6. Embers

Serial Fiction Art
Tianxing Ma

A chilling wind traveled up and over the ridge. It settled in around us as we toasted marshmallows on the crackling campfire that Dad had built using tree bark and pinecones. Collin had suggested we spend the evening on Calling Rock, a small outcrop surrounded on all sides by mountains. If we called out from its jutting surface, our voices reverberated back from all sides, echoing six or seven times before fading out. The granite face of Calling Rock soaked up heat during the summer days and radiated it back as nights set in. We often stargazed up there, the lichen-covered stone warming our backs amidst the cool night air. Dad had been surprised when Collin invited Royella and Aunt Taylor to join us on Calling Rock that evening; I had been nervous.

I had never liked marshmallows, but making s’mores was a welcome distraction, especially when Collin took an audible breath and announced to the group, “We need to talk.”

“No,” I said, elbowing him hard. “We need to stargaze.”

“Listen, Dad,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I know you’ve been trying to kill owls.”

“What?” Royella said, her voice sharp.


“Smooth,” I mumbled to Collin, though only Dad heard me.  

“Oh, don’t you look so shocked.” Collin’s tone filled with hostility as he turned to Royella. “I know about you and Table Mountain.”

“Know what?” she rasped.

“Collin, slow down,” I said, Royella’s visible panic worrying me.

“Listen,” Collin’s voice regained its calm. “The dead owls. The way you’ve been marking trees. You trying to cover up the time spent at Table Mountain. Something weird is going on and we want to know what.” He tried to catch my eye, but I concentrated on peeling the charred outer layer off the gooey center of my marshmallow.

Collin laid out the details that he and I had puzzled over the night before; Dad had been scouting trees in which spotted owls nested and marking them for his fellow forest rangers to cut down. Dad and Taylor had been arguing over their deceased parents’ will. Aunt Taylor’s dog, Button, had been poisoned when he chewed on a spotted owl. Taylor had run into Royella gambling at the casino on the Table Mountain reservation. Ranger Cooper had stopped by to take Royella on a tour of Foxglove’s timber. And I had found a letter addressed jointly to Royella and Aunt Taylor in which an agent from Macksfield Insurance had offered a quote on the value of the property’s trees.

I tried to read the adults’ faces, but I could only understand Collin’s expression. He looked more relieved than he had in a while, and I tried to imitate his relaxed mouth, his calmly focused eyes. A treetop breeze picked up in the distance.

“What’s going on between you two?” Dad finally said, turning to Royella and Taylor. “What’s with the insurance quote?”

“What’s with the owls?” Royella shot back.

I listened to the crackling of pinecones in the fire, to the squeaking of the bats that must have been flying somewhere overhead, to the irritating sound of Royella’s flustered breathing.


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