No Good Grief
Nicky and I met for vape breaks and lunch breaks, so it’s not like we never saw each other. But every Sunday I’d show up at her and Hal’s house instead of going to church with my mother. All week we’d talk about what to do and where to go, even though we never went anywhere further than their swimming pool. Unless it was winter, like now, when we’d bonfire a tree stump and spike hot chocolate with Fireball. Sometimes Hal rolled joints. I ate meals with them, meals that for once didn’t come from a freezer or a fast-food window. Sometimes we napped: Nicky in the California King that took up most of their room, either me or Hal joining her. Whenever they shut the door, I forced their Shih Tzu, Martini, to cuddle me on the couch.
The night of Nicky’s funeral was not a Sunday, but I still found myself at their house. I’d let Hal drive me there with the promise that we’d get my car the next morning. The dog started screeching as soon as we pulled up. Somehow I navigated the junk maze under the carport without hurting myself. When I knocked Hal’s toolbox over, I wasn’t sure it was an accident. Hal forced a water glass into my hands and took Martini outside, saying that he’d be back. I sipped my water, sober enough to regret all the wine I’d had.
A funeral with an afterparty. As if we had something to celebrate.
It was exactly Nicky’s style. But since she was dead, she didn’t get an opinion anymore.
The house was cold. I could never make the wonky thermostat work, so I dug through the junk drawer until I found a match. Since there weren’t any logs by the fireplace, I grabbed magazines and broke several branches off the Christmas tree. Sap gummed between my fingers. I sat criss-cross applesauce on the floor and watched the fire catch and rise.
At first I thought it was Martini, the screaming. It didn’t register as something else until Hal slammed his way toward me and started snuffing out the fire with his suit jacket. “God’s sake, what are you doing?”
“It’s cold.” It was important he knew this. I wasn’t sure if the screaming was real or not. An acrid smell clogged my nose—maybe I was having a stroke. How different would a stroke be from an embolism? I thought to ask Nicky what it’d been like, her dying, then remembered I couldn’t.
“Swallows nest in there!” Hal shouted. He poured the rest of my water onto the flames.
They wheezed, smoldering, and Hal continued beating them down. “Why do you think we never use it?”
Screaming. Birds. I don’t remember wondering about the fireplace before, and if I had, I hadn’t cared enough to ask. Had he told me about the swallows? I felt like I might cry. Birds were roasting in that chimney. Or just their nests—the swallows might have been smart and abandoned them. If they survived, they’d have to rebuild their homes. This more than anything, more than picturing their little burnt bodies, depressed me.
Smoke clouded the living room, had us both coughing. Hal instructed me to open windows.
The icy glass against my hands shocked me back to somewhere near sober.
Did leaving hurt them? Had it hurt her?
Nicky would’ve loved this. Not the birds dying, but the aftermath—that moment when, if you’re with the right person, you can find something good in almost any situation. She’d have said it was the wildest thing that had happened to us. She wouldn’t have been wrong. Nothing had happened since then. Hal still rolled joints. I still ate whatever he cooked—steak thick as my thigh, something with rice. He slept on the loveseat. I slept on the couch. We kept this routine, even though it was just the two of us now.
Nearly a month later, I could still smell burned feathers and straw.
Not long after I moved back in with my mom, a girl from high school invited me to join her for drinks at a dive bar downtown. She and two other women were there when I arrived. (Nicky later told me they’d needed a fourth person to be eligible for some boozy dessert special.) Over the feedback of a karaoke singer breathing heavily into the microphone, I missed both strangers’ names but pretended I hadn’t. I nursed a whiskey sour until it went to water and lied about enjoying my job at the daycare. I sifted through the bowl of Mardi Gras beads on the table. Mostly I stared at the lady with the bleached afro to my left, her mouth blue-stained from a Ring Pop. A full-time cosmetologist and sometimes occultist—that’s how she described herself. She’d been the only one to shake my hand, as if this were an interview or anywhere other than a bar.
“River as in the actor?”
“River as in a river.”
“This song,” she groaned, forty minutes in, as some guy took the stage with a cover of “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.” She downed the last of my drink and, before I could figure out how to feel about that, pulled my hand toward her. I thought she might sniff it. Probably I would’ve let her—because she was unexpected, and because whatever she saw in my palm made her grin. “Dance with me.”
