet ski and gave it a revving start. "Take some good pictures, okay?"

Sufficiently convinced that I was actually being blackmailed, I spent the next ten minutes painstakingly framing each picture as if it were the lone existing photo evidence of a notorious outlaw. Mercifully, the task was easy; Sophie possessed an auteur's understanding of camera angles and her lean swimmer's body was a perfect foil for her jet ski, which underneath her was more circus animal than charging steed.

"All right, that's enough," she finally said, as if sensing that I was enjoying myself a bit too much. "I'm going back to shore, I'm tired of driving this thing myself." She glanced over to the other side of the lake; Ellie and Kirk were no longer in sight. A placid form of a scowl appeared from an oeuvre that must have contained hundreds of such examples. "Do me a favor, tell Kirk to come back and fetch me so that I can ride with him."

"Sure thing," I replied. The Wetsuited Widow, they'd call her.

After some searching, I spotted Kirk drifting across the surface of the lake at a blistering speed. I maneuvered into his path and waited.

"Hey dude!" I shouted. "Hey!" He veered close enough that I could feel the spray of his wake, but he showed no indication that he'd noticed me. Reluctantly, I rode off in pursuit.

With the disparity in horsepower, the chase quickly proved futile and I felt the sort of existential helplessness that must have struck the prehistoric hunter of the savannah upon sighting for the first-time prey that was both bigger and faster. It became apparent that he was purposely ignoring me, perhaps even toying with me, having worked out the purpose of my appearance by some formula based on the length and nature of his absence. I kicked at the water in exasperation. It was clear now that there was some lurking animus between him and Sophie; this wasn't Hyannis Port after all, it was Fort Sumter.

I scanned the area to see if I could find Ellie, and when I couldn't, a touch of anger flared like the first itch of a bug bite in a hidden crevice of the body. Where was she, anyway? The coddled prince that hides in the psyche of men began to fume. She should have come to find you after her little show with Kirk. It's because of her that they don't respect you. This is all her fault.


Panic struck momentarily, and then I realized the shouting was past rather than toward me, coming from a sunburnt middle-aged man atop a speedboat heading straight for Kirk, whose jet ski motor appeared to have abruptly died in the path of the oncoming boat. The scene played out in the irregular cadence of sudden calamity; an interminable moment of coherence, followed by the realization of helplessness in the face of overwhelming force and velocity, and then the moment of impact itself which sucks the vision straight out of your eyeballs and traps it inside the black box to be replayed by future, post-occurrence versions of yourself: Kirk making an impossible, twisting leap off of his jet ski to cheat death in the form of the speedboat Catalina Sue, its five tons skidding across the water until its nose catches Kirk on the hip, sending him spinning sideways through the air like a video-game fighter executing some preposterous flying kick.

I watched him helicopter into the water with such grace that I had to resist the urge to applaud.

From the outside, the Bear Valley Medical Center looked only slightly larger than our cabin with its brick exterior and overlarge 1980s shed-style roof. In the modest waiting area, Ellie, Marina, Caleb, and I sat circular bench surrounding a column that went to the ceiling and held two mounted compact-sized flatscreens, one of them in working condition. The only other person waiting was a heavyset man of about fifty wearing a faded cutoff shirt displaying the cartoon lizard mascot of Gringo Jack's Tequila Cantina of Acapulco. The lizard appeared dull and lesioned from color loss, wasting away in its cotton prison.

Sophie came out and flashed us a weary smile. "They've got his hip set, now they're just testing for a concussion."

"Oh my," said Ellie, looking alarmed. "He must have hit the water pretty hard if they have cause for that."

"Don't worry," responded Sophie flatly. "He's got more skull than gray matter. Not exactly a beautiful mind that's at risk here." Her dark brown eyes got a shade darker; she was obviously still upset with him over the morning's happenings.

Ellie's phone buzzed. A work call. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I've got to take this."

"No, you don't," said Sophie.

"Ten minutes."

"Give me the phone. I'll tell them to fuck off myself."

