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Authors: Luanne Rice

Home Fires (6 page)

BOOK: Home Fires
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“Thanks anyway,” she said. “But I'm working.”

“You work at home?”

“Yes. I do collages. Like the one I put on your note.” She expected him to laugh, if only because he felt nervous. People, especially islanders, often found it ridiculous that she could get paid for snipping postage stamps and turning them into pictures not much larger.

“Well, you do beautiful work. I can imagine buying one.”

“Thank you,” she said, surprised and even more wary. The man hadn't seemed like someone on the make, but he was sounding like it now. She felt a trickle of panic. Talking to the man who had pulled her out of the fire reminded her of what she had gone inside to retrieve, and that brought on an explosion of Karen. Her eyes felt hot and dry.

“It must seem strange, me calling you out of the blue and asking you out for lunch,” he said carefully.

“Not really, but I do have work to do. Thank you, though,” Anne said, needing to hang up the phone.

“Wait, please,” he said.

She could hear his breath over the line, coming as hard as she felt her own.

“It's important,” he said.

“I can't,” she said, her voice falling. “I can't explain it to you, but I need to be alone right now. It's nothing personal. It's—”

“It's Karen,” Thomas Devlin said.

Their silence ticked over the line. Anne should have hung up the phone. If she did, she would simply turn off the desk lamp, lay a cloth over her work to keep it from blowing around, and walk into the bedroom to lie down and take a long, long nap.

“I have to go now,” she said, giving in to the exhaustion.

“I'll be at Ruby's,” he said. “Never mind lunch. I'll be there at six tonight. If you change your mind.”

“I don't talk about Karen.”

“You don't have to. But I hope you'll come.”


day took forever. Still, she didn't take a nap and she finished the collage. All day she refused to admit it to herself, but she found herself reluctantly looking forward to going to Ruby's. She had heard something in Thomas Devlin's voice that she couldn't walk away from.

Six o'clock.

She bundled herself up and headed into the winter night. There he was, in the same booth he'd been sitting in the other day. She wondered how old he was. Forty-five? Fifty? She couldn't tell. The windows were steamy, the restaurant lit with a cozy glow. Anne walked inside.

He stood without speaking, giving her that same sweet, brilliant smile, tugging at his burned cheeks.

“Hi. Here I am,” she said.

“Please—sit down.”

She ordered tea with lemon and honey from a waitress who looked like Charlene Bowen, a girl she'd gone all through Island Consolidated School with. But the woman was icily indifferent. Anne had the feeling the woman had heard the tabloid stories, so Anne didn't say anything. Still, it made her chest hurt; she touched her throat.

“Is your breathing back to normal?” Thomas Devlin asked. “Smoke is wicked on the lungs, and the cold weather makes it worse.”

“I think so,” Anne said, not telling him that it had hurt to breathe since Karen had died, that having the smoke inhalation to blame for the pain had made her feel better.

“I'm glad you came.”

“I'm not sure why I did,” Anne said, aware that he was staring at her.

“Um, I could ask you something nice and general. Like, do you like the island in winter?”

The question was so benign, Anne started to laugh. “Yes. I always have. My sister used to curse it, dream of moving to Tahiti or someplace, but I loved it. We grew up here.”

He nodded, and Anne was again aware that he knew things about her. She flushed, trying not to stare at his face, his hands. Now she saw that both his hands were scarred; she found herself wondering how many other burns were covered by his clothes. But she felt herself relax, a little. Something about the man made her feel comfortable.

“How about you?” she asked. “How do you like being here in the winter?”

“I'm from Boston. Except for the peace and quiet, it's not that much different.”

“Peace and quiet,” Anne said, laughing. “That's a nice way to put it.”

“Okay,” he said, laughing also. “Lonesome. It does get lonesome at times.”

Lonesome. Anne gazed over his shoulder at the big corner booth where she, Matt, and Karen had eaten sundaes one afternoon last summer. Karen had loved the slogan emblazoned in red across the menu:


Karen had recently seen
The Wizard of Oz
for the first time, and when she and Anne were alone they would sometimes pretend that Karen was Dorothy and Anne was Glinda. That day, eating their sundaes, Karen had told Matt that he could be the Tin Man, which she pronounced “teen-man.”

Anne and Matt had smiled, trying not to laugh, thrilled by their daughter.


Anne looked back at Thomas Devlin.

