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by Richard Risemberg
He stopped at a diner and asked a local how to get there. The GPS on his phone had led him into dead ends more than once, and he knew it would work even worse in a rural area with lots of hills and dirt roads. Anyway, the burn scar was in a meadow, off the road. It wasn’t a place to be mapped for the whole world to find. Not even after what had happened. It came and went on the news, and now it was forgotten. Except of course by those with a personal connection. That went without saying. But all of them were forgotten too. The proper ration of sympathy had been doled out, and now they were on their own.
The local, a beefy man in a plaid shirt who leaned on the counter of the diner, was not a bad sort. He spoke quietly, even when he was giving orders to the cook behind the metal partition. He spoke quietly to Sanford while he was giving him directions. “You go up the road across the way to just past the bridge over the creek. There’s a dirt road on the right. You can still see a bit of police tape on the fencepost. Go up that road till you come out of the first woods. That’s the place.” The local looked him in the eye, still gently. “There might be some kids there, looking for souvenirs. You know what I mean. Kinda ghoulish, but it’s how folks are.” Sanford nodded. Souvenirs . . .
Maybe the local thought he was a ghoul himself. He was sure that plenty of people had made the trek out of morbid curiosity. He kept his motivations to himself. He had nothing much left of himself to give away anymore anyway. He thanked the man and went back out to his car. When he came to a flat wooden bridge over a narrow creek, he saw the flutter of yellow tape. He turned right and went bumping up the dirt road. The car window was open, and he could hear the buzzing of a motorcycle somewhere in the distance. He hoped it wasn’t at the burn scar. The buzzing faded as he drove into the woods. When he came back out into full sun, he saw the meadow. The burn scar was obvious even from inside the car. A long black oval, big as a soccer field, in the middle of the meadow. The grass between the meadow and the road churned black by heavy tires. He stopped the car at a wide spot and got out. There was no one else around. The way it should be.
The turnout was covered with a thin layer of gravel that crunched under his boots as he walked. He walked along the edge of the turnout to where the grass had not been disturbed so much by the emergency vehicles and, eventually, the trucks that hauled away the debris. New grass was pushing up through the black moist mud of the tire tracks. Sanford squatted down and focused on one stalk of grass that twitched in the weak breeze. The sun warmed his scalp and neck as he stared at it. A fat beetle of some sort bumped clumsily past the stalk of grass and disappeared into a tangle of stems and roots in the direction of the burn scar. The entire meadow must be full of small lives again. Maybe not in the burn scar itself, where there was probably residue of the fuel. The fire had been spectacular on the television screens, when he could force himself to watch it. Sanford stood up — a little too quickly; he fought off a wave of dizziness. Beyond the burn scar, beyond the broad meadow, there were low hills covered with bright spring grass just beginning to yellow in the summer heat. Clusters of dark-leaved oak trees, the small ones of the dry country, blotched the rolling hills with shadow. Here and there the grass scarred by the tire tracks of motorcycles. The blue empty sky above it all. High in the air, impossibly small, a silver glint that was an airliner. He could barely hear the whooshing sound it made as it passed overhead. Such a long way to fall. He shook the thought out of his head and walked out into the meadow, into the center of the oval burn scar.
In the center of the burn scar the grass itself was still dead. No soft green shoots of new life there, just burned roots and scorched mud. And footprints. Maybe rescuers, though really there had been nothing to rescue. Footprints of people like himself, and probably the curious looking for “souvenirs.” He swiveled his head from side to side, taking in the landscape, the low hills on one side, the dirt road and the woods of the bottomland on the other. Peaceful, except for the buzzing sound of the motorcycle, which seemed to be coming nearer now. A crow flapped out of an oak tree and passed over him on its way to the woods by the creek. The buzzing of the motorcycle became an irregular snarl, then faded again, then became louder. Finally, a red-and-white dot appeared over one of the low hills, flew briefly into the air, and then bumped its way down the slope. He could see the rider standing on the foot pegs to control the bike’s descent. The rider was wearing a white helmet that hid his face. His cut-off t-shirt left his arms bare. He looked like a kid, a teenager. The kind who would root around the burn scar for souvenirs. Sanford tried to wish him away, but the kid seemed to be heading towards him. The buzzing of the two-stroke engine filled the sky. The kid rode up to the edge of the burn scar, then turned to work his way around it, riding slowly. When he got to the turnout, he cut the engine and leaned the bike on its side stand next to Sanford’s car. He gave the impression that he was waiting for Sanford to acknowledge him. Sanford nodded his head, and the kid took off his helmet.
The kid had the blonde mop usual for that part of the state. He arranged the helmet on the handlebars and swung himself off the bike. He was wearing heavy boots with straps along the side and the usual faded jeans. He began walking across the burn scar towards Sanford. His face looked neutral, not threatening. He swaggered a little as he walked. Typical teenager, thought Sanford. Well, he had been one too back in his day.
