The First Word.

This blog is an outstretched arm from my primary blog, weeatoutloud.wordpress.com. I write for fun/have a crazy dream of being published someday. I should stick my neck out, but this is about as far as this neck will stretch, for now anyway. So I will be depositing mainly fiction, but possibly a scant amount of non-fiction creative writing that I am doing, have done, and will do as time goes by. Most of what I will post first are pieces that I have done in the best. Some are ridiculously old, some are more recent. Some have been read and critiqued, and some have never seen human eyes. The best way to get better is to write constantly, and I will try to do so every day. My resolution is to post something to this blog, even if it is just a paragraph, once a week. However, I am a college student with a job and a million hobbies, so bear with me!

Please give me feedback and enjoy!

The Eleventh Hour

Week Two – January 8-14

A shriek rose from the sticky morning air. He kept his eyes shut, tucking his head farther into the warmth.

“Talan…Talan.”

A finger prodded his bare side.

Talan! We fell asleep on the beach last night!” The giggling voice sounded like a donkey’s bray in his ear. “Get up!”

That fucking sun.

Talan pried his eyes open, the only thing shielding them from the blinding light was a shadowed face hovering overhead. Gulls screeched down at them.

“Wake up sleepy head! Oh my GOD I don’t remember anything from last night…”

He tried to block out the squeaky voice of the blonde chick he had picked up the night before at the Emerald Club. His head ached too badly to try to remember her name. Talan uncurled himself out of the damp towel and warm sand, brushing it off his skin, which was tinged pink from oncoming sunburn. It was still early in the summer—he hadn’t had time to get dark yet.

He snagged the two empty bottles of Grey Goose that lay tossed in the sand, throwing them in the nearby trashcan as a family of four came down the beach access, taking in the pair of young adults clad only in their undergarments, keeping their expressions quiet beneath large sunglasses and straw hats. Talan flashed them an impressive smile. Asswipes.

“Listen…sweet pea,” he turned, keeping the smile as wide as his throbbing head would allow, “Last night was…hot. Really hot.” He placed a careful hand on the young girl’s perfectly toned lower back, her blonde hair tousled in waves over her tan shoulders. She gazed up at him, bright blue eyes a little too excited for his taste. He wondered vaguely how old she was.

A streak of dark brown hair caught his eye over her shoulder; a familiar face ran in their direction about fifty yards down the beach. Sara Bradshaw looked different than she had in high school; she’d traded her long, luscious brown locks for the short, pixie cut she was currently wearing. She jogged down the waterline, long legs moving awkwardly around the objects, children, and pets scattered in her path. She was always the tallest girl on the swim team, and the only person that could get a lead on him in the 100-yard Butterfly. Her eyes drifted in his direction.

“Oh my God, I went skinny dipping last night, didn’t I? Didn’t I?!” Blondie pulled at his hand.

Sara caught his gaze, recognition mixing with confusion across her face. She kept moving down the beach.

“Why didn’t you come with me, Talan?”

His nose burned and he swiped a hand across his perspiring face before turning back to the overeager female. “Oh, uh, I don’t swim, sweetie.” Avoiding eye contact, he checked the time on his phone. “Holy crap, would you look at that? I have a meeting in half an hour; it’s 12:30! So again, it was lovely,” Talan mashed his chapped lips against her sandy cheek. “Catch you on the flip side. Shoot me a text tonight, darlin’.” In a move that had been honed over the years, Talan swept up his discarded clothes and darted up the beach access; thanking God he’d never given the girl his number.

Leather seats always make sunburned skin and sandy asses feel better. The top of the ’67 Shelby GT slid down easily and the wind whipped last night’s hangover away slightly as Talan headed across the Emerald Isle bridge, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway padded with tiny exotic islands below. Boats crossed the gleaming tides, the white tails of their wake striping the surface like gashes. The traffic was low—tourist season didn’t really start for another month, when May rolled around. He gassed the engine fearlessly, the needle of the speedometer climbing as the car sloped down the bridge to the mainland.

When he was a kid, he used to stand out on the dock, waiting for the single, streaming beam of light from his father’s boat to cut through the inky waters leading up to the house. The mass of metal and lines was a dark, majestic figure, eerily creeping toward the tiny house nestled back in the reeds. Its great arms stuck out at right angles, dragging the nets behind them. His father would be visible, no matter how cloudy the night; a white mop of sandy hair waving at him from atop the great beast. He would hug one of the trunk-sized posts of the dock, shaking only until the creature allowed his father to greet him at the end of the dock, home safe from work at sea.

The Shelby rumbled down the tiny dirt path to his parent’s old house, kicking dust up just as it did when he was sixteen. The right side of the structure was beginning to sag slightly, and a family of Virginia Rails had nested in the patch of decaying wood where the roof met the right corner of the exterior. Its paint hadn’t begun to chip yet, but the color had grayed with time; sand and salt doing a number on its luster. The door to the house was unlocked, just as he had left it, and Talan sat down at the wood table in the kitchen, surveying the mess he’d begun making around the house. Books were strewn across the scuffed wooden floors in the living room, pictures smiled up from their place on the couch, and he was making a heavy dent in the food left in the refrigerator, the little that hadn’t gone bad. Stepping around the tangle of knick-knacks in the floor to the overnight bag on the couch, he threw on a pair of shorts. After seriously considering getting back to the mess in the floor, he pulled a cigarette out of the pack on the table instead, heading out onto the porch.

The boards were beginning to give a little more, and the screen was yellowed and peppered with holes. Talan rubbed a sneakered toe over a knot in the wood, one he always tripped over as a kid, and the one that caused his mother’s fall about a year ago. He breathed in the sweet sting of the Menthol, and heard the quiet lapping of the water out back, the sound like a panting animal. Behind his parent’s tiny house, the only thing separating them from the Sound was a small yard of overgrown grass and a weathered dock. He hadn’t unlocked the back door yet.

