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Keslee Seegmiller, 2023 1st Place Fiction

Submissions are open to one piece of fiction completed for coursework during the last calendar year. Submissions should not exceed 20 pages. Keslee Seegmiller wrote the 1st place submission in the Fiction Category for the 2023 President’s Writing Awards.

About Keslee

Keslee Seegmiller on President's Day outside of the Idaho State Capital.

Keslee Seegmiller is pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with a Minor in Spanish, singing her soul in the arts. She loves to cheer others on, eat homemade soup, and play volleyball. Born and raised in Idaho, Keslee and her husband are excited to rear another generation here.

Winning Manuscript – Butterfly

I lay on my side cocooned in my sleeping bag. I am hot. The sun coming through the trees heats up my haven. I hear the creek trickling in the background. I bring one hand out of my sleeping bag and press it against the canyon wall – rough, earthen. I trail my hand along the dirt beneath me. My sleeping bag is cradled by a person-sized ledge a small ways up on the canyon wall. I am 22, looking for some rest. I feel the lump of my journal and study materials under the edge of my pillow. I rub the worn leather scripture case as I feel my nose drip from the pollinated air, and I sneeze loudly and rapidly, three times. I taste gummy and groggy from my nap. I roll to my back and stop and stare at the game of shadows and light the green leaves display on the branches around me. I breathe in and out slowly, embracing the tranquility.

I want my family to experience this. A smell of Dutch oven cooking wafts from further down the canyon. That must be Ian making dinner. Will he come and hold me here in this place? From outside of the canyon, I hear the occasional car zip by on the highway. If I stood up, if I climbed a bit farther, I could leave this canyon. But I stay. I unzip my steamy sleeping bag and sit crisscross applesauce with my back against the canyon wall. Below there are crawdads and lizards and people I trust. But I stay. I breathe in and out and let myself be still and simple.

I close my eyes and focus on the creek. I hear the wind. Small particles of rock in the surrounding area make gentle crumbling sounds. Children pass by. I hear splashing and laughter. I breathe in trees and sun and dirt. I hear rummaging in the underbrush and displacement of rock. A nurtured tone softly sings the song “All of Me.” It gets louder as he grows nearer. Finally, a gentle touch on my knee knocks asking to enter my space. I stretch forth my arms and find safe familiarity around his waist. Still with my eyes closed I guide my husband to me. He settles over the edge and echoes my position against the canyon wall. Arms still securely around him, I lean my face into the softness of his neck. He puts his arm around me, and I breathe in and out and in.

I feel a slight pressure on my shoulder blades. I begin to smell pink. Ian withdraws his arm, but I hold tight to him, my eyes closed and face hidden in him.

“Here,” says Ian. He gently scoots away from me. Hands on both my shoulders he rotates me to look at my back. He is always equipped with a pocketknife.

“What’re you?” I interrupt.

He cuts through the fabric in the back of my T-shirt – fabric that has been stretching against the stress of whatever is beginning to protrude from my back. Ian reaches one hand into hole he has carved in the back of my shirt. He frees something that is struggling, moving, alive.

“You’re beautiful,” he whispers. I feel his lips brush through my hair and then onto my ear.

“Thank you.” I whisper.

The pressure on my shoulder blades has changed. I feel the added weight.

“Jump,” Ian says.

I stand, still feeling so safe and so loved. I feel better fortified. I feel powerful. My wings, feathered and strong, stretch behind me. I step off the ledge.


Ian makes me feel so safe I could sprout wings. My first pair was a bright orange and gold, stealing life and color from my orange sleeping bag and the canyon sunlight I had basked in. The summer we went to the ocean my wings were the gray blue of the sea. I only wished I could carry Ian with me over the waxing and waning tide and the vast expanse of spraying salt and whipping wind. At home, in our bed, my wings are green and brown – earthy and happy.

Have you ever loved someone so much they gave you butterflies? We didn’t question it. We spent nights laughing and talking and pondering possibilities.

We went back to that place, the canyon of orange rock and lizards where the river held side creeks teeming with crawdads. We went back to feel safe and to fly. Ian brought all of his gear: water filter, down sleeping bag, and rock-climbing equipment. We would find a different haven in a different part of the canyon far from any wayward hikers. The week would be ours.


