Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - After the Fire by Alicia Gifford
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A childhood mistake looms heavy over a man in this excellent character study from author Alicia Gifford.

After the Fire

She's checking Lenny out. He swigs his beer and holds eyes with her in the bar mirror. He smiles and she looks away. Lenny orders another shot of Jack and another Heineken. He watches the gigglers playing pool.

Then she's next to him asking if he ever lived in Bakersfield because he looks just like someone she knew in elementary school. No, he says, but I've been through Bakersfield, an experience I try to forget. She laughs. Lenny offers her a consolation drink for having to go to elementary school there, and she orders a gin and tonic. She drinks, he drinks. They talk about movies, music, politics. She's Republican, God-fearing, pro-life. Lenny's horny.

We should go to my place, Lenny says, his hand, her thigh. She agrees and Lenny pays the bar bill. They sway down Lincoln to their cars; arms wrapped around one another, anticipating—the Santa Monica night air a salted fog. She follows him home in her red BMW to his bungalow on 20th.

Inside he offers her a bong hit and a beer, and she takes him up on both. There's making out, a good erection, more beer, and that's the last Lenny remembers. He wakes up alone next day at noon on the living room floor, his head throbbing and his mouth like it's wadded with dirty socks. His flat screen's gone. He opens his wallet and four hundred bucks, gone.

His DVR, a Bose surround sound system, iPod, laptop, and a bag of weed. Gone.

There's a post-it note on the door. Gracias por todo el pescado.

And he's missed his meeting with Fred Chase about the producer job for a cable show. Lenny closes his eyes and sees his thumbs pressing into that goddamn grifter's throat.

He needs to call Chase and give an excuse—maybe the truth. It's a sympathetic situation.

He checks the four empty beer bottles for drugs but the effort to focus makes him run to the bowl to puke. His head hammers, the room reels. He flops down in bed and sleeps long enough to have one of his fire nightmares.

When he wakes he gropes in his bedside drawer under the hopeful pile of condoms to where he keeps a few joints rolled, lights one up with his Zippo and watches the flame. He calls his friend, Toni, at work and tells her the story. She smothers a laugh.

Go ahead, he says. It's fucking hilarious.

Loser, she says.


You report it?


She laughs out loud now and man, she's got this great laugh. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, she says. He pictures her sprawled across her granite desk in her fancy office, so fucking hot.

Glad you're so amused, he says. How's about a mercy fuck?

He holds the phone from his ear.

Lenny started in the movie biz as a production accountant but he's struck up a working relationship with Fred Chase, a major executive producer in the ever-expanding TV reality show biz, working first as a line producer and then moving on up as a producer for a few short-lived series.

He met Toni a few years ago in a bestiality chat room. Neither was into bestiality, but both were bored and curious to explore the perversities of the internet. They cyber-bonded with their simpatico dark humor and irony, and they arranged to meet.

Lenny, of course, was smitten, because despite his ironic and cynical persona, he was and is a fool for love. That Toni was sixteen years his senior; that she could've been, if not his mother, his babysitter; that she wanted friendship without sex or romance only fueled his heart's loin fires.

So he tells Chase the truth and Chase sympathizes, but he's already given the producer job to someone else. No other producer jobs lined up and no way will he go back to production accounting, but Nick Delmonico has a giant load of pot to distribute.

Lenny was ten the year of the fire. He and his family were at his cousin, Adam's house in Chatsworth for swimming and a barbeque Labor Day weekend, one of those intensely dry blue days with the Santa Ana winds flapping their nylon swim trunks dry as soon as they emerged from the pool. The adults were lit on beer and mai tais and David, Lenny's younger brother, was inside watching Pee Wee's Playhouse videos. Adam and Lenny went to the back behind the garage where the property abutted the brittle, dry scrub of the Santa Susana Mountains. They hiked up a ways on a dry creek bed until they were out of sight. They hunkered down in the shelter of the arroyo while the winds tore around them. Adam had a magnifying glass and a cardboard shoebox, and in the box were some folded newspapers and a big snail. Lenny had a can of charcoal lighter fluid. They wanted to burn a hole in the snail's shell with the magnifying glass. They wanted to see if it would sizzle. They wanted to see if the magnifying glass could ignite the lighter fluid.