I kind of admired her confidence. “Buy me another drink.”
"Oh, there you are,” she said, gleeful. The other women and their talk—of boyfriends and girlfriends, back pain, vibrators, Disney World—all of it was forgotten. She locked our fingers together. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”
She ordered another round of drinks for the table and a double for me. Feeling bold, I drank half her paloma. We toasted each other and draped plastic beads over our heads, then she pulled me into the middle of the bar like it was a dancefloor. We bumped hips and twirled, her mouth open so wide that light glinted off the fillings in her teeth. Her perfume smelled itchy and expensive, but her skirt’s hem was spotted with holes dug by her heels. “Nicky,” she said when I got around to asking her name. Before sitting down, she shoved the Ring Pop into my mouth.
At some point, maybe last Tuesday, I stopped going back to Mom’s. I stayed at Nicky and Hal’s instead. I’d brought one set of clothes, but washing and wearing the same jeans-and-sweater combo got me funny looks at work. Hal finally told me to grab whatever I wanted from Nicky’s closet, so I rolled off the couch that Sunday wearing an oversized flannel. I poured coffee and checked the whipping cream—nearly empty. Boxed dumplings and yogurt, pickle juice. I shoved everything aside until I found coconut creamer at the back of the fridge. Expired? Barely.
Hal was cussing at Martini as he came into the house, the dog tucked under his arm. He wore only a beanie and sweatpants despite it being in the low forties, and his skin was pebbled with goosebumps. Mud dotted his chest where Martini had shaken himself off. Hal studied my cup, then stepped back when Martini tried to lick it.
“Froufrou shit,” he said and got his SeaWorld mug out of the drainer. The mug had a manatee on it; it was the only thing I’d seen him drink from for weeks. Having poured himself the bit of coffee I’d left, he reached into the fridge for the whipping cream carton and winced. “What am I gonna do with a baby sip?”
“Give it to Martini.”
" Sure, then he’ll be shitting all over the place.” He set the carton down then said hold this as he passed the dog to me. Martini was muddy-footed, fur yellow from pee and raggedy since Nicky wasn’t here to take him to the groomer. Vibrating with cold, he burrowed into my shirt like he was chasing her scent.
Hal took his coffee to the bathroom across the hall and didn’t bother shutting the door before pissing. “You wanna get him diapered? Little brat tries to bite me when I try.”
This was where Nicky would’ve shouted at Hal to have some fucking manners. Her voice, hair, the space she occupied: everything about her was loud. Like that night we met, her snatching my hand. Or the day I met Hal. He’d found us reading spirit charts—plants, planets,
cross-referencing websites while we ate stale king cake. Nicky fed him a bite when he handed her a shopping bag and told her the store hadn’t had what she wanted, so he’d found something else.
“Shit yeah, you found something else.” She’d laughed and held incontinency applicators high. “These aren’t even tampons.”
“I told you to go yourself.”
“But you take such good care of me.”
“You’re so good at it,” Nicky cooed, hopping up to palm his sides, peek around his shoulder until he looked at her. “It’s sweet. Right, Riv?”
I sat there, unsure whether to agree. When I was twelve, my mom sent me to the drug store with my underwear packed with toilet paper and a list of what to buy. That was all. The thought of anyone getting me menstrual products was too personal to imagine. Watching those two together, I wondered how you achieved that sort of intimacy.
Hal flushed the toilet. I gulped my coffee even though it was all scald, grabbed one of the pads and Velcro wraps from under the sink, and rediapered the dog. This was Sunday. The afghan I slept with stank from Martini and some salsa I’d spilled; maybe I would spritz it with that vetiver-scented spray Nicky had bought. Maybe I’d straighten the couch cushions, deflated from five (six?) nights of me tossing. Maybe we’d take down the Christmas decorations—garlands and cotton snow, a wreath made from dried oranges, the tree crispy and gone to tinder. So many maybes.
Early in our friendship, Nicky said my soul was receptive, and by that she meant I was an empath, and by that she meant I could adapt to other peoples’ needs. She tickled meaning from my palms and gave me crystals charged beneath a full moon. I kept them in my car’s cup holder: labradorite flashing like an oil spill, fire opal, jasper. Two months after we’d met, somehow she’d become my person. Never mind that she was seven years older than me. Never mind that I wasn’t sure whether I believed her premonitions. Never mind how exhausting it was to keep up with the zip and vigor of her, how passionately she felt every single thing.
