Thursday, April 19, 2007

The First Day... Part Two

He was never so relieved to pull into the parking lot behind the fire station. Red Rock’s Station House Three was actually only the second fire station currently open, House Two having closed three years back. Located on Darby Road, the fire station served the entire community past the railroad tracks up to the city limits to the west. House One covered the area east of the tracks all the way to the shoreline bordering the Detroit River. Thanks to three industrial giants who made Red Rock, Michigan their home for manufacturing plants, the city was able to keep abreast of some of the newer firefighting technologies, although the Fire Department was still awaiting word on the latest infrared equipment. Roy wasn’t the only one in the department to hope that they would get the funding to pay for it, as infrared would make it so much easier to locate victims trapped in a heavily smoke-filled building.

Looking up at the old brick building with its ancient watchtower keeping an eye on the city, Roy allowed the comfort of his second home to wash away the chaos in his soul. He loved this place and most of the guys in it. Here was family that stood by you through thick and thin, unconditionally accepting you as part of the team. Here other guys would risk their lives for yours, and you would do the same for them. Being a member of the brotherhood of firefighters was something Roy had been looking for way before he was old enough to attend the academy.

No sooner had he walked in the door, eager to soak in the sometimes-chaotic sanity that accompanied an average shift, than the captain gestured him into his office. His insides still quivering from the trauma of facing the last place his wife had breathed her last, Roy followed his superior and sat in the chair offered to him. He couldn’t avoid confronting the cross that hung on the wall just behind Sanders’ desk. Just what he didn’t need right now, to have to see religious trappings of some god who, if he existed at all, had allowed his wife to die so horribly. But then, that was Sanders. Before he had made first lieutenant, then captain, nobody in the whole company had been crazy about his spirituality. Roy had seen him as just another Japheth Moore, a man prone to puritanism and self-righteousness to the point of “spare the rod, spoil the child,” who took over when Roy’s mother had progressed so deeply into her alcoholism that she could no longer take adequate care of him. But soon Roy found that where Japheth had been all fire and brimstone, Bill Sanders was quite the opposite, deep in his faith, yet never self-righteous. The younger guys still poked fun at Sanders’ faith behind his back (and some-- even in this day and age-- poked fun at his race), but Roy had to respect him, even if he didn’t agree with his views.

Sanders sat down at the desk, folded his dark hands in front of him. He regarded Roy for a moment, then scratched his graying head. “Are you sure you’re ready to come back, Roy?”

“I’m fine. I was getting a little sick of staying home, anyway.” Roy laughed half-heartedly, trying to lighten his mood but not succeeding. He sighed. “I need to get back into it, Captain. I need the old routine back.”

Sanders nodded, then smiled. “We’re glad to have you back, Roy. If there’s anything we can do--”

Roy waved his hand. “I know, I know.” He didn’t mean to be short tempered, but the conflicts with his daughters, especially Kelly, had set him in a bad mood he was finding hard to shake. He looked up at Sanders again, noticed the appraising look on the officer’s face. “Sorry, Captain. I had a problem with my daughters this morning. I didn’t mean to snap.”

“I understand.” Sanders paused, his gray eyebrows furrowed. “How’re you doing?”

Roy hesitated, wary of where the conversation was going. “I’m doing about as well as can be expected, Captain.”

Sanders grunted, lowered his eyes. “I’m sure you are. But this is a terrible burden for any man. Have you talked to your priest about this?”

“About what? How God made Marie suffer? How He took her away from me before her time?” The words just flowed out before Roy could stop himself. “Sorry, Captain, but I’m not a religious man. I never have been.” He bit his tongue, realized he’d just made a serious mistake. The way Sanders looked, he was going to be sidelined for awhile longer.

The captain gazed at him, concern in the set of his jaw. “Will you do me a favor, then, Roy? Will you take advantage of the department’s Employee Assistance Program?”

Roy jerked his eyes away from Sanders, stared at the wood paneling that lined the walls. “With all due respect, sir, I don’t think I need a shrink.”

Sanders sighed. “I wish you would, Roy. You need to talk to somebody.”

Roy set his jaw, looked back at Sanders. “I’ll consider it, but I’m not making any promises.”

“That’s all I can ask for, Roy. I’d appreciate it.” Sanders smiled at him. “We want to make sure you’re going to be okay, that’s all. Not only for your own good, but for your coworkers as well. The last thing we need is for you to freeze up while on a call. Know what I mean?”

Roy nodded, his shoulders sagging. All the anger that had reared up inside him flooded out again, leaving him beaten and dull. “Maybe I’m not quite ready to come back yet.”

