We got a six-pack and I drove her out to the water tower on the edge of town. The sun had sunk, but in its absence the sky hadn’t yet gone to night. It was still tattered rags of pink and chalky blue. It was still evening when we climbed that ladder, more clouds than stars, more light than darkness. The view from up there wasn’t much—some fields, a couple roads, a yellow clapboard house. But when you’re sixteen you can’t be too picky about where you drink, especially if you’re drinking with a preacher’s daughter.
Drinking made me quiet. Not moody, I don’t think, but close to it. After two, I got thoughtful and slightly fatigued, like that feeling of lying in bed not asleep but not quite awake either, slowly slipping, everything turning hazy and black and sweet, consciousness leaking out like water from a crack in a cup. That was me. I liked to drink and watch the fields and not think about anything much at all. I liked the sensation of emptiness.
When she drank, though, she got mouthy. Her voice took on a strained, high-pitched quality and every other thing was about her Dad, about what a hateful, hard man he was, about how this time next year she would be emancipated and living with her cousin two counties over. For her, drinking was like kicking in an anthill. And it only took one beer.
One beer would get her going and I would do my best to listen, tempted to drift off into the fields, but trying to focus, trying to understand all the things racing around inside of her.
It wasn’t easy. My own father, who didn’t set foot in a church except Christmas and Easter, was one of the more amiable guys I knew. It didn’t matter that he worked ten hours at a job he hated, or that money was usually tight and my mother, open book that she was, did a horrible job hiding her anxieties. No, my father came through the door with a smile and he damn-sure found a way, night after night, to lift us up. My father made us feel loved. If he did nothing else, he did that—he found a way to make us feel loved.
“Do you know he used to make me act in the Hell House every year?” she said, finishing her first can and chucking it into the field below us.
“What’s a Hell House?” I said, half-way knowing, but wanting to make sure anyway.
“You don’t know what a Hell House is?” she said and cracked open a second beer.
I shook my head and shrugged. She let out a sigh and took a long sip. “Must be nice to have normal parents.”
“Come on,” I said, trying in my own way to keep the mood up. “My parents made me do plenty of stuff I hated.”
“Like what?” she said.
“Like the week before Christmas, I remember, we always had to go door to door in our neighborhood and sing “Winter Wonderland” and all those other songs. I hated it. For one, none of us could sing. For two, half the people shut the door in our face like we were trying to sell them something. It was awful. Freezing too.”
She gave me that look—the one that said “It’s not the same”—and shook her head from side to side. I knew that look well for all the times she put it on me. I should say, though, that there was no condescension in it. There was no arrogance in her at all. Relative to the rest of our town, my upbringing was “normal,” and this fact humbled her. It gave her a modesty that was, to me, unbearably appealing relative to most kids our age who spent all their energy trying to get approval or pity or validation for one thing or another. She was different. When she talked about a thing, she didn’t want anything from you. She just wanted to talk. I wondered if that wasn’t the home-schooling that did that.
“A Hell House,” she said. “Is something Daddy’s church did twice a year. They would take the sanctuary and cover everything in black sheets. The walls, the pulpit, everything in black. Make it look all creepy.”
She paused, apparently wanting me to envision this. And I did, as far as such a thing was possible. But I had never been in her father’s church. Truth is, if asked, I probably couldn’t envision the churches I had been in.
“Then they take these lights,” she said. “Red lights, meant to look like fire and coming out in the shapes of flames. And they shine them all over the black sheets to make it look like Hell. They do this twice a year and people, tons of them, come to the church and let Daddy lead them on a tour.”
“A tour? Of what?”
“They act out these scenes.”
“Scenes?” I said, when she paused so long it seemed she needed help finishing the thought.
“I don’t want to talk about this,” she said, eyes shut, inhaling through her nose and exhaling through her mouth like someone trying to catch their breath.
“Then don’t,” I said and lit up a cigarette. “Talk to me about something else. Talk to me about school. How’s Greene’s class?”
She laughed like I knew she would and for a minute the conversation seemed redeemed. I opened another beer, careful not to drink too fast, but eager to keep my buzz.
“Mrs. Greene is crazy,” she said. “Did you hear what she did to Buddy Campbell?”
“You mean when she washed his mouth out with soap after he lied about having a dip in?”
“No,” she said, laughing.
