I learned the secret of Justin’s fossilized fire shortly after I realized I wasn’t in love with Melissa anymore. We were drinking on the hill over Shenecker’s farm in the evening, like when we were kids. I wanted to tell him I didn’t know why I was married, that I had been playing along for the past few years, hoping things would fall together, only to realize pretending wasn’t going to make it real. Instead I asked him about the fire.
He sold shards in bottles at the flea market. They stood out from the homemade jewelry, blankets, and wooden ducks. The red and orange pieces curled about themselves, thin as leaves, but hard as stone, like twisted sheets of mica, a flame trapped in a single moment, never changing.
He wouldn’t tell anyone how he made them. If you asked his wife, she’d mention his workshop in the basement, but knew nothing else. I’d been in Justin’s basement, seen his hobbies. He had no kiln, no way of blowing glass. Besides, his flames looked nothing like glass.
They were his secret. So maybe it was the alcohol that loosened his tongue, or our friendship, or both.
“If you know where to look and how to look, you can see it–the second sun.” He stared across the fields and spoke with a seriousness that should have been mine, discussing my marriage. The grass was a few inches high, but would be a few feet come summer. Beech and maple trees grew behind us, but in front headlights drifted down two lane roads around plowed fields.
“Where is it?” I asked. “The other sun?” He didn’t make any sense, but this was the first time he ever said anything about the flames.
“Look to the right of the sun. It’s there.” He pointed to the sky with the hand that held his bottle of lager.
“You’re gonna make me go blind.” I smiled and took a swig from my beer.
“Then don’t worry about it. I’m the only one who can see it, and I’m fine with that.” He finished his beer and placed the empty bottle in the cardboard six-pack. “Where’s the bottle opener?”
“You’re full of shit.” I handed him my keys. “We all know you make them in your basement.”
“Keep on knowing then.” Justin popped the cap off another bottle. He always looked in need of a haircut, and random tufts stuck out of the back of his head.
We didn’t say anything for a few minutes. The sun was behind the hills in the distance. We still had enough light to see without the glare being annoying. Spring peepers chirped in the trees, growing louder, replacing the overbearing light of the setting sun with the overbearing cries of frogs.
“I don’t think I’m in love with Melissa,” I said.
Instead of responding Justin sipped his beer, and then, “It’s too late for that.”
“I know. I don’t dislike her. I just don’t…she’s just another person, and I always thought a wife should be someone I feel passion for.” I looked at the homes below, some lit, some not, spread out among the farms.
“Are you cheating on her?” As secretive as he was about himself, Justin was blunt with everyone else.
“No. I haven’t replaced her with someone else. I feel like I’ve lost something.”
Despite the frogs, I lowered my voice. Justin stayed monotone. “When did this start?”
“I realized it about a month ago, but I think I’ve felt this way since Sarah was born. I’ve been too busy thinking about her and trying to support them to notice.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know. I seriously don’t know.”
Justin took another drink. “That sucks.”
“Yeah. Thanks for listening to me.”
“Don’t tell anyone about the sun. Okay?”
I smiled. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone how crazy you are.”
We had been in our house for three years by that point. It was just a row home with a porch and a small yard, but better for Sarah than the apartments Melissa and I had been living in. A real home is what we were supposed to have at this point in our lives. I thought about my parents’ house as I ran my hand along the railing and then opened the screen door. I grew up in a house like this and now I owned one. That’s how things were supposed to go.
Melissa came into the living room with a small grin as I took off my shoes. “You’re back. How’s Justin doing?” she asked. Her blonde curls bounced as she moved.
“Same old. We had a few beers and talked about work and stuff.” I put my arm around her back, pulled her close, and kissed her on the forehead.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, wrapping her freckled arms around me. Her grin became curiosity. “You have that sense about you.”
“Nothing. I just have to ask people for money tomorrow. The last guy I laid brick for still hasn’t paid me. It’s annoying.”
She slid away from me. “People are such jerks. Anyway, dinner is pretty much finished. Can you get Sarah upstairs while I set the plates out?”
“Sure.” I watched her leave the room. If she was a stranger on the street I would call her pretty, but I wouldn’t bother to talk to her, even though I once did.
A few months passed and I forgot about the conversation with Justin. So I wasn’t expecting it when I saw it. I walked through the square to the coffee shop for lunch, feeling the summer heat. An electric sign announced the town fireworks display. I glanced at it and then looked up. I don’t know why. I never look at the sky. I should have jerked away from the harsh light, but I saw it, next to the real sun, like Justin said–a second star, a green sun, dimmer, hidden in the glare of the original, but there. Two eyes burning down on me. My eyelids squeezed shut and I turned my head away, spots dancing in my vision.
People walked down the street, jogged, led children along. Did they see it? I looked up again, but it was gone.
Maybe it was a trick. The glare on my eye, a double image from the brightness. Was the idea still lurking in my mind, ready to jump out when I stopped paying attention to it?
I felt dizzy in the heat. I kept going to the coffee shop, to sit in the air conditioning. I looked at the sun again. Only one. But everything felt odd, like when the tint is wrong on a television.
I wanted to tell Melissa, but I didn’t know how. She folded Sarah’s laundry in the living room when I came home. I needed to say something, so I blurted out, “How are you doing?”
“Sarah gave me trouble all day. She took a crying fit in the supermarket and I left before I could finish getting everything we need.” She spoke without looking at me, her eyelids sinking.
“Do you need me to look after her right now?”
“No, she’s taking a nap.” She gave me a weary smile. “How was your day?”
A pressure built in my chest. I wanted to tell her what I had seen. “Fine. I’m almost done the chimney for the Platts.”
