The Night Witches
Months before the fire—the big one that cuts up through the homes in our hills like a plane through a flock of doves—I see Rochelle in the street. It’s a Sunday. She has her hand in some guy’s pocket. Her hair is paler than I remember it, and it hangs down around her face like she still cuts it herself. She is tanned, broken-in, like she’s been living outdoors all these years.
“Is that Rochi?” I ask Hope, forgetting that Hope never knew Rochelle.
Hope is pointing out the pneumatic metal ostrich to Noah as it hisses and clanks past us. He studies it from up on Hope’s shoulders with a look like he’s swallowed a spider. It’s a moment of summer in Santa Cruz as drawn by Miyazaki: creatures of many colors leap and strut and caper in the street. Pyrotechnic children and dogs with wings grin from alleyways. Cosplay cyborgs loom in doorways. Shops are filled with clockwork angels and satyrs on stilts. Demons with mechanical jaws and painted breasts laugh and hoist lattes. A Victorian house rolls by. A snail-car shoots fire from metal horns.
Rochelle extracts the guy’s wallet. He has no idea—just another Santa Cruz dad in tie-dyed t-shirt and cargo shorts and sandals. As Rochelle tucks his wallet into the front pocket of her jean jacket, he watches a passing steampunk submarine.
She glances around to see if anyone has noticed, and she sees me watching. I can’t tell if she recognizes me. Then she turns and pushes her way back into the crowd.
I lean forward and tell Hope I’ll be back. She can’t hear me but nods in her way that says what the hell?—mouth tight, eyes looking back at me over Noah’s thigh, and then away. We aren’t doing well this summer.
I move through the crowd, peering over heads. I look into the shops. There’s a store with acceptably edgy beach clothes for people who don’t spend much time at the beach, a busy independent bookstore, a shop dedicated entirely to socks, a restaurant devoted to chocolate. I look down the side streets, too, but Rochelle has vanished.
On the way home Hope asks Noah “Where was mommy, anyway?” and Noah looks over at me from his car seat.
“I thought I saw someone,” I say, looking back at him in the mirror. “Someone I used to know.” Noah looks back over to Hope.
“I thought the parade was family time, Beth,” she sighs, looking out the window. There’s a homeless guy out there with a sign that says I NEED BEER.
Noah looks back at me. I shrug in the rearview mirror and smile at him, but then he looks out the window, too. On his side, we’re passing an ice cream place that has flavors like honey-fig-ricotta and lemon basil.
“Who’s up for ricotta ice cream?” I ask.
But Hope just leans over and turns on the kid music, louder than any of us really likes it.
* * *
I wonder if I imagined her. I look for her on Facebook. No luck. Google turns up nothing.
Maybe a month later, another Sunday, I’m down in Santa Cruz again. Things are getting pretty intense, and Hope has taken Noah down to her dad’s for the weekend. Since I’m home by myself, and the pager is quiet, I dig out the old wetsuit. It says “The Night Witches” across the front, after some of the first Soviet women combat pilots in World War II—they flew these crazy old planes, and would cut off their engines when they got close to their targets and just glide in through the darkness. The wetsuit still has sponsor labels down the sleeves—most for surfing-related companies that aren’t around anymore.
I get one of the two wooden longboards off the wall in the garage. It’s covered with dust, but I wipe it down. It needs new varnish.
I bring it down to Pleasure Point, at the end of 41st Street. It’s not a rough spot—mostly kids and older people, with calm and regular waves. The vibe is pretty relaxed. People meditate or do yoga on the rocks, but there’s not a big scene.
I’m in for an hour before my thoughts turn off and my body can remember what it is there to do, and I finally get some good rides in. My head moves into that place where time and words evaporate. I’m part of the rising swell of the wave, the curve of gusting wind, the spill and spread of the water up onto the shore. When at last I climb out and sit on the rocks, I actually enjoy eating soup out of a thermos.
“Beth?” a woman’s voice says. “I didn’t think it was you, but then I saw the suit.” She is smoking a cigarette in the middle of the yoga moms, wearing the same jean jacket. Her face is startlingly thin and the hand that holds the cigarette looks like a claw, but she has that same old nervous smirk on one side of her face.