Ellie put the phone to her ear and began to slink away, holding up an index finger toward us to indicate the nebulous unit of time after which she'd duly return. I noted with a little satisfaction that Sophie seemed genuinely put out at having lost the faceoff; not even she could defeat the dragon.

Twenty minutes later, Ellie still hadn't returned when a firefighter in full uniform suddenly trudged into the room and stood there with a blank expression, as if he had been directed to that exact spot on the earth with no further clues as to what came next. Upon seeing him, the man in the lizard shirt got up and shook the fireman's hand. "You've got all of our hearts out there, fighting with you," he assured him. The two of them made chit chat for a bit - the fireman revealed that he was in for a lung function test and was going back into the fray immediately afterward - until a hospital orderly finally emerged and politely escorted him back. The man in the lizard shirt sat back down and resumed watching television, still having not so much as glanced at us the whole time.

Twenty minutes went by and I felt the renewed desire to get out of my surroundings; any of the multitude of doors would do, or windows for that matter, or the slot built into the wall next to the darkened pharmacy that ate expired medicine. As I sat plotting my excuse, Marina abruptly got up to smoke outside and was quickly followed by Caleb. I was left with Sophie, who was slouched in her seat like a figure skater awaiting her scores after a bad routine. "Tell Ellie to stop working so fucking much," she grumbled.

"I doubt she'll listen to me."

"Not with that attitude."

"She listens to you."

"Why do you say that?"

I shrugged. "I know she wishes we were more like you guys as a couple."

"Be careful what you wish for."

I hated that phrase - in the lineage of patronizing expressions it was a questionable marriage decision away from "let them eat cake" - but upon hearing it as evidence confirming their troubles I felt sufficiently inspired to candor.

"Just so you know, I really did not want to come this weekend," I said, looking directly at her.

Sophie chuckled derisively. "I could have guessed that. Nobody put a gun to your head, Steve."

I felt a rush of wild air stir in my lungs. "You think I'm a pushover, don't you? But then again, you're the type who assigns weakness to kindness, which by the way I'm only giving because Ellie explicitly asked me to."

"So... this is your way of saying thanks for the free board and fuck off. Is that it?" She was glaring at me but there was a gameness to it that suggested she enjoying what was transpiring. "Steve, I actually think you're a good guy," she continued. "You're like mineral water. You could be from Europe or something."

"Good enough for Ellie?"

Sophie burst into laughter and the man in the lizard shirt darted his eyes over, startled. "She didn't tell you what happened with Kirk that night, did she?" There was pity in her voice. "Bet even you didn't know she could be so sneaky."

I sat in silence, torn between indulging the rest of her game for my edification and not giving her the satisfaction. Sharp voices rang out from the television, which had been switched from the news to a reality show about divorced mothers in Las Vegas, one of whom was haranguing her son about pills she'd found in the backseat of their car. She was hysterical, spewing out emotions ultra-heated, and yet there was the sense that it was a coordinated stress test rather than an authentic meltdown. "We're past it," I finally muttered.

"Good for you. See, I knew you were a decent guy."

A few minutes later, Kirk finally emerged, flinging the double doors open like an action hero in the penultimate scene of a movie. "Babe," he cried, hopping excitedly toward Sophie with huge careless swings of his crutches. Just before he reached her, he stopped and looked around for the others before finally settling on me. He flashed a wide grin. "Guess you're the only other person here who's got my back, Steve-O."

"If it's so not a big deal," I reasoned, "then you should have no problem telling me." I stood facing Ellie, who was sitting on the bed with her work laptop placed over the blanket covering her legs. It was only ten o'clock. After the hospital, nobody had been in much of a mood for anything; Kirk had snoozed off from the pain medication, Marina had gotten mired in a phone call smacking of Dropship Guy trying to mark his territory, a visibly disheartened Caleb had gone off to blaze on the balcony alone, Sophie had held Ellie captive for a rambling wine-drunk diatribe behind the home bar, and I'd brooded over how to confront Ellie again about the night at Kirk's parents' house.