“Screw that, acting like another year together isn’t something to celebrate,” she spat one evening while folding tin foil into her client’s hair. Fat tears flooded the woman’s eyes as she talked about her partner not wanting to do anything for their anniversary. Or maybe she cried because of the herbs Nicky burned. The shop was especially smoky that day, and I kept sneezing. “You gotta work for it. Here, tell me what happened the last time you dreamed about them.”
I didn’t get the dream reading. I asked Nicky about it and all the fortune-telling stuff after she’d gotten her client styled and smiling and out the door. “It’s not fortune telling,” she corrected. We’d retreated to the shop’s kitchen and were passing Nicky’s vape between us. She kicked her heels against the counter; that day, she wore lilac combat boots, the laces halfway tied for aesthetics. “And nothing got me into it, it’s just always been there. Doesn’t mean I wanted it, but you can only pretend something away for so long.” Her tongue poked out between the gap in her front teeth. “Daddy was the same. Well, not the same, but he saw things. Told me this was something I couldn’t ignore. Just gotta embrace it.”
“Maybe she’s born with it,” I sang.
Nicky stopped kicking. Against her hair, her skin seemed so much darker, richer, her eyes a brown bordering black. I could barely see her pupils. “Hal’s never doubted me.”
Briefly and out of nowhere, I thought I might slap her. Maybe she saw that: she squeezed my hand until the impulse passed.
Things could have gone bad then. With anyone else, they may have. But Nicky just handed me the vape. I sucked on the mouthpiece until I choked, and she made a show out of smacking my back. “You decide what color you want me to dye your hair for the summer?”
“You already watched this episode,” Hal said as he came into the living room, fluffing pillows before he settled onto the loveseat with his plate. Pointless, since he wouldn’t sit longer than ten minutes.
Hal never sat for meals anymore: in between bites, he might clean the stove and put dishes away, disappear outside. He’d taken my plate after Martini ate what remained of my omelette, bending to kiss the dog’s head. The back of Hal’s neck was pale where his hair had been before he shaved it off. No more curls for Nicky to grab.
“I remember this one.” He pointed to the TV, where an episode somewhere toward the end of Downton Abbey’s first season played. “It’s old.”
“The series is done, they’re all old.”
Most of the stuff Nicky and I watched aired years ago, though we always talked about seeing the next big blockbuster. We started our Sundays with ambitions. We’d go to drag brunch or take an antebellum tour and ride in a carriage, the kind where the horse pulling you sweats and shits itself to death. We’d drain the pool and repaint it blue like the bottom of the ocean. But after me chasing toddlers all week, and clients trying to sell Nicky religion or asking her to séance up relatives who’d cut them out of wills, we never did anything: we just binged period dramas, baked ourselves on pool rafts if the creeper next door wasn’t home, dyed and redyed our hair. The first Sunday in December, she’d colored my hair pink and told me I looked like a knock-off Poison Ivy. My roots grew in dark, but I hadn’t touched them up.
Sundays were boring.
Sundays were easy and, because of that, my favorite.
“Why’d you start over?”
Why not? I paused the show—Maggie Smith wore a wedding-cake hat, all feathers and flowers, something Nicky would have gushed over. I imagined tossing Hal the remote and smacking his head. Whoops. Would he finally get mad at me? Hal never raised his voice, never yelled, except for that day he showed up at my mom’s because I’d decided not to go to the funeral. I imagined telling the truth: that Nicky had threatened to kill me if I finished the series without her. I wouldn’t go further than the last episode she watched. I didn’t say any of that. Just like I didn’t comment on the tree Hal refused to throw away, as if we could give Nicky one last Christmas by keeping the dead thing standing.
Because Hal was as bad as I was about breaking silences, he let it go. He stretched out on the loveseat, one leg tucked tight, the other hanging off the end. This too-tall man on a tiny couch.
Martini farted in his sleep. I hit PLAY. It was only as awkward as it ever was between us, which over the last week had become not so much anymore.
Hal lasted fifteen minutes. It was a good effort.
