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This week’s prompts:
A pryromaniac
Goes to a reunion
A Special Song

Strike Anywhere

She’s late. I glanced at my watch and then looked out the window. No firetrucks were hurrying by, so it’s good, right? First meetings with new parolees were usually a bit tense anyway, and to have someone that I’ve known since elementary school on my caseload, well that was going to be interesting. I glanced at the papers in the file one more time. Sentenced twenty years for arson, but served ten with good behavior. She was a nice girl, after all. That was probably why Derek dumped me for her after college.

The knock on the door startled me a bit, but I waved her in. Shorter than I remembered her as if she shrank in prison. The office door dwarfed her and her clothes were not her correct size. 

“Uh, do I call you officer, or um?” Kelly stammered at the door.

“Sara is just fine. It’s been a while, how are you?”

“Well, great, considering I am stuck back at my parents’ house for a while. But that is better than the state prison any day and twice on Sunday.”

“I’m sure. I couldn’t move back with my parents. Sunday dinner is about all I can take right now.” Connect with shared experiences, tell safe stories, I could hear my instructors’ voices in my head. Why? I’ve been doing this job for nearly 20 years. Never, though, have I been the parole officer for one of my classmates. But in a town of four thousand with an adult community supervision staff of three, I guess it was bound to happen.

“Should I sit?” Kelly pointed at the metal and vinyl chair in front of my government-issued metal desk. 

“Sure, just excuse the decor. We call it early American military surplus. We joke that these desks were used in World War II.”

“Like generals planned battles on them?”

“More like supply clerks planned beer runs,” I said, picking at one of the many burn holes on the desktop. I picked up Kelly’s file and placed it front and center. “So, I guess they explained things to you when you left, but I will tell you what I expect.” I tapped the folder. “For the next two years, the more you tell me, the more I can keep you out of jail. Simple.”

“You mean, prison.” Kelly said, “The correction officers would be really sensitive about calling it jail. They take pride in their work. ”

“Whatever you want to call it, I am your key to staying out. You tell me everything. Period. Get a new job? Tell me. Taking a trip? Tell me. New boyfriend? For sure tell me, so I can run a background check. You can’t be hanging around with other felons.” 

“Right.” Kelly looked out the window of my office to her right. She had scars that reminded me of her horrific acne in high school. “So what about the reunion?”

“Reunion?”

“Our 25-year class reunion is in three months. Surely they found you, you’re here in town.”

“Right, yeah. The reunion.” Big no for me. “You want to go?”

“Go? Of course. They asked me to help on the committee since I am here in town. Tiffany Mercer wrote to me at my parents’ house and I called her first thing. Mom said it would be good to have a social event to look forward to.”

I couldn’t argue with that. But now, I might have to go myself. And unlike Kelly, I did not want to have a social event with high school people. “Well, reunion aside, the more you tell me, the more I can help you. We will meet once a week for the first few months, just to make sure you are transitioning ok, and then we can move to once a month. “

“Yeah, yeah. Do we have to meet here, or can we meet at Starbuck’s or something?”

“Your choice, but it’s a small town and everyone knows what I do for a living. Do you want to be seen in public with me?”

“My trial was the big event of this town ten years ago. No hiding things here.” Kelly said. “But I should tell you, I have a job interview today at Rusty’s BBQ, the place on 105. “

“They’re good. You should make pretty good tips there.”

“Oh, I am not waiting tables. I am interviewing for the overnight smoker job. It’s sitting up all night tending the smoker so all the meats are ready in the morning. I didn’t sleep much the past few years, so might as well put that talent to use.”

“Watching the smoker…as in the fire?” I had to ask.

“Yeah. From what I researched on the internet, there needs to be a low flame all night. Not too much heat, let the smoke do the work.” She sighed, and her whole body relaxed. “A bigger flame would be easier to tend, but the fire is there for the meat, not me, right?”

I nodded. I never did understand the attraction to smoked meats. There are none of the lovely charred ends with smoke. Bigger was always better when it came to fires.

“But it’s kind of romantic, in a way, sitting there under the stars, listening to the crackling fire, smelling the mesquite smoke and the aroma of the rub spices mixing and mingling as it all wafts up.” Another sigh. “It’s like being part of an Old Testament priesthood.”

I jotted down some notes on the legal pad on my desk. Rusty’s BBQ. Tending the smoker all night. Priesthood. Technically, there was nothing wrong with a parolee having this job but I had a bad gut feeling about this. “A priesthood?”

“Oh come on, don’t say you don’t worship fire just a bit. It’s all over the Bible. God asking for burnt sacrifices? Our God is a consuming fire? And the songs we sing: Refiners’ Fire? Basically anything about Pentecost and the tongues of fire?”

My pencil point broke and I grabbed an ink pen that was handy. Pentecost, tongues of fire, I wrote. “I will need to contact someone at Rusty’s to verify employment. Who do you report to?”

“Rusty himself! I think he likes my dedication.” Kelly’s total lack of self-awareness frightened me. Usually, felons had an idea of what they did wrong, and what situations would lead them to do it again. Drug dealers knew a lack of money would make the lure of fast cash drag them back. But Kelly? Her association of fire with religion seemed to me almost too much, as if it would be the defense against her next crime. And while no one died in the house she burned down eleven years ago, there was no guarantee she would be so lucky again. 

“Ever go camping?” Kelly said, out of the blue.

“Uh, yeah, we take the kids now and then.”

