By Nickalas Adams
“It’ll be cold tonight,” Johnny said.
“As long as we’re out of town it shouldn’t matter,” Blake told him
“Where we going anyway?”
“Some dive of a two-track road. See if it takes us into the sticks far enough.”
Their wet hair and the temperature outside the car made fog on the inside of the windows and around the edges of the windshield. Vision was slowly diminishing but Blake didn’t turn on the defrost. He didn’t even switch on his high beams.
“How much did you grab?” he asked.
Johnny produced an almost-full Dasani bottle that appeared to be nothing more than water. “A liter. And this from my dad’s stash in his shoe closet,” he said.
“Hand me that.”
John gave it over after taking the cap off clumsily. Blake pulled a good three-count.
“Christ, you need me to drive?”
“Fuck off,” Blake said. “Your turn.”
“It’s not whiskey. I need a chase or I’ll be tapping the dash.”
“Then I’ll pull over for you to puke. Just don’t try it out the window this time. I washed my car yesterday.”
John pinched his eyes shut and drank.
The gas gauge read just over a quarter tank, so Blake knew they would need to find somewhere soon. He turned left onto an ungraded, red ore road. The red instantly tinted the black car.
“Now you can puke out the window,” Blake said, taking another heavy pull and forcing the Dasani bottle back into Johnny’s bandaged hand. “Finish it.”
John obliged with a cough.
They passed a two-track road overgrown with side shrubs and trail weeds, but it was dry looking and led upwards. Blake slammed the brakes, reversed, and pulled in.
“Looks pretty narrow,” Johnny told him.
“We don’t need to get in far. Not that there’s a nark up here anyhow.” They hadn’t passed a car in almost a half hour.
John howled as Blake took the car up onto the rut tops to avoid scraping his oil pan on a protruding rock. Because of the maneuver, the car scratched along the brush on the right. Like a fork on a plate, a particularily strong branch etched at the paint all the way down the car.
Blake let out an overplayed “Haha!” as the warming in his belly made him feel lighter.
“It’ll buff out, J,” he said.
John pursed his lips white and puffed his cheeks, showing dimples through the layer of auburn scruff on his face. Wide-eyed, he shook his head jerkily from left to right while doing it, like an angry shivering. This was Blake’s favorite of all Johnny’s reactions.
“Can we fucking stop yet?” John burst out.
“Just about. Haven’t seen birches in a while.”
“There’s a stand of them up on the left there.”
John was right. The pale, white bark of birches hung from the trunks like little white reflectors in the headlights.
“You grab some dry bark and I’ll pick some tinder.”
He handed John his chair with one hand and the vodka with the other.
“Give me the hard job,” John mumbled.
“Would you like to trade then? All the woods are wet. I could hardly throw a pass tonight the ball was so waterlogged.”
“Don’t bring that up. I seen you out there,” said John. He lit a pair of cigarettes for them, and they climbed out of the car and onto the damp leaves.
The earlier rains had cooled down what was a mild September day. The clouds were high now, and a bright waxing moon shone in and out of view beyond. All was quiet in the windless, softened setting of the after-rain. The first frost had come and gone, and the bugs were about done for the year. The stillness of the Minnesota north woods was in full effect.
Blake went up under the nearby pines to break off dead branches from the bottom layers of the tallest trees. He snapped off the ones without any needles because these would be the driest under the canopy of green above, and he wouldn’t have to twist and wrestle them off. The old sap within the branches would provide fuel and quick-burning heat.
John scoured among the birches, pulling off the small thin flaps of bark from the younger, leaning trees’ undersides. This bark would burn the fastest. And any woodsmen knows that a leaning birch is a dying birch, or at least a soon-to-be-an-issue birch. They tend to rot standing up and then fall gradually in chunks. Stealing a birch’s bark wasn’t a death sentence, but it made the tree more vulnerable.
The two met back in the median of the tracked road, just a few yards in front of the guiding headlights. John balled up his bark and jammed it between two baseball-diameter branches that Blake had placed a few inches apart. Then Blake broke up the smaller branches into tiny pieces and tepee-d them all around. Johnny flicked his lighter and in seconds a fire was blazing.
“You’d almost think we’d done it before,” John told him.
“Where’s that liter? I tightened up bad on that ride here,” said Blake.
“Under my seat, in the back. You took a beating. That linebacker, 52, he had it out for you.”
“Didn’t help me any you couldn’t block for a two-count.”
“Shit,” Johnny said.
Blake found the bottle and drank. He popped the trunk of the car and pulled out two metal folding chairs.
“You remember which one’s mine?” Johnny said, all lit up now.
“It’s got a fucking dent where you tripped and fell on it while we were running away with them,” said Blake. He nearly smiled in saying this.
“That tree root got me. The booze, too. I can’t believe you drive around with that contraband.”
“Never know when you might need a chair.”
“Just like now.”
He handed John his chair with one hand and the vodka with the other. The two placed their seats between the fire and car. They didn’t look at one another as they talked, but let their gazes get lost in the pendulum of the flames.