She put the clothing back in the basket. “Do you mind if we just order a pizza or something tonight? I’m really tired and it’s too hot to cook.”
“Actually I kind of wanted to see Justin, so that’s fine.”
She stood and shoved the basket into her hip. “You can go over there. I’ll take care of Sarah.”
“Don’t you want to eat first?”
“If he doesn’t feed you I’ll have something saved for you. You worked all day. Go have a good time.” She took the basket upstairs. Reliving the moment I could tell she was mad at me, but at the time I simply took her advice.
Justin’s black lab lifted its head on the porch as I approached. It barked twice and then jumped up, claws scraping the wood as it got to its feet and ran toward me.
“Down, Muddy, down!” I yelled as the dog put his front paws on my stomach and tried to lick me. I scratched the back of his head and then pushed him to the ground. The screen door creaked and Justin came out with a dish rag in his hand.
“Muddy, come here!” The dog turned and ran to him. “I told you no jumping.” Justin swatted the dog on the nose. “Hey, Mike. How’s it going?” he asked. Inside the house I could hear his children screaming and his wife giving warnings about how long to play videogames.
“Good.” I hesitated. Dark blue stained the wisps of clouds in the sky as the last light crept over the horizon. “I saw it. The green sun.”
Justin lost the smile on his face. “Let’s go downstairs.”
A box of marsh grass and cattails sat next to the washing machine under a window. Justin filtered his wash water through the plants, and then used the gray water to flush his toilet. He didn’t do it to save the Earth so much as he enjoyed having projects to build and obsessing over things. He once told me he never used the remote key on his car because he didn’t want to drain the tiny battery.
Past the washing machine and dryer was his workshop filled with wood, plastic and metal pipes, and racks of tools.
“I never told you what color it was,” Justin said. He pulled a wooden crate out from under a table. Mason jars containing the fossilized flames clinked inside.
“I wasn’t looking for it. I just glanced up and it was there. I saw it this afternoon, but only once. It disappeared when I looked again.”
“Don’t worry. It’ll come back.” The jars rattled as he set the crate on the table. He removed one. The smell of river weed filled the cold room.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s frozen, like all of these. It doesn’t change like the regular sun. And it doesn’t give off its own light. It just reflects, like the moon.” He removed a piece of fire. “Calling them fossils works well at the flea market.”
“Why can’t anyone else see it?” Looking close, I could see flecks of green lodged behind the red and orange.
“I don’t know. You’re the only person I’ve told. Maybe that’s why you noticed it.” He put the flame on the table. “A little bit after my father died I was out at the Grape Hole, remembering when we used to swim there. There was a splash of something hitting the water. I looked around, but no one was there, not even on the ridge top. Under the ripples, I saw one of these. There was another splash farther out. I looked at the sky and that’s the first time I saw the green sun.
“I go out there once a month and collect the fossils from the shallows. There must be a mountain of them in the deeper water, but I don’t feel like swimming.”
“Kids still go there,” I said. “How come no one else has found them?”
“Hell if I know. It’s like they can’t be seen until I touch them. I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me they’ve found them too or they can see the sun, but I spend every weekend sitting at the market, seeing two suns in the sky, and no one else notices.” Justin turned from the flame to me and relaxed a little. “Do you want to go out there this weekend? Maybe you’ll notice something I didn’t.”
“Yeah, let’s see where these things come from.” I looked at the still flame, waiting for it to waver and continue burning.
The flooded coal quarry was on private land, but it was easy enough to sneak on and go swimming. We parked in a supermarket’s lot and walked into the nearby forest. A trail led to the water. When we were kids, the owner would come around sometimes and tell us to leave, but that was it. I’m sure as adults we were more likely to be identified and arrested later, but no one had noticed Justin here yet.
Sheer cliffs formed a wall against half the water filled pit. A shoreline of coal refuse and random weeds bordered the other side. Sycamores grew everywhere. In the Fall their leaves covered the water. They looked like grape leaves, and everyone called it the Grape Hole.
We used to climb a trail to the top of the cliff and dive off at various points. Our parents warned us about coming here, claiming we could drown. Along with the No Trespassing signs on trees, a large wooden sign warned against swimming.
This is where Ryan Dulin died when we were seniors. A bunch of rocks at the jumping off point had collapsed and he fell with them. Me and Justin never really talked to him, but he was Melissa’s boyfriend at the time. We never swam here after the accident either. But people forget.
Remains of a campfire and beer cans littered the shoreline. Cigarettes, gun shells, and a condom were scattered over the rocks. I saw a red sliver in the shallows, and then looked at the sky. The green fossil had returned.
I picked the flame out of the water.
Damn it!” Justin yelled. He was a few yards away flailing his hand about. He sucked on his finger as I walked over. A flame was in his other hand. Blood trickled from the wound when he took his finger out of his mouth. “I cut myself.”
“Maybe we should wear gloves,” I said.
Justin closed his eyes and squeezed his face together, like my uncle would do whenever he had a migraine. His eyes popped open.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Yeah. I just…I remembered when I cut myself as a kid, while using an X-ACTO knife.”
“It was that traumatic?”
“No.” He looked at the cut. “It just came on really strong, like I was there again, slicing my finger for the first time.”
“We better get your hand cleaned. We don’t know if these things are poisonous.”
“I’ve cut myself on them before. I’ll be fine.” He looked at me like he didn’t understand why I should be worried, and then took the flame to the cardboard box of jars on the shore. I put my flame in one too.