“Tell me the story of the stars.” I lean into Ian on our third night alone in God’s nature. Deep into the canyon our sleeping bags rest, nuzzled side by side, bottoms dusted by the cracker crumbs of the canyon floor.

“Well,” Ian fiddles with the ring on my left hand, holding the diamond tight and swiveling it repeatedly against my neighboring fingers. “There is a horseman in the big dipper…”

My wings form during Ian’s recounting of the North Star. They are orange and gold like the beginning, only this time accompanied by bright fiery red feathers, sprinkled amongst the rest.

“My Phoenix.” Ian laughs deeply and kisses my hand.

I tumble up to greet the stars, holding Ian’s hand until the last possible second. I am in the sky; he keeps the earth in place.

I awake to Ian gently shaking my shoulder. It is too dark to be morning.

“Why do I smell burning?” he asks. Confused, I sniff through my stuffy, allergy-ridden nose.

“Ian, we’re camping. People build campfires.” I raise my eyebrows at him.

“In the middle of the night?” he retorts.

“Makes more sense than in the middle of the day!” I regret my outburst as I see that he is genuinely worried. It reminds me of the nights he gets out of bed to double check that both the doors in our small one-bedroom apartment are deadbolted shut. The familiar feeling that “something shouldn’t be in the house but check every room just in case” jangles like ice in the pit of my stomach.

I pass Ian the flashlight. “I’m sorry, Babe. Let’s figure this out.”

Even though I have visited the canyon every year the past seven years, I still don’t know why the siren sounds. Like clockwork, every noon, from above the canyon wall – or was it further into the small town – a slow growl turns into a squeal. I’ve heard it is hard to tell time in the canyon, and they don’t want climbers to get lost. I’ve heard flashfloods happen at the snap of a finger, and there are only three exits: the dirt road, a trail, and a few miles west an old rebar ladder. If the siren tells time, or is a ritual practice for disaster, I don’t know.

We fumble to a stand, and I take a step into the blackness almost losing my balance. My wings steady me. There is an unmistakable haze in the air, almost pulsating.

“I don’t think this is a controlled burn.” Ian says.

“What do we do?” I wonder. “Head back to the car?”

“Nope. The fire is coming from that direction.” He points back the way we’d hiked in, up canyon to where there are sanctioned climbing walls, a road, and even a pool. Smoke is wafting down the canyon towards us. Or is it fog? Why is everything so still? Ian methodically loads our packs, demonstrating a precision and calm that I don’t feel. “Leah, we need to get down the canyon and away from the fire.”

“Do you think we can make it to the rebar ladder?” I worriedly suggest as I look down canyon.

“I don’t know.” Ian whispers.

“Okay.” I numbly respond. My pack fits easily over my back as my wings have retreated. My feet move in steady rhythm with Ian’s. The forty-something-foot canyon wall to our left no longer feels sheltering; it becomes a giant fence caging us in. The blackness is twisted as smoke blocks the starlight, paving the path for its own wild light that latches onto and singes the brush, the trees, the flowers that we had walked by just days before. We start hiking at a faster clip. My body heats to match the terror in my heart and the blaze of the fire I know is pursuing us.

Ian encourages us to it at least make it to where the abandoned man-bridge joins the two sides of the canyon. We could try to throw our rope up and loop it with the bridge to raise ourselves up that way. The bridge is down canyon another mile at least and way too many feet above our heads. I’ve never done a pullup, a singular pullup, before in my life. I know the rebar ladder is past the man-bridge, but I don’t know where. I have climbed it at least once before, but that was in daylight. Now it is dark, there are trees and rocks, and surely the smoke is already rising up my throat and out my mouth and coiling out my nose and ears as if I were a caterpillar or Gandalf or dying. Where is my herculean strength caused by adrenalin? Where are my fiery wings to face this fire? Free solo climbing the canyon wall would kill me. Just what Ian needs, seeing my head bashed in before the flames claim him.

“The creek!” I exclaim.

“Water!” Ian and I realize in unison. We change the course of our path and all but sprint to the banks of the creek. This pack really is heavy.

