Getting to Maylee’s going-away party at all was a thing. My cousin Jaxson and I took a state highway into the country and turned onto a small road, then a smaller road, then one that rattled my teeth and wasn’t even paved. I didn’t complain. Jaxson was a nice guy, but he’d just call me a city girl again.
Just past a farmhouse and a dark cluster of outbuildings, we turned onto a trail around the edge of a field. We were eight miles from town, he said. It felt like fifty.
The bumps on the trail were bigger but fewer than on the road. Jaxson drove cautiously, except where a leaking irrigation line had flooded the trail. We sailed through that swamp at reckless speed, so we wouldn’t get stuck.
“I love doing that,” he said.
I considered prying my white-knuckled hands from the center armrest and the handle above my door. Maybe not yet.
The trail cut away from the field, and the headlights probed an unearthly scene – broken, jagged, black lava, with scattered, stunted brush and forlorn tufts of grass that wasn’t green.
Jackrabbits scampered across our path, then a fatter, lumbering thing. A groundhog, maybe. I didn’t ask.
Miles later, or maybe a hundred yards, another field opened before us, nestled among the lava. It looked like grass – green, this time – but he guessed it was wheat or barley. The headlights didn’t reach across it.
We parked with other muddy vehicles in a sort of grassy cove, with no lava but no grain planted either. We’d walk along the edge of the field, he said, to another cove with a fire and some old logs for seating. He’d been here before.
Thick clouds hid the stars, and there was no moon. Darkness was never this black in the city.
“Glad you made it,” said a guy we couldn’t see, except his flashlight. “This your cousin, Jax?”
“Hey, Braden,” said Jaxson.
“I’m Sylvia,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
“My pleasure, Sylvia,” said Braden. “Too muddy for night games, so leave the gear. Stay out of the tracks between here and the fire, and you’ll be okay.”
We left the big flashlights and night vision gear in my aunt’s Grand Cherokee, kept the small flashlights, and set out. We couldn’t see the fire itself, but we heard voices ahead, where the night air twitched and glimmered.
I wouldn’t mourn the night games, and judging by the chatter and laughter in the distance, they knew how to have fun without them.
I breathed too deeply and struggled not to cough. Mud couldn’t last long here, when just breathing the air dried me up inside.
Braden walked behind. “Big cooler full of soda,” he said. “Well, half full by now. Plenty of pizza left. Maylee’s uncle bought us a buttload. We’re leaving no trash on his farm and staying out of the wheat, so we don’t trample it.”
I didn’t know Maylee, but Jaxson said she was moving back East. Her going-away party was the reason I was on a farm for the second time ever. The first time was a second-grade field trip to a dairy farm outside Portland. It was disgusting – sights, sounds, smells, what I got on my sneakers. But this was just a wheat field, and we weren’t even on that part.
“Smell the sagebrush?” Jaxson asked. “Welcome to Idaho.”
I couldn’t not smell the sagebrush, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Spicy, dry, not quite bitter.
Something howled doglike in the distance. I hoped it was distant. Another something howled from a different direction. Then another and another.
I took Jaxson’s arm. He must have felt me trembling.
“Coyotes,” he said.
I stopped short, and he stopped too.
“Don’t worry, city girl. We’re not rabbits.”
“What’s next? Snakes?” I didn’t like my voice quivering, but I was in fact a city girl. This wasn’t even my home planet.
Braden answered, “Maylee’s uncle says it’s too cold tonight for snakes.”
“Rattlesnakes?” I squeaked. Dead snakes on the road unsettled me, when I was in a fast-moving car and they were smashed flat. Live ones behind plexiglass at the zoo all but paralyzed me. And I’d never gone back to that walking path behind my school after someone reported a rattlesnake, which turned out to be a water snake, the school newspaper said.
I shivered, not from the cold.
“Mostly blow snakes,” said Braden. “They eat rattlers when they find them. But they’re not out either. It’s like 50 degrees. That cold-blooded thing, you know?”
Okay, that was good. No, wait. “The fire’s warm.”
“Don’t like people either.”
“The feeling is mutual,” I said, trembling in earnest now.
“I mean they avoid people.”
Jaxson pointed. “What about that one?”
I screamed and froze. So much for fight-or-flight.