The snail sizzled like a motherfucker and the lighter-fluid-soaked newspapers and cardboard box rose up and out of the arroyo like a fiery pterodactyl touching down here, there, here, there, igniting the dead, dry, end-of-summer brush. They ran back to the house hoping that the fierce winds would blow out the flames like birthday candles. Instead, twenty-six homes including Adam's house and sixteen thousand acres burnt, and two firemen and a baby lost their lives.

After the fire, Lenny and Adam rode their bikes around the ruins of the torched homes with grim faces. They watched the funeral coverage on the news—the kids, the wives, the baby's parents, white-faced and shaky. Adam couldn't control his tears. Lenny had played with his Gameboy furiously, sneaking anxious, sidelong looks at his bawling cousin, freaked that Adam was going to give them up.

They smashed the magnifying glass with a hammer and buried it. They pricked their thumbs with a needle and pressed the swelling blood together in a pact to never tell and never talk about it again. They licked the blood off each other's thumbs and swallowed hard.

Nick lives with his mother who's in a wheelchair from multiple sclerosis. The shades are down and the house smells like skunk. One-pound blocks of sinsemilla pile on the dining room table. They break up the hydroponic bud grown in a Compton warehouse, manicure, weigh and vacuum seal it in one-ounce units, smoking product as they go. Nick yells at his ma, says she's weighing too skimpy and she picks up her cane and whacks him hard on the head. Nick starts to cry so Lenny picks up a one-pound brick and goes home. He doesn't like preparing weed for retail in his apartment but Nick and his mother depress the shit out of him. He makes a few calls and the weed is committed, turning a $1,000 investment into $6,400, the tax-free alchemy of drug money.

Next day he goes to Fry's and charges all new electronics to replace the stolen ones. It was time for upgrades anyway. He spends the day setting up, and then orders a pizza. He relaxes, getting stoned and drinking alternate doses of tequila and beer while kicking Nazi butt via Castle Wolfenstein.

Around nine, Toni calls. She just got dumped by the married guy she's been seeing. She's in downtown L.A. and wants to come over.

They almost fucked once. She'd come over after a crappy date and she'd been drinking. Lenny had gotten her to fool around, got his mouth on her and made her come. He got his dick in her too, but she made him stop. It'll ruin everything, she'd said. It's what he thinks about when he masturbates.

So she comes over looking like a sad, reckless mess. Lenny's pussy radar says that she'd likely be easy but he's exhausted, so they hang out, drink, do bong hits, and watch Blade Runner. They nod off and when they wake he insists that she spend the night; she insists she's fine. He can't keep his eyes open. She leaves.

Next day he calls her at work and she's called in sick so he calls her at home and she tells him that she killed a kid who was out skateboarding in the middle of the night with her car, and then left the scene.

His first thoughts are about himself, his liability by letting her drive home after drinking at his place. He can't help it, like a rat, he's wired for survival. But no one needs to know that Toni was driving under the influence. He tries to convince her to get an attorney and turn herself in. He says something about it being the right thing to do and she says something about him being on a mighty high horse for a drug dealer, and it fucking hurts because he fucking knows what it's like to live with the fear of being busted every second of your life for the destruction and the death you've caused. Even now, he thinks that evidence will turn up or that Adam will finally crack. Bad shit haunts you. And he only deals weed which should be legal anyway. He tells her he'll talk to her later.

He catches a newsbreak about the hit-and-run in the Burbank hills and they show a school picture of a sweet-faced kid. He flashes with rage for Toni. He needs to get out so he drives over to Trader Joe's to get some food and there's the grifter girl zipping out of the lot in her red BMW so he takes off after her, following her to a sweet house on the Venice strand. She parks in the carport and walks up to the front door. He wonders if his stuff is there and again envisions strangling her while the rat brain in him wonders if he could leverage her egregious behavior for a grievance fuck.

He pulls out a joint from the glove compartment of his Prius and lights it. He takes a few hits pondering the situation when a white panel truck pulls up and parks in the driveway. A muscular Latino guy with movie star good looks gets out and goes inside. So, she lures schmucks to take her home, drugs them, and then her accomplice, Pancho comes and hauls the spoils.

