Below is the fifth chapter of Burntown by Jennifer McMahon, out April 25th!
BURNTOWN by Jennifer McMahon – Chapter 5
The Catholic school boys from across the street come looking for her, trolling the waters, sniffing around like skittish dogs in navy blue blazers and red ties. They believe in Jesus and the Heavenly Father. They believe that Christ’s body lives in those tasteless paper-thin wafers, his blood is watered down wine you buy by the gallon. Glory. Hallelujah.
Necco likes wine. Sometimes they bring some for her. Wild Irish Rose. Thunderbird. Sweet as Kool Aid. Sometimes it’s beer they bring. Warm beer in dented cans that have been riding around in some boy’s pocket all day. When she opens them, they spray, spurting like a geyser, getting all over her and the boys, making them laugh.
“Hey Fire Girl,” they cry. “You home?”
How long they’ve been coming, she doesn’t know. She’s not even sure how long she’s lived in the Palace. Four months? Six months even? She moved in just after Mama died, just after she and Hermes got together. She asks Promise to tell her, but the doll is no good at keeping time. She used to sing, back when Daddy first made her, but at some point she lost her ability to speak; Necco can still recall the funny, too-high voice singing “Rock-a-Bye Baby.”
Promise had another name back then, too. But just like Necco’s old name, that name was left behind. She’s tried her best to forget it all.
The Palace is a rusted out, tire-less Pontiac, parked and abandoned in a vacant lot. There was once a brick building here, a print shop with an old press, but all that remains are the crumbled lengths of wall, no more than six feet high, and covered in ivy.. The lot is full of sumac bushes, bittersweet, chicory, yarrow, milkweed: nature trying to reclaim what was taken. It’s been a dumping ground over the years, and in addition to the piles of bricks and old rotten timbers, there’s a washer and dryer, a heating oil tank full of bullet holes, a crumpled shopping cart, piles of old tires, and rusted bedsprings. All of this provides excellent cover and makes the Pontiac blend in, look like just another dumped and ruined thing.
Necco has found things in the lot’s rubble: little metal letters, gears from large machines. She keeps these things, stashes them away. They remind her of her father, of his workshop full of gadgets and gears. She used to visit him there, sit for hours on a stool, watching while he worked on his inventions, passing him tools with lovely names like “crescent wrench” and “needle-nosed pliers.” She’d wind up his creatures, watch them walk and soar, carefully checking them all for secret compartments which might hold a surprise: Bazooka bubblegum, Fireballs, starlight mints. She stoked the fire in his forge, watched him bend and shape hot metal like it was river clay. Daddy wore a leather apron, and would whistle while he worked. Old jazz songs, mostly.
“Fire Girl, Fire Girl, Fire Girl?” the boys cry now, their own improvised song as they come around the brick wall, wind their way through the rubble. They stick their heads through her front door, which is actually a smashed out windshield covered in an old curtain. The curtain has covered wagons with little cowboys and lassos. Giddy-up and go.
Resting along the dashboard is part of her ever-growing collection of treasures: a tiny bird skull, the gears and letters from the printing press, the bottom of a bottle she sometimes uses as a magnifying glass to start fire, and the motorcycle goggles Hermes gave her.
“Show us, Fire Girl,” one of the boys orders. They bring new boys all the time, and she waits in the Pontiac like a queen on her throne. But she doesn’t show them for nothing, no. The boys know to come bearing gifts: silver coins, crumpled dollars, jewelry with broken clasps, silk scarves stolen from their mothers, and sweets. Hermes says she should just take cash, but she enjoys these other tributes. She loves candy the most: saltwater taffy, chocolate bars with light and fluffy nougat, red and white peppermints that melt on her tongue and taste like Christmas morning. She rarely speaks to them, so they don’t know her favorite candy. Necco Wafers. They were her favorite when she was growing up, in the time Before the Flood. Afterwards, when she came to soaked in river water and coughing it out of her lungs like a fish-girl just learning to breathe air, her Mama asked if she wanted anything, anything at all, and this was what she wanted. And Mama laughed then, loud and relieved, and started calling her Necco.
Today, the boys have brought a girl, which is strange and changes the feeling of the whole afternoon. The girls don’t usually come, too scared to walk across the street; too frightened of getting burned or sliced, or of being caught by the nuns with their cruel faces.
This new girl is something of an oddity in and of herself – very tall and thin with dirty blond hair and red lipstick. She looks older than the bright-eyed boys who crowd around her, more knowing. Tucked around her neck, over the drab school uniform of white shirt, navy blazer, and red tie, she’s got a purple knitted scarf, even though it’s too warm for such a thing and the purple clashes with the school colors. Instead of the black patent-leather Mary Janes the other girls wear, she’s got on a battered pair of Doc Martens, with fuzzy, striped leg warmers in earth-tone colors. Her long fingers are stained with paint and ink, their nails short and ragged. They’re the hands of an artist; hands that reminded Necco of her own mother when she’d come out of her painting studio. This new girl rests her hands on the Pontiac’s hood, drums her fingers like maybe she’s got better things to do, other places to go. The boys gather round, give her instructions since it’s her first time.
