It doesn’t take much to fan the flames.
Sunday afternoon, the end of Dad’s and my weekend together, was fading fast. If he didn’t have me to Mom’s by six there’d be hell to pay. Dad was sitting in a chair, eyes closed. I started gathering up things, throwing them in the trunk of the car.
I tossed some water on the center of our fire and turned away. A moment later, I was yanked back by the collar of my shirt.
“What did you just do, Jackson?” My father had leaned over and his face was close to mine. The alcohol on his breath that meant I’d be the one in charge of getting us back on time was sharp in my nostrils.
“I put out the fire, dad. We’re leaving, right?”
He shoved me away and I fell to the ground.
“You did not put out the fire!” He grabbed a bucket and stormed off toward the creek. A few minutes later he lugged it back, full of water and dumped it on the ashes, flooding the firepit.
“I put out the fire. You might as well have just pissed on it.” He shook his head. “Remember, you can never be too sure that you’ve gotten all the embers out. Even if they’re not glowing and you can’t see ‘em, they can still catch a fire.”
Beth’s eyes were hot on me as the silence stretched out in the wake of her question. It must’ve only been a few seconds but it felt much longer.
“Enough about my woes,” she had said. “What about you? Are you happily married?”
My tongue worked behind my teeth and in my clenched left hand my thumb teased at the rim of my wedding band, worn smooth after twenty-some years. I thought about the bowling ball out in the car; it had been an anniversary present last year. I should have been using it right then, knocking down pins with the guys from work instead of sitting in a bar with an old flame.
“No,” I lied. She hid the flash of excitement well; I only caught it for a half-second on her face, but it told me everything I needed to know.
I took a swallow of my beer and reached for the cigarette she’d left in the ashtray.
“I thought you’d quit years ago. Back when we were still—“
I cut her off with a shrug and said, “Things change.” She was right, though. I had quit. Stayed quit, too. Right up until that moment.
When we left that night we parted with a quick hug, like two people at a class reunion who knew each other just well enough that it would be awkward not to hug but not so well that the hug itself wasn’t awkward, too.
By the fourth Thursday night that I’d skipped bowling to have drinks with Beth, we were leaving the bar after a couple of quick ones and heading back to her apartment.
Beth and I met in high school and ended up at the same college together. Through those years we were in a constant roundabout of breaking up and making up and breaking up again. No matter what had been said or what other relationship one of us fell into, days or weeks or months later one of us would call the other and then we’d be right back in the thick of it.
Until the last time. Catching me in bed with her big sister had seemed well and truly like the last straw for her and, being honest with myself, I think that was half of why I did it. Even if I did wear the bruises from Beth’s fists for a week afterward.
For years I’d thought about just how lucky I was that I hadn’t met Carol, the woman who found enough good in me to marry, until several months after that last break-up. Because if I’d met her before I’d burned those bridges well and truly with Beth, I know I would’ve ended up breaking Carol’s heart back then.
Looking back now, I know we would have all been better off for that. Because those bridges weren’t burned quite as well as I’d imagined.
“Jackson?” A voice, instantly recognizable, cut across the lobby of the theater. Beth’s voice. I hadn’t heard it in decades but still a jolt ran through me at the sound. “Jackson Ellis?”
I turned and when I saw her it was like stepping back through time. Maybe there was a bit of silver starting to show in her hair, a few wrinkles around the eyes that hadn’t been there back in the old days, but I felt a second jolt run through me as I took in her smile, her body.
She smiled. “Wow! You recognize me?”
How could I have not recognized her? I nodded.
“Impressive. It’s only been, what, twenty-two years?”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, the words feeling foolish even as they materialized.
And, of course, she rolled her eyes at me. “Going to see a movie, duh!”
She laughed and I laughed, too. “No, I meant… Here. Kansas City here. The last I’d heard you were out east.”
“Keeping tabs on me?”
“Well, you know. You hear things.”
“Right. So, had you heard that my dad died?”
I remembered now, too, how she somehow always could make me feel like I’d found the worst possible thing to have said. “No. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” She brushed a loose strand of hair away from her face. “Six months ago. Bobby was supposed to take over the garage but he’s…” She waved a hand and I could fill in the blanks. Unreliable. A drunk. Probably a crook, to boot. “So I came home. I just got a new place. You should come see it one day.”
Carol came over then, back from a post-screening run to the restroom. I introduced the two of them to each other and couldn’t miss the flickers of hostility on both ends of the handshake.
“We’re already going to be later than we told the sitter, Jack,” Carol said, putting her arm around my waist and using it to urge me toward the door.
Beth smiled brightly and waved as I walked away.
“Who was that?” Carol asked on the ride home.
“A school friend. Beth James.”
The car was silent for a moment or two. “I don’t remember you mentioning her.”
“Well, I probably had a bunch of friends who’ve never come up. This is the first time I’ve seen her since college.”
I thought briefly that Carol was going to press for more information, but neither of us said another word the rest of the ride home.
And here I was on another Thursday night at Beth’s apartment with my bowling ball sitting idle in my back seat. I wondered -– not for the first time — when it would all come crashing down. When Carol would ask Fred or Alan or Marshall about how the league was going and they’d mention how much they missed my 186 average. She would ask what they meant and everyone would look puzzled. And there wouldn’t be any hope of a good explanation.
Whenever I thought about this, I felt a tiny bit sick. I remembered growing up in two houses and didn’t want that happening to our kids. I’d tell myself that Beth and I just had to be extra-careful and remember what lies we’d told which people, not be seen together in public — we’d long stopped bothering with meeting at the nearby bar. There wasn’t any reason we would necessarily get caught. But then, it would only take once.
