Goddamn, the fire was hot. Still, despite its being July, despite the balmy night, he liked it there. Beside the fire. It didn’t feel 75 degrees out here, though he knew it was, though he could see the kids were perfectly comfortable in shorts and T-shirts, running circles in the yard. No, it felt cold. He felt cold. But here by the fire, here it was warm. His face, his hands, his chest, he let the heat sink in there, let it trace its way through him, feeling fingers of it reaching from chest to lung to spine, up his arms. His back, facing away from the fire, facing the house full of people—family—tingled with cold.
But the fire fought it, pushed it back.
Jackson drained the last few drops from his bottle, scraped his fingernails against the raised pattern of glue exposed when he had peeled off the label. Leinie’s Red. His favorite. Sweet, but not too sweety. Hoppy, dark. Familiar. He picked up the stick next to him, carefully stripped of offshoots and bark, slid the bottle’s mouth over the end. His hand gripped the leather wrapped and tied around one end and extended the bottle into the fire, pushed it in deep. A few embers shot up as if startled awake, then disappeared. Jackson pushed again, driving the bottle into the bottom of the firepit, then retracted the stick, satisfied. He lifted the lid of the styrofoam cooler next to him, pulled out another Leinienkugel.
In the fire, the bottle glowed red.
Jackson doesn’t find him. He wishes he had, but it is Michael, the neighbor kid, who finds him. Jackson is in the kitchen, standing at the counter, cleaning four rainbow trout. They aren’t fresh, at least not caught that day, but he pulled them out of the freezer that morning to let them thaw in the sink. He peels away the white butcher paper in which he’d wrapped them earlier in the summer. When he is sure they are thawed, he sharpens his filet knife and begins doing what he’s done perhaps a thousand times before, the way his grandfather taught him 40 years earlier.
He pushes the knife down behind the gills, forces through.
When the front door opens, Jackson doesn’t even look up. He hears the awkward clump of teenage sneakers come up behind him. He feels Michael edge in close, peer around Jackson’s shoulder to study the procedure. Snap. Slice. On to the next. Michael says, Thanks for dinner. Jackson says, Don’t thank me yet. Then Michael says something Jackson can’t remember or doesn’t hear and clump clump clump, untied shoes back through the kitchen, up the stairs. Jackson works the knife along the spine, then deftly spins the filet and frees the skin in one stroke.
Just like his grandfather taught him when he was a boy.
Onto the second fish when he hears a scream. Not his kid’s, no, Michael’s. Clump clump back down the stairs, too fast, he knows, and Jackson leaves the knife where it is, stuck there between skin and flesh, halfway between tail and fin. Jackson meets Michael at the foot of the stairs. Michael, out of breath and crying. Michael, shaking. Michael, curling into himself like the boy he is, far from the man he’ll be, the man he tries to show everyone with flexed muscles, with arm wrestling, with cocky challenges. Michael, shaking, crying. And Jackson ascends the stairs, knowing somewhere already what he’ll find, knowing and, yes, in a way already trying to accept it. Top of the stairs, to the left, down the hall. He glimpses into his kid’s room as he passes, but already knows to keep going. Bathroom, end of the hall. His kid. In the tub. Clothes still on. So much blood. So much blood.
Slice, onto the next.
Jackson flicked the bottle cap into the fire. It hit a log, one of the bigger ones, and bounced out, landing at his feet. He didn’t pick it up, instead pushed it with his toe as close to the fire as he can get it, then flicked it the rest of the way. It landed near that last bottle he pushed in, the bottle now buckled in on itself, sinking slowly into the bottom of the pit. Jackson heard someone walking up behind him. Knew—in that way of knowing—who it was. He upended the beer, drank as much as he could before his sister appeared next to him, emerging from the shadows. He managed to get most of it down, but not all. Collette made a face. Collette had been making this face as long as Jackson could remember. When she was displeased with something, Collette would scrunch up her nose, her upper lip following, and look down its ridge.
Like she had seen a dead baby, but had seen many before.
Jackson looked up at her, at her dead baby face, and tried to smile. Collette sat next to him, put her arm around his shoulders as she would when he was a baby. How are you, she asked. He told her he was fine. Are you drunk, she asked. He told her he was not. But was working on it. Collette squeezed his shoulder with her hand, then wrapped her arms around herself. Jackson watched, thinking he understood the way she pulled her arms tight against her chest, spread them out to cover as much of her body as possible. To protect it. He asked if she was cold.
No, she was hot. The fire was hot.
It’s Jackson who calls his wife. He calls his wife before Michael’s mother, before he dials 911. He knows he will not get through to her, that she is in a class, but he leaves a message with the desk girl. He does not say why he is calling, just would she please knock on the door, go into his wife’s class, and tell her to come home. Now. Something has happened. He does not say any more.
He doesn’t need to.
Michael’s mother, Nancy, comes right over from down the street. She tends to her boy, hugging him, drawing him in close. Jackson watches, knowing it’s not just for the boy. Nancy offers to stay, to send Michael home and stay here until his wife arrives, until the fire department or the police or whoever, so he doesn’t have to be alone. He says no, thank you, she should take Michael home. She should talk to him and hold him close. Jackson says Michael needs it. Jackson says they should leave. Jackson sees them to the door, then climbs the stairs again, slowly this time. Down the hall. To the bathroom at the end, closing the door behind him.
The fish will have to be thrown out later that night, warm, thawed, and sticky.
Collette kissed his cheek and stood. You should come up, she said. To the house. They’re here for you, she said, as much as they are for him. Jackson looked over his shoulder, feeling the cold on his face as he turned away from the fire. He saw his wife, his parents through the kitchen window. He saw Collette’s husband in a chair on the deck, a beer next to him, holding their daughter’s small hands, her small feet on top of his. Jackson watched as she danced, following her father’s movements. Jackson looked back at Collette and said he knew. Jackson grabbed the stick again, carefully balanced his bottle on the end, pushed it into the fire. He watched the last few swallows of beer slosh around at the bottom as the bottle settled into place in the bed of embers. Be careful, Collette said.
Jackson told her he wanted to hear it boil.
She squeezed his shoulder again and turned back to the house. He opened the cooler. He opened another bottle. He drank and he shivered against the cold only he could feel. He heard kids shouting behind him. Nieces and nephews, much younger than his son had been. He heard Collette approach the house, heard her say something to her husband. He heard her open the patio door and step inside, heard for a brief moment the sound of his wife’s voice, too. Jackson drank his beer. He flicked the bottle cap into the embers. He watched the logs shift as the fire ate away at them from below. He let the beer sit in his mouth for a few seconds before each swallow. Sweet, but not too sweet. His favorite. And when it was gone, he picked up the stick and slipped the bottle’s mouth over the end.
He’d collect the glass in the morning, once it had cooled.
“My fiction and films have been covered by Film Threat, Fangoria and The Horror Channel, among others. My film Valhalla was a finalist for the Student Academy Awards. A Shadow Before Sunrise took home ‘Best Film Noir’ at the New York International Independent Film Festival. Said Warren Etheredge, founder of The Warren Report: ‘Strunk conveys tragic, yet simple sorrows shrouded in undeniable beauty.’ And said Richard Horan, author of Goose Music and Life in the Rainbow: ‘He cannot help but move people.’ You can find further information about my work at sevenmileswest.com.” E-mail: jacob[at]sevenmileswest.com