UNDERGROUND FIRE

 

Matthew Brockmeyer

 

 

            Bill never understood why Catherine would want to visit Centralia, Pennsylvania.

            Going to an abandoned town to look at underground coal fires seemed like a ridiculous way to spend a vacation. But since she had always wanted to go there, and he was trying desperately to make amends after all that had happened, he offered up the idea early one Saturday evening.

            “Let’s go someplace. What do you say? Just hop in the car and drive. How about Centralia? Haven’t you always wanted to see the underground fires?”

            “Why?” she asked, looking up from her book, her blue eyes slits. “You never wanted to go there before.”

            “I’ve changed my mind. Come on. We need to get out of the house. I’m going stir crazy.”

            “After all these years you just suddenly up and decide you want to go there?”

            “Yup. For you.”

            “For me?”

            “Yeah, for you. A treat.”

            “Funny you never offered before.”

            “Come on, honey. Let’s not fight. It’ll be fun.”

            “Fine,” she said, slamming the book shut. “You wanna go to Centralia? Let’s go to Centralia.”

            They packed a few things, threw their luggage in the trunk of the Subaru and were off.

            It was a long drive and she fell asleep along the way, slumped against the door in the passenger seat. As he drove he let his thoughts run free. He knew this trip was going to be it: the deciding factor over whether she left him or not, and he had to play it right.He would give her the bracelet, and the expensive wine she liked. She was pregnant, but he thought if he could bring her just to the edge of drunkenness, he could convince her to stay. She was always so sentimental and forgiving when drunk. And horny as hell. Then they would have the baby and everything would be right again.

            Whether it was Frisbee golf, paint ball, environmental cleanup contracts, darts or pool, winning was what he did. And this was going to be no different.

            He sighed, trying to ignore the emptiness inside him. He tapped the steering wheel with the flat of his hand, and looked over at her sleeping there serenely. She was a lovely thing. He had been so fucking dumb. How could he have done this to her?His wife. His partner. His best friend for all these years. He thought about her easy smile. Her love of flowers and how she had memorized the botanical names of so much flora and fauna. How she would whisper to him at the farmer’s market, “Oh look, Citrus bergamia,and don’t those Lavendulaangustifolia starts look healthy?”

            He racked his mind for reasons as to why he had done it.

            The truth was, because of his work—checking for environmental damage after natural gas drilling—he was often away for weeks at a time, stuck in a motel room, waiting. It wasn’t lust that had made him do it. It wasn’t even loneliness or a desire for love. He was really just bored.

            Then he ground his teeth and searched for ways to blame her. That she hadn’t fulfilled him as a wife should. That she hadn’t given him the satisfaction he deserved as a man. That she hadn’t honored the contractual obligations of their marriage.

            He thought about the fierce way she made love.

            She fucked like a man might. Quickly, with little to no foreplay, gripping his face in her mouth with a sudden urgency, grabbing his crotch and pulling him free of his pants, not wanting to slowly build up passion like other girls he had been with. And then, just as suddenly, after she came, shuddering in orgasm, she would roll away from him, too exhausted to go on. It almost became a battle of who came first.

            She never wanted to hold or be held.

            He sometimes tried to cuddle with her, and she would let him, but she never encouraged it or reciprocated it.

            Not that they’d even made love since the incident.

 

            By the time they got near Centralia it was dark, so they got a cheap hotel room in Ashville.

            Once they were checked in, ensconced in their room, and had a few glasses of wine, he gave her the expensive bracelet: a charm bracelet with golden tennis racquets and flowers.

            When she looked at it she began to cry.

            “Why?” she asked.“With the car payments and the mortgage, we’re barely putting anything in savings. It’s my money, too. You shouldn’t have done that. You have no right.”

            “Don’t you like it?”

            “It doesn’t matter whether I like it or not. You had no right. You’re trying to manipulate me.”

            “Catherine, please. I thought you would like it.”