They laughed. “False alarm,” Jaxson said. “Just a snakeskin. Saw it here last time.”
“I’m rethinking the favorite cousin thing,” I said.
“Not worried,” he said. “Not that many choices. Are you rethinking coming here tonight?”
“Sadly, when I did that, it was too late.”
I wanted to be flopped on a sofa, reading in a gently lit, reptile- and coyote-free living room. I’d read The God Delusion too quickly last semester, for a book report in history. Now I was slowing down and enjoying it – even on this trip, whenever Jaxson wasn’t there to see what I was reading. Or my uncle or aunt, of course. They’d be no more amused than Mom and Dad were.
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Jaxson had spent a full hour convincing me to go to “the lavas” with him. Night games didn’t sound amazing when he explained, and I wouldn’t know anyone. I’d been up late the night before last, packing, then up at 4 a.m. for my early flight. That was yesterday, but I still felt jet-lagged, and I really just wanted to relax with my book.
“Yeah, no,” Jaxson said, as we made sandwiches for lunch. “Night before last doesn’t count, when you’re only one time zone from home. You even got up early this morning to run.”
“How do you know?” I grouched. “You were asleep.”
“I hear things.”
“In your sleep?”
“Heard Mom’s lecture about sleeping in. Sylvia got up early. Sylvia went for a run. Sylvia’s five hours into her day, while slugabed Jaxson hasn’t scraped off the mattress yet.”
I could imagine Aunt Kara saying that. She’d tried to use me as a good example before. Not that he needed one.
“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t care how late you sleep.”
“Thanks. You’re still my favorite cousin.”
“Good to know. Will there be a keg or anything?” I asked. I preferred wine, but with my classmates there would be a keg. I’d need special parental permission to be there at all, after another tired lecture on not getting drunk and doing something colossally stupid. And making sure I could get home safely.
Wait. Would I still need permission? I was a high school graduate now.
Either way, this far from home, a keg could still get me out of going.
He gave me a patient look. “Just soda. I get in deep trouble, if there’s alcohol and I don’t just leave. Or if I know there will be, but I go anyway. Losing my car privileges trouble. Or worse.”
Between bites of my sandwich, I asked, “Is this what country folk do, throw parties with no beer, let alone anything harder? You should watch more TV. You’ve missed some basic lessons about high school.”
He took me too seriously. “We’re not country folk. We’re not big city, but we’re small city. Suburban, maybe. And we watch plenty of TV. Doesn’t mean we have to imitate it.”
“Okay, not country and no booze.” I took a new tack. “At some point in the eighteen years we’ve known each other, has it crossed your mind that I’m really shy? Why would I even be comfortable with – how many? a dozen? two dozen? – all those strangers at a going-away party for a girl I never met?”
“I’ll introduce you as my heathen cousin. They’ll like you.”
“Just because I grew up Catholic, not Mormon, doesn’t make me a heathen.”
“You asked about a keg, so you’re partway to heathen. Come on, you’ll love it! Have to go late, when Mom’s back with the Jeep, but it’ll be fun.”
What made me a heathen – but Jaxson didn’t know, or he’d try endlessly to talk me out of it – was that I no longer believed in any deity or other mystical force (including karma and true love) that hid itself from science, demanded faith in unknowable mysteries, and required obedience based merely on a feeling. I believed in what I could see or at least measure.
Mom and Dad had said I could make decisions like that for myself, once I finished high school. So I’d gone to Sunday Mass with them once more, before graduating last week. Now, as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t Catholic or any other kind of superstitious anymore.
We compromised about the party. I’d go, and he wouldn’t introduce me as a heathen. And if I didn’t enjoy night games – or if running around in the dark just scared me, I told myself – I could read on my phone by the fire. He didn’t think Maylee would mind.
Whoever she was.
We rounded a lava outcropping and finally saw the campfire. Jaxson squeezed my shoulders. “Shall I call you my shy cousin?”
The fire was more coals than flames. I welcomed the heat but wanted more light. More than a dozen kids sat around it on old, smooth logs. I could mostly tell girls from boys, but their faces kept changing in the flickering night.
“Hey, everybody,” said Jaxson. “Meet my favorite cousin, Sylvia from Portland. She came for my graduation.”