Insects hissed in the trees. It was sunny and hot, the perfect summer day, but a day that felt empty. I wanted there to be kids here, laughing and swimming. I wanted them to be the people I knew, many who have moved away. The day Ryan died, he stayed here by himself. I don’t know why he wouldn’t have left with Melissa when all of us packed up. I remember Justin trying to skip stones and failing. Now he was sucking blood from his finger.
We found five pieces before leaving.
I sat on the couch in the living room, dolls and coloring books all over the floor. Melissa had taken Sarah to the park. I looked at the flame in a jar and scratched at the glue from the spaghetti sauce label stuck to the glass. I was afraid. I didn’t understand how this thing could exist. If something as ordinary as the sun could go wrong, then how could I trust anything? Even the air in my house felt different. I had the sense that things were going to keep changing until I didn’t know where I was anymore. Wanting a distraction, I put the jar in the crack between two cushions and began picking up Sarah’s toys.
The front door opened. Melissa led Sarah in by the hand.
“How was the park?” I asked.
“Good. Tell Daddy what you did, sweetie.”
“I made a castle for Susan.” She held up her doll and her green eyes beamed with joy. Those were Melissa’s eyes, but Sarah had my brown hair.
I forgot about the sun for a moment as I lifted her in the air and she giggled. “Does she live in a high tower like this?”
“Justin gave you some of his glasswork?” Melissa asked, noticing the jar.
“Yeah, I was helping him this morning with one of his projects.”
“You’re not going to start hanging out at the flea market every weekend, are you?” she asked with a tired smile.
I laughed and put Sarah down. “No, I’d get bored too quickly. Justin’s the one who loves talking to strangers.” She walked to the stack of toys I made and scattered them.
“Did you pick up the stuff?” Melissa asked.
“You forgot.” She frowned. “I knew I should have stopped by the store on the way back from the park.”
“You never asked me to get anything,” I said.
Melissa was already walking down the hallway to the bathroom. She turned around at the door. “I told you I couldn’t finish because Sarah threw a fit in the store. I need pasta, eggs, mayonnaise, and celery to make macaroni salad for the picnic on Tuesday. It’s the Fourth of July, Mike.”
“God. Never mind, don’t worry. I’ll go back out.”
I got in bed that night while Melissa changed her clothes. I was thinking about the quarry when she asked, “When was the last time we went out for dinner?”
I paused. “I don’t know. A month ago?”
“I’m glad there’s the daycare for Sarah, but I’m still so stressed out.” Melissa rubbed her fingers on her forehead, illustrating her weariness, but found a pimple as a result. She moved to the vanity to pick at it. “I hate the office. I hate dealing with emails from idiots. Janice annoys the hell out of me. Proper etiquette says don’t discuss politics at work.” Melissa smeared a white cream on the blemish and rubbed it until it vanished. “Instead I have to listen to people whine all day about the government.” She got in bed with me.
“Now your face is red.” I poked her with my index finger. She faintly smiled. I could still go through the motions.
“We need to go on a date,” Melissa said. “Sarah is just too much for me after a full day at work. I was older than she is now when my father left us for Cheryl, but still, I’m amazed my mother was able to raise me by herself.”
“We’ll get a babysitter this Saturday,” I said. She lay next to me and I rubbed her leg, feeling day’s old hair growth.
“We need to get through the holiday first,” she said.
I kissed her, my hand on her leg, thinking about how nothing stays how you leave it, especially not smooth skin.
“Did you notice anything when you examined the fire?” Justin asked. Sunlight leaked in through the small windows near the basement ceiling.
“I can see green now,” I said. “There’s an emerald core under the red and orange. I never saw that before, but now it’s blatant.”
“What do you think it feels like?” he asked.
“I didn’t take it out of the jar. I’m afraid of cutting myself.”
Justin sighed. “I was hoping you would.”
He took a margarine container from a shelf and opened it. It was filled with red-green powder. “It breaks into dust if you grind it.” He touched it and got a dab on his finger. “The first time I cut myself I was suddenly lying on the ground, my knee bleeding from the rocks I fell off my bike onto. And I was ten.” Dust drifted about the window. “Then I was back here in the basement. So I nicked myself on purpose and there I was again, trying not to cry, scraping the dirt from my wound. It was the first hot day of summer, so I had shorts on. I wouldn’t have ripped my skin off if I was wearing jeans.”
He waited for a response, but I didn’t know what to say. Justin licked the powder from his finger.
“What are you doing?” My face twisted in disgust. He stood there, eyes closed, not moving. I grabbed his shoulder and shook him. “Justin!”
His eyes opened and I stepped back. “That was only a little bit, so it didn’t last long.”
“You’re eating it?”
“Well I guess you could smoke it or something, but that seems like too much work.”
“What just happened to you?”
“I was playing basketball with you in gym class.”
“You’re messing with me and I don’t like it.” My heart sped up. The world was changing again.
“Try it,” Justin said. He pointed to the tub on the table.
“No. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“It’s memories, Mike. The fire is memories. When you get it inside of you, you go back to whatever you’re thinking of at the moment. You relive it.” His eyebrows rose and a hushed tone barely kept back his excitement.
“You’re hallucinating?” I asked.
“No. Not at all. This is real.” He jabbed a finger at the powder. “When you remember a conversation, you remember the meaning of it, but not every word. You remember in general what someone did, but not every movement. Our minds aren’t VCRs. But this is. Any little detail you’d like to see again, everything you can’t remember, is right here. This is frozen experience, stored forever up in the sky.”
Justin had always been my closest friend, ever since we were boys, but now, for the first time in my life, he made me uncomfortable. “You don’t know what the hell this stuff is. How do you know it isn’t poisonous?”
