David Byron Queen
It’s fire season, and we’re driving out to pick up my wife Jess at the pen. It’s me and Jess’ sister, Ann. Ann hates my guts. “I hate your guts,” she says, as I ease the truck from lane to lane, moving around the semis. We’re in the flat part of Washington that looks like the moon.
“You don’t mean it,” I say.
“I do mean it,” she says.
We hadn’t meant for anything to mean it. It just did. Part of the problem of being all pinned off from the world together, sharing proximity and time. First there was the motel near Superior. And then the one in Mullan. Now we had to deal with it before we got to Jess.
“This can’t happen again,” I say.
“It won’t,” she says.
But she’s looking at me, like…
I pull the truck off the side of the road, and it happens again. When it’s over we’re lying there with our clothes off staring through the windshield, looking at the sky. The smoke is swirling by, thick, a rotten yellow glow. “Only a spark,” Ann says. “Can take out an entire forest. She drags a fingernail across my chest. “I read all of this was started by a match.”
“Does it have a different energy?”
“What?” she says. “The fire?”
“You know, the one’s that burn and burn?”
“No,” she says. “It’s science. It’s the same. That’s the point, I think. It’s the sameness.” She pulls her jeans back up over her legs. “You think Jess is OK?”
“Would you be?” I say.
“Right,” she says.
There’s smoke all over the highway, and it’s like we’re driving through a cloud. I can barely see through it. Headlights appear and disappear. It’s the end of the world.
We pull off at a gas station. I fill up and go inside the shop. I gather some energy drinks and pull two spinning hot dogs off the cooker. Ann and I sit in the back of the truck and eat them. When she’s done eating, Ann moves to the edge of the truck bed. She undoes the messy bun of her hair. She fingers a pearl snap on her shirt, rolls her thumb against it.
“We…” I say. “We need a rule. The Rule”
“Don’t make this any harder,” she says. She holds my gaze with those soft brown eyes, the geometry of her face locking me in.
“Earlier? That was the last time. We can’t do that again.”
There’s a shuddering whoosh in the air. The spell breaks. A helicopter pulls over above, heading toward a curling black cloud of smoke rising off the high desert plain. Beneath it swings a large bucket strung to the helicopter with long wire cables. The cloud twirls like a snake against the flat yellow sky, heading in our direction. “This is getting bad,” Ann says.
“Let’s get out of here,” I say.
We scream through the fuzzy black night. Down the highway, across the plain. I’m in my head for most of it, zoning out to the lines. Jess…Jess…The sky, the air. It’s hard when love is elemental to the pretense of your world. You see it everywhere, in everything. You get to thinking it’s some pattern, some divination. It’s all superstition. That’s what love is.
At some point, Ann wakes. “What’s that?” she says. I see it too. Something glowing. Orange and red. The closer we get, the brighter it is, like a meteor fallen from a million miles away.
I pull the truck off the highway. The wind is relentless; it whips across the desert in an unceasing burst. Tumbleweeds scatter. Flames lick the hazy sky.
A car. Or, what’s left of one.
I get close to it, as close as I can. The heat rips at my skin. I move around front, but it’s all flame and smoke and I can’t see in. The paint crackles and sings like a choir of angels.
“There somebody in there?” Ann asks.
“Not any more,” I say.
At daybreak we get to the pen, but the time is wrong. Jess isn’t free for another twelve hours. We talk to a woman in an office, make our sorry case. She says the point of the pen is to not leave early from the pen. Seems funny, after eight months, a few hours should matter.
“But it does,” the woman says.
We drive around town, or whatever you’d call it. More of a strange, in-between place. People waiting to go in, and people waiting on people getting out.
We don’t know what else to do, so we get a motel room. We ask to book a double bed, but they’ve only got the one. Neither of us says nothing. Fine. It’s fine. It will be fine.
I turn on the TV and sit on the bed.
Ann sits in the chair and looks out the window. I watch her for a while instead of the TV. My body’s burning, all over again. I’m on the wire of a great, unloosed pain. I want Ann, and I want Jess. I want the life we at one time so startlingly pulled together. Our little rented house. Our dogs. Me fly guiding in the warmer months, living good on Jess’ railroad pay.
She comes over to me and kisses my neck. “Ann,” I say.
“Just once more,” she says.
“The Rule,” I say.
“I hate your guts,” she says.
Then she leaves.
I sit for a while, watching TV. On TV, it’s all fire. On the news. In the ads. They say the world has changed, and it will never go back. They say we blew our beautiful chance.
The sun sets, and I wonder where Ann has got to. I call her cell but she doesn’t pick up. An hour passes. I walk to the bar across the street. It’s dark and quiet. Ann is sitting in a booth. She’s had a few by then, and is in a sort of trance. I order a drink and sit across from her.
Light passes across her face. Her eyes are all puffy, and there’s a tear resting on her cheek. I reach across and wipe it away. “Am I a bad person?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “Not at all.”
“Well, why do I feel like this?”
Ann finishes her drink and gets another. Somebody coins in a song on the juke. It’s an old country song. An old waltz. All schmaltz and strings and pedal steel. She drinks her drink and then we move out to the patio, under the string lights. Ash floats around us like snow.
She pulls a pack of cigarettes and a matchbook from her pocket. She strikes a match against the rough strip on the back, and presses it to a cigarette’s end.
“Since when do you smoke,” I say.
She blows the smoke into the air, and watches the match in front of her. The fire burns, and soon goes out. “I don’t,” she says. “I don’t even know why I bought them.”
She passes it to me. I take a drag, and put it out under my boot.
The music swells from the inside of the bar, ringing out over the yard. Off in the distance, the wall of fire, the great orange surge, moves in steadily across the plain.
Ann pulls me close, and rests on my shoulder. We dance and sway to the music.
“We should get back,” I say, after a while. “We gotta get Jess.”
She puts a finger on my lips, and hums against my neck. “Just a little more time,” she says, and closes her eyes. “Just a little longer.”