Talk Out the Fire (A Short Story)

Harley Orr noticed everything.

When he and his mother lived in the city, he noticed the smell of exhaust and of people all around him. He noticed the other children in his daycare, their unmatched socks, and how the teachers always had dark circles under their eyes. He noticed his mother, how she moved like a racecar, and only stopped to sleep. He noticed how she stirred his mac and cheese for dinner, fast and then slow, always with the same wooden spoon, and served in the same blue plastic bowl. He noticed that he spent a lot of time alone.

Now, in the hill country, he noticed creaky house sounds and musty forest smells and the way the light slanted just right at about 4:00 in the afternoon on the second Sunday in March, on the creamy white wall of his new bedroom in his grandmother’s house.

They’d moved in with his grandmother not too long ago, Harley and his mother, and the little clapboard house on the mountain felt different, but not in a bad way.

“It won’t be forever, baby,” his mother had told him. “Just until I find a new job.”

He noticed how his mother’s voice tightened on those words, “new job.” His heart beat a little faster.

“But we’re not homeless, are we, Mom?”

“No, baby, we’re not homeless.”

“And we can stay here for a while, right?” Harley pressed his fingers into his palms, waited for her answer.

“Not if I can help it,” she’d said. “Your nana sure would love it, but we’re not hill people, you and me.”

Harley didn’t know what that meant, but he did know he liked his new room. It had a big window that faced an oak tree and a creek in the back yard. The house did smell a little, like dust, Harley thought, but it was clean and you didn’t have to eat your dinner on the couch, because there was a dark wood table right in the kitchen.

He also liked his grandmother. He noticed how she always smelled a little like caramel and peppermint, and how she smiled a special, crooked close-lipped smile at him when she thought he wasn’t looking, and how her knobby fingers combed his hair as gently as if he’d been a breakable thing.

“Look here,” she’d told him, perched on the side of his new bed the first night he’d slept in it, “this is your home now, understand? I want you to be happy here, okay?”

“Mom’s not happy,” Harley’d replied.

“Well, it’s awful hard to make Arlene happy, but we’ll see what we can do, won’t we?” She’d reached over and given his shoulder a squeeze, and then she’d said, “Goodnight, Harley-bug.”

He’d never had a nickname before.

That first night, Harley hadn’t slept much. His new room during the day felt bright and warm, but at night, it felt a little like a haunted, dark cave. He noticed the quick skitter of something outside, the groan of a shutter in the wind, the “sshhhh” of the breeze through the branches. In the morning, his grandmother had told him not to be scared, that it’s always a little hard to get used to new places.

“Remind me when you’re older, and I’ll tell you all about when your papaw built this house, and how we got used to it together.”

Harley’s mother got a job that first week, waitressing at a diner in town. She called it “temporary.” The hours were long, but the pay was good, and Harley was happy enough to spend the time with his grandmother. He noticed pretty quickly that things moved a little slower at her house. Mornings always meant a big breakfast, sometimes biscuits and jam, and sometimes scrambled eggs and crispy bacon. In the afternoons, his grandmother would walk down the hill to the mailbox, always pausing a few times to pull a weed or just look around or up at the sky. She’d start dinner at 3:00 each day, stringing beans or peeling potatoes or shucking corn in the sunroom. Now that the weather had changed, and the air was starting to warm, she liked to sit out on front porch, a plastic bowl nestled in her lap.

They sat together one day in the sunlight, watching the trees sway in the gentle spring breeze, and Harley helped string the beans while his grandmother peeled potatoes and onions. He noticed that his grandmother always gave him a little extra on his plate, if he did some of the work himself.

“You’re getting to be pretty fast with those green beans,” his grandmother told him.

“I like green beans,” he said. He adjusted the bowl in his lap, to show her just how many he’d done.

“Next, maybe I’ll teach you how to chop the firewood. I reckon you’re big enough to handle the ax.”

Harley looked over at her, eyes wide as saucers, breath caught right in his throat.

She winked, “I’m only kidding, bug.”

Harley released an audible sigh.