“Why don’t you take today off, try to get your head together?” Sanders sat back, rubbing his fingertips together. “You can just as easily come back for your shift on Thursday.”

“Yeah.” Roy nodded, a wan smile on his face. “I think I’ll do that. I’m sorry I was so rude, Captain. It’s been hard this past week.”

“Understandable.” Sanders clapped him on the shoulder. “We’re with you, Roy. Never forget that.” He walked with Roy to the door. “Take care of yourself, and we’ll see you back here on Thursday.”

“Thanks, Captain.” Roy smiled. “I’ll make sure I’m ready this time.”

“You do that.” Sanders furrowed his eyebrows. “And please seriously consider using the program. It’s not a horrible thing to talk to a psychiatrist.”

“I’ll consider it.”

“That’s all I can ask.”

Monday, April 16, 2007

The First Day of the Rest of Their Lives, Part One

“You never know what’s going to happen.”

"You don’t, do you?”

“Let me go,” he whimpered, collapsing against the headboard.


Roy half-lay, half-sat there for several minutes, the cold sweaty terror of the nightmare still gripping him. He blinked the tears from his eyes as he slowly came to his senses, his gaze wandering cruelly around the room she had decorated with her own hands. The patchwork quilt she had sewn by hand, the mauve and blue curtains she had bought at a yard sale and restored to almost new, the delicate perfume bottles on her dresser. Marie was everywhere here, and he couldn’t yet bring himself to pack her things away.

God, just a little over a week after her death, and already this house was driving him crazy. When the captain had called the night before, Roy was grateful to tell him that he’d be returning to work the next day. Sanders had hesitated, reminded him that he didn’t have to return to duty just yet, he still had over two weeks’ worth of leave accumulated, but Roy insisted on coming back. He didn’t know how much longer he could deal with it all otherwise.

He sighed heavily and rolled out of the bed. He listened to the silence of the house as he slipped into his navy velour robe-- a piece of clothing rarely used before Marie died but now somehow necessary in front of the twins-- then glanced at the clock. Not quite seven. He should have been able to hear one or both of the twins in the bathroom by now, getting ready for school.

He frowned.

The wood floor was cool, not cold, under his bare feet as he shuffled down the hall toward the girls’ room. The air was still unusually warm and balmy for late November, still freakish and wrong, like everything else that was happening.

He knocked on the twins’ door. “Krissy? Kelly?”

Muffled moans answered him. He smiled as he heard Krissy’s sleepy voice drift through the door. “We’re awake, Dad.”

“You gals are going to be late. Better step on it.” He turned to leave.

Krissy poked her head out the door. “Kelly says she’s sick again.”

Roy sighed, then followed her into the girls’ room. He ignored the disaster zone as he stepped carefully over discarded clothing to his other daughter’s bed, noting the way she huddled almost painfully under the covers. He carefully perched on the side of her bed. “What’s wrong, Kelly?”

“I’m sick.” Her voice was small, barely audible.

He put a hand to her forehead. No fever. “Upset stomach?”

“She’s faking it again,” Krissy said, looking through the closet. “We have a test in Hurley’s class today, and she didn’t study all that much for it.”

“I’m not faking it,” Kelly snapped, rolling over to face them. “I really am sick.”

Roy sighed again, at a loss as to what to do. Marie used to handle this little stuff. She knew when the girls really were sick and when they were just trying to avoid something at school. He studied Kelly’s face for clues, her eyes so like her mother’s it twisted the knife in his gut. “You don’t look all that sick to me, Kelly. Now get up and get dressed. You’re going to school.”

“You always believe her, don’t you?” she mumbled.

“What was that?” Roy gave her a warning look.

“Nothing.” Kelly sat up and eyed him reproachfully, then tossed the covers aside.

Roy nodded once as he headed to the door. “Hurry up. The bus will be here in fifteen minutes.”

Of course, things didn’t go that easily.

After he had showered, shaved, and dressed, Roy walked out to the kitchen to discover both girls sitting at the table, Krissy wide-eyed and sheepish, Kelly dark and defiant. He looked from one girl to the other and sighed. “Missed the bus, eh?”

Krissy nodded. “I’m sorry, Dad. If Kelly hadn’t taken so long in the bathroom--”

“Yeah, like it was all my fault.” Kelly glowered. “You could’ve gone in there earlier.”

“Girls!” Roy pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting back the headache that was slowly forming between the eyes. God, he missed Marie. “Look, let’s not fight over this. Just get in the truck. I’ll be out in a minute.” He shook his head and reached for the aspirin.

It was already shaping up to be quite a day.