“You mean when she called him a dumb sum-bitch in front the class?”
“No,” she said. “That was a couple weeks back. I’m talking about this past week.”
I shook my head, glad to see her smiling.
“No, I hadn’t heard then. What did Buddy do this time?”
“He was cheating on a test,” she started. “The genius that he was, he had all the answers written on the bottom of his shoe.”
I laughed, not only because I had seen Buddy pull stunts like that, but also because Mrs. Greene had caught me cheating last year and I still remembered the fire in her eyes and how when she got me alone, out in the hallway, she talked through her teeth in a tone that made my neck go prickly like a mutt’s. “I hate cheaters and I hate liars,” she said. Silly and sweet as she could be, Mrs. Greene had a wrath that wasn’t anything to mess with. I never cheated again, not in her class at least. Some things you don’t forget.
“So Buddy is about halfway through his test and Mrs. Greene sees him doing it. Plain as day, she sees him getting an answer off his shoe. Only, she was across the room, at her desk, when she noticed it. And you know Mrs. Greene, too smart to go charging straight at him. So she gets up and makes like she’s fixing a bulletin board over by Buddy’s desk. All casual and calm. Just pretending to fix her bulletin board and not suspecting anything. And Buddy, too dumb to put his foot down, just kept on taking his test, cheating right there in the open.”
It occurred to me then that I had heard this story. I knew exactly how it ended. Still, though, I didn’t say anything and decided to let her finish it. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they tell a story, by what they leave in and what they take out.
“So Mrs. Greene is over there with her bulletin board,” she continued. “And everyone’s focusing on their test. This was a major test, right? Everyone’s all stressed out and focused and worried they’ll run out of time. Then, out of nowhere, there is this loud crashing sound and Buddy is screaming his head off. Everyone looks up to see what’s going on and Mrs. Greene has Buddy by the ankle. I mean, actually grabbed him by the ankle.”
To illustrate she tried to reach down and grab her own ankle, but stumbled badly and almost went crashing into the railing before I grabbed her.
“Easy,” I said, trying to pull her up but instead pulling her into me.
The booze had loosened her up and she practically fell into my arms, her face burying itself in my chest, the hand not holding the can slipping around my waist and attaching itself to my hip before I knew what had happened. Suddenly we were holding each other. Her hair was right beneath my face, the smell of strawberries filling up my nose. Without thinking about it, I kissed the top of her head. She stayed where she was when I did that. The sky, I noticed, was more blue than pink now, the lowering tide of light disappearing behind the horizon.
Eventually she let go, grabbed another beer, and continued the story like nothing ever happened.
“So Buddy’s trying to kick away, but Greene’s got him good, trying to yank his shoe off, and screaming, ‘I caught you, I caught you.’ She kept tugging at it until the shoe came off.
Buddy, one shoe on, mumbled a few curse words and said something about her being crazy before hobbling out of the room. She took the shoe and locked it up in her desk drawer. Evidence, I guess. Anyway, we died laughing. Even when Greene threatened detentions, we couldn’t stop. I don’t think anybody finished that test. How could we?”
“Aren’t you glad you came to public school?” I said and as soon as it came out, I realized my mistake.
We drank for a while in silence after that. A pick-up came tearing down one the roads. I watched it, figuring it was heading for the house. But it just kept on driving, a pair of tail-lights on its way to nowhere. I kept thinking about strawberries and the way her body felt pressed against mine.
“Yeah, well at least I’m learning something,” she eventually said. “Mrs. Greene might be crazy, but at least she teaches. Daddy called himself a teacher but all he was was an assigner.”
“So that’s why you’re so independent,” I said, keen to keep the talk positive.
“Right,” she said and rolled her eyes. “I remember when I was in fifth grade, I asked him about something in the science book. It was something about dinosaurs and I didn’t understand it. He was in his chair, like always, and asked me to read it to him. I did. I wish I could remember what it was. It would have been something about the Triassic and Jurassic periods, something about the earth being millions of years old.”
“Good memory,” I said.
But she shook her head and said, “Let me finish the story and you’ll see why.”
“See, Daddy didn’t believe in dinosaurs.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he didn’t believe in them. He denied their existence.”
“Hold on, though. Aren’t there are fossils and stuff? Actual proof.”
“And he knows about that?”
“How can you know about that stuff and not believe?”
