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       Smoke, p.28

           Catherine McKenzie
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  “When was that?”

  “A couple of weeks ago. I told Angus to tell him to get lost, but Angus was really worried about what would happen to him if the school found out. And I was pretty mad at him.”

  “Mad at Angus?”



  “I didn’t know he’d done that with the leotard.”

  “Then what happened?”

  “We got into this big fight last weekend. Then Tucker messaged me that a bunch of them were sneaking out that night, and I decided to go.”

  “To make Angus jealous?”

  She nodded. “I forwarded the messages to Angus so he could see I was going out with them. He wrote me back saying it was a bad idea, but I didn’t listen. I don’t know why I did that.”

  “Did you sneak out of the house?”

  “Yeah. I met up with them near the town square.”

  “Is that you on the video? You’ve seen it?”

  “It’s me. I thought there were going to be other girls too, but when I got there it was just Tucker and the guys he hangs around with. And Tucker was acting like he’d won some bet or something when I showed up, so I texted Angus. I told him we were going to John Phillips’s house.”

  “Why did you go there?”

  “Tucker has this weird obsession with him. I think those guys have been playing pranks on him for a while. They’re such a bunch of jerks.”

  “What happened when you got to his house?”

  “We just sat around the fire pit. Tucker brought beers with him—I think he stole them from his dad—and he was drinking them real fast. He wanted me to drink too, but I said I wouldn’t. Then he tried to kiss me.” She looks down at her shoes. “I pushed him off me, and then Angus was there and he kind of jumped on Tucker. Those other guys were about to beat Angus up, but I said I’d start screaming, so Angus and Tucker kind of tumbled around on the ground for a bit, and then Angus punched Tucker in the side real hard, and Tucker rolled into the bushes and puked.”

  “What happened next, Willow?”

  Willow wipes the tears from her cheeks.

  “Tucker and them took off, and Angus walked me home.”

  “There must be more to this,” Detective Donaldson says. “There’s no reason you couldn’t have told us all this a long time ago.”

  “We couldn’t. Tucker was kind of . . . um, blackmailing us.”

  “What was Tucker blackmailing you with?”

  Willow stays silent for what seems like a very long time as her face turns red. She’s avoiding making eye contact with her mother, who has shoved her hand in her mouth in horror. Then she says, “Pictures.”

  “What kind of pictures?”

  “Some . . . some private pictures I took for Angus. All the girls do it,” she said, equally defensive and embarrassed.

  “Did Angus ask you to take these pictures?”

  “No! I just wanted him to know how much I liked him. But it was really stupid. And I’m never going to do it again, okay, Mom. I’m not.”

  “How did Tucker get these pictures?”

  “I forgot to erase them from my phone. He was bugging me one day at my locker, and he took my phone when I wasn’t looking, and he found them. I guess he e-mailed them to himself. I didn’t even know he had them until this week.”

  “What was he going to do with them?”

  “Send them to everyone in school.”

  “But why?”

  “Because Angus said he’d tell everyone Tucker started the fire to get back at him for trying to kiss me. He wasn’t trying to get Tucker in real trouble. But when Tucker said he had those pictures, Angus told him he’d talk to the police unless he gave the pictures back. But Tucker wouldn’t give them back, so we didn’t know what to do.”

  “So, it was Tucker who started the fire?”

  “No. I mean, he did make a fire in the fire pit, but it was small and it was almost out, and then after those guys left, Angus and I poured the rest of the beer on it and we made sure it was out.”

  “That’s a bit hard to believe given what’s happened.”

  “But we know who started it. Angus and me. We saw.”

  “What did you see?”

  Willow turns and points at someone who’s visible through the glass wall of Detective Donaldson’s office. John Phillips. “We saw him start the fire.”


  Flaws in the System


  John woke that night from a fitful sleep.

  In fact, he’d never fallen asleep, not really, just skimmed along the surface of it like trailing your fingers in the water over the edge of a sailboat.