The trip to the high school was silent, the air in the truck heavy and still. Both girls ignored each other until they pulled up to the curb in front of the school, when Kelly accidentally-- deliberately? he couldn’t really tell-- clipped Krissy’s knee with her knapsack.

“Dad!” Krissy wailed, shoving at her sister.

“Stop it!” Roy snapped, thrusting his arm between the girls. Next time he took them anywhere, he would have to make sure that one of them sat in the back seat of the extended cab. “Kelly, apologize to your sister.”

“It was an accident.” She shrugged. “Sorry.”

Krissy pouted. “She’s not sorry.”

“Drop it, Krissy.” Roy clutched the steering wheel a little tighter. “Just drop it, okay?” He nodded toward the school, the yard empty of students. “Better hurry up and get to class. I’ve gotta get to work.”

The red pickup shook as the girls clambered out, both of them arguing about the incident as Roy pulled the door shut with a slam. He watched them stalk toward the school, Kelly’s head low between her shoulders, Krissy straight and tall as she reached for the doors. For twins, even fraternal twins like them, they were as different as night and day. It never ceased to amaze him how much conflict could occur between twin sisters.

He tried to ignore the blackened railroad trestle as he headed away from the high school. His headache now at a dull roar, Roy cursed at having to drop the girls off at school. He’d never wanted to come back this way again, through this hellish intersection, and the red light that now held him prisoner here.

The railroad trestle mocked him in the rearview mirror, the soot stain outlining where the car had struck and burst into flame.

“Damn it.” He slammed his hand against the steering wheel, swallowed hard at the lump in his throat. Pain grappled his head, the air in the pickup stifled him as he lowered the window and gulped at the moist, heavy air outside. His insides shook with agony as he tore his eyes away from the funeral wreath one of Marie’s friends had perched on the side of the road near the trestle.

When the light finally turned green, he gunned it and screeched away from the last place his wife had breathed before the semi plowed her into the trestle.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Funeral, Part Two

The setting sun bloodied the swings, scorched the slides as Kelly wandered around the elementary school playground. When things got tough, she usually found herself there, yearning for something lost, searching for answers. But no matter how many times she came, she never got any answers. Just a bunch of disappointment and dog shit on her shoes.

She sat down on the merry-go-round and gave herself a rough push. The world swirled around her, made her dizzy, but at least she was feeling something. All day, she’d had this horrible numbness, this sense of unreality, like she was only a character in someone else’s dream. During the funeral, she’d kept waiting for that someone to wake up, to set her free, but everytime she blinked, the casket had still been there. And everyone around her had been able to cry.

She wished she could.

More than anything, she wished she could forget the way she’d come upon the accident scene, had watched the flames engulf her mother’s car. Everything had lurched into slow motion, the firefighters seemingly moving through water, slowed up in their efforts to get to the car. She wanted to forget watching him, the single firefighter who had approached the car from the rear, the way he freaked when he realized just whose car it was, the way he had tried to climb in the blasted-out window.

Kelly pressed her eyes shut against the rail of the merry-go-round. So much misery, so much pain, and all because of her. But there was no taking anything back.

It was too late.


The house was shrouded in stillness now, the mourners gone, garbage bags filled with paper plates, used cups. The cobalt pans had been scrubbed clean, thanks to Lu, and now rested, dripping, in the drainboard by the sink. Shadows crept through the house like smoke, claiming the last light of day in their rolling masses. The only light left was issuing from the television, the volume turned low, meekly whispering in the somber silence.

Roy slumped in the armchair in front of the television, his arms hanging limply by his sides. His white shirt was drenched under the arms, his somber gray tie loosened, dangling soggily down the front of him. If he’d had the energy, he would have stripped it off completely.

Never had he ever expected that she would go first.

He was the one who ran into burning buildings, who climbed great heights to rescue someone. He was the one who challenged the odds, who jumped into the river to save a woman from a sinking car, who braved the rougher side of town to treat a junkie and take him to the hospital.

She was a homemaker, safe in this house, the only danger facing her whether or not her quilting needle would puncture a fingertip, perhaps a minor burn from a cooking pot. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

Roy crushed his hand over his forehead. The headache edged its way back to the front and center position, commanding his attention, triumphant in its fight against the aspirin he’d taken earlier. Panic gripped him for a brief moment, fought for control of his body, subdued just as quickly by his iron will. No, he wouldn’t allow it, wouldn’t submit to it.

He rubbed his forehead, then allowed his arm to drop back down. His hand brushed something soft.

