It was the man who'd started the fire. Or maybe a ghost. Perhaps he was neither....
“You know the church that burned down?”
“What?” I asked.
“He was there.” Melanie nodded to the man in the black suit disappearing down the street. I had not taken a good look at him. He was one of the myriad faceless adults that, like trees, populated the landscape of childhood.
“What?” I repeated, giving myself time to stare after him.
“You heard.” Mel sounded disgusted as she pinged the metal waste bowl with another pumpkin seed. We were carving pumpkins on her porch in weather too cool for the shorts I wore.
“How can you be sure it was the same guy?” To me, he looked like a hundred other grown-ups, like white toast, all the same.
Mel flicked her gaze at me with the superiority of a girl twelve months older. She continued carving her clown pumpkin. “I’ll bet he burned it down.”
“Was anyone killed?” I knew the story but wanted to hear it again. It had happened last summer, before I moved here with my preoccupied father and my complicated mother.
As if to make up for them, I was straightforward enough for it to be a vice. I was always poking my nose in, asking questions louder than anyone else, barging in with both feet and paying for it where a slyer, quieter kid wouldn’t have. I was no longer welcome at the fire station, or the post office.
Mel, my one true friend, had the superior air of a grown-up in the body of a kid, and I followed her without question.
She looked at me now with her wise eyes, and stopped carving, flicked a flap of hair back from her face. “One man burned. They found his body afterward, charred to a crisp.”
I shivered in delight; Halloween does that to kids.
She lowered her voice, and I somehow could almost see the flames reflected in her eyes. Roaring—crackling—I drew back.
“Everybody else got out of the church alive. Dad said he must’ve been a homeless man sleeping in the basement. They never found out his name.”
“And this man?” I prompted, wanting to hear the whole delightful theory.
Leaning forward, resting her pumpkin-slimed hand on one skinned knee, Mel jerked her head after the stranger. “Well, he was there.
“Chris and I ran down in our pajamas when Papa got the call and he—this guy dressed in a suit—was milling around in the crowd as Papa and the other firemen got the last of the church folks out. This guy had a mournful face, like maybe he was sad nobody died.
“Chris said maybe he was the ghost of the guy who died. But I thought he started the fire.”
Chris was her brother, and, at sixteen, a source of unbelievable authority, on the occasions when he condescended to talk to younger people.
“In a suit?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. Chris said maybe that’s what he wore before he was a hobo—so that’s how he remembered himself.”
She leaned back and started carving again, eyes satisfied. She, apparently, was willing to live with the dichotomy of theories, while the actual man walked away.
“Well?” I asked, incensed.
“Aren’t we going to follow him?”
She scoffed. “And do what? Prove he’s a ghost? Kit, ghosts don’t walk around town when it’s daylight! Obviously, Chris was wrong, and I was right.” She shook back her hair.
“They might on Halloween Eve!” I shouted. “And if you’re right, we should still follow him, and find out!”
“Kit, stop being so—so childish. Obviously he’s just some stupid, strange man, and you shouldn’t be following those any time.”
She was so superior, so smug that tears came to my eyes. That “childish” burned. When we first became friends, she would have been the first to suggest we go after him. Now she spoke with adult injunctions, a language I didn’t speak, didn’t want to learn. She was changing, joining that suit-filled, white-toast world.
“Oh yeah?” I flung my knife down and jumped up. “Well, who’s carving a clown?”
I stormed down the street, too angry to not cry, and too upset to think of anything really hurtful to say. Behind me, the door at her house slammed. I felt a sliver of triumph. She never really seemed to get upset, unlike me. For a cool, water-blue moment, I allowed myself to imagine she was going to her room to sob. I savored this in my mouth like a pumpkin-shaped candy until I was halfway down the street.
And then I admitted to myself she had probably gone to paint her nails, had only been carving pumpkins for my sake. She would look at me when I returned, with bland, calm eyes, accepting me back, but not understanding why I’d been hurt, or even that I had been.
I sighed. It was a grown-up sound, somehow. Kids weren’t supposed to sigh, except to protest early bedtimes. Even then it was almost a mockery of the adult world—a social commentary.
I couldn’t find the ghost man. In truth, I hardly tried. I wanted to prove her wrong—but it had been her story, not mine. I hadn’t even seen his face properly.
Besides, it all seemed so stupid now. Halloween decorations on the houses looked tawdry, buildings shorter, alleys less fraught with intrigue. The whole town seemed smaller. I made a conscious effort to look at the faces of adults I passed, simultaneously repulsed by them and flirting with joining their world. In the end, I did what I’d known I would: defeated, I walked into the drug store.
