61 • Matches
“So, what if the kid started the fire?” Joe broke the silence as they drove down Old Highway 48, a narrow and tattered black ribbon of asphalt that curved and cut its way through flat, empty fields where farmers were just starting to get out in their tractors to disc through the crusty soil and detritus of last year’s corn harvest to begin planting again.
“What if he did?” Will repeated the question, looking off across one of those fields on the left. “Well, then he’ll probably go to jail. Juvie, anyway. Which is really too bad, too. Besides the whole pyromaniac thing, he’s probably a sweet, intelligent kid looking for a means of self-expression.”
“Listen to the pop psychologist-philosopher go.” Joe smiled. “So. Okay. He is all those things and goes to jail. What does it have to do with you?”
“If it’s an intentional fire, of course the insurance company would want to know.”
“But you said before that it didn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t, ” Will said. “I mean, it does. But it doesn’t.”
“And you wonder why nobody understands insurance.”
“No, we never wonder that.” Will smirked. “We know why. It’s like this. It doesn’t matter because unless Justin did it, or was in on it, the insurance company still has to pay out. So in that sense, it doesn’t mater. But if somebody else started it, then the insurance company could go after them to pay them back. So the it does matter.”
“So young Robbie could have one heck of an IOU.”
“He could. Probably won’t though. He’s a minor, so the IOU would be Nina’s. And the state caps parental liability at a couple grand. And Nina doesn’t even have the assets to collect that from. So we’re back to it not mattering. Insurance company isn’t going to want to spend thousands of dollars to collect a couple.”
“That’s good news for Nina, anyway.”
“Yeah, but a guy in an office in a Chicago skyscraper is going to want to paper his file, so he’ll act like it matters, at least for a while.”
“All that to say, why are we going to Fergus, Will? This could all have been handled with a few phone calls, I would think.”
“I told Nina I would come.”
“But Nina is not your client. The insurance company is. There’s no investigative reason for you to go.”
“Nina asked me.”
“Yes. But you could have told her no. This isn’t part of your job.”
“Do I look to you like a guy who says No a lot, Joe?”
Joe chuckled. “Well, now that you mention it, you sort of have me there. No, you don’t.”
“I mean, it wasn’t part of my job to visit you at the hospital or move you to the house with me, either.”
Joe’s grin faded and he shifted in his seat. He stared out the side window as the rows of freshly tilled soil rolled by.
“Joe, I didn’t mean— Look, I’m sorry, man. It’s different, you know?”
“Is it? Seems to be an easy enough explanation for befriending me, too.”
“Except I came to your place uninvited with dinner, once.”
Joe’s head turned slightly. “But you came at first to get your thermos.”
“And, ” Will grew animated in his efforts to convince Joe he was not another case of not saying No. “And I invited you to Pearl’s matchmaker dinner party. You didn’t even know anything about that. It was all on my own.”
“True, ” Joe said softly. “You didn’t say No to coming to the hospital though.”
“”How could I? And you’ve never even given me a chance to say No about you calling me your son.”
“Perhaps I sensed that would be the bright line for you, the thing you would finally have the courage to refuse.” Joe relaxed in his seat and turned toward Will. “Would you have said No to that?”
“To posing as your son?” Will raised his eyebrows. “Of course I would have said No. But you’ve still not given me a chance to.”
“I don’t plan to, either.” Joe smiled, as though only to himself. “At least not for now.”
“Later?” Will asked. “I can say No later?”
“We’ll see. You need more time, more information to make an informed response.”
“I see. I’m not your son, Joe.”
“Of course you’re not. That’s why I won’t ask you to say Yes or No yet. You need more time.”
“Right. Just last night you were not giving me a chance to say No to being Pearl’s father. Just how much more time and information do you think I need? Or how many more family members do I need to masquerade as before you think I am ready to give an answer?”
Will took a deep breath, wanting to be careful not to speak so carelessly again. Even if these things were true, surely he could find a way to express them that wouldn’t poke into Joe’s tender spots. He knew this, Joe was his friend. Even if he made himself an exasperating one. And he knew that he was traveling to meet Nina at the police station in Fergus not because he counted himself her friend, but because he truly was incapable of saying No at key moments. Joe was riding with him because he wanted the company. And he was living in his house and sharing meals with Pearl and getting away with telling people he was his son and probing into his psyche with seeming immunity because he was his friend. Not a customer, not an assignment, but a friend.
“I’m not sure how much time you need, Will, ” Joe said. “But it’ll be a little longer at least.”
“A little longer.” Will shook his head. “Okay. I’ll be anxiously waiting over here.”
“No need to be anxious. You will know when it’s time, even if I don’t.”
“Meanwhile, tell me about Nina and Robbie. Why are we going to Fergus?”
“I told you already. Nina asked and I can’t say No.”
“It’s more than that, Will.”
Will felt heat travel from his wrist to his elbow as though hot water had just been injected into a vein. He rolled his shoulder inside his jacket.
“You do that every time I say her name. Have you noticed?”
“I writhe? Of course. I writhe every time you say Nina’s name.”
“I do not.”
“It’s true. I ask about Nina or her fire and your whole body reacts.”