  It was those damn papers. That thick buff envelope sitting in the middle of the dining-room table where he’d left it after finding it on his front step when he returned from the grocery store.

  He didn’t think you could just leave envelopes like that on someone’s front stoop. Not when the papers inside said you were going to lose your house and everything in it if you didn’t come up with more money than you’d ever had in your whole sixty-seven years. Seemed to John like you’d have to hand those kinds of papers to a person directly. Give them a chance to know there was terrible news inside before they opened it. Give them time to work up to the moment.

  But maybe that’s just how it went on the TV. He didn’t know. All he knew was that’s what the papers said, far as he could understand them through all the whereases and aforesaids.

  Why couldn’t people just write what they mean, anyhow?

  “You have not paid your mortgage in six months, and so now we are going to take your house away from you.” This John could understand. This John knew was coming. Sometime. Just not that day, in a thick manila envelope waiting innocently for him after he’d spent all the money he had to spend that week on nearly expired tuna fish and reduced-price bread.

  He turned on the lumpy mattress, trying to find a more comfortable position. The bed creaked loudly, and he was completely awake now. Awake and unsure of how he was ever going to get to sleep again. Not with that . . . that intruder in the house, yes, that’s what the envelope was, an intruder in his life. Well, he’d dealt with intruders before, hadn’t he?

  He swung his legs over the side of the bed, a plan forming. He slung on the worn bathrobe Kristy bought him for their last Christmas together, three years ago that had been. He liked to think she’d be sympathetic about his current situation, but something told him she’d just shake her head in that way she had, taking a deep drag on her perpetual cigarette.

  “You never could plan worth a damn,” Kristy would say in a voice that’d grown raspy and hard. John remembered how beautiful and soft her voice had been when he’d met her in the church choir, but that was a long time ago.

  “Ayuh,” John said into the stillness, like Kristy might be able to hear his laconic agreement with the words he imagined she would say if he were talking out his plan with her, seeking her approval or amendment.

  But silence was his answer, just as it had been every day since she’d died.

  “Ayuh,” he said again, like a bullfrog greeting the night. He was comforted by the sound of someone talking, even if it was only himself. “That ought to do the trick.”

  Plan at the ready, he belted his robe against the chill and crept down the stairs. Silence was a key part of the operation. You had to be careful not to startle an intruder. You never knew how they were going to react when caught. That was the way people got killed. Like that eighteen-year-old Mexican kid who almost died right down the street about a year ago, when he was found creeping around Rayland Irving’s living room. Rayland didn’t give him a chance to explain. He’d just pumped off both barrels of his shotgun, blam! blam!, and that was that.

  ’Course, the envelope couldn’t hear him coming. It didn’t know he’d picked up a package of cheap diner matches from the bowl full of them in the hallway, left over from when he used to bring them home for Kristy so she’d never want for a
light. And it surely wasn’t aware of the fire pit at the back of his property or his intentions in that regard.

  John slid his feet quietly against the cold floor. In the living room, he stared at the package, watched the way it reflected the moonlight that streamed through the windows he’d washed only the other day. He could hear his own breathing in the gravelike house. Silent like the grave. Where did that expression come from? he wondered before telling himself to focus.

  He scooped up the envelope. Working quickly now, he held it against his chest and rammed his feet into the gum boots he always kept by the back door. The porch door swung behind him, oiled silent, and now he was outside. It was actually warmer outside than in, the leftovers of the warm breeze that had been blowing all summer, drying out the air, the trees, the grass, still lingering despite the hour. As he walked across his property, the ground crunched underneath him like it was covered in frost. John wondered where he’d be when the snow came. He always loved the first snow, and all the ones that followed, how it made the world go hush, how you could feel alone inside it without feeling lonely.

  He reached the fire pit. Some half-charred wood lay in it, just visible in the moonlight he was navigating by. A couple crushed beer cans twinkled up at him. Those damn kids had been here again, drinking on his property. He’d heard them a few nights ago but hadn’t had the gumption to confront them.

