It’s the morning-after stink of burnt campfire remains—the damp, black-brittle wood flakes, the white ash—that rattle me the most. The way it gets into your clothes, the way your t-shirt smells in the morning as you climb out of your sleeping bag. The way it settles into your nostrils and won’t leave, embedded in the nose hairs. The way it ruins a perfectly good dewy morning, that hanging stench clinging to every fiber and particle. I don’t go camping anymore.
Doesn’t really matter. Leah often wakes me from brutal nightmares and I’m doused in sweat and panic, and even as she rubs my neck, kisses my head and hushes me back toward sleep, I fight the urge to tear off the covers and leap up, because I know that it is a dream and I know that the stench of burning is a phantom smell leftover from all those years ago. I know this—even as Leah presses down on my shoulders to keep me from getting up.
I’m going to marry her, and though she might not realize it, this is the main reason why: she handles the nightmares like no one else has. She doesn’t ignore them and leave me thrashing in fitful sleep, doesn’t poke my ribs, saying, Hey over and over until I finally wake, like others had done before. One girlfriend used to get up and sleep out on the couch, pulling the bedroom door shut behind her. Sometimes I wonder if Leah would be offended if I told her that this was the reason I wanted to marry her. I hope not. It’s not an insult. It’s just the purest example of the type of person she is. This captures her. And I love her for it.
“Johnny.” Her lips, light against my temple, drew me from this latest nightmare, like headlights cutting through the fog. “John.”
I was sweating. The burning lingered. I could smell it in the blankets. “Hi,” I said, trying to open my eyes. I felt her hand glide across my chest and I focused on it, letting it lead me out of this.
“You having a bad dream?”
But it was disappearing already. Only the smell remained. “I think so.”
I never quite remembered the dreams, but then again I didn’t really have to. I knew the blueprint—the crackle of surrendering wood, the wall of heat—and that was enough to bring me, reluctantly, back to that morning. I watched Leah’s chest rise and fall, consistent and slow, like the roll of the waves at Crane’s Beach.
A short while later the squeal of steam brought me finally out of bed and into the kitchen. Leah stood at the stove in a pair of white boxer shorts with sailboats and anchors on them, a gray tank top covering her torso, one bare foot resting atop the other, pouring coffee. I stepped to her and leaned my nose against the back of her head, breathing in her hair, the faint coconut scent of her shampoo. My head was heavy from the dream, like a sponge I’d forgotten to ring out. “What are you doing?” She dipped her head to the right.
“Nothing.” I stole one more breath and then backed out of her space. Sometimes, during those stretch of days when she works double shifts at the hospital, or worse, the turnarounds when she isn’t home until midnight and then back at work for six the next morning, on those mornings I might pick up her shampoo while showering, sometimes just smell it, sometimes use a little of it even though she says it’s expensive and not to. Sometimes I can’t help myself.
“What are you doing today?”
She handed me a mug of coffee. I usually don’t drink coffee, but Leah knows that a little dose of caffeine helps shakes me out of these bad dreams. Sort of a post-nightmare hangover.
I shrugged, let the steam clear out my sinuses. “Hopefully send out a few resumes,” I said.
“Don’t forget Pete said he might be able to help you out. Might not be your dream job, but it’s something.”
“Right.” Truth was, I had no idea what that even meant. Dream job. I’d had three jobs in five years, all three an attempt at a new beginning. Cable TV repair up on the power lines. Then a roofer. Recently, a season with a pool crew. Probably could have had my own thing going by now—my own business—if I’d stuck with any of them. Dream job? I didn’t even like the sound of it. I hated my dreams.
I am ten years old. My parents and some of their friends are unloading furniture and boxes from a rental truck, walking things clumsily down a loud metal ramp, filling the empty house. My father took my bicycle off the truck first, so I could explore the new neighborhood. I pedal up the street, looking at the cracks in the pavement, the muddy McDonald’s cups in the gutter. I want to go home. But this is home. I mean the other home. Home home. The neighborhood is deserted. I am the only one around, now that I am away from the new house and the noisy ramp and swearing men struggling with sofas and mattresses. There are no other sounds now. Maybe a small breeze rustling the trees, nothing else. I imagine that the neighborhood—the world—is vacant, that I am the last boy alive. I pedal, looking out for zombies desperate for my brains.
