“They look like clouds,” Juniah, eight, says.
They’re standing together on the side of the road. In front of them, beyond the hillside, is a massive wall of smoke.
“They do, Juniper,” he says. “It’s one hell of a fire.”
“But we’re safe in the car?” She asks.
I think we are, he wants to say, but can’t because it would worry her, so he tells her, “We’re safe on the road. The wind is blowing east... That way,” he points in the direction they’ve come. “If we’re on the road then we’re traveling with it.”
That was not necessarily true. The fire spread fifty miles in a few days, traveling mostly south. It was heading east, currently, but there was no certainty the wind wouldn’t change direction. But he couldn’t feel the heat from the fire, which meant the smoke was miles ahead of the flames. At least he’d heard that somewhere.
“Will our home be okay?”
“Of course, Sweety,” he answered, picturing Evelyn’s stern gaze. Hearing her stammer “How could you?” Worse, “I knew it.”
“Okay, good. Nichole said a lot of houses have burned.”
Of course someone was trying to scare her. They always are.
“You shouldn’t listen to other people.”
She looked up at him. She started to speak but stopped. She bit her lip the way her mother does before asking something serious.
“Why not?” she finally peeped.That was inept, he thought. Jesus, just tell her it will all be okay.
“There’s no reason to be worried. So don’t mind what your, uh, friend says.”
“Yes. Nichole. Is she a new friend?”
Her assuredness always floored him.
“She was just trying to scare you.”
That’s your mother’s job, he thought. And mine. It wasn’t fair that peers started in on you so young, and when you’re new.
“Well, she didn’t.”
Good. Juniah will never be the victim.
He stared out across the empty valley. The distant hill was patched with evergreens, as if the forest were unfinished. The initial sparseness cleared Gerald’s mind, or it usually did. He couldn’t shake it today. Plus there was the fire.
“How was your lesson?” he asked Juniah.
“What’s for dinner?” she asked back.
“Whatever your mother picks up.”
Juniah nodded, perhaps accepting neither of them had control over it.
“Let’s get back,” he said, letting go of her hand and walking to the car.
He was done. The fire wasn’t as distracting as he’d hoped.
How was he going to tell Evelyn she was now the sole breadwinner. Beautiful, ambitious, judgmental Evelyn. She’d assume it was all his fault. She’d never accept an ounce of blame.
“I want to play soccer and stop taking violin lessons.”
... she loves violin.“You love violin.”
Two weeks ago Juniah had pulled her mother and him into the living room. She’d two of the dining room chairs to face the accent wall, her music stand in between, set up and her violin leaning up against it.
“What are you up to?” Evelyn was cooing at her.
“You’ll see. Come, come,” Juniah answered between spouts of giggles.
She bade each of them sit with a wave of her arm, showing off the chairs like a miniature Vanna White. It was all too much for Gerald and he bit his inner cheek to keep from laughing.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Juniah began, “I’m going to perform for you a concert.”
Evelyn and Gerald applauded her audacity and Juniah blushed and shushed them before playing. She did well, so well that they asked for five encores and meant all of them. Hell, she got better with each performance. And Evelyn was so proud, it was all she could talk about in bed that evening. How big their little girl was getting. How talented she was.
And now Juniah didn’t want to play violin?
“I want to play soccer,” she said matter of fact while opening the passenger door.
Well, the world isn’t that convenient.
“No.” It felt great to say it.
Juniah let go of the door handle.
“Get in the car.”
Maybe he was too brusque. No, this wasn’t her decision. Oh, Sweetie, I don’t want to be mean. “Get in. We’ll get ice cream.”
She raised her eyebrow at him. “What are you doing?” She said, accusing him of being ridiculous.
Not her too. Gerald would not have this from her too.
“I’m your father and you’re going to listen to me. Now get in the car.”
She looked at him then down the road.
“Don’t you dare.”
She met his eyes.
“Juniah,” he started.
She took off running.
“JUNIAH MARIE JOHNSON, GET BACK HERE NOW!”
She didn’t even flinch. Coming from him it wasn’t a threat.
She laughed. A fucking joke to her.
And then he was running after her.
He caught up easily but she juked left, towards the hill, towards the smoke. His eyes bulged as his chest cramped. He stumbled, which she laughed at, but then he caught her by the hem of her shirt. He heard a tearing sound as he pulled her back wrapping both arms around her torso. He lifted her away from the woods, his back now to the smoke, and placed her in front of him. She was still laughing at him.! Once, when Gerald was nine or ten, he threw a tantrum. Even after 30 years he could see his father’s face flashing beet red. The purplish hue made him appear to be suffocating. Gerald remembered how funny that had been, how much that look on his father’s face had egged him on.