A squeaking axle caught his attention, and Talan peered out of the dingy screen door to see an aged green Jeep Wrangler come bouncing down the path, its suspension wheezing like an old man. The hood was beginning to rust, and the ripped canvas of the seats was visible even through the dingy windshield. Sara unfolded herself out of the vehicle, her eyes squinting up toward the house in the afternoon sun. “Talan?”

He ran a hand through his greasy hair, and let the cigarette fall between the cracks on the porch. He cursed inwardly for not taking a shower.

“Sara. Hey. Long time, no see.” The screen door cried out as she came up on the porch.

“Smoking?”

Talan gave her his famous sheepish grin, the one that was known for working on all girls and occasionally his mother. Sara rolled her eyes, breezing past him to walk in the front door.

“What the hell?”

“I’m working in there,” he countered, sweeping a pile of junk into his arms to provide an empty kitchen chair. She remained standing. “I’ve got a lot of stuff to go through.”

She took a deep breath, as if biting her tongue. “I can see that.”

“Want anything to drink?”

“No, thank you.”

He grabbed a Mother Earth pale ale from the refrigerator and perched on the kitchen counter, sliding dirty dishes into the sink as he went. An awkward silence fell over the room.

“Thank you for coming to the funeral,” Talan began, the quiet hiss from the bottle abnormally loud in the room.

“You’re welcome,” she replied, picking up a ship in a bottle from the kitchen table. “Gosh, I love these things. He always did such a good job with them—“

“Take that one if you want to. As a matter of fact, if you know anybody who would buy them off of me, let me know.”

“Why would you sell them? They’re beautiful.” Typical woman, combing her hands over a useless trinket like that.

“Yeah, and there are about a hundred of them around here collecting dust. I don’t want them.”

She let out a sigh before standing up, looking over the stuff strewn about the living room floor. “It’s been, what, nine months now Talan? Why are you just now getting back down here?”

He shrugged, sloshing around the last of the beer in the bottom of the bottle. “I’ve been busy.”

She snorted. “Oh yes, I completely forgot how fabulously wealthy you were becoming at the firm in Raleigh. Do tell me, how is that going for you?”

He gave her a lazy grin, sliding slowly off the counter. “Pretty damn good, if I do say so myself.”

Her green eyes pierced him, mouth curled into a sneer. “I’m sure that half-naked blonde you were on the beach with this morning thought so, too. What, did you pass out there last night?”

Talan laughed as she looked him over briefly with a disgusted expression. “Apparently so. What, like what you see?” He nudged her playfully in the shoulder, her skin warm against his bare chest.

She snorted. “I just haven’t seen you in anything besides Armani since you passed the Bar. Your picture’s in the paper all the time. And by the way, aren’t you getting a little old to be running around with Mrs. Skinner’s youngest daughter? You’ll be what, twenty-eight next month?”

He gulped. “Maggie? That wasn’t her, was it? I would’ve—she looks just like her sister, Jesus! How old is she?”

Sara shook her head. “She just turned eighteen last month. She waits tables at the Icehouse. To save up for college. God, Talan.”

“Hey, I’m not back in town for long. Might as well make my mark while I can.”

She shot him a look that turned his stomach, and Talan avoided the gaze, cursing inwardly at allowing himself to be affected by someone he hadn’t seen in person for over eight years.

“Ms. Caroline would turn over in her grave if she saw this house.” Sara crossed the living room carefully, picking up the stack of pictures that were turned face down in the corner. When her eyes met his face again, they had gone soft. She leaned back, peering out of the curtains covering the picture window that looked out onto the backyard. “Wanna go walk out on the dock?”

Sweat beaded on his neck. “No.”

She sighed softly, turning back to the pictures. “Have you been out there at all?”

He snorted. “You should see the yard.”

Sara opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again silently. She crawled into his mother’s old rocking chair, turning her attention back to the pictures in her lap. The sunlight cascaded through the picture window behind her, glistening over her pale skin, dusted with freckles. He used to try to count them when they were kids, stretched out on the pier on their stomachs, waiting for the sun to warm their bodies so they could go inside. Sara was always staring across the water, or into the marshes, trying to find some hidden treasure buried in the reeds along the water’s edge. She’d wait patiently until Talan gave up, choosing instead to drag her into the gray waters behind him again. As soon as their feet pushed off from the sticky mud, they would be racing, young arms plunging into the water fluently.

“I used to come out here, you know, after you left.”

He stayed silent, perching on the back of the couch and nursing a second beer.

“Your mom would usually be gone down to Laurie Ann’s, and I’d ride up here to watch the sun go down. Why didn’t you ever clean the ramp up? It’s falling apart.”

He shrugged. “I don’t go out there.”

“Are you going to clean the shed out? Or at least get the—“

“I don’t go out there.”

He didn’t look up, refusing to meet the gaze he knew was boring into him.

After several moments, her voice spoke softly. “He didn’t leave you, you know.”

“Sara—“

“Well, I’m sorry, but you act like this place is plagued.” She snapped the pictures onto the table at her elbow, her long limbs unfolding her onto her feet. “It takes your mother to die to get you to come crawling back here; you’ve let their house just about fall to pieces around you, for Christ’s sake.”

He bit down on his lip, turning away from her and walking into the kitchen; the empty can crushed like paper in his hand.

“You can’t pretend like it didn’t happen. It wasn’t so bad for the first year when you went out looking, but after we graduated, you were fucking gone.”

***

Search and Rescue had seemed like the easiest fix at the time. The Coast Guard station was just over the bridge on the Island, and their volunteer team had been running strong for years. A seventeen-year-old swim team champion was a great addition. And who could help but feel sorry for the Whitfield boy whose father disappeared on his shrimp boat?