“Rochi?” I say. I look at the yoga moms to see if they see her, too. Confirmed: frowns, grimaces—someone waves smoke away from her face and makes exaggerated coughing noises even though she’s ten feet away. Rochi always could make an entrance. She stands up, tosses the cigarette into a tide pool, and comes over. We both start to say something at the same time. We stop, do it again, and then I laugh, nervously, and she smirks.
“Sorry,” I say. “I’m a little out of practice at this.”
“At talking to ghosts? Old Bethie,” she says. “Just hug me. I can’t steal your wallet when you’re wearing a wetsuit. Particularly that one.”
So I hug her, gingerly, though I’m mostly dry by then.
“I won’t break, you know,” she says, and pulls me in tighter.
“That was you,” I say, after a minute. “At the parade. Jesus, Rochi.”
She shrugs, jerkily. “It comes back easier than you think,” she says. “Like watching X-Files or eating tofu. You look like you’re doing all right. A little beat up, maybe, but all right.”
“Little house up in Felton,” I say. “Driving the hill.”
“Wild Beth Tompkins, working in Silicon Valley?”
“Kid’s got to eat,” I say, without thinking.
She looks away, at the water. Her foot is tapping out a beat. Somewhere a yoga mom starts chanting.
“I noticed the ring,” she says, after a moment.
“Hope and I met at work,” I tell her. “And Noah’s almost two now.”
She nods. Then she says, “You looked good out there, by the way.”
“I’m sorry,” I say again. “That was tactless.”
“That you got married?”
She shakes her head. “It’s been ten years, Beth. I bet you’re still a good parent.”
“Actually, I suck.” I know it. Noah knows it. Hope seems to enjoy pointing it out. She got her sharp tongue from her dad—it was funny before we got married. Now, not so much.
“Well, I’m glad to hear you have a kid,” she says. “Anything left in that thermos?”
I shake my head. “Come on,” I say. “I’ll buy you some fish.”
I throw on some clothes from the van, clip the pager to my belt, and we walk to the Pink Godzilla, a sushi place up the street. I order a couple of rolls.
“Do you remember that move?” she says, after the too-friendly waiter leaves. “The one that always worked on guys?”
“The Tuck and Nip?” I laugh. After high school, Rochi and I had lived with a bunch of other teens and twenty-somethings at a rundown place over in east Santa Cruz. A guy we called Trustafarian Bob owned an old Victorian with a bunch of land, and someone had parked an old school bus there. A bunch of us would ride the bus downtown on the weekends to see what we could acquire: watches, jewelry, handbags, wallets. Rochi and I would team up. We’d pick an older guy, maybe in his forties. One of us would pass by, drop something, and bend over to get it, making sure our shirt was really loose in front. The other one would pick the guy’s pocket.
“I doubt that’d work too well now,” I say.
“You might be surprised,” she says, with that smirk again. “You just have to keep adjusting your targets.”
We had used that move out on the water, too—one of us would flash the competition, the other would grab the great wave. We brought back trophies and, frankly, the competition had never complained. Though Rochi’s so thin now I wonder if she has much left to look at.
The fish comes. The pager goes off, but it’s not for our station so I switch it over to the quiet setting.
“You a cop now or something?”
“Fire department in Felton,” I say. “I volunteer—just got in last year.”
“So you’re not going to arrest me.”
“Don’t sound so hopeful,” I say. “It’s still early.”
She is passing through with friends, she tells me. They met at Burning Man where she’d put on a big art piece like she used to do back at T-Bob’s, this one an elaborate choreography of enemy “mimes” and “robots.” Burning Man was a lot like our old days in Santa Cruz, I gather. Just less water.
T-Bob’s house was always the center of an event, and people drifted in and out every few days around the small core group of us. Rochi and I watched them come and go from our bay window on the second floor. Some nights there’d be more than a hundred people there—students from the high schools and UCSC, surfers passing through and living in their Microbuses, anarchists and trustafarians (sometimes with kids in tow), people off the street who didn’t seem too crazy or smell too bad. Phish even played there once. Mornings we’d be up and out early, to catch the tide, and we’d have to pick our way across half-dressed piles of sleeping people just to get out the door.
“So some of the mimes and some of the robots are living in a negotiated peace at someone’s camp out past Bonny Doon,” Rochelle says. And after a string of bad relationships, she adds, she isn’t seeing anyone in particular right now.
