“The Firewatcher” / Elizabeth DelConte

The faded paisley couch—tan and pea green and a surprisingly soft blue —was comfortable only after a few drinks. It smelled of mold and ash. And it was damp. It had rained a few days ago, twenty-four-hours-worth of steady thrumming. The next few days had been hot and dry. Still, the dampness was there. Deep. Perdita hadn’t noticed it at first, but the moisture worked itself up from inside the cushions, soaking her jeans and back to the point where she couldn’t ignore it.

She’d been focused on the fire at first, mesmerized by its fierce spitting, as if it were warding off evil. Perhaps it, too, didn’t want her here. Then it sprayed like a giant citrus squeezed by an unseen deity, juice droplets suspended in the air for a beat before floating away. A ballet of fireflies. Lilliputian fireworks exploding beneath her. Perdita could have come up with more metaphors had she remained wedged in the corner of the couch—that’s what she did when she found herself here. Turn things into other things. But she was wet and her buzz was in danger of fading.

She couldn’t hold onto the images for long, her attempts more like the smoke that rolled off the bonfire in a thick column and then disappeared into the night. Impressive, dangerous, and then gone. The fireworks were just sparks again, churned up by the newcomer with the tattooed arms. He couldn’t leave the fire alone and kept prodding it with a scrap of wood, rearranging sticks. Nudging logs, the thick, damp ones that wouldn’t catch. A moment ago she’d been able to conjure the image of him as a magician controlling the elements despite his clumsy wand. Now he was just irritating her, a guy, probably there for the same reason she was.

There was a lawn chair in her trunk. She’d thrown one in there for her niece’s soccer game last weekend, but she’d never made it—busy Saturday morning streets sometimes still kept her at home, too many cars in every direction. She’d left it in the trunk, though, where it rattled every time she hit a bump in the road. Her car wasn’t far—just around the bend, past the bones of a manor house. She imagined rising to her feet and taking the path to her dented Toyota, side crumpled like a beer can someone had crushed with a drunken fist. She would be unsteady on the shifty gravel. But then she’d have her chair and she could sit even closer to the fire, balance the heat with a cold beer. Dry her back. She had been closing in on forgetfulness, though, and she needed another drink. And she was half listening in on that guy’s conversation — the one with the arms she wanted to translate. He’d been in jail—just a holding cell—a few nights ago, and he wouldn’t shut up about it. Maybe she’d forget about the wet spreading across her sweatshirt and jeans like a stain.

It was the mustiness, finally, that convinced her to go. The impossibility of washing the smell out of her clothes. A sign of where she had been. Not at her sister’s like she’d told Dave.

Perdita pushed up from the couch, stepped closer to the fire. As soon as she was on two feet, someone else scooted around her and took her spot on the flattened cushion. Bumped into her with long legs. She stumbled forward and windmilled her arms against the heat, too tipsy to right herself and shrink back from the flames. Two arms pulled her back, arms sleeved in tattoos impossible for her to make out in the jerky light of the fire. It was the magician. He was sitting in one of the lawn chairs at the fire’s edge, and he’d dropped his stick of wood to catch her.

“Watch out there, honey,” he said.

She saw his face for the first time. He was younger than she was—probably early thirties—and decent looking. He was wearing a name brand shirt, an unusual sight at this makeshift campground, and was thick in a way that promised muscle underneath.

“Sorry.” Her voice came out dry, and quieter than the cracks and pops of the fire. She wasn’t sure he’d heard her. She’d been on the couch for hours. Silent, just watching, drinking in small sips. She didn’t want to miss the moment where she forgot. Where her mind went from stunned reverberating silence to the airbag haze to the young doctor’s eyes that couldn’t hide the truth behind his training, that gave away her loss before his mouth did.

“Have a seat.” The magician patted his legs which were stretched out before him. Perdita sat. The curve of the flames looked like unhinged snake jaws lunging for his boots. “You’re all wet,” he said.

The guy next to him with the bloodshot eyes—exaggerated in the harsh glow of the fire—reached out for Perdita as if trying to move her. To take her off the magician or to take her for himself, she couldn’t tell. The magician roped his arm around her waist and pulled her against the flat of his stomach. Protective, not possessive.

“So as I was saying.” The magician took a swig from his beer. Reached beneath his chair and brought out another silver can. Popped the top and handed it to Perdita. “I had close to four hundred dollars when I was booked. Didn’t get a dime of it back.” He laughed, a hearty laugh, as if he really found it funny.

It was warm here. This man’s legs solid. Maybe she didn’t have to open her trunk for the lawn chair, feel the tips of her fingers graze the fleece blanket she’d draped over the mobile box. Owls, eagles, and falcons that could be coaxed into gliding over a crib. She couldn’t bring herself to return it. Dave had told her it was creepy anyway, raptors circling for prey. But Perdita imagined the strength of their talons, the curve of their beaks, how they could see a snake in the dark.

She’d stay here, on the edge of the fire.

“What’s your name, then?”

She must have zoned out because the magician was now poking her in the side. “Yoo-hoo.” His was a sing-song voice, the kind you’d use to get a child’s attention.

“Sorry.” She swiveled to see him. “Uh, Perdita.” He was cuter up close. Strong chin and gray eyes and a scar above his left eye. She traced a finger down his arm, outlining a skull and a cross, a hand of playing cards, the ace of clubs on top. “Yours?”

“Perdita?” He crushed the can with his fist and tucked it under his chair. “Are you named after a goddess or something?”

“Hardly.” Goddesses were worshipped, weren’t they? Revered. Given offerings. Dave had once seemed like a god. A vengeful one. Every step, his boots stamping a hole in the floor. Perdita always imagined the apartment below her rumbling, old Mrs. Gordon throwing herself in front of her hutch, a crumbling human wall blocking her teacup collection, the one that had survived these fights before, had offered Perdita liquid solace from navy rims and tiny saucers that caught her spills.

“Perdita.” He repeated it. It sounded beautiful the way he said it, enunciating each syllable. How he crossed the T with the snap of his tongue. “Stay with me tonight, Perdita.” He sang it. A joke amongst their sort, crowded around this fire outlined in stones, a druid’s circle they couldn’t breach.

Her response was the very one Dave would have given. “Do you have any other beer?” She held the silver can up by her fingertips, the universal sign of distaste.

That was why she’d left their apartment that Saturday morning in the first place, when that Ford pickup had found the side of her car like two magnets colliding. He’d been out of beer.

The magician winked and reached back under his chair. He pulled out a six-pack this time, a good one. Her eyes weren’t working right anymore, but she recognized the peach label, the amber bottle. He pulled one from its cardboard bed and, one-handed, pried the cap off on the edge of the chair.

The bottle was warm in her palm, too close to the fire for probably hours now. But no matter. She closed her hand over the bottle, a gesture of protectiveness that should have gone to another. He said something to her—did she imagine that it was “Ta-da”?—and she answered with a toast. Bottle against can, an unfair, silent clash, but hers was the stronger one, and this her disappearing act.

___

Elizabeth DelConte lives in Syracuse, New York, where she teaches English. She received her M.A. in English from The Ohio State University and has twice attended the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared in Indolent Books’ “What Rough Beast” series and the raffish.