“Are you called ‘Tom'?” she asked.

“Thomas, usually. Much to my dismay, my parents didn't believe in nicknames. So ‘Thomas' stuck. At least they didn't name me Aloysius or Ignatius.”

“Yeah, my parents looked to the saints when they had kids, too. My sister and I always considered ourselves lucky to be Gabrielle and Anne, not Anastasia and Eustacia.”

“Irish Catholic.” A statement, not a question.

“Lapsed now, but yes. Born that way. Anne Magdalene Fitzgibbon.”

“Thomas Xavier Devlin. They'd turn in their graves if they knew my colleagues at the firehouse call me ‘Devil.' ‘Dev' for short.”

A shiver went down her spine. For some reason it upset her terribly, hearing that. She no longer went to church, but after Karen died, she'd discovered within herself a childish and pure belief in heaven. With it came a belief in hell.

“Why do they call you that?”

He lifted his elbows off the table, studied the backs of his hands. He frowned at them for a long instant, then hid them under the table. When he met Anne's eyes, she saw that he had neither eyebrows nor lashes.

“Because I was in a bad fire.”

Anne didn't say anything. She looked away, but something about his face pulled her back. His burns were unspeakably ugly. Pocked and raised, like some primeval terrain, they made Anne think of screams and horror. But in some mysterious way, they were beautiful. They also made her think of Karen.

“They say only the devil could have come out from a fire like that alive,” he said.

“How did you?” Anne asked, and she realized her voice was barely a whisper. “Come out alive?”

“Because I was with someone I loved. I had to get her out of the fire.”

Time stood still. A song played on the jukebox, but Anne didn't register it. Her tea sat on the table in front of her, getting cold. Anne knew that this was the reason she had come to Ruby's. She heard her own voice before she realized that she was speaking.

“Did you save her?”

His hands were back on the table. Now they were palms up, and he was staring at them with the intensity of a fortune-teller.

“No,” he said, looking into Anne's eyes.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “Was it your wife?”

He nodded.

Anne thought of Karen, of how she had tried to catch Karen. So futile. One second Karen had been in her life, and the next second she was gone forever. Anne pictured the sun streaming through the window, backlighting her little girl. She saw the pigeon land. She herself had handed Karen the slice of bread. As if she was watching a movie, she saw Karen break the bread into pieces. She saw the pigeon take the crumbs from Karen's hand. And she saw Karen fly away.

Now, looking at Thomas Devlin, she wished she had scars. They would remind her of Karen. They would make tangible her longing, the passion she felt for her only child. With tears running down her face, she reached across the table and took his hands. She examined his burns, caressing them gently with her thumbs.

“I'm sorry,” she said again.

“I know you are,” he said.

She looked at him, perhaps quizzically.

“Karen,” he said.

She stared. “I still can't talk about her.”

“In your note? The one you sent to the station? You said that you were sorry that you put me in danger. You didn't say that you were sorry you went back inside the house, after the bag. I just want you to know that I understand the difference.”

He was getting too close. She tried to pull her hands back, but he held them.

“Whatever made you run into the fire, it was all you had. All you had of her. I saw the toys, the dresses. I would have done the same.”

“It was a picture,” Anne said. “Her last picture.”

“Did you get it? Is it okay?”


He nodded, and his expression was fierce. “Good,” he said.

“It's not enough,” she whispered. Tears ran freely down her cheeks.

The Charlene Bowen look-alike came by with a refill for Thomas's coffee. Anne could feel the woman's gaze, and her judgment. Thomas waved her away. Gently he withdrew his right hand from Anne's left. Digging into his pocket, he placed a five-dollar bill on the table.

“Let's go outside,” he said.

She felt his hand on her elbow as they walked out the door into the bitter cold. Without speaking, they headed toward the ferry dock. The sun had set and splashes of burnished gold traced the black western sky. In the distance, they saw a ferry lit like a small city, steaming toward the island from across the sound. Six times, every summer of her life and two Christmases, Karen had ridden that ferry from the mainland. Anne felt the wind on her face, turning her tears to ice.

She slipped on the snow. She reached for Thomas Devlin, steadying herself. His arms encircled her, for just one moment. Self-conscious, she stepped back and continued walking on her own.

“I'm okay,” she said. She was referring not to the slip, but to the flood of emotion she had experienced in Ruby's.

“Are you sure?” he asked.


“You don't have to be okay yet,” he said.