She seems brittle around the edges, her movements speeded up and a little too precise, like a bird’s. She looks at me, at the door, at my lips, at the sushi, at my chest, at the guy sitting next to us, and then back at me in the course of a few seconds. She doesn’t eat much.
“So,” she says. “Hope?”
I tell her the facts: we were tech writers together at a Valley company that put movies online. I was drawn in by the way she could command the attention of a room full of engineers with her sarcasm. She liked my surfer slang. We got married in her dad’s backyard as soon as we could.
I let Rochi know that Hope and I were having a rough time. The hours that Valley companies expect. The amazing logistical overhead that one tiny human requires. “You know how it goes,” I say.
“I don’t,” she says. “But I hear it that Wild Beth isn’t exactly the settling down type.” She reaches across the table and takes my hand. “This hardly surprises me.”
I can feel the bones in her fingers.
I don’t say how much having a kid changed things for me. How it brought things up from before that I wasn’t ready to deal with. I don’t talk about how Hope carries my slack. When Noah cries now, he wants Hope. When he’s happy and wants to play, usually lining up dominos in dot order, or arranging his cars by color and size, he wants Hope. When he’s ready for bed, he’ll only let Hope tell him stories—the same ones, the same order. I sit out on the steps, tracking wave heights on my cell phone and listening to the fire dispatches. I’m stuck somehow, and the two of them are moving on together without me.
“Have you ever gone back?” I ask. “To T-Bob’s?” It’s late in the afternoon. She hasn’t eaten much and neither have I, but we have put away a lot of sake.
She jerks her head. “I’m not sure I could. You?”
I avoid that whole part of town. It’s like the whole space has been encapsulated in some sort of bubble, and I don’t have the right equipment to break in.
But maybe now I do.
“Hope’s gone for the weekend,” I say carefully. “Maybe we should.”
“Maybe we should what?” she says, looking at me sideways, her eyes all huge and green and innocent.
I blush. “Go down to T-Bobs,” I say. “You and me.” I can feel the ocean underneath me again, a wave rising up, rocks ahead.
“Is that a metaphor?”
“It’s just a drive,” I say. “Right?”
“I hear T-Bob is still there, you know?”
“He’s a doctor, I heard.”
“I heard he was a vet.”
I pay the check, and we climb into the van. I get lost once, it’s been so long, and I have to turn around at a downtown trailer park. When we pull up, it’s clear the old house hasn’t been kept up. Paint is peeling on the ocean-facing side. One of the big picture windows has a hole through it that’s covered over with cardboard and duct tape. The roof of the porch is pulling away from the rest of the house and taking some of the siding with it, and there are bicycle parts and the back end of an old Chevy in the lawn.
“Should we knock?” Rochi says.
“If you want to get shot.”
“Seriously. Come on.” She gets out of the van, and crosses the street. She opens the gate and waves me over. I follow reluctantly. There are stacks of magazines and papers rotting on the front porch next to black bags of trash.
“One knock,” she says, and reaches over.
But the door flies open before she can touch it. A shirtless guy stands there in underwear and flip-flops. He’s twenty-two or twenty-three. There’s a tattoo of the Oakland Raiders logo on the side of his unshaven neck. “The fuck you want,” he says.
He looks at Rochi first, then me, then back at her. I take a step backward, raising a hand to apologize—for what I don’t know. But he’s looking at Rochi in a strange way. “I told you people you can’t come here,” he says. “Fuck it, if you want to buy you have to talk to fucking Toby, you can’t bother me at fucking home.”
“We don’t want anything,” I say. “We used to live here. We were just driving by.”
“Right,” he says, looking at Rochi. “Fuck off of my porch,” he says, and slams the door.
We run for the van, and I pull away before we get the belts fastened. “What an asshole,” I say.
Rochi frowns, bites her bottom lip, and looks out the window. Then she looks back. “My, my. T-Bob’s looking younger every day,” she says and starts laughing.
I don’t know why it’s so funny, but I start laughing too, so much that tears start coming out of my eyes. “Nice tighty-whities, too,” I say, and we both crack up again. I have to pull the van over to the side of the road, where we gasp and try to catch our breath. We’re up past the surfer statue on Route 1, past the stretch of college stuff. The full moon is up early, and we can see surfers moving across the sea like water spiders.
“Look,” says Rochi, leaning across me and pointing. “Look at that.”
