by Amanda Kabak
As camp chef and chief pack mule of a boutique camping and guiding outfit, Harper Varnham just wants to make the perfect campfire apple turnover. But fate has other plans. When Lucia Guzman, her childhood best friend and fellow trail guide, breaks her leg, Lucia suggests her sister Mia step in to help with the season. Remembering the crush she once had on the free-spirited Mia, Harper readily agrees.
When Mia arrives at Harper’s door, she’s somehow exactly the same yet completely different from the girl Harper had known when she was thirteen and in the throes of her first crush. And it doesn’t take long for Harper to start falling a little in love with Mia all over again.
But with Mia’s reappearance, old Guzman family wounds have reopened and soon Mia’s emotional scars begin tearing open as well. Harper has always had a second family in the Guzmans, but now she wants Mia, too. Can she have Mia without losing the Guzmans and Lucia—who’s been in the middle the whole time?
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Since two of my abiding interests are hiking and cooking, I was thrilled when I stumbled upon an idea that could mash them up in the most delightful way. Even better, I found a way to set most of the action in my own "home turf" of hiking: the southern Appalachians. This book is full of campfires, trail shenanigans, food, and, of course, love. I can't wait for you to sharpen up your spork and dig in."
Shimere A. - ...Playing With Fire is an emotional rollercoaster that masterfully captures a journey of healing and self-discovery. The portrayal of trauma and its lasting effects is both poignant and achingly real, resonating with readers who have experienced similar struggles. This story is a testament to the author's ability to craft a story that tugs at the heartstrings, making readers reflect on the power of resilience, love, and the human spirit.
Kerrie V. - ...Beautifully written...I really enjoyed this!
My mom took a long time to stop worrying about my playing with fire. Then again, maybe she’d never stopped but just learned to keep her worries to herself, knowing how this penchant of hers served only to make me more reckless. She wasn’t objectively overprotective, but I chafed at any hint of concern from her, which probably wasn’t what she had anticipated when she’d decided to have me on her own when she was just shy of forty. I suspect she’d envisioned…well, honestly, I wasn’t sure what she’d envisioned, though I’d put good money on her not envisioning me: destructively strong-willed, according to all the authority figures in my checkered youth; a little hazy on the gender spectrum; and decidedly queer. Mom was a good sport, though, and her career in nursing had come in handy on more than one occasion when my “exuberance,” as she called it with one of her many grimaces, got out of hand. It had been just her and me my whole life, and we loved each other to distraction despite our many differences.
Admittedly, my fascination with flames of all kinds had held a heavy bent toward pyromania when I’d been younger, but it hadn’t taken that long to channel it into service to my true love: food. Was there anything better than the just right amount of char? The way it deepened flavors already inherent in ingredients and added another layer of savory bitterness? The heat and sizzle? Cooking over fire necessitated the understanding of not just the food but the elements, the temperature of wood and coals, the vessels and implements required not to end up with something that resembled charcoal briquettes. Culinary school had been about fundamentals tangential to what I really loved, and I’d learned the most important lessons while using my personal fire pit in Mom’s backyard.
When I’d moved home a few years before and had built it out, she’d given me one of those patented grimaces—crooked eyebrows, curled lips, flared nostrils all packed tightly under her mop of graying dark curls. She’d even gone so far as to make the rounds of our neighbors so they wouldn’t call the fire department when I was working back there. At least she saw this pit and my efforts around it as legitimately working and didn’t ride me to get a “real” job like what some of my culinary-school friends experienced. Could you imagine? Nine to five in a hermetically sealed office? Or twelve-hour shifts in a fluorescently lit hospital, like Mom? No thank you.
