Read Those Who Favor Fire Online
Authors: Lauren Wolk
“Nothing’s going to threaten your education,” her father had told her. “Not some boy, not your feelings for this town, not the fire, not us.”
Rachel’s parents were as smart as she was. With their combined decades of experience, smarter still. But their formal education was incomplete and their knowledge of the world secondhand. When they read their child’s verse, heard her stories, witnessed her grasp of mathematics and science, they were frightened by their limits and by their mortality. In their prayers they insisted that they not outlast her. But to see her come of age, to see her come into her own … that was their other wish, and at times they felt consumed by it. They asked themselves how they could possibly send her away. But to their daughter they said, “You can always come back. A few years away won’t hurt.”
So Rachel went off to a small New England college that could afford to pay her expenses and did so with a hefty scholarship. Among the brightest students, she excelled. Her professors knew her name. She made plenty of friends, learned to live with another girl in a room three yards by five, chose to live alone once she had earned the privilege. “It’s always easier to find company,” her mother had once told her, “than solitude.”
For two years she was happy at school, happy back home for the summers, the fire coiled in the near distance. She had Hemingway, Freud, Copernicus, Jefferson, Eliot. She had Angela, who ran the only coffee shop in Belle Haven and could not be matched for pure wit, wisdom, and gritty charm. Rachel had the finest of parents. She was fit. Most of the time, she felt as if she were on the verge of bursting from her skin.
If anything, it was only romance that she missed. College boys, as a breed, had proven uninteresting or, on the whole, more trouble than they were worth. They had flocked to her, attracted by how she looked, by the way her body swept, riverlike, from one smooth curve into the next. But they had not seemed to listen to her when she spoke. And they rarely said anything that she had not heard a dozen times before.
Holding out for something better, she had watched her friends suffer disappointments, cry into their hands as one after another they were awakened to the reality that many young men—whether they meant to or not—broke hearts. And she had waited more than once, among the magazines and the ashtrays, while down the hall a friend lifted her feet into a set of cold stirrups and lived through the sound of a vacuum sucking her dry.
If a boy did manage to stir Rachel, so that she found herself quickening or shy, she ordinarily drew back. She was not at all cynical, not worldly, certainly not wise in matters of the heart: when it came to such things she was simply cautious. Not in the way that victims are cautious. She had never been assaulted or in any way misused, and the boys in Belle Haven had wooed her in a safe and simple way that had never caused her alarm. She had as much as told them what kinds of lines she drew and where.
It was not fear that made Rachel reluctant. It was longing.
She had seen the way her parents treasured each other. She had studied their affection. They had never seemed embarrassed by it. Rachel had often seen them become quietly aroused, had watched
them tangling like young bears, harmlessly rough, affectionate, and so absorbed with each other that at times she felt forgotten.
She had once asked her mother, “How does it feel to be in love?” Her mother was kneeling in the grass with a knife in one hand, a pot of warm beeswax in the other. She was grafting a strong, juicy twig of pear tree to an adoptive stump. She had made a clean cut in the stump, eased the transplant into the cleft, and was now binding them together with wax. It was something that took practice and care.
“Oh, I don’t know,” her mother finally said. “The feeling changes over time. In the beginning it’s almost like a sickness. It takes you over and it eats you up, and if you’re loved back, it thrills you. It absolutely thrills you. And then, later on, if it lasts, it settles down a bit. It comes back at you often enough, that feeling of complete joy.” She worked the wax with her knife. “I’ll be brushing my teeth and I’ll hear your father yawning and fumbling around for his robe and suddenly I can barely stand up, I feel so good. Sometimes it’s a long time between the moments when I’m aware that I still love him that way. You get busy with everything else. There are other people to love. You, for instance. Things change. Things stay the same.” She smoothed the cast of wax once more with her blade. “I have a lot of things to feel lucky about. Your father is one of them, and by now I know he always will be.” She sighed when she saw the look in her daughter’s eyes. “You’ll know what it feels like when you feel it,” she said. “Isn’t that what mothers are supposed to say?”
Then she smiled at Rachel, put the lid on the pot of wax, and surrendered the tree to its fate.