I had been saving for a huge candy bar, but that seemed stupid now. Immature.
I was braver than anyone I knew, but I was a kid who hated to be alone. I could feel my leaves and roots withering already.
I would join the adult world to be with Mel, rather than strike out on my own.
I walked in like a defeated thundercloud, and headed to the makeup section. We used to make fun of it together. But only of the ridiculous bits, like huge, false eyelashes, and keyboard fake nails. If I went too far, Mel would flip her hair and stare at me. She must have been preparing to enter that world even then.
I must have looked a sight with my tear-reddened face, my pumpkin-smeared jeans.
The nail polish loomed above me, too high for a girl of my stature. I reached for an especially loud color so if it turned out she wasn’t painting her nails, I could always say I was joking, or that it was part of my costume.
I had about a minute more to clamber and strain against his display before Mr. Robertson would notice and throw me out. I wondered for the hundredth time why he didn’t make his store more kid-accessible. We were some of his best customers.
A long arm reached above me and grabbed the Purple Paradise polish.
“Hey!” I rounded to face the importunate stranger; it was the last bottle. As little as I wanted the bottle—a symbol of dragging kicking and screaming into growing up—I would now gladly have fought to the death for it. Here stood someone I could legitimately fight.
It was the man in the suit.
He wore such a mournful expression on his face—serious, calm, and sad—that I gave up all idea of him being an arsonist. But not the ghost theory.
He took the bottle of polish and put it in my hand. His skin was warm to the touch—human.
“Aren’t you a little young for this?” His voice was quiet, deep.
All I could do was crinkle my nose at him disrespectfully. Somehow I couldn’t speak. He shrugged with his eyebrows and walked from the store, shoulders bowed as though from a great weight.
“W-wait.” I started after him.
“Hey! You can’t leave with that!” Mr. Robertson yelled, pointing at my nail polish. “Get back here and pay for it!”
I looked back at the man. The bell jingled on the door, closing behind him. I glared at Mr. R and slammed the jar on the counter. “I don’t want it now!”
I ran after the man, ignoring Mr. R’s squawks.
I looked up and down the street. No sign of him.
A screech of brakes, a scream.
Down the street, a car had stopped at an awkward angle. I ran in that direction. What could’ve happened? In a moment—though not fast enough—I would know.
A person’s arm and head past the car, lying in the street.
“I can’t believe it. He just—jumped out.” The driver stood by his black car. He looked around at everyone—even met my eyes—as though seeking absolution. He looked perilously close to tears, for an adult. Another adult leaned over the victim. My heart thudded to a halt, then hammered again.
It was the man, the morose man from the store. His suit bloodied, and his eyes closed. Hit, and hit, and—
“He’s dead.” The good Samaritan lifted his eyes from the man, his fingers from the corpse’s neck.
Even before he said it, I knew.
I moved away, urged by my stomach’s suddenly toxic contents, and was ill. I knew he was dead and for the first time in my life, I knew what death actually was.
I thought, He walked too fast to get away from me. It’s my fault.
“Mommy—Mommy.” A little kid on a tricycle on the sidewalk tugged at the hem of a newly arrived woman. “Mommy, is that man hurt?”
She gathered the child. “No—he’ll—he’ll be fine, baby.” She talked in that breathless, shell-shocked voice adults use when they’re lying.
I snorted. He’s dead, kid, I wanted to say. I felt my face crumple, my tears falling. Even though I’d barely met him, I felt like I’d lost someone close to me.
“Mommy, that man—” The kid’s shrill voice intruded on me; I clenched my fists. “He pushed my bike, just before the car hit him. He pushed my bike away.”
“What, honey?” The mother sounded faint.
“He pushed my bike out of the street.”
In the distance, sirens squealed. I stayed by the body, half a road and a sidewalk away. The crowd milled and murmured. Halloween and my fight with Mel and a hundred other things all seemed so stupid now. I couldn’t believe I’d actually cared about all that.
I couldn’t bear to look at him—I felt queasy, and my head spun—but I couldn’t bear to leave, either. I stuck my hands in my pockets to keep them from shaking, looking at the sidewalk near him. Despite the crowd, I felt alone with him. I couldn’t leave him on the cold ground by himself. Even though he was dead.
I saw some kids in costumes, testing them out early, or else hoping to get more treats. An adult shooed them away from the scene. None did for me, I guess because either they didn’t notice me (for once in my life, I was silent), or because I looked older than I was. I felt older just then.