It was like they’d rehearsed. In almost perfect, almost creepy unison, they said, “Hi, Sylvia from Portland.”
They told me their names, which wouldn’t have helped even if I could have seen faces clearly and hadn’t been slightly weirded out by their greeting. I was terrible with names that came in bunches.
“We heard you scream,” Maylee said. I could probably remember her, at least. “Unless that was Jax. Snakeskin got you?”
I nodded. “I’m a city girl.”
“Gets me every time I come here,” said another girl. I couldn’t tell which. “Tell us about yourself.”
“Not much to tell.”
“She graduated last week,” Jaxson said. “She gets up early to jog through cemeteries.”
“No offense,” said a girl with a rich, alto voice. “But that sounds weird. Creepy even.”
“It’s not,” I said. “At home there’s this huge cemetery, like a park. Long, wide walking paths, shade trees, hills overlooking a pond. Benches everywhere, a million flowers. People walk or jog there, or sit and read. Even picnic.”
“Yeah, but all the dead people, you know?” said a guy.
“I never see them,” I said drily.
“She saw someone in our cemetery this morning,” said Jaxson. He turned to me. “Mom told me.”
“You saw her?” asked a girl.
“I saw a girl sitting by a headstone, but I’m pretty sure she was alive. Besides some joggers and dog-walkers.”
“Did she have long, red hair? And a prom gown?”
“Red hair, might have been long. Prom gown … maybe? I saw orange and black, I think. But I didn’t get very close. Didn’t look like she wanted company.”
“Company Heather wants is under the headstone.”
That shouldn’t have surprised me – in a cemetery – but I felt a chill that wasn’t a breeze. Which was perfectly understandable. Subconscious thoughts of my own mortality, probably.
A log shifted in the fire, launching a stream of embers into the void. Campfires were supposed to be in little fire rings, surrounded by concrete. This one burned on the same ground that was under our feet, with just a ring of small rocks between it and … well, a lot more dirt than dry grass. So we were probably okay.
“Her boyfriend, Reese,” said one of the guys. “Drunk driver killed him last month. He was running an errand for her in his pickup, so she probably blames herself.”
This was some party, I thought in the silence that followed. Violent, untimely death. Fire. Surrounded by coyotes. Possible snakes. Soda, not beer. Grief where laughter should be.
“They were together since maybe fifth grade,” said a girl. “Held hands a lot. Never saw them kiss or anything. Not saying they didn’t. Never saw them argue either. Kinda weird.”
“Not weird,” said another girl. “Just farmers. Only two farm kids in the senior class. Started their own Future Farmers of America chapter so they could join it.”
“Maylee makes three,” someone said.
“Maylee’s not a farm girl,” said Maylee. “Maylee’s cousins are farm kids. Different school though.”
The boy next to me said, “They put up signs about their meetings, but I heard nobody else ever showed. I guess three’s a crowd.”
A girl was sitting in front of him on a short section of log turned on end. He stopped rubbing her shoulders, wrapped his arms around her waist from behind, and spoke softly. “Three’s a crowd, you know?”
She leaned away from the mouth that was practically blowing in her ear. “Maybe two’s a crowd.”
I couldn’t take my eyes or my thoughts off the dancing flames for more than a few seconds. They didn’t make me afraid or even uncomfortable. It was like a strange anticipation – but of what?
This whole place felt strange. Not in a bad way, unless I thought about snakes or coyotes. It felt like something more than just being out in the country at night in darkness so complete that the endless land and sky were both invisible.
Jaxson’s friends were strangers to me, but I was starting to feel comfortable with them, which was also strange. Back home I wasn’t invited to most of … whatever this was, but with beer. When I was invited, I didn’t fit in.
“They were neighbors,” said a boy. “Big farms on the edge of town, right next to each other. Well, any farm looks big to me.”
“I don’t know how they could be together so long and just hold hands,” said the guy next to me. He gave his girl a quick peck on the cheek. “I couldn’t do that. Especially around all those animals.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“All the farm animals out there just doing it right in front of you. And all the opportunities. Like ‘Where is the boy who looks after the sheep? He’s in the haystack with Little Bo Peep.’”
