True Believer

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: Mary Ellen Lives

Stacy Carlson sped down Highway 221 holding tight to the wheel of his VW Beetle. Gusts of wind buffeted the little car, threatening to push Stacey over the yellow line and into oncoming traffic. The emergency scanner that reclined in the passenger seat beside him cackled; the Coronaca volunteer fire department was being dispatched.

They were the fourth station to be called out. That made this a big story. It was sure to run on the front page of the Madden’s Examiner. Maybe it would even get picked up by one of the larger newspapers –The State out of Columbia, or the Charleston Courier and Dispatch. But just as Stacy thought of that esteemed publication, Flyme Willis thundered by, passing on the left. The hulking Ford 150 pick-up created a zephyr that nearly pushed Stacy’s Bug off the road.

“Damn.” Stacy floored the gas pedal, winding out the engine. He gained no ground on Willis’ more powerful vehicle, careening up the next hill, blinkers flashing. Willis would once again beat him to the scene.

Stacy wished Flyme would stay home and stop scooping him. It wasn’t fair. Flyme had connections from thirty years of reporting, not to mention being a generational South Carolinian. His family boasted two prominent branches, one in Charleston that went back to the seventeenth century, and one nearly as old that settled here in the upstate. Officially retired from the Examiner, Flyme had parleyed family connections into a part-time stringer job for the Dispatch. He showed up everywhere, with his big truck and his big head of wavy white hair. He always greeted Stacy the same way. “Hey, Ichabod,” Flyme would say, blue eyes alight with humor. “Where you been?”

He gave Stacy the nickname at their first meeting. It reflected his lean frame, tall stature, gold-rimmed spectacles, and short blond hair that stood up in spiky tufts without the aid of styling products. Never having read the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, Stacy wasn’t sure if he should be pleased by the nickname or insulted. He toyed with dispensing a comparable moniker on the veteran reporter. Humpty Dumpty, Peter Pumpkin Eater, Methuselah – all had been considered and rejected. “What can you do when the man’s first name is Flyme?” Stacy muttered to himself. Ahead, the pick-up rounded a curve, disappearing out of sight.

Stacy let up on the gas. He might as well enjoy the ride. It was usually beautiful country, this piedmont. Low hills covered with Carolina pine, furrowed acres of corn and hay. This summer however, with temperatures near one hundred and no rain for weeks, the pines were brown with an infestation of beetles. The insects attacked the drought stricken trees that were too weak to fend them off. Likewise, it had been a bad year for crops. The Farmers Market on the square was set to close early for lack of produce to sell. The corn had been cut down, and only the desiccated stubble remained. Hay fields were hit hard. The cattlemen were already feeding winter fodder.

Stacy had written a whole feature story on the drought and its effect on the community, a human interest piece full of quotes from farmers facing foreclosure and homeowners whose wells had run dry. It was poignant as well as topical. He had visions of it getting picked up by the AP and spread to papers across the country. It could even have hit the internet, gone viral.

His editor pared it down to nothing to free up advertising space. The story came off maudlin and hackneyed with unattributed quotes taken out of context. Stacy saw the chop job as lack of respect. He didn’t have the pedigree of the Flyme Willises. Stacy wasn’t from here. He was a Yankee. A refugee from Michigan winters. If a story needed to be cut, it would be his.

The property on fire was a mobile home on the lake and the fact that crews from multiple fire stations had been dispatched along with an ambulance held out promise of a good story. Maybe more than one. Stacy caught his breath as he began to think series. His usual beat reporting on the court didn’t lend itself to follow-ups. Most were cases of meth dealers or petty robbers, motorcycle thieves. They usually pled guilty. In his three years reporting for the Maddens Examiner there had only been two murders: the shooting of a bartender at the VFW, and a vehicular homicide involving an abused wife who ran over her belligerent husband. The jury deliberated for all of an hour before finding the young man guilty of murder in the second. The abused woman ended up copping to involuntary manslaughter. She received a suspended sentence. Stacy tried to do a sequel on that one, but was stymied when the victim/perpetrator refused his calls.

He didn’t have to look at his GPS to know he was getting close to the blaze. Stacy could smell it before he saw the smoke. The air stank of odoriferous plastics, like Tupperware melted in a microwave. Mixed with that was a tarry stench and metallic tang.

He turned off the highway onto a narrow shoreline road. Across from the small cottages and trailers that occupied a sheltered cove was a forest of dried pine and scrub oak. The wind was blowing in off the lake toward the woodland. The danger was clear. Stacy took note of one woman standing by her mailbox. Cigarette dangling from her lips, garden hose in hand, she scanned the treetops opposite with a worried expression. The rest of the cove seemed deserted, devoid of its residents. When Stacy pulled in behind Flyme’s pick-up he saw why. The drought had sucked water from the lake, exposing mud flats and sandbars that were normally submerged. The vacation homes were useless.