“He said fossils were a fabrication invented by liberals to spread evolution.
“So what did he do to the science book?”
“He charged across the room, snatched it out of my hand, and threw it in the fire. Called it ‘secular trash’ and spit into the flames,” she said.
“I’m not,” she said. “He had all kinds of crazy beliefs.”
“You really want to know?”
“I asked, didn’t I?”
Once she got going, she went on for a while, talking about everything from the President being the anti-Christ to AIDs being a curse God put on homosexuals. I listened, laughing when she did, but otherwise staying quiet. It was a difficult thing for me to grasp. The few times I met her father, he seemed intense, but by no means insane. I thought of him as I thought of most the preachers I had met—different from my own dad, but decent to the degree that they served a decent God. I thought all preachers served a decent God. To learn that I was dead-wrong was a bit disorienting. “How,” I thought but did not say, “Can someone who believes in God believe in such hateful things?” Half the time she was talking, I was trying to reconcile this in my mind.
The other half of the time I couldn’t help but think of my Dad. What were his beliefs?
College football and John Wayne movies? A steak served rare and cold can of Coors? I knew he loved Christmas and watched documentaries on the Civil War. Once I heard him get upset about a friend of his who couldn’t find a job. But I had never heard my Dad talk about “beliefs.” My dad made jokes. He told stories. I don’t how he felt about liberals or, for that matter, dinosaurs. I wondered what he and Aimee’s father would talk about if they sat down together. I wondered what my Dad would do in a Hell House. Then I wondered if two people could both be right at the same time.
I guess she could tell that I was drifting because she stopped.
“Crazy, right?” she said, almost embarrassed.
“Yeah,” I said, and to lessen her embarrassment, I shared some stories about my Uncle Jimmy. He was my mother’s younger brother. She called him a “character” amongst other things. Uncle Jimmy had his fair share of conspiracy theories and was a pretty nasty racist to boot. I told her about the time he built a bunker in his backyard and filled it with can goods and semi-automatic weapons. I told her what he called people who weren’t white and then told her about the time Uncle Jimmy started a fight with a Hispanic crossing guard and had to be rushed to the hospital for two cracked ribs and a broken jaw. I figured that might tip the scales and make her a little more comfortable. I knew it worked when she started smiling again and said, “The world’s full of crazies, ain’t it?”
“Sure is,” I said.
“Maybe you’re one of them,” she said and while I was thinking of something clever to say kissed me on the mouth.
It was a clean kiss, quick and singular, and she backed away as soon as it was finished. For a moment, we just stared at one another. Then I stepped forward and took her face in my hands. It felt small and fragile somehow and I just held it for a moment, not caring how it seemed. She closed her eyes, parted her lips, and started leaning in. And because I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, I kissed her, even though that’s not what I wanted to do. Weird as it sounds, weird as it was: I wanted to hold her face and just look at it. I wanted to hold her face until I had memorized every part of it. The freckles on her nose, the tiny scar above her eye, the greens and browns inside her eyes, and every last hair on her head: I wanted to know it all.
Instead, though, I kissed her, afterwards letting my lips trace the distance from her lips to her ear, where I whispered, “You’re beautiful. You are nothing less than beautiful.” Her cheek against mine, I felt her smile. Then she found my ear and whispered something back, only, just she said it, though, a strong wind came through, making the inside of my ear roar like a conch. Before I could ask what she said, our lips were together again, our hands, light as feathers, floating from one place to another. I was still wondering what she said when I put my hand beneath her shirt. It sounded like “Take me”? Was that it? Was it “Take me”? Or was it “Save me”? I could not, for the life of me, stop to ask her which.
Maybe it was the beer or the way the light was falling, but after we started kissing, one movement bled into another until we found ourselves in my backseat, two sets of sweaty limbs tangled desperate and ungracious but somehow melded together, somehow working together to get a place we had never been.
Back of my car, the blood red sun spilling in through the windshield: we made it. Her first, my first.
And after it was done, we lied on our backs and said nothing and listened to each other breathe as the last of the light faded from the sky. I wanted to prop myself up on an elbow and look into her face, to see if it was the same face I had held up on the water tower, or if something had changed. I couldn’t have explained why, but I felt like something had changed, that her face wasn’t the same face and my eyes weren’t the same eyes. Lying there in the backseat, I felt like we had stepped into something new, crossed an invisible border or something, and now that we were there, there was no going back. There was no going back to who we used to be.
