fiction by Beth Meko
It was a mystery where the child had come from. All Fire knew was she appeared at the edge of his yard after the train wreck. Suddenly there she was, standing bowlegged in the mist beside one of the train cars that had jackknifed off the track, tears and snot dripping down her dirty face into her mouth. She wasn’t the only child around—at least ten kids who had been riding the train were now hiding their faces in their parents’ necks, or standing sucking their fingers like candy and gaping at the scene. But no parent came to claim this one; no one took any notice except Fire.
Fire hadn’t been around kids much. His first wife had wanted them, but either he or she hadn’t been able to. His second wife, Deb, had two grown children, both moved off to Ohio. Now here Fire and Deb were, living on this mountain with no neighbors close and both getting up into their fifties. He had no way of telling a child’s age. He thought she was maybe two, although he could have been way off. She was a girl, he figured, judging by her long scraggly hair. She wore a pale yellow thing that Deb later called a “onesie,” which was too small and had a rip down the leg.
Fire thought he could at least give the child something to cover up with. The cold could bite into you once you got up this high on the mountain, and he could see she was shivering. He brought out a scratchy blanket that smelled like cigarettes and put it around her shoulders. When he moved to go back to the porch, she followed him.
Fire sat watching the scene unfold and pondered the girl. Had she even been on the train? She sure didn’t look like she’d come from folks with money to ride a scenic train. Could her people be injured? he wondered. An ambulance arrived and two paramedics stumbled down the hill with a stretcher, but only an elderly man having chest pains needed carried out, his wife leaving with him in the ambulance. Not one of the people milling around seemed to be looking for anyone.
Where did the girl come from, and where on earth were her people? Deb and Fire would ask each other this time and again as they sat by the earth stove, watching the girl doze or play all through that winter. Maybe someone had tossed her out of a car, maybe she’d wandered over from the hiking trails that wound through the upper part of the mountain to the west—her guardian dead, mauled by a bear. It became a riddle between the three.
“Rescued you from the mouth of an alligator,” Fire would tell her, and the girl would laugh. “A little bird carried you over these mountains in its mouth,” Deb would say, kissing the top of the girl’s head. They never did find out the real answer, but from the beginning Fire found that part of him enjoyed the mystery.
That first day, she sat next to him with tears drying on her face, poking around inside her mouth with her thumb. If she would have wandered away Fire would have let her, but she didn’t. After a while, she put her head against his coat sleeve and dozed. Others seemed to assume she belonged to him. A couple people came closer and tried to chat with him about how close the train had come to his house. “Your guardian angel’s sure been working overtime. Been going much faster and that last car’d be sitting in your living room.” He just nodded, flicking ash from his cigarette. He’d never been much for small talk.
Falling rocks had caused the derailing, tumbling down from the ridges that rose up on the other side of the road parallel to the train tracks. None of the train cars had overturned, but the back four had come off and landed in a zig-zag. Fire had never much cared for that train passing by his house, folks gaping out and taking pictures. He liked them standing around his yard even less. They would talk about surviving a train derailing for years, Fire knew, at parties and family reunions. He himself had taken far worse tumbles when he’d been freight hopping in the West in his twenties, he thought as he smoked and eyed the wreckage.
Eventually a shuttle bus showed up for the passengers. He went inside to put water on for coffee and when he came back the girl was gone. Finally found her people, he figured. The last police car turned around in the ditch and sped away, lights finally off. The few men standing around all talked over each other about the logistics of bringing cranes to clear the wreckage the next morning.
By nightfall everyone was gone. A deeper chill entered the air and a barred owl started to hoot from the maple trees. He hoped Deb, who had been working a ten-hour shift at the hospital 45 minutes north as a practical nurse, would be able to find her way home along the detoured route. He turned on the TV to have some sound in the house and ate a bowl of soup in front of it, eyes straying to the front window for some sign of Deb’s car. Finally, around eight o’clock headlights splashed across the curtains and tires came crunching down the driveway. When he came out onto the porch there was the girl: sitting on the steps again, with the blanket still wrapped around her, blinking in the headlights.
