23rd Annual Tamarack Award winner
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Afterward, Tom bought smoke alarms and put them in every room of the house. He staged fire drills day and night, especially night, when he stood with a stopwatch and timed Ellen and his boys, Alex and Trent, while they tumbled out of beds and groped their way to the yard. Once, he bolted the door from the outside to see if they would figure out what to do. When they didn’t emerge from the house, he was furious.
“What the hell are you thinking?” he stormed. They were gathered in the living room. Ellen, eyes heavy with sleep, slumped on the tattered couch in a thin yellow tank top and drawstring cotton shorts. She’d thrown on a flowered robe to hide her nipples from the boys. That action alone cost precious seconds. He tipped the reading lamp to shine in their faces. Ellen squinted and lifted a hand, but the boys, seven and nine, looked at him wide-eyed. Scared, and well they should be. They could have burned to death.
“Dad, what did you want us to do?” Alex asked.
“Break a window.” He heard himself shouting. “Pick up any goddamn chair and throw it through the glass.”
“But Dad, when I broke a window throwing a football, you got mad,” Trent said.
He shook his head, unable to believe they could not comprehend the seriousness of this. His wife, too. Nodding away there.
“When there’s fire. . .” he began.
“But it wasn’t a fire,” Alex said. “It was you blowing your whistle. Like last time.”
He knelt in front of them. He took each of his boys by the arm. Sitting there in their skivvies with knobby knees and scrawny chests, they looked like baby birds. “When you hear this whistle, I want you to see fire. I want you to smell fire. And then, you do whatever it takes to get the hell out of this house. Now, am I clear?”
The boys glanced at each other. He knew that look. In another five, six years they’d be looking at each other like that all the time, as if their old man was loco. Let them.
THE FIRST WEEK he took a lot of showers. Washed himself over and over and still could not get the stench out of his hair. When he’d finally found those two teen-agers huddled together behind a closet door, their skin had been black and crispy. He didn’t tell Ellen that. He’d reached out, his volunteer fireman’s glove awkward and thick and protecting him, and the boy’s shoulder caved like a marshmallow cooked too long over coals. That crinkled coating that slakes away.
People talked about it for days. At the lunch counter in Piggotty’s Café, in the vestibule of the Methodist Church, on the four corners of Main and Elm. Sweet old Mrs. Willow walked it into Tom’s pharmacy.
“Too bad about that poor family, wasn’t it?” she said.
He busied himself behind the counter. In his white lab coat and dark framed glasses he looked ordinary enough, his sandy hair short and neatly combed.
“Did you know them?”
Tom shook his head.
“Shirt-tail relation to the Slokems,” Mrs. Willow said. “Only been here a couple of months.”
Tom handed her the usual blood-pressure medication.
“I heard the mother ran straight through the fire with the two little ones. She must’ve thought those older kids would follow.” She blinked at him once, twice, her eyes magnetized behind thick lenses.
“Will that be all?” He stood at the old-fashioned cash register, his hand poised to ring up the sale. Normally he loved the pearl keys, the ka-ching of the tray opening. He found comfort in the swivel stools and soda fountain, the amber and liquor-green medicine bottles displayed on shelves. He’d collected these relics himself from small towns throughout the panhandle of Nebraska. Today, however, they only reminded him that he could not re-create the past. He could no more resurrect the simpler, sweeter time he’d seen in Norman Rockwell paintings than he could bring those two teenagers or his own dead parents back to life.
“Why didn’t they go out the back door?” Mrs. Willow waited for his reply.
Sweat trickled from his armpits. The air stale and full of soot. “I don’t know,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper. “They probably died before the fire got to them. Smoke inhalation.”
AT NIGHT, with fire on his mind, he tucked his boys in bed. He hovered over them, one bunk, then the other, smoothed cowboy sheets around slim shoulders, brushed cheeks with his fingers.
“Dad?” Alex said.
“You said we can’t take anything with us.”
Tom hesitated. He didn’t want them having nightmares. Still.
“That’s right.” He sat on the edge of the lower bunk.
“What about Bilko?” Bilko, the fat calico cat.
“Nope. Everybody gets themselves out. That’s the way it works.”
“But, Dad,” Trent said, from the upper bunk. “What if I fell down and broke my leg? Would you help me?”
He stood, reached out and smoothed the wrinkles between his son’s eyes with his thumb. “Course I would. It’s my job to help you. I’m a fireman.” The grin on Trent’s face, goofy and sweet, filled him with despair.
“COME TO BED, Tom,” Ellen said. She leaned against the doorjamb, arms crossed. He lay sprawled on the couch in the back den, the TV muted but flickering with bad news. He hadn’t been able to sleep. He got up and slathered Vicks in his nose to mask the putrid odor of smoldering flesh. He made hot milk but could not drink it. He did forty push-ups.