I follow the line of her finger, and see two young women in matching wetsuits, surfing together. They’re pretty good. As we watch, a huge wave rises and they both scramble for it. After a shaky moment, they’re both up and shooting along the surface of the water together.
I know just what that feels like. It feels like flying through the dark sky on the back of a broom. My heart is racing, and I can smell Rochi there in the van—cigarettes, and something else.
She turns to me with a serious look on her face. Then she closes her eyes and leans in closer.
I catch my breath and lean back a little.
“Rochi,” I say, after a minute. I wave my hand in the air between us. “I don’t think these are the droids you’re looking for.”
She sighs and sits back in the seat. “I should go home and rethink my life?” she says with a smirk.
I nod, and put on a grin, too. “It’s been a long—”
“Don’t,” she says. “I get it. Wild Beth really has settled down after all. At least a little bit.”
“I’m not so convinced. But maybe you should come up to Felton,” I say.
“Come up and see ya sometime?” she says. “Meet the family? There may be an alternate timestream in which that happens, Beth Tompkins. But I’m not sure it’s the one we’re all floating in right now.”
I drive her back to her car, a beat-up old Corolla. I hug her, kiss her cheekbone, and watch her drive off.
Only later do I realize my wallet is missing. Which you’d think would have pissed me off, but between us Witches it was actually kind of funny.
I assumed I’d never see her again.
* * *
All that fall, I listen to the local fire dispatches whenever I can, and carry my pager everywhere, set to the mode that lets you hear all of the calls, all of the chatter. I haven’t been in the department long, and I try to get out on as many calls as I can. It’s not glamorous. I go out on smoke-checks, which are mostly charcoal grills or people using woodstoves when they shouldn’t be. I help handle a vehicle fire on Highway 17, and get to direct the traffic until the CHP shows up. It’s not that I’m a woman—I’m not the only one, and all the guys are really great about making me feel like a part of the department. I’m just new.
I spend time surfing, too. I work my way back up from Pleasure Point to Natural Bridges, and from there start heading up to just north of Davenport and Waddell Creek, where all the windsurfers go. I’m not the only person in my thirties on the water, but I am the only one who rides a big redwood longboard. It’s large enough to be what’s called an SUP now, a stand-up paddleboard, and many people confuse it with one. I get a nickname, “Old School,” and that kind of pleases me.
Crazily enough, as I spend more time surfing, Hope and I begin to get along better. Things aren’t perfect, of course. I’m still not great with Noah. But it gets a little better. Some days, Hope will actually leave him with me, and I’ll take him down to see the waves. I tell him about surfing. I hop up on a guardrail to show him some of the stances, and even get a laugh sometimes.
I start sleeping better, too. And sometimes when I reach out for Hope in the early morning, she’s there. I tell her about seeing Rochelle, about some of the time at T-Bob’s house—things I’d never mentioned before.
I don’t talk about the other kid, though. Not sure I ever will.
Rochi and I had been winning a lot of competitions when he first showed up. Dark brown eyes caked with dirt. He couldn’t have been more than three. His mother was a white rasta chick with big breasts and dreadlocks and a fake Texas accent, who passed through for a month. When she headed on down to Baja she left him behind. He didn’t even have a name, at least not one that any of us knew. He drifted from couple to couple before he landed with Rochelle and me. When we ate, he’d bring over his bowl of tofu and greens and climb up into a chair between us. When we went surfing, he’d ride along in the beater car and sit in the sand, staring out at us. He began sleeping in our room, on a mattress we put at the foot of our bed. Rochelle started dressing him in the morning.
He was ours to play house with, and we both fell hard for him. I think we taught him his first words, the names of different surfing moves: The pig-dog. The kick-out. The floater. The tail-slide. He could strike different poses on the longboards when we called them out, sort of a party trick around the big bonfire in the yard. After a year of him being with us, Rochi got him his own tiny Night Witches wetsuit, and we started taking him out on some easy waves, close to shore. The kid was a natural.
We named him Nate, after Rochi’s brother. At night sometimes, he’d climb up into the bed between us. He snored like a little grizzly.
It didn’t end well, of course. Two years later, almost to the day, the white rasta woman came back for him, full of official remorse that we suspected had more to do with her ability to collect child support. Nate didn’t even remember her, but she insisted he was going to come with her back to Austin. She got into an argument with Rochi that escalated into a fight. Nate started screaming, and the rasta turned and smacked him. Rochi went after her with a knife and cut her, pretty badly.