They sat together, both working in silence, until the vegetables were all ready to be cooked. Just as they both stood to go into the kitchen, Harley noticed a deep rumble from down the hill. He’d never heard a sound quite like this one, so gravelly and deep and loud. It was loud. He grabbed his grandmother’s free hand, dropped the bowl of beans.

“Nana!”

“It’s just a truck, Harley, don’t you worry.”

But she was moving fast, pulling him into the house. She told him, quicker than she ever talked, “Go on up to your room and don’t come down.”

“Nana?” Harley stood still at the bottom of the stairs. He noticed tears on his cheeks, and a sting in his eyes. He realized he was crying. “I’m scared.”

His grandmother came over, and she hugged him, tight but not hard. Outside, he heard car doors slam, and yelling, and worst of all, he heard someone screaming. Not quite screaming though. Screaming and crying together. He’d never heard anything like that before.

His grandmother let him go, turned him around and nudged him toward the stairs. “Everything’s fine and don’t you worry. I just got a feeling you don’t want to see what’s about to walk through that door.”

This time, he ran up the stairs two at a time. He slammed his bedroom door behind him. He thought about locking it, but noticed it didn’t have a lock. He hadn’t noticed that before. He took deep breaths, slid down onto the floor and pulled his knees to his chest. And he listened.

He heard the screen door open, and the screams and cries. And he heard muffled voices.

“…happened?”

His grandmother.

“…to the stove. Hot cast iron…oil in the frying pan…”

“…on into the kitchen…at the table…”

His grandmother, again.

“…thank…”

And then, everything went quiet.

Harley was scared, but he was also curious. He couldn’t help it, but he wasn’t sure what to do about it. He didn’t want to get in trouble, but he wanted to know what was happening, and he wanted to make sure his grandmother was okay.

He stood up. Slowly, a little at a time, he turned the doorknob, and as quiet as he could, he opened the door. He stepped out into the hall, and crept down the stairs. He rounded the corner, and peaked into the kitchen.

He saw three people. One older woman, and one little girl. He noticed she was about as tall as he was, and that she had a big, red, horrible burn on her arm. And he saw his grandmother, standing over the girl. Her back was turned. She touched the girl’s arm, right on the burn. Harley winced, and he must have made a noise, because his grandmother turned around and spotted him.

“Come on in here, Harley. It’s all right.”

He took a few cautious steps, and then, feeling a little more brave, took the last big strides to the table. He sat down across from the little girl. He noticed her eyes were red, but she didn’t cry anymore.

“This is Helen and Libby. Libby’s about your age.”

Libby sniffed.

“Now, Harley, I need you to be real still and real quiet, and I’m going to work on Libby’s arm.”

Harley did as he was told, and he watched.

His grandmother closed her eyes. She held Libby’s burned arm in one hand, and with her other, right above the angry red splotch, made a little pushing motion in the air.

She said, “Water won’t burn, fire won’t quench, God’s word won’t lie.”

A little push in the air, right over Libby’s arm, and then again, “Water won’t burn, fire won’t quench, God’s word won’t lie.”

Harley just stared.

Once more, his grandmother pushed at the air above Libby’s burned arm, and said, “Water won’t burn, fire won’t quench, God’s word won’t lie.”

His grandmother opened her eyes, and looked at Libby. “Does that feel better?”

The little girl nodded her sandy blonde head, looked at her arm, poked at the burn, and smiled a little. “Yes, ma’am,” she answered.

“Thank you, Alice,” the older woman said.

“You don’t need to thank me at all,” Nana told her. “Just make sure you keep that child away from the stove when you’re cooking.”

The older woman stood up, and ushered Libby out of the room.

“And bring Libby back one of these days to see Harley.”

“I will,” the older woman said, and opened the screen door. “It’ll be nice for her to have a kid her age to play with.”

Libby smiled at Harley, and Harley smiled back.

They left through the front, and Harley heard the car start and then make its rumbling way down the hill.

His grandmother walked over to the sink and washed her hands. “You snuck downstairs, rascal,” his grandmother said. But she didn’t sound angry, and after she dried her hands on a kitchen towel, she beckoned him to her, to sit on her lap. “I didn’t want you to be scared. Your mother used to hate it when this happened. She’d be mad if she knew I showed you. Thinks it’s not real.”