  No gumption. That was Kristy’s voice again. Well, he was showing her, wasn’t he? He’d show everyone.

  He placed the envelope on top of the logs and flipped open the book of matches. They were old, having sat in the bowl for years collecting dust, and it took him several tries to light one. When the fourth one finally caught, he bent his stiff knees and held the yellow flame to the envelope’s corner. It had some kind of coating on it, and it took a moment to catch. The flame licked John’s fingers, and he dropped the match, cursing. He put his thumb in his mouth, sucking it, while he watched the thick legal papers slowly burn.

  When he was sure it was well and lit, that there wasn’t any undoing what he’d done, he turned back toward his house.

  So as the fire receded behind him, he didn’t see the charred corner of the envelope detach, glowing, as it rose into the air and came to rest at the edge of the longer wheat-colored grass that surrounded his property.

  Instead, all he thought as he sucked his still-stinging thumb and slopped back to his house in his crunching gum boots was: Maybe now I can sleep.




  When Mindy got home with Angus hours later, Peter and Carrie were waiting for them on the front stoop.

  It had been a slow drive through eerily quiet streets. The smoke was pea-soup thick. When Mindy turned on her fog lights briefly, the world disappeared, like they were inside a snow globe.

  It was just the four of them in the car. Mindy, Angus, Willow, Cathy. Cathy was a tight ball of anger and kept pulling at her seatbelt like Carrie used to do when she was little, claiming it was strangling her. Angus and Willow were mirrors of each other in the backseat. Each in their separate corner, but with a hand laid flat on the seat between them, the edges of their fingers touching.

  Was this something lasting between them? Mindy wondered. Would this experience bring them closer together, or would Willow’s sacrifice of her privacy be too much for Angus? Their combined explanation for why they didn’t tell about John Phillips’s involvement sooner was that they didn’t think anyone would believe them, that they didn’t want to get him in trouble, and that they’d get into so much trouble themselves for being out that night in the first place.

  When Detective Donaldson pointed out that this didn’t explain Angus’s silence once the video came out, Angus said Tucker had threatened him again, saying that if he said anything, he’d send out the pictures. Tucker had started a fire that night, and he didn’t know they’d seen John Phillips start one later. For all Tucker knew, he was the source of the fire. And Angus didn’t see how there was any way he could explain everything without it all coming out. The pictures. The blackmail. He couldn’t take the risk. Besides, it was his fault Willow was in trouble. He’d made some joke once about pictures—it was just a joke, he swore—but she’d taken them anyway and look what happened. He deserved to be punished for that, didn’t he?

  Mindy was stunned by both the insight and naïveté of his thinking. He hadn’t thought there’d be any long-term consequences, she realized. Like a teenage smoker who casts off the possibility of lung cancer. Not because he didn’t accept that the risks were real, but because he believed his youth provided some kind of cloak of invincibility. His future wasn’t set, it was something malleable, avoidable.

  When they reached Cathy’s house, Cathy nearly dragged Willow from the backseat before the car came to a full stop. But Willow broke free from her mother’s grasp to come around to Angus’s side of the car. He had his window down and she leaned in and kissed him, so briefly it was almost nothing. Then she turned and ran up her front steps and into her house.

  A silent moment later they were at their own house. Peter and Carrie were right inside the door as if they’d been waiting for them at the window. For the first time in a year, Angus let himself be hugged by his father, his sister. He hugged them back too, hard and long like he used to do when he returned from a month away at summer camp and his friends weren’t around to hoot and holler at the sissiness of it.

  When he finally let go, he headed straight for the shower, throwing promises over his shoulder that he’d tell Peter everything as soon as he’d washed away the jail smell and burned the clothes he was wearing. Carrie screamed with laughter at his awkward choice of words, and he flashed a smile, so good to see.

