Read Those Who Favor Fire Online
Authors: Lauren Wolk
“Put him back,” she told the diggers, who had covered the skull with a bucket. “Put him back carefully, just the way he was, and fill the grave back in.” At the look on their faces, she bared her teeth and shook her head. “I’ll pay you for your time,” she said, and went on back to Randall.
“What are you going to do?” Rachel asked Angela on their way back to the Kitchen.
“Fix lunch, I guess.”
“About my dad? What’s there to do? I’d rather be boiled in oil than dig him up. If he’s like Otto is … well, I guess it doesn’t make much difference to him. And if he’s not there at all, I really don’t want to know about it. I happen to believe that there’s nothing really important down there anyway.”
“Me, too,” Rachel said, thinking of her grandparents, the cast-iron ring that hung next to her kitchen sink, and the sight of her parents’ ashes as they’d melted in the icy water of Raccoon Creek.
Always an especially spooky event in Belle Haven, Halloween that year was truly unnerving, for Otto’s exhumation was still on everyone’s mind and those who had seen his skull come pitching out of the grave could not forget it. Some of the smaller children, too nervous to go trick-or-treating, had Halloween parties at home. Even the older children stayed clear of the land above the tunnels, for it was a moonless night, full of wind and raccoons on the prowl.
Rachel, in the willow tree in the park, was busier than she’d ever been. She had made herself an octopus costume, with tentacles that she draped over the branches, a huge, bulbous body, red eyes, and a sharp beak. To make up for the tardy moon, she put fresh batteries in her biggest flashlights, stretched red cellophane over their lamps, and taped them to the tree trunk above her so that she was bathed in a red glow.
The children were impressed.
“Golly, Rachel, is that you?” asked Rusty.
“Who’s Rachel?” she croaked, weaving and nodding in the tree above. “Come a little closer now, and I’ll give you a sucker.”
When the children sidled up, she let out a shriek and swung a tentacle at them, which they loved. Then she tossed down some lollipops and sent them away.
This was a strange night for Rachel. Halloween always had been. As a young child, she had toddled around the town with the other children, collecting candy, saying Boo! at people. But when she was nine, several things had happened.
First, she had wanted to be Captain Hook, but her mother, insisting that no little girl could be a pirate, had dressed her as a milkmaid instead. Swinging a metal pail, she had gone out after sunset with her friend Caroline, who was dressed as Red Riding Hood. Before they’d gotten very far, Caroline had stumbled on her cloak and fallen, bloodied her nose, skinned her hands, and banged up her knee so she could barely walk. Rachel had helped her home and left her there, intending to join the next batch of children that came down the street. But, standing in Caroline’s front yard, she had become captivated by the stars and by the feeling of being completely alone, invisible in the night, on her own.
It had taken her only a few minutes to scamper down the street to the park and up into the branches of the big willow where her father had taught her to climb trees. From there, she had watched the other children making their way down Maple Street. She had heard Frank up at the Gas ’n’ Go, howling his werewolf howl. She had giggled softly at the sound of shrieks and monstrous growls. It was fantastic. No one knew where she was. No one could see her up here. She had collected a little bit of candy before Caroline’s fall, which she now ate. It was the best candy she had ever eaten. Nothing, in fact, had ever tasted so good.
She had stayed in the tree for a long time. Even when her muscles began to cramp and her tailbone to tingle, even when Frank had stopped howling and porch lights had begun to go out, Rachel stayed in the tree. The wind sounded different in the darkness than it ever had before. This could almost be a different town. She could almost be a different girl. But not a milkmaid.
When she got home that night, later than they’d expected her to be, Rachel’s parents had scolded her mildly. “We were starting to get worried,” they said. “Is that all the candy you got? You ought to have a bushel by now.”
“My shoelace came untied on the bridge,” she told them, “so I set my bucket down on the rail and I tied my shoe and then I knocked the bucket over by accident and the candy fell into the creek. Most of it anyway.” She pulled a few crumpled wrappers from her apron pocket. “I ate the rest,” she said. It was the only lie she could ever remember telling her parents.
