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       Smoke, p.11

           Catherine McKenzie
 
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  And so then it wasn’t just a possibility, it was already a baby. A baby she could have that I couldn’t.

  “I’m so fucking sick of hearing you talk about that,” I said. “Get over it already.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “It’s your excuse for everything. ‘I had to give up my career because of Carrie.’ ‘I had to move here because of Carrie.’ ‘I can’t do anything I want because of my kids.’ Blah, blah, blah. You chose all that, Mindy. Other people have kids who were sick, and they don’t make their whole life about it. And she’s fine, fine. She’s been fine for years. You just cling to your kids because you don’t know what to do with your own life.”

  “And you’re so different?”

  “I’m nothing like you.”

  “Right. That’s why you gave up the job you love because it might help you get pregnant. And now you’re angry at Ben, even though he didn’t ask you to do that. You keep making bad decisions, Beth. That’s the whole reason you can’t get pregnant.”

  “I can’t believe you’re bringing that up. I told you that in confidence, not so you could use it against me.”

  “I don’t even know what’s happening here. How did this become about you? Why is everything about you?”

  Mindy stood up then, her arms trying to fit into her coat.

  “This is what happens, right?” she said. “This is when you see whether your friends are really your friends. Pottery and hikes—that’s the easy stuff. But this right here . . . I guess I should’ve known better.”

  “So this is all my fault?”

  “Just forget it, okay? Forget I even exist. I’m sure that won’t be too hard to do.”

  She gave up trying to put on her coat and left the diner to the stares of those around us. And I just sat there, fuming, full of righteous rage because goddamn it, my fundamental point still applied, didn’t it?

  Oh, I’m such an amazing person.

  No wonder Ben was so quick to agree to a divorce.

  When I shake off my brief non-encounter with Mindy, I talk to two couples who lived near John Phillips to see if they saw anyone or anything around his house. It feels strange to be doing this with John himself in the room. He’s at the other end of it, past the sentry of beds, but I can feel his eyes on me, like something pressing gently into the space between my shoulders. I have a constant urge to turn around, as if I’ll find him standing right behind me in some kind of aha moment. But of course that’s all in my head, like so much of my life, and so I keep my eyes facing front as I try to focus on what his neighbors are telling me.

  The upshot of which is, “We saw and heard nothing.”

  Both of the couples I talk to—young, exhausted, grieving for the potential loss of their homes, their things—ask me the same thing: Is it his fault? They want to know who put them here, who might have taken away everything they have, and whether the old man hunched on his camp bed had something to do with it. I give them the same response—I don’t know what happened yet, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. They shouldn’t jump to conclusions, though, and remember, he’s already lost everything.

  But the way they steal looks over my shoulder at John, well, those looks are much stronger than the one gently prodding at my back. If the fire claims their homes, John Phillips might need to be moved to another location for his own safety.

  When I’m done, I circle around the gym, feeling the pull of another conversation with John. When I finally stop in front of him, he seems to be expecting me.

  “They’s blaming me, yet?” he asks. He’s wearing the same hospital scrubs from yesterday, and there’s two days’ worth of beard growing gray on his chin.

  “No one’s blaming you, Mr. Phillips. Should they be?”

  A patch of sunlight falls across his face, and he blinks into it. He shudders, then sits up straighter, his back making a popping sound.

  “Have you seen the bathrooms here?” he asks.

  “No, I haven’t. They awful?”

  He leans forward and starts to tell me about his bladder being another casualty of his age. How he often feels like he did when he was a little boy, when the urge to go would take him by surprise and he’d stop playing and rush toward the nearest tree yelling to anyone that would listen, “I gotta pee!”

  He pauses for a moment, rubbing at the fabric of his hospital scrubs. He likes their soft give, he says, the way they make him feel cared for, even if only temporarily.

  “You were talking about the bathroom?” I prompt.

  “Ayuh. That’s right.” The, well, the urinal wasn’t the same as the one in his Nelson Elementary. That one was this round, tiled thing in the middle of the room that the kids would stand around. When they were done, they’d press a lever on the floor with their foot, and the water would whoosh down and away.

  “Whoosh,” he says. “Whoosh.”

  Whoever designed that bathroom had clearly forgotten what it was like to be a boy, John was certain, or at least, was never the target of other boys. They call it bullying now, but back then his father just called it “toughening up,” and John, apparently, needed a lot of it. That was the only explanation for how much time he spent with his head in the urinal, or shoved into a locker, or at the mercy of his father’s fists when he was stupid enough to complain about something that happened at school.

  Sometimes Kristy had been a bully too—he could admit that now. She didn’t get physical, but she sure could push him around with her words. He wondered if there was something about him that drew those kinds of people into his life. Did he give off some kind of weakness tone only some could hear? Was it like a dog whistle’s high-pitched call?

  Maybe that was it. Maybe that’s what explained those boys.

  My attention sharpens. “The boys who were bothering you?”

  They first showed up about a year ago, he says. Last summer that was, when he was doing his final stint of carpentry work, though he didn’t know that then.