He peered over the chair and saw the cream-colored afghan she’d been working on just a few days ago. He could see her in this very chair, her long tapered fingers gently but deftly wrapping the yarn around her blue crochet hook, pulling it through, making her stitches complete. The afghan was always heaped in her lap, the crochet bag at her feet, the skeins of yarn arranged sideways to enable the yarn to flow more freely. She used to crochet for hours after the girls were in bed while he watched the late night news, the light from the television dancing on her cheek, cooling her face in a bluish bath.

Roy trembled. White hot anger ripped through him suddenly, knocked the air right out of him as he snatched the afghan out of the bag. A long string trailed after it, the blue crochet hook bounced with a small ting off the coffee table as it fell to the floor. Without even knowing why he was doing it, he ripped the neat little stitches out, pulled at the yarn until it gave way, unthreaded into a long, loopy mess. The crochet hook rolled on the hardwood floor, settled into a spot next to his foot.

He grabbed the hook and tossed it back into the bag, stuffed what was left of the afghan in after it, then carted the whole mess off to the garbage. He didn’t want to see it anymore.

Roy plunked himself back into the armchair, brooded at the television. The shadows lengthened. Tinny music crept from the twins’ room, Krissy’s favorite boy band on the stereo. She had disappeared into her bedroom shortly after Lucinda left, had closed the door against him for what seemed like the first time. He knew she was suffering. He wanted to reach out to her, but couldn’t, not yet.

The front door opened. He paused in his brooding long enough to look up at his other daughter, anger and frustration still seething deep within him. “Where have you been?”

Kelly turned her back to him, shrugged her shoulders. “Out.” She paused, seemingly studying the small picture Marie had hung by the front door. By all appearances, she looked like she didn’t care. But then, Roy never knew half the time what his daughter was thinking anymore.

“That’s not good enough, Kelly.” He stood up, rose to his full height. He could tell by the way she avoided looking at him that he made an imposing figure. He looked down at her honey-brown hair, her face so like Marie’s it nearly killed him to look directly at her. “The least you owe me is an explanation why you couldn’t even stick around for your mother’s reception.”

She turned on him, shock in her eyes. “I didn’t want to be around all those people!” She knitted her brows together, a scowl forming on her face. “I just needed to be alone for awhile.”

“You should have been here.” Roy crossed his arms in front of him. “I’m sure Krissy was uncomfortable around all those people, too, but I didn’t see her leave without a word to anyone.”

Kelly bit her bottom lip, but kept silent.

Roy watched her for a moment, seeing unmistakable resentment buried in her eyes. Resentment toward him. All because he was angry about the way she’d wanted to be alone after her mother’s funeral. Was he being unreasonable? He’d wanted to do the same thing.

He sighed. “I’m sorry, Kell. I shouldn’t have said those things to you. I guess I’m just jealous that you got away for awhile.” He mustered up a smile, his eyes sad. He reached out to pat her rigid shoulder, then pulled away when she stepped back. Obviously, she wasn’t about to forgive him anytime soon.

He frowned. “Well, you’re off the hook this time, but I don’t want you wandering off without telling anybody where you’re going again, all right?”

She blanched at the sudden bite to his tone, nodded sullenly. Roy watched her skulk off to her room, the memory of her standing silent and dry-eyed by the gravesite drifting into the shadows, blackening them like soot.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Funeral, Part One

The flames are all long gone
But the pain lingers on.
--Pink Floyd, “Goodbye, Blue Sky”

The warm air choked him like smoke.

Roy glanced toward the brutal sun, saw its white fire wrap around the smooth wooden casket where his beloved wife lay. In the movies, it always rained during funerals. Of all days, it had to be sunny on this one, during Marie’s funeral. There was something unnatural about the whole thing. Hell, this whole autumn had been unnatural. Temperatures had soared into the upper seventies for many days at a time without even a hint of the snows to come.

Today, it was nearly eighty.

He ignored the drone of the priest as he looked down at his fraternal twin daughters, both of them with their heads bowed. Krissy cried openly, a tissue pressed into her nose as she snorted, the tears streaming down her cheeks, dropping softly onto her crisp black dress. She glanced up at him then quickly looked away, a fresh onslaught of tears overcoming her. Kelly stood on the other side of her sister, dry-eyed. She stared at the casket, confusion in her face, no sign that she even knew he was watching her.

Roy frowned.

The casket was lowered into the gaping chasm by his feet. A fleeting sense of panic gripped him as he realized his wife was in there, closed against the beating sun, settling into the clutches of the earth. He resisted the urge to jump in after her, to pry open the lid and release her from her prison. She wasn’t really there anymore. All that was left of her was a blackened husk. A crispy critter.

He winced. How on Earth could he have ever thought that about his own wife?