Deb, still wearing her scrubs and name badge, took the girl’s temperature, listened to her breathing. “You OK, sweetheart?” she kept asking in a high voice. “She’s OK. Just wish she could tell us something. Fire, why the hell didn’t you say anything to anybody? Everyone’s going to think we’ve kidnapped this girl!” The girl just stared with wide blue eyes.
Fire shrugged. Deb washed the girl in the clawfoot bathtub, water turning murky with dirt as she gently lifted the girls’ arms and swabbed underneath with a yellow sponge. All the while she came up with her own scenarios: “Some couple on drugs hopped on the train with her and ran off soon as the wreck happened. Just up and left her.” Deb did that, painted in the backgrounds of things she didn’t understand. Usually wild teenagers or people on drugs played a major role in her explanations.
Fire found Deb’s story unsatisfactory. “Bet she’s one of them kids been raised by wolves. You a wolf child, girl? Ow-woo!” he called, throwing his head back. He howled again and the girl stared.
“Oh, you just shut up with that howling,” said Deb as she dried the girl off and dressed her in a big souvenir T-shirt from Myrtle Beach. “This girl don’t seem one bit feral. Just terrified, is all.” She tucked the girl into the rickety daybed in the spare room and left the door slightly ajar.
“Space alien, maybe?” said Deb a bit later. They sat on the couch, shoulders touching, feet up on the coffee table and pointed toward the earth stove as they watched a late show. They laughed softly together.
“Might be some kind of ghost,” said Fire after a time. “We oughtta check her pulse, make sure she’s got a reflection in the mirror.”
They chuckled again but Fire felt something cold hit him in the middle. He remembered stories of ghosts coming out of the mist of these mountains, spooking hikers, hitching rides on the highway and disappearing. Superstition, he thought. Folklore. That was a real child in there.
But Deb was also spooked. She went in and stared at the girl, touching her gingerly as if checking for fever, then came back out into the living room. “She’s real,” she whispered to Fire.
Keeping the girl was just something that happened over time. They checked the paper, scanned the news for some clue about her. Surely someone would be looking—a grandparent, a relative. Deb took the half hour trip to the public library in Clayton one Saturday and logged onto the missing children’s website, looking painstakingly through the grainy photographs. No kids anywhere near the girl’s age and description.
“Well, how are we gonna call someone now?” Deb would say. “Would just look weird. Besides, they’d put her in foster care or a girls’ home or something. Lord knows what’d happen to her.” Fire knew she was thinking about wild teenagers, about drug addicts, perverts.
It was Deb who came up with the name Breeze. A week after they found her, a violent storm blew through and the girl came up missing. Deb went out hollering to no avail, only, an hour after the storm abated, to find the child in the breezeway, huddled beside Fire’s boots piled near the door, asleep. Deb said the name fit because she’d come into their lives sudden and unexpected, like a warm breeze. “Or a cold one,” she added. “Those can be good too.”
Breeze would be a good name for a ghost, Fire offered, or a spy for that matter. Were they sure the girl wasn’t a foreign agent? Deb just shook her head.
“Maybe God sent her,” said Deb one night. She had a Bible she kept on the coffee table that she read every Sunday, highlighting the text in different colors. “Abraham and Sarah were what, 90, when God gave them a child?” Fire shrugged in reply. He’d never been big on the Bible himself.
Deb quickly fell into the role of mother. She made a trip to Goodwill and came home with shopping bags full: colorful shirts with leggings, a purple coat with a hood, a tiny pair of blue jeans, pajamas, an unopened pack of day-of-the-week underwear. Four dog-eared picture books. Toys too: a frazzled-looking teddy bear, a doll baby Deb said she would knit outfits for. Some plastic doughnut-shaped thing with flashing lights, which Breeze paid little attention to.
Breeze liked the doll baby the best. “Baby,” she said quietly one night as Fire and Deb sat in the living room, TV going, and Breeze sat in the corner with the doll.
“What was that, honey?” Deb cried, jumping up.
“My God, the child speaks English,” Fire said.
It wasn’t the only word she knew. She could say “water,” quite clearly for a child her age, and “bathtub,” which she pronounced “bat-tube,” and “bear.” They kept pointing out more pictures from the books Deb got at Goodwill and the library, and Breeze knew them all, or else picked them right up. “Sure ain’t nothing wrong with the girl’s mind,” Fire said and Deb agreed.