Will’s shoulder went up toward his ear and he froze. “That is not true.” He eased his shoulder down, mentally ordering each muscle in his upper body to relax, one at a time.
“Okay, ” Joe chuckled. “As you wish. It’s not true then.”
Will clenched his jaw shut, resisting the urge to answer.
“So let’s talk about Robbie.”
“That’s his name, right? If there’s nothing special about Nina, let’s talk about Robbie instead. Did he start the fire?”
“Did he start it? I have no idea. The fire marshal chalked it up to an unspecified cause.”
“Well, that could mean anything.”
“Yes, that’s what I gathered from unspecified.”
“No, I mean it doesn’t mean the fire was started or not started. Just that there was no obvious cause. So Robbie could have started it.”
“I suppose I could have hired a forensics guy to come in and give me a cause and origin. But a bunch of money later we’d all know exactly what we do right now: the fire started under the deck next to the house. No accelerant, no electrical, no witnesses, no suspects, no nothing. Nina’s cigarette probably wasn’t out when she dropped it and it probably fell into a pile of leaves instead of the can, and that probably ignited the cedar decking and then it’s off you go. Accidental fire. Not much else to say.”
“Makes sense. Could have been a kid with a book of matches the same way though.”
Will pulled his arm tight to his ribcage.
“Not right there on the deck. Kids don’t play with matches where they could get caught.”
Joe turned to look at Will.
“Is that so?”
“Well, ” Will cleared his throat and tapped the GPS. “At least in my experience. I mean, you’ve probably seen way more of these than I have. You ever have a fire from a kid playing with matches right out in front of everybody?”
“A kid who’s never had fire in his hands wouldn’t know the difference. So, he’s fiddling with the matches, gets a flame and it startles him. He drops it, gets afraid he’ll be in trouble, and he runs, not realizing the match is still lit and there’s a leaf pile there, and Boom! There goes the house.”
“I suppose. But Robbie’s pretty old for that. A 12-year-old has lit a few matches, don’t you think?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Did Nina say they think he started Justin’s house on fire?”
“I don’t honestly know what she said. She was pretty upset.”
“I remember this case we had once. Sixteen year old kid was home when the house went up. It was electrical. Totally accidental. They lost everything. The kid was having nightmares and was just absolutely petrified of fire. They said this one time they were at a birthday party for a little cousin and when they lit the candles, he freaked out a little like Frankenstein around a flame, and he ran off and hid for the rest of the afternoon. So his dad wanted to get him over this fear and took him out one day with a box of big wooden kitchen matches and told him to light up.”
Joe shifted to face Will as he told the story, adjusting the shoulder strap away from his neck. “As a matter of course, I really despise most forms of therapy that compel exposure to the very thing that causes distress.” He waved a hand. “Anyway. The kid won’t light them so finally the dad does, to show him how simple it is. He lights a match and holds it up between his thumb and index finger and watches it start to burn down. Then he tosses the box to the kid and tells him to light one before flame burns his fingers. The kid refuses and is starting to cry. The match is burning down farther, getting closer to his dad’s skin. ‘I’m not putting it out until you light one!’ his dad yells.”
Joe raised his voice here, like he was the father. Will’s neck felt hot. “Still, the kid won’t do it so the dad screams, ‘You’re going to get me burned, you little sissy! Light a goddamn match!’ ”
Will couldn’t hold his body back and kept his grip on the wheel while his entire being twisted in the seat. He hoped Joe was enough involved in his story not to notice.
“Well, the kid got it done, ” Joe said. “He fumbled and finally slid the box open but the matches spilled out on the ground. He grabbed one and broke it against the strike pad. It took a couple more but he got one lit while his dad screamed in pain.”
“The dad didn’t blow the match out?” Will was incredulous.
“Not until the kid did it. Third degree burns on his fingertips. Which he blames the kid for to this day for being such a panty waist.”
“And the kid?”
“Well, once he finally got a match stick to light, he was so startled he threw it out of his hand. It landed on the pile of matches he’d spilled and the whole thing went up in one huge poof. The kid was mesmerized.”
“Mesmerized? I’d have thought traumatized.”
“Both, actually. Of course he was traumatized. First by the house fire, then by his father. But he was fascinated with the fire once he’d seen it up close. Ended up starting his garage on fire one day. And turned out before that happened he’d been out behind the garage every day for months, lighting different things on fire to see how quickly they’d go up.”
“Nice going, Dad. At least the kid isn’t afraid of fire anymore.” Will held his body stiff and gazed out the window.
“All that to say, maybe this has nothing to do with Nina’s fire. Maybe the kid took the trauma of their house burning and turned it into his own fascination with trying to control the wildness of the flame.”
“You think he started a different fire?”
“You said you didn’t really understand what Nina said. Maybe the kid started a fire somewhere else.”
“Great. Who’s the pop psychologist now, with a little conspiracy theorist for good measure.”
“You don’t even know the kid started any fire. And that doesn’t make me a conspiracy theorist. People, especially kids, have all kinds of reactions to trauma.”
“You think I don’t know this?” Will unconsciously reached and massaged his forearm.
“Oh, no. I do think you are quite intimately aware.”
(to be continued)