Zoe decides to bond with her father by going camping with him, but this familiar family activity soon takes a dangerous turn.
With Father Through Fire
“Charlie, put down the marker. Do not draw on your sister. No. I said do NOT draw on her. One moment, Dad.” Zoe placed her phone on the table and wrestled the blue permanent marker out of her toddler’s hands. Zoe’s brown eyes scanned the floor, and she snatched the cap before her baby girl could. Decisively, she flung it in the trash.
“Here, Mommy, it’s Grandpa.” Charlie handed her the cell.
Zoe smiled down at her son and ruffled his shaggy hair. “Sorry, Dad. I don’t know where he keeps finding them.”
Her father’s warm chuckle tickled her ear. “It’s alright. I was just saying that you often sound stressed.”
“I…” Zoe glanced between her two young children. “I love my kids, but…”
“I was there once, too. And, well, I was talking with Dylan. Our birthdays are coming up, and I want to take you on a special father-daughter camping trip, just like we used to do. Give us time to catch up.”
“That sounds sweet, but I’m twenty-four. Isn’t it a tad odd to go camping with just you? Why don’t we bring the whole family?”
“There will be time for that, but I was really hoping it would be with just you. It’s only three months since your mother passed, and we haven’t really had a chance to talk about it. I’m worried about you. And I’m lonely now.”
“I don’t know, Dad. These two can be quite the handful.”
“I already talked to Dylan. He wants you to come with me and is perfectly capable of watching them.”
“Alright, Dad. You win.”
Zoe stretched as she stepped out of the car and into the dense woods. “How did you even find this place?”
Her father groaned as he grabbed his wooden prosthetic leg. “Eh, an old buddy of mine told me.”
“It’s gorgeous. I only wish we’d be able to see more stars.”
“Well, there just aren’t as many in the city, and you know how mom loved them.”
“Yeah,” he gave a warm chuckle and scratched his short peppered beard. “I remember how many times I nearly ran into her because she would just stop as we were headed inside. Why don’t you go look for firewood, and keep your eyes open for a clearing in the trees where we’ll be able to see some.”
“And leave you to pitch the tent all by yourself?”
“I might be getting older, but I’m still capable.”
“Alright, alright. I’ll go before I get lectured for talking back to my elders.” She giggled.
“Good, you better.”
Zoe reached over her father to grab the ax as he pulled a cooler from the trunk. He stumbled as she bumped into him. “Sorry! I haven’t lost the baby weight yet.”
The soft earth beneath her feet and the smell of pine brought her back to her childhood. She smiled as she collected dry wood, twigs and pine needles. She took multiple trips to the site gathering more than enough, keeping within shouting distance in case her father needed help.
“There!” Her father stood clapping dust off his hands standing in front of the tent. “I don’t remember these things being so complicated to put together.”
Zoe laughed. “You usually got help from mom.”
The two shared the same pained smile for a moment. Their brown eyes nearly reflected each other with mirror accuracy. “Yeah. Yeah, I did; didn’t I?”
Her father let out a long, staggered sigh.
“I’ll start the fire if you want to start prepping the food.” Zoe grabbed the box of matches.
Her dad gave a grunt of agreement, and Zoe set to work making a small pile of twigs and then building a breezy home for them out of the wood. She stuffed the gaps with the dried pine needles and struck the match. Carefully she prodded it towards the center, and did the same with two others.
“Any luck, Darling?”
“Yup, what are we having?”
“Potatoes? I cooked the bacon ahead of time. I’ll just wrap it in the foil and use the tongs to warm it.”
Zoe poked the foil wrapped potatoes into the base of the fire and watched the flames dance around them.
“How have you been doing these past three months, Dad? I can imagine the house has been pretty empty.”
He nodded, the bacon sizzling in the foil packet. “So is our bed. I’ve been sleeping on the couch or I toss and turn too much. What about you?”
“I’ve been pretty busy, so I don’t have much time to think about it. It usually gets to me when I’m washing dishes after putting Charlie and Gale to bed. I miss being able to call her up and vent.”
“You could call me, you know.”
Zoe chuckled. “I can. And I do try. It’s just not the same.”
