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       Smoke, p.9

           Catherine McKenzie
 

  “Whose call?”

  “The parents. Of those kids. When they call . . . I want to be here.”

  “I don’t think—”

  “They’ll call. I would if I were them.”

  The phone rang shrilly, and she leaped toward it. I could hear the deep rumble of an angry male voice spilling forth from the receiver. She listened for a moment, then hung up. It wasn’t them.

  She sat back on her listing dining chair, folding herself into it like it was a capsule that might catapult her out of there and into outer space. She cracked the knuckles of her fingers rhythmically, a practice that’s always set my teeth on edge. She had an odd pattern of bruises on her arms. It took me a moment to figure out they were caused by fingers. A set of large hands had pressed into her forearms long and hard enough to tattoo the skin. The owner of those hands was nowhere to be seen. One of the guys on the crew said her husband had been down in the local pub since the news broke. I guess he had enough time to leave his mark before he went.

  “Are they really going to arrest Timmy?” she asked. “Can you even arrest a seven-year-old?”

  “I don’t think that’s going to happen. He’s too young.”

  “When we went to the police station, he thought it was a field trip. He kept wondering where the rest of his class was.”

  She broke down. I sat there, trying to keep myself from crying, wondering what the protocol was. I hadn’t received training for this. I’d already done what I was supposed to—determine the cause of the fire—and it was only a sense of guilt that had brought me to her apartment. I felt, somehow, that I had set this in motion and should find a way to stop it, though there wasn’t one.

  I heard a door creak, and Timmy was in the room. He was small for his age, wearing stained footy pajamas, with a thatch of white-blond hair that stood straight up. He padded up to us and put a protective hand on his mom’s shoulder.

  “You’re making my mommy cry,” he said, and I wasn’t sure if he was asking or telling.

  “Yes, I’m sorry.”

  “I don’t like it when she cries.”

  I had no hesitation about what I wanted to do in that instant. Take him in my arms and hold him close. Protect him from the outside world that was calling him a pyromaniac in the making, a sociopath. So I did. I scooped him into my lap and held his slack body against mine while he looked up at me with wide blue eyes. He smelled of milk and Johnson’s shampoo, baby smells even though he wasn’t a baby anymore. He sucked on two of his fingers, self-soothing. We sat like that until his mother gathered herself, and then I let myself out of their broken home. I left quickly, because if I hesitated I had this wild feeling I’d simply tuck Timmy onto my hip and never look back. I could save this kid. Not in the abstract way we all saved people every day, working out of sight, unacknowledged. In a concrete way, like taking in a stray cat and feeding it properly, gentling it, teaching it that not everything in life had to be as bad as it thought.

  When I got back to camp an hour later, I waited in the long line for the outdoor showers and spent my allotted time scrubbing my body with rough soap as if I could erase the terrible day. I went through the food line mechanically and took my plate of spaghetti and garlic bread to a picnic table where there was a group of firefighters I didn’t know. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I just wanted that feeling of being alone-but-not-alone that you can get in a crowd all working toward the same thing.

  But one of the men didn’t leave me alone.

  “You’re the arson investigator, right? Elizabeth Martin?” a man who was about my age—middle thirties—asked. He had dirty-blond hair that curled close to his head and dark-brown eyes. His face was tanned and lined, but handsome.

  “How did you know that?”

  “I’m Andy Thomas. I saw you being interviewed last night about that kid. Poor fucker. He’s screwed for life, isn’t he?”

  “What about the people who died? They’re really screwed for life.” I colored at the force of my anger.

  He ducked his head and took a long drink from his water bottle. “You’re right, of course. But I still feel for the kid.”

  “Why?”

  “How’s he going to live with that? Knowing he killed two people, maybe more? All because his dad left a barbecue starter where he could get at it. Like we all do every day.”

  I ate a few bites of my food. “Most would disagree with you. There’s basically a lynch mob outside his apartment building.”

