Read Those Who Favor Fire Online
Authors: Lauren Wolk
“All of which you take to mean that the government has thrown in the towel, given up trying to fight the fire, and is now trying to identify residents who may soon be at risk.” Rachel was pleased to hear how it sounded coming from him.
“Actually,” she said, “the government seems to think that some of the families living over by the tunnels already
at risk and ought to be moved. At least that’s my impression.”
“What gives you that impression?”
“I just told you.”
“Well, Rachel, a few strangers in town doesn’t necessarily mean that the government’s planning to relocate anyone.”
Rachel looked at him. “You heard about the problems in the graveyard?”
Mr. Murdock began to straighten a paper clip. “Yes, of course.”
“Things have been different since then. The families out around there
heard from the government.”
Mr. Murdock sighed. “All right, Rachel.” He thought through his questions and ordered them quickly. He was a good lawyer. “You’ve talked to these families?”
“And do they want to be moved?”
“They don’t consider themselves to be at risk?”
“No more than for the past eight or nine years. They want to stay right where they are.”
“How many families are living directly above the tunnels?”
“Four or five, spread out, on big lots. And the church, of course. A few more families close by. Maybe half a dozen.”
“And the government has approached all of them?”
“Some sort of surveyors have. From the Department of Community Affairs, whatever that is. They’re asking how people would feel about selling their property if conditions worsen, is how they put it.”
“Like if people start getting sick or their houses start burning down.”
“I guess that’s the kind of stuff they’re suggesting might happen.”
“I see.” Mr. Murdock leaned back in his chair and tossed the paper clip onto his blotter.
“So if I confirm that the government does indeed have a plan to buy out these families, you want me to …” He made a beckoning motion with one hand.
“… get there first.”
“Buy their land?”
“Buy it in my name, pay whatever the government is offering. More, if those people really are at risk. Whatever I can afford. We can talk about the price when the time comes.”
“Mind if I ask why?”
“Why do I want to buy their property?”
“Because once the government gets a foothold in Belle Haven, once it’s had to dish out money for some ‘worthless’ land, it will find a way to turn things to its advantage. What good are a few acres of land over a burning mine? But several hundred acres—
of our property—would be worth having. And once people are running scared, they’ll probably sell out for a lot less than their land is worth.”
Mr. Murdock rocked forward again and planted his elbows on his desk. The young woman across from him looked so earnest that he was tempted to see the situation her way, take her word for things, say something to make her smile. But he was a lawyer.
“Forgive me, Rachel. I know Belle Haven is your town, and it’s a beautiful place, but the government won’t be able to force any of you to sell your land unless there’s an authentic threat. A serious one. And if that’s the case, why would the government want the land? Why would
want to own it either, or to stay on it, for that matter?”
Rachel was glad to find that for each of Mr. Murdock’s questions she had a ready answer. “I think it’s reasonable to assume that the government would be interested in cheap land that’s probably still got plenty of coal in it. As for the threat, the degree of it … ever
since the government realized the fire was going to be difficult and costly to contain, we’ve been hearing various official assessments of our situation. Ten years ago they told us the fire would spread along the coal seams that radiate out from the tunnels and we’d all be forced to leave, probably within a year or two. Five at most. Well, it’s true that the fire runs off course and burns along coal seams and comes up in odd places, but it has never wandered far from the tunnels. Even the people who live right above them have never seen more than smoke out there, and the only reason there’s even smoke is because the government drilled holes to vent some of it. So why should I be alarmed by what they tell us?
“There may be a threat to Belle Haven,” she said, leaning forward in her chair, “and the government is certainly broadcasting that fact, but it’s a distant one at best that has not yet harmed a single living soul. In other places, there are all kinds of threats—crime, pollution, poverty—but because these dangers
so pervasive, so
, and because no one can be sure who will be the next target, the government doesn’t bother to broadcast the danger or buy out potential victims.
