I am cradling Pete’s head in my lap, sitting by the tent flap, looking out. Wildfires are closing in from the west and the south, with smoke so thick it’s like a bank of fog across the whole sky, turning the sun, that is just about to slip behind the mountain, into a blood-orange ball. In this strange twilight, everything looks like it’s been washed in thin blue shadows. Even Pete. He looked so red in the daylight, because of the fever, but also because of the orange nylon of the tent he has not been out of since yesterday. The air in here smells like sour milk and the rankest body odor you can imagine. Not Pete’s regular body odor, which I once described to him as skunk cabbage and cinnamon stew, with a dollop of sour cream past its best-by date on top. Call me weird, but I never minded it. But this is different. Not quite like how Gigi smelled with the lung cancer chewing her up from the inside out, but similar. Dangerously sour. Uniquely foul. Scary, if a smell can actually make you afraid.
I close my eyes and will something beautiful to take over, something to make this moment simple and quiet and dim and safe. Gigi, her hair in rollers, sitting on the back porch in her sateen dressing gown with the peacocks on it, painting her nails while I shuck a bowl of Dad’s peas, sweet and plump. The sun just about setting, and Gigi telling me why she thinks Robert Redford is the man she should’ve married. My mom playing the piano inside. Pete climbing that slant of rock a few days ago, and me, with my bare feet on the hot dirt, looking up at him and the blue sky beyond. That was the last time we saw blue sky. He let go with his right hand and reached up. I wish I’d taken a picture of that one moment, when he looked like he was about to scoop up a handful of sky and drink it. I don’t need more pictures of the two of us, like the ones we did take. I need pictures of him. Just Pete.
It’s almost dark enough to use my headlamp, but I’m not going to waste the battery. Outside the flap, I watch the moon rising so slowly.
“It looks like a werewolf movie just before the transformation,” I say. “What’s that one Gigi loved?” I know what it is, but I hope he’ll say it. Or say anything. He hasn’t said a word for too many hours to think about. I give him what feels like the longest time to think of it and say it, but he doesn’t. “American Werewolf in London,” I say. “That’s the one.”
He nods, a tiny smile on his lips.
“She was definitely not a movie snob,” I say with a little laugh. “Remember when she took us to see Children of the Corn that Halloween? How old were we? Way too young. That scene right at the beginning in Hanzer’s Coffee Shop, when the kids poison the coffee and then murder all the adults? They stick that one guy’s hand in the meat slicer? We were only eleven.”
He shakes his head and barely lifts both hands, fingers splayed.
“Ten?” Right. Just a few months after his mom died. “Way too soon, right?”
“She knew it,” I say. “Or else she wouldn’t have told us not to tell the dads.”
I wish we were actually having a conversation about Gigi’s obsession with Hollywood, and not here wondering if the fires are going to close in on us. Like this tent, which is closing in on us.
We bought this tent after almost a year of walking dogs, when we were fourteen. It weighs only as much as three blocks of butter, but we can sit up in it and play cards and drink cheap powdered hot chocolate we buy in bulk at Thrifty Mart. It’s a very, very tight fit, especially considering that Pete grew three inches after we bought it. Gigi said that he grew three inches the day after we bought it, but the truth is that we bought it on Black Friday, and then we didn’t use it until spring break, so I guess no one should’ve been surprised, considering Pete was as tall as his dad by the time we were thirteen. That’s when Gigi put a mark above all the others on the doorway where my dad has been tracking our heights. She used permanent marker and wrote the date of his sixteenth birthday. Her prediction, she said. She was absolutely right.
Right now this tent feels like a coffin.
We have to get out.
“American Werewolf in London was a bad one to bring up,” I say. “Sorry.” Best friends backpacking, attacked by a pack of wolves. One is mauled to death, one becomes a werewolf.
“You be the werewolf,” Pete murmurs.
“Pete!” I hold his cheeks in my hands. “Hi!”
He opens his eye just for a few seconds, and I really get to see him, because otherwise he doesn’t look like himself. His forehead is slick with sweat, and his puffy cheeks are red and shiny with oil. I can’t look at his nose, or lips, or ears, which are black at the tips and getting worse. Look at his necklace instead, Annie. An instant of panic sends my fingers to find the matching one around my neck. It’s still there, thankfully. If I lose mine, or he loses his, things will only get worse. This is very hard to imagine. We need all the serendipity, magic, and luck we can muster. God too, if it’s a believing sort of day. I touch his necklace with one hand and mine with the other.
I believe in the talismans that I keep in a bulging Altoids tin, so many tiny pieces of the planet that Pete and I have found. I believe that if Pete has them, everything might end up better than if he didn’t have them. Not to say that I think they will fix this. I just know that they won’t make it any worse. I lift the top of his sleeping bag, trying to see where the tin ended up after I tucked it in there just a few hours ago.
A wave of rotten air rushes out, and I have to stifle a gag. I don’t see the tin.
Pete lifts a hand to show me that he has it, bulging with luck and good fortune and all things wishes-come-true. There is so much good luck in there that I am absolutely certain something, something, something good is going to happen. A plane overhead. A fire crew within earshot of the whistle I sound as often as I think to. Enough rest and water and PowerGels that Pete gets strong enough to walk out of here, orI develop the superhuman strength that moms get when they have to lift a car off their child with their own bare hands. I need that strength, to carry Pete out of here on my own.
“Show me,” Pete says as he hands me the tin.
I pull off the elastic band that keeps it from popping open because it’s so full. That’s how much good luck is in there.