Fire liked the girl all the more that she knew how to talk but chose not to. Kind of like him, he thought. He guessed he was getting attached to the girl. His trucking runs took him up as far up as New England, as far down as Florida. He’d be away for two weeks, sometimes, and when he nosed his cab back down the driveway there would be Breeze, running out to greet him. He brought her things from gas stations in the cities he passed through--candy, cans of soda pop, little bears wearing T-shirts. The two would sit together under the carport, silent and content, for long periods of time: Fire fiddling with engine parts, she with her books and toys. After she got old enough, he taught her a few simple card games and they would play those in the evenings.
Deb, on the phone with her daughters in Ohio, said they’d taken in a foster child they had in mind to adopt. The daughters didn’t ask many questions, and they never visited anyway. Then Deb’s dad died and they had a falling out about the small inheritance, and she didn’t talk to them at all anymore. Deb took it hard. “At least we have Breeze,” she would say, tears in her eyes.
A new company logo showed up on the sides of the bright green train cars, but there seemed to be the same people, gazing slack mouthed out the windows, taking pictures. If he was close enough he could hear the announcer blaring on, although he couldn’t hear what was being said. He wondered if they were talking about the rugged country folk who made their homes up where there was no cell phone service, no Internet, mountain lions rumored to still slink through the woods. He didn’t like them marveling about how they made do with so little.
The house wasn’t much to look at, brown and squat with a low roof and a green porch in need of a paint job. There were black smoke stains on the back side of the house from the fire that had burned down the old barn about ten years before the train wreck. At the time there had been a lot of buzz about him burning the barn for the insurance, and though it was conjecture, they had been correct. Thing had termites and a bad roof. He’d made the decision as soon as he’d come to look at it after his old man had died and left him the land.
He’d met Deb around that time, when she’d been a bartender at the little dive down on the crook of the highway going into downtown Clayton. Deb was the one who started calling him Fire, although his real name was James. It just fit, what with his wild shock of copper-colored hair and russet sideburns, which had since started sprouting white. Deb had moved in with him and soon after finished her nursing degree. He’d spent a big chunk of the insurance money and the small inheritance on buying his own truck cab with a small sleeper, and he spent a lot of his time on the road making ends meet.
Breeze was a watchful and quiet girl, but it turned out she had a will that surged strong. “Should have named her Monsoon,” Fire said the first time the child exploded into a fit.
Deb was laid off from the hospital the week after the train derailing, the day before Fire was set to make a truck run up north. She wasn’t upset. “Seen it coming,” she said. “And now I can be here to look after this child.”
Breeze was a watchful and quiet girl, but it turned out she had a will that surged strong. “Should have named her Monsoon,” Fire said the first time the child exploded into a fit. She had run from the house and made it all the way up to the highway before Deb caught her, and she screamed bloody hell the whole way back down.
They laughed about that incident for years afterward. “Weren’t sure you had a voice on you til then,” said Fire. They learned not to try to stop her when she decided she wanted to go somewhere. “Just can’t keep the girl contained,” said Deb. “Lord knows I try.”
Breeze continued to sprout up, legs turning long and limber, hair wild as a thorn bush. Deb would wash her hair and comb it every Sunday and Thursday evenings, coaxing it into braids as they sat in front of the TV. By the next day it would be loose and tangled, spruce and pine needles caught throughout it. Fire took her out hunting with him for squirrels and rabbits and deer; he taught her how to fish brook trout from the streams.
“Do you think we’re stunting her, keeping her from other kids?” Deb asked as they watched Breeze wading in the stream one warm day in August.
“Reckon maybe,” said Fire. “Or could be we’re doing her a favor.”
“Maybe we should send her to school,” Deb would often say, but there were too many things involved: social security numbers, birth certificates, explaining the story to others. Wouldn’t be any better than a couple child abductors in the world’s eyes by now. How could they explain? Who would understand? Hell, even he didn’t. Besides, Deb had taught her to read from an old book of Bible stories and the girl had picked it right up despite showing little interest in the stories themselves. Whenever the girl would sit still for it, Deb would teach her lessons from old textbooks she’d got from Goodwill and the encyclopedia set that lined the living room bookcase. “Getting a better education at your hands than I ever did at any school,” said Fire, who had always done well in school without really trying but had dropped out in the eleventh grade.