“They shouldn’t let people live in those shacks,” he said. He could see the worry in Ellen’s eyes, the tension around her mouth. He’d been telling her for days not to drive without her seat belt. To get the carbon-monoxide levels checked in the house. To wear double gloves when she drew blood from hospital patients. On her days off, he didn’t want her going down in the basement if he wasn’t home. What if an electrical wire came loose and she dangled her fingers in the laundry tub?
Ellen held out her hand. He let her lead him to their room, up the stairs. He slid in bed beside her and feigned sleep. He waited until Ellen’s breathing deepened, then opened his eyes. Nightly now, his parents’ accident invaded his dreams. He’d been away in college at the time, but lately he watches by the side of the road or floats above the car. He hears his mother scream, but he can do nothing, and then he wakes more wrung out than when he went to bed. Not my fault, not my fault, Tom muttered now, as he propped himself up with two pillows, cocked his ear to listen for intruders, and waited for dawn.
THREE WEEKS AFTER the fire, he drove past the remains of the shack. The cement foundation lay exposed, littered with blackened wood and debris. Particles of ash drifted through the air wherever the breeze stirred.
He stopped his car, covered his nose and mouth with a handkerchief. He rolled down the window to get a clearer view but saw no one. Not that he expected to. The mother and two younger children were long gone. The itinerant husband, too.
He noticed a car he’d not seen before parked at the neighboring shack. A maroon hatchback Focus. Nice car, for drifters. He studied the front door, the jagged tear in the screen. Through the window he caught the blue light of a television.
The front door opened and a boy stepped out, a kid about Trent’s age, red hair, skinny, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. He carried a baseball bat. The kid started swinging the bat wildly, not like he was lining up for a pitch, just flailing away at the air. He took a swipe at the car parked in the drive. Whack. Then straightened up and looked furtively toward the house. When no one came running out the door, he took another swing at the fender. Whack. Even from his seat in the car, Tom could tell he’d left a couple good dents. The kid swung and then wiped his nose. Christ. These people.
OVER PANCAKES, he warned them. “Stay away from that new kid at school.” Ellen looked up from the lunches she was packing. She slathered minced ham with mayonnaise, a spawning ground for bacteria.
“He’s in my class,” Trent said.
“See,” Tom said, not at all sure what he meant.
“What’s wrong with him?” Trent said.
Tom stopped to consider, swirled sludgy coffee around his mouth to buy some time. “He could be dangerous.”
“Tom!” Ellen, up on her high-horse again.
“Look, I know some things.”
“What things?” She pointed her loaded paring knife at him.
“What’s his name?” Alex asked.
“Manson,” Trent said.
“You mean, that’s his last name?” Tom wiped at his coffee mustache with the back of his hand.
“First. He said he was named after Charles somebody.”
“Jesus H,” Tom muttered. That look again from Ellen.
“Jesus H,” Alex echoed. Tom reached behind Trent and bopped Alex on the back of the head. At the same time he raised his eyebrows and nodded toward Ellen, and Alex grinned. Tom put his hand over the sharp pain in his chest.
THE CALL CAME from Margaret Seward, the principal over at the school. Later, he wouldn’t remember what she’d said. He heard Trent’s name, the alarm in her voice, and he bolted. In the tiny parking lot behind the drug store, his car was wedged in by Dr. Metcalfe’s monstrous Buick. Tom crashed his fist down on a rear fender, yelped in pain and took off running. For eight blocks he carried an image of Trent bloody and gasping. All it takes is a baseball in the throat. A science experiment gone amok. They should have home-schooled the boys.
He rounded the corner, saw a police car in front of the school and plunged into the building. Ellen met him in the foyer, her face pasty above her white uniform like a mask on a Halloween nurse. She put her hand on his chest and said, “Breathe.”
He raised his arm to brush her off, but the pain doubled him in half. Her hand moved to his back. “Breathe, Tom.”
“Is he dead?” he managed to croak before coughing.
“No, no. God help us. He’s in the OR.”
He lifted his head, and through the window into the school office he saw Trent sitting on a couch. Margaret was perched beside him, alert and wary, watching him the way you might a foreigner or a poisonous insect. Trent’s head was down, but he wasn’t bleeding. He wasn’t even crying.
Tom lifted his finger and pointed. “He’s right there.”
“Not Trent. The other boy. He’s in the OR.”
“What other boy?” Tom said.
“Didn’t they tell you what happened?”
He shook his head, still fighting for breath. “All I heard was Trent in trouble, and I took off.”
Margaret stepped to the door and motioned for them to come in. She’d moved Trent into the secretary’s office. Jeffrey Klotsch, wearing his police uniform, stood with arms folded, working hard to look stern and professional. Tom had gone to school with Jeffrey and knew that he’d flunked math two years in a row.
“Jeffrey,” Tom said. Jeffrey nodded, but his eyes fished around the room.
“What the hell’s going on here?” Tom said. “I want to see my son.”
“Why don’t we all sit down,” Margaret said.