I wouldn’t do those shifts in a hospital or office, but I’d do them all the time in kitchens since before I’d even graduated high school. I’d worked prep and on the line, short-order breakfasts, and, after culinary school, a year of sauces that made me want to vomit at the thought of a béarnaise. I’d done my time, for sure, and I loved it—in general. It was just that so much food in so many restaurants was boring. But, I mean, every other chef must feel this way. We all dreamed of opening our own restaurants to some degree. Mine would be fire-first, of course, with a cozy interior and a large garden where I’d grow my own produce. But restaurants were impossible businesses, and as much as I wasn’t like Mom, she’d managed to pass on the thinnest vein of practicality to me.
I was biding my time, living with her and saving my pennies, learning what I could in other kitchens and our backyard, but I wasn’t entirely sure what I was waiting for. I knew I was going somewhere, but where exactly—and when—was more uncertain. For the past two summers, I’d been the camp chef and pack mule for The Misfitters, a boutique wilderness guiding and outfitters business I’d started with my best friend, Lucia, and our third wheel, Venus. We curated luxury adventures for small groups along and around the Appalachian Trail that included manageable hikes and delicious food for folks both inexperienced at backpacking and those who wanted someone else to plan and help execute trips for them. Lucia was our certified guide and safety officer while Venus ran the back office and helped drive us and equipment around to various trailheads.
We supplied all the meals, some of the gear, and buckets of knowledge about the environment and enjoying yourself in the outdoors. According to Venus, this was going to be our big year. We were booked from mid-April through the very beginning of November, and though our work was cut out for us and I was going to be a husk of my former self by Thanksgiving, this season was going to put us on the map and maybe enable us to hire help for the following year. Oh, and finance our entire existence during the off-season. Beyond the excitement I shared with my friends, though, I felt a void of uncertainty. If we had more money and put on more tours, I’d have to bring on another camp chef or two. Though teaching people some of my secrets gave me a little tingle of excitement, would I end up sitting in an office somewhere like Venus? Only get on the trail once in a blue moon?
That churning uncertainty of success depended on having a bang-up season this summer, so I’d been in prep mode since the holidays had passed, squeezing in menu planning and experimentation around the hours I worked in someone else’s kitchen to help make ends meet. Besides, I was always trying to save money so I could move out of Mom’s house maybe before I turned thirty—or she had to go into an old folks home, she joked. I’d quit the kitchen the week before and had just enough time to get everything in order before Lucia and I hit the trail with our first group in a few weeks.
This afternoon, I was trying to perfect a camp-cooked cinnamon-apple turnover, delicious and delicate pockets of gooey, sharp-sweet goodness ensconced in a pastry crust. The crust was the most challenging part, but I was convinced beyond reason that I could get it exactly the way I wanted on the trail. I’d been wrapping raw pastry pockets in parchment paper and foil and burying them under my coals with an almost religious fervor and crossed fingers. It was the perfect dessert to bake in this ancient way while the rest of dinner cooked above. I could definitely do it in a clay vessel, but if I wanted to make it out on the trail, that wouldn’t be available to me. I had to travel light without sacrificing flavor and quality, so if I couldn’t figure out how to do it with foil and paper, I wouldn’t be able to do it at all.
I was singeing my fingers, unwrapping one charred packet from my newest batch, hoping for improvement over the previous disaster, when I heard my phone ringing from…somewhere. I swore and glanced around, wondering where I’d set it down, which could be anywhere. My phone was not my friend and liked to walk off unattended. It wasn’t on the picnic table or the pale corner of the concrete patio. It was probably somewhere in the grass where I’d step on it, but then I felt a telltale vibration in the back pocket of my jeans. I dropped the subpar turnover to the ground between my feet, licked cinnamon-sugar filling from my fingers, and grabbed my phone on its last ring. Mom.
She said, “First, don’t panic.”
“I’m serious. I don’t want you driving over here like a maniac.”
“Promise me you won’t panic.”
“I promise that I won’t speak to you for a week if you don’t stop preparing me and tell me what happened.”
“Lucia just came into the ER. She broke her femur in a climbing accident.”