She didn't reply, but watched the ferry draw closer to the terminal. Its horn sounded. People congregated on the upper decks, waiting to go to their cars. Anne heard the hydraulics operating the onshore ramp.

“One good thing about winter,” he said. “You can get a ferry reservation at the last minute.”

The statement seemed so incongruous, so normal, that Anne stopped in her tracks. She stared at him.

“Well, you can,” he said.

“True,” she agreed. You had to reserve months in advance or know Joe Dunbar, the head of the steamship authority, to drive a car onto the ferry in high season.

“I'm going off-island tomorrow,” he said. “For a week.”

“Oh,” she said. This information, for some reason, brought her back to earth.

“To visit my son.”

Anne stared at his eyes, but she couldn't see them in the dark. He had a son. He had lost his wife, but he had his child. Drained, she turned away. She watched the big ferry graze the pilings, then bump the dock.


She shook her head. She wanted to be left alone, but she knew it would be rude to say.

His arms came around her, and she pressed her face against his chest. She was clinging to another human being, and his name was Thomas.

“I'm glad you have a son,” she said.

“So am I.”

“I have to go home now.” She had only the vaguest sense of what she meant by “home.”

“I'll be back in a week,” he said.

Gently, she pushed herself away. She couldn't see his face, but she smiled in its general direction. It was a crazy smile. A smile that didn't correspond to her feelings, a smile that hid as much from Anne herself as from the person at whom she had directed it. But it was a smile nonetheless, and her voice respected it.

“Have a good visit,” she said. “With your son.”

Chapter 5

ed Devlin went straight to his dorm after hockey practice, expecting to find his father waiting. Winter afternoons at Deerfield felt like nighttime. The sun would dip behind the Berkshires, and a luminous, violet shadow would cloak the valley.

Ned ran past the red-brick dorms, his brown hair wet and freezing from the shower. He imagined he was on the ice, leading the Bruins to victory at the Boston Garden. He held an invisible stick, guiding the puck toward the goal.

It's a mind puck, he thought, cracking himself up so he laughed out loud. He passed a bunch of freshmen who looked at him as if he were crazy.

At seventeen he was six-four, gaining on his father's height, but more compact. He hoped he wouldn't grow much more. His father had had a collegiate growth spurt that had rendered him gawky, effectively ruining his prospects as a hockey player at Boston College, and souring his scholarship in the process.

Seeing his father's truck parked in front of his dorm, he slowed down. He was just old enough to affect a certain reserve in his father's presence. He didn't want to show his father, or his dorm mates, for that matter, how excited he felt. Tomorrow at dawn, he and his father would be taking off for a college tour.

Dartmouth was his first choice, but that was a long shot. The Ivies didn't give athletic scholarships. For Ned to attend Dartmouth, he'd have to rely on grants, a scholastic scholarship, loans, and a damned high-paying summer job. He and his father would also be visiting Middlebury, the University of Vermont, Bowdoin, and Boston College.

In spite of himself, he couldn't hold back. He ran up the granite steps, all in one stride. No one in the hallway, no one in the living room. He poked his head into the butt room, where Keith Harney and David Jorgensen were smoking French cigarettes and generally being too cool for words. They both had long, stringy hair, and they never wore anything but black. They should have been strumming guitars, to complete the picture.

“You seen my father?” Ned asked.

Keith shook his head, blowing smoke rings. David just stared moodily at nothing. Ned ran up to his room.

“Losers,” he said under his breath, taking the stairs three at a time. Probably sitting there discussing metaphysics or suicide. They were sensitive show-offs; they wanted everyone to know they'd been injured by the cruel world.

Ned had them pegged for the types who would see his father and make fun of his face. If his father was anorexic like them, or wore nothing but black turtlenecks, they could accept his deformity. But guys like Keith and David would see his father as a jock, a fireman—to them, a municipal worker, just like a cop, or a garbageman, or a highway worker—who'd had his face burned off.

He burst into his room. Mark Mallory, his roommate, sat at his desk studying trig.

“Hey,” Mark said, over his shoulder. “Your dad's here.”

“Yeah, I saw his truck. Where'd he go?”

“I don't know,” Mark said. “He's in a weird mood.”

“What do you mean?” When it came to his father, Ned was always alert. Mark was a good guy who knew pretty much the whole story about Ned's parents; he'd spent a few vacations out on the island, and he liked Ned's father a lot.

