It was cold. Arthur’s stiff fingers fumbled through the slick, glossy pages of House Beautiful Magazine, rumpling cozy verandas and pristine pantries. This would do for kindling, he thought. He pulled the pages out and crumpled them into little balls. He would need to work faster. It would be dark soon, and Corbin would be back from his hike, and he would want s’mores, of course.
First the kindling, then Arthur would put on the bigger log, watch the fire twist toward the stars and burp with a loud pop of sparks. They would sit in their folding chairs—he and Corbin and Sarah—with their hiking boots right at the edge of the ring. The flames would grovel at their feet. It wouldn’t be so cold.
Arthur ripped out another page and crumpled it. Where had he put the matches? And the marshmallows? They must be locked away from the bears and squirrels. Once a squirrel had chewed a hole in his backpack (foolishly left out on a bench!) to get at his trail mix, Arthur remembered. You had to lock things up, maybe in the car, or one of those metal bear boxes. Twist and pinch; prove you’re a human with thumbs. Maybe the matches and the marshmallows were in his backpack in the bear box.
Arthur was cold. He ripped another page and crumpled it, dropping it with the rest. It was getting late. Arthur could feel the mountain’s shadows stretching across the campground and see the colors begin their shift from gold to pink to gray.
Where was Corbin? And Sarah? They knew these trails well, but they wouldn’t be out after dark. They should be heading home. They would be tired.
Arthur listened. He could hear birds catching up on the day’s gossip, their shadows stark against a fiery sky. Trees reached bony fingers into the evening, as if trying to grasp the colors. It was still and windless. So strangely still that Arthur could hear water running in the distance. It was fall and the river was warm and lazy, shuffling down the mountain at leisure. Not loud and belligerent like spring; still Arthur could hear it. He listened, but there were no footsteps—heavy boots dragging, tired, through the gravel.
Any minute now. He needed to get that fire going. They would want dinner! Why hadn’t he started dinner? His chili should have been simmering for hours. Corbin loved his chili—brought friends out to the hills to sit around the wooden picnic table and eat his chili, all laughter and ghost stories and guitars, voices ringing out in the moonlight and chaparral, a warm fire glowing.
Arthur pulled vehemently at one more colorful magazine page. He really must find the bear box. It was always by the big oak tree. Had they cut down the big oak tree, or were they in a different spot this time? But they always stayed in 27A. Why weren’t they there now? And where were the footsteps on the gravel path?
Once he and Corbin had gotten lost. There was a certain rock formation (granite, Arthur remembered)—one bulbous stone perched atop another like a moss-covered snowman. Not something you saw twice in nature, but they saw it two and then three times. Going in circles. It was midday and the sun, straight overhead, was no help. Arthur had no idea how they got turned around. They sat out the heat of the day under a cool rocky outcropping, ate their sandwiches, and waited for the sun to travel one direction or another. The sky was rose-gold like this by the time they made it back to camp. And there was Sarah waiting for them, dinner ready on the wooden picnic table under the big oak tree. Arthur remembered the chicken and potatoes— the way Sarah would freeze the chicken in a bath of lemon juice and thyme and bring it out of the cooler a few days in, after it wasn’t a hard block of ice anymore. And the potatoes roasted in foil with garlic and shallots. He’d been so hungry, so happy to see her.
But that was in 27A. Why weren’t they in 27A now?
If Sarah and Corbin were lost, they would need dinner. What did he have in the cooler? Arthur’s mind circled back: the backpack, the bear box. It was so cold.
Then Arthur stood, dropping his last paper ball into the pile of kindling. He knew where he kept the matches.
Over the hiss of the shower, Sarah heard the smoke alarm. She twisted the hot water off with a swift, solid movement and grabbed the towel hanging outside the glass door. What in the world…? Sarah wrapped the towel around her body without bothering to dry the rivulets that wound their way down to her knees. She wrapped a second towel over her sopping wet hair and walked hastily into the hall. She could smell the smoke. Her heart sank to the pit of her stomach as one foot followed another, propelled by adrenaline. What has he done?
