Entry for an off-site horror contest. Bee and her misfit husband try to burn some trash.
Word count: 2,878 (3,000 max)
I listened to the phone ringing. It was actually ringing like an old-school landline. The volunteer fire department probably had a landline for the firehouse and some kind of backup in case of power outages. Finally, someone picked up: "Fork Union Fire Department."
I rubbed one hand over my face and tried not to let my sigh be heard over the line. I steeled myself for this every time I had to call anywhere in town. Curse my distinctive voice. Curse living in a small rural county where everyone knew everyone and had for three or four generations. "Hey, Charlie, it's Bee."
"Baby Babs!" I winced. Charlie wasn't old enough to be my father, but he wasn't young enough to have been interested in me. Forever the older brother. You would think that if I could remember his preferred moniker, he could stop calling me 'Babs.' "What's shakin', cutie?"
"I'm planning a burn," I replied, trying to keep my voice even, professional. "You know the place?"
"Sure." Charlie sounded warier now. "You sure you're okay for a burn? It's been kinda dry."
I rolled my eyes. "Charlie, we've had two days of snow, the river's running high, and they're predicting rain this weekend. I'm not an idiot, you know."
"I know that," he backpedaled frantically. "I just wanted to make sure you did. Are you doin' this by yourself?"
"Trevor's here." The silence that followed stretched into discomfort, and I snapped, "He's perfectly capable of wielding a bucket, Charlie. We're not going to burn the county down. I'm just telling you, so if anyone calls it in, you know we're okay."
"Yes'am," Charlie said quietly. "You sure you don't want a truck standing by? Just in case?"
"I've been burning the trash pit with my dad since I was eight," I hissed. "We will be fine. Thanks for asking."
"Just be careful, Bee." Charlie's voice was concerned in that condescendingly paternal way every man over twenty-five in Fluvanna county seemed to get about Harold Gordon's little girl. If only she could have married someone local, someone who understood farm life and clean, honest living. Instead, she went out and married some scruffy Yankee with all the weird Satanic tattoos.
"Now that is a respectable conflagration." Trevor trudged down the hill to stand beside me in the snow. He had his shoulders shrugged up to his ears to tuck as much of his face into the tall collar of his parka as he could, and it made him look vaguely mushroom-esque. I smiled and leaned against him, still facing the leaping flames. "What did that poor couch ever do to you?"
“It was between me and something I wanted. So I blew it up.” I stamped the ground with my garden rake and nodded fiercely. “And it’s two couches. The old red sofa’s in there, too.”
"That's my girl," Trevor chuckled and hugged me with one arm, his fingers still pulled up inside the sleeve. "Voted most likely to torch a couch on the lawn." He kissed my temple, and we watched the fire leap and dance as the old furniture began to collapse in on itself. "Aren't couches supposed to be fire retardant?"
"The sofa's older than the regulation. It's driving most of the fire. That's why the big couch is taking so long to actually catch."
"Huh." His cheek was rough against mine, and I wondered when he had shaved last. The two-days' unshaven look didn't bother me, but it added to the long list of things about my husband for the neighbors to whisper about.
"Anyone who ever wrote fantasy hellscapes must have spent some amount of time staring into a trash fire." Trevor chuckled in my ear at my words. "I'm still trying to figure out what's spiraling flame out over there." I pointed toward a dark-sided cavern with a yellow-white flame tumbling into angry red licks as it reached the open air.
"Looks like a log," Trevor murmured. "Or maybe that's the Hellmouth."
I snorted and turned my head away from him. "Speaking of Hellmouth, are you out of toothpaste?" I could feel him grinning, and he pressed his mouth against my shoulder to mumble something that sounded like "sorry." I smiled, reaching back to let my fingers rest against his neck. "Live in my house, you bathe and brush your teeth. That's all I ask."
“Well, that and no active meth labs.”
“Does Gehenna still burn?”
Trevor looked up at me as I crossed the field. He had minded the fire all day while I worked in the city. There was something a little haunted in his eyes. Maybe he needed a break. "Gehenna?" He pulled his hands out of his pockets and reached for me when I came close enough, his chin resting on my shoulder as we stared at the smoldering, fire-spitting pit.
"Biblical reference," I supplied. "A place where sinners suffered until they atoned. Like Hell, only temporary. I heard somewhere that it was actually referring to a huge burning trash pile outside of Jerusalem. I thought it fit."
Trevor was silent for a long moment. I took the rake from him and shoved at some of the smoking bits until they popped up in flames, exposing a long trench of semi-molten roof shingles underneath. When I returned to lean on his chest again, he sighed through his nose. “Living with you is not easy.”
