Flame and Stone

By Catherine Hart

This year’s festival theme was Campfire Stories; the stories submitted for the contest had to include the phrase ‘camp’ and/or ‘fire. Judges were Luna Lee from Parallel Aotearoa and editor Damien Levi. Hart’s story won the runner-up prize.

It was the same summer night as every year before, hot with a sweeping lick of humidity coming off the lake. 

The clearing was already busy when Rhys arrived, filling up with old classmates and their partners, words of greetings rippling through the air. At the centre of it all, Jack sat on his throne of bean bags, a grin cracking his face in two as unfocussed eyes roamed. 

Rhys checked his phone again, as if it might have found reception in the last five minutes. Each year it was the same, the hope that some local had approved a cell tower persistent and the result disappointing. 

He missed Auckland already. Not that he’d admit it in this group, many of whom would mock the city at the slightest provocation.

This was the thirteenth year of Jack’s ‘Boxing Day Blowout’. An annual get together that had begun when their voices were still cracking. It was a camp/party/excuse to get “fucked up”. And it never changed. A natural clearing, the grass stomped down in sections. One winding path leading to a single portaloo. The requisite refreshment table that was only ever plundered for mixers. Tents sat sentry along the tree-line, some erected days earlier by Jack’s whānau, some brought on the day as arrivals trickled in. This year new heavy-bass speakers had appeared, sheltered by a shiny gazebo so the music could pump throughout the night, the only neighbours too far off to hear.

It was the last time they’d do this. Jack’s family had decided to sell the land and downsize now his siblings had finished school. Everyone in this town moved away at 18, traveling to attempt university, apprenticeships and overseas experiences. No one stayed in Wānaka except for the ski bums, the long-haired, scraggly, muscled men who consumed more cheap beer than solid food. Rhys would admire their beauty from afar, only speaking when they approached him. 

Rhys hugged those he genuinely liked, some he didn’t, and took his spot on the sharpest rock, one of the many placed around the fire, the pesky pines having been felled weeks earlier by the boys.

“What are you up to these days?”

“Are you still doing that acting thing?”

“Go you! It must be tough out there.”

The same things said. The same things not said. It didn’t matter. 

Tomorrow, Rhys’ clothes would emanate smoke. Now that they’d grown too old for nicotine, it didn’t bother him as much. He would sleep in his car, or, if he decided to leave the bottle of rosé for another day, he’d drive the half hour back to his parent’s place.

He didn’t know why he kept coming back. The implied expectation was too strong, perhaps. From his mates. From his parents. From himself. Perhaps.

Across the camp, a familiar figure caught his eye. It had been years. Ten, or close to. He’d heard gossip. He’d looked him up online. But this was the first time he’d seen him in the flesh. 

Rhys watched Pete greet their classmates with an ease he envied. Pete had never struggled with physical contact, even with people he’d just met. 

He finished speaking with Tom and Janet – Rhys knew he’d officiated their wedding the year earlier – and looked up. Their eyes met and an old, long forgotten thing tugged at something in his chest, a tightness that existed both internally and physically, pulling him in. He ignored it. Pete smiled, a craggy kind of glaze setting over his eyes, sharp and unyielding. Breathtaking. It was almost as if he was pleased to see Rhys. 

Pete had left school a year before graduation. Everyone had said it was because he already had his plumbing apprenticeship arranged, but Rhys knew something they didn’t.

Their break up had been long and winding, one that petered out for miles, lasting longer than the time they were together. 

Not that anyone knew. 

Not that he could tell anyone now.

Recently, his therapist had tried to analyse how the deception might have affected Rhys. How it changed his understanding of sexuality and relationships. It was the last time Rhys had seen the doctor in the crisp white blouse who always saw what he was thinking in a way that terrified him. 

Now Peter was out. Officially. Rhys knew because his mum had told him in her excited, overly-positive way, forever hoping he’d “settle down” like all the straight people she’d surrounded herself with. It wasn’t her fault she had never challenged her concept of what happiness looked like. She’d skimmed over the information that Pete was bisexual, only focussing on what it could possibly mean for her son. 

The light had faded slowly, curtaining the camp in long shadows, turning the sky the same pink as the lupins covering the valley. Then, within fifteen minutes, dusk was lost to absolute darkness. The fire raged, the boys throwing empty beer boxes and pinecones onto it sporadically. The smoke smelt of pine, mānuka and the harsh tang of chemicals, a mix known throughout Aotearoa at this time of year.