I was off the phone and in my junker of a truck in a panic-induced sprint after dumping sand over the embers of my dying cook fire. Lucia had been my friend since we’d both been in single digits, but in the smallest nod to Mom’s maniac comment, I took the drive to the hospital at a speed just short of taking the corners on two of my four nearly bald tires. I ran from the parking lot to the main entrance, squeezed into a full elevator, and speed-walked the hallways until I reached the last turn to my mom’s station on the surgical floor, where I slowed to an amble to fake a nonchalance I in no way felt. I knew I’d get nowhere in the ER without her, not being Lucia’s family, but I needed to find out what was going on.
Mom was at the far edge of the station working on a tablet with her head bowed, but her mom radar kicked in, and she glanced up and spotted me before I was even within range of her voice. She checked her watch and nailed me with a disapproving but resigned expression I’d seen countless times before. I shrugged in response. A leopard couldn’t change its spots, so why expect it to?
I said, “How is she?”
“I told you not to panic.”
“I didn’t panic. I just hurried.”
Mom studied each of my eyes in turn. I swore she could measure my blood pressure and heart rate just by the exact dilation of my pupils. Of course, that was more obvious in my blue eyes than Mom’s chocolate brown ones. Apparently, I’d somehow inherited this color from my sperm donor father. I’d gotten her hair though, thick, dark, and unruly. “I wish you’d be more careful.”
“People thought you were reckless having me on your own when you did.” It was my standard comeback, and it still made a point even after years of trotting it out like this.
“Those people weren’t my mother, who I might have listened to. Or maybe I would have reconsidered if I’d known how much trouble you’d turn out to be.” Even though her mom had died a year before I was born, which had been both devastating to Mom and had made her take my conception into her own hands, her smile meant things were right between us again. But maybe not right with Lucia, given where this conversation had started out? As if reading my mind, Mom said, “Harper, she’ll be fine. They just reduced the break and put her in traction, but she’s going to need surgery and months to recover. We can go down to see her soon, but have you called Venus yet?”
“I…wait. Did you say months?” My friends (and some culinary-school enemies) called me a genius with peppers, but in many other parts of my life and intellect, I was the first to admit I could be less than the brightest bulb. My mom was a surgical nurse. I was edging perilously close to thirty. I knew a broken femur was serious enough to require all sorts of hardware to repair and subsequent rehab, but I’d been too distracted by my (yes) panic to put all of that together into what it really meant.
At Mom’s insistence, I found my way to the waiting room to sit with a smattering of friends and relatives attached to other patients under the knife. I still had some time before Lucia was stable enough for me to see her, and I used those minutes to sit in the corner and call Venus, who’d been Lucia’s friend from college before joining us in the business. She balanced her work with The Misfitters with other accounting clients, mostly small businesses in the greater Charlotte area. Without Lucia, we were doomed, and the call went about as I had anticipated (dreaded).
Venus made it to the hospital in just slightly longer than it had taken me, a speed influenced by the fact that she was whip-smart enough to know what this meant for us with just the barest details from me. She crashed into the uncomfortable chair next to me, her loose afro bouncing with her movement, and summed up our situation in one word. “Doomed. T, we’re doomed.”
T was my nickname, one that had pretty much subsumed my given one in all aspects of my life—except with Mom. T for tea, which I drank constantly, always hot, sometimes caffeinated. We joked that it was another thing I’d inherited from my sperm donor father since he was apparently English. I wore the nickname with unwarranted affection and pride; it made me feel like a me that was separate from the kid I’d used to be.
I said “How about we wait until she’s out of surgery tomorrow before going completely to the worst case?”
“We’re doomed even with the best case. If she just regularly broke her leg, she wouldn’t be able to guide in six to eight weeks, and our first group is booked in less than three.” Venus was like Mom’s sister by another mister—a very different mister. They were both pragmatic to the pessimistic extreme, which made Venus a great business partner but a very poor waiting room companion. I was surprised she even recognized a best case even though I couldn’t say she was wrong. “Can we just—”
“Fine, okay. We’ll hold off on agreeing on our impossible situation until Lucia can participate with us. What was she doing rock climbing so close to the season?” Her hands were up and open like she was beseeching Mother Nature. “You’d think six months out in the woods twenty-four seven would be more than enough to satisfy anyone. I told you we should have insured her.”