Pancho emerges from the house in a few minutes carrying some laptop computers. He puts them in his van and drives off. Lenny is pretty stoned and nearly pisses when the grifter girl opens the passenger side of his car.

He's got some ugly mean friends, she says. Seriously.

Her eyes are a watery turquoise that reminds him of snorkeling in Maui. She's not wearing any makeup and she's younger than he thought.

I had remorse, if that's anything. You're a nice guy.

Where's my stuff?

Seriously. You're very cute.

My stuff.

Long gone, she says. Gone, gone, gone.

What'd you give me?


Fuck, he says. Fuck you.

I can blow you, she says. Consolation head—to make up for things?

Yeah, I'm going to trust you, my dick, your mouth, but already he's hard as a stone.

Let's go inside, she says, all throaty.

What about Pancho?

Antonio. He won't know.

Lenny's baggy shorts don't hide his interest. She laughs and kisses him, pulls at his lip with her straight fine teeth.

I really was attracted to you, she says.

The rat brain takes control and even the smallest chance that the girl's on the level is worth the risk of losing everything.

Once inside she tugs his shorts down, throws him on a sofa, and it takes less than a minute for Lenny to explode with all the pent up tension of the past few hours, days, weeks, of his whole existence. She leaps up and he hears her gagging and spitting and flushing as he lies in a woozy reverie. She comes out wiping her mouth.

It's not cheating if you don't swallow, she says. Lenny stares at her farm-girl good looks. She laughs.

Is Pancho your boyfriend? He stands and zips.

Antonio. More like my master.

How's that work?

I do what he says, he takes care of me. I don't do what he says—

The place is classy, with leather and chrome furniture, huge, vivid paintings, pale wood floors, an ocean view. A gallery of Kalifornia kool.

Pancho does pretty well in the grifter business.

He's Colombian. She shrugs.

Yeah, well. Good luck. He makes for the front door.

I really did grow up in Bakersfield, she says.

At home, Lenny watches his new high-definition TV. He tries not to think about the grifter girl, how stupid-young she is, how vulnerable she managed to look. Where were her parents?

On the news, they say that a $25,000 award has been raised for anyone with information leading to the arrest of the hit-and-run boy-killer in Burbank, news that awakens the rat in Lenny, gets it sniffing the air on its haunches. It would be a low life thing to do but Toni's already judged Lenny to be a low-life drug dealer. So it probably wouldn't surprise Toni much if he turned her in for a reward. She might even be expecting it.

He's got a chronic phlegmy cough from so much weed. He should ease up on smoking, get a vaporizer. He needs to scout around for a job, make calls, see if he can meet up with Chase again with some pitches.

He reaches for the bong and knocks it over so that the stinky water empties onto his sofa. Just then the phone rings and it's his brother David on the caller ID. Fuck! But he picks up as he heads to the kitchen for a towel.

Has Tante Risa called you? David asks.

No. Why?

Oh, David says. God, she's supposed to call you.

Lenny has to steel himself. He can't help it. He accepts that his brother is gay, but does he have to talk all mincey like that? Is it required?

Anyway, David says, Mother has to go to an assisted living place. It's time.

The kitchen towels are wadded on the floor in a mildewed stink. The last paper towel slides off the roll. He grabs some dirty underwear from the laundry hamper and goes to mop up the bong water while David tells him how their mother wandered to the 7-Eleven half-naked and that the cops had to detain her like that until they located him.

You left her home alone?

Anna was taking a little siesta. I think she drinks.



There's one more swallow left of tequila, and a bottle of Manischewitz cherry wine in his cupboard. He slugs down the tequila and tears at the seal of the wine bottle while David tells him he's checked into a number of places and it would cost them each about $2,500 a month.

Fuck you, Lenny says, taking gulps of cherry wine. You move out of Mom's house, we lease it and use that to pay for a nursing home.

Swell. I'll move in with you, David says.


We can be roomies. Whee!

Lenny chugs more sweet wine and wonders how it would taste on pancakes.

So you haven't talked to Tante Risa, David says again.

I said no.

She said she was going to call you.

