Night falls as we make our way back from the bathhouse on crunchy gravel, teeth brushed but little else clean. Our tent is a palace, a gray nylon dome for a dozen. We number just six. Even on tippy toes or jumping, I struggle to hang the lantern from the center ring. The kids cheer when I do, when soft light fills the tent, enough for us to read while the youngest plays with a plastic alligator.
Later, after we close our books and click the lantern off, a stuffed turtle casts wavy bands of blue light from its shell across the tent walls. We quiet one by one. The youngest resists. He’s three and shark-like, moving, always moving. Now he makes his way from one sleeping pad to the next, from one sibling’s side to another’s. Plastic alligator in hand. Then blanket in hand. Then blanket wrapped around his body like a cocoon. Eventually he comes to me, hands empty. “Can I lay on top of you?” he asks. I am to be his sleeping pad, he my blanket.
Someday, I think, he’ll be too big for this. He’ll need and want more space, like his brother across the tent, body unfurled, frugal now, bones and muscles only. “Sure, buddy,” I say, rolling onto my back, releasing my arms from my sleeping bag. “Come here.” He crawls on. His head rests on my chest, and a hand flutters to my hair. His fingers comb the ends, a ritual that pulls us both toward sleep. I wrap my arms around him and hold fast. His weight against me, the swirling blue lights, all of us here in this one place with cicadas calling from the woods and whispers of night’s coolness—peace settles upon us, dense as the dark. My nose smarts.
When all is calm, all is dark, a memory, like a knife, slips through this peace in a single cut. Yesterday in the car, we had stopped for to-go burgers and fries and drinks. One drink, root beer to the brim, fell between the seats, a pass from one brother’s hand to other’s incomplete. I had raged at this spill as liquid soaked the already stained carpet, splashed onto stuffed animals and jackets scattered on the floorboards. “What is wrong with you?” I screamed. “You’re nine years old. This is ridiculous.” Meanwhile, both boys cried, the younger one for the drink lost and the older one because of me, my sudden temper, my disappointment.
In the tent, bathed in watery blue, the youngest breathes, and I feel his breath as my own. Someday, I wonder, will I yell at him the way I yelled at his brother? Will I make him cry, too? A spilled drink was all, is nothing. Ten feet away, the older boy sleeps, arms and legs flung about, deer limbs. I must have held him like this once, years ago.
I feel in this moment a multiplicity, the echo of bodies against mine, words reverberating across time. In this cavernous tent, there’s room for our family now and then, all the thens since we became a family. There’s room, too, for the distance time commands and the growing bodies, the expanding lives our children lead, will lead, will lead them away, further and further, from us. This space yawns before me even as the baby tucks his knees to my ribs, his breath on my arm humid, insistent.
The turtle light shuts off, its automatic timer expired. The tent disappears. We are both inside and outside among the droning insects, the cracking branches, the star-filled night. Time, too, becomes diffuse: I yell again while I hold tight to me what I cannot bear to lose while I apologize in the morning.
“I’m so sorry,” I say the next day, the breakfast fire spitting smoke and white ash as you throw sparks. “I was wrong to yell like that in the car, and I’m sorry.” I feed wood shards and dryer lint into the haze. You grit your teeth and strike the magnesium rod again. A flame steadies, holds. “Yes,” we cheer as the fire begins to crackle, to roar, its heat climbing to our palms, our cheeks as we stare into its blue center, where I can see all the fires we’ve made and put out.
Soon we’ll eat oatmeal and Pop-Tarts while the three-year-old roasts the marshmallows that remain. And later, we’ll take down our palace tent, tuck it back into its canvas bag to store until next time. But I’ll imagine the dome remains around us after we put out this fire and head home, contracting and expanding to fit us, the shape of us, as we grow.
Lindsey Harding is the Director of the Writing Intensive Program at the University of Georgia. Her flash fiction and stories have appeared in CRAFT, apt, Spry, Soundings Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Boiler, and others. She lives in Athens, Georgia, with her husband and four children.