Her father grunted an agreement.
Then the ground crunched like fresh snow under foot.
“What was that?” Zoe looked around.
“I love you, Zoe-girl.”
“I love you–”
Then the ground shook and gave out. Zoe screamed as she fell fifteen feet onto the hard stone ground of a cavern.
“Dad! Are you okay?” Zoe coughed.
Smoke swirled around the cavern from the flaming logs that had been scattered. Intense heat burned the back of Zoe’s neck. She screamed, but fell to the ground and rolled, putting her hair out. She felt behind her at the missing 7-inches of wavy auburn hair.
She sucked in a sharp breath through the string of the burns, and held her lower back.
There was a cough and a groan.
Zoe waved the smoke out of her eyes and looked around.
She knelt by his side as he blinked focus back into his eyes.
“Are you okay, Dad?” Zoe placed her hand gently on the peppered gray stubble on his cheek.
He closed his eyes and nodded. “Just need a moment. Old wounds, you know.”
“Thank goodness. I couldn’t lose you too. There must’ve been an earthquake.”
Her father groaned as he shifted his arms under his body and pushed himself up. “No, it was the meltstone.”
“Meltstone?” Zoe helped her father sit up straight.
“You haven’t heard of it?” He looked around.
“I guess it is local to these parts. Have you seen my leg?”
Zoe glanced down at her father’s lap. He would have been sitting cross-legged, if his wooden calf would have been attached. “Oh.” She squinted as she cast her eyes around the cavern. A pale yellow light from the late afternoon sun shone through the ceiling of leaves and into the hole they had fallen through.
“I’ll look for it, hopefully it didn’t catch fire. Now what is meltstone?” Zoe walked around the small cavern, searching. The ground, walls, and ceiling where all made of the same stone. Viens of maroon and black streaked this way and that through the stone, and made it difficult to tell where one stone ended and another began. She found a log burning on only one end and used it as a torch.
“It’s a type of stone that melts.”
“No, under high heat.”
“Like the heat of our fire?”
“Yup. Must have been.”
“And you knew this stone was around here?” Zoe snatched the wooden peg from under a burning log and handed it to her father.
“Yeah. Um. Do we need to be worried about the ground falling through again? I mean, there are still burning logs. Scattered everywhere. How hot does the fire need to be?”
“Not terribly. Sometimes the stone will melt on hot days under the sun.”
“What! What were you thinking camping here!” Zoe sprang to her feet and danced around, stamping on the logs to put them out.
As she raced over to the last log, she felt another creek underfoot and immediately dropped to all fours to distribute her weight. She slipped her shoe off and tapped out the last flame.
Her father coughed a bit more. “Wow, it’s getting late, it’s already sunset.”
“And we’re stuck in this cave.” Zoe crawled away from the weak spot on the floor and stood near her father.
“You still have that make-shift torch in your hand.”
“Well, yeah. We needed a bit of light. But you never answered me. What made you think this was a good spot to go camping? Why? Do you realize the situation we’re in? Are you trying to kill us so we can be with Mom or something inane like that!”
Zoe’s father took a deep breath in and looked at the ground. His eyes closed and the corners of his mouth sagged. He slowly let out a long sigh and caressed the stump where his leg was supposed to be.
“Say something! Don’t just sit there!”
He opened his warm dark brown eyes and stared through her glare into her heart. “Don’t you know I love you, Zoe-girl?”
“Love me? Well, I thought you did, but after this stunt, I’m starting to think you’re just crazy!”
“That hurts. Do you actually think I would take you someplace that would put your life in danger?”
Zoe stood there silent, jaw agape in disbelief. A series of puffs escaped her lips as she motioned around the room and ceiling.
“Are you alive? Are you that hurt?”
“Look at my hair! Dylan likes it long, and so did mom. I was growing it out, but now it’s as short as when I was in kindergarten! Not to mention the bruises and burns!”
“ But you’re alive and they’re all minor, correct.”
“Do you even hear yourself right now?” Zoe’s voice cracked in frustration and tears welled in her eyes.
“Won’t you come here and give me a hug?” Her dad held his arms out.