Glug, glug, glug.

Bad news, I'm afraid, David says.

Lenny wipes his mouth on his sleeve.

She wanted to be the one to tell you—God, Len—Adam hung himself. He's dead. David sobs. Lenny is dumbstruck, then the phone beeps and there's a call waiting from Aunt Risa. To tell him the news. About Adam.

After the funeral, back at Aunt Risa's house, Lenny and David take turns watching their mother who keeps shouting mazeltov! because she thinks it's a wedding.

Aunt Risa asks the brothers if they'd clean out Adam's apartment. It's the last thing either brother wants to do but they agree. Then Aunt Risa, their mother's younger sister, asks if the boys would mind if their mother stayed with her for a while. I'm all alone here, she says, this big house, and I've got Marta here to help.

They all look at Lenny and David's mother, now dozing on a wing chair with her legs wide open and clutching the maracas she got in Tijuana forty years ago. She's taken to carrying them around and shaking them when the words won't come. Sure, they say. David hugs Risa and rubs tears from his eyes. I can't believe Adam's gone.

Risa says, you'd ask him, what's wrong? Why so glum? And he'd smile that sweet, heart-ripping smile. I'm fine, Ma, he'd say. She pulls a hanky from her sleeve and wipes her eyes.

Adam and his parents lived with Lenny's family for a year after the fire, and Lenny and Adam had become increasingly distant, as if any conversation at all would lead them to blurt out confessions.

Risa stares ahead, unfocused, a glass of chardonnay listing in one hand, her hanky in the other. She sips her wine and continues. It seemed to start after the fire, she says. Before that I remember him as happy. Such a happy little boy. Sensitive. Losing the house was so hard on him. Her face balls up and David wraps his arms around her. Lenny takes her wine glass and drains it.

David and Lenny go to Adam's apartment. They divide up the Xanax and Valium that they find and throw the antidepressants away. They go through his neat, organized drawers and closet, packing up his clothes, books and shoes.

I wonder if our cuz was a closet 'mo, says David. I could marry a guy who organizes his closets like this.

Fag, Lenny says.

On the bottom shelf of a bookcase, Lenny finds a box of newspaper clippings about the Chatsworth fire, along with videotapes of the firemen's funerals and recent computer printouts about their families. There's information about the baby that died. The family's name was Mason.

David looks at the stuff. Wow, he says, he was hung up. He was different after the fire. He never seemed to snap out of it. Like it triggered something. Fatal depression. David grabs his throat like he's strangling himself.

Lenny glares at his brother. Did it trigger your trip to fairyland?

Bitch, David says, shoving his brother, who shoves him back. Let's get this shit done. They pack up their cars and haul the stuff to Out of the Closet. Lenny packs the fire memorabilia separately and takes it home.

The Masons have a Tudor two-story in a cul-de-sac in Granada Hills. Lenny parks in front and smokes a joint, not sure what he's going to do but then the automatic garage door rolls up and a woman wheels a trashcan to the curb.

Hello, Lenny says. Mrs. Mason?

Who wants to know, she says.

Lenny's in it now. He gets out of the car. I'm looking for the Mason family, he says.


My cousin's house was destroyed in the Chatsworth fire. Lenny looks down at his shoes, at the sky—explains that Adam hung himself two weeks ago. He tells her he's not sure why he's here.

I'm Miranda Mason, she says. How'd you find me?

My cousin kept track of everything. I was at his house that day. We had to evacuate and then his family lived with us a while. It messed with his head, I guess. I just found his box of stuff. Stuff about the fire. He had your address.

Is that pot?

Lenny makes like he's sniffing the air.

Give me some and I'll talk to you, Miranda says.

Inside they sit on down-stuffed sofa patterned with sunflowers on a blue background. The walls are red and the floors are dark oak with colorful Oriental carpets. A huge crystal chandelier sparkles over a walnut dining table with those curvy French style legs. Moss colored velvet curtains frame the windows.

Nice place, Lenny says, passing a joint to Miranda. Colorful.

I'm a designer, she says, waving the joint around. I'm getting ready to put this place on the market, cash in on the big boom. She takes another toke. Good shit, she says. Country French. All the valley girls love it. These days a gorilla with a pocketbook could walk in and get a zero-down loan.

