Followed by Fire
by J. Alan Brown
part 1 of 3
Melody Burnside entered the back door into the house, her nose crinkled in distaste. “Sheeoo, I stink,” she said.
“What’s the matter?” asked Rick. He had just finished getting ready for their evening ahead.
“Oh, I smell like a fire now,” said Melody with a small grimace.
“Ah,” said Rick, nodding. “The Douglases.”
Melody was returning from taking their seven-year old son, Matthew, to the Norton’s home two houses down. Their teenage daughter was watching Matthew while Rick and Melody met some friends for dinner. Five minutes earlier, Melody and Matthew had headed out the back door into the cool November evening. Rick surmised that on the way back, Melody had felt obligated to stop and chat with the Douglases who lived in between. After all, she had cut through their back yard.
Doug and Yvonne Douglas often sat outside on their enormous yard swing. (“Doug Douglas?” Rick had remarked to himself when the neighbors first met. “What were his parents thinking?”) They huddled near a black brazier, a squat, waist-high cauldron that looked like a weird probe from a fifties science fiction movie. Inside the barrel was room for a warm and homey fire.
“I tried to stay out of the smoke,” said Melody brushing her fingers through her auburn hair to shake out the smell, “but the wind... shifted.” She smoothed the front of her blouse and pants quickly. “The fire always seems to find me,” Melody said with a sigh.
“Oh, you know him,” Melody said with a smirk. “It was all I could do to get a kiss out of him before he was in their house feeling right at home. I don’t think he’d mind if we disappeared off the face of the earth and he went to live with the Norton’s.”
Rick nodded. Wordlessly, they began the final act of their pre-Evening-Out dance. In their eleven years together, they had honed the ritual to a well-practiced routine. He patted his pockets for keys and wallet. She washed her hands. He jiggled doorknobs and turned off all lamps but one. She poked in a drawer and came up with sticks of gum. “Ready to go?” she said in conclusion.
It suddenly occurred to him that he was alone in the house with his wife. No television squawked for attention. No talkative seven-year-old was interrupting or peppering them with questions. He stepped up and slipped his arms around her, moved his face toward her. He wanted to kiss her, a long, passionate kiss in the romantic dimness.
He felt her stiffen with tension. She glanced at him impatiently. “We’re going to be late.”
He moved in closer, and she puckered at him, her lips small and tight. To Rick, they looked like the asterisk of a computer password, or a man’s anus before his first prostate exam. The message was clear: No admittance.
She pecked him quickly, then worked her way out of his embrace. Rick tried to smile an apology to her but she had turned away.
“Let’s go,” she said. She grabbed her purse, and the two of them exited through the back door and garage.
Once out in the driveway where their cars were parked, Rick shucked off his wife’s rejection. His senses absorbed the evening in full force. The last several days had been rainy and humid in the Dallas Metroplex, but that first Friday in November had turned out to be almost perfect. The temperature that day had reached 78 degrees, and the air held just enough of that lingering warmth to make for a pleasant evening. Autumn leaves whispered amongst themselves in the slight breeze, and the week’s rain had sharpened the fall colors. Rick’s eyes were too light-blinded to see any stars, but the moon showed a bright crescent like the hump of a capital ‘D.’ Rick inhaled the cool air and immediately smelled the wood smoke of the Douglases’ fire. He turned toward them and could just make out their figures in the orange flicker a few yards away.
“Hi, folks,” called Rick. “Nice evening, isn’t it?” Melody was wordlessly climbing into the other side of Rick’s Honda Civic; she had already said her piece to the neighbors.
“Beautiful,” agreed Yvonne from her seat on the swing. The Burnsides, the Douglases, and the Nortons had all tacitly agreed not to fence their back yards. This made an almost uninterrupted greenbelt to serve as a safe playground for Matthew and other neighborhood kids. The Douglases’ swing and fire brazier occupied the fifty-yard line. The elderly couple had said they enjoyed watching the kids play; their own grandchildren lived six states away.
“You kids have a nice time tonight,” Doug called out.