“No! I’m going to find us a way out!” Zoe turned her back to him, paused to wipe the tears, then shook her head and began sifting through the material that fell down with them. She knew they had brought a rope for a clothing line. The chances that it actually fell with them were slim, but what hope did she have at this point?
As she carefully held the torch to the ground, She found some of the potatoes, still wrapped in the foil, and even the pack of foil wrapped bacon. She rolled her eyes at the shiny packages, but her stomach betrayed her with a gruggle.
“Dad, are you hungry? I found our food.” Zoe picked up a potato and gave it a gentle squeeze. “They’re cool at this point, but cooked.”
“I was actually just wondering that myself, if they fell with us. Yes, I would like one. Thank you.” He held out his hand.
Zoe walked over and placed the potato in it and even opened up the packet of bacon. She grimaced at the grease, but peeled two strips from it and handed them to her father and took the other two for herself. “I’m still mad at you, you know.”
“It’s not the first time, Zoe-girl. Remember when I wouldn’t like you go with Chris to the homecoming dance.”
“You have to bring that up right now?”
“Do you remember why you were so mad?”
“Yes, because he was my boyfriend. It was a stupid rule.”
“Seriously! We’re trapped in a cave.” Zoe threw her nearly whole potato across the earthen room.
“What happened that night?”
Zoe sighed. “I know.”
“So I was right in not having you go, wasn’t I.”
“He probably wouldn’t have snuck the vodka in if I were there.”
“You really believe that?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be eating?” Zoe sighed.
Her father stared straight at her as he took two large bites.
“You would have been in Jess’s place in the passenger seat of the car.”
“Shut up!” Zoe kicked a log, more tears coming to her eyes as she recalled her late friend.
“It didn’t make sense back then, but you listened and it saved your life.”
Zoe ignored him. By this point she knew that there was no other way out. The only light was from the quickly setting sun through the gap in the ground above that they had fallen through and her torch. She would have to reach the opening above them somehow. Despair started to creep in, but she took a deep breath and flicked herself in the forehead.
“There’s always hope.” She whispered to herself. She paused and glanced around and then scoffed. A flood of involuntary tears rammed their way from her chest out her eyes as she recalled the last moment she heard those words spoken to her.
Her mother lay on the hospital bed. Her yellowed skin hung loose over her bones. The IV drip stuck in her arm looked like a prison chain, keeping her strapped to the bed, and perhaps to the earth. Each breath she took was intentional and labored. The deep bags under her eyes spoke of the battle that was raging inside her body, but the light never left her eyes. Her mother smiled at Zoe on the bulky bed as Zoe complained about life in the “terrible-twos” stage of parenting.
“I know all seems bleak now, dear.” Her mother turned her head to cough. Deep coughs that made her entire body shake. She took a few deep breaths before continuing. “But there’s always hope. There’s always hope.”
Zoe just stared at her mother quietly. Just thirty minutes before, the doctor had told them there were probably about ten days left.
“You don’t believe me?” Zoe’s mother reached a trembling hand out and rested it on her daughter’s knee.
“Mom. You’re dying and none of the treatments are working.”
“There’s always hope.”
“No! No, mom. There isn’t. You’re going to die.”
“And? What of it?” Her mother scowled. Her usually kind eyes turned stern.
Zoe’s breath caught in her throat and her eyes fixated on her mother. “There isn’t hope that you’ll be healed. I’m going to lose you.”
“I was never yours to keep track of.”
Zoe just stared at her mother, her lips drawn into a tight line.
“I wasn’t. I know right where I’m going. I won’t be lost. I’ll be found. I’m not headed towards death, but to life. You know this, Zoe-girl. You know this.”
“So where’s the hope for me! Sure, you have faith that you’ll go be with God. And me? What about me? Here without you. You’re only forty-five! This isn’t right.”
Her mother gently rubbed Zoe’s knee with her thumb as her daughter’s tears dripped onto the back of her hand. “No. No it’s not. And I’m sorry that you’ll have to go on without me. I know it hurts to say good-bye for now. But it’s only a temporary good-bye. There is hope because we know we’ll meet again.”