One of Marie’s quilting friends sobbed loudly behind him, drew his attention away from the casket. The flowers were coming. A woman from the funeral home was handing some to Krissy, her sympathetic brown eyes catching his for a brief moment as she held out the largest bouquet to him. His throat closed, made it difficult to breathe. He wasn’t ready to give up his Marie, to let some vague notion of a god take her away from him. He couldn’t bear to think of the sound that the flowers would make when they struck the lid of the coffin, the clods of dirt raining down after them, sealing her into the ground with the worms and beetles. His eyes grew heavy with tears as he let out a gasp, reached for Krissy’s hand. Her fingers gripped his as she leaned against him and buried her face into his shirt.

The priest had fallen silent. Roy looked up at him, saw the clergyman watching him expectantly, dropping his eyes toward the flowers. So, it was time.

Roy gently pulled away from Krissy, then turned his attention toward the casket. He tried not to remember the woman who lay within, the unrecognizable shape they had laid out upon the white satin interior. It wasn’t really her at all. Narrowing his eyes against the sun, or so he told himself, he let the bouquet fall.

Time held still as the flowers dropped, jarring back into action with a sickening thud as they hit the top of the coffin.

He closed his eyes, swallowed his tears, then glanced over at Kelly. She stood there rigidly as she threw her own flowers in, her cheek illuminated by the fiery sun.


“Watch it, Roy. This is hot.” Mavis bustled past him, her hands full of tuna casserole. He watched her carry it to the butcher-block table where she set it down among the plates of smoked ham, scalloped potatoes, chili. The table was getting crowded, yet still more plates were being brought in from the kitchen.

Personally, he couldn’t eat a thing.

He sighed and ambled toward the living room, past the potted ficus tree that was being scrunched by several of his fellow firefighters. He nodded in their direction, accepted their condolences, then eased past them to peer into the room. Mourners teemed like ants, covering every surface, all of Marie’s friends from her quilting circle, her mother, various members of her church. Roy was surprised at how many people he didn’t recognize. Of course, he hadn’t set foot in her church for ages. Never a particularly religious person to begin with, Roy had always found excuses for not going most Sundays-- work schedules, charity events, hanging out with Red Corrigan, his longtime friend since high school. Marie had always been unhappy about that.

He would have to make the effort now, for the girls’ sakes. He swallowed hard.

“Hey Roy, we’ve gotta go.” Jim Lane offered his hand to Roy. Dressed in uniform, he and his partner, Bill Johnson, were officially on duty, their radios by their sides. “Mrs. Lindsay and her poodle, you know.”

Roy managed a weak smile. “What’s the emergency this time?”

“The dog’s stuck in a drainpipe somewhere.” Lane rolled his eyes. “I don’t know who’s doing this, but it’s getting a little old. All I know is, if we’re two minutes late, the mayor’s office is going to hear about it.”

“That’s the advantage of having your son be the mayor.” Roy chuckled.

“Must be nice.” Lane shook his head, then grew sober. “Lisa and I are really sorry about Marie. She was a really sweet girl.”

“Thank you.”

“Oh wait, before I forget--” Lane offered Roy an envelope. “This is from the union. A bunch of the guys wanted to help out with expenses. You have enough to worry about right now.”

Roy looked at the envelope, hesitated. It was a nice gesture of all the guys he worked with, but at the same time, it felt like he was taking blood money. “I can’t--”

“Please, Roy. We all wanted to do this.”

Roy took the envelope and mustered up a smile. The envelope held the heat of his fingers. “Thanks, Jim. I appreciate it. If I’m not at the next meeting, could you thank all the guys for me?”

“Sure thing, man.” Lane smiled.

“Thanks.” Roy glanced down at the envelope, swallowed the lump in his throat. “Now go on, rescue that damned poodle before you get in trouble with the mayor.” He turned away, blinked hard at the moisture in his eyes. Facing away from the crowd, he nearly ran into the side table where the giant floral arrangement from City Hall rested. Calla lilies swayed in his face, their perfume whispering sweetly of her. Though roses had been her favorite, Marie had adored flowers of all kinds. This impressive display would have pleased her.

He cursed under his breath, then made his way back to the kitchen. He needed air. Badly.

Mavis was packing away some food into the freezer, Lucinda by her side. Of all people he most needed to see, it was these two. Friends since way before middle school, Mavis Asher had hung around with Marie throughout high school, had kept in touch with her when Marie went off to college, continued to be her friend through the wedding, childbirth, the gradual cooling of their marriage. Lucinda Richardson was almost as long of a lifelong friend, a gifted artist who spent long hours with Marie in her quilting circle, doubtless sharing many memories, many heartaches as their fingers stitched together bits and pieces of life into a thing of beauty, a map of an ideal like “love” or “friendship.”