  “Sick fucks. They should be raising money for the lifelong therapy he’s going to need. I just wish he didn’t have to know. You think his parents are smart enough not to tell him?”

  I thought about the low-level poverty he was living in, his young mother, his drunk-since-the-incident father. Maybe I should have told her not to say anything. Maybe I should have walked that child right out of that house.

  “He’d find out eventually, though, wouldn’t he? All he has to do is Google himself.”

  “Yeah, I guess. Goddamn Internet.”

  I turned toward him. His hair was wet and he smelled fresh from a shower, but he still had streaks of dirt and ash across the bridge of his nose and imbedded under his fingernails.

  “Why are you telling me this, anyway?” I asked.

  “That’s a long story. And maybe I’ll tell you someday if we become friends.”

  “Sure, no problem, I get it.”

  I bent my head toward my plate, certain my face was turning bright red.

  He laughed. “Dude. Seriously. I’m not that mysterious. I became a firefighter because when I was on a camping trip when I was a kid, we had a campfire when we shouldn’t have and ended up burning down a thousand acres. No one died or anything, but I’ve always wondered what it’d be like if someone had. What I would be like.”

  His face was so open and guileless that I felt instantly attracted to him. It wasn’t a sexual thing, though it could’ve been. It was more the ease with which he gave access to his emotions. The simplicity of his personality. He wasn’t a puzzle to be pieced together. There wasn’t any trick. I could tell right then I wouldn’t have to work to know what he liked, what he wanted, what made him tick. And if for some reason I couldn’t figure it out, he’d just tell me, if I asked.

  “So you’ve clearly had a crappy day,” he said. “Want to tell me about it?”

  And I found to my surprise that I did.

  When I get out to the fire-site, the white trailers have multiplied overnight. There are more than two hundred people working the fire now, and there’s already a sense of permanence setting in, a mobile community. Large yellow tractors, backhoes, and earthmovers dot the hillside. The green- and yellow-suited firefighters move among them like so many worker bees.

  Containment, containment, today’s watchword is containment.

  I find Kara in one of the trailers. Her mobile command center has arrived, but she’ll keep the one at the elementary school, anyway, she tells me, “just in case.” I suspect she’s really keeping it to drive the tweedy principal batty. I think that, and then Kara smiles at me and says, “There’s that too.”

  “So what are your visions telling you?” I ask as I watch the crews working on the hill with the precision and grace of years together.

  “You’re aware that I do not actually have visions.”

  “Tell that to Andy and the rest of them. Tell that to me, for that matter.”

  It’s not that I believe Kara really has ESP or visions or whatever it was her grandmother was famous for. But she does have an intuition about people, events, and the things around her, like being tuned in to a different frequency that lets her hear what people are thinking, which way the wind is blowing.

  Where the fire will go.

  “Andy and the rest of them?” she says, smirking.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  She turns back to her computer screen. “You found the point of origin?”

  I fill her in on the details.
r />   “Any reason why Phillips might want to burn his house down—or part of the town for that matter?”

  “Don’t think so.”

  “Just sloppiness, then?”

  “Not sure about that either.”

  She looks at me for a moment, then nods. “You like this man.”

  “I feel sorry for him, sure, but . . . Assigning blame isn’t really my responsibility. I need to pinpoint what started it and leave the consequences to others.”

  “I doubt you’ll be able to separate the origin and the consequences in this instance.”

  “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

  Kara turns back to the monitors. The one she’s looking at captures a hotshot crew returning from their shift. A familiar bunch of old friends, including Andy.

  “He’s doing well,” she says. “Since you left.”

  “Why are you telling me that?”

  “I thought you’d like to know.”

  “I saw him yesterday. Here, in fact.”

  “Did you now?”

  “Which you obviously know. Don’t you have a fire to manage?”

  She smirks again, this time at herself. “I do.”

  “Ben says hi.”