Zoe stifled her sobbed into her mother’s shoulder as she hugged her. She felt the IV tube on her back as her mother held her as tight as she could and ran her fingers through Zoe’s hair. Time seemed to stand still as the tears were wrung out from their stomachs and poured onto each other.
Eventually, the newborn woke up fussing, and Zoe pulled away. Her mother smiled at the baby as Zoe nursed her. Her mother then drifted back to sleep.
Once her baby was content, Zoe slipped her back in the carrier. She kissed her mother on the forehead and headed towards the door.
Zoe turned her head, surprised. “Yes, mom?”
“There’s always hope.”
Zoe took a deep breath, choosing at that moment to believe. “There’s always hope.”
The next morning Zoe’s father called. Her mother had gone Home.
The same tears pushed through Zoe’s eyes now. She took a sharp breath against the sudden pain. Her knees gave out and she collapsed on the stone floor. The torch rolled out of her hand as she set her head on the ground. “No! No. I don’t want my kids to grow up without their mom.”
She let out an angry desperate scream and banged her fist. A sharp rock jabbed into the side of her palm, and she let out another scream. Zoe brought her hand to her chest.
“I see a light.” Her father’s voice was barely audible over Zoe’s own sobs.
Her father pointed towards where the torched had rolled away. “There’s a light.”
“Yes, dad. From the fire.” Zoe quickly grabbed it with her uninjured hand, not wanting it to melt the ground any more.
She rose and walked over to her father and sat back down. “I guess if we’re to starve to death, I should at least sit with you as we do so. Maybe someone will come by in a few days.”
Her father nodded and put his arm around her shoulder. “Perhaps, but look. There’s a light.” He pointed with his hand that was resting on her.
Zoe followed his finger and rubbed her eyes. A handful of light was shining softly up through a hole in the floor. Zoe looked around, but again she was sure that the only like coming in from above was moonlight which shone on her father.
“You must have melted a small hole in the ground when you dropped your flaming stick.” His beard tickled her cheek as he kissed it and whispered in her ear. “There’s always hope.”
Zoe’s shoulders slumped too weak to fight and she exhaled a moan in reply.
“Gather the wood that fell through. Maybe we can burn a large enough hole to slip down there.”
“Oh, and be stuck even further than the surface so it’s even harder for people to find and rescue us?”
“Or maybe find another way out. We can wait and watch on this side of the cavern. What could it hurt?”
Zoe shook her head and closed her eyes.
She felt her father rub his hand on her arm as he gently pulled her into a hug. “Don’t wait too long. You’re going to burn your hand if you hold onto that log much longer.”
Zoe could feel the heat from the flames already.
“You really want me to try and burn another hole through this?”
Her father just nodded.
Zoe stared into his eyes, contemplating whether or not to obey.
Silently she stood, her father’s arm sliding off her back and gathered the scattered logs, and dead fallen leaves from around the cavern. She stacked them into a little teepee with the bed of leaves in the center and laid her torch in the middle. Soon enough the fire caught.
Zoe backed up, watched it for a moment to make sure, then sat down next to her father again.
“You still haven’t put your prosthetic on.” Zoe motioned to the wooden peg in his hand.
“We’re going to need it.”
Her father motioned to the fire. “The air is cooler at night, we’re going to need our fire to be hotter.
“But dad, you can’t walk without that. Let’s just wait.”
So they did. Zoe rested her head on her father’s shoulder. Her eyelids kept drooping, but she slapped her cheeks. She didn’t want to miss the chance to see the stone melt. After half an hour, finally she heard cracks and groans of the stone.
Carefully she crawled a bit closer and squinted at the ground beneath. The logs were a little more than halfway burnt through. The stones under the dance of the flames shifted, about the give out, but then they settled. The cracks that had formed simply found new angles to rest at. Zoe grabbed a rock and tried to push on the weakened ground with it but it held firm.
“How’s it looking?”
“Maybe just a little longer?”
“The flames are going to start dying down, Zoe-girl.”
“I guess we’ll just have to wait for a rescue team then. We’re not burning your leg. You need that.”
Zoe and her father exchanged stern gazes.
