I started visiting Copeland after his parents had died. I guess we were always friends, it just always felt more like we both orbited a similar group of people but always remained on opposite hemispheres from each other. I wish I could say that I did it out of an act of empathy or to be there for a person who probably could use some company. The reality of it is though, I felt obligated. I mean, I was the one who had come across the accident.
The smell is what sticks with me the most. The bouquet of gasoline, rubber, and plastic, with a hint of meat all fueling the same fire was actually kind of pleasant on its own. It was only when it was paired with the violent, and most likely, excruciating deaths of two people, who were probably decades away from a more natural end that makes it a scent that haunted me. There was nothing I could have done, I’m sure of that, that is why that specific part of the night only stole a few nights of sleep from me.
Copeland only nodded when I warned him that I planned on visiting him sometime after the funeral. I don’t think he took me seriously though. He had been hearing similar pleasantries all day: Dozens had promised to offer up anything if he needed it, favors owed to his parents were now his to cash in, there wasn’t a door that wasn’t open to him, and he’d never have to buy his own coffee again if he could time out his visits right.
The first time I drove up to his house I thought about all those people who had promised him companionship and figured I could’ve just driven past and deep into the ranks of one of those unfulfilled claims. Copeland wouldn’t have held it against me, he always seemed to be the type who didn’t put much stock in words shared when it came to qualifying friendships. He was probably the smartest satellite of our group, I’m wasn’t sure what I was, and he had to understand that the things spoken in grief were rarely for the recipient. He had to.
I kept my promise and pulled into the gravel driveway that led to his country home. I had been there a handful of times before, and was surprised to see that nothing had changed as my headlights scanned past the property. I’m not sure what I expected, it hadn’t been that long since his parents died, I just figured that the ripping out of a pair of lives from a land would have some sort of physical effect. The same two story home was still there. The big shed that stored all of Copeland’s parents various hobbies peeked out from behind it. The perspective gave the impression that it was connected to the back of the house and not separated by a lawn. I pulled in behind Copeland’s truck and stepped out, that’s when the smell of fire once again touched my nose.
It wasn’t the same type of fire scent as before, it was drenched in dirt and woody touches. That didn’t stop my heart from leaping up past my throat and lodging itself between my eyes and brain when I saw a plume of smoke back lit by the glow of the night sky. The swirling pillar was emerging from somewhere in between the house and the shed, or it could’ve been coming from either of the buildings, it was difficult to tell. I called out to Copeland, trying my best to find a tone somewhere between friendly and concerned, that way I was covered regardless of what I found. I stopped and winced when I realized that I was starting to imagining what it would be like to find Copeland immolated.
My imagination was something that I wanted to get a handle on for a long time. The scenes of Copeland’s possible demise weren’t the first gruesome event that has played across my mind. There was a math teacher’s unfortunate run-in with a faulty chalkboard and a starting quarterback’s slow stroll into the front of a speeding semi-truck just to name a couple. I often wondered if these things came to me because I had been spared from ever seeing anything like it. Even with Copeland’s parents I had been shielded from the horrific details by the heat from the same force that was consuming them.
When I rounded the corner I saw my friend, very much alive, dragging a dead tree limb across the yard to a firepit. Inside the iron circle a decent sized fire was burning waist high. Copeland stopped when he saw me, he didn’t do anything at first, but did eventually greet me with a small upward nod of his head. I responded with a slow raise of my right hand. An injury suffered during a brief stint on my high school football team kept me from extending all my fingers in a traditional wave. My index finger, middle finger, and thumb were all I could really do at that angle. Ophelia had always called it my ‘lazy wave’. I hoped it was enough.
Copeland began breaking some of the smaller sticks from the bigger branch and tossed them into the flames. Some of them still had full flourishes of dead leaves on them. The fire ate those up and spat the undesirables out, glowing and floating. The embers went high into the air where they were soon lost among a swarm of Asian beetles that had descended on our town that Autumn. The insects’ orange, spotted bodies camouflaged them in the living light so well it was impossible to tell what was birthed from the flames and what had simply come to admire it.
There were still no words from Copeland. He sat down on a wooden Adirondack chair. He pointed towards a folded up lawn seat leaning against the vinyl siding of his house. I walked over and grabbed it, I wasn’t sure where to unfold it. I first set the chair up next to him, but before I sat down I slid it away a couple of feet. I took a look at the fire then back at Copeland and cut the difference between the new spot and the old one.
