Simon had been babysitting Harley and was almost late for the event that later became known as the marshmallow incident.
He rushed toward the flickering light in the distance just ahead and off to the side of the hiking trail through this part of the Eerie Woods and stopped only briefly to examine the ground in front of him, noting the multiple footprints in the dirt, all recent tracks and more than could be explained by six pairs of feet. It meant this part of the trail was beginning to get some use again now that it had been several months since the Eerie Examiner last reported any mysterious disappearances, exsanguinated forest creatures, or overly pushy life insurance salespeople in the general area.
Simon smiled at the thought of a weirdness investigation job well done as he crunched through the twigs and thin carpet of newly fallen autumn leaves, following the smell of smoke and the sound of laughter and raised voices until he came to the edge of the clearing and noted the crowd around the campfire.
"If you catch your hair on fire again, don't go blaming me!"
That was Janet Donner, clad in striped leggings, a blue flowered dress, and a military-style jacket, crouched near the fire holding a long, pointed stick. On the end of it was a marshmallow she was toasting over the flame to golden brown perfection. She was laughing and shouting at Melanie Monroe, who held her own double-pronged stick on which at least five marshmallows were currently aflame, their outsides turning black and their insides softening to a sticky goo that was beginning to ooze onto the sleeve of her leather jacket.
Melanie held her hair back with her other hand as she tried to blow out the flames.
"That was…one…time!" she answered Janet in between puffs. She finally succeeded in extinguishing the marshmallows. "They're still edible," she said, scrutinizing the sad mess of now-charred sugar at the end of the stick. "Sort of."
"Okay, so far that's Melanie: 10, marshmallows: 0," said Tod McNulty. He was sitting on a log on the other side of the fire, wearing a subdued version of his usual punk ensemble that involved sensible black hiking boots and no accessories save a couple of stud earrings. He broke a chocolate bar in two, placed one section on half a graham cracker, then sandwiched his own toasted marshmallow between it and the other half.
He looked up then and caught Simon watching them.
"Simon!" he called, patting the empty space on the log next to him. "Join us!"
Simon moved closer to the fire, but didn't sit down. "Hi, guys," he said. "Where's—?"
"Marshall?" Janet finished, with a roll of her eyes. "He went off with You-Know-Who about five minutes ago."
Melanie and Tod exchanged a look.
Okay, so Dash was here—or had at least been here—and from the looks of things, nobody was entirely happy about it.
"They weren't arguing, were they?" he asked. He thought for a second about when he'd last seen Marshall and Dash, and what they'd been fighting about. "Nobody mentioned anything about were-Jaguars? Or grand theft auto?"
"Nah," Tod said, looking confused. "Nothing like that."
"They weren't arguing," Melanie confirmed, which made Simon feel a little better. Aside from Dash, she was the one of Marshall's friends least likely to bother to soften the truth. "Dash just showed up out of nowhere and asked Mars if they could talk is all. I'm sure he'll be back soon."
Janet coughed, and it sounded an awful lot like the word "stalker."
Tod held out one of the pointy sticks. "Come sit," he said, before Simon could suggest that maybe it would be a good idea if he went to check on Marshall. "Make a s'more before Melanie ruins all the marshmallows. Or starts a forest fire."
Simon considered, wondering what excuse he could make. It wasn't that he didn't like Marshall's friends. It was just that he'd never really spent time with them when Marshall wasn't there.
Janet caught Simon's nervous gaze. "Don't worry," she said. "We're not letting Melanie have anything to do with the fire. Tod made it by himself with something like ten minutes and one match."
"Wow," Simon said, impressed. Lacking any real excuse, he sat, took a marshmallow from the bag next to Tod, and impaled it on the end of the stick.
"The secret's in having proper tinder," Tod said. He shrugged. "I was a Boy Scout once."
"He was a great Boy Scout," said Melanie, as she speared another couple of marshmallows. "As long as nobody asked him to read a map."
Melanie Monroe had, of course, never been a Boy Scout, but Devon Wilde had. Simon wondered if she was merely repeating a well-known legend among the high school crowd here, or if she was unconsciously drawing from memories that weren't her own. She claimed she couldn't do the latter, but there were times when she said things that gave Marshall and those of his friends who had known Devon pause.
"That was one time," Tod said, shaking his head.
"Wait," said Janet, grabbing Melanie's marshmallow stick from her before she could lower it into the flames again. "Was this Troop 666's infamous three-mile hike?"
"Yes," said Tod. "I'm never going to live that down, am I?"
"Probably not," Melanie said. "On the other hand, you were the only one who knew which of the plants and mushrooms were edible, so you've got to give yourself credit for everyone not starving." Then, to Janet, "Give that back. You take forever with those."
"Because I actually toast them instead of setting them on fire," Janet said.
"This hike," said Simon to Tod as Janet and Melanie continued to debate the merits of slow toasting versus burning, "you weren't on the west side of the woods were you? About a mile in, near that group of oak trees that look like they have faces?"
Everybody stopped and stared at Simon.
"How did you know?" Tod asked.
"Oh, um," said Simon, looking down. "It's just that everybody gets lost there. Well, unless you're wearing some of your clothes inside out. Marshall and I think there's probably fae activity in the area. So, you know, odds are it wasn't your fault."
