Shawn grunted as he gingerly took a knee and began tying the laces of his shoes. First, the left foot, then, after awkwardly falling backwards and repositioning himself, the right foot.
“You need some help?”
Shawn looked up to see Andrea, arms crossed, observing him.
“How long have you been there?” he asked. He looked up to see Andrea eclipsing the setting sun coming over the tin can roof. The contrast between the light around her silhouette and the darkness of her form caused the pupils of his eyes to suddenly contract as they settled on the twinkling corona that surrounded her.
“Long enough to notice how much you look like an overgrown baby putting his shoes on for the first time,” she said, sardonically.
“Har har,” he growled. He dusted off the toe-end of his shoe and stood up as quickly as he could without further injuring himself. He felt the joints in his knees and thigh muscles straining in unison to hoist him up.
A sound like a rickety door creaking open came out of Andrea’s mouth. He would have chuckled if it hadn’t hurt so much.
“And now this overgrown baby is going to learn how to walk,” he said as he lumbered past Andrea over to the barrel stove. The light of the fire was dim enough to where Shawn knew it would go out if it didn’t immediately get more wood and fuel. He grabbed onto the warm barrel’s rim as he stooped down to pick up a log.
“Careful,” Andrea called, “You don’t want to tip it over or, worse, fall in.”
“You worried about me catching on fire?” Shawn replied over his shoulder.
“No, I’m worried the fire will catch Shawn.”
Shawn let the log fall into the barrel with a dull thud, raising ash and smoke.
“I’ve never felt so worn out,” he half-moaned and half-whispered to himself. He propped himself against the barrel stove and stretched out his legs, one by one, testing their thresholds. The right leg seemed fine, but the calf muscles on his other leg started to twitch and throb.
After grabbing bits of kindling around camp, Andrea threw the materials into the barrel and lit a match. She stared at the tiny flame for a second too long before she dropped it intentionally into a pile of paper and greasy cloth.
Throughout the night, Andrea kept the fire going, adding logs into the barrel in measured time. Shawn drifted in and out of sleep, waking up every once in a while to a sudden burst of laughter or an excited yelp as the others tried to keep their spirits up. He didn’t have the strength to ask everyone to quiet down or to wonder aloud why no one had gone to bed, and he knew by looking at the position of the moon moving through the sky what time it was each time he was disturbed from his rest.
The last time he woke up before dawn, his eyes couldn’t find the moon in the sky. It was darker than he had ever remembered, and his eyes searched for any form of light. Wrestling against the mental haze lingering from a fading dream he didn’t have any desire of recalling, he heard the embers crackling inside the barrel stove before his eyes could make out Andrea’s hands hovering over the barrel’s fire. Though his eyelids were still heavy, he decided to get up.
“Still up?” he asked when he could make out her face, darkly lit by the glow further down inside the barrel stove. Her body suddenly tensed when he spoke, but she relaxed just as quickly.
Trying not to wake anyone else, she responded somberly, “Just keeping the fire going.” She poked at the fire with a thin long stick, and Shawn heard the sound of ash sliding deeper into the barrel.
“Why?” he rasped. Andrea let out an instinctive cough. Shawn cleared his throat and tried again. “Why?”
“Got to keep something alive.” She sounded reserved, almost defeated.
Images flashed in front of Shawn’s eyes. Things he didn’t want to remember. Things that would affect Andrea forever. He felt for her and wanted to console her. “It’s not your fault.”
“I know.” She jabbed her stick at random points in the fire. Its point was black and brittle, falling apart in bits and pieces as Andrea hit various places on the log. Shawn contemplated the stick’s original form and how long it must have been before it became a makeshift poker in Andrea’s dry and cracked hands.
“No one’s going to fault you for not saving Velencia.”
Before he could finish, Andrea tossed the entire stick into the barrel and bent down to grab the gas can.
“The fire doesn’t need more –“
The roar of the flames and a sudden wave of heat pushed Shawn back as he raised his arms in defense. He felt the flames lick his eyebrows and the tips of the hair on his arms. When he looked back at the fire, he caught the sight of Andrea and silver tears streaking down the sides of her face.
“I should go back to sleep,” he said, retreating.
“Do that,” Andrea responded. Her voice was calm yet stern and totally devoid of emotion.
He hesitated before saying, “Good night.” There would be no response. As he ventured away from the fire, he could see the shadows cast by the flames flickering in and out on the walls of their makeshift fort. Before he closed his eyes for the rest of the night, he looked back to see if Andrea was still there watching the fire. Nodding off to sleep, all he could think about was the expression on her face, stuck in his mind like a photograph caught by the flash of the gas lighting up the fire.
It was something he knew he’d never forget.