Others laughed, but she didn’t. “That’s disgusting.” She escaped his arms, stood, and squeezed into the space between him and me.
“Hi. Sorry,” she said.
“No worries,” I said.
For a moment there was just the crackle of the fire.
“I saw them arguing once,” said a girl.
“I doubt it,” said another.
“No, really. She wanted to make signs and picket the office of that one senator guy, and he didn’t.”
“What senator guy?”
“The one who’s all about high tech. On the news they ran that video of him basically saying farmers are stupid like every five minutes for a week. She thought they should protest.”
“Heather’s not stupid,” said one of the guys. “Might be valedictorian, not sure.”
“Reese was smart too,” said another guy. “They had it all planned out. She was going to study law and agribusiness. He was going to study something scientific. Botany, maybe. And animal … something. Then they wanted to run a farm together, have lots of kids, and live happily ever after.”
“Farming’s too much work for happily-ever-after,” someone said.
“They didn’t seem to mind. Asked him how long they’d been planning that. He said third grade.”
“Why does she wear that dress to the cemetery?” asked the girl next to me. “I mean, I get why she goes. I might go too, if my boyfriend died. If he was worth it.”
“Hey!” protested her boyfriend, to a chorus of laughs and hoots.
As she turned to me, the fire flared and made her eyes glow. “We have to tell you about the dress. She made it herself. She’s like a star Home Ec student too. Maybe farm girls just make stuff.”
“It was gorgeous,” said a girl.
“Unique,” said another.
A boy spoke up from across the fire. “Have to tell you about his pickup too, or the dress won’t make sense. At lunch, when they weren’t having FFA meetings –”
“We made up some bad acronyms for that,” said another guy.
“FFA’s the acronym,” said the first guy. “You sure they’re letting you graduate, Gav? Anyway, in good weather they’d be out waxing it, or the hood was up and they were poking around.”
“Each other or the truck?” asked a boy.
His rewards were groans and a loud “Ewww!”
“Sorry, gutterbrain. Just the truck. Last fall he got these amazing new seat covers. Some kind of camo, all tree branches and flames. Some of the flames were the exact color of her hair. When she wore black, she really blended in. Pretty cool.”
“Or hot,” said a guy.
“Speaking of hot,” said the boy whose girlfriend was between us now, “do you think they did anything hotter than hold hands on those wild, fiery seats?”
His girlfriend snorted, stood up again, and moved to the other side of Jaxson.
Another girl picked up the story. “Reese died the Saturday before prom. She never came back to school. But she came to prom, like two days after his funeral.”
“She sat with his family at the funeral,” said a boy.
The girl continued. “Her prom dress was made from the same fabric as the seat covers. Well, the skirt was. Actually, not that canvas fabric. More like satin, but the same pattern. The colors really popped. The bodice was black satin. I could never wear something like that. Although, maybe if they had a pattern in green. Anyway, she was totally gorgeous. Her hair too.”
“And hot,” added a boy with a high tenor voice. “You know, because flames?”
The girl sighed and continued. “She sat alone, until they played this one slow song. Their song, maybe. I heard it come on the radio once, when they were waxing his truck –”
A boy snorted loudly.
“Shut up, Pete. They slow-danced right there in the parking lot. When they played it at prom, she walked onto the floor and danced like she was with someone, but she wasn’t. I think she was crying.
“Then she walked out the door, and no one’s seen her since – except at the cemetery, early Sunday mornings, always in that dress. Just sits by his grave, all curled up. That’s what they say. It’s like four weeks in a row now, every Sunday since prom.”
Another girl spoke up. “I wonder if she spent the night there after prom. I might do that, if I loved a boy that much.”
“Today’s not Sunday,” I said. “But she was there.”
“Maybe Memorial Day counts,” someone said.
“That was yesterday, moron,” called someone else.
“You know what I wonder?” asked a girl. “How long was she alone at prom before she danced? Maybe half an hour?”
“Maybe,” said a boy. “That’s what you wonder?”
“What I wonder is, why didn’t any of us girls leave our precious dates for a few minutes and go sit with her? Why didn’t any of you guys ask her to dance?”
“Too weird, Kim,” said a guy.
“Creepy!” said a girl.
“Too sad,” said another girl. “I don’t know what to say when people die.”
