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WE DRIVE UP THE WINDING road towards the site of the burnt-out hotel. Both Ethan and I are quiet, and I watch the dark, shadowy forest pass us by. The sky is clear, so I can see a thousand twinkling stars above us.
When the trees start to thin, Ethan slows down. My breath catches in my throat when the husk of the destroyed building comes into view. I haven’t been out here in months. Ethan parks the car and stops the engine, taking a deep breath as we both look out over the site.
It’s been about a year since I’ve been in Lang Creek, and the forest has definitely reclaimed most of the land. There are saplings growing up through the middle of the dilapidated hotel’s lobby, and moss and ferns poking through everywhere. The moonlight gives the entire place an eerie feeling.
“If I believed in ghosts, I’d be totally freaked out right now,” I say, breaking the silence that hangs heavy between us.
Ethan chuckles. “Good thing you don’t believe in ghosts, then, right?”
I throw him a glance and nod to my door. “Come on,” I say. “Let’s go.”
We step out of the car and I come around to his side. I slide my fingers through his and we start walking towards the charred shell of the building. The only sounds around us are crickets and soft rustling of the trees. Our shoes crunching on the gravel sound almost deafening.
When we get to the edge of the building, Ethan points to an area about thirty feet away from us.
“That’s where I was,” he says.
“That’s where you dropped the match?”
He nods without a word. I slip my hand out of his and wander over to the area. I kick the gravel and take a deep breath, trying to imagine what it must have felt like to be in his shoes. Was he scared when he lit the match? Scared of being caught, scared of doing the wrong thing, scared of starting a forest fire?
Or maybe he wasn’t scared at all. I glance over at Ethan, who’s head is tilted towards the sky. His eyes are closed and he’s breathing deeply. I smile. He doesn’t look scared right now.
Our silence is interrupted by the sound of an engine. We both turn towards the road as I inch towards him. Before long, Aiden’s truck parks up beside ours with Dominic not too far behind. Both brothers and their wives jump out of the vehicles and slam the doors with four quick, successive thuds.
“Hey,” Aiden says to Ethan, extending his hand. Mara reaches me first, wrapping her arms around me. The six of us fall into a comfortable silence as we look out over the destroyed construction site that’s slowly being taken over by the encroaching forest.
“I haven’t been out here since the night of the fire,” Dominic says to no one in particular.
“Well,” I say, turning towards my new family. “I was thinking the other day that this fire, in one way or another, is the thing that brought us all together.”
Maddy, Aiden’s wife, tilts her head to the side and glances at Aiden. Mara smiles, and Dominic grunts. Ethan slides his hand over my shoulder and squeezes me close to him.
“So,” I say, reaching into the bag that I’ve slung across my shoulder. “I brought marshmallows!”
They all exchange glances and I laugh, continuing. “What better way to celebrate the two year anniversary of this place burning down than to have a little campfire of our own!”
Dominic is the first to laugh. He takes two long steps towards me and wraps me in a big bear hug, lifting me off the ground and spinning me in a big circle. I laugh, holding onto him until he drops me back down.
“Well,” Aiden says, his eyes gleaming in the moonlight. “What are we waiting for?”
The six of us trudge to the center of the site. We find a relatively clear space with some big cinderblocks that we can use as seats. We brush the moss and leaves away from a space for a campfire, and the brothers head off to find some wood while Mara, Maddy and I start arranging stones in a circle for a makeshift fire pit.
Mara looks at me and grins. “I didn’t know you were so sentimental about this place,” she says, sliding a cinderblock closer to sit on.
I laugh. “Neither did I. I was at work yesterday and someone mentioned the fire. Then I thought about you and Dominic, and you, Maddy, and Aiden. This fire is what made us family!”
“I never thought it would be a good thing, but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” Maddy muses.
“Same here,” Mara says.
I laugh and shake my head. “Me too.”
Ethan reappears from the darkness with an armload of wood. He drops it on the ground, crouching beside our little fire pit to start splitting it with a little hatchet he must have retrieved from his truck. Aiden and Dominic aren’t far behind, and before long the three of them have their heads together as they try to get the fire started.
It only takes a couple minutes for us to have a happy little fire crackling in the center of our circle. We sit in couples, leaning against each other and staring at the dancing flames in silence. Aiden gets up and walks away, reappearing a minute later with a small flask.
“If the fire doesn’t keep us warm, this might do the trick,” he says in a gravelly voice. He hands me the flask and nods. “You do the honors,” he says. “You’re the one who brought us here tonight.”
I nod to him and take a quick sip, grimacing as the liquid fire burns my throat. I cough and splutter as the five of them laugh at me. Handing the flask back to Aiden, I shake my head.
“It’s stronger than I expected,” I laugh. “You guys making moonshine now?”
He grins, sitting down beside Maddy and passing the flask to her. “No, but that’s not a bad idea.”
The six of us fall into an easy conversation. Then, Ethan tenses beside me and puts his hand on my knee. “Wait,” he breathes, standing up. Everyone falls silent as he cranes his neck towards our cars.
I can hear it now, too. It’s the unmistakable sound of an engine in the distance. He glances at me, frowning.
“You tell anyone else we were up here?”
I shake my head, swallowing hard. Ethan frowns and takes a step towards the road. “Stay here,” he says to me. Aiden and Dominic get up with him, creeping slowly towards the entrance of the building site.