  Her smirk drops. “I am sorry about you two.”

  Does she mean the divorce? The lack of a baby? Better not to ask.

  “Me too.”

  “I assume you have some purpose in coming out here? Besides checking up on me, of course.”

  “You’re all about button-pushing today, I see.”

  She pulls me into a hug. “Oh, my darling, I’m sorry. I have a bad feeling about this fire, and I’m taking it out on those around me.”

  I pull away and look her in the eye. The usual twinkle is missing. “How bad?”

  “Quite bad.”

  “The town?”

  My house?

  “Not that bad, I hope, but . . . it’s going to be a close one. Too close to call right now.”

  I look out the smudged window of her camper and wonder, not for the first time, how the life and death of a town can be in the hands of a few hundred men and women no one will ever know. Strangers who are putting their own lives on the line while the town they’re trying to save is probably just complaining about the smoke, and how they’re never going to get the smell out of their drapes. Most of me wants these people to stay ignorant, of course. But a small part of me would like reality to hit them, just for long enough to wake them up, see the world outside them for the place it really is.

  “It might be kids that did this,” I say to Kara.

  “Young children?”

  “Teenagers. They’d been harassing Mr. Phillips. Drunken stupidity, probably.”

  “Do you think they know?”

  “Perhaps. Think they care?”

  “Cynical, cynical.”

  I wrap my arms around myself. “Sorry, I’m kind of irritable lately.”

  “That is understandable.”

  We say good-bye, and I walk out into the camp, wandering through the trailers, listening to the banter. I’m delaying, I know, but when I see Andy emerge from the showers with a towel wrapped around his waist, I realize I was also looking for something.

  Him.

  Ben’s request from this morning comes back to me, but it’s already too late.

  “Beth,” he says. “You’re back.”

  “Just visiting. You got a minute?”

  “Let me get changed, and I’ll be right out.”

  I sit at the picnic table outside his tent, wondering at myself. If Ben knew I was waiting to talk to Andy, that might really be the last straw. And yet, part of me feels like knowing I’m not at fault entitles me to this. To this person who understands what I’ve been through, am going through, and with whom I’ve never had an awkward silence or a misunderstanding. I need the kind of comfort he provides, and maybe I’m being selfish for looking for it, but here I am.

  Andy emerges from his tent in an old pair of jeans I recognize and a sweatshirt I don’t. His feet are bare except for a pair of flimsy flip-flops. He prefers to go barefoot when he can; he likes his feet to be “free” when they aren’t encased in the heavy boots that are a necessity for our work. I admire, as I always do, the compact power he exudes.

  “What’s up?” he asks, sitting next to me on the bench. Another thing I’ve always liked about Andy—he’s never too self-conscious to sit next to what he wants, instead of across from it.

  “It feels like it’s happening again,” I say. “Like four years ago.”

  “The Miller case? A kid started this fire?”

  “Kids. Teenagers. I think so, anyway.”

  “I’m sorry, Beth.”

  I lace my hands together like I would if I was seated in front of a priest. And perhaps that’s what this is, a confession of sorts.

  “I’m not sure I can do it.”

  “You’re not doing anything.”

  I take a ragged breath, but all I get is smoke for my troubles.

  “Aren’t I, though? Everyone wants to blame the homeowner. I could leave it at that. I should leave it at that.”

  “But you don’t think it’s him?”

  “It might be, but maybe not.”

  “You have to do what’s right.”

  “Do I?”

  He looks at me, and for the first time since we met, I’m not exactly sure what he’s thinking.

  “You always do what’s right. That’s who you are.”

  “What if I don’t want to be that person anymore?”

  “You can’t run away from yourself. I’d have thought you knew that by now.”

  CHAPTER 13

  There’s Going to Be a Change of Plans

  Mindy

  Before Mindy could face the Coffee Boosters and the rest of the Fall Fling organizing committee, she needed reinforcements. Caffeine and calories, not the empty substitutes found at the Perk, but the real thing.