“Given the choice between staying in Belle Haven where I’ve been pegged as the eventual target of an invisible threat or moving to some place where statistics
I’ll survive a million
dangers, I’ll stay right where I am.”
Mr. Murdock raised an eyebrow and sighed again. “There’s no law that says you have to move to a city,” he said in a reasonable tone. “There are lots of nice, safe, friendly little towns around here.”
“Of course there are,” she said. “But can you guarantee me that if I move, someone won’t eventually come to my door with the news that I’m living too close to some toxic dump or power lines, or that they’re going to build a highway through my backyard? I’ve thought about this a lot, Mr. Murdock, and I’d rather stick with the devil I know.”
Sensing that there was nothing he could say to her that would weigh more heavily than her own conclusions, Mr. Murdock simply picked up his pencil and opened a fresh file.
“If it’s taken ten years for the government to get this far, it may take them another ten to take the next step,” he said.
“That’s what I’m hoping,” she said. “For once I’m glad the wheels of government turn as slowly as they do. But I’m sure they’ll be
watching things closely and that if the opportunity arises to take control of Belle Haven, they’ll move far more quickly than they have so far. Which is why I want you to be ready when the time comes.”
Mr. Murdock stopped himself from shaking his head. He tried not to sigh. “You know you’re right when you say you could never afford much of the town.”
“No. But if I can buy enough key properties here and there to prevent them from obtaining a solid block of land, they might not try to buy any more than the few pieces where the threat from the fire might actually materialize.”
Determined to be sure that he understood her, and she him, Mr. Murdock said slowly, “But if the government says that the threat
real and offers to buy people out, and if you can’t afford to buy up all of their land, you do acknowledge that some people
sell to them.”
“You’re worried that I might become a rabble-rouser, organize some kind of protest?” She shook her head. “I won’t interfere with a legitimate plan to assist people at risk. But I don’t believe the majority of people in Belle Haven will ever be threatened by the fire. And if they aren’t convinced of a serious and immediate danger, most of them will never choose to leave. Never.”
Mr. Murdock looked at her carefully, his smile in check. “You seem to expect the government to exaggerate the danger in order to obtain land, Rachel.”
“I think such a thing is conceivable.”
“You don’t have a lot of faith in government.”
“If they had spent enough time, money, and effort on Belle Haven in the beginning when the fire was just getting started, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. As it is, they’ve spent far more than that in the past decade, playing catch-up. And they haven’t caught up yet.”
He’d asked good questions. She’d given him complete answers. Still, he was convinced that there was more to this than met the eye. Here was a young woman, a beautiful young woman, who had chosen to leave school a year shy of her degree and live on her own in a town too small and too remote to provide the culture or the excitement—or the opportunities, for that matter—that she might be expected to seek.
He didn’t know that she had isolated herself in other, even more unusual ways. He didn’t know that most of her friends—like Angela
and Ian and Earl—were older than Rachel by years. He didn’t know that she had drifted clear of her childhood companions in favor of these mentor-friends, or that, with the exception of Joe, she’d felt close only to those who had known her parents well and understood the depth of her love for them. She had always felt different from her classmates, but she was now unwilling to overlook these differences. If old friends like Estelle were puzzled by her, so be it. She didn’t care.
Had Mr. Murdock known these things, he too might have found Rachel even more puzzling than he did. But she would not have cared about this either.
“You’re determined to stay in Belle Haven, then?” he asked. “Despite everything?” He was talking about her parents but could not bring himself to say so.
“It’s where I belong,” she said.
As Rachel was leaving his office, Mr. Murdock called her back. “You haven’t told me what you plan to do with all this land … if people are forced to sell it … if you buy it. Or haven’t you thought that far ahead?”
“That’s the easy part,” she said, smiling. “I’ll just keep it until they’re ready to buy it back.”
Of all the things Rachel had said to him that morning, this last was the part that troubled him most.
“Have a nice day,” he said, but she was already out the door.
