As the Chevy pickup lumbered onto the grass alongside the highway, Robert grabbed his cell phone. He had trouble hearing over the idling engine, but since the display said it was the social worker, best not let it go to voice mail.
“Hello!” Shirley’s semi-rasp bespoke too many cigarettes. “I wanted to check in before the weekend. How was Amelia’s appointment?”
Parked where the highway crested, Robert looked at the pine woods falling away to the south, the mountain mangy where the maples stood with their leaves autumn-burnt to brown. A half-mile to the north a granite outcropping towered over the highway. Years ago there might have been a “fallen rock zone” sign, but now there stood only a rusty rail.
Robert ran a finger over the steering wheel’s cracked vinyl. “Same. The doctor told me to have her keep using vitamin E, but unless I find a million dollars for surgeries, there’s nothing else really. Medicaid won’t pay for more.”
He didn’t mention the doctor’s face when Amelia told him how she’d gotten that way. A check of the chart. A horrified glance in Robert’s direction.
“Did Amelia speak to him?”
“She took a while to warm up.” Ouch–why’d he say it that way? “But after a bit, she turned into a regular chatterbox.”
When Robert raised his eyes, he could distinguish the graffiti on that outcropping thirty feet above the highway. Paint stood out against the drab of a boulder, a blue unfaded after a decade.
Ten years ago, he’d awakened in the lockup. Down the hall voices echoed: cops mocking some kid who’d climbed so high no one could figure out how to get him down. It’d been too dangerous to send an officer up after him, so they’d waited him out. The kid had slipped and sent five empties and a can of spray paint clanging down the cliffside, then laughed like a loon when they clapped on the cuffs. One cop quipped, “Too bad he didn’t break his neck.”
Sitting up to rub at his stiff neck, Robert had looked around for the crazy kid. Then shock: he’d been the only one in the lockup.
He never did remember how much he’d drunk before blacking out, why it had seemed funny to climb over the highway to spray-paint his name. As a juvenile, Robert had gotten off the hook with just community service. The judge wanted him to clean the rock, but when the parole officer saw how dangerous it would be climbing it sober, they changed his sentence to trash pickup. And forever over the highway remained his name: Robert.
“Uh–yeah.” The engine started knocking real bad. “I missed what you said.”
“Will I see you and Amelia tomorrow at the church cleanup?”
Not court-mandated community service this time, just something he did. Paying his debts. “Yeah, we’ll be there.”
“Talk to you then. Bye.”
She hung up just as the truck stalled.
After another glance at his name in blue, Robert restarted the engine and lurched onto the road.
At daycare, Amelia bounded up to him carrying a canvas bag with her crafts and leftover snack. Over the sound of Amelia’s nonstop chatter, Miss Marcy the child-minder said the physical therapist had been by. She stepped closer and added, “She had another nightmare during naptime, too.”
Without looking too closely at his daughter, Robert took her mottled hand and walked her out to the truck.
“Miss Marcy said you had a nightmare?”
Amelia said, “It was the fire one again.”
When he tried to start the truck, it wouldn’t turn over.
He looked into the back seat and took in Amelia’s eyes, deep like black coffee, the only living thing amidst the burn scars crusting her face. Her smile couldn’t crinkle her cheeks as it should. One ear was just a nub, and her blond hair grew in patches. “I’m sorry,” slipped out, and she laughed as she exclaimed, “Daddy! I dreamed it all by myself!”
He turned the key, and this time the engine responded.
He couldn’t remember the night of the fire any more than he remembered spray-painting a cliff. He struggled to, but the pieces never came all together, not so they meant something. He’d been somewhere, drinking with his wife. Football. Beer. A wager. Ice on the road.
It seemed you could destroy someone’s whole life and not remember the instant you did it.
The memories congealed only when he came to, lying in the hospital with a punctured lung and a broken leg, tended by silent nurses. After two days, a doctor muttered, “You never asked about your daughter, but she’s in intensive care.” Turned out, in another hospital. Airlifted. PICU. Burned over a quarter of her body.
In the hospital, with no booze to numb the grief–he detoxed. He refused his pain meds and no one objected. Let it hurt. Nothing would make up for it, but he had to get sober and see the baby for himself. He managed to get himself released, then scrounged a ride from one of his in-laws. At the other hospital, Melissa stared at him across the bed of their intubated, bandaged eighteen-month-old, hate in her eyes. He never saw his wife again. When divorce papers arrived in the mail a few months later, he just signed. By the time the hospital released Amelia, he had full custody plus a job at the lumber yard.
They should have thrown the book at him. They should have. Maybe because he didn’t hit anyone other than a highway overpass, maybe because his wife was long gone (last he heard, still drinking) and because no one else would have cared for his kid, he got a suspended sentence. Had to attend an alcohol treatment program. No driver’s license for a year. Probation.
And that was it. No more wife. No more friends. The friends were still drinking, and seeing them meant drinking too. Instead he bummed rides to doctors’ appointments and met with social services and survived a CPS investigation. By the year’s end, he’d scraped together the cash to move to a trailer home furnished with stuff his neighbors dumped on Freecycle. He had enough left over to make payments on a “new” thousand-dollar truck.