Maybe, if it hadn’t been Halloween Eve, he wouldn’t have got hit, or if he had got hit, wouldn’t have died.
I watched, feeling cold and dry inside, but tears still trembled behind my eyes. They checked his pulse and closed off the street, policemen talked to witnesses and driver. They quickly eliminated me as a helpful witness, and a cop told me to go home. But I waited until they loaded him into the ambulance.
The siren didn’t roar when they left with him. They left some of his blood behind.
My feet plodded home. It felt like hours later. Oddly, it never occurred to me to tell my parents what happened.
I guess I was unusually silent at the meal, but my family appeared to take no worry from it. They were probably glad for the peace, for once.
I lay in bed for a long time before I fell asleep. I didn’t think I would sleep at all, or if I did that it would be to nightmares. But I slept long, deeply, and well, and awoke refreshed. Until the sadness settled over me again, as I remembered.
The upshot of that day: Mel came over to see me. I told her everything about the man—seeing him in the store, and how he died saving the little kid.
I didn’t want to do anything that day. Certainly nothing to celebrate Halloween. But Mel convinced me; I’d worked too hard on my costume. In the end, we both went, and by nightfall I was even laughing.
It was the most surreal and, in some ways, the most real Halloween I’ve ever had. I found myself looking hard into the face of every adult, studying them, convincing myself they were not about to die. I must have seemed questioning, even needy, because they looked at me differently than normal, more kindly—I remember it surprised me. They gave me extra candy, too.
When I remember it now, it’s a swirling mix of hodgepodge events, a kaleidoscope of colors, a merry-go-round in the darkness: laughing, running, chills, shouting, fear, candy, lights, and joking too hard. Part of me wanted to be still, and just watch—unusual for me—but the larger part felt an urgency to laugh, to live, even fiercely and crudely. I needed to grab life, and living, as if tonight were its end.
It is possibly no wonder I had such thoughts, a child with an overactive imagination on Halloween. Especially one who had experienced death for her first time.
But the fact remains, I did nearly die that night.
I woke to the smell of smoke, and the sound of coughing. My coughing. I remember I called for Mom. Then Dad.
I ran to my door, but the heat and smoke belched stronger there, billowed up malignant under my door.
Reeling back, coughing, I thought I was going to die. My mind felt unusually clear, though. I wasn’t afraid, but I felt regret. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d told my parents or my baby brother how much I loved them. And I remembered taking a dollar from my mother’s purse last week and never making it right. Tears came to my eyes. They only made my face feel hotter.
A tinkling crash at the window. I must have fallen to my knees, because when I opened my eyes, I saw him standing over me.
Him. My dead man.
“Quick now.” He squinted, his eyes watering from the smoke. He pulled me to my feet and toward the window.
It all had a curiously dreamlike feeling.
Cold wafts of air drifted through the broken window. Blood-stained hand marks showed where he’d broken it, then pushed it open.
“Your mother’s waiting.” Careful hands pushed me through, onto the garage roof. He turned my head to look down at the firemen. “Call for help,” he said. And went back into my burning room.
Was someone else trapped? I turned to look after him, but the smoke obscured my view. I turned back and yelled to the firemen below, waving my arms.
The flurry of the ladder, the men in their bright fire suits, the ground, the oxygen, my sobbing mother, and me being wrapped in a big blanket—were enough to drive the thought of him from my mind, until I felt myself coming back again, in my mother’s smothering embrace. Then I saw my father, looking oddly old and fragile without his glasses, holding my brother. I realized dimly we were all safe.
But where was the man?
I tried to tell them. I couldn’t fight free from my mother’s arms. I was too weak from smoke; the effort seemed to send pins and needles into my eyes.
But they listened to me. For perhaps the first time in my life that I could recall, my parents really listened. Their eyes widened.
I watched as my dad told the head fireman, Mel’s father. He shook his head, looked back at me, and spoke to Dad grimly.
Dad told us: the fire was too hot. If he hadn’t already gotten out, he never would.
The firemen stood back and watched as our house burned to cinders, spraying water ineffectually and at its edges.
We slept that night with friends, me in Mel’s room, and my parents and Robbie at another neighbor’s. I was too tired and sick to worry about the man much that night. It all felt like a dream anyway.
But the next day, when they found his charred remains, I cried—and so did my mom, who held me to her chest like I was suddenly something precious.
“That could have been you,” Mother said. She didn’t understand my tears were not for myself, but for him.
That week was gray, an odd mixture of trudging through days, with sudden bursts of color or pain. The kids at school kept wanting to ask me about it. They kept glancing at me. But I could barely mumble, even when the teachers called. I walked through the week in a daze.
