Read Those Who Favor Fire Online
Authors: Lauren Wolk
By the time she reached the inn it looked as if everyone had gone to bed. For a moment she was even afraid that they might have closed up for the season. But after parking the car in the small gravel lot, she heard through the still air the sound of voices and of music softly playing. She followed the sound to a lighted window and an unlatched side door. With rising anticipation, she opened the screen door and gave the heavy inner door a shove.
Rachel did not know it, but she had stumbled upon one of those rare places that have managed to keep their secrets. A lot of people knew about the inn’s summertime bar with its old wooden tables and its wraparound porch, but few knew about the tiny, off-season bar that was tucked behind the lilacs on the other side of the old, rambling building. The couple that ran the inn opened this winter pub only when they felt like company. If passersby saw a light in the window, they would often stop for a brandy and a chat before strolling on home. Strangers were scarce at this time of year in so small a town, and the chances of one finding the secret bar—and finding it open—were slim. Rachel was one of the lucky ones.
“Hi,” she said to the man behind the bar. He wore a navy blue blazer, pants of white sailcloth, and boating shoes. He was an old man with brown, lined skin and little hair, but his eyes were clear and curious as he looked Rachel over.
“Good evening,” he said gently. “I’m afraid we’re not really open tonight, miss, but as it’s chilly I’ll pour you one drink if you can show me some identification.”
“Actually, I’m looking for a room,” she said, afraid now that she should have called first or gone to the kind of town with all-night clerks and swimming pools. “I guess I should have made a reservation.”
The old man looked past Rachel toward the two women playing backgammon in front of a small fireplace. “Are we open for guests, Fiona?” he asked reluctantly.
“No, we’re not,” she said. She wore a housecoat with pink rosebuds on it. Blue veins burrowed like worms along the tops of her feet, swollen in satin mules, and her shoulders were padded with fat. Rachel recognized her immediately, for there were dozens like her in Belle Haven, and knew that this was the woman who hung the sheets out in the sunshine, polished the wooden floors, and made sure that the windowpanes gleamed. When the woman looked up and saw who
was asking, she put down the dice and sighed. “I’m sorry, honey, but I just wasn’t expecting anybody. I haven’t got a single room ready, and it’s already so cold upstairs. We only heat up the rooms if we know someone’s coming.”
“Oh,” Rachel said, “I understand,” for she usually accepted what she was dealt, even when she knew that a bit of persuasion might turn things her way. “Thanks anyway.” She turned toward the door. But after the long, hopeful drive she had no stomach for a night in an infested motel or, worse, in the Impala. She wanted badly to sleep in the room upstairs where she had slept before, next door to the room where her parents had stayed, to look out the window the next morning to find the irreproachable sea waiting there for her. She wanted to be by herself in a safe and sheltered place where people would ask nothing of her and she need not ask much of them.
It was therefore with a certain anxious determination that she turned back from the door, walked up to the tired woman, and said, “I don’t need sheets, or towels, or even a pillow. Just a blanket and some soap. Please. And I’ll leave everything tidy.” She realized that she sounded a bit unhinged, so she smiled and added, “My name is Rachel Hearn. I stayed here with my parents when I was seventeen, and I haven’t been back to the Cape since. I’m not sure where to go.”
“You college kids are all alike,” the woman sighed, pushed herself out of the chair. But she smiled as she said it. “Take my place, Jack,” she instructed her husband as she led Rachel out of the bar and down a dim hallway, “but don’t drink my brandy. I’ll be right back.”
The two women stopped at a vast linen closet and then climbed a narrow staircase to the rooms above. “Would it be all right if I stayed in the room with the painting of the rumrunner?” Rachel asked.
“Of course … Rachel, is it? I’m Fiona.” She led Rachel down the hallway, her old eyes fumbling in the poor light. “This is the room,” she said, handing Rachel a bundle of cold, smooth linen so she could open the door, switch on the light, and make sure all was as it should be.