“We couldn’t afford to.”
“Blah blah,” which was Venus’s comeback whenever she had no comeback, a rare enough occasion that I should have been happy to bring it about, but hospitals were not places known for happiness.
I settled in to wait, trying and failing not to think. The sterile room offered no distractions, and Venus hated when I found temporary fascination in her hair, which was both relaxed and kinky, coils of shiny black informed by her Jamaican mother and Irish father. They were the weirdest couple, ever, but still married after over thirty years, which was matched only by Lucia’s very Catholic, Puerto Rican parents and their five kids, of which Lucia was smack in the middle. How could the three of us not be The Misfitters? But how could we remain The Misfitters without Lucia Maria Consuela Guzman?
She was the driving force behind the company and the glue between Venus and me. Mom had piles of gap-toothed pictures of Lucia and me from primary school, and Lucia had hundreds of images of Venus and her at UNC, silly or drunk or traipsing through the woods on trips to the western part of the state or up into Virginia, as anyone in Lucia’s vicinity was recruited to do. The woman was silly about trees and trails, boulders and mountains, and everything in between. When the three of us were on trails together, we got no end of looks from other hikers, who were so uniformly white in this part of the country that I supposed we were quite a sight, even with my pale, freckled self.
The one thing the three of us had in common was how we confounded our parents. The most outdoorsy thing the Guzmans did was haul extended family into the same park every year for a massive cookout, covering what seemed like an acre of grass with a patchwork quilt of blankets and towels, little brown kids running everywhere, and me, the token white invited solely for my tres leches cake, which I made pans and pans of in preparation and yet had to keep some aside or Mom and I would end up empty-handed. Venus came from a small family of self-proclaimed “indoor cats,” who found their living room couch a far preferable location for parking themselves than the closest national forest.
We’d started The Misfitters with our pooled gear plus generous donations from our perplexed families, who would probably have preferred to support us in something less likely to fail spectacularly. The first year, three of us carried ridiculously heavy packs, lightening the load for our guests, but we still leaned on friends to help us make multiple trips from my garage to the closest trailhead to craft the kind of camping experience people would write home about—or tell their friends about. Amazingly, they doled out five stars and exclamations despite collapsed tents, underdone potatoes, and one unfortunate night without toilet paper that had Venus and me trekking through the woods back to the nearest store to pick up the needed supplies before people woke for their morning bathroom requirements.
In the waiting room, Venus remained buried in her phone, probably tallying up how hard The Misfitters were going to be hit financially in the best and worst cases. I’d learned that numbers were the way she dealt with stress. Lucia hit the trails or went out climbing, and I turned to food. Sometimes, I wondered how I wasn’t 300 pounds, but I was blessed (or cursed, according to Mom) with a nervous energy that kept me flitting here and there and burning off the unending tasting of my culinary experiments.
I was about to try not thinking about The Misfitters’ future again when Mom found us. “You can see her. From what I hear, her family’s on their way and will be here any minute.”
Venus and I both read between the lines well enough to know Mom was telling us that if we had anything we needed to talk with Lucia about, we’d better do it fast. Once the Guzmans descended, Lucia would be monitored around the clock by one or another of her countless relatives. I tucked that knowledge away but asked the most immediately important question. “How is she?”
Venus said, “It doesn’t matter since I’m going to throttle her for this stunt.”
“She’s fine.” Mom squeezed my shoulder to reinforce her professional opinion. “A little loopy from the pain meds.”
“How could you tell?” Venus again, sarcasm lowering her voice.
I said, “Should I regret calling you?”
She sighed. “Sorry.”
Mom led the way down to the ER, where we found Lucia flat out in a bed, the right side of her face scraped, her left wrist in a brace, and her right leg in traction. What a mess. When she saw us, she smiled before starting to cry. “Guys, you came! I’m so sorry.”