"Steve, honestly..."

"Enough is enough, Ellie. Sophie obviously knows all about it. The jig is up. Just tell me what happened."

She breathed a deep sigh, closed her laptop, and laid it to the side carefully. "All right. We were talking, first about their problems, then about ours. I got a little emotional, and I guess I put my head in his lap."

I stood very still, feeling as though my joints might bend the wrong way if I tried to move. "Okay. Then what."

"He caressed me a little. Then we somehow switched, and I kissed him on the head. Then he got up, said he was sorry, and begged me not to tell anyone, least of all Sophie." She threw her hands over her face. "Shit, this sounds so bad when I say it out loud. It was like petting a dog, I swear."

"But Kirk told her."

"She has access to the fucking nanny cam. Apparently, she was already suspicious of some girl he works with, so she downloaded the software and cribbed the security key."

"Sounds about her speed. So, to recap, I'm the only one who was completely in the dark about this."

"I was going to tell you as soon as we got back. Sophie texted me yesterday and told me she knew. And she also told me -" Ellie broke off abruptly and shook her head angrily.

"What? What did she tell you?"

"She said that it wasn't my fault. That you're clearly not right for me and that my actions were a 'cry for help'. Believe that? She gaslighted me out of even owning my guilt, the fucking nerve of that girl."

I sat on the corner of the bed and felt it sink under my weight. I wondered how it would feel to be trapped inside the mattress, a human body stuffed inside the hollowed out memory foam, doomed to suffer for supine others who would boast and rave about how naturalistic and tactile the foam felt under their bodies.

"What are you thinking about?" Ellie was staring at me, bent forward with her arms jack-knifed from her resting elbows. A cruel wish beat and twisted its way through my veins and I knew the next words out of my mouth would be the worst I had ever spoken to her.

"I think you would have gone as far as Kirk wanted to go."

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me. I bet you wish he hadn't stopped, and that you'd be in his bed now savoring your catch instead of dragging me, tired old hat me, through this weekend from hell just so you can stick it to Sophie."

Ellie's expression turned stony, and then, like Rasputin's corpse rising in cadaveric spasm, a smile briefly appeared in frightening form before melting away. "I hope you're proud of yourself," she muttered. "Because you're the one you said it, not me."

It occurred to me then that I could only ever win a race if it was to the bottom. In the wake of my splashdown, all that was left and sensible to do was to pack our things, with it fortuitously being our last night in the cabin. While we shuffled back and forth folding clothes that now felt light and insignificant, Ellie was first to pierce the fog with an acknowledgement that I'd had a right to be upset. I turtled up a tepid apology for going too far. And that was how the night settled itself, not in retirement so much as in suspended animation.

Sometime just before I finally dozed off into sleep, I heard a car door slam shut, followed quickly by the sound of tires rolling across gravel, and I glanced over to check if Ellie was still next to me.

The mood the next morning was subdued; a mandatory evacuation order had been handed down, meaning the roads were sure to be a nightmare heading back. "Kirk's much better, in case anyone was wondering," announced Sophie. She'd made waffles with deep, cavernous square grooves and we ate without any mention of the fires. Halfway through breakfast, Ellie waved to someone through the kitchen doors who, upon inspection, turned out to be Kirk, freed from the neck brace and dewy from a morning run. The speed of his recovery was more comforting than astonishing in that his being hobbled by a freak accident had felt like a disruption of the natural order; the universe may be unjust, but we expect it to at least have some integrity. He waved back cheerily and came inside.

"It is hazy out there," he said, panting lightly. I could see that he still favored his right side slightly, and I wondered if I could win a fight against him in his condition.

"You shouldn't run when the air is like this," Sophie admonished.

"I smoke trees and I get after it, now I'm doing both at once!" He then lowered his head like a remorseful child. "You're right though. I'm sorry, babe."

"Kirk, did someone leave in the middle of the night?" asked Ellie. "I thought I heard a car drive out."

"Yeah." He avoided her gaze directly, staring off to the side. "That was Caleb."

