66 • Campfire
Will jumped in his chair and looked at Joe.
Joe felt his own face and wore an expression of mock horror. “Am I a ghost? Am I really here?”
“Cut it out.” Will looked into his coffee.
“Easy there.” Joe chuckled. “Somebody was a little lost in his thoughts.”
“Yeah, I guess I was.”
“So, is it true? Are you afraid of a little story?”
“Not of a little story, no.”
“Perhaps you should be.”
“Sure. Many a man has been undone by a little story.” Joe sipped from his cup.
“So then, all the more reason not to tell it.”
“Oh, I don’t think I said anything of the kind. The thing people don’t always want to realize is that stories have great power whether they get told or not. Those men I mentioned? I was thinking they were brought to ruin by their failure to tell the story. People do fret so much about the stories like the monster that ate New York City. But they forget it’s possible for a man to be eaten alive from the inside out.”
“Yeah, yeah. Turn the spotlight on old Will’s demons, Joe. The oh-so-scary monsters within.”
“I need remind you of nothing at all. You are fully aware of your own man-eating monster. Or monsters. All day long. You just find it convenient to blame me for bringing it up. And if that helps you get to the point of telling the story, then sure. I’m happy to keep letting you play target practice with my head.” Joe wadded up his napkin and balanced it on the top of his head with a mischievous grin.
“It might be easier if you didn’t find so much amusement in it, you know.” Will didn’t try to conceal the annoyance in his voice.
“Oh, Will. It isn’t amusement so much. What I most enjoy is seeing you win this argument with yourself. You could have gone to the truck a half hour ago when Christina left. Joe rocked his cup softly back and forth against the table with the beat of the Mumford song playing in the background. “You are the one who wants to tell the story. I don’t need to hear it. I have many books with many stories that I could read if I just wanted a story.”
“Speaking of going to the truck, we should go. I have a desk teeming with actual casework I need to do.”
Joe stood and threw back the last of his coffee in a single gulp and motioned with a thumb toward the door. “Ready when you are.”
Will reached for Joe’s cup and dropped both in the trash as he went by on his way to the door. Joe followed close behind.
“You can finish the story you were remembering on the drive.”
“Is it not apparent what happened next?” Will glanced at Joe over his shoulder.
“Painfully so, in the mechanics, at least.” Joe passed through the door as Will held it open with his foot. “A little gasoline, a little gunpowder, a little match, that’s all quite apparent.”
“Then you don’t need me to say more.” Will rubbed his arm.
“No, I don’t. We already decided I don’t need any of it, remember?” Joe stopped on the sidewalk beside the truck and put his hands in his pockets. “The question is what story do you need to tell, in order to give notice to that thing with fangs that keeps chewing through your insides.”
Will held Joe’s gaze for a moment. He spoke softly. “I should have told you to keep the thermos.” He shook his head and walked to the cab to get in.
Joe stood his ground on the sidewalk until he heard Will’s door slam shut behind him. “You’re getting very close,” he whispered, and erased the smile from his face before he turned and climbed into the pickup.
By the time Will turned into the gravel driveway behind Pearl’s house, the two men had not spoken a word during the hour and a half trip from Fergus. He put the truck in park but left it running. Joe opened his door.
“You are not coming in?”
“Going back to the office.” Will patted his briefcase, laying on the seat between them.
“Ah. Very well then.” Joe slid off the seat onto his feet outside the cab. “I’ll see what my little sweetie pie is up to then.”
Will watched Joe ease himself up the back steps of Pearl’s porch. At the top, Joe turned back with a kind smile and waved. Will couldn’t help but smile back, shaking his head in mild bemusement at the way Joe, even at his most incisive — and persistent — could still be so disarming.
He was looking over his shoulder to back out into the alley when Pearl opened the back screen door to let Joe in and so didn’t see the way she blushed when he leaned in to give her a light peck on the cheek.
Will drove down Main Street, slowing as he passed Cameron’s office. He scanned the large plate glass windows from his side of the street, hoping she would happen to be in the lobby so he could catch a glimpse of her. She did not happen to be, of course, and he drove on, chiding himself for spooking around at the same time as he wondered what he’d have done if she would have been out front in the lobby and seen him gaping from his cab.
Would he park and go inside to say hello? Or would he accelerate even harder, nearly mowing down Mrs. Bilger, who was now shuffling through the crosswalk in front of him, tugging her pull cart full of grocery sacks behind her. He rolled to a stop and waved. Mrs. Bilger stopped in the middle of the road to sling her oversized handbag back over her slumped shoulder before giving Will a wide, partly toothless grin and waving back.
A horn sounded behind him. Startled, Will realized Mrs. Bilger was already on the sidewalk and he pulled ahead.
Back at the office, he stumbled over Mad Dog’s boots as he came in the door. They left fresh imprints of soot on the carpet and the smoky smell hit his nostrils. “Damn it, Mike. Why can’t you leave your work boots outside so they don’t make a mess and smell the place up in here?”
“Good afternoon to you, too, Willie.” Mad Dog stuck his head out of Will’s office. “Lady told me this morning while I was looking at her garage — well, what was left of her garage, anyway — and she was all weepy and sniffly, you know, and she said ‘I used to love the smell of campfire.’ How do you like that?”
“On a different day I might say it sounded downright poignant.”
“You’re in another fine mood, I see.” Mad Dog padded across the hall in his stocking feet. “Well, I still love the smell of campfire.”
“I never did.”
“Really never? Not even a single happy weiner-roast memory?”
“Really never. I only smelled campfire as a kid one time, actually. Went on a class camping trip with my 5th grade teacher.” Will went into his office and dropped his briefcase on the chair and straightened the stapler and tablet Mad Dog had rearranged. “Out in the god-forsaken woods somewhere. We had nothing to do all day, then sat up all night after some clown scared the shit out of us with ghost stories. I sat by the fire freezing my ass off because it was too cold to sleep in my tent. And I wondered why people with warm houses would ever go to so much trouble to spend the night like homeless people just for fun.”
“Always great to have you in the office, Sgt. Killjoy.”
“Seriously. People think about romantic nights under the stars or fishing with their dads or even just toasting marshmallows around the fire. I only remember the feeling of freezing cold and no sleep and a whimpering tent-mate who was homesick an hour after we got off the bus. And now I can’t even think of any of those things as pleasant by comparison.”
“How do you do this job? It’s kind of campfire-y half the time.”
Will snapped his laptop open with more force than was needed, and caught it before it tipped over on his desk. “Because I’m a goddamn grown up, Mike. Sometimes you just have to do things no matter what happened when you were 12.”
Mad Dog snickered. “You were kind of an old 5th grader.”
“Shut up, Mike.”
Mad Dog made a mock saluting gesture and turned back to his own desk.
Will dialed into his voicemail and let the messages play back without his awareness as his mind drifted to Barbara and all the Friday nights she’d beg him to take her to the bonfire at Theresa Lynn’s farm, knowing full well his aversion to campfire smell had little to do with sitting out in the cold in his Batman pajamas when he was 12. He rolled his neck as he felt her tease the curl behind his ear.
She leaned in and crooned. “Sometimes you just have to do things.”
(to be continued)