He knelt down so his eye level was equal with his daughter’s and while she laughed in his face he slapped her, hard, like his father had slapped him.
Juniah stopped laughing. She stood very still.
Her instructor called her his top pupil. On her second lesson Lex, as he preferred to be called, pulled Gerald aside, “She’s a natural. My top pupil,” then he slapped Gerald on the back so hard it left a mark well into the evening. That kind of enthusiasm was promising. The same enthusiasm he remembered his music teachers having for his prowess on trumpet. He only wanted her to be great.
Gerald shut his eyes and squeezed his hands into fists, his fingernails biting into his palms. He held them at his sides, wishing he could lash them to his thighs, then shot up from his knees and paced away from his daughter. Breathing in large slow inhales. Releasing them in a rush of disbelief.
After some time he decided he should speak.
“It’s dangerous out here... You scared me.”
She didn’t respond. She didn’t even move.
“Let’s go,” he told her, then begged, “Please?”
Her cheek was red and her lip was beginning to swell. Gerald’s lip had also bled and he was then led, sullen and silent, to his room. But the moment his bedroom door closed he started fuming. He punched the bed over and over (he punched the wall once before and the noise brought his father back, so after that he only punched the bed). To him the bed was his father, and he wanted to kill him.
Juniah just stared at him.
“Let’s go,” he picked her up, holding her with one arm, pinning her thighs to his chest, her upper body leaning over his shoulder, like he used to carry her when she was a toddler and she would wrap her arms around his neck and whisper “I love you, daddy.” He carried her to the car and placed her gently inside then sat there with her.
She wouldn’t forgive him. His wife would be furious. He had overreacted. He was just like his father. Of course his wife would find out.
“I would’ve...” Juniah began then started sobbing.
“Oh, Sweetie, what?” Gerald was desperate to hear her talk, to start working towards putting this behind them.
“I... w-w-would’ve... stopped... e-eventually,” she blubbered.
“Stopped what, sweetie?”
“I... w-w-wouldn’t... have run... into... the fire.”
“I hope not. But I was worried.”
“I wouldn’t,” she asserted, and wiped her eyes and nose with a swipe of her arm. She wasn’t sobbing anymore.
“It’s not just the fire, you know?” and he smiled at her, trying to reassure her like this was now a game, like when they name all the different types of clouds.
“It’s you and mommy?” she said.
“No. Why would you say that?” Gerald tried to sound surprised, but he wasn’t and his anger was now back. Why was this was her problem too? She should be worried about making friends, and homework, and violin. It was not fair. And what could she hope to do other then add to his guilt?
He knew he was being absurd, that this was uncalled for. He forced himself to smile.
“No... no,” he forced himself to smile at her again and simply performing the action calmed him back down. what I meant was while, yes, fire is dangerous, what makes this particular fire so dangerous is how it can spread and change direction so quickly. So you don’t have to run into it. It can run into you.”
“And the smoke can suffocate you,” Juniah added.
Good. She’s playing along.
“Yes, that’s right. In most fires it’s actually the smoke that kills you.”
She smiled, happy to have contributed, then, once again, she bit her lower lip, just like Evelyn does before asking you something serious, like if you wouldn’t mind moving jobs, homes, even whole states.
“So you were scared I’d die?” Juniah asks.
Gerald knows she’s asking why he hit her. You had to appreciate the balls on this kid. He’d never had the nerve. Must be from her mother.
“Yes,” he says, “or that you’d get hurt,” it’s not a total lie.
She nods and he takes that as her acceptance.
She tells him what he wants to hear, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
His relief is evident; he sits up straighter, his brow unclenches, his shoulders relax. He’s almost ready.
“I love you,” she says.
“I love you too.”
Juniah rubs her hand on her raw cheek and inhales sharply.
“Careful. Let’s get some ice for that before we get home, and how about we rent a movie and get ice cream?”
She smiles and enthusiastically nods. Now’s not the time to ask again about soccer but she figures he’ll still feel guilty tomorrow, and Nichole made it sound like she could join whenever she wanted. Juniah was the only girl ever to be asked personally by Nichole to play, and Juniah had no intention of letting Nichole and all of Nichole’s friends down. No matter how upset her father was these days. It’s funny, but Juniah had never intended to give up violin, just the extra lessons. They had band in school. But now she wasn’t so sure. She might quit violin just to get back at him.
The smoke had reached the road, but a left bank a few hundred feet ahead would leave the fire farther and farther behind. Gerald watched it from the rearview mirror wondering what the woods will look like when the fire burned out.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.