I held onto things the longer I stayed in the house. A pair of Nicky’s flip-flops by the door. The daisy cap to her Marc Jacobs perfume; no matter where I looked, I couldn’t find the bottle. The bell I’d dropped the night we decorated the tree. “It’s fine,” she’d said while she inspected the cracked glass, not quite broken but broken enough, and I could tell it wasn’t fine but didn’t ask why.
I held onto the text messages she never expected me to answer.
Pretty sure Kendall’s been in my styling wax, she’s the only one not smart enough to at least try and cover her
You left your vape in the car. Again. Very Pisces of you.
I held onto the way she was always the first to text or call. Growing up with my mom, quiet oozed through our apartment. She gave me what she thought I needed, and she was good to me, but even when she was home she wasn’t always there. I got used to it. I learned how to keep my words close, then unlearned how with Nicky.
I held onto doorknobs and wine glasses, curtains that puffed dust. I held onto the third place set at the table. I made the couch—the one we’d lie on together, feet dirty and dog hair clinging to our toes—into my bed and fit myself wherever I could.
Hal hadn’t asked when I’d leave. I waited for him to, not sure what it would mean when he
The funeral home smelled like candy canes and carpet powder. Poinsettias decorated the tables, the boom box hidden behind a screen playing chimes and flute music. The program had a picture of Nicky on the front—flat-ironed hair, burgundy instead of blonde, a smile showing no teeth. It seemed dishonest.
There was no proper preacher; everyone just told their favorite stories about Nicky. There was no casket either, because she’d been cremated. People collapsed in grief and fell into each other, and then the energy would shift and laughter would fill the space like a hot air balloon. Hal spoke more than I’d heard him up until that point. About how he and Nicky reconnected after high school, bonding over the food poisoning they contracted at a Captain D’s. How she over-bleached his hair while in cosmetology school. Stories I’d heard from Nicky’s perspective now had a different varnish.
Hal glanced at me when he sat down, to see if I would say anything. I fiddled with the cracked bell in my coat pocket and pretended to read the program.
Once the service wrapped up, we all went to Nicky’s cousin’s house. She was a pretty woman
in her forties, with Nicky’s complexion but rounder than she was, and I let her hug me because she needed it. Everyone was reminiscing—some not even about Nicky—and sipping from bottles and solo cups. “At least it’s red,” I mumbled when Hal handed me a cup of wine and joined me on the staircase. “Blood of Christ and all that.”
He tapped his Corona to my drink. “Small mercies.”
You could see traces of how the house, like the neighborhood, was nice once. As adult as Nicky and Hal seemed—more adult than me anyway, living with my mother because I could manage a phone bill and utilities but not rent—they weren’t good at keeping up a house. Some doors had to be rubber-banded shut. Towels went soggy from the leak in the bathroom, and candles couldn’t mask the dog stink. Hal tried, though. He washed gunk from the blinds and scrubbed his boots off outside. Each accident Martini had Hal would tend to with paper towels and stain remover. Only recently did I consider how sloppy Nicky had been compared to him. I’d long ago stopped noticing the root beer sticking to my shoes in her car, her salon booth overflowing with empty bottles.
“You always been like this?” I’d asked Hal a day or two into our cohabitation. When he asked Like what?, I called him domestic and nudged the laundry he folded. Doing it on the bed would’ve been easier than the coffee table, but I rarely saw him go into the bedroom anymore.
He laughed, making a startled, fish-hooked sort of sound. “Not always. Grew up doing chores, sure, but this?” He shook a scrap of fabric at me. Mortified, I realized it was a pair of my underwear, comfortable cotton with a hole in the crotch. I’d thought nothing of tossing clothes into the laundry basket before. Of course, I had assumed Nicky folded them because she always returned them to me. “Had to learn this. Nick wasn’t so good at taking care of herself.”
Hal was domestic in other ways, too. When I got sick of Downton Abbey, I followed the scent of chicken stock into the kitchen. It was soup weather, a concept Hal believed in religiously. He’d make enough to last the week. Butternut squash and brown sugar. Caldo. Chicken tortilla. Aside from boiling noodles or buying prepackaged lettuce for me when I craved salad, I couldn’t remember Nicky cooking. Nicky, not domestic. Nicky, who sometimes wore the same clothes she’d slept in to work, who’d take Martini to the groomer but wouldn’t bathe him. Nicky, whom I’d never seen set a table.
“Hal.” I didn’t know when I’d last called him by name. “Is there . . . you need me to do anything?”