“And you sit around a campfire at night, right? Make s’mores? Poke at the fire with sticks to get the best flames? Toss trash and shit in just to see it burn? Everyone loves a good fire. I know what’s in that folder. Some prison shrink wrote pyromania, right? That’s the diagnosis. But everyone is a pyro, really. Anyone with a home fireplace who lights it for ambiance. Anyone who goes camping and sits by a campfire. And back yard fire pits? it’s just most people are satisfied with just a little. Just a little money, just a little happiness. But those of us who want more, more love, more happiness, more feeling? We are ostracized and diagnosed and medicated so we want less. It’s a conspiracy you know.”

I tapped the pen on the folder that held her justice system history. “You burned down your boyfriend’s house. He said he asked you to do it for the insurance money. That is arson, a crime. We are not conspiring against you, we are holding you accountable for your actions. There are consequences, good or bad, for everything we do.” I put down the pen. Said boyfriend was still in prison for insurance fraud, a fact I thoroughly enjoyed. That is the thing about small towns. Kelly’s boyfriend was my ex.

Kelly crossed her legs. She was wearing leather Frye boots, even though it was fairly warm outside. Her dark wash skinny jeans were tucked in, and she had on a lacy camisole and a blazer that looked right off the rack of Ross Dress for Less, complete with threads poking out from the shoulder seams. “It was an accident. I didn’t mean for the house to burn down. I was trying to surprise him with dinner. Turns out I am not such a good cook.”

“So, not being a good cook was a requirement for the job at Rusty’s?” I couldn’t help myself. “Accidents aside, the old Caraway Warehouse was not an accident. There was a paper trail to the money they paid you.”

“I don’t know why, I had never even heard of the place. And I never saw any money.” Kelly stared down at her boots. She fiddled with the zipper a bit, then sat up straight. 

I started at the files. “Maybe some other local arsonist used your name.”

“Whatever,” Kelly sighed. “The jury thought it was me, so there you have it.” She shifted her seat in the chair. “Anyway, you never answered.  Are you going to the reunion? Can you believe it’s been 25 years since we were seniors at ol’ Greenville High?”

I had previously supervised people who had gone to my high school, but usually not my year or social circle. I told my boss this could be awkward, but he thought it best Kelly had a woman parole officer. The lacy camisole Kelly wore to this meeting told me that he had a point. “I hadn’t really thought about it.” 

“I got a call a few days ago from Becky Hrushovski. She wants me to help with the committees and all. That’s allowed, right? I would think it would be community service.”

“Yes, you can serve on the committee. Just don’t be in charge of something like a skeet shooting day. No weapons, right?”

Kelly smiled. “Oh, no skeet shooting for me. They put me in charge of the bonfire!”

Shit. Why would anyone put a convicted arsonist in charge of a bonfire? I made a note to call Becky later. Only problem was, if I complained about Kelly being the bonfire chair, they would give the job to me. No, thank you. 

***

I normally don’t spy on my supervisees. But I did need to confirm that Kelly was spending her evenings at Rusty’s with the smoker and not hanging out at some bar, so I parked my ancient Toyota at the back of Rusty’s parking lot where I could see the black smoker. It was bigger than my Corolla, and puffs of white smoke drifted out of the top cylinder. Just smoke, no flames. I took a deep breath and pulled out the box of Diamond Strike Anywhere matches I kept in the glove box. Just one, and then I could go on my way. The sulfur fume that erupted from rubbing the match along the sandpaper side smelled of promise. It relaxed me even more than the first sip of a cold Chablis. I could see the flame reflected in the passenger window illuminating my eyes. Kelly had called it a priesthood, but I felt more like a porn addict. The flame consumed the small piece of wood, and I looked around the inside of my car for a piece of paper or something that could extend the life of my little flame. Damn, nothing. I let it burn until the flame reached my fingers. I should blow it out, but I could not. I never could. My fingertips were scarred, in fact, I couldn’t remember a time they weren’t.

When I was six, I was punished after I set my bedroom carpet on fire while working my way through a pack of matches from the Strike and Spare bowling alley. One by one I would let them burn to my fingers, but I dropped one before it was done. After that, I learned to hide in the bathroom, dropping the burned ends into the toilet. I thought I was getting away with it, until the toilet clogged and the plumber gave my mother a bucket full of blackened wooden matches. 

Kelly wasn’t going anywhere and more importantly, 

the fire she had going wasn’t worth staying for. I could barely see the occasional lick of orange. Mostly, there was smoke. Boring. 

I drove home, disappointed.

***

You would think someone who just got out of prison for arson and tended the fires for a BBQ restaurant would be able to ignite a small bonfire. You would think wrong. Kelly had told me about getting the local Scout Troop to collect old furniture and arrange it with tree branches and scrap wood for the event. The reunion organizers were keen on the bonfire because we had never had one our senior year.

“Think she can get it going?” Tiffany Mercer tapped me on the arm with her plastic solo cup of wine. The pile was smoldering, but there were no real flames.

“We could smoke a few briskets,” I offered. 

Tiffany sighed. “We really wanted this to be a good bonfire since we never got to get ours at the end of senior year.”

I nodded. Someone had lit the pile that was to be our senior bonfire in the pre-dawn hours the day of the bonfire. It burned for nearly an hour before someone noticed and called the fire department. 

Tiffany leaned in close. “After her trial, we all thought it was Kelly who lit it early, her being a pyro and all.” 

A few sparks danced around some of the smaller wood sticks, but it remained a big smoky mess. What we needed was some diesel. Should I have volunteered to go get some? I rubbed the scars on my fingertips together. No, I wasn’t going to save Kelly. She was a bad choice for this committee. I knew she didn’t start the senior bonfire. She wouldn’t have known to ask at the airport for some jet fuel. I kind of felt a bit sorry for her. And for my ex, who was only trying to save Kelly with his insurance story when the investigation revealed the fire at the house did not start in the kitchen. They found that the perp used jet fuel as an accelerant, just like the warehouse and the high school bonfire years before.