Mavis paused for a moment, tugging at her thigh beneath her knee-length dress. “Damn, I hate these things.” She seemed oblivious that he had even walked into the room. “My pantyhose are bunching up.”

Lucinda laughed. “Don’t worry, soon you’ll be able to put on your jeans again, Grease Monkey.” She forced the air out of a Tupperware container, then slapped a strip of masking tape on the lid. As she labelled what was in the container on the outside, she threw a wink Mavis’s way. “At least you were able to clean out the grime from your fingernails.”

Mavis grinned. “Hey, I’m clean. Just because I work on bikes doesn‘t mean I’m filthy.”

“Far from it.” Roy leaned against the doorframe, smiling at the two women. “You look really nice today, Mavis.” She did, too. Her long black hair was combed neatly into a French braid, which brushed against the top of her simple black sheath dress. Her bangs which normally hung over and hid her eyes were tamed into submission, held in place on her head by a simple black leather barrette. Looking at her, a person who didn’t know her would never guess that this woman was a full-fledged biker chick, normally decked out in blue denim and black leather.

Mavis smiled back. “Thanks. How’re you holding up, Roy?”

“I’m okay. Tired, but okay.”

Her eyes narrowed. “No offense, but I don’t believe you. You look like hell.”

Roy winced. “Well, I--”

Lucinda frowned at Mavis, then strode across the kitchen to hug Roy. “What she meant to say is, she’s worried about you. You’ve been through a lot these last few days.”

“Yeah, what she said.” Mavis shifted from one foot to the other, ducked her head. “Sorry, I’m not really good at these things.”

Roy nodded. “Don’t worry about it, Mavis. We’re going to be okay, especially once today’s over. I just needed to come in here and get away from everybody for awhile.”

“You stay in here as long as you need to.” Lucinda pointed toward the kitchen table. “Sit.”

Roy smiled and did as he was told. “Yes, Ma’am.” He leaned back in his chair and looked around the kitchen, watching the whirlwind of activity going on around him. Steam rose from the cobalt colored pots and pans on the stove. Her pots and pans, the ones she’d chosen for their wedding registry. The heat in the kitchen was stifling despite the open windows, the temperature gathered in the confined space like an inferno.

Ashes to ashes... the flowers fell... dust to dust... THUD.

He closed his eyes against the headache that was filling his cranium. He stood up, walked over to the refrigerator, reached up to grab the aspirin bottle. He was only dimly aware of Mavis watching him as he shook three aspirin into his palm, tilted it up to his mouth. The pills, bitter and pungent, drew his attention back to the most basic of instincts, the instinct to swallow as quickly as possible and chase the tang away with a beer.

Mavis shoved a glass of water into his hand. “Careful, Roy.”

He mustered up a smile. “I’m okay, Mavis. Really.”

She watched him for a moment, then smiled. “All right.” She motioned toward the freezer. “We packed away about a week’s worth of food for you guys, plus whatever’s left over from today should keep you set for awhile. Lu and I are going to make it a point to check in on you every other day or so to make sure you’re doing okay, and you always know you can call me if you need anything, right? Right?”

He nodded. “I take it you’re going soon?”

“Yeah, Dad’s left at home and he hasn’t been feeling well.” She glanced around, then winked. “Plus, these clothes are getting on my nerves. I’m going to go change into more comfortable things. Forgive me?”

Roy nodded. “Always, Mave.” He embraced her, allowed his arms to pull her into a strong bear hug. Her hug back was almost as strong as his own.

She pulled away, blinked back tears. “Well, I’d better get going. Kiss the girls for me, okay?” Her voice was gruff, husky.

“You got it, Mavis. Thanks for everything.” He watched her gather up her purse and make a quick exit out the back door, then turned to Lucinda. “Speaking of the girls, have you seen them lately, Lu?”

“Krissy was in the living room with Marie’s sister, last I saw. As for Kelly, I haven’t seen her in awhile.”

Roy sighed. That figured. Of the two girls, Kelly had always been the hardest to deal with. Marie had been able to counter her moods and actions most of the time, but he’d always found his firstborn twin to be a mystery. In a way, he could see why. Kelly was a lot like her mother, and there were many things about Marie that still confused him.

But this was inexcusable. As close as Kelly had been to her mother, it just didn’t look right for her to disappear at Marie’s reception. “Excuse me,” he muttered, then turned to go.