“I’m good,” he said. He was used to waiting on Nicky—and, by extension, on me. I’d felt embarrassed at first, then ambivalent when I saw how normal she made it seem. I’d stopped thanking him. Imagining Hal washing the afghan I slept with, throwing away the whipping cream carton I had put back in the refrigerator practically empty—
“I’m asking if I can help,” I said, blunter than I usually let myself be with him.
Hal’s eyebrows rose, but he didn’t comment on my tone. A small, short-lived smile twitched across his mouth. “Peel those potatoes. You know how, right?”
So I peeled potatoes. Hal seasoned the stock, the start of a soup he’d let simmer all day. I moved on to chopping carrots and celery as evenly as possible, wondering when I’d last put effort into something I planned to eat. Martini sat underfoot, tail wagging between bites of carrot he snatched from the air. Hal washed his hands, and I shifted out of his way without looking up from the cutting board. I’d go to put more vegetables in the pot; he was already waiting for me. It was efficient and quick. Relaxing.
My hand slipped, just enough that the knife nicked me. It was right on my knuckle. I bent my finger until the sting sharpened.
Nicky was gone. Since she’d been my friend and not Hal, I ought to stop coming around. What would people think of me? What did Hal think? I scraped the peels into the garbage disposal and flipped the switch, making sure to clean the mess I’d made.
I never planned to attend the funeral. Not even when Hal called and called and left me voicemails, the same way he’d done when Nicky died and I hadn’t answered the phone. Not even when I gave in and read the single text he sent, nothing more than the location and date and time. The night before, while my mother was at church packing slightly spoiled fruit into baskets, I lay hanging upside down off the side of my bed and wondered what would happen if I passed out. All that blood bulging my eyes, my brain sloshing around in it. It was just past the point of being uncomfortable when someone knocked. And knocked. And knocked. When the knocking turned to banging, I jumped up, blood-rushed, and collided with the wall. I was nothing but a body blooming pain from arm to hip, too dizzy to think. I’d blame my rudeness on this when I threw the door open. “I heard you the first time, what?”
Hal stood on the Christmas welcome mat, fist still raised. “Do you ever answer anything?”
More than him knowing where I lived, what surprised me was how normal he looked. Aside from needing to shave, at least; I’d never seen him with stubble before. “Can I help you?” I asked and immediately wanted to drop through the breezeway. I hadn’t even changed out of the clothes I’d worn to work, snot and marker and grass clippings and God knows what else smeared on me.
“Yeah, you fucking can.” Breath plumed from his nostrils. He was close enough for me to feel it, hear it rattle on the way out. “Where’ve you been?”
“At work. Here. Around.”
“Okay. So I better see you around tomorrow.”
“Funerals are—they aren’t my thing. I don’t do well at them, I mean, I don’t know how to talk to crying people.” I didn’t want to be one of them. “You’re doing a service from family and close friends, right?”
Hal didn’t answer. It wasn’t a question anyway.
“I don’t see how I fit into that,” I said. The overhead light buzzed, a moth batting against it in search of heat. I tried to focus on that but couldn’t, not with Hal right there. I wasn’t prepared for how he took up the entire doorway.
“You do fit,” he said. “For nearly a year. You do.”
He left after I agreed to be at the funeral, shaking me off when I asked if he wanted a soda, hot chocolate, something. The way he smirked made me think he knew I’d offered only to be polite. Watching him disappear down the stairs, I mostly felt sick and resentful, but there was also relief in knowing someone would force me to face Nicky’s absence. Even when I couldn’t see or hear Hal’s boots clanking against the steps, I stayed there till my nose ran, my bare feet burned with cold. The moth, exhausted, fluttered toward the iron railing, settled there, and did not move again.
Before: at thirty, people died from car accidents or suicide, prolonged bouts of cancer. Embolism was a term I heard watching late-night hospital dramas, was something that killed the boy in A Separate Peace. I looked up embolism online. Blood clot, air bubble, a fat blockage in an artery.
Merriam-Webster listed another meaning: the insertion of one or more days in a calendar.
To add days. Eventually, I might find that funny.
After: I called in sick and drove to Hal’s and let myself inside with the spare key. Martini barked until he recognized me and resumed wrestling with the boxer shorts he’d stolen. The loveseat was a nest of sheets and squished cushions. Pine needles littered the floor, lights trickling off the mantle. Hal had forgotten to unplug them again.