“It hasn’t hurt me yet,” he said.
“How long have you been eating this?”
He raised his shoulders and turned his palm up. “About a year and a half, I guess.”
I looked at the powder, my throat tightening. “I need to leave. This is too much.”
“It’s safe Mike. You’re my friend and I’ve wanted to talk about this since I found it. You can see it too. You know I’m not crazy.”
Maybe he saw the fear on my face and was disappointed at how badly his revelation had gone because he didn’t chase after me when I left.
I remember watching fireworks as a kid. We sat as close to the shooting ground at the football field as we could, where it was loudest. They whistled from their tubes in a flash of light and the explosions made me feel like I was in the war movies my father watched. My ears rang all night.
When we were teenagers we moved to the hilltops along the forest so we could have privacy. In eleventh grade me and Justin were with girls who aren’t around anymore. Despite that, I wanted Melissa. We were in homeroom together and I would steal looks at her whenever I could without making it obvious. She was with Ryan though.
He came to drinking parties and swimming at the Grape Hole, but I never spoke to him. When I heard him talking, I knew he wanted everyone to know how smart he was. He was always going on about something only he knew about, usually religion, talking about people who said they saw the Virgin Mary.
Some people become teenagers and want to chase girls. Others develop strong opinions and need to tell everyone about them. Ryan did both. I don’t know what Melissa saw in him, but I was jealous. In the summer before our senior year, I had broken up with my girlfriend, so I sat alone on the hilltop, watching the fireworks. Justin was with his girlfriend. Melissa and Ryan were there too, and a bunch of others. I left halfway through the show, drunk, miserable.
Fifteen years later I sat far from the fireworks again, not for privacy, but to keep my daughter safe from the noise. And Melissa was finally mine, only now I didn’t want her. Justin wasn’t there. I’m not sure if he was watching them with his family, but I didn’t want to see him. At least until I could understand what was happening.
I was glad for the night. I didn’t want Melissa, I didn’t want Justin, and I didn’t want to see the green rock, its twisted veins like a marble, always overhead.
I looked at Sarah, her small face in awe at the lights.
It was hot in the garage. We had an air conditioner, but I kept coming here. Even with Melissa’s car, there was enough space to allow a workbench at the rear.
I took the jar from behind a box, the flame rattling inside. One of the tips had cracked off. I wanted to throw it in the garbage or crush it in my hand. I wanted to pull the false sun out of the sky and sink it in the quarry. I wanted to get drunk with Justin. I wanted to kiss Melissa and feel good again. But now we were fighting.
“When are you going to mow the lawn?” she had asked.
“When I get time to. I work late every day. Can it wait until Saturday?”
“You said you were going to have it done this week.”
“I never said that.”
“Don’t lie to me, Mike. I asked you to do it on Monday. Now it’s Thursday. Why can’t you be here when I need you?”
“I don’t remember you asking me about it at all.”
“Fine, maybe I should just do it myself.” She left the room.
I had been in the garage a lot the past month. This wasn’t the first time she accused me of not doing something she asked me to do. Other times it had been about making dinner or staying home to watch Sarah when the daycare wasn’t available. She had to know what was missing between us. She could tell something was wrong and was acting on it.
I hadn’t spoken to Justin in a month. At the time I couldn’t take my life getting any weirder, but now I didn’t care that he was eating it. If this is how things were, I accepted that. But I was afraid to show my face after how I reacted to him. I shouldn’t have been such a coward.
Why not try it? Melissa accused me of forgetting things. According to Justin, I could find out.
I laid a rag on my work bench, unscrewed the jar, and removed the flame, resting it on the cloth. I then wondered why I had gone through the trouble of being gentle with it when I intended to break it. I found a hardware store receipt on the table, put a tip of the flame over it, and began to sand the fossil. A reddish-green powder collected on the paper. After a few seconds of rubbing, I stained the tip of my finger with the powder and licked it off while thinking of Melissa.
We ate dinner. The lasagna she had cooked Monday night, steam rising off the top, a bit too hot for August, but still good. The seasoning was the best part, a recipe from her aunt. I didn’t remember this. I relived it, tasted the food again, felt my tongue burn when I couldn’t wait to eat.
Melissa complained about her job. I tried to offer support, but nothing I said felt meaningful. Finished eating, she left the kitchen to give Sarah a bath. If she had asked me, it wasn’t during dinner.
Then I was in the garage again, staring at her car. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes had passed. I must have stood there, zoned out for as long as it took to relive the meal.
I took another taste, less this time, and thought of the chimney I was building at the historical society. I was there again, in the cool room, brick in my hand over the dirt while the rest of the floor was covered in wood. Elizabeth, the society president, gabbed in the background. I thought she had been saying something about her granddaughter being in the newspaper, but now she was talking about some magazine, her granddaughter writing for it.
Justin said our memories weren’t perfect, and that the fire was. But why should I doubt my own mind and trust this?
I took some more and thought of Melissa. Whatever I remembered is where I found myself again. I began noticing details that seemed new, like what she was wearing or snippets of conversation I hadn’t recalled. Didn’t I pay attention the first time around? I listened to our conversations from the week again. She never asked me to mow the lawn. Did she think she did though? Intend to do so and not? I thought of the last time I could remember her asking me and found myself in July. I told her I would have it done before the end of the week.
The powder was used up. I put the rest of the flame back in the jar, and then tried to think of somewhere else I could be alone.
I was actually in her house. Yellow stucco walls, the brown carpet frayed where it ended at the stairs. Ceramic animals and glass candle holders on the book case above an encyclopedia set. The dents in the old furniture where people had sat for years.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” Melissa’s mother asked.