“You fixed her,” Harley said.

“I took the pain away,” his grandmother answered. “I talked the fire out of the burn.”

“It’s like magic,” Harley told her. “You made her better.”

“In a way,” she said.

“How?”

“It’s my gift, straight from the Lord himself, and it belonged to my daddy before me.” She gave Harley a squeeze and said, “One day, I’ll give it to you.”

Harley’s eyes went wide. He shivered, a quick chill that started at the top of his head and made its way down to the tippy tips of his toes. “Really?”

“You’re my grandson, aren’t you?”

Harley nodded.

“And this is your home?”

He nodded again.

“Then yes, sir. But not for a long time, so don’t you worry.” She set her jaw and looked right in his eyes. “You’re a smart, brave boy. Don’t be afraid.”

Harley wasn’t afraid. For the first time, in as long as he could remember, he wasn’t afraid at all.


Thank you for reading! This is the third of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here are the first two stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!

The next story will be posted at the end of April.

This Place

“How do you stand it here?”

“What do you mean?”

The two of us sat together on top of a giant round hay bale, the largest in the field this year, staring out at the stars. In the chill of a mid-February night and the light of the full Snow Moon, we could see our breath hanging in the air in front of us.

“The dark. The quiet. The…nothing. There’s just nothing to do,” he said.

“I’m used to it, I guess,” I answered.

“I will never get used to it,” he said.

“It’s not that bad. I think you’re blowing things out of proportion.”

“No. You just don’t know the difference.”

“That’s mean,” I said.

“You guys don’t even have a movie theater.”

He’d moved at the beginning of the school year. His parents had dragged him halfway across the country when his dad took a new job, all the way from sunny, funky Austin to the lonely, scrappy mountains of Russell County. We’d met on the first day of school, but only because we had to.

“I’m supposed to give you a tour,” I’d explained, my backpack slung over one shoulder. “It won’t take long.”

“Thanks,” he’d said. “I kind of figured.”  

We’d walked up and down the three main hallways and the side wings of the red brick block of a high school. I’d asked about his classes, invited him to sit with me and my friends at lunch. I’d offered to meet him after school and show him around town, or, at least, what little town there was to show. He’d said yes.  

It had been almost a half a year since then.

“It’ll start to get warm soon,” I said. “The redbuds are really pretty in spring.”

“Those are trees, right?”

“Yes. The next town over has a festival when they start to bloom. We should go.”

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay,” I said back. I squeezed his hand.

I’d introduced him to the hay bales on the winter solstice. He’d spent the entire Christmas season lamenting the chintzy 1970s decorations sprinkled along Main Street.

“They’re sort of charming,” I’d said. “Like looking into another time.”

“I spent last Christmas in Germany,” he’d said. “I wish you could see the Christmas markets there.”

“Maybe someday,” I’d answered. “Why aren’t you traveling this year?”

“My dad’s too busy.”

“Come to my house tonight,” I’d offered. “My mom’s making steaks, and I’ve got a surprise for you after.”

I don’t know what sort of surprise he’d expected, but he didn’t seem impressed by the rolling pasture and enormous hay bales.

I’d always walked out to the fields on cold, clear nights. I liked the silence, the peace. And in the winter, I loved the brightness of the stars against the dark, empty landscape. I’d thought maybe he would, too. I didn’t know much about what it was like living in a big city, but I knew it never got dark enough to see the stars.

“This is my own personal light show,” I’d told him. “I wouldn’t bring just anybody out here to see it.”

He’d laughed, and said, “So you think I’m special?”

We’d kissed then, for the first time. “I like you,” I’d told him. “You’re a jerk, but I think you’re pretty cool.”

“I like you, too,” he’d said.

I wanted that night to live in my memory, always.

“I like you,” I told him now. “And I like this.”

“I like you,” he said, from somewhere far away. “It always looks the same out here.”