I knew the tears were an effect of the drugs, which meant I shouldn’t let them turn me into melted butter, but I was also so relieved to see her alive and in pretty much one piece that I found myself on the edge of crying myself.
Luckily, Venus was sober enough for both of us. “What were you thinking?”
“I know!” Now she was really crying and saying something in such rapid Spanish that I only caught about a third of it despite being relatively fluent. The gist was that she was endlessly sorry, sorry in such a dramatically Latin way that you couldn’t help but forgive her. But, if my mediocre Spanish was right, beyond the more and more flagrant apologies was something about fixing it.
“Wait, what?” I asked. “How are you going to make this better?”
Lucia glanced around the room as if looking for spies, but her answer was one word and unmistakably clear. “Mia.”
Mia Renata Mary Guzman was six years older than Lucia and had been my personal hero for a huge chunk of my childhood, but I hadn’t seen her or heard her name spoken around the Guzman household for a good fifteen years. Mami and Papi Guzman had come to Florida from Puerto Rico after they’d gotten married and had migrated up to Charlotte when they’d had Mia. She was the golden child, firstborn, the first-generation dream: smart, beautiful, athletic. She went off to UNC Asheville on a scholarship and Guzman ticker-tape parade and came home for Christmas that first year changed in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Whatever it was, the Guzman adults whispered endlessly about it. After that, she didn’t come home again, and the one time I asked about her, my question was met with an icy feigned deafness. Even Lucia wouldn’t talk about her when it was just the two of us. She was so neatly and completely ex-communicated from the Guzman clan that I hadn’t even thought of her for the last decade.
Mia was the one who had introduced Lucia to the outdoors, having literally stumbled onto the woods outside of town during her stint with the high school cross-country team. She’d infected Lucia with a passion for greenspace and natural quiet, the feeling of moving through the world under your own motive power, deeper and deeper away from the distractions of modern life and into something slower and more nuanced. I remembered following along behind the two of them and Mia laughing at my less-than-graceful progress between trees and over decaying leaves. “Harper, we’re never going to see any wildlife with you tromping around like that.” But she’d said it with a smile that had melted my middle school heart.
Looking back, she’d been my first crush, though I hadn’t necessarily recognized it at the time. That had come a couple years later, after Mia was written out of the picture, and I’d fallen for June Parker and had definitive proof of my ultimate queerness.
But even that was over a dozen years ago, so when Lucia said her sister’s name, I didn’t know who or what she was talking about at first. “Uh, are you high?”
“I had a lot of time to think when I was waiting to be evacuated.”
“Okay, but then you were, like, high on pain?”
Venus said, “Shut up, T, and let her talk.”
I crossed my arms and sat back.
Lucia looked at Venus. “Mia is my oldest sister.” She turned to me, frowning, which accentuated the scrapes and bruises on her face. “The family stopped talking to her, but she never stopped talking to me. Or at least writing. Emails and texts. I mean, she stopped for a while, years, actually. But then she was back, at least kind of. I’m sorry I never told you, but she made me promise to keep it a secret. She was afraid if anyone knew, she’d be forced out completely, and, no offense, but you’re, like, the queen of loose lips. And practically family.”
“I would’ve kept my mouth shut for Mia.”
“You would’ve wanted to but you also would’ve failed completely.”
Venus, ever our pragmatic leader, intervened again. “What does this mysterious sister have to do with saving our asses? And why is she mysterious, anyway?”
“She’s a wilderness guru and certified guide, so she could do what I do blindfolded. And she’s gay, which didn’t go down well with my family—or her, at first, I guess.”
Mia was gay? I couldn’t believe I didn’t know that, had never known that. “But I’m gay!” I said. Unhelpful and known by all, but true. “And your parents love me.”
“You’re not their daughter.”
Before she could say more, we heard the rising swell of the Guzman clan coming down the hallway toward us, and by the look on Lucia’s face, I knew this conversation was over…for now.