He almost bumped into the tall man with shocking red hair who’d quietly come up behind him. Red Corrigan, his boyhood friend who now worked as a detective at the Red Rock PD. His normal jocular air subdued with the occasion, Red didn’t look at all like himself. His forehead was lined with strain, his normally twinkling blue eyes dull and lifeless.

Red reached out a tentative hand, pulled Roy into a quick hug instead. “I’m really, really sorry to hear about Marie.”

“Thanks.” Roy felt a lump well up in the back of his throat. Out of all the people who had come to the funeral, it was hardest to look Red in the eye. They had been so close growing up, been through so much together. They had also been in competition for Marie Halliwell’s attention throughout middle and high school up to the tenth grade, when Marie finally chose between them. It had almost destroyed their friendship.

“She was a great woman. You were a very lucky man to have her.”

Roy smiled. “I know.” It was awkward, facing his oldest friend, wondering if perhaps Red had kept loving her throughout the years, keeping it to himself the whole time. He swept his eyes over the hunched figure of his friend, saw the sadness in his eyes. “She really liked you, too, Red. She often told me so.”

Red smiled back, though his eyes remained dull. “I’m glad.” He hesitated, then cleared his throat. “Well, I’ve gotta get going. I just wanted to come and pay my respects.”

“Thanks.” Roy patted his friend’s arm. “Take care, Red.”

“Yeah, you too.” Red straightened, forced a smile. “Don’t turn into a recluse, eh? Let’s go out drinking or something when you’re up to it.”

Roy nodded. “That sounds good. I’ll call you.” He watched Red lose his way in the throng, then glanced back at Lucinda, who was watching him closely. Judging by the look on her face, the strain was probably showing on his own. He mustered up a weak smile. “I don’t know how much more grieving I can take.”

She bit her lip, then hugged him.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


It is ironic how the living rush through life in a state of panic, grabbing for the golden ring but always missing by the barest of inches, never quite catching it until moments before their ultimate demise. They are frantic to grab that elusive prize, the embodiment of Status, the sign that they have Arrived, yet the merry-go-round spirals over and over, the ring always just out of reach. Their lives are lived in chaos, never happy unless they’re rushing off to work, Little League, the latest fashionable nightclub. They concern themselves with owning the best things, the biggest SUV with the most bells and whistles, Jimmy Choo shoes. There’s always more, more to attain, more to achieve. One is never enough in a merry-go-round world.

Wrinkles are pinched, pulled into submission; grey hairs are tamed with Clairol or bleach. Few recognize the quiet beauty of older people, the wisdom in faces of character. Dishes are washed with antibacterial soap, lest the slightest little germ get past their lips. Clothes must be Oxy Clean. Their overly-mortgaged houses resonate with Lysol and Windex, covering over the chaos with a clean veneer, a plastic shell that hides the desperation of their solitary lives. The quest for the golden ring never ends until the final moment, when suddenly, everything becomes clear. The prize is not status at all.

Marie Hunter was on her last lap around the merry-go-round, reaching for the elusive ring when the truck barreled into her sand-colored Taurus, the car Roy had just bought three days ago. As time seemed to stand still in that blink of a moment, she grasped the cold metal, felt it real beneath her fingers for the first and last time as the passenger side door buckled in, the plastic cracking into pieces, the smell of hot metal wafting in. She watched silently as the railroad trestle sped toward her, felt the tires skidding beneath her just before the final impact. Snowflakes showered down around her, cold, sharp, brittle, oh, so beautiful. In that moment, everything snapped into focus, things she wished desperately she could change. Her life had been nothing but an empty shell, a waste of potential energy, dreams quashed by doing what was expected of her, not what she was truly meant to do. Time held still for one more moment as she settled down in her regret. She heard the whoompf of igniting flame.

And that is when she saw them. The Angels.

They danced along the roof of the car, all graceful and orange and alive. They didn’t care whether her clothes were Stella McCartney nor if her handbag was Fendi. They smudged her in sacred smoke, caressed her, purified her, cradled her. They freed her.

Just before she floated away, she glanced down the street and saw the fire engine coming. Roy was in there. She knew he would come to her rescue.

But she didn’t need him anymore. She went off to dance with the Angels.


“Station Three, 10-50, one vehicle on fire on Wembley Road, one block west of Harris High School. Time out, 1102.”

Firefighters scrambled to their engine, jumped into boots and pants, shrugged into suspenders, pulled on turnout gear. The rescue truck pulled out of the apparatus bay and yelped down the street as the other firefighters scrambled into the pumper truck.

“Station Three, 10-4, we’re on our way.” Captain Sanders climbed into the pumper and settled himself next to Daniels. Without a thought, he pulled the sterling silver cross out from under his shirt, letting it shine underneath his turnout coat. “Ready?”