“Not at all! The constellations are changing all the time.” I pointed up, showed him Orion and the Big Dipper. “Some nights,” I added, “you can see the milky way.” Did he truly not notice? “Once, I saw the Northern Lights. They almost never come this far south.”

“I saw them when I went camping in Alaska.”

“I’ve never been to Alaska.”

“You’ve never been anywhere.”

“I’ve been to Nashville. And to Myrtle Beach.”

He harrumphed, released my hand, and hopped down.

“I’m going home,” he said. “It’s cold and I’m bored.”

“Well, excuse me. Sorry I’m not interesting enough for you.” I took a deep breath, let it out. “You’re being a snob.”

He turned around and looked up at me. “Don’t be like that,” he said.

It usually ended this way. Him, walking away from me to go play whatever latest video game he got online, or to video chat with his friends back in Texas, or to tinker with his computer. Me, on the verge of tears, clenching my jaw to keep from yelling at him, feeling like a dumb small-town hick.  

“I’m not being like anything,” I said. “I just wanted to share this with you.”

“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. Let’s just go home, okay?” He started to walk down the hill.

Strictly speaking, the farmer next door didn’t like having trespassers on his land, but because he knew me, he usually let it slide. Our two families had been sharing this little valley for five generations. He wouldn’t start trouble over two stupid kids sitting around on top of hay bales in the dark.

“I thought it might make things better,” I said. “I mean, for you.”

“What?”

“I thought you might feel better, if you could see what makes this place special.” I hopped down and walked over to him. I caught his hand again, held it up between us in both of mine. “I know it’s not big or loud or anything, but this is something you can only do out in the country. There’s nowhere else in the world quite like this.”

“You’re hopeless,” he said, but he pulled me in and kissed me quick on the lips. “Someday you’ll get out of here, and you’ll understand why I hate it.”

“This is my home,” I told him. “It doesn’t matter where I go. I’ll always be from here.”

“Wait and see,” he said. “You’re too good for this place.”

He turned and walked away. From the bottom of the hill, he called up to me, “Are you coming?”

“No,” I answered. “I’ll stay.”

“Well, see you tomorrow, then.”

I stood right where he left me, planted in that one spot. I looked out ahead at the dark expanse of field and pasture, and at the rolling mountains in the distance, illuminated by the silvery cast of the full moon.   

************

Thank you for reading! This is the second of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here’s January’s story, if you’d like to read it: The Roads

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here. 😊

The next story will be posted on Friday, March 26th.

The Roads

“The ridge or the glade?”

I am eight, and it’s my birthday. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s gold Toyota Tercel, holding a cake box in my lap.

She looks at me, stretches a hand out to tweak my nose, and asks, “The ridge or the glade, Betsy-bug?”

I am sixteen, learning to drive myself, on a hot day in the middle of a mountain summer, behind the wheel of my grandfather’s enormous red and white Ford truck. He’s forced me into this, like it’s all a big joke, and as I struggle, sputter, and sit white-knuckled behind the steering wheel, he laughs.

He reaches over and steadies my trembling hand, and asks, “The ridge or the glade?”

I am twenty-two, heading south on I-81 from college for Christmas with the boyfriend I once thought I’d marry. We sing along to whatever plays on the radio, and rest our interlocked hands on the center console of a silver Nissan Altima.

“You have two choices,” I tell him, “once we get close to the house. The ridge or the glade.”

“The what now?”

“Those are the two roads we can take, once we get into town,” I explain. “Would you rather take the ridge or the glade?”

“I literally don’t know what those things are,” he says.

I glance over at my city boy. I can’t help but smirk. He’ll learn soon enough, but for now, I explain again.

“There are two ways we could get to my parents’ house. One takes us through a clearing. Do you get carsick?”

“I don’t think so,” he answers.

“Okay, good to know. The other takes us up over the mountain. Which one do you want to see?”

“The glade, I guess,” he says.

Turns out, he does get carsick. The tight curves, the dips and the little inclines of the glade road are too much for his nervous stomach.

“You could have warned me,” he says, once we’re safely parked in the driveway and unloading bags filled with laundry and textbooks.

