Becca Borawski Jenkins
The Magnesium Flame
In the center of the old country road, policemen and firefighters pulled at the door of the overturned Ford truck. The swirling light of their emergency vehicles pulsed. The laws of physics ceased with every interval of darkness, leaving the accident workers stranded in the void until the strobes blinded them all again. Stopping, and starting, and stopping again—the world turned off and on three hundred times per minute—spewing out a long film of still images: frantic men locked in time, poised on a small, circular pedestal of asphalt alongside shredded rubber and twisted metal. Reappearing and disappearing, suspended in space and then grounded in reality. Gone and back. Gone and back. The world all somehow in sync, despite the impossibility of it. Like a child at the light switch, desperate to see if the monster at the end of the hall is real.
Though the image stuttered, the smell persisted. The acidic vapor of rubber coated the roof of J.P. Beauchamp’s mouth. It tasted like licorice, real licorice. Like fennel. The flickering light exacerbated his already throbbing head and mismatched senses to animate the series of still images before him like a movie. A fiction he could not believe, and yet one he had played over in his head for years, never imagining it would become real. In the decades he’d been with his police department, Beauchamp had been called to accidents, murders, and domestic disputes—whatever came in when he was on duty, whether it was his business or not. In small defunct mining towns of the Upper Peninsula, everything was everyone’s business. But this particular scene brought with it a particular guilt, of a wish he never should have made.
The guilt magnified his synesthetic response, his asset as a detective, but his downfall in life. The white lights smelled like quick-burning magnesium, the rubber-filled air tasted like rain boots, and the tickling tails of the creatures of the ether slid over his skin as he walked. The roar of the approaching wrecker vibrated the road and nearly drowned out the shouts of the rescue workers. Nearly. With a thunk, the wrecker’s flood lights illuminated scene, squashing the cinematic flicker and replacing it with reality—the old Ford truck, upside down at the end of the tell-tale skid marks, caved in and crushed like an imploded star leaving a trail of intergalactic debris across the sky. The workers tugged on the door and reached through the broken windows. Their features washed out by the white-hot lights. Faceless men working to rescue the unidentified driver. Their arms not long enough. The time too short. Three hundred pulses per minute.
Beauchamp’s heartbeat struggled to match the rhythm of the scene. The discord nauseated him. His stomach clenched and before he could brace himself he doubled over and retched. He gripped his knees as his tongue stretched from his gagging mouth.
“You okay, sir?” A uniformed officer bent over next to him. Her stare flowed through his dilated pupils and bounced off his retinas. The waves of blue and red light spun across her pale face, like the snow cones of his childhood. He spit the bile from his mouth and imagined the blue raspberry, cherry, and...lemonade?
The uniformed officer stepped away, but still eyed him as she lit road flares and tossed them every few feet.
“This is going to make a mess for a while,” she said.
Though the identity of the driver was yet a mystery to the rescue workers, he was not unknown to Beauchamp. He’d been a legend in Beauchamp’s life and if anyone would have been able to extricate himself from the flames, to tear metal from metal, to lift the very car off himself and throw it to the side, it would have been Makadepenasi Fish.
The flares fizzed and popped a silvery white. The flash of a bulb. The lighting of a sparkler. The anticipation of a firefly’s signal from across a darkened field. A friendship over a lifetime. A signal that traveled along a wire until it culminated at his telephone, and he’d answered it and the world had changed. Beauchamp stared into road flare and recalled how this day and everything before had brought him to precisely here.
• • •
In that strange way of memories, it was the most normal of days that stuck and became something simply through the passage of time. They must have been eight or nine. Mack and Beauchamp—or rather, “J.P.” as he was known then—sat in the dirt of Mack’s backyard, flicking marbles back and forth at each other in silence. Mack’s mother pinned the laundry to the line. She matched each snap of the boys’ fingernails against their tiny balls of glass with a snip of her clothespins. The summer air was silent otherwise. Snap. Snip. Snap, snip. Snapsnip.
Mack’s father, Mr. Fish, eyed them all from his lawn chair and dribbled beer down his t-shirt every time he took a swig from the bottle. He hadn’t worn a clean shirt in years.
From the road out in front of their house a calliope sound warbled, twisting out of the metal box that carried it. It accelerated and slowed like the unsure hand of a toddler or the dilapidated heart of an old man. To the boys, the freakish sound symbolized joy.
