He was justified in everything he had done.
The house had burned, Jay had been hurt. It had cost the drifter something dear, and he had paid for his actions. For all but spitting in Glass’ face.
He had known that the girl owned the house—or so he had thought, after questioning the Gadsden woman the past week. It hadn’t been ideal, but as Jay himself owned nothing in this town it had been the best way to hurt him. He knew it meant something to the stranger. And now it was gone.
Ira couldn’t really believe he’d done it, not at first. The night after the fire, lying in bed, the thing seemed a revelation to him. He hadn’t responded to the emergency call, but stayed as far away as he could, wanting nothing more to do with the crime scene.
Only later, working the weekend shift, did he learn of Rumor’s death. How had that happened? There’d been no one at the house when he had left it. Of that he was dead certain. Yet somehow, he had missed something.
He was sad, at first. It felt like losing the very thing that had made him set the fire in the first place.
But the next morning he rose to a clear conscience. If there was any fault in the thing, it was Jay’s. Ira had done what he needed to, and no one could tell him it had been wrong.
* * *
Celia dreamed of fire in the coming days and woke howling, sweat-drenched, and in the hours before dayclean came she would sit awake, stare at her crooked fingers, and piece together the events of Coffin Road that day. Rumor had died, that was certain, painful as it was, though at times it didn’t seem real…
But the other thing. The fire, Rumor’s passing, were all far too sad on their own without need to make them sadder, stranger. But she had seen it herself. The way Rumor had vanished, the way it was like she and the crepe myrtle were one and the same thing.
She had seen it, but couldn’t believe it.
The land tax was paid, and her troubles were over—for another year. Mosquito was with her all the time now, too, a wordless comfort, his presence a balm. She knew it wouldn’t last. Nothing did, no matter how stable life could grow to seem. You had to under and overstand that.
Celia had been born late in her mother’s life, when Mosquito had grown and left home already. At her birth, he’d been the same age as she was now. They were siblings, but had so little in common.
Loss, though, had changed something in her. Had shook something loose. Rumor’s death…it had to mean something, beyond what it meant to her. If it didn’t, she would make it mean something.
Her hands clenched and unclenched, sore from old wounds.
On Christmas Eve she opened her bedroom closet and fished out the cello case from below a cache of boxes, shoes, old clothes. It still shone in the wan light, still smelled like love and ambition. She held it and her joints ached.
The piano was one thing. It paid the bills, such as they were, along with selling crabs to diners along Sixty-one. But it wasn’t the same. Folk had come to her from counties all around once, to see the woman who could teach their children—the ones who wanted to quit their lessons. After her, they would either quit for good or stick to it in a way they never would have otherwise.
Maybe she would play it again. Twice the lessons taught, twice the income. Maybe she could pay her own taxes next year, hold onto their land, their home. For Mosquito, and for herself.
Celia took up the bow, bent her fingers around it. The bones were not as fragile as she thought, the breaks more fully healed. This is what it would be, then. Her hands shook and her eyes closed and she leaned into the fear and the pain, then breathed deep and listened for the strings to sing.
* * *
Empty again. As the diner always was this near the holidays. Sure, it was busy leading up, but no one came to Ed’s anymore for Christmas Eve dinner, nor New Year’s Eve for that matter, either. They wanted someplace special for nights like these, someplace memorable. The diner was anything but.
The drifter hadn’t shown up for work in the morning, nor the last two, either. Ed wasn’t surprised.
He took no pleasure in being right—not like he normally would. The girl had died, the one Jay was always with. In a fire, of all ways to go. Even Ed, hard-skinned and cheap as he was, had feeling to spare for that.
The drifter wasn’t long for this town. Ed knew it in his bones. Felt it the same way he’d felt things click into place the night that Jay had arrived.
All day yesterday and the day before, folk were streaming in and out of the diner, buzzing with news of the fire. There were many theories floating around, blame thrown every which way. Some even said a cop had done it. Ed grunted humorlessly whenever that one came up. He had too much respect for the law to believe such a thing.
Tonight, as he locked up, he realized he would survive it all. He would live through losing the drifter, of course. He’d always known that. And the fire, the unease it had caused in town. He would outlive it and any other scandal that would come. Yes, the diner was in decline, but he’d survive even that.
It was a cold, lonely feeling. A sinking in his gut. He didn’t know why, nor have the wherewithal to give it much thought.
Ed took another drink of whiskey, scratched his eyelid, rubbed the left temple. It was starting to ache again.
* * *
Come Christmas morning, Jay made up his mind to leave. There was nothing left for him here. No debts, no obligations, only the land itself, which was not nothing. But it wasn’t enough. Not without her.
As for Glass… He knew, somehow, that the cop had done it. He could never prove it, of course. And that was another reason not to stay.
He stopped at the Li’l Cricket on his way eastward out of town. Filled up the Buick, bought a hot coffee, readied himself for a long day’s drive. Where to? He didn’t know. But then, he never had. At least today, of all days, there wouldn’t be much traffic.
Jay took a slow draw from the coffee cup, scalding his lips. The moon still lingered in the early morning sky, pleading for him to stay. He looked away. The road was uneven, full of potholes, but he didn’t mind. As far as he cared, it could open up and swallow him whole, Buick and all.
She was really gone. He didn’t care anymore who she was, what she was, where she’d come from. He only wanted her.
He choked the feeling down and it caught in his ribs, a slight throb of panic.
The sky brightened and the shadows thinned out. Sunlight speared through the oaks overhead, spilling uneasy patterns on the road. To the left, some hundred feet away, he spotted a small brick church with no steeple, fenced by many worn graves. He tapped the brake a moment, slowing the Buick as he passed by.
It was Saint Adelaide’s, Father Raymond’s church, the priest who sometimes came to Ed’s for a drink on late nights or early mornings, often when the bar was empty.
“Ain’t no fear in love,” the priest had once claimed.
Jay remembered the words now, watching the graves slip by in his mirror. Were they true? He wasn’t at all sure. He would have to think about that.
If there wasn’t fear in love, what was there? Pain. Loss. It was never far away. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.
He let himself feel it all, closed his eyes, let it wash over him.
When he opened them he was still driving, but it felt like hours had passed. He pulled down a side street and came to a stop.
What now? Go home? The endless road held no cure. He knew that now.
He pulled back onto Sixty-one, turning left instead of right—westward. Homeward. Was he really going back? He didn’t have to decide just now. It was a possibility, though, in a way it had never been in all the time since he’d first left, a year and a half gone.
Was he ready? To face all of it, all that waited for him there? Maybe he was. Maybe he would never be.