“I did,” I say. “We’ll take the ridge next time.”

For the first half of my life, two roads brought me home, one high and one low, both so clear in my memory that I could drive them blindfolded even now.

Tonight, my mother’s voice wakes me.

“The ridge or the glade,” she whispers, close to my ear.

Outside, it snows, and the wind howls, and the dying embers of the wood fire beside my recliner glow bright and alive in the midst of a winter storm that the Weather Channel calls one for the century.

I almost answer her. “The ridge,” I almost say. I’ve always loved the ridge best, and it’s right on the tip of my tongue. But as I come out of sleep, and the drowsy haze lifts from my mind, I stop.

I stop because I am alone in my living room, tucked under a blanket my granddaughter knitted for my seventieth birthday. My mother’s been gone for nearly twelve years, and it’s been almost as long since I’ve seen the ridge or the glade.

I am sixty-one, sitting at a table in a sterile, white and gray office space. A real estate agent, an ancient friend of my long-dead uncle’s, sits beside me. Across from us, an attractive young couple beams and radiates excitement and energy. They’ve told me my mother’s home is their dream home, where they’ll raise their family, where they’ll build their life together. I sign the papers and the home belongs to them.

I am sixty-one and three quarters. I drive through the ridge one last time, intending to say a final goodbye, now that my mother’s affairs are settled. I round the curve and look to my right. My mother’s house, my home, has disappeared. In its place, the beginnings of a new structure rise from the landscape, a beast unlike anything the little valley has seen in all its many eons. I take the glade back out into town, and though I want to, though I want to change everything, I don’t look back.

I rise, pushing myself up against the thick, round arms of my oversized La-Z-Boy. There was a time that I would have been embarrassed to own it, but I practically never leave it these days. The blanket falls to the floor and I don’t pick it up. My back feels stiff and my joints ache. It’s the cold air, I think.

I make my way through the dark, to the kitchen sink where I pour a glass of tap water and drink it down in one gulp. I stand still for a moment and look out the window at the snow falling fierce and heavy in the halo of a bright orange streetlight. I haven’t thought of the roads home in years. I used to dream about them. I’d dream of driving in the dark, of rounding curves too fast or of creeping along beside the meadow flowers and the cow paths. But tonight, now in this moment, I can’t get them out of my mind.

I pour another glass and carry it with me back to the side table by the recliner. I settle in, under the blanket by the fire, and I feel myself again drifting off into sleep. I wonder if I’ll dream.

“The ridge or the glade?”

This time, it’s my voice, my question. My mother sits beside me in my white BMW, and warm sunlight shines in through the windshield. I remember this car. It’s the first one I ever bought for myself.

I look over. My mother is young again, and so am I. Her chestnut hair matches mine, and together we smile the crooked smile that was passed down to us.

“The ridge,” she says. “You like the ridge best.”

“I do,” I answer, “but I know you love the glade.”

“I love them both,” she says. “Mostly for where they take me.”

“Me, too,” I say.

We take the glade home.

************

Thank you for reading! This is the first of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

If you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here. 😊

The next story will be posted on Friday, February 26th.

2021 Short Story Challenge Theme!

You guys, I have agonized over this. And I’ve gotten some really good suggestions. I’ve looked at quotes and poems, at nouns and verbs and adjectives, at artwork. I wanted to pick a theme for 2021 that feels accessible, not esoteric, and that will lend itself to lots of different stories from lots of different people with lots of different life experiences.

So, here it is, the theme for my 2021 Short Story Challenge:

Home. A place of comfort for some, a place of anxiety or fear for others. For many of us, a place we’ve seen plenty of in the last several months. A physical space, or a feeling, a certainty or a longing, a boon or a burden.

I feel like home has plenty of stories to tell. I hope you’ll join me in telling twelve this year. Let’s see where home takes us.

My story for January will be up next Friday, January 29th. (And then I’ll resume the regular Found Friday feature.) I…haven’t started writing it yet, but I’m excited to see what it will become.

And, if you want to write along and post a story for each month this year, I’m excited to see what you’ll create.

Let’s make 2021 a year for stories.