When Rachel left home, for the first time free and on her own, she remembered these things and allowed her expectations to rise. Whenever she met a boy, she could not help but measure him, perhaps more severely than he deserved. Fair or not, Rachel’s hopes were as ingrained as her resolve to satisfy them. And so Rachel waited. And then came Harry.
The professors called him Henry, for that was the name they were given by the registrar—Henry Gallagher—but everyone knew him as Harry. He had joined Rachel’s class as a junior, having transferred from another school, and so it came as a complete surprise when Rachel first saw him one day as she sat in the refectory having a bad lunch of ham loaf and macaroni salad.
“Have you ever read
?” she said to Paul, the best of her school friends.
He shook his head, daydreaming.
“Read it,” she said, peering at her macaroni. “The pig in it, Wilbur, gets fed all this luscious slop. Scraps of this and that, soup labels, potato peelings. Somehow it all sounds just great. I’d trade this slop for that any day.” She threw down her fork. “What I wouldn’t give for some five-bean salad.” And that’s when she looked around and saw Harry, three tables down.
He was quite a lovely man, as a painting is lovely, or a meadow, and looking at him made Rachel feel hungry in a completely physical sense.
Paul pushed his own plate into the middle of the table. “Key lime pie,” he said. “Or maybe a proper hot dog.” He laced his fingers behind his head. “Let’s have dinner off campus.” He turned to look at Rachel, then over toward Harry. “Oh, hell,” he said.
Paul shook his head. “Another one bites the dust.”
“What?” She turned to look at him, her eyes slow to focus.
“Never mind,” he said. Then, “Come on. Russian lit in fifteen minutes.”
And from then on, for the rest of her life, Rachel would not be able to eat ham loaf without thinking of Harry Gallagher.
Three weeks later, when she discovered that Harry had joined Paul’s fraternity, Rachel wasted no time. There was to be a party at the house Saturday night. She hated frat parties. She had been to a few, for reasons she could no longer fathom, and had gone home feeling soiled and frightened. That Paul belonged to a fraternity confused her, for he was her friend and, in her experience, a decent person. But, since she found most young men confusing in one way or another, Rachel gave Paul the benefit of the doubt and believed him when he said that they were not all wild and amoral. She trusted Paul. So it was to him that she turned for help.
“I want you to introduce us, casually, if we run into him. Don’t embarrass me. Don’t make a big deal out of it. I’ve seen him a lot lately. We even danced a dance the other night in the Blue Room. But it was so noisy that we didn’t say anything, really. Just danced. I want to meet him properly, that’s all.”
It was one of the last warm nights for months to come, and they were sitting on the statue of Walt Whitman that pegged the campus
green. Paul wore a pair of crumpled red boxer shorts, dirty white sneakers without any laces, a backward ball cap, and a pair of sunglasses. No shirt. His chest was peeling from too much sun. He had a plain face, pale eyes, no accent, hair the color of mud. He was whip thin. He often wished he’d been born a more colorful, robust boy. But he was a good sport with a quirky sense of humor, and Rachel had never felt threatened by him in any way.
“I’m surprised at you,” Paul said.
“What’s so surprising? Why shouldn’t I want to meet him?”
Paul didn’t answer her right away. For the thousandth time, he studied the way her hair matched her eyes, as if a painter had trailed his brush through a loamy brown, auburn, and ginger and used the same rich skein to color them both.
“You’re right,” he finally said. “What’s it to me if you end up with some brain-dead jock? See if I care.”
They didn’t talk for a while. Rachel watched the stars and thought briefly about Belle Haven. Paul watched Rachel and slowly became convinced that it was time to take back his heart.
Then, “All right.” He sighed. “I’ll introduce you if that’s what you want, but I think you’re being foolish.”
“I thought you liked Harry.”
“I do,” he said mildly.
“You just called him a brain-dead jock.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t like him. Some of my best friends are brain-dead jocks.” He squinted at the stars. “But he’s not right for you.”
“And if I decide to prove you wrong?”
He shook his head. “Don’t come crying to me.”
“I wouldn’t do that. If you’re right about Harry, he’ll be my mistake.”
“I am,” Paul said quietly. “He will. Mark my words.”
The night that Rachel Hearn met Harry Gallagher began well enough. True, the party was stupidly crowded, as such parties are. The floor was awash with beer from a leaky keg, the bathrooms unspeakable, the music hurtful, the boys predatory, the girls undone by the humiliating hope that they might be the ones to save these boys from each other and from themselves.