“Hand her a gift and she’ll show you,” says the boy closest to her — an older one whose cocky sureness Necco despises. He’s called Luke.
“Just don’t let her touch you,” teases a tall boy covered in freckles. “Cause she can shoot fire from her fingertips.”
Necco smiles at this and stretches out her hands, cracking her knuckles just for show.
“She likes candy best,” another calls. “Anything sweet.”
“I don’t know what I have,” the girl says as she takes off her school satchel — an Army green canvas bag covered in pins that say things like Question Authority and Normal People Scare Me and I’m Waiting for the Zombie Apocalypse. She starts to dig around, laying the bag out on the hood of the car so she can use both hands to paw through it.
Finally, she pulls out a tattered box of Good and Plentys, the candy pink and white, rattling around in the box like medicine. “There’s not much left, but you can have it,” she says, thrusting the box in Necco’s direction. “Wait,” she says. “Here.” And she digs in her bag again before pulling out two pink metal knitting needles and a small ball of purple yarn — the color that matches the scarf around her neck. She seems to hesitate a second before handing them over. “It’s the best thing I’ve got,” the girl says.
Necco takes the needles and yarn, delighted. They remind her of something, something from her life Before the Flood – her mother sitting in a corner by the fireplace knitting a long, knobby scarf. The comforting click-click of the needles. Her mother’s hair was neatly combed and pulled back in a braid, not the scraggly, barely containable tangle of red it turned into After the Flood.
Errol was there, sitting by her feet, shuffling a deck of cards, smiling up at Mama, teasing her, tugging at the end of the yarn like a playful kitten. “I want a scarf, too,” he said. “I want one just like Little E’s. Or maybe, maybe you could just make it extra long, and she and I can wrap it around both our necks. We’d be like those twins who are born attached.”
“Conjoined,” said Daddy. He was hunched over his notebook, scribbling, smoking a pipe stuffed with cherry tobacco. Necco had smiled then, liking the idea of being tethered to her big brother, an excuse to never leave his side.
Now she blinks, and the memory is gone; unraveled like a bit of yard. She’s trained herself to do this: to stop the memories before they get to be too much to bear. It’s dangerous to think about the past, that’s what Mama always said. So she lets them all go, locks them away before they can do any harm.
Heart thumping, nervous in some new, unexpected way, she pulls up the right leg of her pants, showing the blade and lighter strapped in the custom sheath Hermes made.
The new girl leans in; she looks excited, expectant, but one of the boys pulls her back.
“Careful, she’s dangerous,” the boy named Luke warns. “I hear she once cut a boy’s spleen out for looking at her the wrong way.”
Necco smiles, doesn’t disagree as she untucks the lighter from the sheath.
The girl smiles back; it’s a conspiratorial sort of smile; an us-against-them smile.
The kids form a rough circle around her; most of them have done this plenty and know the routine. But it’s a trick for which they never tire. Reaching into the car, Necco grabs a candle and a small cotton ball from the dash. She lights the candle, palms the cotton ball, then makes a show of tucking the lighter back in the sheath as everyone eyes the blade, wondering if this might be the time she pulls it. She’s dangerous, this Fire Girl they’ve come to see.
The trick works best in the dark, but she’s learned to do it quickly in the light, the way her mother taught her. Necco isn’t a true Fire Eater, not in the sense that mother was, but she’s learned a few parlor tricks. Enough to earn a little spending money.
She stares at the candle flame, passes her right hand over it, making a grabbing, pulling motion at the flame. Then, cotton ignited, she’s got a flame of her own between her thumb and index finger.
The new girl watches, eyes wide. There is sweat on her upper lip.
Necco moves the little ball of flame quickly in a ceremonial circle through the air before opening her mouth and shoving it in. She closes her mouth, exhales smoke through her nose.
Everyone applauds, hoots and hollers. Necco gives them a little bow. The boys shuffle their feet, know it’s time to go, but don’t want it to end.
Then, the girl does what none of them have ever done before: she reaches out and touches Necco’s shoulder, says, “Thank you. That was amazing.”
The boys laugh, loud and hard. “Fire Girl’s amazing!” they call, faces flushed.
“Marry me, Fire Girl,” one boy begs, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his neatly ironed school pants. “Have you ever slept in a real bed, Fire Girl? Huh? Have you?”
Necco laughs. He can’t be more than fifteen, this boy.
She doesn’t tell him that once, she slept in a canopy bed covered in brightly colored handmade quilts. Her room was purple and she had a lamp with a stained glass shade on her bedside table. Her father had made a circle of dragonflies with paper bodies and tiny lights inside that surrounded her bed, their wings flapping gently in the slightest breeze.
Promise the doll sat perched on the top of bed, her face new and clean, her pink dress crisp. If you pulled a cord on her back, she’d sing in a song.
“Marry me,” the boy insists, eyes glistening.
Sometimes, the boys ask Necco to do other things. Dirty things. The cocky boy, Luke, has done this before. “Twenty bucks if you blow me, Fire Girl. I’ll throw in an extra five if you’re any good at it. I bet that mouth of yours can eat more than just fire.” They offer money, promise to get her anything she wants. But she always shakes her head. She rarely speaks to them. This is part of her power.
If they get too insistent, too rude, she shows them the blade. One time, a boy got too close, put his hand on her chest, and she hit him in the gut so hard he doubled over.
“Theo loves Fire Girl,” hollers the tall boy with freckles, and the new girl turns and stomps hard on his foot, making him scream. The other boys laugh harder and Necco actually joins them. And just like that, for about thirty seconds, she’s a normal girl.
“Show’s over!” a voice booms, shattering the moment.
Hermes is upon them, his shadow long and lean as he whips his backpack around like a heavy weapon. “Go on! Get! Unless you all want to pay again,” he yells like they’re a pack of stray dogs begging for scraps.
The kids scatter like bugs. The girl is last to leave, and gives Necco a little smile and a wave, then turns and runs to join the others, flipping one end of the purple scarf up over her shoulder as she makes her way around the old bedsprings and back through the gaps in the wall to the street.
“Why do you let them stick around so long after the trick?” Hermes asks, tossing his backpack into the Pontiac. His dark hair falls into his eyes and he pushes it back. His face is tense, frustrated. “It’s not like they’re your friends or anything. They just come to see you do that fire trick over and over like a circus freak. I hate that that’s what you have to do to get stuff.”
“I like to do the trick. And I don’t mind them sticking around. They amuse me,” she confesses.
“I don’t like you doing it when I’m not here,” Hermes says, laying his backpack down and starting to rummage. “I don’t like the way some of those boys look at you.” He gives a look, part jealousy, part worry.
“I can take care of myself,” she says. “And it wasn’t just boys today. There was a girl with them.”
She looks down at the knitting needles in her hands, then something catches her eye on the hood of the Pontiac. The girl has left her bag. Necco looks for the girl, thinking she should call her back, but it’s too late — she’s out of sight.
Hermes looks up from his backpack at her and frowns hard. “What have you got there? Another one of their gifts?”
“Nothing special,” she tells him, pulling the satchel to her chest.
He shrugs, goes back to looking in his own backpack.
When Necco peers into the bag, she finds the usual things — a school ID card, pens, notebook, Chemistry text book, a couple of paperbacks including one she recognizes immediately: The Princess and The Elephant by Dr. Miles Sandeski. Heart hammering, holding her breath, she nearly pulls the book out, shouts to Hermes, says, “Look! It’s my father’s book!” – but it’s too much. They’re not supposed to talk about their lives before. Fingers shaking, she tucks the book down at the bottom of the bag, turning it over so that she sees Daddy’s photo on the back: he’s wearing glasses and his favorite corduroy jacket, smiling into the camera, at her mother, who took the photo. She’s never read her father’s book. She’ll take it out later maybe, sometime Hermes isn’t around.
At the very bottom of the bag, next to where she’s tucked her father’s book, is a thick envelope held together with a rubber band – she can see it’s stuffed with cash. And next to that, a clear plastic bag full of pills and capsules bright as candy. She can’t tell how much money is there — it looks like a lot. She almost pulls it out to show Hermes, but something stops her. She thinks of the girl’s smile, the way her fingers felt on Necco’s shoulder; of how she’s the first one who hasn’t been afraid to touch the Fire Girl.
Necco stashes the girl’s bag under the front seat.
Then she turns to Hermes, raises a hand, strokes his hair. When he faces her, she kisses him.
He has a scar over his lip in the place where most people have a slight groove — a faint reminder of the animals we once were. She knows about evolution: her father taught her, showed her textbooks with pictures of early man; told her that all mammals shared a single, common ancestor.
Hermes’s scar makes it look like his lip is split right down the middle like a rabbit or a squirrel – something small, soft and vulnerable. She likes to kiss him there, feel the raised skin, the place where there’s no stubble.
She does it now, touching her lips to his skin as delicately as a moth landing.
“Tell me,” she says, not needing to finish the sentence. He knows what she wants, can read her mind. Necco believes they were destined for each other. That if things were different, if they’d met in their lives before rather than out here on the street, they might even have gotten married one day. Had a whole herd of little babies with beautiful faces. Maybe send them to Catholic school where they’d learn about the Holy Ghost.
“You know,” he says. “I’ve told it a thousand times.”
“Tell it again,” she asks, voice cooing. “Make it a thousand and one.”
“I fell off a horse,” he tells her, irritated, bored.
She pictures him riding a wild stallion through the desert, just like the cowboys on the curtain. They don’t talk much about their lives before. Hermes always says, “There is no before. There is only us. That’s all that matters.”
Hermes is older than the school boys in their pretty blazers. He’s all done with high school. He went to college last fall to study computer science, but he says college is just part of the zombie machine, and his father was on his ass all the time, full of expectations, and so he bailed after his first week of classes. He packed a few things in a backpack and came to live on the streets. “Screw college. Screw my dad. I’m not gonna be one of the sheeple, walking around just doing what everyone else expects.”
He wears combat boots, green fatigue pants, and a long waxed canvas coat. He keeps a huge hunting knife strapped to his belt in a leather sheath, and he carries a flashlight, screwdriver, pry bar, rolls of duct tape and paracord everywhere he goes. He believes in being prepared.
“Hermes was the messenger of the gods. He’s also the god of thieves,” he once explained with a wink. And that’s how her Hermes survives now – he goes into crowded places at lunch time and comes back with a backpack full of wallets, cellphones, laptops, and hundred-dollar fountain pens with ink as blue as the ocean in a kid’s painting. Sometimes, he gets whole briefcases. He dissects the electronics, wipes them clean, and sells them. He’s got a guy across town who will pay cash, no questions asked.
“This is where it’s happening, Necco,” he tells her. “The real world. All the stuff that matters.”
She knows Hermes is not his real name. He whispered it to her once, just a few days after they met, the day they found The Palace and moved in. They were lying curled up together in the back, his fingers wrapped around hers. “What was your real name?” he asked. “Your name before?”
Her body tensed. “If I tell you mine, you have to tell me yours.”
“Okay. But you gotta promise you won’t ever call me by it. I’m not that guy anymore. And I promise I’ll never call you by your other name either. You’re Necco to me, now and forever.”
So she told him her name. And he kissed her ear, whispered his own into it, Matthew, and it sounded so lovely when he said it, a glittery golden ball sliding over his tongue, through his lips and teeth.
He’s never told her his last name. All she knows is that his daddy is someone important. Someone with more money and power than God, if you go by what Hermes always says. But Hermes doesn’t want any of dad’s money. He’s turned his back on the whole thing and his dad has actually hired a private detective to track Hermes down and bring him home.
“Can you believe it?” he asks sometimes. “My dad actually paying someone to trail my ass around town?”
And Necco doesn’t answer. The truth is, she can believe it. If she lost him, she’d pay anything she had to have someone bring him back.
Necco’s story of how she ended up on the street isn’t like Hermes’. It wasn’t a conscious choice. It was just what they had to do. That’s what Mama always said, anyway. And even though Necco questioned about half of the things Mama said After the Flood, what choice did she have but to go along with it all? Mama was all she had left and she was all Mama had left — they had to stick together no matter what.
What bothered Necco the most is that she had no memories of the flood itself: the very event that brought them to live the way they did.
Necco is sure it was the bump on the head that did it. It knocked all the memories of that day out of her. When her mother found her the morning after the Great Flood, she had a big swollen gash on the back of her head.
“Some things are for the best,” Mama always said when Necco complained about her loss of memory. Necco would ask Mama, pester her for details about what actually happened on the day of the flood, but Mama always shook her head, told her their own past was not important.
Miss Abigail and the other fire eaters found Necco and her mother a few days after the flood. She and Mama were trying to start a fire down by the river to heat a can of soup Necco had shoplifted. They were cold and hungry and Necco wanted, more than anything, to go home.
“Please, Mama,” Necco begged. “Can’t we go back to the house just once more time?” She wanted to go back and get more of her things, her own clothes, her books, her favorite purple boots.
“No,” Mama told her in a stern voice. “We can never go back. There’s nothing there for us. The flood took everything. The house is gone. Your father and Errol are dead. And it’s not safe.”
“Listen to me, Necco. There is a bad man looking for us. A very bad man. And he’ll be watching that spot, hoping we’ll come back to see if anything’s left. Promise me you will never return,” she said.
A thousand questions filled her head. About the flood, who the bad man was; about how her father and Errol had died. “But I just—“
“Promise,” Mama said, digging her fingers into Necco’s arms, her eyes frantic.
“I promise,” Necco said, and Mama released her. Necco struck another match, setting it to the crumpled soggy newspaper, trying desperately to get it to light.
Half an hour later, Necco looked up from the still unlit fire to see four women coming toward them. The oldest had long, unkempt gray hair knotted with colorful rags, and was in the lead.
“I’m Miss Abigail,” she said. “My friends and I – Miss F, Miss Coral and Miss Stella–have a camp about a quarter mile downstream, under the Blachly Bridge. We’ve got a warm fire, shelter and plenty of food. Will you come join us?”
Mama shook her head. “We’re fine on our own.”
Miss Abigail looked around. “This spot you’re in, it’s not safe for you. We can keep you protected. You and the girl.”
“What makes you think we need protecting?” Mama asked, looking the old woman straight in the eye.
“The Great Mother told us. She told us you were coming. To expect you and help you. She said there were dark forces working against you.”
The women were all dressed in ragged clothing. Clearly homeless and crazy, they were the sort of people Mama would have pulled Necco away from back in their other lives, the kind they would have crossed the street to avoid.
“Great Mother?” Mama said.
Miss Abigail smiled, held out her hand. “Come with us. We’ll explain everything. Just stay one night. Get warmed up and fed and listen to what we have to say. If you want to leave in the morning, you’re free to do so.”
They followed the women to their camp, settled in a circle around a blazing fire. The women lived in shacks cobbled together from shipping pallets, scrap wood, drift wood from the river, and tarps. They ladled vegetable stew from a cast iron pot into carved wooden bowls.
Necco ate three bowls, studying these strange women in the flickering firelight. Miss Stella was young, twenty at the most, and Asian American. Her hair was buzzed on one side, but long enough to wear in a ponytail on the other. She wore black leggings and a wool poncho, and from what Necco could see of her body, she was decorated, head to toe, with piercings and tattoos. She took a particular interest in Necco, making sure her bowl was full and draping a blanket around her shoulders so she’d be warmer.
Miss Coral wore thick, black-framed cats-eye glasses and had her dark hair pulled back in a tight bun. She reminded Necco of a librarian. Miss F was a tiny woman with dirty-blond hair and fierce eyes. She looked half-wild, like she was ready to tear your face apart with her teeth and fingers.
“It was fate that brought you to us,” Miss Abigail said once they had finished with dinner. She was dressed like a strange cartoon character, with colorful shirts layered one on top of the other, and three skirts with striped leggings underneath. “And fate will decide whether or not you stay.”
Mama’s eyes were fixed on the black water behind the fire. “I’ve always hated this place. Ashford. I can’t believe fate would call on me to stay in such a vile, dirty city.”
Miss Abigail smiled. “Everyone sees things through their own set of filters,” she said. “I look around this city and I see life, I see the past and present, I see tiny miracles every day. This stew we’re eating is made from wild plants gathered around the city. This place takes care of us, nurtures us, gives us all we need.”
She pulled a small leather pouch from around her neck, opened it and sprinkled some red powder into her palm and snorted it up her nose. She held out her hand to the other three women and they all inhaled a small bit of the powder up their noses. In the firelight, Necco could see the red stains under their noses, the way their pupils expanded, and their eyes got glassy like dolls. Miss Stella smiled at Necco.
Then, Miss Abigail came forward, held the pouch over Mama’s head, watched it swing in a slow, steady circle. “The snuff has chosen you,” Miss Abigail said.
“Chosen me?” Mama said.
Miss Abigail opened the pouch again, sprinkled more out.
“What is it?” Mama asked.
“The Devil’s Snuff,” Miss Abigail said.
Necco got a chill. Even though they had never been church-goers or read anything from the bible, Necco knew to stay away from anything with the devil in its name.
“What does it do?” Mama asked.
“It takes the filters away. It shows you what you need to know.”
“My past?” Mama asked, looking both worried and hopeful.
“Your past, your future, your true purpose. The snuff shows you that it’s all connected.”
“Will it show me what to do next?
Miss Abigail nodded. “It will show you everything you need to know.”
Mama looked into the fire. Necco watched, thinking there was no way Mama would do it. Mama only had a glass or two of wine a year, never smoked – there was no way she was going to take some weird hallucinogen, even if it had chosen her.
Mama’s eyes stayed fixed on the fire. At last, she smiled and nodded, leaned forward, covered one nostril and leaned so that her face was over the old woman’s hand.
“Mama, no!” Necco cried.
“It’s okay,” Miss Stella said, putting a tattooed hand on Necco’s arm.
“Child,” Miss Abigail said, smiling at Necco. “It won’t hurt her. What’s she’s about to do – this is her destiny.”
With that, Mama snorted the bright red powder up her nose. And, whether she realized it or not, that one action sealed their fates.
Mama closed her eyes for a long time and sat rigid, like her body turned to smooth, pale stone. Necco watched, stomach tight, heart pounding, waiting to see what might happen. What if Mama never opened her eyes again – what if it killed her or made her go crazy?
“Mama?” Necco called. She stood up, started to walk to where her mother sat, but Miss Abigail stopped her, dropping her arm down like a railroad crossing gate.
“Wait, child,” Miss Abigail ordered.
Mama’s eyes popped open and she took in a deep, gasping breath, like a drowning woman desperate for air. She gazed into the fire, pupils dilated, transfixed, like she was watching a movie no one else could see.
“In the beginning,” Mama said, her voice loud and sure, “the Great Mother laid an egg and that egg became our world.”
The other women cooed, said, “Yes,” in low, droning, sing-song voices.
Miss Abigail snorted more powder, smiled wide at Mama. “You, Miss Lily, are the one we’ve been waiting for,” she said. “Our missing piece. The fifth point of our star.”
And Mama did not question. She nodded, like she too, believed it was the Great Mother and fate that had pulled them together.
The next morning, she and Necco began work on building their own shack in the camp of the fire eaters. Over the next months and years, Mama learned to inhale the Devil’s Snuff, to tend the secret patch of berries they used to make the snuff, to see visions, eat fire, and talk the snuff talk. They stayed at the camp by the river most of the year, and when the weather turned cold and the fire eaters scattered, Mama found them shelter in tunnels near the old mill — the Winter House — to hunker down and await spring.
Mama called the city “Burntown,” reinventing it, the way she did so many things. As if, by giving it a new name, she could turn it into a different place. And it was a different place. They were living on a different side of it, anyway; the underside, the fringe, the places most of the city residents didn’t even notice. Up top, where the college was, where people went to work every day at the paper mill, that was Ashford. But down here under the bridge where the women did the snuff, saw visions and ate fire, this was Burntown.
In time, Mama started painting again, making pictures of the visions the snuff gave her. She’d paint on paper shopping bags, plywood scraps, birch bark. She made her own paints from berries, leaves, roots, clay, sap and even blood. Necco would watch her paint, see her get totally lost in it, the way she used to in their lives before, and think that in these moments, her mother actually seemed almost happy.
The longer they stayed with the fire eaters in Burntown, the more snuff Mama did, the farther away their old lives became, the more Mama turned into a completely different person. A woman whose paranoia seemed to creep after her, everywhere she went. She was sure that they were being watched by librarians, cops, bus drivers.
“The Jujubes are especially bad, Necco,” Mama said, using her own special nickname for the cops (the flashing lights on top of the cruisers looked like candy to her). “They’re looking for us, too. If they find us, we’re done for.” Whenever they saw a cop, they crossed the street, ducked down an alley out of sight. Necco always thought it made them look more suspicious, but there was no arguing with Mama.
“There is a man, Necco, who can take all the light out of the world. He’s a walking shadow, a black hole man. And he has such power, he can do things you can only imagine. They say he can fly. He can come spying on you in your dreams. He’s the King of Liars. A jackal-hearted man. He goes by many names: the Chicken Man, Snake Eyes . . . And here’s the worst part of all: he’s the one responsible for the Great Flood. Other terrible things, too. Like what happened to your grandparents.”
“My grandparents died in a car accident,” Necco reminded her mother, irritated. Sometimes it just exhausted her, trying to sift through her mother’s stories and pick out what was real and what wasn’t. It was like panning for gold, picking through all the mud and sand, trying to find the nuggets of truth. “And how can a man be responsible for a flood? It’s not possible.”
“Oh, but it is. It is for Snake Eyes. He’s the one who killed your daddy and Errol. He meant to drown us, too, baby girl, and he’s real unhappy we got away from him. He’s searching for us even now. Every day. Every night. He’s on our trail like an old hound dog, or a shark that’s tasted blood. He won’t rest until he finds us. We have to be on the lookout. Ever vigilant. He’s sneaky, this man. He can change his face, his hair, his clothes. He can look like a business man or a greasy-haired biker.”
”Right,” Necco said, exasperated. “And if all that’s true, Mama, if there’s really a human chameleon after us, how are we supposed to even know it’s him?”
“His mark, Necco,” Mama said, sounding just as irritated and frustrated with Necco as Necco had been with her. “He has a pair of dice tattooed on his left wrist — both with a single dot on top. You see that mark, that pair of snake eyes staring back at you, you run. You run as fast and as far as you can.”
Maybe, Necco told herself, it was easier for her mother to have someone to blame; a mythical monster who was responsible for all the bad things that had happened to them, who lurked in the shadows of every alley. Easier than believing that sometimes truly terrible things happened for no reason.
The events of the flood – losing their home, Daddy and Errol – had broken her mother in some profound way. The snuff just continued to fill what was left of her with tiny hairline cracks, making her fragile as a porcelain doll.
And eventually, that doll shattered. Mama’s paranoia and frightening snuff-induced visions got the best of her, and she threw herself off the Steel Bridge. That was back in the spring. It’s been months, but Necco misses her each and every moment; wishes she could turn back the clock and find a way to stop her.
If Necco closes her eyes now, she can picture her mama so clearly, hear her voice as she talked the story-talk down by the river after doing the snuff, the underside of her nose stained red as she told how the world was born like she was right there, seeing it for the first time. Sometimes, Necco imagined her mama to be the Great Mother, eyes big and bright as planets, greenish-brown ringed in yellow.
“In the beginning, the Great Mother of all laid an egg and that egg became our world. A bright and blazing orb, spinning through space.” Mama would light the torch: a wad of cotton wrapped at the end of a straightened wire coat hanger, soaked in camping fuel from a red and silver can. It burned like a newly formed planet.
“Imagine it,” Mama would croon, voice hypnotic, as she waved the torch through the air, swooping, doing careful figure eights. She’d put her fingers to the flame, pulling at it, teasing it, cupping the fire in her hand, making it jump, do tricks. She was that good.
Necco would be sitting, cross-legged on the ground watching. She’d lean closer, smelling the dirty brown river that raced behind Mama, and the thick, fuel-laden smoke that drifted from the torch. She could hear the cars roaring over the bridge above them. A whole other life going on above, a life she and her mama were once a part of: a life of trips to the grocery store in the car, going to museums, going to visit her daddy in his office at the college, doctor and dentist appointments. It all seemed so far away.
Mama would sway in her thin cotton dress. It was one she’d worn in their other life, one with sunflowers on it that Daddy said made her look like Queen of the Garden, and they’d dance as Mama stared into the flames with total focus, in a trance. There were blisters and scars around her mouth, her ragged red hair was singed, her eyelashes burned off. And if you looked in just the right place, you could see the outline of the little revolver Mama kept strapped under her dress, just in case.
“Imagine the world as it first was — nothing but fire,” Mama would say, eyes glassy, nostrils red, lips blistered, her voice almost a song. “Then, things cooled. The rains came down. It rained and it rained for days and nights, season after season. There was water, one great ocean covering the whole planet. And the creatures! The creatures had fins, gills — that was life as it was then. Eventually, the Great Mother created land and the creatures learned to suck air into their lungs, to slither and squirm up out of the water onto the muddy banks and shores. They had webbed feet, damp skin. They hopped. They sang. They were our first ancestors, long before the monkeys with their sticky little fingers.”
This part of the story always reminded Necco of the science lessons her daddy gave she and Errol; how he said all creatures shared one common ancestor once upon a time. She’d imagined, back then, a creature like her mama described now, part fish, part frog, flopping its way out of the water, getting that first gulp of air.
Mama would raise the torch, continue on. “Life on earth is constantly evolving. The Great Mother sees to that. There is fire and water, water and fire. Destruction and life. The flood we lost your daddy and Errol in, that was only the beginning. The world is changing. There is danger all around.” Here, she’d open her eyes, look right at Necco, face serious, tight with panic. “I have seen him in my dreams, Necco. I know he’s coming. That’s why we have to stay here, we have to stay hidden. But one day, he’ll find us. One day, there will be no more running. No more hiding.” At this, she would touch the gun under her dress, just making sure it was still there.
“What’d you bring today?” Necco asks Hermes later that night, following him into the backseat. They’ve filled the space between the backseat and front with cushions, making one large bed. The nest, Hermes calls it and she likes to cuddle up there with him at night, burrowed deep under the blankets, imagining they’re creatures deep underground; rabbits in a warren, snug and safe.
Necco has added the latest gifts up on the shelf above the backseat with the other treasures gathered there: candy, the jar she uses for making sprouts, pretty rocks, Promise the doll. The knitting needles and yarn sit next to the one thing of her mother’s she’s kept: a gold locket with her father’s picture inside. But it’s a funny photo, because it’s Daddy as a little boy. Back before Mama even met him. In the photo, her daddy is a scrawny, dark-haired boy dressed in a Robin Hood costume, holding a homemade bow, a quiver of arrows strapped to his back.
“Did you get my necklace fixed?” she asks. She has a charm she wears around her neck — a little brass elephant that belonged to her father. He’d given it to her for her fourteenth birthday, just a few months before the Great Flood. The chain broke last week and Hermes took it saying he’d get it fixed. He knew a jeweler; someone he took stuff to sell sometimes. This guy could fix the broken clasp.
“Not yet,” Hermes frowns.
“Well, what did you bring, then?”
“News,” he says, looking away for a second. “I have something to share with you. Something big. And it’s going to change everything, but it’s going to be good in the long run. I really believe that.”
It almost sounded like he was trying reassure himself as much as her.
“What is it?” she asks, the worry making her throat ache.
“I can’t tell you yet. Not now. I have to show you.”
“Show me? Well, when can you show me?”
“Tomorrow. I’ll take you tomorrow.”
“You’ll see,” he strokes the hair back away from her face, kisses her forehead and pulling her into an embrace. “You’ll understand everything then.”
She leans into him, sees there’s a string around his neck. She reaches for it, pulls out a funny looking key on a string. The shank of the key is a cylinder with little teeth jutting off the sides. The head is coated in bright orange plastic and has the number 213 engraved on it in black.
“It’s part of what I have to show you.”
He puts his fingers to her lips. “Be patient,” he tells her. “Tomorrow. I’ll show you tomorrow.”
She stares at the strange little key, watches him tuck it back inside his shirt.
“I can show you this now, though,” he says, smiling, reaching into the outer pocket of his backpack. He pulls out a loaf of bread, hunk of cheese and two apples.
Necco is ravenous, but as soon as she gets one whiff of the cheese, her stomach does a flip.
She nods her head, swallowing down the watery feeling in her mouth, trying not to throw up. “Fine,” she says. She takes deep breaths.
She’s been throwing up a lot lately, but hasn’t told Hermes. Pretty soon she won’t be able to keep her secret from him, though. She’s been mulling it over for weeks now, trying to figure out how she should tell him. She looks over at the knitting needles, remembers sitting at her mother’s feet with Errol in the warm living room, the comforting click-click-click sound. If Mama were here, she’d say those needles the girl brought were a sign, a symbol. Mama was a big believer in signs and messages. She had been even way back in their lives before the flood, even.
“I have a surprise, too,” Necco says.
“Yeah?” he asks, ripping off a hunk of bread and cutting a piece of cheese to go with it.
“It’s a big one and I’m not sure you’re going to like it.”
“What is it?” he asks, setting down the food.
“Well, the thing is —” she says, stalling like a coward. But she’s no coward. She’s the fire girl. “I’m pregnant.” She lets the words fly out like sparks, watches the shock of it roll over him.
“Are you. . . . are you sure?” he stammers.
“I wouldn’t tell you if I wasn’t.”
“But we’ve been careful,” Hermes says.
“Not careful enough, I guess,” she tells him.
“Holy shit,” he says, eyes wide. “A baby? How long have you known?”
“The past couple of weeks.”
This seems to shock him more than the initial news. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I needed to think. To figure out what I want to do.”
There’s a pause. It feels like they’re both holding their breath. “And?”