"I know." I reached back, and he leaned his cheek against my hand. "It's worth it, though. Right?" He didn't answer right away, so I leaned back to look at him upside-down. "Right?"
Trevor started to nod, then paused. “Usually.”
“Sixty-forty?” I asked him quietly.
"Seventy-thirty." We stood and watched the fire popping and hissing for a while, then he hugged me a little tighter around the middle. "Worth it enough for me to stay. But it's still not easy." When I didn't answer, his face turned toward me, and he pushed his nose against my scarf. "I need a nap. How long do you think this fucker is going to burn?"
“It’s going on four days,” I admitted with a shrug. “At this point, I’m thinking we may need a betting pool on how long it’ll burn.” Trevor shifted, then nodded without lifting his head. “Nothing’s keeping you out here,” I reminded him. “I can take a shift watching.”
“Naps are colder without you.”
I closed my eyes and smiled.
I held the hose over an empty five-gallon bucket, watching it fill with well water. When one was about half-full, I transferred the hose over to the other bucket beside it. A half-full bucket was more comfortable to carry than a completely full one. I blinked in surprise when Trevor reached to take them and replaced them with another pair of empty ones.
“I can take those,” I told him quickly. “Hold the hose.”
Trevor's smirk made me hang my head for leaving the opening. "I like it better when you hold the hose." He pursed his lips at me in a mocking kiss and started carrying them down the hill to the still smoking fire pit. I pulled the empty buckets to me and began filling them, just in time for Trevor to dump the water over the fire's smoking edges. Smoke billowed up wherever he overturned a bucket.
Gehenna still burned. I could hear the simmering trash hiss and squeal when the cold water sloshed over it. It was still mostly just the old shingles and construction trash from building the garage last spring, but the tendrils of flame we had found yesterday were still stubbornly sending up their smoke signals. We had spent almost two hours dumping well water on the fire last night, and, while it had helped, it still hadn't solved the problem.
“Gehenna is angry,” I said to Trevor when he came to switch out the buckets again. He was breathing harder than usual.
“Can you hear it up here?” he panted, beaming in sadistic delight. “It screams.” He placed the empties for me to refill and started back down the hill.
"Pterodactyl screams!" I shouted after him, and he gave a half-strangled scream in reply. When the buckets were near half-capacity again, I turned off the hose's valve and began carrying them down to meet Trevor coming back up. "Did you check in the back, towards the woods?" Trevor shook his head, still winded. He reached for my buckets, and I held them back from him. "Fill the empties and let me carry for a while."
“I’m fine,” he wheezed and coughed away from me into his fist. “I’m stronger than you are.”
"I haven't been rotting my insides with cigarettes and drugs for the last ten years," I shot back, and he glared at me. "Just processed meat and cheese and alcohol and the last part only for the last five."
“Dammit, now I want a beer,” Trevor grumbled and headed past me to start the hose running again.
“Seven days and six hours,” I sighed. Smoke still climbed toward the sky in a spiraling column. If it didn’t go out soon, Charlie was going to start calling to check on me. Just what I needed. “The guidebook said you only spend a year in Gehenna.”
“A truly respectable conflagration,” Trevor answered as he stood beside me with his hands jammed deep into his pockets. “This sort of feels like it’s time to call the doctor for an erection lasting more than four hours, though.” When I gave him a sidelong look, he grinned. “Not that I’d know or anything.”
I bumped my shoulder against his, forgiving him for the comment, and walked around the pit to see it from a different angle. “The water helped with that one spot in the foliage, at least. It looks like it’s tunneling into the ground now, though.”
“How does it do that?” Trevor asked in bewilderment. “Dirt doesn’t burn, does it? Or whatever this orange shit is.”
"Good ol' Virginia red clay." I kicked at a tuft of scraggly winter-bitten grass and sighed. "No, it doesn't burn, but we might have some interesting ceramic shapes by the end of this. The tunneling is from all the shitty shingles and broken two-by-fours. It all got layered in here years ago when Dad was still using it, and we must have shaken something loose with the couches."
Trevor hugged me around the waist, his arms slipped through the loops of mine. "Does it want to get the hose again?" He had a scarily accurate impression of Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.
I shook my head. "Nmm-mm," I mumbled a negative. "The fire's pretty well contained. It'll burn out eventually." I leaned my head back on his shoulder, and Trevor turned his head to look at me. "It's supposed to rain again early next week anyway."
Trevor kissed my temple without responding. I could feel the pressure of his silent worry and wanted to snap at him. Sure, go ahead, Bee, I thought, bite the head off of the only man in the county who believes you can survive on your own.
"Whatever you say, boss," he finally murmured in my ear, and I exhaled.