They looked up to Mack’s mother with wide eyes.
“Well, go then,” she said and before the words were separated from her mouth the boys were mid-way through the shortest route, tumbling through the house, knocking open doors, and scrambling over the furniture.
“For fuck’s sake!” Mr. Fish yelled from the back yard, but it was too late—the boys were free and standing in the glory of the ice cream truck. They ordered red, white, and blue snow cones because they both found it impossible to decide on just one flavor, and they were mystified by what the flavors could be, pretending every time they had never tasted them before. What was “blue”? What was “red”? J.P. had not yet formed the words to explain to anyone else how his senses worked, but Mack had always sensed he was different, and J.P. was okay with that.
The boys settled on Mack’s front porch to contemplate the colors.
“What is blue?” Mack asked, as if reading J.P.’s mind.
“Pillows and the number six, maybe,” J.P. answered.
“No, to the rest of us,” Mack said before trying to lick only the blue portion of the cone. “Blue raspberry?”
“Red is cherry,” J.P. replied and then tried to lick just the white.
“Lemonade?” Mack asked.
J.P. nodded and closed his eyes, letting the sunshine of the lemons sink through his lips.
“Mack?” Mr. Fish’s voice boomed through the yard. “Makadepenasi!”
The boys jumped to their feet.
“C’mon,” Mack said as he grabbed J.P.’s hand.
“Wait,” Mack’s mother said. She had somehow materialized at the front door, holding a camera in her hand. From the corner of the house, Mr. Fish strode toward them. Mack’s mother skimmed across the front steps and across the grass as if unaware of Mr. Fish’s presence, as impossible as that seemed. Perhaps like a June bug, she was used to bouncing off things in her path, always running into hard surfaces that sent her flying back, always searching for a moment that might be the one she was seeking.
“Hold still, boys,” she said as she knelt and raised the camera to her eye.
“Mom,” Mack whined. “Why now?”
“Then when?” she asked and without waiting for an answer her fingers worked the focus dial.
Mr. Fish walked up behind her and put his hand on her shoulder. In another man it could have been friendly, even loving.
“Stand up straight,” he said to the boys.
J.P. glanced at Mack. The boy’s eyes were locked on his father’s. Mack pressed his shoulder into J.P.’s and lifted his chin. J.P. bit down on his teeth and together they stood tall, shoulders touching, as if they could become one and become a whole man.
Mack’s mother pressed the camera button.
The flash popped.
A silver-white flame, burning a moment in time. Stealing their souls and imprinting them on a flat colorless paper that could only tell one dimension of the story. One point of view, never revealing what loomed beyond the frame. The man taller than any other with his swollen knotted fingers gripped on the shoulder of his wife, his obsidian eyes locked on his son. The man who waited in the darkness of Mack’s room, who crept up on the boy while he slept, smothering him with his own pillow and beating him until he cried. The man who did things a grown man should never do, much less to his son. The man who told Mack’s mother she was a fool for buying the boy a night light at his age.
J.P. felt it again. The ignition of the flash—the one of his memory, not the one of real life—the chemical reaction shooting through the magnesium powder, through the elements, the ether. He and Mack separated from the earth, the air sucking from their bodies as they flattened and lifted up into the sky. A wisp of smoke. A whisper from the past.
And still, he held on to Mack’s hand.
• • •
His wife nudged him with her elbow as she carried their dinner plates from the table to the sink.
“What are you looking at that for?” Nora asked.
He set the photo back on the side table, but could not take his hand from the frame.
A simple black frame. Something cheap, unremarkable. A thin black line that could not contain what it presented. Friendship. Manhood. Love. Eternity. Something so square, so one dimensional, so complete it could be observed in one glance—yet also the window to so much more. So many dimensions trapped inside. Or perhaps just two boys with red, white, and blue snow cones.
“You didn’t eat your vegetables,” Nora said as flicked the remains of his dinner into the trash with a fork.
She glanced back over her shoulder and he shrugged.
He pulled a bottle of rosé from their wine fridge and held it up.
“Leave the dishes,” he said. “Let’s go watch the lightning bugs.”
She smiled and plucked the candles from the table.
“Let’s make it romantic,” she said.
She pulled a lighter from the drawer. Her thumb flicked again and again as the striker wheel spun but the lighter failed to ignite.