I put it out of my mind, wrapped my naked body around Beth’s, and lost myself in her smell, her feel, her taste.
An hour later, the alarm on my phone rang. Time to be going. I climbed out of Beth’s arms, out of her bed.
“Do we really have to wait another week?” she asked.
“Carol will wonder if I change my routines.”
“What about some Saturday morning when she’s going to those antique malls?”
“You mean when I watch the kids?” The exchange, of course, for Thursday night bowling.
“You could find someone else to watch them one time.” She rolled around on the bed and reached out for me. Her hands on my bare skin were electrifying.
“And Lydia or Frank would mention spending the day with Aunt Jamie or whoever and then where would we be?”
She pouted but didn’t push any further. No one said having an affair was easy.
I spent a minute under a freezing cold shower to wash off anything that might give me away.
“Next Thursday,” I promised with one last kiss as I finished dressing. She nodded and smiled. I hurried to my car.
The string of numbers on the screen when my phone rang didn’t even look like a real phone number. I’d been called in to work to resolve a crisis with the quarterly numbers. No fun for me and Carol was pissed about missing her time away from the kids which meant that the rest of the weekend would suck. I almost let the call roll to voice mail but picked it up near the end of the ringtone.
“Is this Jackson Ellis?”
The voice was unfamiliar and oddly formal; something about it instantly put me on edge. I took a second before answering “Yes.”
The man said his name was Sturgis, that he was with the police department and could I please meet him down at the hospital.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“It would be best if we talked here,” he said. “Do you need an officer to give you a ride, sir?”
My mouth felt dry. I swallowed and said that I could drive myself. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” I said before we hung up. I noticed that he hadn’t told me to hurry and tried to imagine that meant the best rather than the worst.
But it was bad. As bad as it could have been. There had been a car accident and not only had Carol not survived but Frank was dead, also. Lydia was in surgery. Six hours later, they came to tell me that my entire family was gone.
I went home, numb. I thought about calling Beth, bitterly realizing that there wasn’t any point in feeling guilty about being with her any longer. But the thought made me feel nauseous and I crawled into bed fully dressed. Amazingly, I fell straight into a deep slumber.
“You understand that you’re here voluntarily, Mister Ellis?”
The detective flicked the switch on a recorder and recited his name, mine, the date and time. A thin manila folder sat in front of him.
“Mister Ellis, had your wife’s car been repaired recently?”
My breath caught. I tried to remember, had it been? “No,” I said after a minute.
“Right. Any reason to think someone would want to hurt her?”
“What are you suggesting, Detective—“
“Just answer the question, please, sir.”
“No! No one would want to hurt her. She’s… she was… a kindergarten teacher for God’s sake.”
He nodded, not seeming surprised by the answer.
“What’s this about?”
“Are you sure you don’t know, sir?”
Something awakened deep in my brain, some hint of understanding, but I pushed it down. “No, Detective, I don’t know and I’d very much like to understand!”
He fingered the folder, slowly opened it and looked at the papers inside. He gnawed his lower lip for several seconds.
“What it says here, Mister Ellis, is that your wife’s brakes didn’t fail by chance.” He looked up at me. “Someone wanted those brakes to go bad.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off his. My mind raced to the only logical place for it to go in this situation; the only person who might have wanted to see something happen to Carol. The only person I knew who worked in a garage.
“Do you have any idea how this might have happened?”
I tried to say “no” but the word wouldn’t come out. Tears gathered in my eyes. I was shaking my head without even realizing I was doing it. The detective took that for an answer, closed the folder and nodded.
“You’ll let us know if you think of anything later?”
I croaked out a “yes.”
The detective stood and reminded me that he was sorry for my loss. “We’ll let you know if we have any news,” he said. “Or any more questions.”
I sat in the dark, smoking a cigarette, watching the embers at the end of it flare into brightness and fade back again.
I’d never smoked in my house before.
The doorbell rang once and then a second time a minute later; I answered that second ring.
I opened the door and saw Beth standing there. My stomach lurched and before I could tell her to get the hell away from me she pushed past me and came inside.
The air outside was cold. I shut the door.
Beth’s face was red but not just from the chill. Her eyes were red, too, and tear tracks zig-zagged across her skin.
We stood there silently and I took the last puff from my cigarette. Finally, with a voice that felt just barely hanging together she said, “You weren’t answering your phone.”
Hearing my name come from her wrenched me from my paralysis.
“No!” The word echoed through the empty house. “No. Whatever you came here to say, don’t say it.” I turned back toward the door. “In fact, you can just get yourself right out of here and hope that I don’t get past my guilt enough to tell the police what the hell happened.”
Her hand touched my shoulder and before I knew what was going on I pivoted and struck out at her with a clenched hand. She stumbled back and fell on her ass on the carpeted floor.
“I swear I thought it would just be her!” Her voice was pleading.
Words tumbled through my brain, wanting to ask if that would have made it right, to ask what made her think I would want that anyway. But none of them came out, just a scream.
I fell on her and for half a second I saw in her eyes that she thought this was the start of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of a future together. And then my hands were around her throat. And I was squeezing.
There is a preacher here. Non-denominational, they tell me. My choice whether I speak with him or not between now and the time when I go for that final stroll.
I won’t talk to him; he would try to offer forgiveness and a chance for eternal life. I never believed in that before, why would I start now?
No. That’s not quite true. I do want to believe now. But only so I can get what the hell I deserve.
Michael Haynes has recently sold stories to Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, and Otto Penzler’s upcoming anthology Kwik Krimes.
Excellent story. I love the ember motif