I look at Mara. “Who could it be? Should we be worried?”
Mara shakes her head, but her eyes are wide. “It should be fine. It’s probably just some teenagers that had the same idea as us.”
I nod, but my heart thumps as I watch Ethan and his brothers move towards the road as the sound of the engine gets louder.
MY BROTHERS AND I creep towards the road, glancing at each other and motioning with hand signals. We shouldn’t be here. It could be considered trespassing. We definitely shouldn’t be starting a fire all over again. I’m a Ranger, for crying out loud. I know there’s a fire ban on right now and I know the consequences. Still, I don’t know anyone who comes up here anymore.
The car engine gets closer, and the three of us fan out to get better visibility on the newcomer. I glance over my shoulder at the campfire behind me, my heart squeezing in my chest as I think of Zoe.
If I get in trouble, that’s fine. But her? She’s got a prestigious job and a daughter to take care of.
I shake my head. I shouldn’t be thinking like that. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s probably one of my coworkers doing their rounds. They’d probably laugh at the irony of our little campfire.
The vehicle sounds like it’s getting closer. I can’t see my brothers at all in the darkness of the forest, and my breath is getting shallower by the second. As the incoming car rounds the last bend, my heart starts thumping in my chest.
The nose of the car comes into view and I squint at the brightness of the headlights. I crouch down, shielding my eyes and trying to make out who it could be. My heart beats even faster when the car stops right there, with its headlights shining towards me. It doesn’t park up next to our cars.
With the engine still running, I hear the car door open and heavy boots crunch on the gravel. Slow, deliberate footsteps sound as the person comes towards the front of the car.
“Well, well, well,” comes a voice, just as the large body of Sheriff Whittaker is silhouetted by his headlights. “Looks like we’ve got some no-good criminals trespassing over here. Again.”
I stand up straighter and chuckle, shaking my head as my brothers appear from the shadows. Bill laughs, hooking his thumbs into his belt loops. He leans back, shaking his head.
“Should have known it would be the Clarkes.”
“We’re just having a little celebratory bonfire,” Dominic replies as he steps into the light that the car is emitting. “Seemed like as good a spot as any.”
Bill laughs again. “You guys have a sick sense of humor.”
“Care to join?”
“Fuck it,” Bill says with a grin. “Why not.”
He loops around to the driver’s side door of his truck to turn off the engine, and then follows us back to our fire pit. The flames are roaring now, with a big, healthy fire keeping the girls warm. I take my spot next to Zoe, who looks at Bill and laughs.
“What are you doing here, Bill?”
He grins. “Well, I heard that all three of you guys had left your kids with Katie tonight and I knew you’d be up to no good. Is this your idea of a funny joke?”
Zoe laughs. “I guess it is.”
“Well, I like it,” Bill replies, setting his hat down beside him and spearing a marshmallow with a stick. “No better place to have a little campfire, if you ask me.”
“That’s what we thought, too,” Aiden laughs.
We fall into easy conversation. We laugh about that night, two years ago, when Dominic, Bill and I stood out here and set the building ablaze. I shake my head, squeezing Zoe to my side.
Maybe she’s right. It was what brought us all together. That hotel and the fire that destroyed it were what introduced all three of us to our partners and gave us new reasons to enjoy life.
Zoe toys with the ring on her left hand as it glints in the firelight. I grin.
“You still like your ring?” I ask. She extends her fingers, looking at the diamond on her finger and nudging her shoulder into mine.
“It’s okay,” she replies, glancing up at me and smiling. “Never thought I’d want to have another rock on my finger, but I’m starting to like having it there.”
“You sure know how to flatter a guy,” I laugh, and she winks.
“The last thing you need is flattery. Need to knock you down a peg or two.”
A gentle smile floats over her lips and she runs the back of her fingers down my cheek. She tilts her chin up and lays a soft kiss on my lips before smiling at me again.
“Because you’re too perfect and you know it,” she finally says.
“That makes two of us,” I reply, wrapping my arm around her shoulder as she nuzzles into me. We listen to the laughter and voices of my brothers, sisters-in-law and sheriff and fall into an easy silence. Zoe’s hand rests on my thigh and I kiss the top of her head.
We stay like that until the fire dies down and then stand up to stretch and head towards our cars. When we get there, we all exchange hugs and goodbyes.
Mara wraps her arms around Zoe and squeezes her tight. “Thanks for bringing us up here,” she says. “It was the perfect evening for it.”
“I never thought I’d be celebrating arson, but it seemed appropriate,” Zoe says, glancing at me as she smiles. We climb into my truck and I thread my fingers through hers as we drive back down the mountain towards the town of Lang Creek. Soon, we’ll collect Audrey and go back to the cabin on the edge of the woods that we all call home. I glance at Zoe and squeeze her hand.
“You make me happy.”
Her eyes shine and I watch her swallow as a smile lights her face. “So do you, Ethan. I feel like the luckiest girl alive.”
“If this is how things work out, then I need to start burning down more buildings,” I say, staring out the windscreen and trying to keep the smile from my face. Zoe laughs, smacking my shoulder and shaking her head.
“One is enough,” she says, but based on the laughter dancing in her eyes, I know she’d be right there beside me dropping the match if she needed to.
We’ve come together in the most unlikely of circumstances. Against all odds, I’ve found my family, my wife, and my happiness.