I had a feeling that he knew why I had come, or at least the realm where that reason lived. I began to doubt my previous belief that all others would flake on their promises and that I wasn’t the only one to see him. Which I figured wasn’t such a bad thing although I couldn’t deny that if that was the case, it had taken some of the wind out of my sails.
Copeland crossed one leg over his knee and put his hands behind his head. He didn’t turn to look at me, his eyes were preoccupied with the flames. At least, that’s what I guessed, my own sight had become transfixed on the fire as well. I was looking towards the bottom, where the surface of the wood had shed its rough covering of bark and had grew a skin of white cubes, backlit by an orange combustion deep inside.
“Still seeing Ophelia?”
“No, we broke up.”
“When did that happen?”
“Not too long ago.”
“Too bad, I liked her.”
“Me too. I didn’t realize you guys really knew each other.”
“A little I guess, just from when you were around.”
Realizing that we were becoming older than I, at least, thought made me smile as I drove away. We didn’t make plans, but the lack of a strict request not to come back suggested an open invitation. We didn’t say goodbye either,
“Well, I should, I guess.”
“Yep, have a good one.”
It was the same interaction I had heard my own father say and I was sure that I had heard Copeland’s as well. He might’ve even said the same thing as the first waves of heat touched his wife’s dark hair, sending a small flicker from the tip of the strands to her scalp.
The next time I stopped to see Copeland, the day’s light had only just begun to reveal the hidden purples and crimson’s of the sky. I could smell the smoke a mile down the road as the high winds pushed it towards me. I didn’t expect him to be having another fire. Yet, when I pulled in and stepped out of my car, there he was. He was still in his chair with the one I had used next to him. Had he been wearing the same hooded sweatshirt as he had been the last time I could’ve believed he had never left. He just kept sitting there finding new things to throw into the blaze, maybe until there was nothing left. No house, no woods, nothing across the world to burn.
Like the time before we didn’t say anything at first. I just took a seat next to him and joined him in his trance. The fire whipped and snapped with the gusts sending sparks out into the yard to lie with the dead leaves and yellowed grass. Copeland didn’t seem troubled by the idea of his fire’s children creating blazes of their own, so I tried to keep it from my mind as well. Each time the wind really picked up I could see the coals more clearly than I did during my last visit. The orange glow was more powerful, overtaking the white ash that laid on top and I could see small flecks of would disintegrating into smoke.
Copeland said something then, but I didn’t catch it at first.
“Did you go back to school?”
“Uh, yeah I did another semester but then the money ran out again.”
“I know the feeling.”
“I’ll finish eventually.”
“Good, hope it works out for you.”
“Hey, can I ask you something?”
“Do you know what-”
“-I mean, what do you plan on doing with this place?”
“I figured I’d just keep it, stay here.”
The sun dipped behind the garage and I lost sight of the small curls of burning wood I had been watching before. I waited for the wind to pick up again but it died down with the coming of the night. I turned my head around and looked at the house behind us. The fire reflected off the windows, the warped glass bent the flames and made them seem plump, as if they were pregnant or had recently gorged themselves.
I thought about what it would’ve been like to have come across the house burning, rather than Copeland’s parents car. I would’ve seen the same vanishing bits of fuel: photo albums, old boxes of spaghetti noodles, furniture, the boxes of stuff set aside for a rummage sale. Maybe Copeland himself would’ve been consumed in that one. Then there’d be no one to start the small replicas and no one to eventually inform about the details that didn’t really matter.
It took me a couple of weeks before I returned to Copeland’s home. A light snow had teased the coming of winter. The sign outside the fire station was changed to green, to inform everyone that there was no danger of a forest fire. A heat wave shortly after turned the fallen flakes to puddles and wet grass. Not long after that the sun returned the earth to a dry state and the sign was once again replaced to a red one.
I had decided that I would tell Copeland everything that I had saw the night of his parents accident. I was sure that he had been told a general description of the event, but I couldn’t believe that he had been informed of everything. No one had told him about how it was impossible to come more than ten feet away from the wreckage without then sharing in the injuries. Or, the way the smoke could be seen against the sky even though it was blacker than the night had ever been. No one had told him about the smell.
