Hand in hand, the little boy and girl took the long way back to her house. They left the main road, which would have taken them past the deli where all of their classmates with pocket money were stealing handfuls of candy while those without checked payphones and storm drains, pooling their pennies. They walked along until the breeze from the crossroads met them at the corner and threw dust from four counties over at their bare legs, then they headed into the woods behind the firehouse. If the rookie fireman inside had looked out the window of the canteen, he would have seen their figures slipping into the trees and wished them luck, but he had been out late fighting one of his demons the night before and was taking a nap on the pool table.
The water tower was only just past the tree line. During the walk, the two had discussed how they would climb through the hole in the chain-link fence, careful not to catch their clothes on the sharp edges. Then they would climb all fifty- two rungs of the ladder up the side of the water tower. The water tower was old, so when flakes of paint and rust came off on their hands they would have to shake them off into the wind and pray to Saint Otis to protect them from tetanus. And at the top of the tower they would swear their love to the treetops, and the dimming sky, and any angels or birds who might be within earshot. And they would kiss, and their kiss would carry the news of their love four counties over on the breeze from the crossroads.
Unfortunately, the water tower was where the rookie fireman had gone with his demon after they had shared a bottle and the demon suggested that they, “Take it outside.” The demon was talking a big game that night and bet the rookie fireman that he could burn down the woods with an unkind word before the fireman’s piss hit the ground from the top of the water tower. There was some agreement about souls and leaving, depending on who won, but both were hazy on the details. The rookie fireman, who was sick of the demon and desperate for a leak, accepted. They climbed up together, the demon in front, and each one took a moment to scold the stars for dancing so. Looking down at the treetops and smokeless chimneys, the rookie fireman had a moment of clarity. He said to himself, “This is a town of shadows. Until your eyes get used to the dark, you can’t see them clearly. You have to give it time.” As he was very drunk, he thought this very profound. The rookie fireman and his demon shook hands and counted to three. But before the demon could let the unkind word out from his throat, the rookie fireman grabbed him by the back of the neck and cut out his silver tongue with a utility knife. The rookie fireman then threw the tongue over the railing, undid his fly, and won the bet. The demon spat once and, having nothing to pack but a couple of CDs he could buy anywhere, left. Nine unlucky rungs got a few drops of the demon’s blood on them when he spat, and melted away, leaving only forty-three. Back on the ground, the rookie fireman picked up the tongue and polished it against his pants, dreaming about what he’d buy when he hawked it the next day.
The gap left in the ladder made no difference to the rookie fireman, who had done all of his growing up, but proved too great a gap for the little boy and girl to clear. So, the two stayed on firm ground, keeping their heads well out of the clouds, which there were none of anyway. As the wind from the crossroads could not reach them in the trees, there was no chance of their love going very far. They contented themselves to hold hands and stare at their shoes while they made pledges. Their words went straight into the ground and through the topsoil. The blind grubs down there did not know what to do with it, and went on squirming around in the dark, as if the world had not changed forever. Their love travelled down until it hit groundwater. It did not know that it was so far from the sea, and made itself very comfortable. Then the boy and girl got up the courage to look at each other instead of the ground, though the patterns of pine needles there were very beautiful. And they kissed until the first of the evening’s fireflies told them to go home.
*Originally published in Icarus Vol. 62, No. 1