It covered the Tideland News Paper, and word spread around the town like wildfire. People swamped to the tiny house to sit with his mother while Talan positioned himself in the red boats crisscrossing the Sound he had called home. The rescue training, the boat tactics, and the volunteer hours allowed him to avoid the long bouts of time that his mother spent at home alone, searching for the same sign. Each scenario brought new light on the situation that his father was still afloat on the creature he had departed upon, bobbing around like a cork in the dark waters.

Mr. Whitfield left the tiny house with the closing of summer, and as winter placed its chill over the fishing town, fewer volunteers found time and urgency to accompany the teenage boy out looking for his father in the ocean. It became a weekly routine, four nights a week he would pack up and head out until landmarks began to run together in the black waters. When winter folded into spring, he stayed at the station a majority of the time; the tiny house had become an empty hole of community sympathy and his mother’s mistaken closure. It didn’t faze Talan much, but before long the Captain at the station was warning him against taking the boat out by himself.

It had been a particularly rough night on the water, and he had pulled the boat out after the staff had gone back to their homes and more important business. The summer storms had raged across the sea for the past few months, fading into hurricane season. It slid into the water like a knife through warm butter, and the engine at Talan’s back rumbled quietly to life, taking him and his few belongings into the windy August night. The air hung thickly around him, but the water was unseasonably cool. He pulled out into the sea farther than he had gone the night before, as Sara had persuaded him to come in off the sea early to meet her for dinner. The fog lights on the Station dimmed as he made a wide circle out into the waters, coming around the Island toward the beach, where most of the team strayed away from in fear of the deep currents that could grab control of the small rescue boats without warning.

The sky swarmed with clouds, blocking the spotlight of the moon and leaving Talan with only the spotlight mounted to the front of the boat. The waves of the surf began rocking him slowly at first, but as he began to parallel the shoreline, his grip on the handle of the steering column tightened, the strong currents bashing against the boat’s rudder. The lights of condos dotting the Emerald coast twinkled in the night, laughing at him from their safety on dry land. The waves began lapping hungrily against the poky vessel; water slipping over the sides stealthily.

A pop rang out over the deathly quiet, and the motor gripped in Talan’s hand purred to a shuddering halt. He grasped a side in each hand, trying to calm the bobbing of the watercraft with his rigid limbs. His eyes combed the waters hungrily, the rocking of the waves pumping his adrenaline but not dulling the motivation of his search, as if this were a competition of stamina instead of stability.

When Talan’s face first hit the water, years of swim training were whipped away with the snarling waves. He came up sputtering and coughing, like a toddler learning how to swim. The capsized boat floated slowly away from the shore, as the deep currents yanked Talan under effortlessly. He wore no lifejacket—why would he? The water was a challenge he’d handled effortlessly for as long as he could remember.

He clawed toward the surface, confidence lost in the inky black depths, and breath became hard to find as panic seared into his brain. He fought toward the shore, empty words from training manuals and swimming scenarios tangled in his head as the current raged around him. This ritual was no longer an odyssey, he was just some dumb-fuck kid out alone in the water, thinking he could find his father that had been gone now for nearly a year. He suddenly became aware of the vessel that carried his father away, and the depths that it would take to drag a creature of its proportions to the grave. No longer were the waves a natural ride, but a ravenous beast toying with him before consumption.

***

Talan’s eyes locked on the weathered wood of the boardwalk as they approached the sand; the sound of water against coast seemed to mock him as it growled angrily; the foam sliding slowly across the sand like saliva. Talan had allowed Sara to force him into the corroded elephant she called a vehicle and over the bridge to Bogue Inlet Pier on the Island. Their feet sunk into the cool grains as the pair walked toward the water.

“How’d you ever get back that night?” she asked, her cool, strong voice taking over the rumbling of the gnashing waves.

“I washed back up here eventually. My legs gave out after awhile; somebody from the team went out and got the boat the next day.”

“I stopped by to see your mom a few days after it happened, but she said you had packed up for Elon the day before.”

He nodded, tucking his hands into his pockets. Sara’s slender legs matched his steps, and her arm gently hooked in his. “You should’ve called me.”

He opened his mouth to answer her, but a beam of light in the distance stopped his breath.

“What’s that?” Sara asked, her gaze following his own. They made their way towards a mulling crowd of people near the water’s edge, all equipped with flashlights. As Talan’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw two women collapsed in the sand, one about his age holding an older woman who was weeping loudly into her palms. The sound seeped into his ears like cold molasses, coating his brain with her hollow emptiness.

“What’s going on?” Sara’s voice snapped him back.

“A six-year-old girl was taken under about forty-five minutes ago. She got away from her grandparents and got out into the waves. They were under the pier when she went under, and the current’s moving west. Search and Rescue is headed this way.”

Talan’s spine was rigid, perspiration already slithering down his back in salty rivets. His chest tightened as if the heaviness of the waves were already pressing down on his lungs.

“What can we do to help?” Sara’s fingers gripped his forearm, as if knowing he was ready to dart at the first available opening.

The man handed over two flashlights. “You can scan the water and—good Lord, if it ain’t Talan Whitfield.” The man clapped Talan heavily on the back. “How’re you doin’, boy? We’ve got some experienced help here now.”

Talan grinned weakly, taking the flashlight from the man and following Sara down the beach. The waves leapt forward in rage, nibbling at their bare feet before sinking back into surf again. Sara’s pale limbs stood out in the light, leading him like a lighthouse beacon. They passed under the Pier, its towering, barnacle-ridden legs swayed gently in the whipping winds over them. The beam from his light bounced off the structures, throwing shadow victims into his line of vision.

