An Innocent Flame

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I creep into the woods slowly as not to disturb his manly ritual and can’t help but see him as both man and boy: man, tall and dark in silhouette like a knight in an old romance winning duels (or whatever they did) for his paramour; boy, a little Quixote donning daddy’s armor to topple a windmill giant. The clearing is small and out of the way enough that it serves as our meeting place. He turns at the sound of my footfalls, crunching the undergrowth with each measured step. You’re late, he says, and he’s doing that thing when he looks at me like a disappointed father. Boy no more. Makes me want to strangle him, and he knows it, and that’s exactly why he does it. He’s a distraction, I tell myself. Just something to pass the time. A summertime fling that’ll be forgotten a year from now. I’m only sixteen — what do I know?

Doesn’t matter, he says. You’re always going to be late anyway. Not going to change that. I tell him he’s a fool, and he shrugs. Casts it off easily like all the rest of the world’s ills that don’t agree with him or try to harm him. Esther, he says, let’s just say it already. And there it is. The words that are tinder for an innocent flame — that will burn down my foundation forever; words that set in motion a settling of debts. We have to do it, he says. We have to tell your parents now before it’s too late.

The fire’s looming. It’s drawing breath from the late summer air, dry and sweetless. I don’t want him anymore. He’s become an old judge, no more fun like he used to be. Ever since he began taking Milly out. Who would have thought he’d be the one wheeling the cripple? Now don’t start on me, Milly’s my favorite — she’s what I’d call my best friend, a sister who’s two years older, stricken with palsy and epilepsy who talks and acts like she’s three. I know what Jean’s talking about right away. I take a few more hard steps towards him, scowling. You stay out of this, I say. It’s family business. I’ll tell them. You go run on home, Jean, you’ve a mother to take care of.

It’s not so simple, he says. He’s talking about what happened a few nights ago. I have three sisters: Mildred (but we call her Milly), she’s the cripple; Ivy, she’s only a year older than me but already graduated from high school and a teacher at the elementary in Boise; and then there’s Josephine, or little Jo, the oldest of us all at twenty four, a real world traveller, who brought a husband home. This husband is what’s all the trouble now as Jean rambles on in the clearing.

He touched her, Esther. I saw him. He touched her and when I came over he denied it. But you saw him, I say. That’s right, Jean says. I shake my head, and lurch toward him like a scarecrow in the wind. I believe you but what can we do? His nostrils flare like a restless hog, and he clenches his fists. You know what? You don’t give a shit about her. About Milly.

You ever hit a man? I suggest you try sometime. Feels good. Especially one who thinks he can beat on you anytime he wants.

He’s down on the ground before he can say another word. Before he can look at me shamefully. My fist is trembling as I step over him, looking down into those green eyes that cast a spell on me some three months ago. I’m searching, studying, a detective of the heart, and when I’ve found it I hold out my hand. He takes it, grumbling.

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