I announced to Mel that he wasn’t dead. “I’m sure of it. He can’t be. Don’t you see? I saw him again after he died at the car accident, so he must be alive again, somewhere else!”
I’d told her that it was the same man, but I’d told no one else. She’d sworn not to tell, and to my best knowledge she never did. But when I said this latest fact, she just stared at me. She flipped her hair back, but her eyes looked scared.
She put her hand on my shoulder. “Maybe he is a ghost, Kit,” she whispered. And then some other kids came over and wanted to know what we were talking about, so we shut up.
On Thursday, I saw him.
I was walking home alone that day for the first time since the fire. (Mel had to stay back to help with the fall-something dance. I told her I’d be fine.)
He stood outside the schoolyard, beside the oak. Leaning on the fence and smoking.
I dropped my bag and ran to him.
“How—how did you live?” I grabbed his arm before I remembered about the ghost theory. It felt like a real arm.
He straightened and flicked the cigarette away, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t know. I just do.” He smiled a rusty smile that looked like he didn’t use it much.
“You save people, don’t you? You rescued that kid, and me, and probably somebody in that church fire last year.”
“Yes.” He nodded, didn’t even look surprised I’d figured it out.
I swallowed. “H-how? Why?”
“Have you ever heard of the phoenix?”
I shook my head. Of course I hadn’t; I never paid attention in class.
His voice was steady, quiet, and calm. “It was a mythical bird that died in a fire and got reborn, over and over again. I’m a sort of phoenix, I think. When I die, I come back. I don’t know why. I’ve almost stopped asking.”
Tears pooled in my eyes. “But—you saved that kid. And me. You knew we were going to die.”
He nodded once, a quick jerk of the head. “I see things,” he admitted. “Maybe it’s because I’m so close to death. I don’t know. But I just know things. For instance, in Wrightsville, two towns over, someone is going to drown tomorrow. If I’m there in time, maybe it will be me, instead of a little girl.”
I stared at him. “You save people,” I repeated, in an awed voice.
He nodded, acknowledging it without pretense or bluster.
I stared at him, and took his hand. “Does it—hurt? When you die?”
He blinked. I think if he’d been holding his cigarette, he’d have dropped it. He smiled sadly, wryly. “You know, of the hundreds of people who’ve found me out over the years, you’re the first to ask that.” He took a breath. “Yes, it hurts. It always hurts.”
He took out another cancer stick, and his hands shook as he lit up. For once when I saw an adult smoking, I didn’t say, “That will kill you.” I figured it was his business, and anyway, if it did kill him, he would just come back again.
My mouth trembled, and I almost started crying. The thought of him, coming into a fire, knowing he wasn’t just saving me but somehow replacing me. It’s hard to explain. It really affected even, perhaps especially, a tough kid like me. I’ve never forgotten that feeling.
Seeing my expression, he straightened and laid a hand on my shoulder. “Look, I have to leave now. Don’t worry about me, or try to contact me again. I only came so you wouldn’t spread around what happened. I’ve got to remain a secret. Not for my own safety, but for yours. People would think you’re crazy. Do you understand?” He looked into my eyes with his brown ones.
I nodded, tears still shimmering my view.
“Good.” He removed his hand. “Forget about me, all right? You’ll probably never see me again.”
He walked down the leaf-strewn street, a man walking alone, a normal-looking man, but carrying all these weights and deaths on his shoulders.
I watched him go.
And time passed. And I grew up.
I didn’t forget him like he asked, but I moved on, taking him with me into life as a teenager, and then as an adult.
I moved into angsts and triumphs of different sorts, and finally into an adulthood where I can look back and smile on myself, with an almost superior relief to be past my youth. But I have never forgotten him, and never, except in briefest moments of doubt, considered him fantasy.
I haven’t told anyone until now, not even Mel, who is still my cool-as-a-cucumber friend, (and who of course I told everything else), but I still look for him, every day, in the faces I pass.
The trauma of that Halloween, and of growing up, are long past, but this habit remains—to glance at strangers’ faces—after I have almost forgotten why. But when I remember, I still look. Someday, I think I will see him again.
And other times I think not.
Something I saw in his face that odd, long-ago day told me he could not handle having even a child care about him. In some way, maybe he needs to be alone.
But I still look for him.
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Copyright 2010, Alice M. Roelke. All rights reserved.
Alice M. Roelke could count as a starving artist, if she were a bit hungrier and wrote more artful stories. She lives in the United States, and hates Wonderland jokes.