• • •
The rosé had been an impulse buy. He’d stood in front of the wine case with the door open, staring for what felt like hours until a little boy squealed and came running down the aisle. Beauchamp tried to step out of the way but only managed to be precisely in the zig-zag path of the little human. The boy slammed into his leg, grabbing onto his thigh to catch his balance. The boy smiled up at him. Beauchamp smiled back, almost laughed, and then froze.
He recognized the flicker in the boy’s obsidian eyes.
“Jean Pierre.” Petronille’s voice floated down the aisle and slipped into his ears. The way she said his name. Unlike anyone else in the world. It reached inside his chest and held his heart, and no matter how far she backed away her hand remained there. He could feel it whenever his pulse rose—when he ran, when he stepped into a crime scene, when Nora spoke his name and her voice was not Petronille’s.
And still the way she said his name was not like the way she said “Blackbird.” She was the only one who called them either of those names, but the sounds as they parted her lips were so different. She spoke J.P.’s name with motherhood, but Blackbird was music.
“I’m sorry,” she said, resting her hand on the little boy’s head.
Her hair was a little duller than the last time he’d seen her. The crow’s feet beginning to appear at the corners of her eyes. He breathed in deeply, as if he could pull in the sunshine that triggered the scent of strawberries to lift from her hair, and the taste of—
“Stop that,” she whispered.
He grabbed the bottle of rosé from the wine case and closed the door. When he looked back at her, her face seemed wearier than it had even a moment before. The little boy tugged at her arm.
“How are you?” he asked, knowing the answers he’d already gleaned from the rumor mills and the friends of friends, but wanting to hear it from her, to hold her there in some way before him, to bear witness to a life he’d once thought was meant for him yet looked nothing like the one he’d imagined.
“I should go,” she replied. Her eyes flicked toward the end of the aisle. A grocery clerk averted her gaze. “He won’t like it if he hears stories.”
“It’s not what he thinks,” J.P. replied.
“You’re right,” she said. “It was never about me.”
She took the boy’s hand in her own and disappeared around the end of the aisle. J.P. waited until the sounds of the cash register ceased and the bell of the front door chimed. He watched her through the store’s front windows. She helped the little boy navigate the back seat of the car and his seat belt, as his own hands were busy unwrapping an ice cream treat.
As her car pulled away, J.P. stared at the place where the rubber of her tires met the ground.
• • •
At some point, J.P. and Mack had told Petronille about their secret hiding place. The place where they always ran when Mr. Fish was too angry, when the furniture flew and the windows broke. When the police arrived to set things straight and take Mr. Fish away, but somehow he always returned home and they were left to wonder if it wasn’t the police, then who could be man enough to keep him from coming back? It had been years and no such man had yet arrived. The windows had all been broken and Mack and his mother continued to bounce off the screens like frantic June bugs. For all the times the boys ran here together, J.P. knew there must be twice as many more that Mack came on his own.
J.P. breathed deeply and the dank forest turned from dark and wet to shining sun and citrus. He turned to Petronille, who sat on the log beside him, their long teenaged legs stretched out before them. They had invited her here as a friend because she had purie marbles and steelies and alley shooters and they only had the bag of glass marbles Mack’s mother had given him one Christmas, and because she didn’t seem to mind that she was a girl and they were boys. Over the years that had changed, though none of them spoke of it.
J.P. breathed her in again and smiled.
“You’re lemonade,” he said.
She giggled and leaned back, as if to get a better look at him.
He nodded. “Maybe with a little bit of cream.”
“Oh, Jean Pierre!” She was the only one in the world who called him that. She pushed on his shoulder and he had to pull his feet underneath him to keep from falling off the end of the log. As he stood, he noticed Mack standing at the edge of their small clearing, leaning on a tree, watching. A purple bruise traced the outline of Mack’s left orbital bone. The bridge of his nose remained swollen. He walked toward them and put a cigarette to his mouth. A line of dried blood ran across the back of his hand and a small bit still dribbled from his nose.
He offered the lit cigarette to J.P., who refused.
Petronille held out her hand. As she plucked the cigarette from Mack’s hand, their fingers brushed together. J.P. wouldn’t have even noticed if Petronille hadn’t suddenly blinked, if the faintest bit of red hadn’t come to her cheeks, if the corner of Mack’s mouth hadn’t lifted ever so slightly, and a flicker of light that had long been absent hadn’t flashed in his obsidian eyes.