Inside, on top, a small, clear, perfectly faceted crystal. I hold it up to the light. It seems impossible that it came out of the earth, and we found it just days ago, when nothing was wrong yet. When we were digging in the dirt like two little kids, putting our treasures into plastic beach buckets.
“Where did you get that?” he says.
“You know, Pete.”
“Tell me, though.” His words are thick and slow. “Each one. Story.”
We’ve been through the tin twice.
The last time was only an hour ago, when the sun was still high but slanting toward the end of the day.
Pete’s wearing his favorite shirt, soft and thin, dark blue with a silver unicorn leaping over a silver mountain, with a silver moon overhead. It is caked in vomit, though, and so wet with sweat that I could wring it out. His body is trying to fix this, and for days I had absolute faith that it would, but now I’m restless with dread. I can’t leave him, and I can’t stay. If I go, he’ll be alone. If I stay, there will be no help. I have rocks spelling “SOS” by the creek, in the clearing. I was sure that one of the water bombers would’ve seen it by now. That was my Big Plan, and it hasn’t worked. Neither did setting signal fires. A triangle of three, which means “help.” But no surprise that one more little fire gets ignored when half the state is on fire.
Right now I’ll take him outside. He can get some fresh air--smoky, yes, but better than the heady air in the tent. He can feel the breeze on his wet face, let his sweaty and impossibly swollen, red body feel the world outside this tent, even if it’s burning to the ground out there. And maybe I can think just a little bit better.
“Let’s go outside,” I say. “Get some air. Do us both good.”
“I hate it in here,” he whispers in a slur. “Like a coffin.”
“Let’s get you out, then.” I close up the tin without the band and give it back to him. “Hold that for a sec.”
He nods again, fingers tightening around it.
“I’m going to slide you,” I say. “Fast or slow?”
“Good choice.” I ease his head off my lap and onto the makeshift pillow of clothes folded into his hoodie. I shift him over so he’s centered on the sleeping mat. He’s lying on his thin quick-dry towel, and I am so grateful that we decided to bring those; otherwise, he’d be sticking to the foam because it’s been too hot even to lie on the sleeping bag, and he can’t stand anything on him, because the lightest touch hurts. He grunts a little, but I keep working. I clear the things away from the door of the tent. Our headlamps, the pot and pocket stove, the Uno cards we haven’t touched for a couple of days.
“Outside will help so much, Pete. I saw a few bats last night. And an owl. You can really hear them in this valley. Maybe we’ll even hear some wolves, which would be awesome, so long as they stay way the hell away from us. Maybe coyotes instead. Yeah, that’d be better. Just little scrawny coyotes yipping.”
“Hang on,” I say as I take hold of the foot of his sleeping bag. I shimmy him down to the vestibule as gently as I can. This is not fresh air at all, but it’s better than being in the tent. I stand up, my muscles aching from having sat on the hard ground for so long, my legs so wobbly that I have to take an extra few seconds to get solid footing before I use my feet to clear a path through the pebbles and pinecones and sticks. Don’t stop, Annie. This is doing something. I turn back to the tent and see that Pete is moving.
“Stay still, dumb-ass,” I say. “Give me a sec. I’m going to pull you all the way out, but not over a bunch of rocks.”
But then I realize that he’s having a seizure. Not a huge one like you see in movies, but as if someone turned the dial down on one like that. Without thinking, I reach in and grab the foam mat and yank him out in one incredible pull. Three steps and he’s clear of the tent. He is a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than me, but he feels as light as a little kid. I grab his shoulder and far knee and pull him onto his side, like the home nurse showed me to do with Gigi when she started to have trouble swallowing but was still eating mashed everything.
“Stop it, Pete.” I hold him from tipping right over, his entire body stiff and shaking, his legs kicking at nothing, his eyes wide open and staring at me without seeing me at all. “Stop it.”
I should’ve been counting.
“Stop it, Pete! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”
How long has this been happening? What about when I wasn’t looking? Is this it? Is he dying? Right now?
I lift my eyes up and whisper to the god that I don’t believe in but wish I did.
“Please make him okay. Please, please make him better. Please tell me what to do.”
When he is finally still, he doesn’t say anything. He just breathes, shallow and fast. I squat beside him and watch him for a long time, waiting for another seizure. When my knees buckle, I lie down beside him, my head on my arm, the cool dirt and pebbles under me. He’s better now. I can close my eyes for just a second, like an amen.
I am sure that I don’t sleep, but it is so much darker when I open my eyes that I know I must’ve dozed off, my arms around him. Something is different on the horizon, along the ridge of low-slung mountains to the west, where the sun is just disappearing. It’s like it’s actually touching down on the forest, because there is a gossamer thread of rippling orange flames, the air above it giving up and melting into a watery wash of heat.
Pete is asleep. This is good.
The little tin full of good luck and good fortune and hope and beautiful things and tiny treasures lies open on the ground, the talismans scattered on the dirt.
I lean forward, about to let go of Pete to collect all the shiny bits of hope from the hot, dry forest floor, where they are lost under pine needles and debris. I squint, and realize that I can see only some of them in the hazy moonlight. If I want to go get them, I have to let go of Pete. I can’t do that.
My talismans are still good luck, I tell myself. Even if they are scattered on the dirt in the wilderness. They are my good luck, and so I get to say that they can still be good luck if they’re lost.
But I don’t really believe that they are lucky anymore, because this has been the unluckiest time of all.
This might even be the way that we actually die, with no one left behind to write the tragic event in the Notebook of Doom. When we get home, I will write ten pages about this. At least.