“He had a big, goofy smile on.”

“Interesting,” Ned said.

He left the room and headed down the stairs, but more slowly than he had ascended them. His father was just about the most straightforward person Ned knew, but he certainly had his mysteries. As the years went by he was turning more and more into a hermit. Ned hoped this college tour would be good for him: get him off the island, away from his clocks. Maybe his father was looking forward to it, too. That could explain his mood.

Ned stepped outside. Lights had gone on in most of the dorm rooms as students headed home from practice or the library. The low, black mountains ringed the valley, their crests awash in the silver light of a sliver moon. Ned headed behind his dorm, to a path that led toward the playing fields.

Without the dorm lights, it was much darker back here. The stars seemed close enough to touch. Ned saw his father standing in the path, as tall as a tree, his head thrown back to look at the sky.

“Dad!” Ned said, before he got too close.

His father didn't hear him at first. He just stood there, staring at the stars, lost in his own world. Maybe something had happened. Ever since he'd lost his mother, Ned had a built-in anxiety when it came to his father. If his father didn't call when he was supposed to, if he was fifteen minutes late picking Ned up, if he didn't answer his telephone, Ned would worry. His pulse would quicken, the way it did now. Mark teased him, calling it his “old-lady heart.”

“Dad, are you okay?” Ned asked.

His father turned then, and even in the dark, Ned could see that his face was radiant. You didn't see his father smile like this too often; he understood why Mark had called it goofy.

“Hello, son,” his father said, and if anything, his smile got bigger. “Are you ready to find yourself a college?”

“Yeah,” Ned said, puzzled. His father always told him how proud he was of him, for getting high honors and being all-American, and all that. But how big a deal was it, just looking at colleges? It wasn't as if Ned had been accepted anywhere yet. Or been offered financial aid. Still, it was the only thing he could come up with to explain his father's mood.

His father held out his arm, slapped it around Ned's shoulders. Ned, who towered over everyone at Deerfield, felt small for just that instant. He went back in time. His mother might have been waiting for them at home, ready to give them supper. Standing there with his gigantic father, looking at a skyful of stars, Ned remembered how it felt to be a little boy. And he didn't mind.


of going to school, realizing that their act would get them in trouble and not even caring, Maggie and her friends took the ferry off-island and hitchhiked to Boston. There were four of them, too many to hitch a ride in the same car unless it was a big empty one. If they got split up, they agreed to meet at Morning Glory, their favorite head shop in the Combat Zone.

They smoked a little pot on the ferry's upper deck, and Vanessa sipped from a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream.

“Quit hogging it,” Eugene said.

Eventually, she passed it around. Maggie hoped that getting all liquored up would make her warm. Even with her heavy sweater, leather jacket, and insulated mittens, she was freezing cold. This trip felt like a mistake. Vanessa had suggested it because they had a fourth-period history test that none of them had studied for, and if they were going to get in trouble anyway, they might at least have some fun.

But already it felt boring to Maggie. The same old thing: get high, get drunk, freeze your ass off waiting for a ride, then wind up in the grossest part of Boston. Every time she'd done this lately, she'd ended up having a different part of her body pierced.

Kurt was after her to put a ring in her pussy. Maggie knew how much it would hurt, and she didn't want to do it. Just the thought made her feel shaky. But she hated saying no to Kurt; the idea of losing him was scarier than facing any needle. Knowing her, she'd drink herself brave, and by the time she got back to the island, she'd have another hole in her body.

Standing at the rail, Maggie kept her eyes peeled for whales or seals. At this time of year you saw them all the time. Seals were her favorite. Their sleek round heads and enormous eyes, whiskering out of the water to watch the ferry slide by. Last summer she had promised Karen they'd ride the ferry alone together over Christmas, looking for seals. She'd even seen a seal toy at the general store, a fuzzy white baby that she had planned to give Karen for her birthday.

There. Maggie saw a real seal. He bobbed in the icy water, and she had the feeling he knew she was watching. She had the crazy desire to wave to him. But she didn't; her friends would think she was stupid.

“How much money do you have?” Kurt asked, coming to stand beside her. She leaned into his body and felt the thrill of love run through her limbs.

“About nine dollars.”

“Shit,” he said.