When he saw white-blonde hair catch the light, it was his father’s. All those scenarios, the run-throughs, the nights of insomnia ridden with plans, predictions, desires; these became true as his feet pumped into the malleable sand, wrists meeting as he dove into the pounding surf, his body submerged in water for the first time in ten years. Like a retriever toward game, his eyes were set dead ahead as the lifeless body tossed about in the rolling swells. Her body flopped inertly onto his chest as Talan flipped to his back, the waves slapping at his face as if trying to latch on to his body. One arm stroked the pair toward the shore, his legs propelling them from the churning depths of the sea. Her golden hair fanned out onto the sand as he tilted back her chin to open the airway, the crowd around them blending into white noise with the moaning waves, angry that their prey had slipped away. His fingers moved expertly—this was how it was supposed to go. Right over left, palm over ribs, one and two and three and

The first gasp came before she vomited onto the sand, and when the young girl’s eyes flashed open, they were his father’s. Talan slid back as the family rushed in, two blue-uniformed EMS workers racing across the sand in the distance. He stood, watching the girl curl into the weeping woman’s arms, breath freely rushing in and out of her lungs.

It was done. His breath came in shallow pants, and he clapped a hand to his chest, turning his vision toward the raging waters. Sara’s hand was suddenly on his back, her touch warming the chilled skin through his soaked clothing. She kissed him gently on the cheek.

“Welcome back.”

Shimmer.

Week One – January 1-7

When she spotted Mrs. Patterson’s red Sunday hat, Jeanette knew she was back in town. The family-owned funeral home smelt of too-ripe flowers and strong perfume. She kept her head down, passing through the front room as she tried to sneak to the bathroom unnoticed. She had an innate ability for learning the locations of restrooms, whether they were public or private, covered in graffiti or clean enough to eat in. Jeanette kept her eyes on her shoes—the teetering heels were likely to betray her ankles as they sunk into the faded shag carpet. And, of course, the less eye-contact she made, the less people would recognize a familiar face.

“Jeannie!” A shrill voice came from her right shoulder. The bathroom door beckoned invitingly, only a few more shaky steps away.  Damn.

“Hi, Lacey.” She sucked in a deep breath and turned around slowly. Smile. Be nice.

Girl! Where have you been?

“J-just school.”

“Don’t you ever come home? God! And you cut your gorgeous long hair! You sure have changed these past two years.”

Jeanette nodded, trying to keep every muscle from cringing as the girl stepped too close, fussing with her short, dark hair.

Her fingers were sticky.

Lacey, who always smelt of liquid make-up and hairspray, was sporting the latest of Lily Pulitzer’s summer line, her white blonde hair and bright pink dress an eye-sore against the wave of black in the funeral home.

“Well, I’m still at Harvard on the Neuse!” she giggled, referring to the town’s community college.

“What’s your major?” Jeanette asked, taking a step backwards toward the bathroom. Her palms were starting to sweat.

“Business…I think?”Lacey replied, placing a well-manicured pink nail in her mouth.

“T-that’s cool—actually, I r-really need to—“ She started to turn, but jumped as a loud voice boomed behind her.

“If it ain’t little Miss Michaels!” Two large arms captured her from behind, snatching Jeanette away from Lacey and the bathroom door. She squeezed her eyes shut as the room began to spin slightly, laughter from the man’s chest shaking her like an etch-a-sketch. Breathe.

He sat her down from the bear hug on wobbly legs. “H-hi, Mr. Edwards.” Jeanette’s teeth ground together in a smile. Her stomach already hated being home.

“I guess big city college hasn’t fixed that stutter, huh?” He laughed again, slapping her roughly on the back.  She wondered vaguely if the man knew any difference between his high school football players and the rest of the world.

“It’s a n-n-nervous tick,” Jeanette replied, quoting her mother. She bit her tongue at the thought. Daniel Edwards yanked at his black tie, his face ruddy and spilling over the tight collar of the dress shirt. He pulled out a large handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his bald head.

“So how’s school going? How’s your folks?”

“Fine…u-um, excuse me, Mr. Edwards, b-but I really need to use the restroom…long drive, you know.” She flashed him a quick smile and slid away to safety, cutting his conversation short with a click of the bathroom door. When in doubt, show teeth.

Jeanette let out a heavy sigh, checking the lock on the door and placing quivering hands on the old-fashioned vanity. The porcelain sink was like ice under her skin, which was already dripping with sweat. She checked her watch: she’d been in town for a total of fifteen minutes. She pressed her back against the wall and slid to the cold tile floor, pulling her legs to her chest. Her swimming head and stomach began to calm a little as she curled into a ball in the corner of the small room. She closed her eyes, remembering the layout of the building from her last experience here. The large sanctuary, smelling of powder and Kleenex, with its long, creaky pews and cracked oil paintings. The family’s receiving room, stuffy and full of rusting folding chairs arranged to face the pulpit. The long hallway of offices and bathrooms, it’s long, stark white walls reminding her of a psych ward. But just at the end would be a glass door leading to the small patio outside, and that’s where he would be.

She’d bet the five dollars in her purse that he’d be wearing the black button-down she’d given him for Christmas, and the only pair of dress pants he owned. Maybe, for this occasion, he’d wear a tie.

She let out a heavy breath as she imagined his hands and how they would feel when he would touch her shoulder, and he would. The tips of his right would be thick with calluses. One or more fingers would probably be bandaged from a burn or a cut. The black outline of the tattoo on his wrist blazed against the backs of her eyelids. The pink scar that ran jaggedly down the left side of his ribcage. The light dusting of freckles on his chest. Jeanette felt her fingernails dig painfully into her arm before she realized she was rocking, the material of her dress brushing rhythmically against the wall behind her.

A nervous tick.

Sitting up, she removed her uncomfortable heels before reaching for a large, square bandage that was secured to the back of her heel. Jeanette ripped it away, revealing a wide strip of red, irritation that ran up her Achilles’ tendon, the scabs fresh from the car ride home. She attacked the infected skin, a chill of pleasure easing the tension in her neck as she scratched the area until it began to bleed, crimson drops slowly making their way down her heel to collect on the white tile.