So, the fire, she says. You say your cousin hung himself because of that?

I mean, I don't know, Lenny says, wondering exactly what the fuck he was doing, this house, this woman, a situation that could devolve into a righteous downer. He had this box of fire shit, he says. Lenny sets the smoldering joint in a heavy cut crystal ashtray on the coffee table, thinks of how to make his exit.

Miranda Mason picks up the joint, inhales, holds it in. Ever been to a luau? That's how my baby girl looked. Like a luau pig after they haul it out of the pit. She was upstairs napping. We were outside, down the street, not far—remember the winds? Yakking with some neighbors, having a beer. We smelled the smoke and it was on us. Shake roofs. Why not call them explosive dry kindle roofs?

Jesus, Lenny says. Did you have any other kids?

Nah. Jerry—my ex—started drinking after everything. And we divorced. Say, she says, you wouldn't want to check out the bedroom, would you? She puts her finger on his knee.

Lenny freezes a stupid grin on his face as his stoned mind grinds gears.

No strings or anything. She blushes and takes another hit. My parents were both dead before sixty, she says. I just turned fifty. Life, short, etcetera. She exhales a smoky stream.

If it weren't for the recent blowjob he might go for it. But her undertow of desperation felt like it could drag him under and drown him.

I guess they never found how the fire started, he says. He pulls out another joint from his shirt pocket, lights it, making a mental note to take a break from the weed soon, real soon.

Oh it was arson. But no. They never got the murderer.

It might've been an accident, maybe. I mean, maybe the arsonist didn't intentionally set the fire, you know?

Yeah, someone accidentally dropped a can of charcoal lighter when the Santa Anas were howling and then accidentally set it on fire. You want to fuck or not? She looks at him with bloodshot, wet eyes.

I'm gay, Lenny says. He shrugs.

Of course, she says. Of course you're gay.

The two firemen died in a burning house that collapsed. According to the info in Adam's box, one fireman's family moved to New Jersey and the other family stayed in Agoura. The Agoura kids had been ten and nine, and one on the way when they lost their father. Adam had info on them too: The boy who'd been ten graduated from CSUN and worked as an engineer in Sacramento, and his sister, Cherie, had gone to UCLA and was a nurse at St. Joe's in Burbank. A boy, Cameron, was born a month after his father died and is a firefighter for L.A. County.

Poor Adam, all depressed and obsessing. It was an accident.

The nurse-daughter of the dead fireman agrees to meet Lenny when he phones and tells her he's a free-lance journalist doing an article on fire victims, the long lasting emotional effects, etc. They meet for lunch in Burbank at the Tally Rand. Cherie is athletic, with eyes like shots of sky and white-blonde streaky hair tied back in a ponytail. And plump, perky titties that strain her T-shirt.

Yeah it was hard, she says. He was a great dad, a wonderful dad. I miss him every day.

Arson, and right, never apprehended. The Santa Anas kick up and there they are with their Bics and accelerants. Sick fucks.

My mom didn't do well. She was pregnant, you know, when he died. Then when Cameron was born she went into a tailspin of post-partum depression—electroshock therapy, major drugs. It never left. Cherie tilts her head and flashes that toothy California-girl smile juxtaposed with a world of loss and hurt in her eyes. Lenny feels all tender and fatherly all of a sudden, even though they were about the same age.

Hey, Lenny says, want to get dinner some night?

Oh, she says, flashing the pearly whites. Probably not. My girlfriend—I'm gay.

When he finally talks to Toni again they are polite and tense with each other. She has anonymously handed over a bag of money to the dead kid's sister who found him in the street, and paid for all the funeral expenses.

Cash for redemption, Lenny says. Good luck with that.

You're the only one who knows. It would end my career.

I'm just saying it's going to haunt you, Lenny says. Fatal hit-and-run is some heavy shit. He tries to picture walking into the Chatsworth fire station.

I'm a partner now, Toni says softly.

Hey. Wow. That's fantastic, congratulations. Seriously.

She inhales raggedly. Thanks. I'm happy.

Later, he says.