When Breeze was around nine she started to disappear for hours and would come back with pockets full of things she’d taken from abandoned outbuildings, assorted flowers and leaves from mountain holly, which Fire knew didn’t start to grow but until half a mile up the ridge.
“It’s like she’s looking for something out there,” Deb said one night in bed.
“Looking for where she came from,” said Fire, and they somehow both knew it was true.
Breeze stayed out even later after she started getting older, sometimes until after dark, and Deb would get distraught.
“We’re treating that girl more like a pet than a child. Just feeding her and letting her wander all over creation. They’d get us for neglect if they knew.”
“Might get us for kidnapping first. Then neglect.” Fire was unsure what the procedure would be in a situation such as this one.
Deb had a pain in her side that she would downplay, but when Fire came home from the road one night she was shuddering and limping when she tried to walk. He made her go to the doctor. Might be some woman thing, he thought, brought on by Deb getting up in years. But it was pancreatic cancer, and it took her quick. By the time she was diagnosed it had spread to her liver and her lungs. Her belly swelled up big like she had a baby in there, and it would have been like Deb to make a crack about Abraham and Sarah, but she didn’t even have the energy to do that. She died two months later in the hospital, yellow and shrunken, delirious with pain meds.
After Deb died Fire was lost. He missed her like a burn in his chest. There were so many things she had taken care of, like the shopping and the dishes and the daily care of Breeze. He had no idea what Breeze needed and where to get it for her. And Breeze just got wilder and quieter without Deb around, without the daily structure and warm energy she had provided. By now Breeze was a girl of twelve, the first hints of woman starting to show around the edges of her face and her sleek little girl form. She started wandering farther and longer.
Fire had no choice but to leave Breeze at home by herself when he had the rig out. He left her snacks and cereal, fresh milk, deer meat that he thawed from the freezer before he left for the road. Fire decided if this was the way they were meant to live out their lives, this was what they would make do with. More and more often, though, he would come home and she wouldn’t be there.
The scenic trains stopped running three years after Deb died; Fire heard down at the general store in Clayton that the excursion company had gone bankrupt. Now there were just some short-line haulers that meandered through every few nights. The sound of them as they passed in the dark brought a deep sadness to him; he wasn’t sure why.
A shale gas operation started up over on the other side of the mountain, and all day long they trucked things in and out. The road that wound past Fire’s house was normally a quiet one; not much traffic passed except for the few neighbors who lived further up the mountain or people taking the long route through the ridges. But now there was the chug and moan of trucks’ engines; the scrape of their brakes on the way down, all day. Just about ran him off the road a couple times; the road was too narrow for big trucks to pass by one another.
The site itself was up a rutted gravel lane from the main road a few miles past Fire’s turnoff. He’d driven out that way with Breeze in the cab when the operation had been in the early stages, before they’d even set up the workers’ camps. Now he knew they had security gates all around, but in the beginning they’d just started clearing the land, and he’d driven right up, engine chugging and revving, Breeze gripping the grab handle and staring out the window. Must have been seven acres of land they’d cleared up there. He couldn’t forget the way it had looked, the immense stretch of exposed earth a bulging ugly growth jutting from the green countryside like a burn scar, a hillside leveled, equipment and discarded trees strewn here and there.
It was maybe six months after that when Fire came home one afternoon, chugging the truck into its spot underneath the carport, to see a cherry-red pickup truck pulled up in the gravel driveway. Breeze was sprawled on the front steps, not alone. A guy, might have been in his early twenties, was sitting beside her smoking, and he raised a hand when Fire pulled up.
Even without looking at his license plate it was clear he was from out of state, brought here to work the shale rigs. Curly black hair, loose oily grin that showed a set of yellow teeth. Said his name was Chet and he’d given Breeze a ride back home. Fire spit off to the side of the porch as Chet recounted his meeting with Breeze in that easy, lazy voice. “She just came on up over the hill on the east side, must have followed the tracks up there. Surprised the bejesus out of all of us. No one had ever come up that way before.”
“That gas rig must be four miles over them hills,” said Fire, nodding in that direction.