That same day, I meet Shane Totts, and though he is a couple years younger than me, he becomes my new friend. Even at eight years old he seems undersized: a pale, scrawny boy, straight greasy hair, dirt on one cheek. On the front of his rusted bicycle is a plastic milk crate, attached by a leather belt. It is full of sticks, shaved of their bark and whittled. Upon closer inspection I see that Shane has carved what looks a little like abstract faces into the wood. Small twig and leaf appendages are, I realize, arms. The basket is full of them—ten, maybe fifteen. And they have names. I pick them up, one by one, hold them high, inspect them, turn them in my fingers. “I’m making an army,” Shane says to me, licking his chapped lips.
I squint in the sunlight, looking at him. “I’ll help.” I have my first friend in this new world. And this stick army, I begin to think, just might be able to stand up to the zombies.
Leah’s cousin, Pete Danvers, was the Parks & Recreation director in Stoneham, just a couple towns over. She’d said he might be able to get me in on the landscaping crew, maintaining the ball fields and playgrounds. I’d been out of work for almost five months, so I wasn’t in a position to be choosy. Still, Pete was a guy who chewed cigars soggy and was always answering his cell phone in the middle of other conversations to talk way too loudly to someone on the other end. I hated the idea of asking him for a job, hated more that he’d feel pushed to give me one because I was his cousin’s unemployed live-in boyfriend. The holidays would be worse than ever. I could see it now.
I had savings to subsidize the unemployment checks. That wasn’t an issue. But I needed structure again, needed a routine and a schedule. More than anything, I needed my body to align itself into a regular sleep pattern. Unemployment skewed all that, kept me up too late, led to fitful nights. Led to this latest belt of bad dreams. I needed a job.
I called Pete’s cell but he didn’t answer. Then I called his office and his secretary took my name and number, told me he was over at Robin Hood School. I thought I might take a ride over there, bump into him. It’d be less formal, I thought, than having a scheduled one-on-one. Glimpsing myself in the rear view mirror, I saw that I needed a shave. I flipped the visor down and my sunglasses fell onto my lap. At least I could hide the bags under my eyes.
I’d been listening to a lot of country music these days—Leah leaves my car radio tuned to it—and the thing is, a lot of it is about women leaving their no-good men. I wondered if Leah would leave me. She loved me, I knew she did. It wasn’t a question of love. But still, how long could I go without work before her first nagging feeling that she was with a worthless piece of shit? Had to happen one of these days. You could be the nicest son of a bitch in the world, but no job is no job. It’d been nearly half a year. What did I realistically have left with her? One more month? Two? I didn’t have the answer, but I knew there was a number. At some point she would have to cut me loose. I peeked at my face again in the vibrating mirror. God, I didn’t even look like someone who was interested in life. I decided I needed a haircut today.
Pete’s green pickup was in the Robin Hood parking lot, another almost identical truck next to it. Two men were in the distance, jeans shorts and work boots, trimming hedges along the wall of the school. Pete, a roll of gut spilling over his belt, stood with one foot up on the bumper of his truck, his cell phone tucked between his cheek and round shoulder. As I pulled alongside him I saw that his nest of hair was knotted with yellow grass and dried curls of leaves, as if on purpose.
“Shane’s a queer.”
This is what Chuck Odercurt says to me as we sit on his front steps trying to light cardboard matches with one hand. The trick was to bend the match back, close the lid, use the pressure of your thumb against the match head and flint strip, almost like snapping your fingers. One hand. One flick. Chuck has it. Three in a row. Four. I, however, cannot get it.
I keep trying, focused. Chuck puts his match out by touching it to his tongue.
This time I look up. Shane Totts is walking down the street, toward his house. He is wearing a yellow rain jacket even though it is not raining. Cloudy, but not raining. Truth is I wouldn’t be caught dead in a yellow rain jacket even in the worst of downpours. I’ve heard them called slickers before, which sounds weird. I know that those particular yellow rain boots he is wearing are called rubbers. Rubbers!