When the woman got back from the emergency room, she brought a pair of cops. There wasn’t much we could do. The woman left, pulling a bruised, sobbing Nate—still in his Witches wetsuit—behind her.
We never saw him again. It was the beginning of the end for the Witches, and for Rochi and me. Rochi started drinking more, and went deep into all of the pharmaceutical options available at T-Bob’s.
We stopped competing—stopped surfing altogether. I quietly moved back in with my parents. I think I was gone a week before she noticed.
* * *
Sometimes even now, months later at Rory’s house, I sit bolt upright from a dead sleep and think I hear the pager screaming the way it did that night of the Swanton Canyon fire. Unusual winds had been howling all that week. A meth lab out west of Bonny Doon had been raided and a camper went up in a massive fireball. It started a blaze that spread across a hundred acres in minutes. Then five hundred. Then a thousand.
I hear the first engine out of Bonny Doon dispatched, and then I hear them report back—the fear and intensity in the captain’s voice when he says just how bad it is, how much it’s spread already, and how fast it’s moving. Every station has its own set of specific call tones, and that night I hear all of them, one after another, all the stations around Santa Cruz and Watsonville and then over in the valley, and all the way up the Peninsula. I roll over to wake up Hope, but she is already staring at me. “Oh my God,” she says. “Oh my God.”
“I’ve got to go in,” I say, as the pager plays the tones for Felton again.
“I’ll get Noah,” she says. “We’ll go down to my dad’s.”
I jump out of bed, run to the van, and start pulling on my bright-yellow turnouts. From the driveway, I can already see the horizon to the west glowing an ominous orange. The smoke column is thick and black and edged with silver in the moonlight. It blocks out a whole part of the sky.
Bonny Doon isn’t far from us. The terrain is rough, and the flatland trucks will have a hard time getting in to the heart of it. Cal Fire aircraft won’t launch until the sun is up.
And the wind is blowing our way.
We bundle a sleepy Noah into the Subaru and throw in the emergency jump bags, though neither of us knows what’s in them now. At the last minute, I run back into the house and grab the laptop and the album of Noah’s baby pictures and toss them into Hope’s trunk. In the van, I follow them out to the highway, and watch as Hope signals left and pulls away and their taillights blend into the river of all the other cars heading down into town. All full of things thrown in at random—flat screens and bicycles, dogs and computers. I even see a rooster riding in someone’s front seat.
By the time I turn back toward Felton, the pager is saying the fire is at fifteen hundred acres and no containment. Our station is out on Empire Grade Road, where we’re working to set up a line to keep the fire from getting across. I’m late, so I go there directly in the van and check in with the site lead. He puts me on pumpkins with Jeff Powell. Pumpkins are these big orange flexible water containers. You flop them out onto the ground, fill them with the hose, and they’re ready to use. We’re to drop some of them up Empire Grade, so that when the engines from the Valley get here they’ll have a water source.
I like Jeff. He talks a lot but it fills in all the air when I’m being too quiet. He drives the water tender and tells me about his dogs while I drop and fill the pumpkins. We drop one, fill it, and head back to the school in Bonny Doon where there’s a water source we can fill up from.
It’s an eerie night. The road is deserted, though we can hear sirens off in the distance. Smoke wends its way through the trees and drifts across the road in the tender’s headlights. To the east the night is clear, and the Milky Way stretches up across the sky, but from the west ashes are blowing in. A herd of boar startles from a thicket of scotch broom and scatters across the road in front of us, grunting and huffing, and then sprints off across a Christmas tree farm on the other side. I smell burning pine and live oak but also something acrid, like plastic, which usually means a house has gone up. It won’t be the last.
Then I see a person up ahead, stumbling along the side of the road.
I call to Jeff, and we pull the tender up.
She looks like hell—all covered in dirt and soot. Part of her hair is singed, and there’s a bruise across the left part of her jaw. She carries her right arm tucked in tight to her side, holding her ribs.
“Rochi! Jesus Christ,” I say. She must have come through the fire, but wasn’t that still a mile off? I pull the medical bag out of the back and run over to her.
“Beth?” she coughs. “Well, hell. What’s a girl like you doing out in a place like this?”