“I was as sure as hell surprised too,” said Chet. His eyes oozed over Breeze, who sat with briar cuts all over her legs, smiling at Chet like he was some kind of bronze god. She was wearing a sunflower-covered outfit, the kind Deb had always called a short set. He guessed Deb had bought it for her years back, except it had fit her a lot different at twelve than it did now: way too tight, way too short. He saw Chet noticing too, and rage cut through him like a wire. Chet assumed Breeze was some gift to him, a country oddity that had worked in his favor. Probably thought the girl was slow, that that was just how people were around here. Fire felt his jaw clench.
“Girl’s just a kid,” he said, looking at Chet until Chet looked away.
Chet was a black spot in Fire’s side vision. A dark thing in his consciousness he couldn’t get past. He was sure that man would try and touch Breeze when his head was turned. And innocent as she was, maybe she’d lie down in the bed of his truck with him, doing whatever he wanted her to do. Breeze was what—fifteen? He calculated backward from the train derailment until he decided that was about right. He wondered if Deb had ever talked to Breeze about sex.
He decided he would give it a try of his own. He saw his opportunity when he was frying up a batch of deer meat one evening, fan going full speed in the window, Breeze idly playing with a deck of cards at the table. “Don’t let him take you nowhere in that truck. One minute you’re playing kissy-face and the next he’s got your shirt off. Deb ever talk to you about that?”
Breeze was sitting with her leg crooked up as she always did. She looked at him for a long minute, blond hair grazing her knee, then covered her face and burst into laughter. She wouldn’t say anything to him, just ran to the bathroom where he could hear her peeing and laughing. When she opened the door back up she didn’t come back into the kitchen, but into her bedroom. Later he heard her slipping out the screen door.
Fire went into the bedroom and laid down, watching the setting sun play patterns on the wall as it grew dark. He just didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what he was going to do with a teenage girl, let alone one like Breeze. It had seemed so much simpler when she had been a little girl in her onesie. Now she was even old enough to get pregnant. The thought left him cold. Why hadn’t he thought ahead to this? He missed Deb with such intensity that it felt like a physical ache right in the middle of him.
Here he was, set for a run down to Florida in two days. Maybe he’d take Breeze in the cab with him, he thought. Then he imagined her running off at every truck stop and motel. You just couldn’t keep the girl. For a moment he thought that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Solve a lot of problems. But he imagined her on the streets in some strange place, confused, thirsty, hungry. Breeze was his daughter, by any important measure. His responsibility.
The next night Fire pulled into the parking lot of the little bar down around the bend near Clayton. It’d been years since he’d been there and now it had a different name—Full Circle Pub, with a little crude emblem like a lasso on the sign. The parking lot was full of trucks with out of state plates. The only bar for miles, so of course it was where the gas rig men hung out. He spotted the cherry-red pickup truck right away, over by the side of the building, and he pulled in and waited near it. The blinds in the side window had a big tear in them and through it, Fire could see men moving around with cues in their hands, could hear the crack of the pool balls. Shouts rung out. He knew inside it smelled like cigarettes and dried beer.
It was 1:30 when Chet came out, stumbling as he pulled his keys from his pocket. Fire came in close, trapping the other man’s hard body against the door of the pickup truck with one arm. “Girl’s fifteen,” he said, his mouth down close to the man’s sunburnt face. For a minute Chet’s drunkenness was to Fire’s advantage. But he soon could feel the younger man’s power underneath him, bucking upward. Fire only got one punch in and it was like driving his fist into a hamburger patty. The other man got him harder in the gut and held him there as he wheezed.
“I ain’t even touched her, old man,” said Chet, breathing hard, holding Fire against the truck. “At least four or five guys down at the rig you’d be better off watching. Better yet, how about keeping a rein on that girl. Or at least make her start charging money.”
That moment and those words drew the line between the time when Fire didn’t yet feel like an old man, and when he did. Chet left him there wheezing in the parking lot and when he was finally able to heft himself into the cab, he drove home, nearly smoking his brakes at each hairpin turn. Hot scenes of violence blazed red in his mind. He thought about driving up there the next day as they all worked on the rig, blasting through the security gates and ramming his truck into the well pad, sending the whole operation up in flames. Thought about dousing that bar with gasoline with them all in there and throwing in a match. Damn if he wasn’t mad enough to do it.