He had a right to know. The sensations that were keeping me awake on a few nights here and there didn’t belong to me. They were his and I was being greedy in keeping them. He had told me he intended to stay, but he was never going to find solace in that house. He might be able to read most of the story of the lives he had watched since he was born, on the walls. The ending would escape him though, because it didn’t live there. The conclusion was somewhere in between what was left of the scorch marks and melted pavement on a road miles away from that house, that garage, that little fire pit.
There was no stench of smoke on the air, and the sky was clear as I approached. I wondered if Copeland had decided to stop the burning and leave some of the land around him intact. Maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t dead set on turning it all into ash. I thought that Copeland had come to the reasonable conclusion that if he was so inclined to remain in our town, on that patch of land, he wouldn’t want to do so, surrounded by charred remains and clear cut fields whose flowers had been dried and used for kindling.
I turned my radio down and rolled the window down as I drove down the driveway. My car moved so slow I could hear each stone trapped underneath my tires crack and bury themselves further into the ground. I kept my ear open for the sound of a fire, something to alert me to the possibility that my hopes were in vain. A signal to tell me that my friend had fallen into the clutches of obsession and ripped from acceptance.
When the fire pit came into view, I saw Copeland hunched down next to it. He was balling up sheets of newspaper and packing them together in the center of the blackened circle. He grabbed a few small pieces of wood from a little pile next to him and placed them on top of the paper. He rubbed his fingers together and frowned. His hand dove deep into his pocket and he fished around a little before pulling an orange lighter out. He paused his well-practiced routine to wave at me when he noticed my arrival.
A deep sigh escaped my chest when I saw the first violent flash of flame appear when Copeland pressed the small light from the lighter to the paper. I stepped out of the car and sauntered over with my hands in my jacket’s pockets. I stood close to the newborn combustion as it grew. It struggled at first, trying to grow up past a small layer of moisture leftover from the night before’s rain. Copeland refused to let it die early though, he added more paper then more small pieces of wood until the fire could stand on its own legs. Then he added two large logs that almost extinguished it outright, but the flames were determined to be everything they could be and soon began to consume the bigger pieces of fuel as well. Only then did Copeland decide it was okay to sit.
“Are you okay?”
“Huh? Yeah, why?”
“Just seems like something is bothering you.”
“No, I mean, I guess. I’m worried about you actually.”
“The fires. I think you might be obsessed.”
“I mean, you’ve been having a lot of fires lately. I don’t think you’re coping with what happened to your parents.”
“Have you ever thought that maybe this is how I’m coping. I’m fine, trust me. I didn’t have a fire for the last five days. And before that the last two were the ones you were here for.”
I didn’t believe him. He was deflecting. Refusing to accept the tragedy that had befallen him and just move on like nothing had changed. All he was doing was diverting the attention his pain deserved and poured it into the goddamn fires. He was basking in the heat, the light, the smell, washing away everything that had come before like some sort of fucked up baptism. He had found something violent and hot to distract him from it all. I felt sorry for him, wanted to grab him and tell him he had to leave, he was never going to be healthy if he lingered around. Everywhere he went he’d see reminders of his parents and everything he knew and everything he imagined about them, their lives, and their deaths would return. He’d be trapped and chained by the fact that he never had a chance to change things, it was inevitable in same way that chaos was.
I no longer wanted to tell him about what I had witnessed the night his parents burned. If he was so determined to exist in a smokescreen I wasn’t going to pull him out. At least not that day.
“Are you okay?”
“Ophelia stopped by the other day.”
“What did she want?”
“She just wanted to talk. We ended up talking about you. She said you had been acting pretty strange for a while, that’s why-”
Two nights later I couldn’t sleep. The events of the night Copeland’s parents died were stuck on repeat in my head. Yet, the fire was nowhere to be found in that dreamscape. Instead, I watched as two red lights drove away. I followed them, not in my own car, but on foot. If I could catch her under the power of my own legs I’d have earned an explanation. I have no idea how close I was when the banshees’ filled the night air with their screeches bringing the brimstone stench of their home with them.
When the morning came I dressed myself and hurried outside. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say to Copeland so early, but I was sure he’d be outside enjoying either the remaining heat of the previous night’s fire or a brand new one. I’d find the words then.
As I drew closer I found it hard to see the road in front of me. A haze had come over the land and for a moment I was terrified that Copeland had gone too far and started the inferno that would engulf it all.
I realized soon after that it was just the remnants of a morning fog and I drove past Copeland’s house and out towards the outskirts of the county.