A nervous tick.

Satisfied when the skin was raw and throbbing, she replaced the bandage and stood up quickly, plunging her hands into cold water from the antique faucet. Jeanette scraped the dried blood and dead skin from her fingernails before finally glancing up at the mirror warily. Her skin was too pale, the freckles marring her cheeks stood out like chicken pox. Her cropped hair darted in all directions—she had yet to adjust to the new style. The dark circles under her eyes seemed tattooed there. She dried her bony hands and pinched at her cheekbones, trying unsuccessfully to add color to her face. Jeanette bit down on her tongue, angry that her body was always giving her away, yet nervous that she couldn’t do anything about it.

Breathe. Relax. Slow down. Her mother’s soothing chants echoed in her head.

Jeanette pushed the voice away and stepped back into her heels, smoothing her skirt before facing the door. The once tiny room seemed huge now, and the previously inviting door now faced her like an enemy. She reached for the doorknob with shaking hands.

***

                It wasn’t like she’d constantly had a problem with being social. Nervous, maybe. She was an anxious person, but her knees hadn’t always exactly knocked together at the thought of interacting with people, whether she knew them or not. She’d met him at a bookstore for God’s sake, the biggest one in Greenville. It was full of people. The air smelt of rich, overpriced coffee and pages so crisp it made your fingers ache just to look at them. Tired of college applications, she’d escaped to the city for hot coffee and a new book about anything but John Steinbeck and AP Chemistry. She found herself in the children’s section, somehow bored with the classics she was studying in her senior English classes, and when she emerged from the store, The Little Prince felt good in her hands, like an old friend she’d run into again. She perched on a bench outside, the last wisps of summer warmth danced around her with September’s breeze as she cracked the spine of the new book.

“Um, excuse me, you don’t happen to have a light, do you?”

His dark bangs were always in his face, just as they had been that day. She had looked up to see him, strikingly tall with dark clothing and startling green eyes. She was alarmed by his sudden presence, which set her off shaking, as always, but his easy demeanor eased her enough to reach into her bag. She pulled out a black Bic, and with the spark from the lighter came conversation: he had graduated from her rival high school the previous year, they were both obsessed with 90s rock and the local alternative scene that had flared up downtown in the past two years.

“Care to tell me why you have a lighter if you don’t smoke?” He asked after they had been perched on the sidewalk for over an hour. She let out a laugh, a surprisingly easy one. Her hands shook as she turned the worn lighter over in her hands. “I-it sounds stupid. Sorry, I get a stutter sometimes…” she mumbled off, inwardly cursing her lips.

“I hadn’t noticed it. Go ahead, tell me.” He crossed his arms and sat back, waiting quietly. She started to speak, faltered, took a deep breath. A smile crept out of the corner of her mouth as she tried again. “I’m kind of a pyro, and my grandfather was too. H-he gave it to me a few years ago, not long before he died. It’s kind of a p-prized possession, if you will.”

She looked up, and he was still watching her, genuinely listening. She stared at him for several moments, drawn in by a strange kind of wonder. He smirked, breaking her gaze before reaching into his pocket. “So you’re a pyro, huh? Wanna see a trick?”

A nervous laugh bubbled out of her throat. “Th-that’s a loaded question.”

He laughed, rolling onto his back on the sidewalk. “True. Can I borrow you’re lighter again?”

She handed it over as he dug into his jeans pocket, pulling out a small ball covered in plastic wrap. He unwrapped it, squeezing it lightly. “Should be wet enough…” he mumbled under his breath, sitting up until he was about a foot away from Jeanette. Whether from fear or fascination, she didn’t jerk back. He wrapped the ball in his hand, its entirety disappearing under his large fingers. With just a small gap available on one side, he struck the lighter, and the tiny ball engulfed in flame as he opened his hand, letting it roll into the grasp of his forefinger and thumb. He held it only several inches away from her face, and she sat motionless, watching the flame rise to a point, quivering above his steady fingers. Suddenly, he tossed it into the air, bobbing it back and forth carefully between his two hands. He tossed it under one arm, and the ball arched gracefully over his head, landing perfectly in his outstretched fingers. She watched like a child at the circus, her eyes wide open and following the flaming ball in perfect sync. He extinguished it with a swipe of his hand.

“Whatcha think?”

She blinked. “Wow. I’m shocked. Amazed. That was…the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

He elbowed her playfully in the side, throwing her off balance. “See, you didn’t even stutter.”

It was easy. Effortless, even. It was easy to curl up on the couch and listen to Asher’s callused fingers pick out music on his beat-up guitar that filled her down to the toes with such joy she could hardly sit still. It was easy not to be nervous when she talked to him, or when she rode in his car—a “Black 2002 Z-28 Camaro; 396 Big Block,” which rolled off her tongue almost as easily as it did his. She felt oddly safe watching him toy with his fireballs, only after she watched him wind bits of ripped T-shirts in thread, dipping them in kerosene before they were lit so she could see the method behind his madness. It was easy to not worry when he avoided her questions about college and careers, especially when he assured her that he made enough to get by right now. Since he had lived by himself or with friends since he was fifteen, he appeared to be ridiculously worldly and prepared for almost any turn of events. It was easy to feel the burn of excitement run down her spine every time he caught her gaze beside him in the car, while he listened to her read some of her writing out loud, or just when they were alone together, her head effortlessly fitting snugly against his shoulder. It was easy to assume that he paid for his car, and that the glint in his eye was genuine, especially that night; when he kissed her on her front porch, like she was in a country music video: barefooted and guitar-clad. It was easy until the dinner she was responsible for ignited on the stove, enough to set off the smoke alarms and a twitching fit to Jeanette’s hands. Her mother’s steady palms rested on her hips, a blackened dishtowel in her grasp and a confused look on her face. “Where are you, Jeanette?”