I kept the bedroom dark. I could still see the urn on Hal’s nightstand. It reminded me of Nicky’s combat boots, a marbled purple. He had shown it to me not long after collecting her ashes, the urn in the crook of his elbow like you’d carry a baby. Gingerly, I sat on the right side of the bed—my side, in the car, on the couch, lying here while we gossiped or napped. I lay back, holding still, holding my breath. Had Hal slept here the night she died, or had he fallen asleep on the loveseat and found her the next morning?
I spent the day like that. Picked the dog up when he started whining. He still smelled sweet then, like oatmeal shampoo. I tried to sleep. Nicky’s vape was half dead and the coil needed replacing, but I breathed in until I scared Martini with my hacking. Hal came home that afternoon, stared at me from the door, and asked if I was staying for dinner.
The box was shoved toward the back of Nicky’s closet. I stopped rifling for a hoodie and knelt, tugging it closer. Inside were several gift bags, all of them black because Nicky hated traditional Christmas colors. Even with the champagne ribbons and glitter, they were morbid. Several presents for Hal and her parents, for people I didn’t know, a few addressed to the salon folks. One had my name on the tag.
House slippers with pom-pom tassels because I always borrowed Nicky’s.
The grape vodka I’d wanted to try but which Nicky figured would taste like Dimetapp.
Some stone—reddish, the size of a soft caramel—set in a wire bracelet.
I shoved everything in the bag, fingers ripping the tissue paper, and slammed the door shut. Then I slammed the bedroom door, less satisfying because of the rubber band around the knob. My chest ached like I’d swallowed too hard, air caught beneath my breastbone. I was tired of pretending not to be upset. Because Nicky never got to give me my gift or Hal his or put Martini in his holiday sweater. Because I’d broken that stupid bell, the one I held when I couldn’t fall asleep, tracing the break, hoping a sliver might break off in my skin. Because when Nicky died three days before Christmas, I still hadn’t known what to get her.
Hal, who’d been replacing the drive belt in his truck, found me yanking lights off the tree,
removing ornaments and tossing them onto the couch. “The hell’re you doing?”
I squeezed a poinsettia decoration until the branch it was clipped to snapped. “Getting rid of
“Wait a minute.” Something about his voice—the urgency of it, or maybe that placating attitude he’d adopted—made me consider how I looked. Unstable. Another angry woman. Good. “Just wait. You can’t—”
“Doesn’t it piss you off?”
Hal’s hands, held out to me as if I were a damn dog, lowered and folded into fists. “Of course. God, of course. But what, I’m supposed to throw a tantrum?” he said, voice pitching up and up until I wasn’t the only one halfway to screaming. “I’m supposed to go through those seven fucking steps?”
“I’m not telling you how to grieve. You just have to.” Pine needles stabbed my palm when I slapped the tree. The nearest ornament—a gingerbread man with voodoo-doll eyes—bounced off and landed between our feet. “We’re holding onto something that’s gone.”
Hal spun around and yanked at his beanie, threw it like he meant for it to fly across the room. It caught on the ceiling fan and sank limply to the floor. Martini whimpered, unsure what to make of our yelling, and began to pace. He didn’t have his diaper on. With each lap he dripped a trail of pee. I sighed, suddenly so, so tired. “Your son’s making a mess.”
Hal stumbled right into the pee. For once, he had his shoes on and wouldn’t need to change socks. “You sound like her.”
“I can stop,” I said, tossing him the poinsettia clip-on. “I can.”
Hal stared at the plastic flower, thumb rubbing over the bulbs in the center. He stared at the tree, at the lights on the floor, the countless shedding of pine. With us no longer loud, Martini felt safe enough to snatch the gingerbread man and retreat to his doggy bed. Hal made a choking sound I’d almost call a laugh. When he looked at me again, he flashed his teeth. “Let’s roast this thing.”
The night we decorated the tree—a weird mix of New Age and retro, wood-carved mandalas, blown glass shaped into candies—Nicky wouldn’t let me drive home. “It’s ten miles,” I said as she spackled polish on my toenails. We’d finished the Baileys and moved to peppermint schnapps, and everything glittered: twinkle lights, silver stars. I felt wobbly, like I might melt into the couch, a liquid pulse. I don’t know where Hal had gone after hauling the tree inside; already in bed, wherever, he didn’t matter.
