The Bog: conclusion
Shouts, without the ragging note of the boy’s camp, where all the wind was on the first syllable—“Move it!”; “Shee-it, dumbass”—volleyed up, and these pitched opposite, higher.
“Look out!” “Come on!”
Dana shoved himself from the ground. Laurel pushed off the cooler. Above the hilltop a cloud was roiling, lit orange from beneath.
“God,” he said.
Sirens came on.
“Oh!” This was Rachel, emerging from the tent, ripping Velcro. “What’s on fire?”
Now, where the slump’s shadows had been inky, flame pulsed down a flickering movie-reel light, and it was the bog that grew submerged in blue.
“I don’t know what it can be,” Dana murmured. But he began to walk, then jog, down the plank way, making for the road.
“We’d better go,” Laurel said. “I don’t see how we can stay.”
He’d tended to stick to his mother a little, a forty-nine-year-old man reverting in her presence, and with his doubts about Laurel, to dependent apron-stringing. But this had been short-lived. Jeff got over mumbling asides to Rachel and found himself able to chat with his sister-in-law. Even to laugh apologetically when his mother asked, “Did you make this turkey?”
“It came from Mrs. Penfold.”
The news accounts had reminded Harry’s wife, a woman Laurel had met once or twice…years ago…of her existence. Their charity was likely mutual, this perhaps the first holiday of her marriage Mrs. Penfold had garnered an excuse to stop the rituals, cancel the heavy preparations.
Laurel also invited Dana Jenkins and his wife, calling him on the phone, getting her. After sitting down to write a note, she’d realized she didn’t know if the twenty-seven year old dropout was a son or daughter.
“Oh…I’ll have to see…we might stop by…”
“You really don’t have to. I was just figuring the more the merrier.”
Dana came on. “How ’bout Christmas Eve?”
It was amazing how people who might have the dog shaking clouds of dander into the kitchen air…or who might, conversely, cover every surface with a thin coat of Windex—worried about other people’s being clean enough. Laurel had scrubbed everything, dusted, vacuumed; boxed books, junk mail, extra pairs of shoes, research materials, put them away in the garage. She’d bought two pies at the grocery—not for preferring store bought to homemade, even to spare labor—but to calm nerves, to say that she had.
“I didn’t bake these, sorry.”
She’d told Rachel: “Seriously, don’t bring anything.” Rachel brought stuffing, a sweet potato casserole, a big tin of mac and cheese. Jeff’s mother loaded her plate with these, chiefly…maybe…for her daughter-in-law’s sake. But she relaxed into turkey and gravy.
Lit like a sparkler, staggering among the Freelanders, Harry Penfold had found a crony, a man named Bill Krantz, with whom he indulged a violent fantasy.
“I always took it for a game. Whenever he’d go to get drunk, he’d talk like that, how we’d burn ’em out.”
“You mean,” the WRUS reporter asked, “Mr. Duffet?”
“He didn’t say that, any name, no.”
He might have said it. Duffet, eco-warrior, was practiced at evading authority. He lived in a pop-up camper he towed with his truck, up a different back road every night. The tent fabric was printed, and the bed painted, in camouflage; the truck also. The headlights of a passing vehicle might easily miss Duffet’s bivouac. But he’d stalked the bog close, sticking to the same few spots, getting into Jenkins Woods, using night-vision binoculars to spy on his enemies.
The Freelanders circled back.
Bill Krantz said he never knew it was missing.
“I just kept the can in the truck bed. That was for the cook stove.”
Duffet had been working on emails, sheltered in double darkness, his siege mentality requiring he drape a blanket over his head, to shut out the light of the screen. For once in his life, the intruder had come, creeping up in stealth from the trees.
The sound of kerosene glugging from a can is a distinctive one—and to the implication, Duffet awoke in an instant. Harry Penfold, also, though he might not have known this of himself, muttered, going about his work, and when he struck the match, startled himself. He uttered a shriek, then cursed, retreating.
The flames leapt. Duffet was trapped—the danger real—in a cloth-covered enclosure, in a ring of burning kerosene…
But, for this attack (and a variety of others), he was a man long prepared. The blanket was wool. He wrapped himself in it, poured the contents of his canteen over his head, and burst from the tent flap, hitting the ground, rolling over and over, scuttling on his belly into cover, and crouching, waiting, until he heard the sheriff’s deputy say, “Is he in there? I don’t smell anything…you know…”
As far as Duffet knew, and as he explained it—a fresh telling to every concerned inquirer—the woods might have been swarming with Freelanders, waiting to finish the job.
The Freelanders took this indignantly.
“Nobody gave a goddamn about Duffet,” as Krantz put it. “Harry was just fool drunk. But he’s gotta answer for himself.”
“Now, I’ve got something for you.”
She didn’t mind seeing both faces, Rachel’s and Jeff’s, grow dismayed. They were making tentative moves as a family, prompted after all by some outside convergence. The vibes might attenuate and die. They probably would.
“No,” Laurel said. She didn’t need to rise from her chair, only reach behind, to the little painted cabinet under the window. “Maybe you don’t want it. It’s just a kind of souvenir.”
Rachel didn’t sound repelled, or faking it.
She said again: “Jeff, look at this!”
Laurel had gone back, the day after the fire, to dismantle the campsite…and seeing no reason not, had stayed a few hours at the work. This butterfly, pinned and framed for her sister, was not a Frazey’s checkerspot. They were too rare. But it had spent its life. It would not mate again.
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)