Jeanette’s eyes searched for the black Camaro in the school’s parking lot after a particularly gut-wrenching Friday. She’d fumbled through a group presentation, stuttering through half of her notecards before her trembling hands dumped them on the floor, scattering like thrown flower petals as the class sniggered on. She tried to hide her crimson cheeks behind her long hair, but it didn’t do much good. Seeing Asher waiting behind the car’s tinted windows was like aloe on her burning nerves, and he noticed her wobbling knees as she quickly folded herself into the front seat.

She pressed her face against his chest, and he didn’t ask any questions, just drove. They talked, rode around town: normal afterschool things. Night fell, and Asher grasped her hand over the gear shift, pumping the Camaro into second gear as he pulled out of a fast food parking lot.

“Can I ask you to help me with something?” His eyes shone bright by the glow from the expensive radio in the dash. She cocked an eyebrow at him warily, but the smirk on his face knew she was sold. “It’ll be fun.”

She blew out a sigh, a smile itching at the corners of her mouth. “What is it?”

“I don’t know exactly. We’ll know when we get there.”

Her fingers shook ever so slightly, and he curled his own around them swiftly. “Don’t freak out about it. It’s nothing. I’ve done it a million times. “

“Well, where are we going?”

“Downtown. Fifth Street. You think your mom will be okay if you’re late tonight?”

Jeanette bit her lip, thinking of the talk she had with her mother the week before. She thought vaguely of the smell of her mother’s lotion, the same kind she had smoothed in her hands since Jeanette could remember. “Um, y-yeah, I guess so.”

He planted a kiss on her unsuspecting mouth, curving it into a smile. “That’s my girl.”

Without question, Jeanette slid her thin frame into Asher’s black jacket, the hood almost flopping over her eyes. The streets were dark but for a few flickering streetlamps, straining to stay alive.

“See that ’03 GT up there? The Pewter? I’m gonna go run and get it.”

She closed her eyes before speaking. “Go get it?”

“I know it sounds crazy, but I’ll explain it later. Just know that you and I will not—I promise—will not get in any trouble for this, okay? Now I know you can’t drive stick, and it’s an automatic. So what I need you to do is follow me in it after I get it running, alright? Just tail me.”

“You want me to drive a st-st-stolen c-car?” Jeanette’s voice came out strangled, her lip sore from biting it shut.

“Who says it’ll be stolen?” He snapped, and she blinked at the edge in his words.

“Uh, probably the guy who parked it on the street.”

“Look, if you’re going to be a smartass, I can drop you off and I’ll see you later. All I need you to do is drive it to a friend’s house. After that, I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

Her hands shook violently, with a new fervor that scared her. She thought vaguely of the admission letters that decorated her desk at home, and the move-in dates that beckoned, only four months away. But her focus was on the line of anger in Asher’s eyes.

“Go start the fucking thing.”

She held the fireball tightly between her thumb and forefinger; just as he had the day they met, their alternative light source due to Asher’s forgotten flashlight. The flame, though quivering, illuminated the guts of the Mustang, a web of polished chrome and rubber tubing threaded together under Asher’s prying fingers. He disconnected a nest of wires from the back of the engine with a twist of his hand, attaching one to the battery. Yanking her hand to the passenger side of the car under the fender well, he adjusted the light as if she were a metal stand.

“Screw driver.”

Jeanette passed over the small tool, feeling the tiny ball in her hand grow warmer.

“How much kerosene did you put on this one?” Her quiet voice sounded like thunder in the dark street.

“Enough.”

“It’s getting hot, that’s all I’m s-saying.”

“It is on fire, Jeanette.”

She rolled her eyes, trying to pretend she enjoyed standing watch while her boyfriend hot-wired a car in the middle of the street. Dark smoke began to lick upwards from the flame in her hand.

“I th-think the cotton’s starting to burn.”

“Just hang on for five more seconds, I’ve almost got it. And quit squirming, I can’t see a fucking thing down here.”

She heard the clash of metal as he fumbled under the car, almost half his body consumed beneath the hood.

Jeanette bit her lip the first time the flame licked her finger. The second time, she tossed it to the other hand, as if she were juggling. “It’s burning—it-it-it’s b-b-burning m-m-my hand!” But she couldn’t throw it down.

“Hold still, I’ve almost—“

The roar of the engine erupted into the still air of the night, and Asher thrust her into the driver’s seat. “ Let’s go!”

Jeanette tucked the burned fingers into her mouth, the ruined fireball thrown into the street beside her. She followed Asher’s quick fishtail turns, hot on his trail for almost fifteen minutes until she heard the bark of his brakes in front of an abandoned trailer. She pulled the car in the driveway carefully, startled when Asher rushed up to the cracked window, cursing at her to kill the lights. She did so, creeping carefully back into Asher’s car, its leather seats like an old friend. She peered through the darkness as he talked with a man from inside the trailer. His smile, the dimple in his left cheek—they looked distorted in the red glow of his tail lights. His eyes blazed at the thick wad of bills the man pressed in his hand, and he looked over his shoulder before turning back toward the car in a way that made her cringe.

A vibration came from her pocket, and she pulled out her cell phone, her mother’s face smiling up at her from the screen as the call came in. Jeanette closed her eyes, and through the rhythmic vibration could almost feel her mother calling her name. The kind smile seemed so far away. Helpless, she curled up in the hood of Asher’s jacket, tossed the phone to the floor and stayed quiet when he entered the car and shifted it forward. They drove for several blocks before he came to a stop sign.

“Not so bad, was it babydoll? Let me see your hands…please?”