Breeze wasn’t there when he came back home, and he paced around the house until the early hours of the morning, holding his side where Chet had hit him, gazing at the decorations and old family pictures, including pictures of himself as a child, that Deb had dug up from storage years ago and put on the walls. He went into Breeze’s room and looked at the toys that still lined the shelves from years back. Then as the sun came up he left for the road.
When he came home five days later Breeze was still gone. He checked the icebox and saw nothing had been touched. It was afternoon when he got there and he sat on the porch, smoking cigarettes and breathing the heavy scent of the black locust in bloom beside the house, waiting for it to get dark, watching the lightning bugs start to pulse in the twilight.
Fire hadn’t touched a drop of liquor since Deb had moved in all those years ago, but that night he bought a fifth of Jim Beam and got blind drunk. He sat on the porch drinking shots of the whisky from an old chipped mug, and as the sun set he thought he saw Breeze down at the edge of the tree line, but it was just a young deer sticking out its neck to nibble on an azalea. He kept thinking he saw her after the sun set, saw movement out of the corner of his eye and yelled down into the hush of the greenery—"Breeze! Breezy girl, I see you.” But if she was there, she didn’t respond. Around him was only the low wet snore followed by the deep bugg-aww of the bullfrogs down at the stream, the snitch-snitch of the katydids in the trees.
He stumbled around the house, talking to Deb, talking to himself, talking to people he’d once known but were since long gone. He sang songs, badly, he hadn’t known he remembered. Somehow he ended up on the daybed, his long body crooked, and when he turned over to situate himself there was Breeze, cuddled next to him like the little girl he’d known. “Oh, Breezy,” he said, stroking her soft hair, breathing in the sweet child scent. He sang a lullaby Deb had always sung to her, a song about trains. God knew how he remembered the words, but he did.
He woke up with his body like lead and the stench of fire burning his nostrils. “Breeze,” he called in a voice that sounded warped to his own ears. She was gone. He stumbled into the living room and saw the whole back half of the house was on fire. He remembered dropping a cigarette down into the armchair and searching for it with shaking fingers, before giving up and going into the bedroom. Now there the chair was, engulfed in flames. The smell of burning acrylic filled the air, and the flames licked up to the ceiling.
Cursing, he ran to the kitchen and got the fire extinguisher that Deb had kept secured in the pantry, but when he depressed the button he found there was no pressure left in it. Damn thing must be twenty-five years old. It was too late for the house, too late to try to save anything. He was amazed at the heat and speed of the flames, climbing stealthily up the sides of the walls, up the curtains like vines. The fire made pops and crashes behind him as he ran out of the house.
He sat out in the cab for a while, watching the fire digest the life he had known, picking up speed as it went. Gone were Deb’s photo albums, stacked in the bottom drawer of the living room curio, which she’d always said she would run into a fire to save. Gone was everything he had to remember Deb by, or Breeze for that matter. He watched the fire lick its hot tongue out the kitchen window, watched the south half of the roof cave in.
After a while he couldn’t watch anymore, and he turned the rig up the driveway.
Life takes everything from you in the end, Fire thought as he wound the rig down the range, head pounding, mauve-colored early morning glow coming through the spruce trees. Fate hands you impossible gifts, then snatches them from your hands, and it was all the more cruel that you’d had them once, and now didn’t. He imagined the little tourist train, if it had still been running, passing by the smoldering embers where the house used to be, the earth stove still standing in what had been the living room. He thought about Breeze, running alongside that train, Deb on the porch laughing.
He eyed the dark tree line all the way down the mountain, telling himself he was watching for deer but all the while expecting to see Breeze, waiting for him by the side of the road. He’d pick her up if he saw her, he thought, take her with him. He thought of the two of them, singing along to the radio, watching the country open up before them, sleeping in the little cot in the sleeper cab, in motels. As the glow of the sun came shining through his cab windows it started to seem that that could work for them, that the two of them could build that kind of life.
But he didn’t see her, and he never did again, although he returned many times to look.
Beth Meko is originally from north central West Virginia and currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she is a grant writer and university lecturer. Her short fiction has appeared in the 2021 Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Longleaf Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wilderness House Literary Review.