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Micaiah Johnson

The Old Fire

When Brandi dies I will be shaving my legs for the first time in a year, a first step out of my post-divorce depression. When Brandi dies her mother will be glaring out of her window, scowling at imagined rabbits waiting in the dark to prey on her marigolds. When Brandi dies, no one will feel it. But Brandi isn’t dead yet. “It’s great, right?” she asks. Her eyes reflect the fire – a long, golden snake carved into the not-too-distant mountain. She’s wearing a rare smile for her, free of mischief or manipulation. We watch the fire rage with the wonder of children at a parade. They’ve canceled the fireworks in our town for three Fourth of July’s straight, but the fires? The fires always come. I nod. “It’s wicked.” The sun has just set and the sky is butane blue edged in campfire orange, a glow that will eventually cost the state 1.5 billion dollars and five men their lives. But Brandi doesn’t care about lives or money. She’s never had either, so she encourages others to spend theirs recklessly. “Still mostly uncontained,” says James, one of those awkward men that surround her constantly. They always keep their hands in their pockets and speak with uncontroversial facts. They are interchangeably safe, excruciatingly accommodating, and too busy worshipping at her altar to see how bored she is with their sacrifice. Fuck James. And fuck the smiling comrades that he replaced and that will replace him. I hate them for knowing her in a way I never will, and I hate them for never knowing her as well as I do. She likes fire for the burn, not the beauty. I know it, and they don’t. She stands on the hood of James’s car and spreads her arms while leaning her head back. Bits of ash are stuck in her hair, flakes of it falling on her eyelashes like devil’s snow. Brandi will die alone in an unfurnished and lice-ridden apartment, face down in her own vomit. But right now she is queen of the mountain. I cannot imagine a more beautiful or powerful creature. “Uncontained just means free,” she says, looking down at us from a car hood that might as well be a throne. “The fire is still mostly free.” James nods, oblivious to both the dents she’s putting in his hood and that she isn’t talking to him. She’s talking to me. Boys aren’t for talking to, she’s fond of saying, or for loving. They’re for using. It’s a lesson I’ll forget in college, when I meet a professor who I will never use and will love talking to. But I haven’t lost that truth yet, so I nod at her in the solidarity of womanhood, sharing with her in the understanding that only women can be trusted, only women should ever be let this close. She will forget the lesson, too. When her coke habit upgrades to a heroin addiction, she will forget about women and men. We will drift apart even before our senior year is over. My roommate in college will be a girl with pearl earrings and a weekly planner who wears shirts with buttons. I will graduate, attend law school, and marry without thinking of her. I will remember Brandi only once, in the rage at my husband’s infidelity when my hurt feels like something that can only be quenched by her brand of recklessness. But I will have long forgotten her number by then. When her mother calls me she’s died, my first word will be, “Who?” I am watching her glow, and she’s letting me. We are as close as sisters, closer than lovers. She hops off the hood, the loose flannel shirt tied around her waist trailing behind her. She grabs my face in her hands and pulls me close. “Get his keys,” she says. “I want to fly.” I nod, and she smiles, kissing me quickly before climbing back onto the hood. I turn to James. “Give me your keys.” “But she’s still up there.” I yank the carbineer holding his keys from his belt loop, ripping the material when I could have slipped it off. I jingle them in a tease and blow him a kiss. “You’re both nuts,” he says, but he doesn’t stop me from slipping behind the wheel. He’s staring at her. He wants to see what happens next. They always do. I hope he’s finally figuring out he’s not cut out to run with us. He’s probably retracing his steps, trying to figure out how a simple trip to the store to get a Hungry Man dinner spiraled after a girl with strawberry-blonde hair offered him the world if he’d buy her tequila. I’ve seen that look a hundred times in her presence. I’ve seen it on married men, business men, men with somewhere else to be, but who can’t seem to make themselves leave. He’s wondering how he let innocent fun escalate into sneaking into an evacuation zone to witness a suicide attempt. This is not suicide, but he’s a man so he doesn’t understand that. I don’t mean to say she doesn’t want to die, but