“Nobody talked to her at all?” asked a girl. “I wasn’t there.”
“In our defense,” said a boy, “she didn’t talk to anyone either.”
After that it was one random high school memory after another, not about the dead boy or his girlfriend. I mostly tuned out, sipped my soda, and nibbled pizza. Instead of reading my book, I preferred to stare at the fire. I imagined Jaxson asking if I’d ever seen an open flame in the big city.
He did ask whether I was warm enough, which I was, and if I wanted to leave yet. He seemed happy to stay, so I said no, I was fine.
Besides, they’d just thrown more wood on the fire, and I wanted to watch the flames. No doubt there was a good reason to want that, somewhere in my psyche. Maybe I’d ponder it later.
The strange feeling was still there. It was even a little spooky, if only in its strangeness.
At 11:30 they put out the fire and passed out the leftover pizza. There were tearful goodbyes for Maylee and friendly ones for the rest, including me. Then we gathered our trash and left the way we’d come.
I ran in the cemetery the next morning and thought about Heather, but I didn’t see her. On Thursday I slept through my alarm, so there wasn’t time to run before we left for Jaxson’s commencement.
Someone else was valedictorian, but they called Heather’s name when it was her turn in the diploma line. A hush fell over the crowd. She wasn’t there. Everyone applauded, and they moved on. The hush was longer for Reese’s name.
On my first lap on Friday morning, I saw her sitting on the grass, staring at the headstone. I spent a full lap persuading myself to talk to her, because no one talked to her at prom. If she was still there when I came back around.
She hadn’t moved. I approached but left several feet of grass between us.
“Hi. Sorry to bother you. You okay?”
She still didn’t move.
“I’m Sylvia. Can I help you somehow?”
Her long, straight, fiery hair looked a little ratty up close, like she hadn’t brushed it. Some of it was pulled together in back with a pretty, bronze-colored hair clip shaped like a tree branch.
Not that I ever would, but I wished I’d brought a hairbrush on my run. I looked for a purse or something; maybe she had a brush. All I saw was a girl and a grave – a fresh grave, with cuts still visible in the sod. And a small gift bag.
She was in the prom dress. Green would have fit the cemetery better than orange, I thought. It was almost lush enough to be Portland, and flames were a much different sort of life.
She looked up slowly. Her eyes were dark and empty, her expression blank. She turned back to the headstone.
“I like your dress,” I said. “Sorry to disturb you.”
I jogged away.
On my next lap she was on her feet, bending over and picking grass from her skirt.
“Me again,” I said. I hesitated, then helped her with the back of the skirt.
Her legs were bare, with a few weeks’ worth of red stubble. She wasn’t wearing a slip, and she was braless under her satin top.
“Did you make this gorgeous gown?” I asked.
She may or may not have nodded very slightly. Her eyes were back on the headstone, and three felt like a crowd.
“I’ll leave you alone. Have a good day.” I wondered what a good day could even be for her.
She stood motionless and silent.
Returning to the path was a relief. I belonged there, with my runner’s build and shoes to match. She belonged off the path, not so much with the grass and trees as with the soil underneath and the blazing sunlight. Her full figure belonged to nature, and her hair and skirt were fire. I shook off the impression and jogged away.
I thought she’d be gone when I came around again, but she was there, arms folded and head bowed, eyes open and fresh tears glistening on her cheeks. I didn’t interrupt.
I did get another look at the headstone, and I thought I knew why she was here on a Friday. Today was Reese’s eighteenth birthday. Tears pooled in my eyes, but I brushed them away and left her alone.
She was gone when I came around on my last lap, but I saw something next to the headstone. It was a plastic box from a bakery, sized for a single piece of cake. Maybe birthday cake?
There was something black too, and something sparkling in the sun.
I stopped on the path, a few yards from the grave, and looked around. If she left on foot, I might have seen her, but I didn’t. And I hadn’t seen a bike or car.
The sun hid behind a cloud as I stepped toward the headstone. A chill ran up my spine – except it was heat. It spread to my whole body, and I stopped short, a few feet from the stone.
In my mind I saw flames. Maybe it was the campfire, stuck in my head from the other night, when I heard her story. Maybe the pattern from her dress was playing tricks on me.
