Fire is different in the winter than in the summer. In summer, the nights are warm and fire seems like an invitation for the sun to come back up, right away. In winter, it’s like a magnet and even cats and dogs sidle up to it, getting as close as they can without getting burned.
That’s what we were doing, because it was January. The whole town seemed to strip off its Christmas lights on the same Sunday and then there was nothing left to hold back the night except fireplaces and the thought of summer coming back. Jerry’s parents were out of town, and they had a fireplace so big I could have walked into it standing straight up. He had built up a huge fire, and our faces got so hot that we had to back away. But nobody wanted to do anything but stare at it.
I guess I knew Amy and Don were dating, even though nobody told me. They stood a little too close to each other, they seemed to speak a language no one else understood. They were passing some little thing back and forth between them, more like an inside joke than a secret. They giggled with their heads together and Amy’s long curtain of ironed red hair swung in front of her face. When I looked back at Jerry, he was looking at that instead of at me. The way it caught the firelight and glowed.
I knew what Jerry thought about her, even though he never told me. I guess I was waiting for him to change his mind. Or for Don to give her his letterman’s jacket and make it obvious even to a boy.
Don snatched it, finally, and I saw that it was a note on intricately folded pink paper. Amy’s paper, I had a thousand notes from her on it, with her prissy name at the bottom, AMY MELISSA ADELMAN-MUNSTER. Amam, I’d write her, he’s never going to notice me and I’m losing my mind.
I had no idea.
When the note hit the fire, the flames licked it for a second, then split it open like a paper fortune teller.
When I heard Amy’s voice, I turned around to stare at her. Her lips weren’t moving at all, and I couldn’t figure out how she was doing it.
Dear Don, please don’t tell Jerry what I said. Bernie will just die. She’s crazy about him, it’s all she talks about. Yesterday after home ec–
She looked up at me like she’d been slapped. “What?”
Her voice was still talking, still reading the letter. I stared at her wide green eyes. I looked at Don, and then, panicking, at Jerry. He was prodding the paper with a long iron poker.
Nobody could hear it but me.
Thank god Amy writes short letters, because I would have actually walked into that fireplace if it had kept going. I guess that how she talks about me when it’s just them. Nobody told me that’s how people are.
The fire told me that.
That winter, the fire told me a lot of things. In the den at my dad’s house, it whispered that he was divorcing his third wife. I walked in on the embers of that letter, but it still kept me kneeling on the marble hearth for hours, picking up little words about what Mona would get and whether it would affect my summer.
It wouldn’t, but it did give me something to distract my mother when she told me I smelled like cigarettes.
I did smell like cigarettes. I hated the taste but when they lit, they started to sing about old farms in North Carolina, and slaves and some things I didn’t understand. It was beautiful and sad and I closed my eyes but didn’t inhale.
The night of the homecoming game they built a big bonfire and it was so loud I couldn’t hear the bands or the cheers, just stories of someone’s grandfather’s old chair. And pallets that used to be under crates of pineapples, and driftwood someone had brought back from the Jersey Shore and newspapers and someone’s math textbook, buried in deep, shouting out equations like anybody cared.
Nobody told me that I was drifting away, listening for the flick of a Zippo outside the school more than I was for Amy or Don or even Jerry to talk to me. I knew I was listening more to the voice coming out of a flaming trash barrel or at the screechy head of a match than to the people in my life.
I knew it was an arrest warrant the minute my dad threw it on the grate, because it wailed like a siren, using his full name WAYNE DAVID MCKITTRICK WAYNE DAVID MCKITTRICK DOB SEVEN FIFTEEN TWENTY SEVEN over and over as it went up. I came down to his study, trying to control the size of my eyes. He was on the phone with Uncle Louis, who I always forget is a lawyer because all he talks about is golf.
I couldn’t have heard their conversation anyway, because the warrant was yelling MURDER MURDER MURDER like it was happening right now. When he came out the door I jumped a little.
“What’s the matter with you?” His hair was wild, like he’d been running his fingers through it without a mirror, pulling it up at the ends.
“Mur—nothing. I thought I heard… nothing.”
“You’re going to your mother’s this weekend. I don’t want to hear any argument about it. Not from you or your brother, and not from that son of a bitch she married.”
“They’re at the lake house this weekend. Mom said it was going to be just the two of them.”
WAYNE DAVID MCKITTRICK
He looked away for a second, like he was spotting something that was still far-off. “That’s perfect. I’ll drive you out.”
I had to pack my brother’s suitcase for him. He’s too little and he still cries sometimes when Mom drops us off.
He was sniffling, fussy because we got up so early to drive out there. “Where’s Mona?”
“Mona couldn’t come with us.”
We had been in the car for two hours before I realized that the fires in Dad’s house were all telling me the same story. Nobody told me what to do next, so I did nothing at all.
Dad was sweating. He watched the rearview mirror more than the road ahead, but there was nobody on it but us. His kept gripping the wheel, adjusting his hands, like he was trying to hold it down or wrestle it.
I wanted to say something, but instead he lit a cigar and I settled back to listen to it jabber in Spanish. It sounded like it was having a much better time than we were.
Mom was surprised to see us, but she tried to hide it. Benny went back to bed right away: he was still tired and it was still morning. I sat in the kitchen and drank coffeemilk with Mom while my stepfather and Dad had a quiet conversation by the door. The cigar did not come into the house.
I called Amy, desperate for someone to talk to, but her mother told me she was out with some boy. I lit a candle in my room and listened to its soft voice tell about bees. I fell asleep and it must have burned out, the way your parents slip away after reading you a story and you wake up alone.
Something woke me the middle of the night. The boathouse hadn’t really begun to burn yet, but the gasoline spoke up, roaring like race cars and speedboats, yelling fast and high. I came to the window and saw it, the orange rearing in the middle of that frosted glass framing the white lake.
I didn’t like Mona any more than I had liked my father’s second wife, but I didn’t know Mona that well. She started at the very beginning. She was born the only child of a French policeman and a Canadian girl who wanted to go to college but had to quit. She had moved to New York for love and she thought she had found it in my white-haired old man. She had been overjoyed when his wife had disappeared, so she didn’t want to think about where she had gone. Where she was going. I could hear it through the window like she was standing on the other side, shrieking it at me.
Where am I going? Why did you put me in the trunk of your car? Where am I going? Wayne? What’s going to happen? Someone tell my mother. Someone please tell my mother where I am. Someone please tell my mother.
Nobody told me that a body takes a long time to burn. Hours, really, and the fire truck took almost that long to get through because of the snow. Nobody told me to keep my mouth shut. They asked me when was the last time I saw Mona, and I told the truth. Hearing isn’t seeing.
Nobody knows anything. They say Mona ran off, and Dad took her picture off his desk. After a while, my stepdad just rebuilt the boathouse and bought another boat.
I could have told Amy, I guess. But she broke up with Don and now she and Jerry sit together when we hang out in front of that big fireplace. So big. They’d both fit easily inside.
Nobody told me that my dad would marry for a fourth time, but I guess I should have known.
BIO: Meg Elison is the author of THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE, a post-apocalyptic feminist speculative novel, Tiptree recommendation, and winner of the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award. The sequel to MIDWIFE will be published in early 2017. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. Find her online, where she is always saying something: