Chapter 27

Denise pulled into the drive, tired from her shift. The steady rain had kept business slow all night. There’d been just enough to keep her constantly moving, but not enough to make decent tips. More or less a wasted evening, but on the bright side, she’d been able to leave a little early, and Kyle hadn’t stirred as she’d loaded him into the car. He’d become used to curling up around her on the ride home over the past few months, but now that she had her own car again (hurray!), she had to buckle him into the backseat. Last night he’d fussed so much that he hadn’t been able to fall asleep again for a couple of hours.

Denise stifled a yawn as she turned up the drive, relieved that she’d be in bed soon. The gravel was wet from the earlier rains, and she could hear small pinging sounds as the wheels kicked up pebbles that ricocheted off her car. A few more minutes, a nice cup of cocoa, and she’d be under the covers. The thought was almost intoxicating.

The night was black and moonless, dark clouds blocking the light from the stars. A light fog had settled in, and Denise moved up the drive slowly, using the porch light as a beacon. As she neared the house and things came into better focus, she nearly slammed on the brakes at the sight of Taylor’s truck parked out front.

Glancing toward the front door, she saw Taylor sitting on the steps, waiting for her.

Despite her exhaustion, her mind snapped to attention. A dozen possibilities raced through her head as she parked and shut off the engine.

Taylor approached the car as she got out, careful not to slam the door behind her. She was about to ask him what he wanted when the words died on her lips.

He looked terrible.

His eyes were red rimmed and raw looking, his face pale and drawn. As he pushed his hands deep into his pockets, he seemed unable to meet her gaze. Frozen, she searched for something to say.

“I see you got yourself a car,” Taylor offered.

The sound of his voice triggered a flood of emotions in her: love and joy, pain and anger, the loneliness and quiet desperation of the past few weeks.

She couldn’t go through all this again.

“What are you doing here, Taylor?”

Her voice was edged with more bitterness than Taylor had expected. Taylor took a deep breath.

“I came to tell you how sorry I was,” he began haltingly. “I never meant to hurt you.”

She’d wanted to hear those words at one time, but strangely they meant nothing now. She glanced over her shoulder at the car, spying Kyle’s sleeping figure in the back.

“It’s too late for that,” she said.

He lifted his head slightly. In the light of the porch he looked far older than she remembered, almost as if years had passed since she’d last seen him. He forced a thin-lipped smile, then lowered his gaze again before pulling his hands from his pockets. He took a hesitant step toward his truck.

Had it been any other day, had it been any other person, he would have kept moving, telling himself that he’d tried. Instead he forced himself to stop.

“Melissa’s moving to Rocky Mount,” he said into the darkness, his back to her.

Denise absently ran her hand through her hair. “I know. She told me a couple of days ago. Is that why you’re here?”

Taylor shook his head. “No. I’m here because I wanted to talk about Mitch.” He murmured the words over his shoulder; Denise could barely hear him. “I was hoping that you’d listen because I don’t know who else to turn to.”

His vulnerability touched and surprised her, and for a fleeting moment she almost went to his side. But she couldn’t forget what he had done to Kyle-or to her, she reminded herself.

I can’t go through this again.

But I also said I’d be there if you needed to talk.

“Taylor . . . it’s really late . . . maybe tomorrow?” she suggested softly. Taylor nodded, as if he had expected her to say as much. She thought he would leave then, yet strangely he didn’t move from his spot.

In the distance Denise heard the faint rumble of thunder. The temperature was dropping, and the moisture in the air made it seem colder than it really was. A misty halo encircled the porch light, glittering like tiny diamonds, as Taylor turned to face her again.

“I also wanted to tell you about my father,” he said slowly. “It’s time you finally knew the truth.”

From his strained expression, she knew how hard it had been for him to say the words. He seemed on the verge of tears as he stood before her; this time it was her turn to look away.

Her mind flashed back to the day of the festival when he’d asked to drive her home. She’d gone against her instincts, and as a result she’d eventually received a painful lesson. Here again was another crossroads, and once more she hesitated. She sighed.

It’s not the right time, Taylor. It’s late, and Kyle’s already asleep. I’m tired and don’t think I’m ready for this just yet.

That’s what she imagined herself saying.

The words that came out, however, were different.

“All right,” she said.

He didn’t look at her from his position on the couch. With the room lit by only a single lamp, dark shadows hid his face.

“I was nine years old,” he began, “and for two weeks, we were practically buried in heat. The temperature had hovered near a hundred, even though it was still early in the summer. It had been one of the driest springs on record-not a single drop of rain in two months, and everything was splinter dry. I remember my mother and father talking about the drought and how farmers were already beginning to worry about their crops because summer had supposedly just begun. It was so hot that time just seemed to slow down. I’d wait all day for the sun to go down for some relief, but even then it didn’t help. Our house was old-it didn’t have air-conditioning or much insulation-and just lying in bed would make me sweat. I remember that my sheets would get soaked; it was impossible to sleep. I kept moving around to get comfortable, but I couldn’t. I’d just toss and turn and sweat like crazy.”

He was staring at the coffee table as he spoke, his eyes unfocused, his voice subdued. Denise watched as one hand formed into a fist, then relaxed, then formed again. Opening and closing like the door to his memory, random images slipping through the cracks.

“Back then, there was this set of plastic army soldiers that I saw in the Sears catalog. It came with tanks, jeeps, tents, and barricades-everything a kid needs to have a little war, and I don’t remember ever wanting anything more in my whole life. I used to leave the catalog open to that page so that my mom wouldn’t miss it, and when I finally got the set for my birthday, I don’t think I’d ever been more excited about a gift. But my bedroom was real small-it used to be a sewing room before I came along-and there wasn’t enough space to set it up the way I wanted, so I put the whole collection up in the attic. When I couldn’t sleep that night, that’s where I went.”

He finally looked up, a rueful sigh escaping from him, something bitter and long repressed. He shook his head as if he still didn’t believe it. Denise knew enough not to interrupt.

“It was late. It was past midnight when I snuck past my parents’ door to the steps at the end of the hall. I was so quiet-I knew where every squeak in the floor was, and I purposely avoided them so my parents wouldn’t know I was up there. And they didn’t.”

He brought his hands to his face and bent forward, hiding his face before letting his hands fall away again. His voice gained momentum.

“I don’t know how long I was up there that night. I could play with those soldiers for hours and not even realize it. I just kept setting them up and fighting these imaginary battles. I was always Sergeant Mason-the soldiers had their names stamped in the bottom-and when I saw that one of them had my father’s name, I knew he had to be the hero. He always won, no matter what the odds were. I’d pit him against ten men and a tank, and he’d always do exactly the right thing. In my mind, he was indestructible; I’d get lost in Sergeant Mason’s world, no matter what else was going on. I’d miss dinner or forget my chores . . . I couldn’t help it. Even on that night, hot as it was, I couldn’t think of anything else but those damn soldiers. I guess that’s why I didn’t smell the smoke.”

He paused, his fist finally closing for good. Denise felt the muscles in her neck tighten as he continued.

“I just didn’t smell it. To this day, I don’t know why-it seems impossible to me that I could have missed it-but I did. I didn’t realize anything was happening at all until I heard my parents come scrambling out of their bedroom, making a huge ruckus. They were yelling and screaming for me, and I remember thinking that they’d found out that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I kept hearing them call my name over and over, but I was too afraid to answer.”

His eyes pleaded for understanding.

“I didn’t want them to find me up there-they’d already told me a hundred times that once I was in bed, I was supposed to stay there all night. If they found me, I figured I’d get in big trouble. I had a baseball game that weekend, and I knew they’d ground me for sure, so instead of coming out when they called, I came up with a plan to wait until they were downstairs. Then I was going to sneak into the bathroom and pretend that I’d been in there the whole time. It sounds dumb, I know, but at the time, it made sense to me. I turned out the light and hid behind some boxes to wait it out. I heard my father open the attic door, shouting for me, but I kept quiet until he finally left. Eventually, the sounds of them tearing through the house died down, and that was when I went for the door. I still had no idea of what was going on, and when I opened it, I was stunned by a blast of heat and smoke. The walls and ceiling were on fire, but it seemed so completely unreal; at first I didn’t really understand how serious it was. Had I rushed through it then, I probably could have made it out, but I didn’t. I just stared at the fire, thinking how strange it was. I wasn’t even afraid.”

Taylor tensed, hunching over the table in an almost protective position, his voice rasping on.

“But that changed almost immediately. Before I knew it, everything seemed to catch on fire at once and the way out was blocked. That was when I first realized that something awful was happening. It had been so dry that the house was burning like kindling. I remember thinking that the fire seemed so . . . alive. The flames seemed to know exactly where I was, and a burst of fire shot toward me, knocking me down. I began to scream for my father. But he was already gone, and I knew it. In a panic, I scrambled to the window. When I opened it, I saw my parents on the front lawn. My mom was wearing a long shirt and my dad was in his boxers, and they were running around in a panic, looking and calling for me. For a moment I couldn’t say a thing, but my mom seemed to sense where I was, and she looked up at me. I can still see her eyes when she realized I was still in the house. They got real wide, and she brought her hand to her mouth and then she just started screaming. My dad stopped what he was doing-he was over by the fence-and he saw me, too. That was when I started to cry.”

