AFTER THE FIRE
Fire burst from the roof, bestowing itself before Orion’s belt as embers fell away from the house, snowing ash when the attic collapsed into the second floor. Emergency crews parked at angles along the short street, illuminating the otherwise calm, cold night in varying shades of blues and reds. Neighbors watched the blaze with elation and dread, a gaze that both feared and revered the destructive power of fire and its ability to evaporate a structure that very well could have been their own.
A battalion chief barked orders at bystanders to back away while Billy and Mickey were left alone with their daughter, Amy, to watch their home disintegrate. The crowd watching the entire scene unfold dissipated just as the fire did. Only a handful of people remained when the final section of the burning house had been soaked, a glowing orange piece of siding that went dark upon dampening.
What Billy remembered: The overloaded power strip blew, and Billy was jolted from the couch where he had been sleeping. A line of fire crawled up the wall to the ceiling. He dialed emergency with his cell phone and ran upstairs for Amy. He carried her to Mickey and tossed the child into the arms of his panicking wife. They escaped together. Then, obliged by some insistent force, Billy went back inside. He wanted to salvage something. He managed to retrieve a stuffed monkey from a toy chest near the stairs for Amy.
Mickey looked repulsed. Billy handed the monkey to Amy, who had been digging her chin into her mother’s shoulder.
“What in the hell is wrong with you?”
Billy intended to respond, knowing he had the right words somewhere, but all he managed to say was, “It was all I could find.”
Mickey took the charred monkey away from Amy and dropped it to the cracked, crumbling concrete.
What Mickey remembered: It took a moment to realize that the blur in her vision wasn’t the haze from waking up but smoke clouding the second floor. Before she could understand what had happened, Billy had already tossed Amy into her arms. Mickey felt her way down the stairs with the banister. She felt the heat rising all around her, maintaining composure only for the sake of her daughter.
Once outside, Billy ran back in before she could say anything to him. A fire truck sped to in front of the house next to theirs. Neighbors wearing sweatpants, coats, and robes appeared behind her. Mickey kept turning Amy in their direction so she wouldn’t have to watch everything burning away.
Billy returned with a smoke-damaged stuffed monkey. She snapped at him when he gave it to her. She wished she hadn’t done it. And she wished he hadn’t gone back inside. When he did, Mickey wondered whether or not she really wanted him to come back outside, and that was a thought she wouldn’t have had if he hadn’t been so selfish. She wished he hadn’t been so damn selfish for so damn long.
When she took the monkey away from her, Amy whined and reached for it. Mickey adjusted, shifting the child from one arm to the other, and tucked Amy’s head into the nape of her neck while wishing for so much more.
Billy and Mickey had agreed on a tense, yet cordial living arrangement waiting for their divorce to be lawfully finalized. Their relationship had already been dissolving, and when they decided to make it official between themselves, they both agreed to wait for the right time to alert their friends and family. There weren’t sure when that time would be, but the holidays were approaching, so everyone would know soon enough anyway. The fire forced them to move forward.
Instead of moving back into the untouched bedroom of his childhood, Billy set up in the basement. He left his mother to sort through an amalgamation of Maxim and FHM magazines stacked in corners, and action figures of wrestlers from the 80s on his bookshelves instead of books. She removed pictures of Pamela Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith, and other Playboy models taped to the ceiling above his bed, and posters of Metallica, Megadeth, and Guns N Roses framed in cheap plastic on the walls, stacking it all in boxes in the garage for wherever he decided to go next.
Mickey moved herself and Amy into the guest room on the first floor of her sister’s home. An attorney, she too knew divorce both professionally and personally. The experience brought them closer together, both having grown up competitive, squaring off athletically and academically. At times, Amy would whine for Billy, and Mickey would find a way to distract her. She would thrust Amy upon her nieces who would play silly games with her, or dress her up in some of their more ridiculous outfits.
Otherwise, each was left to recall the murky time between Amy’s birth and when the house burned down, a time fraught with accusation, anger, and a loss of passion.