“No, I’m good right now,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Have a seat. I’ll go see if she’s ready yet.” She leaned close and whispered to me. “Thank you for doing this, Mike. She needs to be around her friends again. She’s been depressed ever since the accident.”
“It’s no problem,” I said. My left shoe was uncomfortable, just as I remembered. The color of Melissa’s corsage wasn’t what I thought though. More little details different.
“Hey.” I looked up from the flower to the voice. Melissa wore a teal dress that fell to her ankles. She smiled shyly. Seeing her in make-up with her hair pulled back and still eighteen, I realized how pretty she was. Was that it? Were we just getting older and Melissa the overworked mother was no longer the beautiful teenager?
She blushed when I put the blue flower on her. I noticed her reaction at the time, but didn’t trust that it was real, that she felt attracted to me too. On the second viewing, watching her lips bend into a smile, her eyes widen, I knew she was pleased to have me paying attention to her.
Coffee. That memory wasn’t wrong. A month after prom I asked her out. We went to Maggie’s Diner. Afterwards, we kissed. In the movies the girls taste like strawberries. Melissa tasted like coffee. I hadn’t thought about that in years, but as soon as I was reminded the memory came back. I knew which details would happen seconds before I relived them.
Three years later and I’m on the phone with Justin. “How the hell are you?”
“Good. I’m good,” he said. “Cleveland is interesting. Not as noisy as other places I’ve been to. I drive cars all day, moving them from where they get unloaded to dealerships. It’s tiring, but it’s decent.” He left after high school, didn’t want to live in the area anymore. He had no plans. He just wanted to go, wandering from place to place, working wherever he could. He eventually found whatever he was looking for because he came back, met a saleswoman from the newspaper, and settled down.
“Do you think you could take a break for a weekend and come visit?”
“Yeah, I can plan a trip. It’ll be great to see you again.”
“Well you don’t have to rush back right away. We don’t have a date yet but…look, can you be my best man?”
Fireworks opened the sky and I wandered away, arms itching from touching the dry grass. I saw Ryan holding Melissa as the hill lit up.
Both my shoes fit this time. Suit was nicer too. I watched her uncle lead her down the aisle. During the prom she kept looking down. Now she held her head high. Thin white straps went over her shoulders and embroidery wrapped around the top of her dress. At her waist it spread out into a smooth cone, like a snow drift.
The flowers tied to the pews were different. I was thinking of the poinsettias we had at home every Christmas and imagining them at the wedding too. But these looked like lilies. What an odd thing to confuse. My cousin Charlie wore jeans. At least his shirt had buttons. I hadn’t realized that. I know I spoke with him at the reception, but I had no memory of him being underdressed.
Melissa was in focus. The details I remembered about her were true in the fire, but the further things were from her, the less I knew them.
Dan and Mosley tried to light the campfire, but couldn’t. The wood was wet and they had burned half a notebook in the process. It would flare up, people would cheer, then the kindling would burn through and we’d be left with nothing again.
Justin mumbled about them, annoyed, but offered no help.
“How do you know it’s not like when people see shapes in the clouds?” Steve Kinnet asked. I wanted to turn to look at them, but couldn’t. That’s not what I had done in the past, and my body kept facing the campfire and quarry.
“There’s pictures of her, man,” Ryan said. “I’ll show you the book next time.”
“I don’t know. You can fake pictures.”
“Thousands saw her, even the Muslims.”
“You said it was just some light reflecting off a church at first.”
“God, not this again,” Jennie Petrowski moaned. “No one fucking cares.”
My body finally turned. Melissa sat next to Jennie on a beach towel. She wore a tube top. I could see the freckles on the tops of her breasts.
We lay in the hot darkness of our first apartment, no air conditioning, and she told me about her parents fighting and her father leaving, about dating Ryan because he made her feel better. Until he left too. Naked with her, I don’t think I was jealous.
I played with toy trucks in the backyard, scooping dirt with a front end loader and putting it in a dump truck. The neighbor’s big yellow cat lay in the grass, watching me. My mother and aunt sat on lawn chairs, smoking. Aunt Ruth had started to turn gray that young?
Chlorine from the school pool burned my nose. I climbed out of the shallow end, followed a trail of classmates to the deep side, and jumped in for another lap.
My mother shook me awake. The clock said 11:17, but I could barely open my eyes.
“Do you know Ryan Dulin?” she asked.
“Yeah, why?” I groaned. I fell back onto the pillow.
“They found his body in that quarry you all go swimming at. I’ve told you hundreds of times not to go there. They put the warning signs up for a reason. What if that was you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I whined with closed eyes.
“A kid from your high school drowned in the rock quarry.”
Melissa tried to hide her smile, but couldn’t. My boots were still covered in mortar as I stood in the living room. But she didn’t care about the carpet. Instead, “I’m pregnant.” I couldn’t breathe for a second.
“How many of these have you sold?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Dozens. A hundred. I never kept track.” Justin shrugged.
When I had called, he said he was afraid I was mad at him. I told him it was me who was afraid, afraid of the fire, but I had been using it.
“If you cut yourself so easily, other people have to know.” We were in the workshop, the crate of jars on the table.
“If they do, they never told me. I sell them as art. Maybe everyone’s afraid to take them out of the jars and risk breaking them.” The dryer rumbled, hiding our conversation.
“How often are you using this?” I asked.
“At least once a week, when I feel like reminiscing.”
“You need to relive things that much?”