The next year, and for every year after that, she made sure to collect plenty of candy before parting company with her friends and heading for the willow tree alone.
Now, grown up, her parents dead, Rachel did not consider it odd to be sitting in the old willow, an elaborate octopus, a cherry lollipop in her mouth, waiting for children to seek her out. No odder, at least, than Frank in his werewolf costume or Joe as a troll laying claim to the bridge. Belle Haven, she thought to herself, tentacles swinging lightly in the black breeze, is a town that praises its oddities. “I am what I am,” she said out loud, somewhat fiercely. But it came out as Popeye always said it—“I yam what I yam”—and, spoken by a young woman dressed as an octopus, clutching a lollipop, it lacked what she had intended: conviction at least, if not certainty.
Inside, somewhere near the place where memories of Otto Browning still lingered, Rachel felt a hollowness that her solitude could not in any way explain. But then a new passel of children came across the park toward her, and there was suddenly no reason to be anywhere else.
As winter approached, Rachel climbed up into the loft at the top of her house and brought down her cold-weather things. At the windows, she hung sapphire blue drapes. In front of the fireplace, she placed a huge oriental carpet (her second extravagance), two comfortable chairs, an old butter box full of books, and a good floor lamp. To her bed she added a comforter half a foot thick, for the room was not quite as warm as she’d hoped.
The basement was not so cold, for the old furnace ducts passed through it on their way upstairs. Gloomy as it was, and sometimes damp, the basement was where Rachel spent a good deal of her time that winter, for she had bought herself a potter’s wheel and a kiln, put them in her basement, and picked up right where she had left off in the eighth grade, making pots and plates and vases for no other reason than that she liked to. She liked the feel of the cool, wet clay. She liked the way it evolved so quickly from one shape to the next with the slightest movement of a finger or a wrist. She liked not knowing quite how something was going to turn out until she opened the lid of the kiln.
Sometimes, after the Kitchen was closed and while Dolly tended Rusty in the apartment above, Angela would climb the hill to Rachel’s house with a bottle of questionable wine and a bucket of chicken.
“Yessir, this is just what I thought I’d be doing in my twenty-ninth year. Sitting in a moldy basement, eating cold chicken out of a
pail, watching you make whatever the hell that is you’re making. What the hell is that, anyhow?”
“It’s a honey pot.”
“A honey pot.” Angela poked through the chicken in search of a leg. “A honey pot? You’re sitting here in your basement making honey pots? While the infamous, luscious Joe walks the world above? You’re off your nut, girl.”
Rachel let her wheel spin, picked up her wineglass with wet, gray fingers, and took a long drink. “Yech,” she said. “Next time bring beer.”
“Pardon the hell out of me.” Angela finished the chicken leg and washed her hands in the laundry tub. Her knuckles were red and scaly from too much washing. “So where is Joe tonight?”
“How should I know? I see him when I see him. He never calls, never tells me where he’s going to be or when he’s coming by. He just shows up here.”
“Hmmm. You don’t sound too pleased about it.”
“That’s because I’m not.”
Angela poured herself another glass of wine. She wandered around the basement, liking the feel of the hard dirt floor under her feet and the smell of cold stone. “Let me ask you something, Rachel,” she said, cocking her head at the ceiling. “Which would you rather have: a man who loves you truly but doesn’t always act like it, or a man who’s not really in love with you—and you know he’s not—but he does everything right. Flowers now and then, slow sex, conversation, the works.”
“God, what a question.”
“Well, here you are complaining that Joe doesn’t pay enough attention to you, but we both know how he feels.”
“Well, I do.”
“He’s never said he loves me.”
“That’s my whole point. Would you rather have someone who truly loves you or someone who makes all the right moves? And don’t say both. Such things have been known to happen but hardly ever.”
Rachel stared at Angela, the pot spinning between her palms. “It sounds to me like you’ve given this an awful lot of thought, Angie.”
“Yes, I have.”
Rachel lifted her hands and straightened her back. “Okay,” she said. “I guess if I had to choose, I’d keep what I’ve got.”
“Of course you would.”
“Which doesn’t mean it’s perfect.”