A Priori: Billy
Billy lived in a row apartment complex near Mickey when they first met. Though it housed mostly juniors and seniors, all kinds of students flocked to form a block party nearly every Friday and Saturday night. It’s how he met Mickey.
It’s also how he met Leah. In his last semester, she ducked into his open apartment hurrying away from campus police carding underage students. After she introduced herself and her two friends to Billy and his roommate, they drank more beer and smoked Billy’s cheap cigars while playing cards, mostly drinking games. Leah was as undecided on a major as Billy was with his relationship with Mickey. They told each other these things, but, to Billy, Leah seemed much more self-assured about the future. Then she discovered his Nintendo. She went for it, blowing on the cartridge, Duck Hunt, to free it of dust, and went nine for ten on her first try. They both stayed up the rest of the night going through Billy’s catalogue of games until he drove Leah home just before sunrise. When they reached the parking lot of her dorm, they kissed with frantic lust, pawing at each other to get pants off, tossing other articles of clothing they managed to remove from each other into the back seat. After they finished, they stared through the sunroof of his car, looking to the sky as she pointed at stars, telling him the names. He didn’t believe her at first, but soon learned she was into Astrology.
They continued for a month until Billy found out Mickey was pregnant a little over a week before graduation. Billy wondered if he could just stop contacting Leah, but he felt compelled to tell her. He owed it to her. When he went to her dorm, he didn’t wait longer than necessary. “She’s pregnant,” Billy said, and he didn’t want to say it out loud. It was admitting to something that wasn’t supposed to happen, but there it was, hanging between himself and Leah, who was stunned into silence. She knew the situation before—Billy had made that clear—but this changed everything.
Billy, straining for the right words, wanted to tell her he loved her. He envisioned himself with her, but all he could say was, “Please, just stay away from me and move on. It’s better for both of us that way.”
A Priori: Mickey
Mickey wished that Billy would make a decision on his life. She wanted him to grow up sooner than later, especially in their last year. They drank every weekend, but she had to admit he was fun. He helped her with accounting and science courses too.
Enter one night of drunken celebration after Fall finals, a broken condom Billy didn’t remember until it was much too late, and the decision that getting rid of it sounded awful and, at this point in her life, unnecessary.
The experience had actually brought them closer together in a way she didn’t expect. After his initial shock, Billy proposed, and the two moved in together. She’d get a late night craving for ice cream almost every weekend, and he would drop the work he brought home from his new assistant job that his father, a financial analyst, provided him. He would drive her to a Dairy Queen right before it closed and satisfy her craving.
It was similar to college, in a way. After drinking, they’d find a Taco Bell, eat it quickly, and make jokes to acknowledge the awkward gastric tension of natural biology. They made these jokes again during the pregnancy to acknowledge the sudden closeness of their cramped, one bedroom apartment that echoed every possible sound between them. Gradually though, they left doors open and ignored what used to make them giggle.
They married soon after Amy was born because Mickey didn’t want pregnant wedding pictures. He promised a honeymoon to her when the two could manage the time and finances. She didn’t expect the post-partum that initially delayed any extended excitement a new married life and a baby might bring. Mickey would be up much of the night, drifting in and out of sleep, tossing and turning, and kicking Billy’s legs so badly they bruised.
Any time the baby would cry, morning or night, Mickey hustled to her. She would rock Amy slow, then fast, and also sing lullabies. She bought albums with lullabies because she thought maybe it was her own voice that kept the baby crying. She would even play books on tape thinking that it worked for both her and Billy. Then she resorted to begging Amy to sleep or to stop crying. None of it ever felt like it worked, and when she wasn’t feeling angry about everything, she felt sad about everything. Or she felt sad that she got angry, or angry that she got sad. It never ended.
Billy got up with her one night. He had begun seeing the stress Mickey was feeling and wanted to help.
“This baby hates me,” she said.
