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.
The women coaxed him with murmurs and tugs on his arm. Jeffrey loomed there, not budging until Tom lowered himself to the couch beside Ellen. Margaret sat across from them. Jeffrey plopped his overweight frame on a chair set at a right angle. Tom watched Jeffrey out of the corner of his eye while Margaret explained the situation.
Trent’s class had gone to the river on a science expedition. On the way back, Manson walked ahead. The second graders were at recess, and Alex had bent down to pick up a leaf when his jacket caught on the fence. Manson bent over to help him, and that’s when Trent entered the school yard. Trent yelled at Manson to leave his brother alone, and when Manson didn’t move away, Trent hit him with a rock.
“A rock?” Tom’s voice rose with relief. “That’s what all this is about? A kid throwing a rock? Jeffrey, how many times did I heave a rock at you? It was a freak thing, right? He couldn’t have known.”
“He didn’t throw it,” Margaret said. “He’d collected it from the walk. It was big. And he brought it down on Manson’s head.”
“Oh, my God,” Ellen said.
“Trent hasn’t said a word.” Margaret talking again. Tom forced himself to concentrate. “There was a lot of confusion, panic. Manson fell over. He just lay there in a pool of blood.”
“Head wounds bleed,” Ellen said. She sounded desperate. “Even when they aren’t serious.”
Without speaking, Tom tried to send his wife a message. Shut up, Ellen. Don’t say anything incriminating. Don’t apologize. Don’t admit.
“Can I see my boys?” Ellen asked.
My boys. Already, he was a ghost.
HE FOLLOWED HER, of course. He went with his wife to see their children. The minute Ellen stepped through the door Alex threw his arms around her legs, sobbed into her thighs. She patted him on the back and murmured mother things. Tom stood watching, his hands twitchy and heavy on the ends of his arms. “Hey, buddy,” he managed to say when Alex glanced up at him.
“You go with Daddy,” Ellen said to Alex. He didn’t want to, but in the end he relented. Tom walked with him out the door and home. Alex wouldn’t hold his hand. It took them half an hour. When they got there they made hot chocolate, neither speaking, and then the chocolate got cold sitting on the table, and Tom asked Alex if he’d like to take a nap. Alex said he would. He lay down on the bottom bunk, and when Tom looked in on him fifteen minutes later, he was asleep with his thumb in his mouth. Tom watched him for a while from the doorway, then edged the door closed and stood with his forehead leaned against it.
That was nothing, though, compared to Trent. He walked in with his mother. She had her hand on his shoulder, all Big Nurse, guiding him. His lights were out, a zombie-child who moved like a nursing-home patient. Tom tried to pull his son into his arms, but Trent stood stiff as a stop sign, his head thrown aside. Tom rubbed his open hand over his mouth. Ellen walked Trent to their bed, laid him down, and covered him with a blanket. His eyes were open and staring when she closed the door.
“What’s the matter with him?” he asked.
Ellen leaned back against the wall, her body sucked in and arched away from him. “Shock, partly. He’ll be worse when it wears off.”
“Worse?” he asked.
THEY SAT UP through the night, he in the den, she in the living room. He waited for Ellen to accuse him, but she didn’t. She said nothing, nothing at all. They were polite when they passed each other on the way to the phone. Without talking about it, one or the other called the hospital every hour.
Late in the night, while Ellen was in the bathroom, Tom crept into the bedroom. Trent hadn’t moved, his slim body stretched out like a sheeted corpse. He’d fallen asleep, his mouth slack and hanging, his breath foul. Tom sat on the opposite side of the bed, afraid to touch him, afraid he’d waken.
He wished Trent had been the one who’d gotten hurt. No, no, not his head bashed in, not that, but the usual boyhood hurts, something of the body only, something that could heal into a scar and be shown off later in life to a girl who would laugh with him about narrow escapes and the stupidity of youth and trace the scar with her tongue, her teasing touch awakening him to hunger and love. He realized too late that he was making noise, sucking in big gasps of air. Trent rolled over and looked into his face.
“Dad?” Trent said. His voice high and young.
Tom tried to smile. “I’m here, son.”
“Is Alex all right?”
Tom swallowed. “He’s fine. He’s sleeping in his bed.”
“I tried to be a fireman.”
Tom nodded, but his lips would not shape consonants. He was afraid that if he opened his mouth, he would start to howl. He muttered something like a groan, but it seemed to quiet Trent. The boy closed his eyes, turned on his side and fell like a weighted anchor back into sleep.