“Thanks,” said Rick. Again he inhaled deeply and opened his car door.
Suddenly, a pocket of air inside the burning wood exploded with a fierce pop, and Doug and Yvonne jerked as if goosed. Sparks showered into the air over Rick’s head, but terrifyingly close, like municipal fireworks detonated too low. The breeze blew the sparks toward Rick, and he felt a stab of panic. He leaned back against the car, watching the pinpricks of fire weave their way toward him, leaving trails of glow in his vision. They looked like a cloud of burning snakes undulating across the dark sky.
But the breeze was light. The sparks guttered and plummeted to the earth like a meteor shower, extinguishing harmlessly in the damp grass a couple of yards from his feet. Rick waved weakly, as if to assure any spectators that he was all right, but it was too dark to tell if anyone had seen him stagger. He quickly got into his car and started it up.
“Did you see those sparks?” he asked, then realized he was almost shouting. His heart still pounded. “They were coming straight for me.”
A small smile touched her lips. “Oh, pooh. You’re exaggerating again.”
He said nothing as be backed out and coasted down the alley.
“I’m just teasing,” she said. “I’m sorry. The same thing happened to me once, when I was a little girl.”
He warmed up to her apology. “What happened?”
“It was on Halloween. I was eight, maybe nine, and one of our neighbors had built a campfire in their backyard. All the kids were invited over for ghost stories and roasting marshmallows.”
“A campfire? And you allergic to wood smoke? I’ll bet you were sick as a dog afterward.”
She shrugged. “Probably, but I practically lived in a fireplace all my life. Up in Minnesota we had to use our wood burning stove for six months a year, and oh, the smell. I was usually sick all winter.” As if to complete the picture she fished a tissue out of her purse and blew her nose.
“Anyway, I remember being cold, and sitting close to the fire. The glowing embers were hypnotic, when all of a sudden I felt a sharp pain in the middle of my forehead. It felt like someone jabbed me with a hypodermic needle. I ran crying for my mom. She was standing nearby talking with the neighbors. I was screaming and crying, but she couldn’t figure out what had happened.”
Rick nodded. “You were burned by a spark, weren’t you?”
“Mm-hmm. Some kid nearby said he saw the spark land right on my forehead. I remember his face got all big and serious, and he said it looked like I had a glowing eyeball there.”
“I’ll bet it hurt, didn’t it?”
“Naturally. Mom hugged me and kissed my forehead. From then on, I tended to stay away from campfires.” She rubbed her forehead with a finger. “I’ve still got a tiny scar there.”
Rick thought about what his wife had said. He had nearly wet his pants from those sparks, but really, what was the worst that could have happened? Did he imagine himself bursting into flames? Did he honestly think he would have ended up screaming, wailing on the ground as the fire swept over him, lighting his hair into a pyre? No, the worst would have been a few singes on his overcoat, that’s all.
Still, the thought of that spark resting on Melody’s forehead fascinated him. Kissed by fire. Her mother had kissed her in the same spot. Kissed by fire, kissed by love. He remembered what she had said earlier: (The fire always seems to find me) and a chill ran down his spine.
“What’s the matter?” asked Melody, and Rick jumped, startled, blinking at her. He was sitting at a stop sign, signal clicking to turn right, but he wasn’t moving. Her forehead was creased in irritation.
“Nothing,” he said with a sheepish grin. “Just zoned out. Sorry.” He turned onto Ridge Road and accelerated away.
* * *
The maximum capacity seating for Roy’s was only 75 people, and Rick liked it that way. So far the privately owned steakhouse had not been featured in the Dallas Morning News Restaurant Guide under the category of “Hidden Treasures.” That meant Rockwall locals could still get a table on Friday night without a two-hour wait. Rick pulled into the white gravel lot and parked. He moved to step around and hold the door open for Melody, but she got out herself before he could make it.