Lenny has come to lean on the Xanax. And the Valium. He tells the internist who buys pot from him about his insomnia and anxiety attacks and scores prescriptions.

Take it easy with those, the internist tells him.

He's drinking a lot, and steady on his pot use. He needs to find a job but the days slide by like playing cards slipping from the deck. When he finds himself cash poor he calls Nick, who tells him he's going legitimate and getting a license for a pot dispensary business in Venice.

By the way, Nick says, my mother died. A week ago.

Oh man, I'm sorry, Lenny says.

It was for the best, Nick says. Trust me.

Nick tells Lenny he's got two one-pound bricks of OG Cush that he'll unload to Lenny for fifteen hundred. After that he's going to watch his Ps and Qs and sell weed legally. I'm getting too old to be an outlaw, he says. Nick is twenty-four.

Sure, Nick, Lenny says. Can you get any coke?

Lenny's driving home with two pounds of OG stinking up the interior of his Prius, and an eight ball of cocaine in his shirt pocket from which he takes another sizeable snort. He'll use the blow as a kick-start so he can polish up his pitches and call around for a production job. He needs a little push right now. He takes another snort.

When he gets home, David's there. I tried to call you but your phone is out of service, he says.

It is? Sweat shines on Lenny's face; his shirt is soaked. He's been tooting coke non-stop since he left Nick's.

You look like shit, by the way. David arches his plucked and penciled eyebrows and then draws them down into a frown.

Lenny licks his lips. What are you doing here?

Tante Risa has grown weary of our mother, David says. She called and I could hardly hear her for the maracas shaking. She's going to help us place her.

I'm broke right now, Lenny says. His eyelid is twitching like a motherfucker. His nose runs and he wipes it with the back of his hand. It's blood.

You really look like shit. David reaches into his man-purse and pulls out a packet of Kleenex, hands one to Lenny, who clamps it over his nose and paces.

The magnifying glass. The snail. The charcoal lighter was my idea.

Say what?

We killed them and now the mother wants to fuck me.

The mother?

A shot at redemption. I walk away.

What are you talking about?

The dead kid's mother. The dead baby.

What baby?

Have you never been to a luau? Have you not seen what they do to the pig? Lenny is shrieking. His eyes bug and jitter wildly. Blood gushes from his nose.

I'm calling Dr. Wang, David says.


Mother's doctor. The psychiatrist. You're having a meltdown.

Fuck you! Lenny screams. Then his eyes roll back and he stiffens. His face goes hydrangea blue. He drops to the floor and flops like a landed marlin.

Three days later David drives Lenny home from a seventy-two hour psych hold. It's hot as hell and Lenny feels disconnected and meek. Lobotomized. They arrive at Lenny's bungalow and two squad cars pen Lenny's parked Prius.

Now what, David says, arms folded.

A cop with rump roast biceps approaches them. His leather holster creaks against slim hips, a tight butt. This your car?

Who wants to know? David says.

The cop narrows his eyes at David. It's reeking of what seems to be the reek of marijuana, he says. You can unlock it for us, if it's yours. That would be seen as co-operative.

Have I seen you at Rage? David asks, hugging himself. The cop and he give each other a hard-eyed stare-down.

Lenny unlocks the back of his car and hot sinsemilla reek blasts out like the Prius is a mad skunk. He uncovers the bricks.

We didn't actually catch you with the drugs, the muscular cop says. The other cop is cleaning his fingernails with a coffee stirrer.

So we're going to confiscate this without charging you at this time. Do you understand? Anyone could've planted this in your car. Do you understand?

David balls the cop with his eyes. The cop hands him a card. Here's my contact info if any questions come up. David takes the card without taking his eyes from the cop's. Yes, officer, he says.

David took care of Lenny's cell phone bill while Lenny was recovering from his cocaine OD, and Lenny feels tender gratitude. There's a two-day-old message from Chase about a new reality show, a producer job that could open up to a co-executive position. Frantically, Lenny calls Chase who says this is going to be big and he wants to see Lenny be a part of it. Lenny hangs up, his throat working like a piston. He tosses the rest of his pill collection into the toilet and dumps the vodka and tequila bottles down the drain. He takes a tiny little toot of cocaine and then flushes that, too. He's going to be a better man. He's going to get a grip.