STILL LATER, after Ellen had fallen into a fitful sleep on the couch, Tom walked over to the hospital. He didn’t know what he would do once he got there. He saw only one couple in the waiting room. They looked beat down, the woman frowsy and glassy-eyed, her hair thin, dry and spiked like a cactus. She wore a short-sleeved shirt, her elbows sharpened to knobby points.
A man sat beside her on a chair tipped back against the wall. His belly hung over a silver belt buckle of Mount Rushmore. He wore jeans and a collared plaid shirt, wire-rimmed glasses. He looked bookish and tough and like he could beat the crap out of Tom.
Tom peered up and down the halls but saw only a metal cart missing one caster and listed sideways. Looking for punishment, he sat down on a molded plastic chair and leaned forward, elbows on knees. “You Manson’s folks?”
Expecting anger, reproof, he was unprepared for the way the woman brightened. “D’you know Manson?”
Tom shook his head. He couldn’t give Trent up to these people. “No, no. I heard . . . how’s he doing?”
“Twenty-seven stitches. And a concussion.” The woman’s voice swam in horrified awe.
“A kid did this to him,” the man said. He fisted his hands on his thighs. Big hands and hard, like knots of wood.
“But he’ll be all right?” Tom said.
“Doc’s checking on him,” the woman said.
Tom raised one trembling hand and stroked his jaw. “Helluva deal,” he managed to say.
“Another boy . . . he used a rock. Why would he do that?” The woman’s eyes, red-rimmed, bore into him. Tom inspected his shoes, fixed his attention on a jagged tear in the carpet.
The man dropped the chair legs to the floor. Tom winced, but the guy with big fists only leaned into Tom’s face and spoke, man to man. “You know how it is. New kid in town. He’s always the target.”
“Hold on,” Tom said. He straightened his back along the wall, the desire to confess urgent.
“I told Manson, he’s got to protect himself.” The man’s voice rose in a whine, a tornado gathering momentum.
“He’s not that kind of boy,” the woman said. She lifted one side of her mouth, a twisted tooth gleaming. Tom could see the image she held of her son, doe-eyed, feeding bits of bread to ducks. Climbing into bed between cowboy sheets.
“You got kids, mister?” the man asked.
Tom squirmed. “Yeah.”
The man opened and closed his hands, his fingers red and battered and mottled like sausages. “How do you stand it?”
“What do you mean?”
“People aren’t nice. You have to teach your kids not to be nice. If you don’t, they get hurt.” He stopped and gestured down the hall, too choked up to go on. While Tom tried to think of something to say, the man stood abruptly, walked down the hall and out of the hospital.
“He’s gone,” the woman said.
“No. He, uh, he just stepped out. He needs some air.”
She smiled that crooked smile again. “He goes. He’ll be gone a month, maybe two.”
“Last time it was six.”
Tom looked down the hall, anything to get away from this woman’s sad eyes. “Do you want me to get him back?”
She shook her head. “Won’t be no use.”
The doctor beckoned from the doorway, and the woman stood and stepped into her son’s room. Tom sat and stared down the empty hallway, seeing the listing cart leaned into a wall, the tear in the carpet under his shoe, everything broken, and then that stringy red-haired kid who flailed a bat at a car.
TOM LEFT the hospital and walked a few blocks in the night to clear his head. He wandered into the city park and sat down on a rubber swing. The metal S-hooks cut into his thighs. He rocked himself back and forth and thought of Manson’s father and the open road. He pictured himself alone in a bar, in a dingy motel room, in his car on a highway in Montana, driving 110 miles an hour into a flat horizon with nothing more weighing on him than where he might stop to refuel. Just get in his car and go. He could. He closed his eyes and tasted freedom like acid in his mouth. Eventually, he wore himself out, and he turned his face toward the house where his wife and sons lay sleeping, warm and vulnerable. He remembered to breathe, in and then out, not so hard, and he stilled to the rhythm. Morning light began to break, and then there was nothing left but to let his feet lead him home.
2008 Tamarack Award
Pamela Carter Joern’s first novel, The Floor of the Sky, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and won the Nebraska Book Award for fiction. Her newest novel, The Plain Sense of Things, was published in September and is set in western Nebraska. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband Brad and teaches at the Loft Literary Center and at Hamline University.