They started for the restaurant, and for a wonder, Melody slipped her cool hand into Rick’s and held it. Occasionally she gripped his hand tightly for support as she stepped on a shifting mound of gravel. Rick tried to remember the last time Melody had held his hand. Definitely not since Daylight Savings Time had kicked every clock back an hour. Probably not since their summer vacation to San Antonio, nearly four months earlier. Once upon a time, the young lovers could hardly be separated. Then Matthew was born.
At first it was only natural that their child came between them. For the first couple of years their hands were full of diaper bags, strollers, and twenty pounds of fidgety toddler. Then, when the boy’s legs finally started their on-the-job training, Rick and Melody each held a chubby fist between them as Matthew manipulated the inline skates that seemed to be attached to his feet.
Once Matthew was walking on his own — indeed, darting out ahead on strong, quick legs — Rick expected that he and Melody would come together again to absorb the vacuum left behind by their son. Nothing doing. Something had clicked inside Melody once Matthew was born. Something hormonal, perhaps, and no amount of time had eased the “Physical Contact” switch back into its former position. Now, beyond a nanosecond peck on the lips when Rick left for work, they could easily go two weeks without touching each other. That fact came home to Rick just then as they entered Roy’s, for Melody’s simple gesture of holding his hand had given him an erection.
“There they are,” Melody said brightly, and Eric and Shelley Thomlinson simultaneously turned and smiled. Rick put his left hand into his pocket to hide his bulge, then pumped Eric’s hand in greeting.
“Our table will be ready in about five minutes, the guy said,” said Shelley. She was a slender, dark-haired woman with narrow eyes and white, even teeth. Eric was equally slim, with short brown hair and wireless-frame glasses.
“I feel like I haven’t seen you guys in over a year,” said Rick. He felt his erection subsiding.
“Not since last Fourth of July,” Melody agreed. “Shelley and I figured it out over the phone this afternoon.”
“That’s too long,” said Rick. “You guys still like your new house?” he asked, then mentally kicked himself for the idiotic question. The Thomlinson’s moved into it five years earlier.
“Oh, sure,” said Eric. “Hey, this spring we’re going to put in a pool.”
“Really?” said Melody. “I’m jealous.”
“You’ll have to come over for a swim party,” insisted Shelley. “Matthew will love it.”
They continued to small talk, while Rick added “swimming pool” to the growing list of items required to keep up with the Thomlinson’s. I guarantee it, before the night’s over, Melody will casually mention putting in our own pool.
Rick glanced around, trying to get his back wheel out of that well-worn rut before it grooved even deeper. The dark-paneled lobby had been decorated with white Christmas lights across the ceiling rafters, but mercifully they hadn’t put up a Christmas tree yet. Roy’s served the best steaks in Rockwall, but Rick had to admit it was cramped for space. He kept having to shift positions to dodge a waitress who was making her way back to the one table that sat by the bay window at the end of the bar. The four of them stood in a loose circle in front of the bar; had anyone been seated at the bar chairs they would have practically been pushed out the front door.
At the other end of the bar stood the entrance to the kitchen, and idly Rick watched the cooks slap red steaks on a massive grill. Rick had been there enough times to recognize the process. A steel-gray conveyor belt roughly fifteen feet long slowly rolled over gas-fired flames. The middle third of the conveyor belt was an enclosed broiler, and in there the steaks would receive their maximum heat. Meat rolled in the opening at one end, red and sizzling and covered with seasonings, and rolled out the other end, brown and juicy. The two cooks would set down the cuts of meat on various places on that conveyor belt depending on how the patron wanted the meat to be cooked. Rare steak lovers, those who like their meat at room temperature, would get their cuts slipped inside the covered oven, coming out three minutes later still wiggling. Whereas those who insisted that even shoe leather could be underdone would get their cuts set down at the very end of the conveyor belt, letting every drop of juice hiss out onto the lava coals beneath. Occasionally, one of the cooks would step aside to grab a foil-wrapped potato out of a heated drawer. As he did so, Rick could see directly into the broiler through the exit. The dozen cuts of beef glowed in the red fire, looking like the denizens of Hell.
Copyright © 2005 by J. Alan Brown