Everybody continued to stare.
Simon was about to make some excuse about why he really needed to go look for Marshall right now when Tod stood up and pumped his fist in the air.
"Yes!" he said. "Vindicated! After all these years! I should ask Simon about these things more often."
Simon took advantage of the distraction to quickly dip his marshmallow into the flames. He watched it for the space of a few heartbeats after it caught fire, just long enough to make the outside black and the inside hot and gooey, before he blew it out and assembled his own s'more.
When he looked up again, everyone was still staring at him.
"Now that," Tod said to Melanie, "is how you burn marshmallows."
Melanie grabbed her marshmallow stick from Janet and handed it to Simon. "Here. Cook mine."
As Simon made her a s'more, Janet asked him, "So, is there anything else weird about these woods we should know about?"
"Well…" Simon began. The temperature was starting to drop, so he untied the jacket from around his waist and shrugged into it before deciding to start with the least terrifying: the UFO landing site, the jackalope king, the small pool that, if you looked into it on the night of a full moon that fell on a Tuesday, would show you your reflection as it would have looked had you made your last major decision a different way.
He expected them to lose interest at that point and go back to talking about whatever people their age talked about when he wasn't around, but instead, Tod said, "Wow. What else?"
He made more s'mores as he explained about the sasquatches and had just launched into the story about how he and Marshall had found the abandoned cabin where the ghosts of hikers who hadn't been as lucky as Troop 666 met for an annual reunion, when he heard the sounds of two sets of footsteps crunching through the undergrowth.
"There's Mars and Dash," he said, with an inward sigh of relief.
Then he saw Janet drop her toasting stick. The marshmallow on its end sizzled away in the flame as Janet, oblivious to its fate, stared, mouth open in the direction the sounds were coming from.
Melanie followed her gaze. "Holy shit," she murmured.
It was Marshall and Dash, walking side by side, not touching, or even looking at each other, really. They were just talking in quiet, low voices. Simon couldn't quite make out what they were saying, something about meeting at the World O' Stuff, which had to be coordinated because Dash technically wasn't allowed inside without Marshall or Simon to chaperone. It wasn't even close to being an argument; Dash was smiling a sideways half-smile and Marshall was laughing and shaking his head at something Dash had just said.
What they'd been doing before had been more than talking. That much was obvious by the way their hair was in complete disarray, Dash's sporting more than a couple of noticeable leaves. It was difficult to make out the state of Dash's dark slacks and t-shirt in the low light, but there was definitely dirt all over the front of Marshall's jeans. Possibly on the back, too, but it would be near impossible to tell, because…
Marshall was wearing Dash's coat.
Holy shit indeed.
They reached the campfire and Simon saw Marshall briefly brush the back of his hand against the back of Dash's before they broke apart, Dash taking a seat next to Simon as Marshall settled on the other side of the fire.
"Hey, Simon," Marshall said as he wrapped the long dark coat around him like a blanket, taking a small moment to bury his head in the fabric and breathe in. "You made it. Sorry we're late."
Simon started to reply, then realized he wasn't sure what he was supposed to say.
Apparently, everybody else was having the same problem. Melanie's gaze kept drifting from her s'more to a point somewhere off in the distance. Janet was stabbing at the fire with an intensity that suggested she wanted to kill it. Tod had picked up the bag of marshmallows and was now seemingly engrossed in the nutritional information printed on the back.
"Can I have that?" Dash asked, indicating the just-assembled s'more in Simon's hands. Simon handed the s'more to him, wordlessly, trying hard not to act as though something profound in the balance of the universe had just shifted in a way he didn't entirely understand.
Dash caught Simon's look anyway and shrugged. "What? He was cold. I'm not."
Marshall heard him. "Yeah," he said. He and Dash grinned at each other and then quickly looked away.
Okay. Everything was normal. Simon could pretend to go with that.
"So," Marshall said. "What are we talking about?"
"Not this," Simon almost blurted out. He stopped himself just in time and instead contributed, "Um…"
Tod was now intently studying the recipe for pie crust on the side of the graham cracker box. "Ghost reunions," he said, without looking up.
"Yeah," said Janet, giving the fire a particularly vicious poke. "Ghost reunions."
"Oh, the cabin?" said Marshall. "Yeah, I should take you guys some year. Be warned, though, you're going to hear a lot of 'Who had the grizzliest death?' debates. And there's a group of former members of the First Methodist Ladies' Prayer Circle and Hiking Club who all cheat like crazy at poker."
"You gonna take me to this cabin?" Dash asked.
Marshall looked up and their eyes met for a long moment. "I'll take you anywhere you want," he said at last. "Just ask."
Tod choked on the piece of graham cracker he was eating.
Janet knocked a log out of the fire, then coughed as she shielded her face from the resulting sparks and smoke.
Melanie made a noise that sounded like it was either a sneeze or she was trying not to laugh.
Simon looked back and forth between all of them, now even more unsure of how he was supposed to be reacting.
Dash and Marshall appeared oblivious to all of this.
Melanie stood up. "I'm toasting more marshmallows," she announced.
Unfortunately, everyone let her.