There it was.
The boy he had run to the woods with so many times had found a new place to run where it was always summer. J.P. suddenly felt his own presence, his alien nature, in what had been his world. His world no longer contained him. His friend had grown taller and thicker without him, somehow made stronger by the absence of everything a boy needed to thrive. Mack’s shoulders had grown so broad that even now if the boys stood together, they remained apart.
“Who wants to light some fireworks?” Mack asked.
“You can’t get those anywhere this time of year,” Petronille said.
“You can if you live on the res,” Mack replied and pulled something from his jacket. He flicked his lighter and tossed the object across the ground. It burst into a cloud of sparks. The flares grew in size, leaping into the air and crashing onto the ground—bouncing through the atmosphere and into J.P.’s eyes. Petronille laughed and her shoulders swayed as if she were intoxicated. Mack smiled.
It was the first time J.P. had wished his best friend dead.
• • •
Beauchamp looked up to into the expectant face of his wife and her aquamarine eyes smiled at him.
“Do you want some or are you on call?” Nora asked.
The bottle of rosé hovered over Beauchamp’s wine glass as the light of golden hour filtered through it. Nora had done her nails. He should have remarked much earlier in the day so she knew they looked nice. What sort of detective failed to notice a simple detail about his own wife? He spent all day admiring the dead, derelict, and delinquent. Perhaps details were easier to notice in them, more effortless to acknowledge.
“Yes?” he answered with a wink.
She laughed and splashed the rosé into his glass. The liquid churned in the last bit of daylight reaching up above the tree line. Citronella tiki torches lined their porch, from which they held the privileged view of their overgrown acre, neglected under the excuse of the fragile septic field. He smacked at his jugular and crushed a mosquito. The sound startled Nora and she poured wine on the table.
“What was that?” she asked.
Before he could answer a June bug thudded against his forehead and spun off again into the night.
She laughed again and even the summer humidity couldn’t hold down the sound, her amusement at Beauchamp’s plight. Her laughter hung on the moisture in the air, climbed on top of each drop until it reached the edges of the roof where it sat on the eaves, its fingers hooked on the edge of the gutters, and watched down over them both. The awning of her laughter had been the reason he had turned to her so many years before.
“Maybe you’re too sweet to resist,” she said and kissed him on the forehead, her amber hair drifting across his face. She straightened back up and licked her lips. “Or maybe too salty.”
“Sit with me,” he said and patted the chair next to him.
She nodded, but then pointed her chin at the kitchen. There was always more to be done in the kitchen. He was gone all day and she needed hobbies, she had told him, but the hobbies were never done when he returned. His comings and goings were never done either, she countered. It’s not as if one thing completely ends before the other begins, and that they won’t ever switch places again, she said. She had stabbed holes in her popovers as she said it, as if otherwise they might collapse under the weight of her meaning.
A small pain began over his right eyebrow.
Nora reappeared from the kitchen carrying a plate. When she set it down, he saw it was decorated with a doily and upon it she had lined out small chocolate truffles. The shell of each was somehow embedded with candy filigree, like the foam fronds in her overpriced lattes, but all the colors of the rainbow. He wanted her to turn away so he could lick each one and let the colors light up his mind.
“That’s nice,” he said instead.
She picked one with a blue heart and bit through it, then considered the dismembered delicacy remaining.
“What flavor is ‘blue’?” he asked.
She shrugged and showed him the candy’s insides—plain, homogeneous brown.
“What is blue?” she asked. “What tastes ‘blue’?”
She had not made these chocolates. They were an indulgence, and not from a shop here in town.
“Raspberries,” he said. “Blue raspberry.” He selected a square truffle with dark stripes. It tasted like bitterness.
They leaned back in their chairs and sat with the chocolate lining of their mouths in silence.
“Maybe the weather will break and end this soon,” she said after a while, and the ambivalence in her voice tore at his heart.
They stared out at the murky acre. The acre she had thought would grow children and sunflowers, and he had agreed. The acre that had belonged to no one before them but the bears, the rabbits, and the tiny things that scurried away from beneath their feet. The acre upon which they committed to begin—together. That day of the ceremony the grass had been short and the sunlight sharp against the back of his neck. He had looked back at the empty space where this house now stood. He had pictured this house and this porch with them upon it, but not this taste in their mouths.