Shane looks briefly over at us but keeps walking. I’ve lived here for three full weeks now, and Shane, I decided, is not my friend. I met Chuck and Evan Sanders, and Mark Pauls, in these last couple weeks of summer, and two of them are in my grade. Chuck is a year older. He calls him queerbait, louder this time, and I turn my head back down to the match.
First time I hung out with Chuck, Evan, and Mark, they stopped Shane on his bicycle, pretended to be interested in what he was carrying around in his milk crate basket. Then Chuck picked up a handful of Shane’s stick men and snapped them in half. Shane just watched, no reaction. Blinked once or twice. Probably afraid to react, afraid it would lead to more torment. I stood next to them and watched. Laughed when Evan nudged me in the ribs. Chuck picked up another fistful and, with rapid-fire crackling, like fireworks, broke them into splinters.
In my head I justify this. Shane Totts is downright bizarre. The stick men. The yellow rain gear. The way-too-big milk crate rubbing the front tire of his bike raw. He is an only child, playing in his back yard alone, pouring sand into the sewer drain out front. I used to think the term was “lonely child” until I saw it written years later.
On family trips, I often see Shane’s father driving with his oversized eyeglasses weighing down his face, his black hair parted to the side just so. Shane is always in the back seat, next to his mother. Why does his mother ride in the back seat? I wonder. I’ve only ever seen children riding in the back.
One day, from my bedroom window, I watch Shane walk down the street, past my house. I fixed my room the best I could, Michael Jordan posters on the walls, Reggie Lewis poster, my hot rod calendar on the back of the door. Little league trophies on a bookcase. The room actually feels almost right, unlike the rest of the house, still full of unpacked boxes, walls still bare, overrun with echoes. As if my parents haven’t quite decided whether or not to stay. Secretly, I imagine that they have changed their minds, or the bank has made a mistake with the loan, something that will send all this stuff back onto the moving truck and back to Chelmsford.
Shane has a metal lunch box in his hand, swinging. Ninja Turtles. His tongue pokes from the side of his mouth. He’s humming, I think, his face orange from Popsicle juice. His bare arms are covered in black magic marker, drawings, I guess, some kind of nonsense I don’t understand. I am wondering why he drew on himself like that, asking myself isn’t he too old to be doing that, when he sees something down on the ground, stops to look at it with his hands planted on his knees. I lean forward, watching. He picks it up, something small and round, maybe hairy. The window screen makes everything look unclear and a little blurred. My eyes keep accidentally focusing on the mesh wire. What’s he holding? I squint into the gloom of dusk, straining.
He is holding it by a thin wing. I see the bright yellow splay of claws, a protrusion of beak. Shane lifts it to his eyes, pouting his orange lips in thought. It twirls under his fingers. Then, with his free hand, he sets his lunchbox on the sidewalk, works it open, and puts the dead bird inside. Locks it back up. Continues on his way.
Pete invited me into his truck. I sat there in the passenger seat, watching his crew through a milky windshield, streaked and mottled with insect carcasses. The cab reeked of cigar smoke, the matted floor caked in light ash. “Just a sec, partner,” he told me, flipping pages on a clipboard. Delicate flakes of ash had settled onto the thigh of my cargo pants, and I didn’t quite know how they got there. I brushed them away with the side of my hand, leaving a gray smudge on my pants. The ashtray, I noticed, hung open, ugly cigar nubs piled atop one another.
My old bedroom, facing the front of the house, stunk of ash long after the fire. Long after, even, the house down the street had been bulldozed away. I could never quite figure out if the room had a permanent odor, or if somehow my brain had manufactured the smell and wouldn’t let go of it. Either way, the stink of ash—worse, wet ash—clung to the walls, my sheets and pillow, all my clothes, it seemed.
The whooping and shouting woke me that night before the sirens did, before the grumbling and crackling of the actual fire. I’d thought someone was having a party. Some of the duplexes across the street were rented by college kids, who scared me a little on the mornings that I’d find beer cans glimmering across the front lawns, evidence of testosterone-fueled rituals of drinking and yelling and fighting.
But there was no party on that night. One look out my window proved that. The commotion was coming from further up the street, where flickering light bounced over the façade of one house, the side windows of another. I pressed my face to the screen, bending my nose, straining to see. People were shuffling along the sidewalk in pajamas and slippers. I pressed harder, feeling the metal wires dig into my forehead and cheek.