  He was lying in his lumpy bed on a muggy summer night and had just gotten to sleep when a sound rang out like a shot. Bang! He got up and ran to the window, but he couldn’t see anything except the backs of a few slim shapes running off into the dark. He’d gone downstairs and found the first of many presents they’d leave him over the next year: a cow patty with a firecracker in it. It still had a wisp of smoke coming out of it, and the explosion left a smelly mess that blocked the front door. He’d left the back way and scraped off his front porch with a shovel, then gone round to the back of the property to get the hose and to see if they’d done any other damage. That’s when he found the beer cans and smelled that acrid citrusy smell that always reminded him of stinkweed.

  “Drinking and getting high on my property. Making a fool of me night after night. Making it so I couldn’t sleep, and I made mistakes at work and ended up getting fired. After thirty-two years! A man makes a couple of mistakes, and that’s all the chance they give him. That’s the only job I’ve ever known how to do.”

  “What about the police?” I ask. “How come you didn’t go to them sooner?”

  “Ha!” he says. “The police? The police are worthless.” Even though Kristy had said to tell them (well, he’d imagined she’d said it, he knew that, but he knew her well enough to know that’s what she would have told him to do), the police, when he finally went to them, had shaken their heads and written in their notepads and done nothing to stop any of it.

  John’s words cease suddenly, and his eyes get round like a cartoon character’s.

  “What is it?” I ask.

  He opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. He just makes a mwamp, mwamp, mwamp sound, like a guppy out of water.

  He raises a shaking hand and points to the other side of the gym.

  I turn to follow his finger. Honor is standing at the volunteer table unloading several Tupperware containers from a large carrier bag. There’s a slouching teenager standing next to her who looks vaguely familiar.

  “Him,
John finally manages to get out. “It’s him.”

  * * *

  From: Nelson County Emergency Services

  Date: Wed, Sept. 3 at 4:17 P.M.

  To: Undisclosed recipients

  Re: Cooper Basin Fire Advisory

  * * *

  Weather has become a factor in the Cooper Basin fire, as the forecast for the next several days is for windy, dry, and unseasonably warm temperatures. The fire’s rate of growth has doubled, and the blaze has now consumed more than 1,700 acres of brush and timber. Total personnel on-site exceeds 250 and is expected to climb to 500 by the end of the day tomorrow.

  The evacuation advisory for the area of West Nelson bounded by Oxford and Stephen Streets has been reinstated and expanded to include Broadview and Northway. A map of the area is attached. Residents are advised to pack important papers and personal items, and be ready to leave on short notice.

  More information is available at www.nelsoncountyemergencyservices.com.

  Because of the current unstable nature of the fire, advisories will be issued hourly until the situation has improved.

  CHAPTER 15

  Packed

  Elizabeth

  When I walk outside the elementary school, I notice the change in the weather immediately. The system I’ve been tracking since yesterday has swept into the valley; it’s now abnormally hot, dry, and windy. My hair whips around my face as I pull out my phone. And there’s the fire advisory I was dreading. The relatively slow nature of the burn has accelerated. Despite the all-hands-on-deck approach, the fire is having its way with the hillside up the back of Nelson Peak and is spreading to the west. I do a quick calculation; at this rate of progress, it will be at my front door in forty-eight hours.

  Goddamn it! Why is there only an advisory in place and not an evacuation order? What is Kara playing at? I feel a rush of anger, though I know it’s irrational. Kara’s the best in the business. If she can’t get this fire under control, no one can. My stomach flips with anxiety, a ripple of nausea trailing through my gut. We aren’t going to beat this one. Something deep inside of me is sure of it. And that means we’re going to lose everything. Our house. Our things. The life we built there under the aspens.

  It’s not lost on me that two days ago, I set something in motion that would likely result in me losing all that anyway. And in that moment, I thought I didn’t care enough about any of it, that I could leave everything behind, including Ben, and start over somewhere else.

  Well, ha. Ha, ha, ha.

  What an idiot I am. I care. I care about the photographs that are still scattered throughout our house. I care about the Counting Crows T-shirt I stole from Ben back in college that I’ve slept in so many times it’s caught my scent. I care about the cache of love letters Ben wrote me when we were apart.

  I care about the clothes I shouldn’t own tucked away in a room we’ve never used.

  And Ben. Ben. All I want right now is Ben.

  I tap out a text to him with shaking fingers: I’d really like to talk. I almost write the word please, but something stops me. Too desperate, perhaps. Too needy.

  I hold my phone and wait, but he doesn’t answer. I check the time. Classes have ended; there’s no reason for his silence other than the fact that he doesn’t want to talk to me. I dial his number, and the phone rings and rings and rings, but he doesn’t pick up. He hates voice mail, so I don’t even have the satisfaction of hearing his voice. Ben always answers his texts. Ben always answers his phone.

  Ben does not want to talk to me.

  My stomach turns again, and I rush to the side of the building. I don’t have time to find a trash can, so I fall to my knees next to the bushes and throw up with a foul familiarity. My body often betrays me in this way, particularly in moments of personal distress, like it’s trying to hurl the bad parts out of me along with the contents of whatever I last ate.