David checks in on him. Jesus, he says, it's a sad day when I'm the sane one. He makes a face. What stinks?

Bong water.

David rolls his eyes. You are one class act, honey, he says. He inspects the arm of Lenny's big club chair, brushes it off lightly, and then perches on it.

You remember the Willards from two doors down—Mrs. Willard with the big hair, the make-up, those little high-heeled marabou sandals clicking around, so different from Mother whose sweats doubled as PJs—and Mr. Willard mowing the lawn in his short-sleeved sports shirts and slacks?

The Willards, Lenny says.

And we thought they were so perfect, this big rowdy family, every Sunday morning all dressed up in their church clothes at the IHOP.

Who gives a shit?

Turns out that they have this retarded daughter they've kept in their basement—for years. Can you imagine? So they forgot to lock her in yesterday and she comes crawling out squinting like a mole and bleeding from her whatsit. She aborts a fetus the size of a bunny, drops it right on the flagstone and Pepper the poodle grabs it and yanks the afterbirth stuff out of her—Jesus, the blood. Mrs. Reynolds next door—who's a wreck—saw the whole thing and called 911. Those Willards are in deep shit. The news trucks are there now.

Jesus, Lenny says, now wracking his brain for everything he could remember about the Willards. Jesus fucking Christ. How sick are people?

David envelopes himself with his long arms and says that he remembers Adam's magnifying glass. He remembers Adam had it out the day of the barbecue. The day of the fire.

Yeah, Lenny says. He had it out.

In AA, they say we're only as sick as our secrets.

Since when do you go to AA?

Hello, Fernando? He had a major drinking problem. I've been to lots of AA meetings.


My significant other for three years that ended last year?

Lenny recalls a jittery Latino with a bantam rooster strut. He's going to pay more attention. He's going to be a better brother.

Here's another saying, David says. No use crying over spilt milk.

It's seven in the morning on Sunday, already warm. There's a hurricane in Baja that's funneling moisture up to Los Angeles, creating a dome of altocumulus clouds.

Lenny heads to Venice where the grifter girl lives with Pancho/Antonio and sees her little red BMW. He pictures her curled up, her morning breath sifting through her nose hairs, spooning her smooth criminal. He imagines bursting in to rescue her, hieing her away south to Baja and holing up in a dark, cool cantina to wolf down ceviche tacos with ice cold Dos Equis, the hurricane raging all around them. He surges with sweet, hard longing.

Instead, though, he takes off his flip-flops and walks across the cool sand to the water, the salted air bitter in the back of his throat. The lazy waves slap the shoreline; the churning foam slides up to his feet. Bubble Town. He and Adam and David, stomping their bare feet on the sea suds while their parents baked in the sun all greased up, listening to Bruce Springsteen. You can't start a fire, you can't start a fire without a spark...

He pulls out his typed confession spelling it all out, how they set the fire, how they kept it secret. He's added some memories of Adam, and he's attached a photo taken of them at Dodger Stadium, two gap-toothed boys covered in mustard, thrusting their Dodger dogs at the camera. He reads it again and hot tears streak down his face. When was the last time he cried?

He takes out his trusty Zippo and sets fire to the papers, turning them as they burn and fully bawling now&emdashsnot bubbles, spastic sobs—the whole sorry, bittersweet release of it. He unbuttons his shirt and folds it, sets it next to his flip-flops; then, with arms outstretched Jesus-on-the-cross style, he walks into the gentle surf. Above him the polished chrome scales of a mackerel sky stretch out in a shimmering panorama, so fucking beautiful his heart hurts. I'm sorry, he says aloud, walking deeper into the water until it's up to his nipples. He opens his arms wider. I'm sorry, he yells, waiting for something, a sign, absolution from some universal force, when something long and slithery figure-eights between his ankles, and he windmills his arms and pistons his legs as fast as he can to get back to shore.

About the Author

Alicia Gifford's short fiction has been widely published in literary journals and anthologies, online and in print. "After the Fire" is from a novel-in-stories in progress. Alicia divides her time between L.A. and Mammoth Lakes, California.