            “Well, I don’t. It’s gaudy.”

            She gulped down her glass of wine and picked up the second bottle.

            “You shouldn’t be drinkinglike that,” he said. “Think of the baby.”

            “Who says I’m keeping it?”

            Bill closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to ignore the empty sensation blooming in his gut.

            “But, honey, it’s what we wanted. We’ve been trying for so long.”

            “What you wanted. You. Another way to conquer me and make me a slave.”

            “I never—”

            “Just stop. After what you’ve done. Maybe I need to focus on my career now. Especially if we get divorced. Maybe a baby doesn’t fit into the picture anymore.”

            “I thought we were going to try and work it out.”

            “What I said was I needed time to think.”

            She opened the corkscrew and stabbed the top of the bottle with the little knife, then spun the bottle so that the foil curled perfectly around the lip and fell off in a perfect circle.

            “Where did you learn to do that?”

            “I’ve always done it that way.”

            “No, you haven’t. Who taught you that?”

            “Is that accusation I hear in your voice? From you? You who went and fucked a cheap whore and gave me a disease! A fucking disease!” She jammed the corkscrew into the cork and began to violently wrench it in circles.

            “It was only chlamydia,” he said.“It went right away after a shot.”

            “Only! Am I supposed to be thankful that my husband didn’t give me AIDS or syphilis? Did you see what it did to me? Did you see the discharge and the smell? I thought there was something wrong with me!”

            “Can we not talk about this now, Catherine. I thought we came here to reconcile.”

            She filled her glass to the brim. He looked on feeling scared and anxious, suddenly unsure of what to do with his hands. His left eyelid began to twitch.

            “I haven’t decided a goddamn thing,” she said.

            “What’s it going to take? What do I have to do?”

            “There it is. You don’t want to lose. It’s all a big fucking game to you.”

            “It’s no game. I love you more than life itself and would do anything to show you how sorry I am. Do I have to beg?”

            “It might help.”          

            He got down on his knees before her. “Please, Catherine. I beg you. Forgive me.”

            She looked away, took a long, slow sip of her wine. “Why should I?”

            “Because we are like . . . like albatrosses. We’ve developed our own language together. Or seahorses. Please—” His eyes closed tightly and his head dropped, when he heard her laughter he opened his eyes and looked up.

            “Albatrosses? Seahorses? Bill, what the fuck are you talking about?”

            Her glass was empty and she was slurring her words. Her cheeks gleamed red.

            “They are the most romantic creatures in the animal kingdom.”

            “Really?”

            “Really.”

            She set her glass down. “Come here,” she said, which is exactly what he wanted to hear.

 

            In the morning they ate breakfast in a little greasy-spoon diner. Though she complained of a hangover, he thought she seemed chipper enough. He noticed she was wearing the bracelet, which was a good sign. Then they got in the car and drove to Centralia to see the underground fires.

            They took Rt. 61 into the center of what had once been the town.In the distance a solitary house stood in a field. They turned right onto Township Road 31 where they passed a sign which read:

DANGER

UNDERGROUND MINE FIRE

WALKING OR DRIVING IN THIS AREA COULD LEAD TO SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH. DANGEROUS GASSES ARE PRESENT. GROUND IS PRONE TO COLLAPSE

            “Damn, this is for real,” he said.

            “Yup,” she replied. “Sure is.”

            They drove down a bumpy strip of asphalt through what had once been the community of Byrnsville. Besides an old cemetery, wrapped in cyclone fencing—its gate chained up and padlocked—there was nothing there at all.  It wasn’t like he had expected. He’d been imagining a ghost town of abandoned buildings. But the structures and houses had all been torn down and a lush forest was growing up now. Nature was taking over. Besides a few scattered bricks and bent pipes, you’d never know a town had ever been here. There were scattered bits of garbage on the roadside, an old mattress, a crumbling stone wall.