“I never said it was.”
Rachel thought a lot about such things that winter. A week before Christmas, when Joe showed up at her house to bake cookies, she was at first tempted to send him home. She hadn’t heard from him in days, but she knew he’d been to town: Angela had fed him supper more than once, and Earl had sold him a new chisel. But there he stood on her front porch, his cheeks blazing, his shoulders hunched against the cold. Ian’s truck sat in her driveway, knocking softly. Looking past him, down the hill toward her neighbors, Rachel could see chimney smoke. The cold night air was tinted with the color of Christmas lights. Joe opened the paper sack in his arms: he had brought with him sugar, flour, butter, chocolate chips and coconut, raisins, even vanilla, dear as it was, and the first set of cookie cutters he’d ever owned.
“Come on in,” she said after a moment and led him to the kitchen.
“I missed you this week,” she said to him, around midnight, as they sat at the kitchen table, eating cookies and drinking cold milk.
“But you slept, didn’t you?”
“Of course. Didn’t you?”
“I suppose,” he said. “It wasn’t easy.”
“I’ll bet that Schooner is damned cold,” she said, grinning.
Joe put down his milk and picked up her hand. “I have a lot of good reasons for living out there, cold as it is, but it’s hard to remember them when I’m here with you.”
He stood up and leaned across the table, pulling her toward him so he could kiss her. She licked a trace of sugar from his cheek. “You taste good,” she murmured.
“Come on,” he said, leading her toward the stairs.
Her bedroom was very cold. As he took off Rachel’s clothes, Joe could feel her warming the air around them. He felt incapable of letting her go, even for a moment.
When she wrapped her arms around him so that her breasts swept across the cloth of his shirt, Rachel felt herself loosen inside. She
stepped back then, quickly, to help him off with his clothes and pull the blankets from her bed. When they lay down on the freezing sheets, they gasped and shuddered. It was so cold, their bodies so insistent, that neither of them wanted to wait another moment.
Joe lay down upon Rachel and she was instantly warmed. She brought her legs up around him, stroked him with her thighs, with both hands pulled his head down and kissed him slowly, her lips slack, every inch of her drenched in longing.
As much as they could, they made love gradually, each stroke bringing sounds from their throats. But when Joe paused to give himself time, to slow his body, Rachel slapped her hands down against the small of his back and hurried them so that it was quickly over, leaving them sated, smiling, wrapped together until their skins began to chill, and then, beneath the blankets, they were asleep.
After a while, Rachel woke and remembered the cookies in the kitchen below. She crept downstairs and put them all away, then returned to Joe where he lay, deeply sleeping, as perfect as she needed him to be.
She lay next to him for a long time, thinking about the question that Angela had asked her, and about Joe’s reasons for staying in Belle Haven, and about her own.
The next morning, after Joe had left, Rachel got into her truck and headed for Randall. There were two things she wanted to buy.
First she went to see Mr. Murdock, the lawyer who had helped put her parents’ affairs in order and who was now helping her to manage her own, considerable estate.
Rachel had always impressed Mr. Murdock as being a very sensible young woman: she had invested her money wisely and then left nearly all of it alone, comported herself well, did not seem given to costly whims or gestures. Which is why he was so surprised by the request she made that morning.
“I’m not sure I understand,” he said. When he raised his eyebrows, his forehead wrinkled up into his thinning hair. “You want to buy up Belle Haven?”
“Not right now,” she said, aware that he would think her odd no matter how she explained herself. “And not all of it. Obviously I can’t afford more than a few pieces. But what I’d like you to do is start investigating whether or not the government has any plans to relocate or otherwise meddle with us. I’ve seen a lot of unfamiliar cars around
town and too many strangers in city clothes. They’ve been asking a lot of questions, writing down the answers. They aren’t reporters.” She was not concerned with Mr. Murdock’s opinion of her, but she could not help seeing herself through his watchful eyes and she knew she would have to forgive him for the look he now gave her. “And the man who has always been in charge of fire intervention, as they call it—although he hasn’t done any intervening to speak of—has been around a lot, too, even though he doesn’t seem to have any new project in the works.”