"Why did he go?"

Kirk gave a little shrug, still with no eye contact. "Sometimes, a dude feels the call of the open road, and he's just gotta heed it. Right, Steve-O?"

"It's the spirit that won the west," I replied.

Marina, who had been quietly occupying the corner nook in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and a book on how to build a following (companion piece to the renowned guide on how to attract followers), suddenly looked up and announced that Omar had arrived.

Everyone looked at Marina in confusion. A performance car engine growled nearby, but still there remained an element of unbelievability to Omar's feat of return, dispelled only when he was suddenly present before us in the flesh, a hulking specimen stuffed into a fitted black tee shirt with a full sleeve tattoo of an angel sparring with a demon. I studied him the way one might a movie actor who had just stepped out of the screen and into the crowd, still rendered in oversized technicolor. "How's business?" I asked.

"Killing it, bro."

"What do you ship?" asked Ellie.

"You tell me what you like," he replied with a wink, causing her to blush noticeably for the second time that weekend.

"Snakes," I said. "Garters, cobras, she loves 'em all."

Omar frowned as he mulled this over for a moment, and then he switched to a confident smile. "I can get snakes, bro."

Kirk raised his arms into the air. "All right, last order of business before you guys hit the road." He pointed grandly toward the backyard, where two blue-and-white striped Cornhole boards were waiting.

"Let's switch up the teams this time," said Sophie, with a sly smile. "I'll play with Steve, you and Ellie join up."

The suggestion threw a genuine flummox into Kirk, who for a moment stood slack-jawed, like a fisherman staring at a storm on the horizon. Sophie went on, "You lost before, and you weren't even injured then."

Ellie gave a little nervous laugh. "Soph, you're such a savage."

Sophie shrugged. "I hate losing." She patted me on the arm. "I'm going with the best bet this time." At that, Kirk snapped out of his daze and leapt into comforting histrionics, hopping and flexing as he took his side.

"Let's do this, Ellie," he chirped.

Whether by force of Sophie's will or the inherent nomadism of the human allegiance, the new competitive balance clicked into place readily. Ellie and Kirk were the light, looking down their noble bones at Sophie and I, the aggrieved, now open in plot against nature and its agenda for beautiful things. Sophie was deadly with her tosses, putting bean bag after bean bag through with unflinching precision. We took the first game easily, and Sophie was pleased enough to offer a cordial end to the whole gimmick.

"No," Ellie insisted, to my surprise. "Best of three."

The momentum quickly swung in the second game; Ellie got every bounce and Kirk's pure arcs looked infallible from launch. The deciding third game went back and forth, until a late streak put us ahead with the winning bag in my hand.

"Just get it on the board, and it's over," urged Sophie. I made my toss and missed to the left by a foot. Ellie was up next and sailed a bag through to secure the victory.

"Dadhole, baby!" Kirk screamed. The triumphant duo locked into each other with a fly-trap high five that lasted about as long as I could comfortably hold my breath.

"Damn," I muttered, staring glumly at a patch of grass that seemed to be the safest ocular distance from the celebration happening twenty-four feet away.

Sophie flicked her last, unused bean bag off to the side. "Well Steve, I can't say that I ever believed in you."

The room was quiet, heavy with the sense of orphaning that accompanies an ignominious departure. The suitcase had been long packed and the room tidied, but I had chosen to lie still on the bed for a solitary spell. My head hung a little over the foot of the bed so that the ship-like wooden overhang in the corner appeared to be coming straight for me.

I rose and took a quick measure of the desk and the height of the ceiling. Carefully, I moved the desk right under the overhang and then climbed atop. With the edge of the car key, I carved Ellie's and my initials, EL & SC, into the finely glazed wood, pressing as deeply into the grain as I could. When I was done, I moved the desk back to its place, grabbed the luggage, and headed downstairs.

The others were already out front. A film of ash had dirtied Ellie's Prius, making it look like a Dorian Gray portrait of Omar's flashy red Porsche parked next to it.