“Yeah, why not?” he said defensively. Next to him, the jars looked like pictures, refusing to flicker. He lowered his voice. “If you think too much about your memories, you lose confidence in them. They’re vague, untouchable. The past may as well have been a dream. That’s how alike my memories of dreams and reality are. And our memories change every time we recall them. What good are memories when they’re lies?” He looked at the jar in his hand. “This is different. This is pure experience, preserved forever.”
“How do you know that?” I asked. “You’re right, the details in the fire are different than the way I remember them, but what makes you think the fire is true?”
“I tested it.” He waved his hand as if it was obvious. “I thought about James as a baby, moments I know we videotaped. I wrote down everything I could remember. Then I did the fire and relived them. And then I watched the videotapes. My memories didn’t match the tape, but the fire did. It’s recordings, but of everything and in so much more detail.”
I looked at the jar in his hand. “I’ve spent hours in it. It seems too easy to get lost.”
“I’m not using it for entertainment,” Justin said. “When I decided to see my father again, I chose a fishing trip. A black snake swam across the creek. It was the first time I saw a snake in the wild. Back there again, I could see the joy in my father’s face. I was excited to see the snake, and my reaction made him so happy. He was happy to simply have a son.”
“So are you going to take James fishing or hang out down here getting stoned?”
“Don’t say that, Mike.”
“I know what this does now, and I’m worried about what you’re telling me.”
“I was living in another state for three years when my father died. I lost that time to spend with him. This is a blessing. I’m not remembering. I’m not forgetting on pot. I’m going back. If you’re telling me there’s something wrong with that, you can leave.” The tumbling of the dryer filled his pause. “Everything’s always becoming the past. My life can’t have meaning when everything’s always disappearing.”
I thought of Melissa in her wedding dress. “Don’t get lost in it.”
The house was dark. I wondered where Melissa and Sarah were, but I was also relieved to have time alone that didn’t involve hiding. I thought about this as I opened the door. At first there was something missing when I looked at her. Now I was wishing to be alone.
A silhouette sat on the couch.
“Why are you in the dark?” I asked. “Is everything OK?”
“I’m fine. I’m just sitting here. Where were you?”
I turned the lamp on. “With Justin.”
Her eyes were red. “Oh.”
“What’s going on?”
She kept her head straight, only moving her eyes to me. Her mouth opened to speak, but she closed it, eyes drifting away.
“What did I forget to do?” I asked.
“He’s fine.” I stepped towards her. “You’ve been crying. What is–”
“You’re cheating on me.”
“What? No. Why did you say that?”
“You’re always busy,” Melissa said. “Saying you’re off with Justin or taking walks.”
I looked down while touching my forehead. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around much. I’ve had a lot of work lately. I guess I do spend too much time elsewhere when I should be here.”
“Don’t lie to me!” She flung her hands to her sides. “Even when you are here you’re distant. You don’t seem like you care about me anymore.”
The air stopped in my throat. “Where’s Sarah?”
“Why do you think I don’t care about you?”
“Stop pretending, Mike.” Her words snapped the air. “I can see it in your expressions, in how you treat me. You’ve been disappearing since summer began and missing all week. When I do see you, you act like you want to help me with things. But you’re still not there. I’m raising our daughter and working and I have so much to do…and you can only think about yourself.”
I stared at the hair on my hands. Confronted with my feelings, I could only be practical. “I know where Justin gets his fire.”
“I don’t give a fuck about Justin! We need to talk about us.”
“No, this can help. There’s something very strange going on and I don’t understand it.”
“What? What is so important between you and Justin?”
I hesitated. “He doesn’t make the fire. He finds it…at the Grape Hole. They fall into the water. There’s this green sun in the sky and I can see it and I don’t know why.”
As I spoke the words I knew I was making things worse, sounding like an idiot, like I was joking during a serious situation. Instead, Melissa’s scowl turned to shock.
“I know. I sound insane. I’m sorry. But Justin’s been eating this stuff, and it lets him relive his past. I’ve tried it too. I’ve gone on our dates again.” I couldn’t say the right things to make her feel better. I just had to say what was happening.
Melissa looked like I had informed her of a death. “You were never friends with him. He said he never told anyone else.”
Not the reaction I had expected. “I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“Ryan. You’re bringing up my relationship with Ryan to fuck with me.”
We were having different conversations and it took me a second to understand her. “Why did you think of Ryan just now?”
“You know why. Why else would you bring up the Grape Hole and the sun?”
My body became weak. “Ryan saw the green sun?” I asked, my voice barely making it out of my mouth.
Melissa looked at me and then away. “Who told you this?”
“Justin. He saw it over the quarry. And then I did.”
Her face trembled. “Ryan told me something very strange once. He told me that sometimes he saw two suns in the sunset. I thought he was just staring at it for too long, trying to see the Virgin Mary or something. Now you’re telling me the same thing, all these years later.”
“Did he ever mention the fire?”
She hesitated. “No. What is going on here? I barely see you anymore and now you’re going on about Justin’s sculptures and Ryan. I don’t want to remember what happened to him.”
“I’ll show you,” I said. I went to the garage and retrieved the flame. As I unscrewed the jar lid in the living room, I realized I forgot the sandpaper.
“I don’t understand what you’re doing, Mike.”
“What else did Ryan say about the sun?”
“I…I don’t know. He was always telling weird stories. He didn’t believe in God because of his parents or church, but because of stories about miracles, like these people in Spain who saw the sun dance in the sky because the Virgin Mary predicted it to some children.”
I put the jar on the coffee table. “I need to break this up. I’ll be back again.”
“I’ve never actually touched one of these,” she said, reaching out.