Jeff jumps down and grabs a blanket out of the back, and I lead her over to the back of the tender. She’s so light I could have carried her with one arm. Jeff goes back to the cab to call for an ambulance, while I hook her mask up to the oxygen tank.
“Jesus, Rochi.” I hold the mask up to her. I show her how to hold it when she breathes in.
Jeff comes back from the cab and says, “There’s a car with its lights on, about a quarter mile up. That yours?”
Rochi nods. “Out of gas,” she says, but talking makes her start coughing again. The way she holds her arm in to her side makes me think she’s broken a rib.
“I called in the medical aid,” Jeff says. “The paramedics are all working the explosion site, though. We can get an ambulance out of Watsonville, but that might be an hour. Might be better if we get someone at the school to run her in ourselves.”
“I can do it,” I say. “My van’s back with the engines.”
“We have enough pumpkins.” Jeff nods. “At least for a while. Let’s find out. You’re going to be OK, ma’am,” he says to Rochi. “Just hang in there.”
We OK it with the site lead, and Jeff helps me get Rochi back to the van. I pull away from the group and out onto the empty road, probably driving too fast. The little oxygen tank hisses, and the smell of smoke coming off of her fills up the vehicle. I crack the window, but there’s so much smoke outside now it doesn’t make a difference.
I look over at her, and she’s watching me with those bright eyes. “What the hell happened?” I say. “Did you have to drive right through the fire?”
“Beth,” she says. She puts her hand on the dash and takes another breath. She looks out of the windshield. “I was the fucking fire.”
I’m quiet for a minute, putting it all together. “The explosion? The lab?”
She nods. “You didn’t guess?”
I shake my head. “That’s how you were paying for it all? The mimes and everything?”
“It wasn’t my gig, but yeah. One of the guys got really into it and it took on a life of its own.”
“Christ, Rochi.” How’d you let it get so bad? I want to say, but I know that’s not really a question with an answer.
“Look, Beth,” she says hesitantly, after taking in some more deep breaths. “I kind of need your van.”
“Because it matches the wallet?”
“Don’t fuck with me,” she says, and her eyes flash. She starts coughing again. Then shakes her head. “Shit, I’m sorry.”
“You need a hospital,” I say.
“If you take me in, the cops won’t be far behind.”
I have to slow down, because the smoke is blowing thick across the road now. I turn on the fog lights, but it doesn’t help. “Where were you going to go?”
She leans her head against the window. “Hell, I don’t know. Baja, maybe. Down the coast on Route One—they probably wouldn’t be watching that way.”
“And then what?”
She sighs, coughs. “Look, I have to say I didn’t have a full evacuation plan set up in the event of a fucking apocalypse.”
I have to slow down—there’s a flock of wild turkeys in the road. The sky is getting lighter in the east, and I realize I’ve been up all night. I hear over the pager that air support is being called in, and that there’s zero percent containment of the fire. It’s completely out of control.
I guess my feelings for Rochi aren’t entirely contained either. I’m not giving her the van, but I do take her down to Hope’s dad’s in Santa Cruz instead of the hospital. She coughs the whole way, and I when I get her out of the van she staggers and I can see she’s bleeding.
Hope comes out in her robe and gives me that look I’m used to, but I shake my head. “Later,” I say. “She’s hurt, pretty badly. Can you grab the first-aid kit out of the back?”
Hope grabs the kit and Rochi’s other arm, and together we get her inside.
Hope’s dad Rory comes downstairs. He’s a start-up guy, with some pretty wild hair. “Hey there, Beth,” he says. “What’s that meth-head doing on my couch?”
“Dad,” Hope says, “Close your kibble hole.”
“Closing.” Rory grins at me. “She OK?”
“She needs to get to the hospital,” I say. “I’m just waiting for her to realize it.”
Rory says, “I’ll call nine-one-one.”
“No,” Rochelle, Hope, and I all say at the same time.
“What?” says Hope, when I look at her. “If you wanted the ambulance you wouldn’t have brought her here, right?”
I nod. “Hope, this is Rochi.”
“Hey,” Rochelle says. “I’m the Ghost from Communes Past.”
“Um, hey there, bleeding woman.”
“I was the beta test,” Rochelle tells Rory. “Too many bugs.”
I pull on the latex gloves and get her to let me open up her jacket.
It’s much worse than I expected. I can’t tell what happened—she got hit with something from the explosion? But much of her right side looks caved in. I’m surprised there’s not more blood. It’s probably all internal. Frankly, I’m scared. I’m not trained for this.