His sipped at his rosé.
Tiny lights flickered across their acre.
The blink of the fireflies had begun. The night had snuck upon them once again, unnoticed until contrasted by the flitting bursts. Silver flashes skipped their way along the overgrown grass. A tiny search-and-rescue team. A star field almost within their reach. The pain in his forehead burrowed deeper.
He turned to speak to Nora, but the shape of her face stopped him. The tension in her lips, the lines between her brows—were gone. Her eyes took on the roundness of the night sky as she watched the lightning bugs. Through her skin he saw the freckles of her younger years. He wanted to arrest her in that state—to have the world be this for her and nothing else. He wanted to hold her and protect her forever, here under her awning of laughter. He wanted to tell her he was happy. He wanted to love her in the same way she loved him.
“I’m getting a headache,” he said.
The phone rang in the kitchen. The jangling burst from the device and split into a thousand pieces of glass that stuck in the humid air, slowly boring through the thickness of the evening, penetrating the walls of the house, then finding Nora and him in their exterior solitude, grazing against their skin, tearing against the surface of their wide-open eyes, and puncturing their ear drums. She rose from the table and slid away sideways, as if she too could sense the dagger-filled air.
“J.P?” she called to him from the house. “It’s work.”
They had both known it would be. Her answering was merely a strategic delay. A way for them to find another moment before he returned to the space that was not here and she returned to the space that was here that he did not dwell in and did not know. Some part of him thought if he could accrue enough minutes in a row with her that something might change. That more moments together might actually bring them together.
“Sweetheart,” she called again. “They’re saying it’s important.”
It was that call—that beckoned him to the end of the country road that stunk of rubber and road flares, that tasted of licorice and reeked of a long lost friendship, that exacerbated the June bug hole in his brain. The phone call that came from beyond the living, from his childhood, from everything that happened before. All of the moments that lead up to one. How many moments had to be out of place to result in a different ending? Sometimes he thought it was none at all, that they would all end up in the same place no matter the shape of the pieces that built the mountain, no matter how many creatures they stepped upon in the grass. Someday everyone would still answer the final call.
• • •
Beauchamp stared at the tires of the upturned Ford truck. Hours earlier they had been spinning. Spinning along the road, spinning around the planet, spinning through life until the fingernail of God flicked at the marble and sent it off on a new trajectory.
Her voice tore through the night and it squeezed on his heart so hard he thought it would crush him. He grabbed at his sternum and his own knees buckled as he turned to see her running through the flares, past the outstretched arms of the police and the paramedics, toward the truck that appeared and disappeared and reappeared in the blackness of the night.
“Wait,” he yelled, gathering himself and stepping in front of her. She crashed into him and then tried to pull away. The red and blue of the police lights slipped across her face. He gripped her jacket as she writhed in his arms.
“Don’t look,” he said.
She opened her mouth to speak. Her lips twisting, no sound coming out. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
He released his grip. She ran past him and collapsed next to the sheet laid out on the ground—to cover Blackbird.
He looked down at his hands. He had felt nothing when he touched her, smelled nothing, saw nothing.
“You wanted this all along,” he whispered to himself and the tears came to his own cheeks. From the sky drops of rain began to fall. The drops pulled the humidity from the air, the tension from the sky. They dampened the lightning and the lightning bugs. They fell onto the pines, where they lined up on the needles, then splashed against the heads of the people below like the dampening hand of a mother on the head of her child.
The raindrops splashed against the bare skin of Beauchamp’s neck, against the palms of his upturned hands. They joined with his tears and gathered on his cheeks as the sudden depth of his despair for the friendship he had abandoned so many years before threatened to crush his heart. It was not her hand, not her voice. It was his own betrayal around his heart, his own shallow organ that was so fragile.
He missed his friend.
Petronille laid herself across Mack’s body. She pet at the fabric where his cheeks might have been and laid her head on what remained of his chest. The rain grew heavier and the lights of the wrecker continued to swirl. Blue, red, white. Raspberry, cherry, lemonade.
Beauchamp put his palms to his face and wiped away the water. Fumes of gasoline lingered in the air. The flares in the road flickered, but did not go out.