By Stuart Ziarnik
It was my weekend with Ivan. We were in the backyard, the sun cut in half by my neighbor’s roof. The sound of cars on Cameron rushed by, and Ivan balanced on the edge of the cement patio while I stacked kindling in the belly of my firepit.
“Are you gonna be able to spend the whole night in the tent this time?”
“Yes, Daddy, I’m a big kid.”
“Because last time we got this whole thing set up, and then you just made me take you back inside in the middle of the night, and I had to put away the tent myself.”
“No, I’m gonna be brave,” he said, hopping from the patio onto the rock bed. I listened to his small fingers playing in the rocks.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll light the fire when it’s getting dark in, like, an hour. I’m going back inside—you good out here?”
“Yes. Look!” He held up an old nail he’d found in the rocks.
“Oh, a treasure,” I said as he dropped the nail into my palm.
The teepee of logs fell as a chunk of cinder broke off its underside; a few big sparks dripped from the bottom of the firepit into the grass. Ivan swatted at a mosquito, his short legs dangling from the edge of the folding chair. I opened another Miller and reached for the pack of hot dogs between our chairs. Ivan watched as I threaded one of the hot dogs onto a stick.
“Why doesn’t our stick light on fire?”
“It’s a green stick. That means it just came off the tree and isn’t dried out yet, so the moisture inside keeps it from burning.”
Ivan looked at me without understanding. “When can we have marshmallows?”
“After the hot dogs.” I passed him the stick, and he held it over the fire. It bobbed down, the hot dog picking up a coat of ash. “Hold it higher up, or you’re gonna ruin it.”
“Do you wanna tell ghost stories?”
He looked out at the dark edge of the yard. “Yeah, but not too scary.”
I dropped my empty Miller onto the lawn. “Why don’t you tell me a story first, so I know what’s okay?”
“Okay,” he said, and was quiet for a moment. “Once, there was, a boy. He was walking, in, a forest! It was very dark, but the boy was brave. Suddenly, he heard a sound, it was like this, OOOOOHHH! The boy looked, and there was, a GHOST!”
I screamed, and Ivan smiled at me. I put my hand to my chest and breathed out. “Way too scary. I can’t top that.”
Ivan kept smiling. “Dad, can we do this every weekend?”
“Absolutely, brave man. Do you and Mom ever camp?”
“No, just with you,” he said, his stick bobbing back into the ash.
The small lantern swayed from the tent’s pole hub above us. Ivan had asked me to leave it on, though it was so bright I could see it through my eyelids. Outside, the living room windows cast yellow light onto the dark lawn. Ivan rolled onto his side. His dark eyes were shut, and he hugged a small arm around my neck and pulled himself close to me. I smelled his sweet breath and was completely happy.
It was midnight when two cars on Cameron woke me. They raced down the road a half mile, then turned and came back up before ripping down again. I watched Ivan breathe slowly and listened as the cars circled up and down the road. My back was stiff on the ground. After a while, I climbed over him and unzipped the tent. The fire was black and red. I felt around for the last two beers and sat in the folding chair, listening to the neighborhood. The cars turned off Cameron somewhere and the sounds of them were gone. I got Ivan’s stick and poked at the dying fire; two sparks floated up and disappeared a few feet above the firepit.
When I’d finished the beer, I walked through the cool grass to the house. The back patio door squeaked, and I had to lift up on the knob to keep the hinges quiet. I got another Miller from the fridge, then looked out the window at the small, glowing tent. As I sat on the couch and opened the beer, the door screeched open.
“I didn’t know where you went!” cried Ivan, and I rushed over and hugged him.
“Oh, buddy, I was right here. I just went inside for some water,” I said. He sobbed and sobbed, his little body shaking in my arms.
“I was scared! I want Mama!”
I picked him up and carried him to his bed.
“Mama! Mama!” he cried, and I stroked his hair until he turned over and fell asleep.