But it was hard to see such things from their midst. Excitement has a way of gilding filth. And there was, in truth, an element of purity even at the evening’s lowest ebb, for many of the people in the fraternity house that night were there almost against their will and had no intention of pursuing or becoming prey.
“It looks like
The Rape of the Sabine Women
,” Rachel said to Paul as they sat at the top of the stairs and watched the crowd boil below.
“No horses,” he pointed out.
“True, though there is a cow tethered out front. I’ve been trying to figure out why—beyond the obvious link between livestock and frat boys—but I think I give up.”
“It’s White Russian night,” he replied.
“I see. And that’s the czar out there tied to a tree?”
“Cream,” he said impatiently. “Vodka, Kahlúa, and cream. White Russians.”
“Ah,” Rachel said, shaking her head. “Frat humor. I might have known.”
For a while she and Paul sat on the steps, watching halfheartedly for Harry Gallagher, and chided each other gently. They drank their White Russians too quickly, linked their arms and told secrets, and finally decided to call it a night.
“I feel like a lamb escaping the slaughter,” she said, laughing as Paul walked her back to her dorm. It was one of those cold and clear October nights, fancy with stars and plumes of chimney smoke. The cold cleared Rachel’s head a bit, but her lips and cheeks were still numb from the vodka and she felt sleepy as a child. She let her feet shuffle through the dying leaves that lay upon the sidewalk and gave little thought to the dangers of walking abroad so late at night, regardless of escort. Even the sudden appearance of Harry Gallagher at the curb ahead, splendid in his trademark Camaro, failed to alarm her.
What will be will be
, she thought lazily. And gave herself up to fate.
It might have been the ice cream, drowned in banana liqueur, that Harry fed her when the three of them reached his apartment. Or perhaps the shock of having so many unexpected things happen to her, one after the next, for hours on end. Whatever the cause, Rachel kept only a few remembrances of that night, and these made her recoil even after many years had passed.
“Come over to my place for ice cream,” Harry had said on the cold, star-ceilinged street where they’d met. Nothing had seemed so wrong with that.
“You can’t eat ice cream without a splash of liqueur,” he’d said in his sloppy apartment. And Rachel had felt her muscles contract in anticipation.
“I’ll take you home in a minute,” he’d promised. “Finish your drink.”
But then she and Harry had watched an old
I Love Lucy
rerun, side by side on the derelict couch, sipping from the same glass of syrupy booze, while Paul glared and muttered in a corner. Everything Rachel was doing astonished her, but she felt certain that nothing bad could happen while Paul was with her. And even when she glanced over and noticed that his chair was empty, she knew that he would not have left her there alone. The liqueur had made her drunk very quickly. She was not even aware that her head had fallen onto Harry’s shoulder. But when he turned her into his lap and began to move against her, she knew it. She felt as if she had left her body and was watching from above, shocked and amused at the sight of flesh below. Her sense of time was so confused that it could have been minutes or hours before she felt all in one piece again.
“Where’s Paul?” she finally mumbled, pushing her hair from her eyes and wondering how she’d burned her mouth. It was sticky and raw. Her breasts, she realized, had been bared. Harry was taking off her shoes. He pointed toward the kitchen.
“He’s in there,” Harry said as he placed her shoes quietly on the floor. “He can take care of himself.”
One part of Rachel knew precisely what was happening and reluctantly welcomed her impending metamorphosis. Twenty-year-old virgins were as rare as comets, and Rachel had long since decided that her virginity was too distracting. Besides, she was curious about sex and had difficulty imagining what it would be like. It was therefore with a somewhat scientific attitude that she approached the whole experience, watchfully open to possibility.
Another part of her looked at matters differently. This boy was, really, a stranger. Rachel knew only that something about the arrangement of his eyes, the grain of his hair, the contours of his hands shocked her senses into a new state: she had never before been attracted to anyone as she was to Harry Gallagher. Disarmed, she was
inclined to think the best of him, to anticipate the discovery of a fine and honorable boy inside the lovely skin. What Paul had said about him, what she had heard here and there from disappointed girls, did not matter to Rachel. She felt almost virtuous as she made her decision to judge him according to what he said, what he did, and nothing else.