He crawled over next to her and set his prosthetic leg in the flames.
“You know that’s stupid. Even if this plan does work, how are you going to get back to the car?”
“Won’t you help me?”
“I mean, I’ll do the best I can, but frankly dad, I’m really tired.”
The flames lapped at the new fuel and sprang to life again.
“Then rest Zoe. There’s nothing else that can be done right now but to rest and watch.”
Zoe nodded and did so. She lay there on her stomach and folded her arms in front of her and laid her head upon them, watching the flames. Her father was definitely crazy. But what did that matter now? When they got out of this mess, she’d talk with Dylan about getting him checked out.
How was Dylan faring with their two kids? Her mind started to wander.
Before she could contemplate too much, there was another heftier crack in the stone. Then another jolting crack. Zoe rolled over as a crack formed beneath her.
“We’ll be fine. Just stay alert.”
With another loud rumble and then crack, the ground once again gave out beneath them and Zoe felt herself plummeting. She flailed her arms around until she felt her dad’s hand clasp around hers.
She opened her eyes for a brief second before crashing and instinctually held her breath as she was enveloped by cool water.
She could feel herself sinking deeper and deeper. Her lungs started to ache and she felt her father tug her hand. She released her father’s hand and swam to the top.
Her eyes blinked open under the water, and she thought she could see the light of stars in the distance above her. Wisps of her long hair fluttered into view as her lungs started to ache. Her limbs tingled from the struggle. With all her might, she paddled, but as her fingers were about to break the surface, her body betrayed her and she took a gasping breath of water into her lungs.
Zoe’s body grew tense and dense. Although she willed her legs to keep kicking, her mind was growing fuzzy. She barely felt a tug on her hand as the darkness closed in on her.
Then her head hit stone and she coughed. She felt the water expelling from her lungs in excruciating bursts. Zoe rolled onto the stomach and curled up. Finally her coughing slowed, and the pain seemed to slowly fade into non-existence. She sat up, holding herself, wondering how she could feel so energized and healthy after nearly drowning.
“Are you already, Zoe?”
Zoe’s head whipped around and her arms clasped around her father. “Dad! You’re alright.”
“I’m more than alright. And so are you.”
Zoe blinked, her eyebrows furrowed.
Her father put his hands on his knees and stood up straight. He gave a few kicks, and Zoe stared. Her jaw fell to the floor.
“Are we dead?”
Her father laughed. “Nope.”
“Isn’t it great!” Her father ran in a small circle along the stone shore of the lake that they had fallen in.
Zoe rubbed her eyes and gave herself two quick slaps. “How?”
“I had heard rumors of the meltstone, but I also heard rumors of a special lake in these parts. And it seems like we’ve found it: The lake of the Healing Glow.”
She walked up to the shore and looked at the lake. At the bottom of the glasslike depths, green luminesient lichen grew. On the surface, to her right, stars and the full moon reflected on the surface. Softly glowing lichen grew in dancing patterns along the walls of the cavern, shedding plenty of light. A narrow path led out of the cave that held the lake, but shrubs and young trees blocked the view outside except for the gap they left at the top to let the sky shine through.
Her father skipped past her and waved. “Well, Zoe-girl? You coming?”
“Dad, this place is beautiful.” Zoe’s feet felt frozen in the tranquil beauty. She caught her reflection in the water and grabbed at the back of her head. Her auburn waves were back. Just as if they hadn’t burnt off, but longer and healthier.
“It is, isn’t it?” Her father smiled and tucked a piece of hair behind her ear.
“How is this even possible? We have to be dead. I’m sure of it.”
“Zoe-girl. Don’t you think we should try to make it back up to the car? What about Dylan the kids?”
“Oh.” Zoe looked around. “Oh. Perhaps we could just sit here for a few more moments together. I’ve missed you.”
Her father gave an affirmative grunt. “I want to get this new leg moving, but I suppose a few moments wouldn’t hurt.
Zoe sat down on the bank and dipped her toes into the cool water. Her father sat next to her and put his arm over her shoulder. Zoe laid her head on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry for what I said up there. This view. This trip was well worth it.”