“You got it.” The wailing engine pulled onto the street.

Immediately behind Daniels, Roy Hunter turned and glanced out the window. The breeze tugged at his sandy-brown hair, the sun reflected off the shiny black helmet clutched in his hand. As the small town scenery flew past, he absent-mindedly buckled up the tan Nomex turnout coat, checked his backpack, then watched Joe Mancini directly across from him strap on his helmet. Roy grinned. “Think we’ll need the SCBA?”

Mancini snorted. “Yeah, right, like we’re really going to need it for a car fire.” He shook his head, picked up his face mask and checked to make sure it was connected properly. “Damn regulations.”

Roy laughed. “Thanks to the new fire chief.” He plunked his helmet on his head and jerked the strap until it nestled in place. Things were changing rapidly under the new management. Before the regulations required it, he would have attacked the fire without a thought to his respiratory health. “I guess you never know what’s going to happen.”

“You don’t, do you?” Mancini grunted, peered out at the passing vehicles as he pulled on his protective gloves. “This one’ll go like clockwork, though. You watch.”

Flashing red and blue lights appeared just ahead, below a rising black cloud.

They pulled to a stop by the parked semi. The truck driver was trembling as he spoke to the police officer, his voice loud and shaky. Roy jumped down from the pumper, cast a quick look toward the fiery Taurus mangled against the railroad trestle, its body shape barely distinguishable. Glass shards glittered fiercely on the pavement over both sides of the road, the remaining windows of the Taurus dangling like a shattered spider web. The tang of thick black smoke hung heavy in the air all around the accident site. Wafts of hot metal and burning rubber grazed his nostrils, made him a little sick even as the thought of challenging the fire face-to-face excited him. A shiver worked up his spine as he felt the adrenaline kick in.

The captain was already consulting with the cop who had interviewed the truck driver. Mancini tossed a nozzle to Roy, who was grabbing for a handline. Both of them strained their ears to listen as the policeman gave a quick rundown on what had happened.

“The truck driver says she threw on the brakes to avoid hitting some animal. The car was completely on fire when we got here, and she hasn’t moved once. She’s gotta be dead.”

Kittredge glanced over at Lee and shook his head. “No shit, Sherlock.” With a heavy sigh, he sauntered back to the rescue unit.

Roy headed for the fire, turning at Sanders’ sudden barked command. “Hunter! Where’s your face piece? Put it on!” He swore under his breath, clapped on the face piece. Just barely a month ago, firefighters hadn’t had to worry about putting on face pieces for a car fire. Roy used to swing into action, douse the fire before any of the killing smoke could get to him. Now victims like this one would have to wait while he wasted precious seconds putting on equipment that may not have been all that necessary in the first place.

Not that there would have been any hope for this woman anyway. The fire was licking its way through the passenger compartment, swirling around her unmistakable form. The temperature in there had to be well above one thousand degrees. She would be one hell of a crispy critter by now.

Roy checked the nozzle and dragged the hand line toward the wreck, his body on automatic. It helped to clear the mind, try not to look at death so closely. One foot in front of the other, one hand grasping the nozzle, the other letting loose with a deluge of water. Watch the steam rise around the car, the flames roar, then flicker before finally blinking out.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a kid running up to the accident site, yelling at the top of her lungs. A police officer caught her before she could get too close, the scuffle that ensued catching his full attention. He glanced her way, did a double take.


“Cap?” He barked into his radio. “What’s my daughter doing here?”

The radio squawked. “PD’s checking it out.”

Roy paused for only a second, fighting his fatherly impulse to go to her and see what was wrong. He had a job to do first. He saw the police officer clutch his daughter’s shoulders and speak to her, saw her face contorted with fear.

What was left of the sand-colored Taurus was rapidly clouding over with soot. He stepped back as fresh flames erupted from the back left tire. “Damn it.” He directed the spray at the tire. His eyes swept over the shattered back window, then down to the license plate.

AWL 393.

His mouth went dry. He heard a low moan, realized it was coming from himself. He dropped the hose, ran toward the driver’s side door. He reached out with a gloved hand.

“Roy! What the hell are you doing?” Mancini was pulling on his arm, tugging him away from the scalding steam.

Roy’s radio screeched. “What the hell’s going on, Hunter?”

“It’s Marie, damn it!” Roy struggled against Mancini’s iron grip. “Let me go! She needs me!” Dizzying panic welled up inside of him, made him feel like he was floating above the accident scene, Mancini’s sickened face drifting in and out as his eyes glazed over with moisture, couldn’t stop it, no, he couldn’t...