Then the shuffling of feet outside my door. The wheel of a bed scraping the hardwood. “Tott house, I think,” I heard my father say.
So I got up, followed my parents downstairs, out the back door. My feet were bare and the pavement felt cool, but not far up the street we walked into a wall of warm air, hot even. Shane Tott’s house was bright and moving, the heat before it waving, as though I was looking at it through water. I shielded my eyes. My cheeks were hot. A crowd had gathered, standing there in pajamas and sweatpants and slippers. Glowing hot embers splashed the street and I was afraid that one would bounce onto my foot. I stepped back. In the distance I began to hear the whine of sirens, but I was surprised at just how far away they were. The sound was buried, under the fire’s steady growl, under the voices shouting. Faint and helpless.
Flames sprung from the roof of the house, with smaller, whiter ones spitting from the windows along one wall. The other half of the house looked dark and unaffected, unaware of the chaos that had overtaken its opposite side. My mother touched her fingers to her lips, staring, her head absently turning side to side. I looked up at her, then to the house, the front wall washing black before my eyes. Then back at her again. It was in the concern of her face that I first understood that Shane Totts, and his parents, might still have been inside the house. Next door, from a second floor balcony, three college boys leaned on the railing, their shirts off in the heat. They were chanting, or singing. One of them drummed his palms on the banister. “The roof…the roof…the roof is on fire!” Over and over again. The looks on their faces did not match the look on my mother’s face, and with the fire so close to them—sometimes rolling and lashing toward them like a giant tongue—I wondered how they could remain so fearless, so oblivious.
The sirens came louder now, drowning out the roar of fire, the clumsy singing. The red strobe rolled across the neighborhood houses in circles, one fire engine followed by another, followed by a third, pushing up our small street like a monster train. The audience parted, stepping back from the middle of the road. I stood watching, my eyes hypnotized by the swirling reds, the flicker of white heat, the spray of orange embers peppering the pavement.
My father’s firm hand got me by the sleeve of my t-shirt up near the collar, tugging me back and out of the way. I stumbled, but instead of looking down at my feet I looked over at the shadows cast by jagged branches of a tree in front of the house. The shadows looked alive, shimmering like images of an old film. The restless flames, the waves of invisible heat, and now the black fractured shadows, jittering over everything within reach, over the crowd’s own blank faces, in a dance of death.
Pete turned his head toward the side window and spat. “So no luck in the job hunt?”
The heat was making my sunglasses slip down my nose. I pushed them back. “Not yet. Trying, though.”
“You know these are union jobs, don’t you?” He said this matter-of-factly, like I had to have known this. Which I didn’t.
“Yeah. Of course they are. I couldn’t give you a spot if I wanted to. I told Leah that at the cookout.”
My glasses started to slide again. “You did?” Leah. She doesn’t listen. I mean, she listens, but she doesn’t accept what she hears. Probably thought Pete was just trying to get out of it easy—didn’t want to be bothered. Probably thought if I came down here and asked him point blank in person he’d cave. Of course they’re union; I should’ve known this already.
He cleared his nasal passage, spat again. “Yep. I Sure did.” Wasn’t even looking at me. Just spitting out the window and watching his men sculpt hedges. I wanted to leave. Wished I hadn’t come here to begin with. Wished Leah would’ve minded her own business this time.
From the other side of the field, three boys steered their bicycles down a slope and onto the baseball diamond. I thought they were going too fast. None of them wore helmets, which for some reason concerned me, even though I’d never worn a bike helmet in all my life.
“Listen,” Pete said, letting out a long breath of air, “I actually might have something for you.”
The boys hopped off their bikes, letting them fall into a dusty cloud. One held a yellow plastic baseball bat, the skinny ones, and a bright white Wiffle Ball. Two set themselves up on the pitcher’s mound and in the batter’s box, baseball caps pulled low over their eyes in the sharp sun. The third, smaller and probably younger, stood out by second base, an oversized baseball glove on his hand. I didn’t know why he thought he needed a glove. He started spinning around. Dust swirled at his feet.