I must have fallen asleep because when I opened my eyes, she was sitting up and saying something.
“What?” I said, propping myself up on my elbow and trying to figure out how long I was out.
“Do you have a lighter?” she said.
“In the thing,” I said, pointing to the change compartment.
She grabbed the lighter and snapped out a flame.
“You want a cigarette?” I asked.
“No,” she said and continued staring into the flame.
I watched her watch the light, tiny golden discs floating on top of her irises, her mouth hanging open like a slot. Something was happening to her face. It started in her eyes and spread down to her mouth and, in less than a second, I felt like I was looking at a stranger.
“The lights would be off when the people first came into the Hell House,” she said, eyes fixed on the flame, that horrible look consuming her features.
“And Daddy would meet them in the lobby with nothing more than a lighter.”
I wanted to say something. I opened my mouth. There was nothing, no words for me to say.
“And with all those people watching he would take the flame and bring right up to his hand.”
About the time I noticed that she had positioned her other hand over the lighter, she clicked the wheel to ignite a new flame and lowered that hand on top of it, letting out a choked whimper as it singed the center of her palm. Paralyzed, I watched her white skin retreat, the flesh peeling back like flower petals. I watched her burning. At first her arm jerked back, but, as if some invisible weight was attached to it, she lowered it again, causing the flame to tear deeper and release a rancid scent into the car. The entire gesture, from the click of the wheel to me knocking the lighter loose, could not have lasted more than a second.
“Are you crazy?” I said.
She was crying and her hand was trembling badly but she extended it in my direction, practically pushing the bloody patch into my face. I grabbed her by the wrist, but still she thrust that hand towards my eyes. I remember how it looked. I remember how it smelled.
“This,” she said, ripping free from my grip but still extending it outwards. “This is what he would do in front of those people in the lobby. Right before opening the doors to the sanctuary, he would burn his hand so they could see it. Then, he would open the doors to the Hell House and say, ‘Now imagine eternity. Imagine burning for all of eternity.’”
Something had happened without my noticing it. I suddenly wanted nothing more than to go back in time and still be up there drinking beer on the water tower. I wished I could go back even further, before I ever brought her out here.
“That’s what a Hell House is,” she said.
Knowing that there was no going back, that, here and now, she was talking about her Daddy because, in a way, she needed to, I decided to go along. I laid a hand on her shoulder and said, “Is that really what he believes?”
“That everybody is going to Hell?”
“Just the bad people?”
“Not exactly,” she said and looked as if she meant to say more, but then stopped. “Close enough though.”
“Is that what you believe?”
“I don’t know what I believe.”
“Did you?” I asked. “At one time, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe nothing.”
“Let me see your hand,” I said and extended mine.
She didn’t question this, just laid hers, knuckle-down, into mine.
The wound shone in what was left of the evening’s light.
“That’s pretty bad,” I said, not knowing the first thing about how to treat a burn.
“Imagine eternity,” she said and coughed into her good hand.
“Come on,” I said, opened the door, and led her out into the night.
Later, after we had gone to Walgreen’s and a pharmacist had fixed her up, after we had said goodbye and I had dropped her off at her friend’s house, after everything was over and it was just me driving through town, I tried to take the road that led back to my house.
I thought about my parents and how both of them would still be up, sprawled out on the couch, watching television. I would come in and they would call me. They would tell me to sit down and ask about my night. And I could tell them everything or I could tell them nothing, and that wouldn’t change how they looked at me. They loved me, seemingly without condition.
I came up on another road that would take me to that house, but my hand on the wheel didn’t budge. I kept on driving, pushing further out towards roads I had never seen, towards the darkened fields on the edge of town. I wanted to turn around. I tried to, but was not able. I felt the cool leather of the steering wheel against the tender center of my palm and I couldn’t, for the life of me, stop thinking about eternity, how it had already begun.
Dan Leach’s short fiction has been published in various literary journals and magazines, including The Greensboro Review, Deep South Magazine, and The New Madrid Review. A native of South Carolina, he graduated from Clemson University in 2008, and taught high-school in Charleston until 2014 when he relocated to Nebraska. Floods and Fires, his debut short-story collection, will be published by University of North Georgia Press in 2016.