I’m not ready to let her. She won’t die until I’m no longer watching. Now she only wants to fly, and I know how to send her off. I drive slowly, feeling the surface of the dirt road, avoiding holes that might shake her. Her legs – too thin, but golden and fully exposed in her denim short-shorts – are pressed tight against the windshield. She’s tucked the heel of her boots against the edge of the hood. She pounds on the roof twice: Faster. I accelerate, but just a little. With the window cracked open I can barely hear her laugh. She pounds on the roof again and I oblige, going fast enough that I can no longer see James’s disapproving face through the dust in my, his, rearview mirror. We head straight for the fire. Part of me, the girl who grew up in a trailer at the edge of Hesperia, jealous of even the niceness of the low income apartments, is thrilled the estates at the base of the mountain will be the first to burn. She pounds on the hood again: Faster. I pound back: No. No matter how fast she goes, she’ll always want faster. No matter how much she takes, she’ll always want more. When she dies I won’t be there to tell her no. I won’t be there to whisper Slow down. I honk the horn so she knows to brace herself. When I hear the thud of her sitting on the roof, I make a U-turn and head back to James. We play a slow game of chicken as I head right for him, and I’m mildly impressed when he doesn’t move, forcing me to stop at his feet. I get out of the car and stare up at her. She’s smiling her brightest and her wind-tossed hair is reminiscent of sex, so I know he’ll continue to follow wherever she goes. She holds her arms out and turns around, giving no warning before she falls back, a stage dive into an audience of two. I sprint forward, but he catches her. My hands are outstretched, still waiting for the familiar weight of her back and thighs, but it won’t come. For the moment she belongs to someone else. I shove my hands into my pockets. James is beaming with satisfaction that should be mine, and when he spins her around and looks down at her face I can tell he’s convincing himself that he could take care of her, that he could live this way. But he won’t. Because once we’re alone I will tell her that I don’t like him, that he makes me uncomfortable. And since men are to be used and women are to be listened to – even when they are just whiney, insecure girls – she will never call him again. Her arms are still around his neck. I kick the dirt and stare at the fire. “They say it’ll make it through Oak Hills by morning.” It’s a lie. The fire never makes it that far and no one ever believed it would. But I want to direct her attention to something beautiful and chaotic, something he could never stand against. “You think?” She wiggles away from him and walks to me. “I hope so. I hope it burns and burns and rains down enough ash to cover this whole town.” “It will.” I reach out, interlocking our fingers. “First, it’ll come through Oak Hills, turn all those mini-mansions to ash.” She rolls her eyes. “Fucking ranch housing,” she says, like it’s a term she read in a tabloid, something unbelievable. “What about the high school?” “Gone,” I say. “Just embers and singed Sultan flags.” She bounces slightly on her feet. She doesn’t want the high school to burn; she wants to destroy the kids inside. She wants to scar anyone who ever had two parents and a garage. “But it will keep going, right?” “Of course. It’ll burn straight down to the overpass.” She turns her head. “The police station?” I smile. “What police station?” She laughs and leans her head on my shoulder. Her scent, something like baby powder and strawberries, surrounds me. We could be on a date watching fireworks. I close my eyes and pretend we are. “I thought it was supposed to be contained by the end of the week.” I open my eyes. James’s grating voice reminds me that we are not alone, and there are no fireworks. We are watching homes burn and I am just the third wheel. “Do you know what it means when it’s contained? It means dead.” She crosses her arms. “That’s all it ever means.” He shrugs, like he doesn’t care that he upset her. I am baffled. I wonder what happened, what just happened to make him immune. I tell myself he saw us standing there and realized we were too close, our bond too special, for him to ever compete, so he stopped trying. I will later figure out that he finally noticed the new dents in his hood. She moves away from me. “It was here first! The Santa Anas fanned a spark in these valleys before man walked the earth. The fire deserves to be here. It’s the people who should move, who should leave it alone.” “I guess.” He doesn’t know his indifference to her passion will only fan it. He doesn’t know he’s