“My buddy Red has a project starting next week. I can probably get you on that.”
The boy was spinning himself dizzy. I kept expecting him to fall.
“Just a few days work, I’m guessing. Maybe the full week, I don’t know. They’re cleaning out the Central School basement. Been empty for what, ten years? Not the cleanest job in the world, but it’s something.”
I nodded, but I don’t know if I was completely listening. I kept watching that little boy. Word had gotten out four or five days after the fire that Shane Totts had been playing with matches down in the basement. He’d been found in his bed, on the second floor, and there’d been all kinds of speculation whether or not he’d done it on purpose—lit a fire in the basement and then just went to bed. But no, I never believed that.
Pete finally turned to me. “Interested?” he asked. “Better than nothing, right? Better than going home empty-handed.” At this he laughed, gave me a wink.
I nodded. “Yeah, definitely.” The little boy turned his head back, looking up into the sun, still twirling. “Thanks.”
Shane had been a scared kid. Scared and probably confused, even angry, about a lot of things. But he didn’t light a fire on purpose. That much I can say. The kid had been messing around, up too late while his parents slept, no one paying any attention to him. Probably burning little scraps of paper, maybe a cigarette box, and it caught something else, got out of hand. And Shane, probably panicking, afraid to tell anyone, ran up the stairs and climbed into bed, pretended to be asleep.
I had the phone number of this guy Red in my hand, torn from the corner of a yellow legal pad. Four days’ work, possibly five, gutting the Central School basement. It was an old building, sitting unused for probably the better part of a decade. There’d be all kinds of shit down there, broken desks and rotting file folders, a sooty boiler from the early 1900s maybe. Rats and spiders scurrying all over the place.
I kept looking at the kid across the field as I climbed back into my car. He was still standing out there, oblivious to his friends, or brothers, or whoever the other two boys were, while they played ball. The boy, slim-shouldered with skinny legs and untied sneakers, was talking to himself, might have even been singing, though I couldn’t hear him from over here. Once in a while he would shake, do a little jig, some kind of made up dance move.
Shane had been like that, an outsider, a boy living in his own world. And we had made fun or him. Worse, we’d tormented him, abused him. But who was more of an outsider than me? Leah’s family rolled their eyes behind my back, I was sure of it. Underground, cleaning a dank, sooty basement overtaken with rats for a few lousy under-the-table dollars.
Chuck and Evan pin Shane down at the shoulders, Chuck yelling for someone to hold his legs from flailing and kicking about. Mark tore Shane’s Wonder Woman cape from his neck and is holding it up in the breeze, letting it ripple while he sings the Wonder Woman theme song. Chuck throws a hard look over his shoulder back at me. “Johnny, get his legs! He’s kicking me!”
I do it. I fall to my knees and wrap his skinny legs in my arms. Chuck and Evan start hocking and spitting in his face, laughing. Shane scrunches his face up tight, wrinkled like a raisin, trying to close himself up. They keep spitting. I laugh too. And I spit on him. He gets a hand free and brings it over his face, but Evan wrestles it back down. I see this wide-open opportunity and take aim, hitting him directly in a closed eye. White spit pools in the corner of his eyelid before rolling down his cheek like a tear. We spit in his hair and on his neck, all over his squeezed face, one right after the other after the other. Mark leans over, tells us to look out. He hocks back and lets one roll off his tongue and drop thick onto Shane’s chin. Over and over, laughing, spitting, laughing some more, while Shane squirms and wriggles but it doesn’t matter because he is seven years old and he is small and he is weak, and he is just one. His face glistens, webs of spit connecting his ear lobe to his shoulder, his lip to a nostril. For some reason, I keep spitting. For some reason, even though somewhere inside me I am crushed, I keep laughing.
As I backed out of the space and pulled away from the field, I glanced to the right one more time, where the little boy was now chasing after the other two walking side-by-side toward a jungle gym. His legs struggled to keep up, tongue wagging, baseball glove flapping at his wrist. Then I looked away, at the road. Even after jacking the windows down, I still could not get rid of the cigar smell. In fact, strangely, it was stronger than ever. I had to lean toward the open window, take a futile pull of fresh air.