The fires began taking a toll on our family the summer after we said our vows and moved into the new house. Bill and I struggled through it, along with the dog. The baby didn’t seem to notice. Caroline was 14. I wished she had started smoking instead.
It began with candles in restaurants. A few years back, when Caroline’s face was still round and I was a widow and she was an only child. (By 14 she looked like a tiny woman, stretched and severe around the cheeks and mouth.) Bill and I were engaged then and we often went out to eat, at what Caroline referred to as “fancy places,” places that put candles on the table for romantic effect. She’d seen candles before of course; it was only after Bill came into the picture that they became “fancy.” Caroline liked to play with the wax when we brought her along. She dipped her fingertips into the hot liquid and pulled them out with quick-drying molds on top, like little army helmets. She would make a mess of the tablecloth. Stare into the flames. The candles would go out. She couldn’t leave them alone. Each time, Caroline begged the wait staff to come back and touch the wick with a long lighter like a wand and start it burning again. Bill may have cringed on the inside, but he pretended it was cute at the table.
Caroline had always owned a lighter. A squeaky flip-top, stained dark with old soot that created bits of rainbow on the brass when she held it up to study in the light of the kitchen. The lighter belonged to her father and his father or maybe an uncle before that. Caroline knew the mythology. It had been handed down to her, like the lighter, before he died. I didn’t remember anything exactly. I was just glad the flint had rusted. Once when I took her matches—I was always taking her matches, not that it ever helped, but for the record—Caroline reminded me that the lighter could be resurrected with just a bit of tinkering. That was the word she used, “resurrected.”
The year of our wedding, Caroline’s room was filled with scented candles in glass jars and sticks of burning incense. She had turned her small bedroom into a cathedral. The perfumed smoke slowly stained the border around her ceiling: a line of dancing ponies turned gray. I stayed out, claiming allergies. Caroline lit more candles. Is there an allergy strong enough to explain avoiding your child? I did not research it. I had the baby to tend. Caroline had her fires.
Summer is the season when I notice things happening to my body. Bites, bruises, ingrown hairs, fungal infections due to sweat. My body tends to stay hidden during winter. I like it when things stay hidden. I groom myself with care. I remove old pictures from albums. There are many things I am happy to forget, or never know.
It was not long into the summer, with Caroline’s fires popping up like bright weeds that dotted our life, when my toenails began to loosen and fall out. It was as if my insides, starting with my toes, no longer wanted to hide. All summer, I waited for my skin to peel off. It eventually did, but not as spectacularly as I had imagined. It peeled in tiny flakes that left white marks on my feet that looked like waves rolling back out to sea.
Bill was the first to bring up the obvious need for outside help with Caroline. He had suggested it a while back, before the fires, around the time we first started to get serious. He said it was “almost customary.” I avoided the notion.
Life had kept moving after we lost her father. I was afraid for any of us to look over our shoulders. I often used phrases like “fresh start” and “a new life” even though I wasn’t completely sure what they meant. One night, we came home with the baby to find small fires all around the house in glass cereal bowls, like orchids arranged for a brunch. Tiny things were burning everywhere we looked, clumps of lint, string, balls of glossy paper ripped from teen magazines and dipped in cooking oil. The dog was under the sink. We could hear him crying. Caroline couldn’t hear him even though she was also in the kitchen, staring at her dead lighter when we came home. She couldn’t hear anything but music. She had headphones on.
That summer there would be other fires. Fires in trash cans, in small mounds on the driveway, piles of ashes near the cemetery and the school, reported by members of the community association. By mid-July I only had three nails left, not counting the dark one just hanging onto my big toe. I wore slippers wherever I went. The pus and scabbing gave me the idea it was an infection, something caused by pathogens entering a small wound maybe. I had gone on the internet. I didn’t remember having any wounds on my feet though. There was nothing to notice until the nails began to fall off. I wondered if the wound might be located somewhere else, somewhere hidden inside my organs. I didn’t wonder about the pathogen. Pathogens were everywhere. We did not use the grill that Fourth of July or burn sparklers. We went to a Chinese restaurant instead.
By August, the atmosphere had grown very dense. I had trouble breathing. The baby was fine, but I worried he couldn’t breathe either. When we were alone, I often checked his breath with the mirror in my compact. We looked for reasons to leave the house. The walls felt like the sides of a grenade that we were living in. The dog took to staying out too. We created errands for ourselves. It had been a long time since Caroline had wanted to go on errands with me. She was embarrassed to be with her mother. I loved her enough to spare her my presence, but that summer was the first time I felt thankful about it, which hurt in a way I still don’t understand. The baby and I went out each day together, both of us in slippers, and returned in the afternoon just before Bill got home.
Bill was also the first to mention adoption. He said, “I want to talk about adoption.” For an embarrassing second, part of me thought he was talking about giving Caroline away. The situation had gotten so bad that I couldn’t imagine anyone outside her bloodline wanting to be more of a parent to our daughter. “I want to make it official,” he said. “I want to be her dad.”
I told him I would talk to her about it, but I was afraid. I put it off until the idea drifted away like something caught in a light wind.
The garage burned in autumn. The leaves were lit up red and yellow, blowing in the wind all around me as I drove home through the neighborhood. Over the trees was a pillar of black smoke that looked almost as if it belonged in the sky, like it was a landmark of neighborhood geography. I had forgotten whether or not it was legal to burn leaves on your lawn.
The fire trucks were already there when I pulled up. The men said the house was empty and that the fire had been contained to the garage. I found a note from Caroline stuck to the mailbox at the end of the driveway, not on the front door like it would usually be. “At Gina’s,” the note said. I wondered if Gina was even a real person. I knew it didn’t matter.
After the trucks left, I found myself next to Bill in our driveway. He was holding the baby now, although I did not remember handing him over.
Bill held my hand.
“All kids like fire,” I heard myself telling him.
He nodded, though I don’t think he meant to agree.
“It’s somewhat normal,” I said, tracing a heart in the ashes of our garage with my slipper.
“The new normal,” I heard Bill whisper, as if to himself or some god.
I said nothing. My thoughts had already followed Caroline out into the neighborhood and were pulling her back home to start fresh. I imagined us as skeletons laughing about this in a torch-lit tomb someday. I knew Caroline would be upset if her father (“my real dad,” she called him) was not there with us. I would be too.
The dog reappeared and knelt at our side. Bill squeezed my hand and I squeezed his. A warm wind left over from summer rubbed up against us. I was afraid we would ignite. Sometimes all there is to do is squeeze someone’s hand and look forward, I thought, even as I realized a burning need to look back, or inside myself, or just curl up into a ball and die.