“Soak in the water! It’ll create a protective barrier,” Ian instructs as he urges me forward. We make the plunge. I ignore the cold and the rocks and strive to lay still in the water. My pack counterbalances my body’s urge to float. I sink safely between fantasy and reality. This is what it feels like to smoke. The siren begins to sound, reverberating, penetrating. I have no idea what time it is. Ian grabs my hand, jerking me back to a stand.

“What are you doing?” I question. “We can wait it out in the water and let the fire burn over us.”

“It’s not going to work. Too risky. It will be harder and harder to breathe with this smoke, even if our bodies stay submerged in the creek.” Ian’s voice pounds in my head.

“This smoke. This smoke is hard.” I wheeze and shake from the cold water or the terror.

“Fire burns oxygen. When all this dry stuff goes up there won’t be any oxygen left for us to breathe!” Ian shakes now too. I see he is a patriarch floundering where no patriarch wishes to be.

I don’t know how fast a fire moves. I do know that the game “the ground is lava” has never felt so real for me. The wildfire is alive and bigger than me, a monster. I hear him crackle and growl and snap.

“So, we climb out,” I say. So we climb out, Ian says. So climb out, we do. Ian fishes our rope and helmets out of our stuff, yet they seem useless to me. We abandon the rest of our waterlogged packs and keep moving down canyon rejoining the canyon wall. Top rope or lead climb are out of the question. There will be no anchor points. There will be no eyeholes. This isn’t the place, and we don’t have the time. I doubt anyone has every climbed this portion of the canyon wall before; it is chaotic, jutting, and wild. There will be no belayer. There will be no rope. Free solo.

I clip my helmet on. At least I won’t scratch my head when I snap my spine. Ian throws the rope coil over one arm like a purse and hands me one end.

“For if – just in case.” Ian hints at what neither one of us wants to think about. I squeeze him into a rushed hug.

“I love you!” I vow.

“I love you,” he returns, and then we turn to face the wall.

We climb simultaneously, side by side up the treacherous unknown. The nearing blaze refutes any possibility of Ian being my usual sideline coach, telling me my steps before I take them. It also prevents him climbing up first and then pulling me up with the rope. The fire monster licks and sniffs our footprints on the floor below, and we continue on. A newfound mantra drums in my head in an eight-count pattern: “YOU-can-DO-this-AB-so-LU-tely!”

“Use your legs! You are strong!” Ian encourages from his side of the wall.

“And, man, do you have beefy arms!” I try my best to be silly and sound normal. We do this every day. Right.

I get into a rhythm of finding footholds and gripping cracks. I abandon my usual coping methods of deep breaths or singing as each new inhale now drags grit down my esophagus and into my lungs.

My wings begin to grow. I have never witnessed wings in moments other than love and safety. This is the least likely time for me to turn all butterfly. Yet, it feels right. I am halfway up a canyon wall in the middle of a wildfire, and I am capable; I am strong; I am safe to be who I truly am. My wings stretch behind me in all of their glory, and I keep climbing. By some miracle, none of our footholds give way. Neither one of us falls only to hang by one finger or for the other to attempt to hold their weight on the rope while in their own precarious balance. Ian and I finish in unison. We lay on our backs at the top of the inferno and laugh until we cry.


Somehow, we walk all the way into the little town above the canyon and find our favorite little pie shop.

“I would like a slice of cherry pie please.” I smile at the lady behind the counter.

“But the volcano one has chocolate and peanut butter.” Ian hovers behind me pointing to the menu.

“Volcano!” I cut into him. “I am not about to eat a pie named ‘Volcano’ after what we just went through!”

“Right. Sorry.” He retreats.

The lady behind the counter seems frozen. Her eyes bug out, and her mouth wobbles from disgust to terror to pity and then to confusion. Then I remember what a state we are in: streaked with ash, red rock, and sweat. My ripped T-shirt holds drooping wings, and Ian clutches his mangy rope like a beloved baby.

“Sit down.” The lady behind the counter gestures to the nearest table. “Have some pie, loves.” We collapse into the metal chairs, at table for two. “Cherry?” she looks at me, and I nod vehemently. “Volcano?” she looks to Ian, and he responds:

“On second thought, I’ll take the Sour Cream Lemon.”