The black thing near the headstone was her dress, crumpled on the grass, with her bronze hair clip on top. Some of the skirt’s fiery pattern peeked out from under the black.
The chill that wasn’t a chill was stronger now, warmer than the campfire had been, warmer than sunlight, when the sun wasn’t behind a cloud. And different.
A repeated line from the monsignor’s homily at my very last Mass popped unbidden into my head. “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”
I bent down, untied my shoes, slipped them off, and stood on the dewy grass in my gym socks.
I stepped forward cautiously and knelt.
The cake in the plastic box had a bite or two missing. A white plastic fork was with it. It was white cake with fancy white frosting.
I touched the dress, caressing the fabric, then picked it up and examined the colorful skirt. The word “Wildfire” was printed here and there among the flames, in smallish type.
I looked around again. Where had she gone? And what was she wearing now?
Under the dress was a pair of black flats, barely worn.
I wondered if I should be touching anything, or if I should be here at all. But the warmth inside me was welcoming, not threatening. It glowed like hot coals.
Under the shoes were a cummerbund and bow tie in the same fiery pattern. Under them, in a clear plastic sheet cover, was a graduation program. Under that was a plain white gift bag, empty, folded, and damp from the dew.
I straightened everything, carefully folding the gown and replacing it with the hair clip on top. Then I saw what had sparkled from a distance, before the sun disappeared.
A small, hinged ring box sat open, nearly camouflaged, on a ledge near the base of the headstone. There were two gold bands, one thin and one thicker, and a matching –
I breathed in sharply.
A matching engagement ring, with one modest diamond.
The sun came out, and the diamond turned to fire – not orange and yellow like Heather’s skirt or the other night’s campfire, but purest white.
It was time to go. I could feel it.
Back on the path, I put on my shoes and walked away instead of running, because wet socks give you blisters.
Aunt Kara was on her front porch, watching for my return. “I’m glad you’re back,” she said as I crossed the lawn. Cemetery again?”
“We should leave for the airport in forty minutes. Are you happy to be going home for the first time as a high-school-graduated adult who’s been away?”
The not-chills swelled again, but less than at the grave. I nodded slowly.
“I’d run every morning too,” she said, “if I could glow like you right now. But my radiant years are behind me. Must have been a good run.”
“It was good.”
“Muffin and juice?”
I struggled to focus. “If there’s time. Shower first. I’m sure they’re amazing.”
“Thanks. But your mom’s the expert baker. When I went off to college, I’d miss her baking and know it was time to go home. But listen to me rattle on. Better hurry.”
Still thinking of Heather, I wandered toward the guest room. The fire inside me echoed my aunt’s words.
It was time to go home.
Our route to the airport ran past the cemetery. I knew what I had to do, but not why.
“Aunt Kara, could we stop in the cemetery for a minute? I might have dropped something. I know exactly where to look, if I did.”
I had her park where we couldn’t see Reese’s headstone, but nearby. “Perfect. Thanks. Be right back.”
Jaxson released his seatbelt. “I’ll help.”
“No, stay here. It’s either right up here or it’s not. Only takes a second to check.”
Near the headstone my fire grew. I made sure they couldn’t see me from the car, slipped off my sandals – the dew was gone now – approached the grave, and knelt. I glanced at the rings and the inscription on the headstone, then did what I was here for.
I unfolded the gown and refolded it, so the flames showed instead of the black.
It was right.
I started to retreat but felt like reaching for … something. I leaned down and picked up the hair clip. I told myself it didn’t belong to me, but the fire inside me flared, and I knew the clip wasn’t Heather’s anymore. It could be mine now.
“Find what you were looking for?” asked Aunt Kara, when I was back in the car.
“Yes,” I said. “Thanks for stopping.”
“No problem. Glad you found it.”
“Going home is such a happy thing,” she added, as we pulled out of the cemetery. “Home to the people we love. Not that you don’t love us.”
I didn’t tell her I wasn’t sure what I’d found or what it meant. I didn’t tell her how hearing the words “going home” caused my inner fire to flare again.
It settled to a warm, steady glow.
Photo credit: Sergiu Vălenaș on Unsplash
Wildfire (camo) is a trademark of Sirphis.
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