From the roof it looked less like disaster, more like fireflies.
The Bradford Pears were still, unwounded, smelling like dirty things. Rodney said, “Fish! Fish!” and sometimes the girl parts that made Daddy blush. I never smelled anything like it except in springtime, and I didn’t think Rodney had either, though he swore on Aunt Paula’s grave and didn’t even cross his fingers. It was in secret, the swearing, in back of the garden house where the azaleas grew best, a secret because if Daddy heard him swearing on Aunt Paula’s grave he’d be awful mad. Tracey was still at school, so I was the only one to hear him, which means if he was lying he’d get away with it for sure. He said he’d caught a whiff of it in the room where the older girls always change for choir practice and knew just what it was, and if he was lying he’d dig Aunt Paula right up out of the ground and dance her body all around that cemetery. I thought it was a horrible thing to say about his own mama, but I always knew Rodney was a ruined one.
I figured Tracey would know, one way or the other, but I was too scared to ask her for fear she’d go and tell Daddy about it. When Rodney caught me from behind and threw those blooms all over me and called me Fish ‘cause he knew I was a girl and had girl parts, I kept my mouth shut.
The smell came up at us and hung there since everything was so still and sticky, and I could tell what Rodney was thinking. I was glad when Tracey pulled out her cigarettes, for the smell’s sake. She shook ‘em a little like she knew what she was doing and then pulled one out and put it back in the box upside down. I asked her why she did it like that, and she said it was for luck. I don’t know what kind of luck – maybe for growing up real tall so she didn’t have to wear shoes with heels anymore or just for not letting Daddy catch her smoking. She picked out another one and then lit it up with the little lighter she stole from the grocery store last November when we went to pick out our turkey for Thanksgiving. She does look all grown up when she does it, I think. She sucked on it a little, like on a straw when the milkshake’s too thick to fit through, and then let the smoke out quick. We started coughing, all three of us, but we muffled it in the belly of our shirts.
The white light came in fast. I blinked and blinked, and there were little black spots all in my eyes. Then something cracked and broke and was eaten up, and the white died down into orange again.
“Someone should kill a mule,” Tracey said.
She always says that when something goes wrong. Rodney and I were used to it, so we nodded our heads like we knew she was right even though we couldn’t think of a single person around town who had a mule. We talked about it once and made a list. We thought up lots of cows and one little donkey but not even half a mule.
The stars all clouded over with smoke and left us alone up there.
“I hope this means we don’t have to go to church tomorrow,” Rodney said. He sat on his hands to give his legs a break from the hot roofing, and I was glad ‘cause it meant he wouldn’t pull on my hair or pinch me none.
Tracey shook her head and wiped out her cigarette on the roofing. It sizzled some and left an exclamation point.
“We’re not Presbyterian,” she said.
Rodney didn’t gripe. He scooted down some so that his legs could dangle off the side of the house.
Tracey pulled another cigarette out of the box and lit it up. The flame was a too small world, brand new compared to the big one down at Southside.
“Why are they burning it, Trace?”
She held the smoke in as long as she could.
“It was old, Kitty. It was already fallin’ down.”
I watched her mouth move and the smoke coming out, how it snaked free through the gap in her teeth.
I only saw Southside Presbyterian once before it burned, on the way to the ice cream parlor. I couldn’t remember if it looked old or not.
When her cigarette was gone Tracey wiped it out, this time across the exclamation point, making a black X on the rooftop. Then she said she’d had enough and climbed down.
She left the cigarettes though, and Rodney thought we should smoke one. Tracey still had the lighter, so we just held them in our mouths and pretended we’d blown out all the smoke in the sky. The fire ate everything until it fell asleep. Then the bugs at the porch light started eating each other because everything in the world was wrong. We couldn’t see them tucked up there under the awning, but we knew what they were doing. Rodney stayed, but I got spooked and climbed down. Even with the heat, I slept with the window closed.
In the morning they found Rodney on the ground out by the porch. Daddy took us out for ice cream so we wouldn’t have to see. At Southside everything was black.
Written by: Kat Dixon