After leaving Mr. Murdock’s office, Rachel went straight to the Randall animal shelter to get Joe a Christmas present. It was not easy for her to choose one: every puppy, seen through the bars of a cage, looked desperately in need of a home. A few of them were recognizable breeds in their trademark coats and bones, but most were un-apologetically mutts, cheap, their lineage uncertain, unique.
Rachel held each of them before finally settling on a young mutt, a female, who looked into her eyes with great confidence and laid her tiny muzzle against Rachel’s neck.
Rachel was afraid to keep the pup at her house for fear it would quickly come to think of it as home and Joe as some sort of substitute for her. So she drove out to Ian’s place on her way back from Randall and found Joe at the Schooner, fixing his lunch.
“Good, I’m starved,” she said, stepping inside. “What are we having?”
“Perfect.” She lifted the lid off the pot and let the steam bathe her face. “What did you do this morning?”
“Helped fix a barn roof over in Jupiter.”
“Jupiter? How’d you get way over there?”
“Holy cow! Ten miles each way? In this cold? Are you out of your mind?”
“The Schooner gets touchy in this weather. And Ian went off early in the truck. But it wasn’t so bad,” he said, smiling, his teeth still chattering as he boiled water for their tea. “Better than walking.”
It was at times like this that Rachel felt uncomfortable about her money, his lack, and the impossibility of offering to help him. She suddenly realized how difficult it might be for him to feed a dog, especially if the pup that waited out in her truck grew up to be a big one.
“Before we eat,” she said, “I want to give you your Christmas present.”
“No way,” he said, putting out bread and butter. The table was already set with a jug of milk, cheese, and apples. “Nothing before Christmas morning. That’s the rule.”
“Not this time,” she said. “Stay right there. And no peeking.” Joe watched the door swing behind her and thought about his great good fortune.
A moment later she stuck her head into the Schooner. “Ready?” she asked.
“Close your eyes.”
“Didn’t you even wrap it?”
“No, I didn’t wrap it. Shut your eyes.”
Joe closed his eyes. Rachel stepped into the Schooner and shut the door behind her, the puppy inside her coat. When she stepped close to him, Joe swung his arms out toward her, eyes still closed. “Let me guess,” he said. “You. In Saran Wrap.”
“Wrong, you oaf. You can open your eyes now.”
Joe opened his eyes. “Well?”
“Merry Christmas,” Rachel said, stepping closer, and opened her coat just enough to let the puppy poke its nose against Joe’s chest.
He gently lifted the puppy up against his neck and held it there for a moment, speechless. Even though he could not yet know what
this dog would come to mean to him, he felt an immediate and escalating happiness that moved him nearly to tears.
“Thank you, my wonderful girl,” he said, kissing her, while the soup bubbled over and the teakettle screamed. “He?” he asked.
“She,” she said, smiling, tending to their lunch.
“What’ll we name her?”
“How about Noël. For Christmas.”
“Nah, that’s a real girl’s name. She’s got to have a dog’s name.”
“What, like Bowser?”
“Better than Noël,” he said, setting her down gently on the floor, where she immediately peed.
“Marking her territory,” Rachel said, stepping out of range.
Joe said, “That’s all right.” He cleaned up the mess, poured a bit of milk into a pan, and began to warm it. “Fortune,” he said. “How’s that sound?”
“She’s your dog,” Rachel said, pouring soup.
Joe watched the pup waddle around the Schooner. “I wonder what she’ll look like when she’s full grown.”
“Like a bigger mutt,” Rachel said.
“Perfect,” he said. “Friendliest dogs on earth.”
“You can’t leave her alone in the Schooner all day, you know. You’re going to have to take her with you places or find someone to look after her when you’re working.”
“No shit, Einstein. I’ll rig up a carrier on the back of the bike for when she’s tiny. When she’s big she can run. And I’ll drop her at your place on really nasty days.”
“I have an idea. Why don’t you drop her at my house on really nasty days?”
“Wish I’d thought of that. Thanks, Rachel. You’re a pal.”