The alcohol people said, “You have to hit rock bottom,” and sure, he deserved it. But why did his daughter have to crash onto those rocks with him?
From Amelia’s conversation as they drove, he gathered that one of the daycare kids had cupcakes for his birthday. Easy to put it together: there had been a birthday candle, and two hours later a fiery nightmare. Miss Marcy never turned on her stove where Amelia could see, but who imagined a birthday candle as traumatic? He hadn’t thought it himself until Shirley lit a candle for Amelia’s second birthday and triggered screams.
“We’re going tomorrow to the church,” he said, gunning the engine at a red light so it wouldn’t stall. “We’re raking.”
“Can I jump in the leaves?”
“If they let you, sure.”
Back at the trailer he heated hot dogs in the microwave and a can of soup on the electric stove. Amelia watched the thirteen-inch TV while he sorted the mail at the rusty-legged table and paid only the bills that came in the pink envelopes. He gave her a bath, careful to keep the water the right temperature and use the gentlest soap on her damaged skin, lathering her lanky hair with peach-smelling shampoo he got on sale last week. Afterward, she played with her dolls and colored until bedtime.
In the long silence after she slept, Robert could hear voices crescendo as neighbors walked past. Older kids shrilled in the narrow street. Still later, when he awoke on the couch after accidentally falling asleep, nothing but cars. He moved to his bed and then lay open-eyed for an hour, remembering.
Pulling into the parking lot, Robert flinched on seeing a crowd, maybe twenty-five people. Amelia wore a wool cap that covered her ears, plus gloves on her hands, but he couldn’t cover her face.
How long until she realized people stared every time she went outside? Stared at her? Next year, when she entered kindergarten, would the students bully her because she looked different? Or would they just run away? And from the teachers: pity? Horror? Disgust?
Amelia unbuckled herself and climbed down. Others already at work called hellos. How many people were so well-known at a church they never attended? The alcohol program met in the cinderblock basement where the bulletin board always had notices like “Volunteers needed,” so he’d show up with a shovel, a broom, a paint brush, or a trash bag.
Amelia came too because, well, he had Amelia. Everyone remembered her.
The pastor met her as she raced into the leaves. He squatted at her eye-level, and by the time Robert had gotten close, Amelia had run toward the other kids. “Morning, Robert!” The pastor nodded. “I sent her to pick up sticks. Quite a lot of leaves this year, huh?”
Volunteers had already piled a good heap at the center of the field. Robert went to work himself, raking. The afternoon passed with the mound getting larger in the field’s center and the kids taking a break from pushing wheel-barrows to deliver icy bottled water to the adults instead. Shirley showed up, said hello and then sat at a picnic table with Amelia to section an orange.
Around Robert the volunteers chatted, but he focused on the swoosh of the leaves, the motion of the rake. It was just him and his work. He did the same at the lumber yard, wearing ear protection to block out a buzz saw rather than the buzz of words. Just get the work done. At the end of the day, go home. The signs said “volunteers wanted,” not, “Robert wanted.”
But Amelia they did want. Whether they were nice to her because they felt sorry, Robert never was sure. But after the initial gasp, the adults would manage a weak, “What’s your name?” That triggered a flood of words from the girl, and she’d follow the person from task to task with never a break in conversation. Robert would call Amelia back only to have the person tell him, “It’s fine.” So he’d return to work.
With the sun setting as he took another bottle of water, he registered what those eight-by-eight piles of leaves meant. A scan of the area located the pastor, and he walked heavily toward him, shoving the bottle into his pocket.
“You’re having a bonfire?”
The pastor nodded.
“I’ll be taking Amelia home.”
The pastor said, “We were going to grill up some hot dogs and hamburgers, if you want to stick around.” A pause. “Oh, is she afraid? Take some food with you. You’ve been working hard.”
“We’ll be all right.”
Amelia whined to stay when he told her it was time to leave. She begged. He told her no. Only when Amelia glanced at the folks preparing the grill did she stop protesting. Her hand in her father’s, she accompanied him across the parking lot and climbed into the truck cab.
Robert made sure she was buckled, then turned the key.
He tried again and got the same disheartening click. “Blast.” He turned to Amelia. “Stay put.”
Robert poked around under the hood for a while. There didn’t seem to be any real problem with the truck, other than it being an old truck with worn-out parts.
As he opened the cab door to take Amelia back out, the barbecue flared. Shrieking, she buried her face in his neck.
“It’s okay.” He clutched her shaking shoulders as tight as he could. “It’s real far away. I’m not going to make you go close.” When she didn’t uncoil, he said, “Do you want to stay in the truck?”
She did. He released her, and she huddled on the floor.
He wavered, unsure if he should sit with her or if he should ask one of the other volunteers to look at the engine. Finally, he shut the door.
It took several minutes to find the owner of the closest car and convince her to jump his battery. All the while Robert kept an eye on the bonfire preparations.
The piles of leaves were huge. The first would go up like a volcano, and then they’d drag the others over to keep feeding it. He tried to hurry the lady who owned the adjacent car, but she took her time. It was a day out for her. And she was doing him a favor. Eventually they got over to the truck, and he hooked up the cables.