She wanted to turn away, anger sent tremors through her shoulders to the point where she felt tears well up in her eyes. But the softness in his voice was back, and it really did seem like he’d only been gone for a moment. She stretched out her right hand, the blisters white on her palm and middle finger. He kissed the skin gently before looking up at her, his eyes full of something she couldn’t recognize.

“I love you, Jeanette.”

A shriek rose out of the tiny neighborhood, and blue strobes in the rearview mirror sent ice straight through Jeanette’s limbs.

She didn’t even have a seatbelt on.

She felt her body move slowly, first her lower back, then the slow curvature of her spine, her neck, and finally her head adhere themselves to the seat, forming a tight seal between the two. Her eyes drifted shut as the pressure of the moving vehicle washed over her, slamming her forward and back again each time Asher shifted the car into higher gears. The world blended together around them, peeling away like layers of onion as they slowly pulled away from the cop. And it was back, the slow burning in her chest, the mixture of passion and fear, the need for more combined with the anxiety of what lay ahead. Asher’s fingers curled hungrily around her own before he slammed the Camaro into fifth gear, the cop’s sirens fading into the night.

“Don’t you love it?” he asked her, his words torn around the car by the summer air cutting through the windows.

“Love what?”

“The speed.”

She turned back to look out the windows, the colors of the town seeming to slide out of her grasp, uncontrollable. The world seemed a little out of focus; it had been over two weeks since their last “job,” and she’d gotten pretty good at both driving stick and connecting battery cables. After the second fight she’d gotten in with her parents, she’d screamed herself hoarse trying to speak for what she presumed to be her heart. Her mother used to call when she was an hour late for curfew, but now that Spring had faded into Summer, her high school graduation passed like the blink of an eye, her phone was silent. Whenever she got home, she snuck into the backdoor quietly, passing through the still, dark house of her childhood.

“C’mon, what is it? You’re so quiet,” he chided, breaking her thoughts as they crossed the first bridge into town. She chewed on her lip nervously.

“Just thinking. About my parents.”

After a moment, the air only filled with the roar of the tires on the asphalt, Asher shrugged his shoulders simply. “I’m sorry, babydoll, but you’re parents are just…” The V8 roared as he shifted without the clutch.

“They’re just what?” She demanded over the noise.

“Well they’re just not like other people. You know, they’re too tight. But I mean, as close-minded as this town is, you expect to see a few parents who are Jesus-freaks.”

“Jesus-freaks?” She turned sharply in the seat, her voice beginning to hitch.

“You know what I mean…conservative, stiff.” He sighed, getting impatient. “All I’m saying is there aren’t many parents that are like yours. They’ve got you under their thumb. I mean, my mom has never treated me like your mom treats you.”

“Yeah, but she’s my mom. I respect her opinion. And we’re still young, Asher—”

“Does that mean we’re stupid? We’re both legal adults. Make your own decisions. Man up.” His voice was clipped, final, as if he were done with the conversation.

“’Man up?’ About what? About what we’re doing? We-we-we’re stealing cars…from in-innocent people. We’re b-breaking the law—“

The balding tires of the Camaro slipped sideways as he whipped the car off the empty country road, killing the engines and the lights so quickly it took her breath. His knees straddled her hips before she could adjust to the darkness, and he snapped her shoulders against the glass of the passenger window with one hand before he moved it up to cover her mouth.

“Be still and listen to me. Everybody has problems. Look at you—you’re shaky as a fucking leaf about nothing every single day. You want to know my problem? I don’t have a mommy and daddy to hand me the world like you do. So guess what? I work for it. If you don’t like the way that I do that, I don’t really care. I deserve to get by the way I do; if other people get hand-outs, why shouldn’t I? You’ve never felt pain a day in your life, Jeanette. You’re fucking parents look at you like you’re a porcelain doll.” He ripped the glowing cigarette from his mouth, his eyes red-rimmed and wild. He pressed the cherry into her palm, slowly grinding it against her skin. “You’ve never felt real pain, have you babydoll? Feel that? That’s real. That’s the only way you’ll ever know you’re alive.”

Minutes later, they roared down the highway again, the city lights fading behind them. After several quiet moments, Asher leaned toward her, his lips pressing firmly against her cheek.

His eyes never left the road.

She pulled the oversized jacket tighter around her shoulders—an hour had passed since they’d arrived at the edge of the looming woods with the ’73 Duster, its refinished body gleaming blue in the moonlight. The only sound filling the cold night air was the quiet pop of Asher’s lips against his cigarette, his fingers busy with the kerosene ball in his hands. He touched it to the cherry of his cigarette, the ball coming to life in his hands. Another emerged from his pocket, touching its brother for a source of flame. A third ball joined the performance as the silent stranger beside Jeanette tossed them lazily into the September sky.

“Catch.”

She jumped as the ball came toward her, her elbows knocking against her sides in rhythm as she grasped it before tossing it back toward him. The smell of the pine needles under their feet churned her stomach. “Stop it, Ash.”

“C’mon, play with me,” the other smile toyed as his lips—the one she caught when he was collecting cars, playing with fire, and more recently, looking at her. He came closer, until she pressed her back against the car. “Isn’t it nice that you don’t even have to go home now? Now that you’re in school.”

It was her second month of school, and she’d driven back down a day early, his angry phone calls coercing her to skip class Friday. Her dusty Jeep sat off the road a few yards away, hiding behind the black Camaro.

“You’re my partner-in-crime, you should be a part of the act.” He took a step back tossing her another ball in her direction. Her trembling hands barely caught it before it could catch at her clothing.

“I said stop it, Asher. I don’t want to touch them.”

“Why not? What’re so nervous about?” He took a step closer, the ball rolling gently toward her to the tips of his fingers before gliding back into his palm. Her teeth ground together as she searched his face for that man at the coffee shop, the one who first showed her the danger of the flame and the fuel, yet how it could be controlled. He was gone.