“This is going to sound even weirder but–”
Melissa hissed as the flame cut her finger. She flung her hand away, and then froze for a few seconds. The effect wore off and she realized she was in the house again.
“What was that?” she asked.
“What did you see?”
“I…I was at the quarry, on top of that cliff where the flat rock juts out from the bushes. Ryan wanted me to jump, but I was too afraid. It’s so high, everyone below so small.”
“You go back to whatever you’re thinking about.”
She looked at the flame in the jar, mouth hanging open, and then exhaled, “What?”
“Justin grinds it into a powder and eats it. You have to get it inside of you somehow. Like the cut.”
Red seeped out of her finger. She held it to her mouth and then reached out to touch the flame again. Her finger ran along the crystal, and when the cut touched an edge, her eyelids pulled open wide. The trance broke with another breath.
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve been doing this? With Justin?”
“Not with him. He found it first though. I know I haven’t been around lately. I’m sorry. But I’ve been reliving our life together, all the things we’ve done.”
“This is terrible.”
Her reaction cut short my confession. “You think this is wrong?”
“Why would I want to relive all that? I’ve been trying to get away from my past. Ryan’s death, my parent’s fighting, my father abandoning us. Do you know how scared I am that the same thing’s going to happen to Sarah?”
“It’s not. I know we’ve been having problems lately, but I’m not leaving.”
“Ryan jumped in that water with no one around, no one to see him in danger. I don’t know what he saw, but it killed him. And now you’re seeing it too?”
“You’re not going to lose me. I love you.” I said it as a reaction. But even seeing the moment again, I don’t know what I actually felt besides panic.
She sucked the blood from her finger, wide eyes on the flame, before leaping from the couch and running to the bedroom. The door slammed shut.
“Melissa!” I yelled, my voice losing strength on the last syllable. I sat on the floor, covering my face with my hand.
Ryan dove from the cliff. When he struck the blue water, it turned white. The splash settled and he was gone. A second passed. His head broke the surface.
“Look out below!” Dan Shenecker screamed as he leapt off next and crashed into the water feet first.
Several lawn chairs were set up on the shoreline around the cooler. Four of us lounged around while three others swam in the water. I sat on the hot rocks and dirt sipping a can of beer.
Dan, Steve, and Ryan came out of the water.
“You should give it a go,” Ryan said to Jennie, who lay in a chair tanning. She wore a bathing suit, but was still dry.
“I’m fine with walking in, thank you very much.” Large sunglasses covered her eyes.
“It is scary the first time, but there’s such a sense of tranquility when you’re in the air. For a second you’re weightless and there’s nothing else in the world.”
“Dude, I’m not hitting my head off those fucking rocks.”
“We’re all still here,” Dan said, waving his hands about. Jennie stuck her tongue out at him.
Ryan sat on the ground near me. He wore a crucifix and yellow and black swim trunks. His hair was matted to his head.
“How are you doing, Mike?”
“Oh I’m good,” I said, looking at the water. It was deep blue and the sky was cloudless. I took a drink.
“Where’s Justin at? You two are always together.”
“He’s coming later. I’m just waiting until then.” I didn’t have to remember how I felt. I could hear the annoyance in my voice. “Where’s your girlfriend?” I asked.
“Ah, she’s busy with her mom today.” He tilted his head straight up for a few seconds before bringing it back down. I could feel the heat on my arms and the back of my neck. He was looking at the suns. I wanted to look too, wanted to tell him I knew. Tell him not to dive for the flames.
“Beautiful day today, man.”
“Yep,” I responded.
“You know, they say one day the sun is going to expand and burn up the whole Earth.”
“Do they? Well I hope I’m not around for that.”
He laughed. “Nah, it’s not for a long time.”
I got up to piss. Walking to the trees, I heard something plop into the water. I couldn’t turn to look. Standing against a tree though, I had a clear view of the hole. Several more rocks fell into it. The splashes weren’t large enough to be heard from our campsite, but I could see the cliff coming apart, falling into the water. Beyond that, Ryan entered the path that led to the top.
Back at the lawn chairs, moisture clung to the outside of my beer can. The buzz was finally starting to come on. I could feel even that sensation again, but never my emotions.
“Time to clear out,” Steve yelled. A blue Toyota pickup truck pulled into the clearing. The group folded up the lawn chairs and ran off with them over their heads. Steve and Dan closed the lid of the cooler and hurried away, stumbling once in flip flops on the rocky ground as the ice chest swung about. I just watched. We never got in any real trouble. I think they ran to make it more exciting, to feel like they were actually being chased off instead of begrudgingly leaving.
Doug Altland got out of the truck. He was sixty-something, but still probably stronger than most of the teenagers who hung out at his quarry. He wore dirty jeans, work boots, and a faded lime green t-shirt with a construction company logo on it. The scowl on his face was meant to be threatening, but all I did was stand up
“What are you doing here?” he yelled.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Then you got no reason to be here. This is private property. You kids want to drink, go find somewhere else.”
I rolled my eyes and walked away.
“Is there anyone else out here?” he asked.
“No, they all ran off when you pulled in.” The temperature dropped as I entered the shade of the trees.
This was new to me. I didn’t realize how much I had forgotten of that day. I knew I was at the quarry, but I had no memory of seeing those rocks falling. I didn’t know Altland had chased us that particular time, or that I had spoken to him. All my memories of the quarry seemed to have blended together. Melissa and Justin weren’t even there, but I thought they had been. I never talked to anyone about Ryan afterwards.
He probably thought he was seeing God, a miracle in the sky. Justin called the fire a blessing. I didn’t feel that way. I wanted life to be simple, but this thing wouldn’t let it. My marriage was failing, I was empty, and I couldn’t even trust my memory. Justin was right. Everything goes away given enough time.