On the couch, a tear spilled out of the corner of his unblinking eye, though he didn’t seem to realize it. Denise felt sick to her stomach.

“My dad . . . my big strong dad came rushing across the lawn in a flash. By then, most of the house was on fire, and I could hear things crashing and exploding downstairs. It was coming up through the attic, and the smoke started getting really thick. My mom was screaming for my dad to do something, and he ran to the spot right beneath the window. I remember him screaming, ‘Jump, Taylor! I’ll catch you! I’ll catch you, I promise!’ But instead of jumping, I just started to cry all the harder. The window was at least twenty feet up, and it just seemed so high that I was sure I’d die if I tried. ‘Jump, Taylor! I’ll catch you!’ He just kept shouting it over and over: ‘Jump! Come on!’ My mom was screaming even louder, and I was crying until I finally shouted out that I was afraid.”

Taylor swallowed hard.

“The more my dad called for me to jump, the more paralyzed I became. I could hear the terror in his voice and my mom was losing it and I just kept screaming back that I couldn’t, that I was afraid. And I was, even though I’m sure now he would have caught me.”

A muscle in his jaw twitched rhythmically, his eyes were hooded, opaque. He slammed his fist into his leg.

“I can still see my father’s face when he realized I wasn’t going to jump-we both came to the realization at exactly the same time. There was fear there, but not for himself. He just stopped shouting and he lowered his arms, and I remember that his eyes never left mine. It was like time stopped right then-it was just the two of us. I couldn’t hear my mom anymore, I couldn’t feel the heat, I couldn’t smell the smoke. All I could think about was my father. Then, he nodded ever so slightly and we both knew what he was going to do. He finally turned away and started running for the front door.

“He moved so fast that my mom didn’t have time to stop him. By then, the house was completely in flames. The fire was closing in around me, and I just stood in the window, too shocked to scream anymore.”

Taylor pressed the heels of his palms against his closed eyes, applying pressure. When he dropped his hands into his lap, he leaned back into the far corner of the couch, as if unwilling to finish the story. With great effort he went on.

“It must have been less than a minute before he got to me, but it seemed like forever. Even with my head out the window, I could barely breathe. Smoke was everywhere. The fire was deafening. People think they’re quiet, but they’re not. It sounds like devils screaming in agony when things are consumed by flames. Despite that, I could hear my father’s voice in the house, calling that he was coming.”

Here Taylor’s voice broke, and he turned away to hide the tears that began to spill down his face.

“I remember turning around and seeing him rushing toward me. He was on fire. His skin, his arms, his face, his hair-everything. Just this human fireball rushing at me, being eaten away, bursting through the flames. But he wasn’t screaming. He just barreled into me, pushing me toward the window, saying, ‘Go, son.’ He forced me out the window, holding on to my wrist. When the entire weight of my body was dangling, he finally let go. I landed hard enough to crack a bone in my ankle-I heard the snap as I fell onto my back, looking upward. It was like God wanted me to see what I’d done. I watched my father pull his flaming arm back inside. . . .”

Taylor stopped there, unable to go on. Denise sat frozen in her chair, tears in her own eyes, a lump in her throat. When he spoke again, his voice was barely audible and he was shivering as if the effort of choking back sobs were tearing his body apart.

“He never came back out. I remember my mom pulling me away from the house, still screaming, and by then I was screaming, too.”

His eyes closed tightly, he lifted his chin to the ceiling.

“Daddy . . . no-” he called out hoarsely.

The sound of his voice echoed like a shot in the room.

“Get out, Daddy!”

As Taylor seemed to crumple into himself, Denise moved instinctively to his side, wrapping her arms around him as he rocked back and forth, his broken cries almost incoherent.

“Please, God . . . let me do it over . . . please . . . I’ll jump . . . please, God . . . I’ll do it this time . . . please let him come out . . .”

Denise hugged him with all her strength, her own tears falling unheeded onto his neck and back as she pressed her face into him. After a while she heard nothing but the beating of his heart, the creak of the sofa as he rocked himself into a rhythmic trance, and the words he kept whispering over and over-

“I didn’t mean to kill him. . . .”