winning. “But it’s just a fire. They come every year. It’s big and hot, but they’re always big and hot. What makes it so special?” She stops and blinks. She looks at me, then past me at the blaze. She stares for a while, and for once I cannot read her face. “Nothing. Nothing at all.” She walks to the car. “I’m bored. Let’s roll.” She sits in the backseat, my seat. I move toward the front but she calls my name, so I sit with her and she lays her head across my lap. She drinks from a bottle of vodka – a glass bottle, not the plastic we’re used to – and blinks hard like she’s trying not to cry. “The fire still matters, because we’ll remember it,” I say, quietly, because it’s not for James. “We’ll remember that it was the biggest fire that ever burned here, and so it will always matter, it will always be special.” Finally, she smiles again and nods. I take a deep breath and get a lungful of summer fruit and innocence as I stroke her hair. “I love you.” Her smile turns crooked and she puts the bottle up to her lips. “I know.” We are not yet half-way home when the vodka is all the way gone and so is she. In the fitfulness of her stupor she rubs her face against my thighs. “She drinks a lot.” I glare at him in the rearview mirror then look down at her. “She’s fine.” She’s not, but I won’t admit that until next year, when she starts drinking before I see her and keeps drinking after. Only when I see her sober so rarely I begin to miss her, will I acknowledge her problem. “If you say so.” “I do.” “You’re loyal to her.” “We’re loyal to each other.” “You sure?” “I am.” And I am sure, but I am wrong. Because when something comes between us, it won’t be an overdose, an affair, or a fight. It’s not even her lifestyle. It’s only time, simple and insidious. Later, when I think of our friendship, I won’t remember what drove us apart. I will only wake one morning after dreaming of her and realize that she is gone, and wonder where she went. I won’t remember this day. When I hear she’s dead, I’ll call my new friends – ones that I’ll never let half as close or trust half as much – and make a joke about how the only surprise is that it took this long. I won’t cry. I won’t cry until the funeral, when all of the kind but inaccurate words are spoken and I look over my shoulder to see a face in the crowd hovering just above the others, a man whose name I’d forgotten until the word “James” sits in my mouth. When we lock eyes and I understand that Brandi could bring a man to a church fifteen years later, I will remember. I will remember the mad wonder of her. I will remember the feel of her hand in mine and her face against my lap. I will remember that we were loyal to each other. I will drive out into the desert and stand on the hood of my car. I will look at the fully recovered mountain and smell strawberries mixed with ash and weep until it breaks me. But that won’t happen until she dies, and Brandi isn’t dead. Not yet. She is sleeping off too much vodka on my couch, which is as far as I could carry her while refusing to ask James for help. She mumbles about the light so I bring her a wet rag for her eyes. On the nightstand beside the couch I arrange a cup of water, crackers, and pain pills in a prescription bottle with my mother’s name on it, because anything less has ceased affecting her. “Still burning?” she asks, in a half-slurred language only I can understand. “It is,” I say, though I haven’t checked. I’m afraid it might be bad news for her, and I’m not like James. I’m not immune to her displeasure. “Burn forever?” “Of course.” While we sit the hot wind is dying down and cool clouds are rolling in. The fire will choke, sputter, and die. Oak Hills will be untouched, the high school and police station still standing. There will be no mark left by the entity so bright and chaotic and beautiful. She reaches toward my face, but flings her hand too short. I take it and hold it against my cheek. When I go to her funeral I will expect a casket, wanting to hold this hand one last time. But her mother will have cremated her and spread her ashes in the mountains to give her daughter quiet peace, not realizing that it’s October and the Santa Anas let nothing rest in fall. Pieces of her will be everywhere, but not enough in one place to matter. I kiss her palm. She cracks open one eye and smiles at me. “Forever?” “Forever,” I whisper. And Brandi falls asleep.


Micaiah Johnson Vetack is an exile from California’s Mojave Desert currently living in Philadelphia, where she spends her time chasing groundhogs around a graveyard and complaining about the inadequate tacos. She received her MFA from Rutgers-Camden and can be found on Twitter at @micaiah_johnson

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