  So she went to Joanie’s. She hadn’t been there since that last, terrible day with Elizabeth, and the caffeine and grease that coated her senses before she’d even walked in the door smelled like memories.

  This used to be their place, hers and Elizabeth’s. They’d come here and spend hours together after whatever mutual activity they’d signed up for that month. Particularly in the winter months, when Elizabeth wasn’t working and after Mindy got laid off, they’d drink bottomless cups of coffee and eat half of whatever treat the other ordered. Mindy hadn’t had a friend like that since college. She’d moved to San Diego for her master’s degree, where she didn’t know anyone, and the women—and men, for that matter—in the lab where she worked were an insular, prickly bunch. It got easier when she met Peter at a party she’d forced herself to go to, but then they moved and had the kids, and then Carrie got sick and they moved again. And while she had acquaintances in Nelson, mostly the other moms she met on her endless circuit of child-related chores, Elizabeth had been the only close connection she’d made outside her family.

  Elizabeth was the one who suggested that she take an EMT class. Elizabeth needed to re-up her qualifications, and having heard all about Carrie and the years of restless concern that followed, she thought it would be good for Mindy. Peter had been surprised at her interest, but that twelve-week course had been some of the best time Mindy had spent in years. Learning how to assess and treat basic medical emergencies. Staying in the barracks outside of town with the much younger participants for the last intensive weekend. The thrilling stress of taking the final exam and passing it with flying colors. She’d felt almost high with the exhilaration of it for weeks.

  Then Carrie had come down with a bad flu, and Angus had failed two math tests in a row, and Elizabeth had left for the summer, and Mindy settled back into her life with a thud.

  Now, as she made her way through the 1950s-style diner, she found herself hoping Elizabeth would be there, sitting at the chipped Formica counter, maybe, or getting a nondescript to-go cup. Instead, the closest thin
g to Elizabeth was her boss, Rich, holding court in his usual Naugahyde booth with the triumvirate of men who ran Nelson: the sheriff, the mayor, and the head of the tourism board.

  Mindy sighed and took a seat in the booth behind Rich and the others. She gave her order for a coffee, black, to the pleasant waitress who still knew her name. And wasn’t it nice that she could just say, “Coffee, black,” that she didn’t have to remember some complicated set of words to get what she wanted. She felt so lighthearted she added an order for one of the cinnamon Danishes she fantasized about when she was in spin class.

  Spin class. Mindy had forgotten all about it. Guilt and dread descended in equal measure. Kate would be disappointed. Heck, she was disappointed with herself, but what could she do to fix that now, or erase the bites of Danish that had already slipped so easily down her throat? She felt at sea, and this place was an anchor. Her panicked awakening still clung to her, and she was worried about Peter, and oh, she didn’t know. If only she could pick a direction and stick to it. If only she wasn’t so apt to be carried along in the trail of whomever it was she was closest to at the moment, like they had a bigger gravitational pull than she did, and she was only a satellite in their orbit.

  It was a hard place to be, up there in her head, so she tuned in to the conversation behind her. They were talking about the fire, and she was glad that at least some people in the town seemed as consumed by it as she was. They weren’t saying anything unusual at first, but then Rich was talking about Elizabeth, about how she had this ridiculous theory, that she didn’t want to accept the obvious. But he didn’t say what the obvious was, and Mindy couldn’t follow his intimation.

  “And of course, old lady Fletcher’s got her bun in a knot,” Rich said in his usual pontificating style. Oh, the fun she and Elizabeth used to have imitating how he talked. “You’d think she was running a hotel out there.”

  “Not that surprising she’s unhappy about having the shelter in her school. Kids need education and all,” the mayor said. He was a tall, wiry man in his sixties who’d had a lock on the position for at least twenty years. “My office is fielding thirty calls a day from irate parents.”

 
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