A group of girlfriends Rhys hadn’t met before started dancing, the light from the fire flickering over their tanned skin. They’d regret it tomorrow when the insect bites turned raw and their long nails broke the skin, sharpening the itch until forced to drive the forty-five minutes to a pharmacy for a soothing cream that promised more than it delivered. 

Pete sat across the fire, meeting Rhys’ eyes in the gaps of conversation.

The summer heat had withstood the fading light, but with the sun finally tucked away, the temperature dropped rapidly. 

Rhys didn’t want to talk to him. Didn’t want to know how his life had been. How he was and what he was up to at the moment. He didn’t think about it because it didn’t matter anymore. It didn’t impact him in the slightest. But what he wanted didn’t matter, was forgotten and pushed aside when Pete stood and traversed the group, coming to sit beside him. 

“Kia ora.”

Rhys nodded, scared of what could come out if he spoke.

“How are you?” Pete asked, brushing ash from his knee.

Rhys nodded again, picking a smooth stone from between his shoes and rolling it between his fingers.

They sat in silence, watching as Jack yelled about shit pop music and declared the tunes “his domain”, drum and bass vibrating the ground beneath them.

“I’m sorry,” Pete said, his words bleeding sincerity. “For what it’s worth. I am sorry.”

Rhys turned to Pete. He wanted to believe him. He wanted to hear that it was never about him, something he knew, but struggled to believe. “Okay,” he said. “It doesn’t matter anymore anyway.”

Pete shook his head. “It does. I don’t want to talk about how hard it was coming out or queer trauma or anything like that. But you deserved better.”

“Why are you even bringing it up?”

Pete touched a finger to the back of Rhys’ fist, following the line of his knuckles. Everything in Rhys’ body went numb except for the sensation of Pete’s fingertip. 

“Because it’s true.” 

He withdrew his touch, and the two sat in silence. Minutes passed by, then Pete said, “I didn’t know you were still friends with people from school?”

It was a question phrased as a statement, something Pete had always liked to do. 

“Hard to escape.” 

He laughed, seemingly knowing the pressure to keep in touch with those you grew up with. They knew you in a way no one else did. Nothing could embarrass you around people you’ve known for half your life. There was a safety in that, a promise that Rhys rarely felt in other circles. It spoke of comfort and endurance, even if the group was filled with people he shared little with. 

“I saw that play you were in,” Pete said and opened another cider.

“Which one?”

He squinted, trying to remember. “The one about the boy and his dead dog.”

Rhys laughed. He couldn’t help it. Of course Pete had seen the one where he played a teenage misfit. 

“You were incredible.”

“Thank you.”

“You live in Auckland?”

“Yeah. You?”

“Moved up last year.” Pete brushed the dirt from his hands. “Let’s go for a walk.”

The trees were dense but even after all this time they knew the path to the water’s edge. 

“Fuck, I’ve missed it here.” 

“It’s easy to think that when you’re on holiday,” Rhys replied. “Living here full-time would be different.”

The corner of Pete’s mouth lifted. “You’re probably right. I still want to move back though.”

“Really?”

Pete nodded. “One day. You know they’ve got a Pride event now?”

Rhys didn’t know that, but it was a relief. A town growing as quickly as this one needed it. 

He watched Pete walk to where lapping water kissed the pebbled shore. He still moved with a playful kind of grace, a lightness in his step that spoke of truth. For years Rhys had assumed that they’d gotten together because they were the only gays at school, but now, looking at his lean form and the tattoos covering his forearms, he knew it was more than that. There was something about him. And when he smiled, trickling water through his hands, something in Rhys lit up. Something he didn’t realise he’d been missing. 

Pete stood and returned to Rhys, flicking wet fingers in his face, eyes lit with mischief. 

“I missed you.” The words escaped so softly he wondered if he’d even spoken. 

Pete didn’t say it back. He didn’t say anything. But he took a step closer.

The seconds before Pete’s lips made contact with his were everything. They sparkled and sang with excitement for a mutual wanting that went on and on and on.

When they returned to camp, Pete held his hand tight, refusing to let go even when Rhys tried to tug it back, memories igniting a familiar fear of discovery.

Pete stopped and stood still until Rhys met his gaze. There he saw sincerity and hope. A promise that didn’t fix the past, but accepted it. 

Behind Pete, Jack stumbled forward. He saw them, reared back so hard Rhys was amazed he remained upright, sputtered, “Always knew you two had it in ya,” and continued back to his bean bags. 

Pete chuckled, put his arm around Rhys’ shoulder, and led them back to their old friends.