“Hey, Ichabod, where you been?” Flyme approached from around the Coronacre pumper truck. He was mopping his forehead with a handkerchief, his Lions Club golf shirt limp and stained with perspiration. “The fun’s nearly over.”

He jerked his thumb at the ladder truck a few yards up. Its crew was retracting the hose. The Coronacre pumper truck was spraying water onto the shoulder closest to the woods, while an ambulance angled around the other two fire trucks idling in the roadway. All warning lights were turned off. Stacy waved at the paramedics to stop. They waved back but continued up the street.

“Nothing there anyway,” Flyme said. “No one was hurt, though the trailer is a complete loss, as you might expect. It went up like lint.”

Stacy grabbed a fanny pack off the floor on the passenger side of his car. He slung the pack over his shoulder. The digital camera and tape recorder inside bounced against his rib cage.

He followed Flyme around the fire trucks, motors rumbling, toward a smoldering pile of twisted metal and charred wood. The walls were gone. The blackened rectangle of a refrigerator teetered against mangled metal bed springs. Though the back porch steps were incongruously untouched by flame or smoke, they led only to ashes. Portions of the roof shingles covered the lawn, and bits of paper took wing in the wind, settling on thorny vines and bastard pines. One of the fire crews was drenching the empty carport next door.

“What happened?” Stacy asked Flyme.

“Idiot was burning and, of course, it got away from him. A red flag warning against having fires has been out for two weeks, but does he care? Not a bit. Now he’s burned down his neighbors’ single wide.”

Flyme turned to face the four fire trucks parked along the roadway. “Oh well, the boys had a good time putting it out. Took enough of them to do it. Thank God it wasn’t a double wide.” He chuckled without opening his mouth, the rumble coming from deep in his chest.

Stacy looked around but could not tell where the original fire pit had been, so much of the terrain was scorched. “What was he burning? Driftwood? No leaves down yet.”

Flyme swiped the rag over his face. “Books,” he said.

“Books?” Stacy removed his glasses. Wiping them on the hem of his t-shirt, he thought of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, of Harry Potter, of the Koran – books that had been deemed immoral or sacrilegious, and so set aflame. “What kind of books?”

Flyme bent down, his belly leading the way to the ground, and picked up one of the sheets of paper flying about. He handed it to Stacy. Stacy put his glasses on and scanned the page: capital letters, small case letters, numbers, lines.  “A schematic? He’s burning electrical manuals?”

Flyme Willis shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe he flunked a test.”

“Where is he?”

Flyme jerked his thumb again, this time in the direction of the smudged carport that still dripped water from the ridged overhang. A man stood underneath, watching the last of the fire trucks get ready to depart. He had a sculpted profile, though strings of sweaty graying black hair plastered his high forehead. Stacy figured his height, weight, and age as if giving a police report. Six foot, one seventy-five, Stacy stumbled on the last. This guy could have been forty, sixty, or anything in between. His eyes were deep set, like an older man, but the flesh was tight on the bones of his face. He stood casual, hands in trouser pockets, apparently unconcerned by either the puddle he was standing in or the destruction he had caused.

“Have you talked with him?” Stacy asked.

“Tried to. He’s a crack pot.” Flyme took a little spiral notebook from his pant pocket and flipped it open.  “Wouldn’t even give me his name. I’ll get it from the chief, though. We go way back.”

Flyme Willis stowed the notebook and the handkerchief in his pockets and turned to leave. “Won’t take me more than an hour to e-mail this off to the Courier. Stop by the house later. I’ll give you what I got.”

Stacy had fallen for that invitation before. He knew that Flyme would give advice, pour whiskey, show off pictures of his late wife. But the old reporter would offer up nothing that would flesh out an article.

Flyme walked back to his pick-up. The remaining firemen waved to him as they boarded their truck. Flyme Willis saluted. They’re probably fellow Masons, Stacy thought. They probably belong to the same Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. Hell, they’re probably all related.

He sighed. There was no big story here. Just a redneck burning out-of-date technical manuals on a windy day. Still it had created a stir, causing four units to respond. That alone could make it front page material. Especially if Stacy could find an angle to distinguish it. He unzipped the fanny pack and withdrew the hand held tape recorder. He sauntered over to the carport.

“Heck of a barbeque you had here.” Stacy showed him the recorder. “Mind if I ask you a couple questions? I’m from the Maddens Examiner.”

The man’s dark eyes swept over Stacy’s face, then went to the sky. “Ain’t got nothing to say.”

Stacy pressed the button to record. “You started the fire, didn’t you?”

“’Spose I did.” He worked his mouth crewing the inside of his lip.

“Why were you burning those books in the first place?”

“Devil’s diagrams.” Staring upward, the man raised his voice. “‘Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together and burned them before all men. So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.’” The alleged arsonist fixed his gaze on Stacy. “Book of Acts, chapter nineteen.”

The man nodded at the smoking heap that had once been his neighbor’s vacation home. “I may have started the fire,” he said, “but God burned the trailer down.”

Stacy smiled. He could see the headline now

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