“I’ve decided I want to keep it,” she tells him. “But I don’t expect anything from you. I know the last thing on earth you want to do is be a daddy, especially like this. I’m thinking that maybe I should check into a shelter, the Lighthouse or someplace like that. Get off the street, get checked out in a clinic.”
She’s been reading up on pregnancy at the library and thinks of all the things that can go wrong: ectopic pregnancy, miscarriages, various birth defects. She needs to give this baby a chance to grow and be healthy. She needs good food. A safe place to sleep at night. Vitamins. She needs to start taking special vitamins with iron and folic acid. That’s what the books said.
Hermes smiles real wide. “You’re going to have a baby.”
“Yes,” she says, her head spinning a little, because hearing it out loud like this, hearing someone else say the words, that makes it real.
He puts a hand over her belly. His hand is warm, the fingertips calloused and rough.
“You’re going to be someone’s Mommy,” he says. “And I’m going to be a daddy.”
And hearing those words, it’s like a wave crashing over her, carrying her off to a land far, far away. A land of mommies and daddies and tiny babies and songs and cribs and nursery rhymes. Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon. But then, another wave of memory comes, one that threatens to destroy anything that might bring her a taste of a normal life. That’s what the Great Flood has done to her. She struggles her way back to the surface, her head aching.
“Yes,” she says.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Hermes asks. “Be a mom?” He says it like she’s been given some mistake disguised as a gift that she might not want any part of — two left shoes, a teacup with a hole at the bottom.
“Yes, I’m sure. But like I said, you don’t have to be a part of this. I can do this on my own.”
“But I am a part of it,” Hermes says, pulling her close, “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll take care of you and the baby, and we’ll be a real family. You’ll see. And all this makes what I have to show you tomorrow so much more important. It’s perfect really.”
A real family. She’s not even sure what that means. She remembers her own parents tucking her in at night, back before the flood, when she was just a little girl. Mama would brush and braid her hair, Daddy would read her a story. How happy and whole she felt with both of them there each night. Necco closes her eyes, concentrates and the memory is gone. Banished, like the all others that came before it. She’s tried so hard to put away all the memories of her own family, of growing up in the time Before the Flood. She keeps them all locked up in a box inside her, because it’s just too painful to think about how things used to be. It’s how she survives; how she doesn’t let herself go crazy. Crazy like Mama went crazy.
She knows it’s not fair, the life that she has right now to offer her baby — living in a car, eating fire for candy and trinkets. But she’ll change things. But she’ll turn it around. She’s got a reason now. And Mama’s gone. There’s no reason to keep living like this, like a girl on the run. The things that Mama said, they were paranoid thoughts from too much snuff. There was never any bad man after them. No one watching, lurking. It’s time to move forward. To get off the street.
She’ll go to the shelter, ask for help. And piece by piece, she and Hermes can build a real life together. Get jobs maybe. An apartment. A little crib for the baby. She’ll learn to knit. Use the needles she got today to knit little baby booties, a tiny hat. Click-click-click will go the needles while she knits in a rocking chair, just like her own mama once did.
“It’s going to be okay,” Hermes says. “Hell, more than okay. I can make this work. I can even go to my family if I have to. My dad’s a complete asshole, but my mom would help us. We’ll figure it out.”
Hermes rocks her and she closes her eyes, feels the key around his neck press against her back. She imagines a baby tucked deep inside her, a tiny tadpole breathing fluid; a gilled thing.
She falls asleep and dreams she’s pushing a baby carriage over a bridge. Then her skin gets clammy because she realizes it’s not just any bridge, but the Steel Bridge, the one her mama jumped off, throwing herself into the muddy river fifty feet down.
But Necco’s ripped a hole in time somehow and Mama’s there, alive again, waiting, perched on the edge, looking down into the water. Her mouth is stained red, her singed hair in tangles. She’s dripping wet, like she’s just climbed out of the water. She’s got Hermes’ key strapped around her neck.
Mama turns from the water, studies her.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Mama says, smiling, showing teeth the color of blood. “Let me see that grand-baby of mine.”
Necco bends down to pull back the covers on the carriage, but can’t. She’s afraid of what she might find there.
“Sometimes,” Mama says, her fingers wrapped around the key that dangles from her neck, “the truth isn’t something you want to look in the face. Sometimes, you’re better off not knowing.”
I was born in 1968 and grew up in my grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, where I was convinced a ghost named Virgil lived in the attic. I wrote my first short story in third grade. I graduated with a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and then studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. A poem turned into a story, which turned into a novel, and I decided to take some time to think about whether I wanted to write poetry or fiction. After bouncing around the country, I wound up back in Vermont, living in a cabin with no electricity, running water, or phone with my partner, Drea, while we built our own house.
Over the years, I have been a house painter, farm worker, paste-up artist, Easter Bunny, pizza delivery person, homeless shelter staff member, and counselor for adults and kids with mental illness — I quit my last real job in 2000 to work on writing full time. In 2004, I gave birth to our daughter, Zella. These days, we’re living in an old Victorian in Montpelier, Vermont. Some neighbors think it looks like the Addams family house, which brings me immense pleasure.
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