“Let me take her then. Do you want something to eat? To drink?”
“I just want this fucking kid to stop crying,” she said with a quick force. It came out fast like it had to in that very moment.
“We’ll get there,” Billy said. “It just takes time.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Mickey said.
“I’m only trying to help.”
“You’re not helping. You’re not helping at all.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Stop making empty statements,” she said. It came out fast again. The force of it silenced Billy, who had quieted Amy at seemingly the moment he cradled her. Mickey seethed.
Billy took time off after the fire to manage his affairs, remaining in the basement where his mother brought him lunch daily. His father offered him money, a condolence Billy didn’t need, but took anyway. So he passed the time playing his old Nintendo, spending far too long blowing on the cartridges before simply using rubbing alcohol and a cotton swab to clean them out. The last time he played was in college, staying up with Leah mashing buttons to sprint in Track and Field while elbowing one another to mess up the process, using the warp zones and getting bored with the difficult late levels of Super Mario Bros., and making and racing their own tracks in Excitebike.
Billy had been considering contacting Leah again, seeing online that she had graduated and taken a job at a spa near where he worked. He ignored it best he could for a while until he found himself there one day, feeling a nervous euphoria when he entered the small building in a row of local businesses. Leah had been standing over the welcome desk filing a nail, and though they stared at one another for what seemed like a long time after he entered, it had been a quick gaze between them. The host interrupted it with her canned greeting.
“I got it,” Leah said. “He’s an old friend.”
Leah led him to a room, closed the door as if she were afraid it would break, shutting it as if she were trying to prevent it from making any sound. She asked without facing him, “After all this time, why now?”
Her reception was unexpected, though he didn’t know exactly what to expect. Billy assumed he would be disappointed in some way, like he wouldn’t see her, or she would pretend he didn’t exist. Maybe he thought he would see her, but from farther away so he didn’t have to confront her. Maybe she would have forgotten him and they could meet again like it was the first time.
He waited for her to face him, but she leaned her head against the closed door like she had already given up. “I guess I don’t know why I’m here,” Billy said.
“You told me to stay away,” Leah said. “You crushed me, yet here you are, now, of all times.”
“Here I am.” Billy smiled.
“Do you know how much you hurt me?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Things should have been different. I was hurt too.”
“Say something else,” she said, and finally faced him. “I’m not buying it.”
“I feel like every decision I’ve ever made has been the wrong one.”
Leah frowned and let his words hang between them. “I just got engaged,” she said.
Mickey went entire days without speaking to Billy after Amy was born. He began working more, so Mickey complained that he was never around. She wanted him present, but when he hung around, he was in the way and she wanted to be alone. There were times he tried to be romantic, but she felt that it tended to be when he wanted sex. That’s when she knew that she wasn’t attracted to Billy anymore. That’s when she knew that she didn’t want to be married to him anymore.
What Mickey discovered later, after all the proceedings and formalities of divorce, after the fire erased much of their lives together, was that everything from the beginning of the pregnancy to the final court proceeding had been like an alternate reality. Only now was Mickey able to finally grasp everything that had happened. She had distance now. It was like her experience bent time and warped her very being, altering the course of her own history and thrusted her into the new life as a single mom divorcee.
She felt this after they returned to the scorched ground that contained their former lives. Very little worth salvaging survived the fire. A burned trinket here. A charred toy there. Billy told her he was seeing someone already. She wanted to be mad at his desire to tell her such a thing in that moment and without considering the effect on Amy, but she knew that was him, that he was showing off, or making some kind of juvenile point.
After rummaging over the remnants of their lot, Mickey lacked the desire to search through the mess of what remained. The lawyers sold the land as is, the land where their house once stood as a trophy for participating in austere middle-class suburban life, where Mickey and Billy created the beginning of their adult lives together, forging a flawed relationship despite each other for the sake of their daughter, a little girl lacking the capacity to comprehend the dissolution of everything around her.