He had asked her to go through her mother's purse while her mother was in the shower, and to check the laundry for money her father might have left in his pants pockets. Maggie had said she would, but what Kurt didn't understand was that her family counted every penny. Besides, ripping off stores was one thing, but Maggie couldn't steal from her family. Instead, she had gone without school lunch the last few days in order to have a stash of cash for an occasion just such as this. When he would ask her how much she had.

“How about you?” she asked. “How much do we have altogether?”

He gave her a sarcastic look, to let her know there was no “altogether.” She wasn't stupid. She knew that in Kurt's mind her money was theirs and his money was his. If he even had any. A little voice deep inside sometimes told Maggie that she could do better than Kurt. That there were boys who were nice, who knew the meaning of love, or at least respect, who were as good-looking as Kurt.

But they didn't live on the island. Kurt was the best boy in her class. Twenty years old! No one else had a boyfriend in his twenties. He was tall and handsome, with golden skin and flowing blond hair. His face reminded her of a beautiful cat, with exotic wide green eyes. He could easily be a male model.

Feeling guilty for even thinking about someone other than Kurt, Maggie pressed his hand to her breast and gave him a long, open-mouthed kiss.

“We need some more money,” he said, pulling back.

“It's enough,” Maggie said. “The ride'll be free, the ferry's
free. . . .” The crew guys never charged island kids during the winter.

“I want to buy weed,” Kurt said.

Boring, Maggie thought. But she didn't say anything. She resumed scanning the sea for seals.

“I'll figure something out,” he said, heading toward Vanessa and her bottle.

They hitched a ride off the ferry with a refrigeration repairman who let them sit in the open back of his pickup as far as Wickland. Perched on the bare metal floor for all those miles made Maggie so cold she honestly thought she might die. She wondered whether her bottom was actually frostbitten.

She tried to convince the others to stop at a Friendly's for hot chocolate, but no one wanted to spend the money. They stationed themselves on the side of the highway. Maggie hugged herself. She very badly wished she hadn't done this. Her mother was going to kill her.

Besides, she knew that she could have passed the history test. She wasn't talking an A, or even a B, but she wouldn't have failed. She had just told her friends she hadn't studied because she didn't want them to think she was getting uppity.

After they'd gone thirty minutes with no luck, taking turns holding the cardboard with
in big letters printed on it and no one stopping, Maggie said maybe they should head back home.

“Party pooper!” Vanessa said.

“We're going to Boston,” Kurt said.

Smirking, Vanessa sank to her knees. She folded her hands, like a little kid saying her prayers, and she looked at the sky.

“If only someone stops to give us a ride, so that we don't freeze to death, I swear I'll believe in God,” she said, then started laughing hysterically.

Maggie went to church with her family every Sunday. Since Karen died she didn't know exactly what she believed. She didn't know how God could let such a thing happen to such a wonderful little girl. To an entire family! But it made her sick, Vanessa being so crude. She tugged Vanessa's collar, trying to get her to stand. But Vanessa flailed at her, pushing her away.

“I mean it,” Vanessa said, and by now Kurt and Eugene were on their knees, too. All three of them were laughing so hard, they couldn't talk.

“Send us a ride, and we'll all believe in God,” Kurt said before he collapsed again, whooping with laughter.

And at that moment a truck stopped. Not some dinky pickup, but a super-huge Peterbilt eighteen-wheeler. The driver opened his window.

“Boston?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Kurt said.

“Hop in.” He unlatched the passenger door. Kurt, Eugene, and Vanessa were still giggling.

“Aaaah, he would have stopped anyway,” Kurt said.

“Yeah,” Vanessa said. “We take the belief shit back.”

Maggie felt so disgusted, she almost didn't climb in after them. But she was so cold. . . . Kurt reached down from the cab and pulled her in. He sat in the passenger seat, and the truck driver told the others they could ride in his little cabin.

Located right behind the cab was a tiny windowless room with a bed, some cupboards, and a bookshelf with a board across it, to prevent the books from flying around. Heat blasted out of a vent; Maggie huddled in front of it.

“It's adorable!” Vanessa squealed as Eugene pulled her onto the bed.

“It's home twenty-five days out of the month,” the driver said. Maggie tried to size him up. With Kurt and Eugene there, she felt pretty safe, but you never knew. He was neatly shaven, with short blond hair. He wore a turquoise turtleneck under a colorful ski-style sweater. About thirty years old, very clean-cut. Maggie let herself relax.

BOOK: Home Fires
11.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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