The balls chased each other around his head as he juggled them, their dancing flames reflected in his eyes. “N-nothing,” she mumbled, stepping away from him, toward the end of the car. She rubbed at the small, circular scar of her open palm, barely visible anymore.

“What’re we doing anyway?” She looked at the forest behind her, trying to avoid his gaze. The night growing so dark she could hardly make out the trees surrounding them. The smell of the kerosene was stuffy, choking her even in the open air. Her eyes found it hard to focus as his body moved in front of her, a tangle of muscle and flame.

“Waiting for my money. Why, do you have something better to do?” His breath tickled the back of her neck as a fireball passed closely by her ear. He pressed his lips briefly against her neck, and she shuddered.

Anger and impatience rose in her throat like a bitter aftertaste. “I’m going home.”

He laughed, unfazed. “Home? And where is that?”

The thought struck her like a slap, but she continued to slide down the quarter-panel of the Duster, the Jeep out of the corner of her eye. The sudden lilt in his voice washed an unrecognizable emotion over her.

“This isn’t a joke, Asher. I’m sick of riding shotgun through your life.” She turned away, her white car seemed to glow against the darkness surrounding her. “I’m done pretending like I’m still fascinated by you.”

Before she could step away, his hand was tight around her throat, her head slammed backwards into the rear window of the Duster. Asher’s breathing came in heaves, his lips moving just inches from her face, but she couldn’t make out the words—didn’t need to, she knew them all by heart. Instead she tried to recognize this person, a man she’d willingly sat alongside while the world burned around them. She hadn’t been home in three months, and when she closed her fingers around the fireball he shook in her face, the dripping kerosene merely felt like cool water running down her forearm. The soaked T-shirt that made up the source of the flame squeezed like a sponge in her hand as she thrust it against his chest, her cloudy vision cleared as her airway opened again. The thrown kerosene led a flaming trail down the center of his chest, leaving him standing like a burning cross. She stared down at the flaming ball in her hands—in her possession. For the first time in a year, she felt the true sensation of a burn, and she had no problem throwing it down and running away.

***

Through the glass door of the funeral home, Jeanette saw the dark form of his broad shoulders silhouetted in the moonlight. Lazy cigarette smoke rose around his head like a halo before it was whipped away by the December air. She pressed her hands against the cool glass, and the door opened soundlessly. Crossing the cement and taking a seat beside him, they sat in silence for several minutes.

“Nice haircut.”

“Thank you.”

“Did you need an excuse to see me, you just wanted to do it in a public place?”

She took a deep breath. “Funeral homes can be places of closure. And I needed to give you something.”

For the first time in two months, she saw his face. The man she’d spent almost every day with didn’t look much different. He hadn’t shaved in some time, and his dark facial hair thickened the line of his jaw. His eyes were hard, narrowed, as if he were trying to shield them in the sunlight. He wore the exact clothes she pictured him in; all of them black. His tangled hair fell just over his eyebrows, and he raised a hand toward her shoulder. Instead of flinching, she smoothly shifted away from him, and he bit his lip, turning away.

“What the fuck happened to us?”

She took a deep breath, letting steady hands wrap around her legs before she spoke. “My favorite memories come from back when I was younger, say seven or eight years old, and my parents and I would go swimming at night. The water in the pool would be as warm—almost hot, and you could only stand it because of the cold night air. My dad would throw me into the air like a cheerleader, my arms spread wide to the sky. I never doubted he would catch me when I came back down. We would chase my mother around the circumference of the pool while she shrieked with laughter as we tried to get her hair wet.” She paused, aware that he was watching her, actually listening. “The night would go on, and we would head back in the house. My parents would go upstairs to change, and I would get to stay downstairs by myself, if not for long. The need to be by myself, if just for a moment—the true love of it: that’s always been a part of my genetic make-up. I can’t deny it. It was never as obsessive as it is now, but it has always been there. And on nights after those summer swims, when I could still smell my mother’s lotion and hear my father’s laughter, I would stretch out in my wet bathing suit; the linoleum would be cold against my skin. I can still remember the smell of the dishwasher running, pushing out hot steam above my head like a locomotive. Eventually, my mother would yell from upstairs for me to come change for bed, and the moment never lasted long. But those were moments of true contentment. My shrink used to say that contentment is a feeling that only comes when people can completely trust where they are, who they’re surrounded by. He says it changes as we enter adulthood—that it is only a natural part of growing up to feel threatened, unsure, or even occasionally unsafe in certain situations. As we grow up, it becomes more of a struggle to feel effortless contentment. It is hard to be happy.”

They stayed silent for several moments before she placed the black Bic into his hands, feeling the tattered scars and calluses for the final time.

“But, it’s your grandfather’s. I thought it was a ‘prized possession.’” He flicked the trigger, but no flame emerged. “And it’s empty.”

She stood, smoothed her skirt behind her with steady hands.

“Exactly.”

The front porch hadn’t changed at all; the steps merely needed a good sweep. An evergreen wreath intertwined with shining holly berries and gold ribbon hung proudly against the dark wood of the door. Dead leaves crunched under her feet as she stepped onto the weathered wood, creaking a little from wear, but still sturdy. The porch light was on, like the family inside was expecting company. The choice stood before her: ring the bell like a guest, or walk in like she was welcomed.

She had stepped away from this house, one that had done nothing but welcomed her in, tried to give her a little push of confidence to welcome the world. She hadn’t so much as called for the past six months, hiding from what she might find here.

Her mother’s face appeared in the circular window of the door, answering the question for her. An effortless smile came to her face, realization washing over her like cold water.

She folded herself into her mother’s waiting arms, didn’t cringe away from the kiss planted at her temple. She smiled into the tears that washing down her burning cheeks as her mother whispered into Jeanette’s ear, “This child of mine was dead and is alive again; she was lost but now, she is found.”