            They parked under a tall oak and walked down to Graffiti Highway, a closed off section of the interstate covered in spray paint. The black top was buckled and cracked from the heat of the fire that had burned beneath it. Rolling hills of green disappeared into the distance. Heat roiled up from the pavement, mixing with the humidity and the mild reek of Sulphur, an effluvium that sat in his lungs like a wet sock. The song of summer cicadas rose up from the forest, echoing in his mind, reached a fever pitch, and then was gone again.

            They walked along the broken and deserted highway, looking at the strange graffiti: “Silent Hill P.A.”, “Jesus Was A Porn Star”, “Kitten Farts”. He wanted to take her hand, but was afraid she’d rebuke him. He didn’t want to push it. Things seemed to be going just perfect. Eventually they found themselves before a blackened hillside that was still smoldering.Pale whiffs of smoke rose up from the scorched earth, gray against the blue summer sky and the air stunk of burned things. Amongst the charred remains of trees and rubble was a child’s swingset, burnt to a deep ebony, covered in ash.

            “I don’t know why I came here,” she said.“This place is depressing.”

            “I’m glad we came. Aren’t we having fun?”

            She stopped and turned to him, forehead wrinkled and eyebrows downturned predatory-like, an accusation in the sharp jut of her jaw. “I didn’t say I don’t know why we came here. I know why we came here, because you suddenly decided you wanted to. What I don’t know is why I came here.”

            She was starting to frustrate him. It had been a good trip. Hadn’t it? She had forgiven him. They’d made love. They’d look back on this as the trip that saved their marriage. He started to say something argumentative, to defend himself, when the thought occurred to him that he should count his blessings, get a move on, and leave while the going was good.

            “Do you want to go home?”

            “Back? Yeah. Let’s head back,” she said, turning from him quickly and striding away.

            In the car, on the long drive home, she stared out the passenger window, silent for nearly an hour. Finally, as the tall, gray buildings of Harrisburg passed them on the right, she spoke. “I’ve made my decision. I’m leaving. Going to Michigan to stay with my mother until I can find an apartment there. I’m not keeping the baby.”

            “But, what about last night?”

            “What about it? I was drunk. I don’t regret it.”

            “But you love me. I know you love me.”

            “Don’t tell me what I feel, Bill.”

            He gripped the steering wheel tightly, his palms sweating. “You can’t leave. You can’t. Please. I’ll change. I’ll be whatever you want me to be.”

            “For fuck’s sake, William. It’s not about you and who you are. Can’t you understand that? Why do you think it even matters what you say? Just the fact that you think you can sway me makes me hate you.”

            She unclasped the bracelet, and rolled down the window.

            “Katherine, what are you doing? Don’t!”

            “I’m not a fucking object you can buy with trinkets, Bill. Stupid fucking waste of money.”She tossed the bracelet out onto the highway.

            “Oh, you fucking bitch,” he said, shaking his head back and forth.“How could you?”

            “Bitch, huh? I think that’s the most honest thing I’ve heard you say in a long time.”

            A rage took over inside him, a smoldering fire in his gut that rose up and rested behind his eyes, causing his clenched hands to tremble against the steering wheel.

            “Honesty?” he said. “You want fucking honesty?”

            There was a bridge ahead. An intricate piece of sculpted metal that filled the void between two pieces of opposing land.

            Where is the weakest part of the fucking bridge? he thought.

            Then he saw it. A rusted area where the structure met the land, the river churning far below. He aimed the car towards it and pressed his foot down on the gas.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————-

 

Matthew Brockmeyer is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Pulp Metal Magazine, Cultured Vultures, Dark Fire Fiction, Timeless Tales Magazine, Infernal Ink, The Homeless Romantic, and The Humboldt Independent, as well as the upcoming anthologies Let Us In by Time Alone Press, After the Happily Ever After by Transmundane Press, and One Hundred Voices by Centum Press. He also writes extreme horror under the pseudonym Humboldt Lycanthrope. He lives deep in the forest of Northern California with his wife and two children.

 

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