Sarah followed the smell of smoke out into the living room, where Arthur was tending a hearty fire on the coffee table. For one dumbfounded moment she stood and watched him poke at the flame with the kitchen tongs, stirring the curling paper, its edges disintegrating into nothing. Then she pulled the damp towel from her head and smothered the flame in three deft swats.
“Arthur…” her voice was small, suddenly drained of all its energy. She watched as he stood, blinking. He smiled.
“You’re back,” he said. “I’m glad. Where’s Corbin? Is he ok?”
Sarah recalled what the doctor had said about this. Don’t try to drag him back to the present. It would only upset him. What would she gain by reminding him that Corbin lived three hours away?
“Corbin is fine,” she said. “He’ll be along.” Sarah crumpled onto the sofa, watching Arthur rooted to his spot.
“He’ll want some s’mores, but first dinner. Do you know where we’ve put the cooler?”
“No,” Sarah sighed. “No, dear. Maybe I can find something for us in the fridge. And Corbin...he’s eating with friends tonight, actually.”
“Oh, of course,” Arthur said, coming to sit by her on the sofa. “Just you and me, then.” He took her damp hand in his.
Sarah surveyed the damage. There was a large charred spot in the middle of the heavy wooden coffee table. Soot made ripples on the low ceiling above, and ash lay like a thick dust in the rug below. Nothing she couldn’t clean or replace, but it could have been so much worse.
He’d never done anything this dangerous before in the two years since his memory started slipping. She knew things were getting worse. He was spending more and more time in his own mind, his own reality. It wasn’t unusual to find his socks in the freezer, or for him to watch the same movie three times in a day. But this— starting fires was something new.
Sarah felt like the ground beneath her was crumbling away, and now she was falling over the edge of a cliff, waiting to feel the impact of the hard earth below. She would have to call the doctor. She would have to call Corbin. Would they need a nurse now, for those times she needed to run to the grocery store or, God forbid, take a shower? Was she finally in over her head?
“I love this time of day,” Arthur said, “when the world is washed over with rose gold. I’m sorry if you were worried. It’s good to be back.”
Sarah doubted he was back.
“We’ll have a good evening, just us,” he said, and the warmth of his hand on her bare shoulder made Sarah aware of how cold she was. It was so cold.
But his hands were still warm. That small fact was too much. Here was her husband, the same in body with his mind somewhere far away—a rock still radiating stored heat, the ghost of the sun.
Sarah felt hot tears run down her cheeks and buried her face in his shoulder, letting his flannel shirt absorb them.
Arthur’s hand tightened around her shoulder and he held her there. “Don’t now,” he cooed. “You’re my rock. I’m sorry, Sarah.”
He was quiet. Even from the vantage point of his fine red-and-gray plaid flannel shirt, Sarah could feel reality seeping into his body, which stiffened under her. “I’m so sorry, Sarah. I wanted to make you dinner. I was worried about you. And the light. It took me back to the campground. I’m sorry.”
He lifted her chin gently with his fingertips and held her gaze.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I want to remember you just like this,” Arthur said.
Sarah let out a wry snort. “Sopping wet and half naked?”
“Yes. Sopping wet and half naked, washed in this light, suddenly years and years older than I remembered you.”
“You can keep the younger version if you want.” Sarah’s lip quivered.
“No,” he said. “I want to remember our whole life together.”
Sarah looked at him. Who knew how many nights like this they had left? “Let’s have a good night—you and me. We’ll make dinner together.”
She stood as the shadows shifted from pink to lavender. “Come with me while I get dressed.”
“Do you have to?” He stood up after her and touched the edge of her damp towel where it was tucked into a knot.
Sarah wondered if he was also thinking of the way the sun burned most vividly before it disappeared.
“No,” she said. “I don’t.”