  Whether he, or any of them, would be able to lather off the memories, doubt, and tension this week created was something Mindy was already worried about, until she reminded herself she wasn’t going to worry anymore. She was going to hold on to this new state inside her. She felt like an old motor that had turned over after one last try, the try made just to be sure. Her resolve kept threatening to stall out, but she was keeping a steady foot on the accelerator. She felt both exhilarated and exhausted all at once.

  This reprieve was short-lived. When Carrie retreated to the garage “because all this drama is seriously interfering with my training,” Peter put the kettle on for tea and told her they had a decision to make. The fire still wasn’t under control, and the evacuation order had been extended on a voluntary basis to the whole town.

  “I think we should go,” Peter said.

  “But Angus just got home.”

  “I know. But I don’t want to get caught in the chaos. I’ve been talking to people about what happened at the Fall Fling. Did you know that twenty-five people ended up in the hospital?”


  “What about her?”

  “She was in the hospital.”

  “You’ve been in touch with her?”

  “She was at the police station. I asked Ben to bring her in case I couldn’t get Detective Donaldson to listen to Willow.”

  “You can fill me in on everything in the car.”

  “Where will we go? The elementary school?”

  “I was thinking somewhere further. What about Zion National Park? We’ve always talked of going.”

  “You want to go camping in the middle of all this? What about school? What about work?”

  “I called Jim, and he’s okay with giving me a couple weeks off. And I called ahead—there’s a hotel, well, really a motel, that’s having a special right outside the park. I think it would be good. For Angus. For us.”

  Mindy’s brain was spinning. These last few days, she’d thought of nothing but getting Angus out of trouble. What would happen afterward wasn’t something she’d let filter into her thoughts. But now, they were there. At the end of this. And what was there to do? How were they supposed to mend and move life forward? Was Angus supposed to go back to school w
hen it resumed, assuming there was a school to go back to, and pick up teenagehood where he’d left off? And what about her and Peter? What about the life she’d been living a week ago? Spin class and errands and nothing, really, that was connected to the person she thought she’d end up being?

  “Yes. Okay. Let’s go.”

  She leaned into Peter and kissed him hard, like she did at the party the night they met, surprising both of them.

  “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for thinking of this.”

  “It’s our family, Min.”

  “It is. A good family.”

  “I’m going to start packing the car. Can you get Carrie out of the garage?”

  “This motel doesn’t happen to have a ballet barre somewhere, does it?”

  He smiled. “No place is perfect.”

  “This place has been. Pretty close to.”

  “We don’t need perfect,” Peter said. “Let’s just go for ordinary.”

  Mindy got Carrie out of the garage easily. The words road trip were barely out of her mouth before Carrie was sprinting, tap, tap, tap, toward the house asking whether there was a pool where they were going to stay. Mindy told her to ask her father, but she wasn’t sure Carrie had heard her. As someone whose happiness often came from others, Mindy felt Carrie’s joy shoot through her. This would be good. This would be what they needed.

  Mindy walked toward the garage door and clicked it open. She took their daypacks and water bottles from the container where they kept them and brought them to Peter’s car, leaning them up against the side. Just to be able to breathe clean air would do them all wonders, she thought, her eyes itching. To see the sky, clear of smoke. Or were those clouds? Who could tell anymore.

  She went back into the garage and looked around for something else that needed to be moved, or put in place, but there was nothing. She ran her hand along Carrie’s barre—smooth, polished wood that was slightly shinier at the place where Carrie normally stood. She put her own hand in that spot, her feet slipping into first position for the first time since she’d shown the basic positions to Carrie when she was four. Her right knee protested at the turnout, but she dipped into a plié anyway, first demi, then full. Maybe when they got back, she should take that adult ballet class they were holding at Carrie’s studio. And find some work. Something more than the volunteering she’d been doing and hating. She had the beginning of an idea of what that might be, but she didn’t want to fully voice the thought, not even to herself. Not yet.

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