Drunk as I was, Nicky wasn’t any better off. Trying to keep the polish on my nail, she tipped over and smeared it instead, giggling as she smacked her bubblegum. “And?”
“It’s ten miles.”
“Riv, you’ve backed into the mailbox. Sober. We’ll have a PJ party.”
I woke in the dark morning with acid creeping up my throat. I tried to flip over without vomiting and almost immediately gave up. I lay there until the sickness passed. It took a while to realize my head was in Nicky’s lap.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Something.” I couldn’t see her well with the lights off, but she only got tender like this when she was sad.
“Seriously, I don’t know.” I propped my chin on her thigh and let her pet me. “I think I was dreaming. Can’t remember now.” Through the glaze of liquor and half-sleep, Nicky’s pupils swallowed everything. “I just woke up scared. That ever happen to you?”
No. “All the time.”
Nicky put stock in omens. Knowing she’d be dead a few weeks later, it would be easy to imagine she did know. More likely, she was only drunk.
“You need me to sing you a lullaby?” I offered, finding the energy to shift so that I lay facing her. “It’ll be a good one, promise.”
“Yes, please. Serenade me,” she said, that spooked look receding some. I tugged her wrist until she slid down and we were wedged together. Her head settled on my arm. It hurt, but not enough to do anything about. I think I tried singing some simple song I crooned to the babies at work, but I was already drifting. The way Nicky relaxed against me, though, her breath deepening—I remember.
People always go on about how nice it is to watch a fire. Maybe because I’d never had a fireplace, I didn’t see the appeal. Soothing was a word tossed around. Nothing was soothing about a massive tree spouting smoke in a mushroom cloud, but there was satisfaction in it. A column of flame my mother would have connected to drowned Egyptians and the Red Sea. It just looked like fire to me.
We were coming off a couple wet days, and the sky was clumped with clouds that couldn’t decide between rain or sleet. Once we’d finally drug the tree outside, I balked at the lighter fluid Hal carried from the carport, a voice saying maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. He’d already poured it on the tree by then, though. Now sparks were everywhere. The tinsel barely had time to melt. Sap sizzled; I could see it bubble and pop. One spark floated as far as the pool before fizzing out.
I blinked, eyes watering from the smoke and then almost immediately going dry. Heat licked through my sweatshirt even as my nipples went tight with cold. Martini kept close to us. When he started shaking, Hal zipped him inside his jacket.
New Year’s was long gone, but fireworks sounded over the crack of wood. They came fast and then faster, tat-tat-tat-tat. It took a minute to figure out they weren’t fireworks but gunshots.
Nicky had complained about the neighbors shooting at possums or even air, sometimes at each other, bored people, angry people without anything better to do. Panic made me nauseous for a stupid second. Hal seemed unfazed, which reassured me. Then I saw the pistol hooked into the waistband of his sweats. “When did you—”
“Relax. Safety’s on. We’re fine.” He waited for me to respond and, when I didn’t, rolled his eyes and tugged his jacket to hide the pistol. His earlobes were pink where the beanie didn’t cover. “I’m not just saying that. Give it a minute, the cops will show.”
“They’ll see the smoke.”
“And won’t care. It’s not like we’re under a burn ban.” The last time we’d had a bonfire we were under a ban. Nicky had danced around singing Joni Mitchell badly at me until I joined her. Moonlight and flame set her hair glowing. Hal claimed to be on standby in case we fell in and laughed when I dipped her. Nicky kicked her shoes across the yard; I’d heard the splash of one disappearing into the pool. The memory tasted smoky, like this one would.
“This must happen a lot. Cops, I mean.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
“I’ll get used to it,” I parroted.
We stood there long after the sirens roared by, watching the tree char itself to ash. Hal handed Martini to me and added more fuel, kept the fire burning until the biggest branches gave way. Smoke swept into my face as the wind changed. I coughed like when Nicky first handed me a vape, her hand rubbing my back. Don’t breathe. Hold it in your mouth. The ground seeped cold into my backside as I sat. Hal joined me, not touching but close enough, a space between us that we didn’t try to fill. We’d go inside and eat soup later, maybe watch a show neither of us had seen before. But not yet. We would do that eventually, once there was nothing left to burn.