"It's still not out," Trevor informed me the next morning. He was standing on the back porch in his shorts, staring fixedly out toward the fire.
I smiled at him from where I was pouring my coffee. I had to work and wanted to get moving. I wanted to spend some time alone in the office with my laptop before anyone else started bumping around and being too cheerful. "It's getting there," I told him and followed him out onto the porch. It was still cold enough to make us both shiver in the breeze--especially without clothes--but the frost had already melted off at 7 AM. The joys of a warm Virginia winter. "How can you tell?" I asked, tracing my fingers over the familiar lines of his tattooed shoulders. "I can't even see it."
“It's still smoking." He pointed to the thin stream of smoke that wisped up and away from the smoldering pit. "I noticed this morning when I stuck my nose out to see if there were deer in the field.”
“At six AM?”
“More like four-thirty.”
“In your shorts.”
“I put your coat on,” he sniffed and held his nose up dismissively, “and boots. There weren’t any deer. When I didn’t see anything glowing, I walked down to check.”
“In my coat, a pair of boots, and your shorts.”
“Yes, I froze my tail off.” Trevor hugged me tighter while I giggled at him. “Sassy bitch.”
“It’s why you like me.”
“It’s why I love you.” He kissed my cheek again, then sobered. "Do you think we should call the fire department again? I mean, it's been burning for a week, Bee."
"It'll be fine." I shrugged away from him, annoyed to have my good mood soured. “I’ve gotta go. I’ll see you tonight.”
Trevor reached to catch me before I could step away, then kissed me soundly. "I love you," he whispered, and I sighed, kissing him back.
"I love you, too."
When I pulled into the driveway after work, the smoke over the pit had thickened again. I glared at it and stomped down the hill in my work clothes to stare into the hole. "Go out, damn you!" I shouted. "You are making me look bad!"
Something in the depths of that little hollow moved, and I blinked, reaching under my glasses to rub my eyes. Eye strain was a bitch. When I looked again, the flames had started to lick up the sides of the hollow. They looked just as healthy as they had five days ago. Maybe Trevor was right to worry that the Virginia clay was burning. I turned to look up at the house, wondering how long it would take to dump buckets tonight. With Trevor's help, we might actually be able to get it out tonight.
The voice came from behind me, and I paused. It sounded like Trevor. It didn't sound like my Trevor, though. It sounded like Trevor from five years ago, from when I had first known him. Back then, he had been a strung-out meth dealer with a perpetual frog in his throat, a smoker's cough, and a constellation of seven-pointed stars tattooed across his shoulders, chest, and back. I turned to look over my shoulder. "Trev?"
A pillar of flame lifted up from the hollow and stared up at me with black and swirling eyes. It had Trevor's face, and it reached one hand out toward me. His tattoos' simple lines glowed wild and orange like they had been painted with a calligraphy brush.
I staggered back with a cry. "What the hell!?"
Fire-Trevor smiled at me, a cynical smile that cracked his face in planes of molten fire. "Hell. Yeah. I guess so. I tried to put it out. It won't go out, Bee. It'll never go out." He swarmed over the bottom of the pit and climbed the side like it wasn't as smooth and glassy as fired porcelain. He reached toward me again, and his hands promised pain. "Come with me."
I took another step back, and the low heels of my shoes sank into the rough field, making me wobble. "Where's Trevor?" I demanded. "What did you do to him?"
The figure folded his arms along the side of the pit and laid his head on them, tilting his face and smiling. There was no question: that was my husband. Or what was left of him, anyway. "I did to myself what I've been trying to do for years, Bee. I tried to do something good to make up for all the shit I've done. I thought maybe it would be satisfied with me." He shrugged a little. "I think I fucked up again."
I could feel tears starting to slip down my face and tried to scrub them away. My husband watched me and licked his lips nervously. It was a very Trevor gesture consumed with the crackling of heat and molten clay. "I may have fucked up, but I know what I want, Bee. You. You saved me once." His eyes locked on mine, and I couldn't look away, mesmerized. Moth to a flame. "It's calling me. Come with me. Hell won't be so bad with you there."
"I thought naps were colder without me," I whispered.
His smile was sad, but his voice was somehow still flirty. "Maybe I like it hot."
I laughed. Bitter and broken, I laughed and stood. Trevor rose up until he stood facing me at the edge of the pit. His hair was smoke and flame, and I reached up to touch his face. My palms burned. "I love you," I whispered, fighting to ignore the melting of my skin.
"I love you, too." His arms wrapped around me. My clothes caught fire, and I could smell my hair burning. When I started to scream, he kissed me to cut off the sound, then whispered in my ear, "There's my girl. Voted most likely to burn alive."