Light from the hallway outlined Melissa lying on top of the blankets. I lay down and held her. She fidgeted.
Memories of fighting last week came to me, of not talking the month before, of getting by before that. A year ago this month we were at the movies. So much had happened between then and now. I thought of last fall, winter, Christmas, all the Christmases in this house; of our parents visiting us; us visiting Melissa’s mother a few months after the wedding; seeing my parents; the time we spent here before Sarah was born; after; memories of Melissa pregnant; Melissa flat stomached before that; high school; graduating; working. The more I thought of the past, the heavier it became. So much time, so many days, all of it overwhelming, but there was no point. Even this moment would become the past, everything slipping away.
“I’m afraid,” she said. I held her tighter.
The suns were setting over Shenecker’s farm. We sat under the trees, the tall grass having taken our spot on the hillside.
“It’s my fault Ryan died.”
“You didn’t kill him,” Justin said.
“If I had been paying attention–if I didn’t hate him–I would have realized he was going swimming. I should have noticed the rock breaking. I should have told Altland one more kid was there. He would have waited for Ryan to appear at the top of the cliff. Either yelled at him so Ryan never would have walked onto the ledge, or seen him fall.”
“The past is done. We can only see it again, not change it.”
The farm was dark. Dan was supposedly selling his parent’s land to developers. They were going to put a Walmart on it.
“When you left after high school and went travelling, what did you find?” I asked.
“Nothing. Just more of the world. It may look a little different, but it’s all the same, no matter where you go.”
“Why did you go? I always figured you were trying to find something.”
“I guess so. I wanted to see what was so great out there. People expect you to move away, so I did. I lived in cities and the middle of nowhere. It’s all nice, but there’s nothing that’s not already here.”
Car lights drifted around the farmland as daylight faded. I held up two fingers to block the light from each star. “I don’t think I’ve been paying attention to Sarah either. I’m only taking care of her because I’m supposed to.” Something ominous drifted into the landscape. I remember the feeling well, the sensation of something bad about to happen.
Justin laughed. “And you want to tell me how to raise my children.”
It broke inside of me, like a bridge collapsing, and even though I was sitting, I felt like I was falling away from the hill, concrete dust filling my lungs.
“She only exists because he died. Everything I have exists because I made a mistake, and I’m going to lose it because I’m making the same mistake again.”
“We can’t lose anything anymore,” Justin said. “We have the fire.”
“I don’t want to see Melissa in the fire. I want to see her now. I don’t remember the way things really happened because I haven’t been paying attention to anything in my life. Everything will wear away with time, even passion. But it’ll wear away faster if I let it.”
Justin didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look at me.
The fire was on the coffee table and powder on a napkin when I came back.
“You’ve used it,” I said.
Melissa sat hunched over, palms on her cheeks. “I wanted to see my parents together again.”
“How was it?”
She shrugged. “Most of the time they were indifferent to each other. Sometimes they screamed and broke things and the police came.”
I sat down with her. “In high school, I never knew how upset you were. Not until you told me years later.”
“I feel like something’s been taken away.”
“It’s because I haven’t been here.”
“No, I mean with my parents. I don’t feel bad about them anymore.”
“I’m not going to leave you like your father did.”
“It really seems like you will.” She said it without emotion, resigned.
“I know how I’ve been behaving, and I’m sorry. I’m not going to keep making mistakes.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Because I saw Ryan in the fire. The day he died. He drowned because of me. I saw the cliff beginning to collapse that day, but I didn’t remember it. Then Doug Altland chased everyone away, but Ryan was in the woods and I didn’t tell him. I’m responsible for what happened.”
Annoyance slipped into her voice. “You keep bringing him up.”
“I’m responsible for you and Sarah too. I don’t want to lose the two of you. I love you.”
She stared at me as if seeing a second sun. “Just stop it.” She hit the air with her hand. “I don’t want to hear about him anymore. I don’t want to see,” she waved her hand at the table, “this. I just want everything to be normal again.”
“It will be.” I touched her shoulder and she lowered her hand. As much as I wanted to reassure her in the moment with promises, I didn’t feel confident in my ability to. But I had to keep trying.
“Let’s get rid of this,” I said. I took the flame to the trash can in the kitchen. She followed me with the powder filled napkin.
That’s how I almost lost Melissa the first time, before I realized I did love her. I just forgot we weren’t teenagers anymore. But now I’ve lost her again.
The quarry’s gone, and I don’t know where the flames fall anymore. Justin still has some. He refuses to tell anyone what they can do, afraid of becoming a cult leader or drug dealer or something like that. Best let them stumble on it on their own, he says. Keep it subtle.
My legs ache, but I still live in my own house. Sarah and David visit with their children. I tell them stories about growing up. And when they’re not around, I have the flames. I threw the one away long ago, but Justin always has more.
I used to have Melissa. We forgot that summer, like some things need to be, forgot our troubles and lived our lives together. But now she’s gone for good, taken by age.
No, I’m still confused like I was all those decades ago. She isn’t really gone. Neither is Ryan, or Justin’s father, or anyone. We’re all still here, eternally. I can see everything I’ve ever done, even when I forget.
My eyes are poor, but I know it’s still there–a fossilized sun, burning backwards through time.
John Zaharick grew up in coal country Pennsylvania, among forests and mine fires. He has worked as an assistant editor for a weekly newspaper and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in ecology. His fiction has appeared in Not One of Us and Allegory and his poetry in Strange Horizons. He can be found online at http://gplus.to/johnzaharick