Although Rachel protested, Fiona helped her make up the bed and even tracked down a hot-water bottle for her feet. She was generous with blankets and towels, unwrapped a bar of soap, opened the window for a moment to freshen the air, and then said good night. “I’ve forgotten your key,” she remembered as she was leaving, “but you can collect it at the desk when you go out in the morning. The heat will be up before long. Sweet dreams.” And then she was gone.
Since there wasn’t yet any heat to hoard, Rachel turned out the light, opened the window wide, and leaned into the night. She could see the light from the bar below her tinting the bare branches of the lilacs and could hear the faint sound of voices. It was that quiet. She felt much as she had as a little girl, comforted by the knowledge that her large, capable, strong parents were in the house with her.
Although she could not see it, Rachel knew that the ocean was very close by. She felt herself thriving on its kaleidoscopic smell, on the sounds of fledgling waves and of the rigging of sailboats at their moorings, beautiful as bells.
She felt so removed from Harry and Paul, from her friends, and from everything that had become important to her in recent years. She felt so near to her parents, the old, ramshackle house she’d grown up in, and all the people whose faces she would still recognize decades from now because they were a part of Belle Haven, as she was.
As she lay in bed that night, shivering and alone, she felt a peculiar joy. It was something akin to the feeling she always had at the end of each semester when it was time for her to go home. It made her smile and hug her knees to her chest, counting the weeks until Christmas break and remembering the taste of Belle Haven snow.
As Rachel drove Paul’s Impala back to school on Sunday afternoon, she vowed to keep her sojourn a secret. The little town on Cape Cod with its one-of-a-kind inn, its clean, deserted coves, its trademark skiffs and oysters was a place she hoped to return to again and again throughout her life. She had no intention of sharing it.
Rachel was not yet sure what she wanted to do with her life, what sort of work might best suit her. She had not really defined her dreams. She was not even entirely sure what sort of person she wanted to be and, so soon after Harry, was having trouble imagining herself with another man. But this time away from school had restored her equilibrium and left her hungry for trustworthy people who had good manners and things to teach her that she wanted to learn. She had already lived in one such place, was now leaving another, and was sure there must be many such secrets kept out of sight, around the bend, on the other side of a thousand bridges. She had made up her mind to find them.
Rachel felt rested and relaxed as she opened the door to her room
and turned on the lights. No one had warned her that every kind of pain is worse when you go toward it unprepared.
“You had an emergency call from home. Call Dean Franklin immediately.” Someone had pushed the note under her door. It had her name on it and the dean’s telephone number. She stood there and looked down at it. Then she looked around her room, saw the books and the potted plants, blinked at the colors in the curtains her mother had sewn for her, and wondered who had left a beer bottle on her windowsill.
Several of her neighbors arrived then, having heard her return, and told her that her phone had been ringing, off and on, for more than a day. They had heard people knocking at her door several times, seen Dean Franklin come and go, and knew something was wrong. But no one knew what. Call us if you need anything, they said, and left her alone.
When Rachel phoned the dean, he told her that he’d be right over to see her, but she shrieked at him to tell her what was wrong. So he told her that her parents had been killed in an automobile accident. They had died instantly, he said. Without pain. But Rachel knew of nothing on earth that could promise her this was true. As if to blunt what he said, the dean kept talking. And Rachel continued to listen, holding the phone like a gun to her ear, as if letting go of it meant making a choice to go on with her life.
Her parents, said the dean, had been on their way to have their few, peerless apples pressed into cider. Rachel loved apple cider, and it had always been their tradition, at Thanksgiving, to indulge her minor passion. They had not known, she suddenly realized, of her decision to spend this Thanksgiving at school, with friends. They had not known, either, that she had lately discovered a liking for wine, that she had not given a thought to the cider she would be missing back home. She realized, as she spoke with the dean, that her parents had died while she sat on a small, white beach, wrapped in wind. She was horrified that both of them had left without her. She ached with gratitude that they had left together.
It wasn’t until she was on her way to Belle Haven on the bus that night that she felt the keys to the Impala in her pocket—they were like teeth against her thigh—and remembered that she had once known a boy named Harry Gallagher.