Three tries later, he’d drawn a few onlookers, all of whom thought they knew what was the real problem. After the third dull click of the key, Robert looked at the pale face down by his thigh.
Amelia peeked up from the floor well. “I still can’t get it started.” He leaned close so her face was right against his. “You sit tight and be brave, you hear?”
Shirley’s voice said from the other side of the car, “Is Amelia in there?” She opened the passenger door closer. “Would you like to come with me to get something to eat?”
Amelia’s resolve might as well have spilled right out that open door. She crammed back toward the seat.
Shirley said, “I’ll bring you a hot dog. Would that be all right?”
Mute, Amelia only nodded.
The sky had darkened already. One of the men was messing with the starter.
“It’s a ten-year-old truck,” Robert told the man under the hood.
“And it looks it!” The man laughed. “You look it, too–you’ve got grease on your face.” Robert glanced at his hands to find oil-stains. “I drove one of these beaters for a while. There’s really only one thing you need to replace on them.”
Rather than waiting for the punch line, Robert said, “The whole truck?”
“The whole truck, that’s what you need to replace!” The man slapped the quarter panel. “Have you got a screwdriver?”
While Robert looked in the tool box in the truck bed, the first flares shot from the bonfire.
Kneeling, he stared over the cars as the flames crackled skyward. The smoky scent trudged out over the parking lot on the shiftless wind.
The truck jolted beneath him, and Robert realized too late that Shirley had returned with a hot dog on a paper plate.
He scrambled over the side to intercept Amelia before she poked out her head, but Shirley was already setting up the hot dog, a drink, and a bag of chips on the seat.
Amelia whispered, “Thank you.”
Shirley said, “Do you want to see the bonfire?”
Amelia shook her head vigorously.
“Thank you.” Robert slipped up alongside. “I’ve got her from here.”
Amelia nibbled the hot dog huddled on the floor. Robert again shut her inside.
Back at the bumper, the would-be mechanic reached a verdict. “It’s time to call for a tow.”
Terrific. Just terrific.
Robert slammed the hood. As he did, he caught sight of his face reflected in the windshield, smudged and exhausted. And through his reflection, Amelia.
Staring at the bonfire. Not in horror, just staring from the other side of the window.
Robert opened the driver’s side door. “You okay, honey?”
Amelia sat enthralled, her chips forgotten on the seat, the soda unopened.
He settled himself behind the wheel. “You want to watch?”
From behind the glass, she did, hypnotized by the flames, by the way their fingers grasped toward Heaven.
As Robert touched her, she moved to sit encircled in his arms. The fire rose, minute by minute. And then she whispered, “Can we go out and see?”
He carried her, pivoting so she watched through the window of the open door. The smoke smelled thicker now. Chokier. Her breaths against his ribcage came light like a sparrow’s, and her arms around his neck were tight like steel bands, but still she stared.
“Do you want to go back in?”
She repeated, “I want to see.”
He left the door open in case she needed a fast escape.
Amelia breathed heavy as he advanced. He stopped. She whispered, “No, go.”
Unsure if this was going to result in weeks of nightmares, Robert stayed planted in place.
Amelia struggled from his arms and got her feet on the ground. She walked forward toward the fire.
Firemen stood at the perimeter, their trucks by the curb. Other children raced on the green grass, safely distant but close enough to make Robert’s heart pound. Amelia watched them, and she took a step toward the group.
A hesitant return to him. Her hand in his. Her hand slipping free. Then another pace: toeing the ground as if testing the water of a pool, then her whole foot, and then a gradual shifting of her weight toward the other kids. Toward the fire.
This time, Robert didn’t move with her. Was his heart pounding faster than hers? One of the girls plunged toward them, shrieking with laughter, and grabbed Amelia’s hand. “Come on!”
Amelia looked at her father, and he forced a smile.
She bolted with the other girl.
All the air had been sucked from his lungs. He stood like granite, unable from where he was to feel the heat of the fire and able only to see its light.
With the other children, Amelia’s shrieking laugh rose higher than the roar of burning leaves. She came no closer than the other children, but in the clearing where they played she had positioned herself between Robert and the bonfire. Arms outstretched, she whirled like a breath over the grass, and over her sprang tongues of flame.
She whooped as she chased the other children, then turned and let them chase her.
Robert took another step to the edge of the clearing, the outskirts of the church volunteers and the children, the trees themselves ignited by the sunset at their backs even as Amelia glowed from the light at hers.
Breaking from the children she bounded to him, laughing, her gaze dark and deep. Robert crouched at eye-level to her.
She said, “Why are you crying?”
He rested his forehead against her cheek and felt how smooth it was, but also how flush.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“It’s all right,” she said.
When he sat back, she touched his face. “You got a smudge on you,” and she rubbed his forehead with her thumb, then looked chagrined as she smudged him even more with the dirt on her own fingers. He pulled the water bottle from his pocket and poured some on her hands, and she rubbed his forehead.
When she finished, she turned so her back nestled against his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her. Her smooth fingers settled over his hands, and then with her head to his shoulder, together they faced the fire.
-- Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children.