"I can't believe how fast the weekend went by," Marina lamented.

"Me too," said Sophie. "It's going to be so boring the rest of the week with just Kirk and I up here."

"Are you sure you'll be okay staying?"

Sophie nodded. "Kirk's family goes back with the state senator's. Trust me, if they let this place burn the fire department will be driving around in Tonka trucks next year."

Ellie watched Kirk anxiously as he jogged out of the garage and started wiping the ash off the Prius windshield with an old rag. "Don't worry about it, Kirk. Steve will do that, you should go and rest. You're not fully recovered yet."

Omar swiped a finger on the car and sent up a little cloud of ash. "I've got some masks in the trunk if you want 'em, bro," he said.

"We'll take a couple for the drive back, if you don't mind. I like to have the windows down."

Ellie and Kirk stood idly next to each other for a few minutes as I worked on the ash, exchanging airy chatter like prom regents waiting for their photo to be snapped. And then there came a moment when Sophie was hugging Marina and I had gone over to clean the windows on the far side when I saw through cloudy glass Ellie's face illuminate in perfect sync with Kirk's, and in that moment the two of them were myth-bound celestial bodies conjoining in a lonely sky.

By the time I poked my head back around the moment had faded to nebula and Sophie was entreating Ellie to drive safely and text promptly, while Ellie tottered with a flash-blinded expression and a dumb smile that was not for Sophie. It occurred to me that the root of all jealousy might be found in the hearts of those who had witnessed a moment like what I just had from the outside looking in.

Ellie took the wheel for the drive back with the understanding that I would, as navigator, keep a constant watch for road closures and nurse the hail mary option of absconding down one of the little mountain roads. "Just make sure we don't have to turn around and waste three hours," she'd said. After three hours both sides of traffic were jammed and we were past any realistic detour option.

As we crawled the steep mountain roads down through the blistered bluffs, I gazed out the passenger window and imagined that the descent might reach the shattered husk of a smoking sun god. The sky had become thoroughly blended a milky off-white which seemed viscous enough to curdle at a slight tweak in pressure. There was dreaminess to the world; helicopters gliding in the distant haze looked as careless as dragonflies skimming a foggy pond.

We reached the bottom of a steep downgrade, where the road curved around a sharp bend; just past it, we met the jarring sight of a car-sized hole punched through the barrier guarding the steep cliff edge. A little halo of road flares had been set up, but there was otherwise no sign of any emergency responder presence.

"How awful," said Ellie, softly. In the same breath, her hands were creeping toward her phone; slowly and gingerly, she lifted it up to snap a picture, which she then sent to Sophie punctuated with sad face emojis.

I grimaced a little and shifted in my seat. "I was just thinking about something Marina said over the weekend."

"What was it?" Her eyes went back to her phone as Sophie sent back a string of shocked emojis screaming "BE CAREFUL!!!"

"Something about people as individual cultures. There could be cultural differences, for example, between you and I."

"Well, that's dumb. Neither of us really has any culture."

"Yeah. Well, it's something of an interpolation I guess."

Ellie frowned. "Marina seemed pretentious to me. I guess that's why you two got along."

I didn't have a response to that. She was probably right.

Traffic soon stalled completely, and I took to searching the valley with my eyes for the remains of the car that had plunged through the barrier. A little while later Sophie messaged Ellie again while her phone was up on the magnet stand, and I saw the preview text: Remember what we talked about. You know what you have to do. Be strong, he doesn't...

Ellie grabbed the phone off the stand. "Sorry," she muttered. I didn't say anything and just kept searching for the wreckage of the fallen vehicle. I never was able to find it.


  1. A well-told tale of relationships that have gone off the cliff. Characters are fully developed and believable. Excellent imagery and use of metaphors throughout. For example, “I wondered how it would feel to be trapped inside the mattress, a human body stuffed inside the hollowed out memory foam…”

  2. Good job! Character development is not only deft but amusing and visual. I particularly enjoyed the internal monologue of the narrator. An amusing and believable story.
    Cameron Spencer