  The energy bar I’d grabbed from the glove box in my car doesn’t taste any better the wrong way around.

  And as I hold my own hair to keep it out of my body’s vengeful path, I can’t help but wonder, Will I have anything left to lose by morning?

  When I pull myself together, I know I should go back to work. I should take the information I’ve gleaned from John Phillips, the ID he gave me of the leader of the kids who’ve been harassing him, and involve Deputy Clark in formalizing it. But instead, all I do is tuck the paper containing the name—one I’m all too familiar with—into my pocket and point my car in another direction: home.

  When I pull up in front of our house, there’s a cloud of smoke swirling around it like it’s sitting in the middle of a set for a 1980s music video. But there’s a surprise too. Ben’s car is tucked into the carport, the engine still buzzing from having just been turned off.

  I enter the house through the unlocked front door, a trail of smoke following me in and mingling with our house smell, that particular mix of the inhabitants that seeps into any house and becomes unnoticeable until you’ve been away for a while.

  “Ben?”

  “Upstairs,” he says, his voice coming from a surprising direction. I thought he might be here to collect the rest of his writing things—what he’d once referred to as the detritus of his dreams, but couldn’t bring himself to throw out.

  The books Ben could never finish. The baby we could never produce.

  Our life was full of things we couldn’t achieve together, or apart.

  I take a left at the top of the stairs. At the end of the hall is the smallest bedroom in the house, the one the real estate agent told us would be “just perfect for a nursery.” We’d beamed at her then, convinced that this piece of the puzzle—a real house for us and our family—would fortify our recently made decision. On the day we got the keys to the house, we made love in that room, on the floor, all tender passion, and Ben said, “Shall we tell her where we made her?” as we lay curled together, the cool air marbling our skin.

  Ben’s on the floor now, sitting in front of a large plastic carton that’s half-full of baby clothes, folded in neat piles. Next to him are the rest of the closet’s contents, a whole year’s worth of gender-neutral clothes for baby’s first year, arranged by size.

  That closet is my secret shame, though it began innocently enough. Mindy was getting rid of some of her baby things, giving them to Goodwill, and I was helping her go through them when I came across the most exquisite little dress. It was Carrie’s christening dress, she explained, bigger than it should’ve been because they hadn’t been able to christen her until she was two. Or maybe they could’ve done it before, Mindy said with a blush, but it seemed like bad luck.

  “How so?”

  “It’s not even like I really believe in all that smells and bells and . . . it’s just the idea, you know? Christening. It’s supposed to wash away your original sin. My mother always told me that babies who died before they were christened couldn’t get into heaven, and . . . this is so stupid, right, but I felt like if we did it before we knew she was out of danger, we were preparing her to go there. To heaven.”

  She laughed at herself, but I hugged her, impulsively. She rested her head on my shoulder for a moment and sighed.

  “Well,” she said, pulling back, “look at me. Someday this stuff isn’t going to bother me so much.”

  “Why don’t you keep the dress? Save it for when Carrie has a girl.”

  “Yes, maybe. But you should take some of this . . . Look at all of it. I can’t believe how much there is.”

  I protested but ended up leaving with a bundle of onesies. I snuck them into the house feeling like they were contraband. As if I too was touched with the reverse magical thinking Mindy described. If I planned for the baby, the baby might never come. But when I hung the little outfits in the closet, they looked so very right there, like they were coming home. It wasn’t long before I found myself surfing Baby Gap on the Internet late at night and ordering sale items to my post office box.

  I always thought the contents of
that closet were my little secret.

  “What are you doing?” I ask Ben now.

  He turns his head to the side so I can see his profile.

  “It didn’t seem right to leave these. Not the way the wind is blowing.”

  I sit next to him on the hard floor, the pile of clothes between us, and start removing them from hangers, dividing them into his already started piles. He watches me for a moment, then joins in. We make short work of it.

  There isn’t so much to it, after all.

  When the last piece is folded, Ben snaps the plastic cover on the bin.

  “All this stuff, it’s probably going to smell like smoke,” he says.

  “We’ll wash it, then.”

  “We should probably get the rest of our clothes. As much as we can.”

  “Yes,” I say, but neither of us makes any attempt to move. Instead, I reach out my hand until it covers his. He flinches, briefly, but then his muscles relax and he turns his palm over so it’s flat against mine.

  “How long have you known about this?” I ask.

  “The clothes? Always?”

  “Are you mad?”

  “No, of course not.”

  “Do you understand?”

  “I do. I always did, you know.”

  I bow my head like it might keep the tears from coming, but all it does is drop them onto my lap when they start.

  “Hey, now, hush,” Ben says. “It’s okay.”

  He wraps his arm around my shoulder and pulls me to him. I turn my head before it reaches his chest, and my lips come up against his chin.

  I kiss it reflexively, and then Ben’s lips are on mine and we’re clinging to each other and his mouth is everywhere—my face, my neck, my breasts when we get my shirt off. Then the bin full of baby clothes is pushed aside and we are fused together on the floor, my legs tight against his back as he pushes as deeply inside me as he can, and for a few minutes, everything between us is forgotten.

 
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