They split the sale of their former property after a crew cleared it out for them. It became a barren lot between two remodeled houses in a neighborhood fit for full families, like parents who barbecued with the neighbors while all the kids played together. It was the allure of the American dream, the false promise that with hard work, everyone owns the perfect house on the perfect street raising the perfect kids who take care of the perfect dog and take perfect pictures with one another.
This was not the life for Mickey. This was a life she thought she wanted. She had spent so much time wishing for things to be different between herself and Billy. Yet, upon reflection, she got what exactly what she wished for—a marriage and a house, expecting that things would fall into place form there—unaware of how warped the reality of hopes and dreams could really be.
Billy had talked Leah into meeting for dinner via e-mail after seeing each other again, assuming it would be a one-off event where two old friends could catch up. He repeated the mantra, whether he believed it or not, that nothing would happen.
It began with an accidental touch though, followed by innocent flirtation that evolved to jokes of a sexual nature, which lead to reminiscing of their heated passion in his cramped car. The temptation became too tantalizing, culminating in the same kind of discreet sex the two so often had during their semester long tryst in college.
Leah was still engaged, promising Billy that her own flimsy relationship would end sooner than later. But after Billy returned to work, his timing with Leah seemed off. He’d buy her gifts to make up for lost time that she couldn’t accept. The flowers that arrived at the spa appeared suspicious to others and she had to tell him to stop. It was bad enough Leah had put herself at risk of losing her job by giving Billy special attention at the spa.
“We have to stop doing this here,” Leah said. “Maybe we should stop doing this entirely.”
“I don’t want you to lose your job,” Billy said.
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“Just tell him already,” he said. “Get it over with so we can finally move on. Together.”
“Don’t pressure me,” she said.
“Look, I’m moving into an apartment nearby the end of this week. Let me know when you can see me again.”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
Billy returned to his empty apartment, sitting on the floor near the sliding glass doors to the deck, back against the wall, surveying the suburban sprawl of his new neighborhood where neighbors remained anonymous. The gated complex rose above town on a high hill overlooking it all. He could see it all from his third floor studio as he let the setting sun dull the colors around him. The initial glare made him squint, but he knew what he was seeing. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
He compelled himself to stand, entered the kitchen, and gathered what he needed to cook rice. He boiled water first, watching the bubbles creep to the surface before it sprayed over the pot and sizzled on the burner. He left one of his arms in the line of fire, each drop a pin prick of pain shooting through his skin. He rubbed his dampening arm and then held his hand over the steam rising into the vent above, moving it closer and closer to the pot. The heat made his palm sweat.
The rice cooked enough, so Billy set the pan aside and moved his hand closer to the burner. The heat radiated through him and pain shot up his arm. He held it there as long as he could, trying to convince himself to slap his hand onto the oven and hold it there, to scar himself with the heat of the moment, and to spark in himself a similar feeling to the one he had when the overloaded power strip blew and burned his house down. He withdrew himself though when the pain became unbearable, after enough sweat from his hand dripped into the burner and hissed him backward.
Another week went by before Billy heard from Leah. She wanted to meet him after work. She alone closed the spa that night, and Leah was leaning against her car in a lot behind the row of buildings where she worked when he arrived.
“You need to shave,” Leah said.
Billy scratched at the hair on his throat. “Seems unnecessary,” he said.
“You were clean shaven when we first met,” she said. “Do you remember our first night together?”
“I remember looking through the sunroof and you pointed out a few of the constellations, the ones you could remember, anyway. Orion was one, for sure.”
“It was a beautiful night,” she said. “I’ll always remember it.”
“Won’t be another like it.”
“Then you know what I have to ask you to do?”
Billy nodded. He avoided the words neither of them could bear to hear out loud again. Billy stayed away.
MIKE GOODWIN is currently in the final year of doctoral studies in English at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Born in New Jersey, he grew up outside of Philadelphia before moving around Western Pennsylvania. His poetry has previously appeared in Slab and Radioactive Moat.