“Hey, mister,” the kid called. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“What for?” Sanford said. He realized he sounded a bit gruff. He hadn’t expected to have to talk out here.
“Making so much noise. You had someone on the plane, right?”
“I can kinda tell. The way people stand. I didn’t know you were here.”
“It’s all right,” Sanford said. “I heard you riding away when I drove up. At least I guess it was you.”
“Must have been. I live over the hill, that way.” The kid pointed with his chin. “Where the county road loops round. I ride here a lot. Not too many people come up the dirt road. Except the folks who, you know . . .” Now they were both looking over the hills that the kid had ridden over. The grasses and dark oaks motionless in the dead air. The breeze had died away. “I saw it happen.”
Sanford looked sideways at him, then looked away.
“I never want to see anything like that again in my whole life.” The kid spoke into the air with his face still turned toward the hills. “I’m never gonna get on an airplane, never.”
Sanford felt an irritating need to speak sensibly and said, “That motorbike is more likely to kill you than a plane. You know it was a freak accident.”
“It’s not the same thing. I saw it fall. And then all that fire.” The kid looked down at the burned grass around their feet. “I know I shouldn’t talk about it to you. I’m sorry. It’s just that I saw it happen.” The kid lifted his eyes up to the hills again. There was nothing there beyond the oaks and the grass but empty air. “I want to tell you,” he said. “I never took no bits of anything here. I couldn’t do it, after seeing it . . .” The silence walled off his words. “I know folks who did. I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t even want to.”
Sanford reached out and put his hand on the kid’s shoulder. “Thanks. I’m glad you told me that.”
“You stopped at the diner to find your way, I’ll bet. Talked to Phil, the big guy there?”
Sanford nodded. “I guess it was Phil. Big quiet guy, plaid shirt?”
“That’s my old man. He tells everyone about the souvenir hunters, what he calls them. It ain’t right to tell folks like you about that. It’s not everybody anyway, just some assholes.”
Sanford squeezed the kid’s shoulder then brought his hand back to his side.
The kid went on: “For real, it’s hardly anyone does that. It’s an asshole kind of thing to do.”
Sanford and the kid stared up at the rounded hills in silence for a while. Then Sanford said, “She was my wife.”
The kid nodded. After a few moments, he said, “I’m sorry, mister.”
A crow flapped across the burn scar with a rustle of black wings. It diminished into the distance and settled into one of the oaks, disappearing into its shadows.
Sanford said, “It’ll be all green again in a few years, won’t it. Makes a good resting place for her.”
“I chase ’em off sometimes. The souvenir hunters. I’m around here a lot.”
“I’m glad you do that,” Sanford said.
“You can’t always choose what you do. I can’t stand to see them digging around. What was her name, mister?”
“Maia. She wasn’t from here. We’d been together twenty years.”
The kid stared down, looking into himself. “Maia. I’ll remember her. I try to remember all the names I know from . . . folks I find here.” He waved his hand at the burn scar all around them.
Sanford nodded. “Thanks . . . And your name?”
“Sanford Hawkins.” They shook hands, then embraced in a clumsy man-hug. “Go on and ride some more, Tom. Maybe I’ll see you here next year.”
“I guess I’ll still be around. I’m going to go to college, but it’s just in the next town over. I can’t ever leave here now. Not for long.”
“You never know what’ll happen,” Sanford said.
“Yeah,” the kid said. “You never ever know.” He looked up at the wide empty air. Sanford automatically followed his glance. They stood side by side, not looking at each other.
“Good-bye, Mr. Hawkins.”
“Good-bye, Tom. And thanks.”
The kid walked off across the burn scar to where he had left the motorcycle. Sanford thought he noticed a slight limp. The kid — Tom — he reminded himself, his name was Tom. Tom put the helmet on, climbed onto the bike, and started the motor. The buzzing tore into the silence of the sky, then Tom rode off up the dirt track, deeper into the hills. After the sound faded away, the crow flapped out of the oak tree on the nearest hill, circled the burn scar three times, cawed once, and flew down towards the woods and the creek. Sanford stood for a long time looking up at the sky over the green roll of the hills, waiting. Nothing happened. He knew he couldn’t stand there forever, so he shook himself and walked back across the burn scar to the turnout. He wished he could walk home with his feet silent in the dust of the road, but it wouldn’t be practical. He put himself in the car and shut the door. The sound of the door was too loud, and the car smelled of vinyl inside. He opened the window to let in the empty breeze and then looked at the sky one more time, craning his neck to stare up through the windshield. There was nothing in the sky, nothing at all.
Richard Risemberg has published stories, poems, essays, editorials, and articles in edited publications including the Los Angeles Downtown News, the Los Angeles Business Journal, Momentum, and, on the literary side, Snowy Egret, Juxta, Terrain, Empty Mirror, and many more.
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