During his first hours of flight, Kit allowed the road to lead him. He simply didn’t care where he was going or when he would get there. As he drove, he found nothing entertaining in the moving mosaic beyond his windshield. Nothing from the outside world vexed him. Nothing alarmed him. There was enough boiling inside him to occupy every sense he had. He simply drove.
When he grew hungry, he stopped at an all-night diner where everything tasted of the same rancid grease, was later violently sick in a musky pine forest, and eventually parked in the corner of a deserted rest area and slept until dawn.
Kit woke early the next morning, cold, cramped, and disoriented, unable to see through the car’s foggy windows and unsure what he might find beyond them. With his palm he cleared enough of the glass to see that he was parked near a brick building. He was in a rest area. The thought of fresh water made him sit up straight. Water was one of many things he had not thought to bring with him.
Armed with his overnight bag, Kit hurried into the rest house, put on a fresh shirt, brushed his teeth at a rusty sink, splashed cold water on his face, did his best to restore himself. He was exhausted. He was not sure where he was. As clean as he could manage, he returned to the lobby of the rest house and found a map mounted in a Plexiglas case. On it was a small arrow and the words
YOU ARE HERE
Western Massachusetts. The Berkshires. He turned away from the map and made his way out into the open air. Blinking at the morning
sky, Kit was astonished to find himself among mountains. He hadn’t noticed them in the dark, nor had he felt the lift and fall of the land beneath him. But there they were, all around him, so heavily wooded that they appeared to be furred. They rose up abruptly, sudden as a shout, making him feel smaller than he’d ever felt.
He didn’t mind the feeling. To be dwarfed by something as magnificent as these mountains did not diminish him. He felt himself to be in the best sort of company as he climbed into his car and headed back out onto the road.
For every mile Kit put between himself and his father, his perspective evolved a shade. During the night he had been filled, in turns, by loathing, fear, sorrow, and a sort of desperate optimism, each overlaid with irrepressible images of Holly’s lopsided face and of his father lurking in the magnolia grove. But as he made his way through the mountains, their peaks softened by countless storms and seasons, their forests gilded by the rising sun, he eventually calmed.
Crossing the border into New York, Kit turned onto a deserted parkway and dawdled south. The trees alongside the road were heavy with new leaves. The grass was so plump and green and bright that Kit yearned to lie in it. He tipped his face into the wind and felt it pull tears from his eyes. And as he began to awaken to the world around him, the part of him that had been fretting about his father and what might be happening at home grew curiously numb and finally became disinterested, as if his life until now had been a job that no longer suited him.
The mountains helped. Compared with these mountains, a man’s life seemed as brief as the flick of a bird’s tail.
At Route 84 Kit turned west and headed for the Hudson. He’d felt the tug of the big city that waited a bit farther to the south, as if it were an enormous magnet and he a sliver of iron, but he felt a far greater attraction to the mountains and the stretches of pastureland that led him west.
At midday he reached the Pennsylvania border and decided to try a two-lane road that meandered southward along the bank of the Delaware River. He was hungry, hungrier than he could ever remember being, so he stopped after a while at a small restaurant whose crowded parking lot suggested that the food might be worth eating.
At a table no bigger than a stop sign, Kit ordered a bowl of chicken soup and a club sandwich. All the other tables were taken. The waitresses raced among them like quail among cats.
“Are you always this crowded?” he asked the one who returned with his soup.
“It’s the Gap,” she explained, hurrying away.
Which meant nothing to Kit until he began to see signs for the Delaware Water Gap a couple of miles down the road. He was not tempted when presented with the choice of following the river south to the Gap or turning west at Route 80. The Gap would always be there, but not everything worth seeing could make such a claim. Kit wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he suspected that it would be something easy to miss, something most people overlooked. He had no intention of spending his time on anything that drew crowds.
With this in mind, Kit soon left the interstate in favor of country roads, relying on the sun and his nose to guide him. It was possible to go for miles now without encountering another car. When he came to a gas station, he filled his tank, anticipating the need and wary of wandering through strange country without knowing its resources. For the same reason, he stopped an hour later at a place called the Short Stop Inn. It was still early enough in the day for more travel, but Kit was tired of driving and wanted nothing more than a quiet room and a comfortable bed.