I stand up and pull the gloves off. “Rochi, we’re getting you to the hospital right now. This is way out of my league.”
She watches me for a long minute. Then she pulls off the oxygen mask and pushes herself to her feet.
I reach out to steady her, but she brushes me off and I’m startled to see there’s a black diver’s knife in her hand. I don’t know where that came from.
“I’m sorry, Beth—I can’t do that.” She waves the knife in our general direction. I can feel the blood drain out of my face. I wonder if it’s the same knife from T-Bob’s.
“Oh my God,” says Hope, taking a step back.
“Fuck,” whispers Rory. “Fuckety-fuck-fuck.”
“You’re going to stab me now?” I say. “Come on, Rochi.”
“I need the van, Beth.”
“That,” says Hope, “is so not going to happen.”
I hear the hiss of the oxygen from the mask on the floor, the hum of the refrigerator kicking on in the next room. A Cal Fire helicopter passes low overhead—I can tell by the sound of the engine, fast deep whumps like the sound of my heartbeat.
“There’s a lot you don’t know, Beth,” she says. “I’m sorry about this. I really am. I just really need those keys.”
It’s now, of course, that Noah decides to slide down the stairs.
He isn’t exactly walking yet, but he can climb out of his Pack ’n Play. Rory’s carpeted stairs are one of his favorite things. He slides down them one at a time and comes to rest at Hope’s feet. Then he pulls himself up by the hem of her robe. He stares drowsily at Rochelle, at all of us, and we stare back at him.
“Oh my God,” whispers Rochi.
Noah is in his tie-dyed pajamas that are at least a size too small and his dark hair is all matted from the pillow, and I know exactly who she sees. Suddenly, it’s that awful night again when Nate was pulled away from us, only recast. Different house, different faces.
But again she’s holding a knife. She lowers it a bit. “Hey, little buddy,” Rochi says. “I’m a friend of your mom’s. Sorry if I look a little scary right now.”
I know what I need to do.
“Noah,” I say. “Come here.”
Noah considers me from the safety of Hope’s robe, and then looks up at Hope. He wobbles a little on his feet, and Hope picks him up. “Beth?” Hope says. “The hell?”
“It’s OK,” I say. “Rochi? It’s OK, right?”
She nods without looking at me. She can’t take her eyes off him.
Hope hands me Noah.
“This is Rochi,” I tell him. “She’s an old friend of mine. She’s a surfer too. And she can do tricks like I can.”
Noah considers her. Then, surprising all of us, he makes his grabby gesture at her, the one he uses when he wants to be picked up.
Nate used to do the same thing.
Hope says, “Tell me you’re not going to hand our child over to the meth-head with the knife, Beth.”
“It’s OK,” Rochelle says. “It’s OK.” She looks at me. The knife in her hand trembles. I take a step closer. Noah yawns, then studies Rochelle’s face intently. He reaches out toward the bruise on her cheek.
“Jesus Christ,” Rochelle whispers. “Jesus fucking Christ.”
“I know,” I say. It’s a lot for me, too. “But you’ve got to give me the knife.”
She nods. She hands it over. I give the knife to Hope.
And then I turn and hit Rochi, a pretty solid left hook to the jaw. I’m off balance from Noah’s weight, but given Rochi’s condition, it’s more than enough to do the job.
* * *
“You really should have seen that coming,” I tell her later.
It’s December. Rochelle is in a Santa Cruz home now—half rehab, half temporary housing back in the warehouse district north of Route 1. I visit sometimes, and bring Noah. Hope comes too, though it took a lot of initial persuading.
“Tell me about it,” Rochi says. “That kid of yours is a natural, you know.” She smiles at Noah, who raises a Hot Wheels car in her direction.
Rochi got off relatively easy. The lab wasn’t hers, someone else confessed to running the whole thing, and while there will be a ton of lawsuits, she’s only being called as a witness. Hope and I didn’t mention the knife, under the condition that she makes rehab stick. So far, it seems, that’s working.
We talk about things she’s planning to do. Get an apartment soon in Aptos or Soquel. She’s looking for a job, maybe something in retail to get her on her feet. She says she’s even thinking about librarian school. I don’t know how much of that to believe, to be honest, but the fact that she is at least thinking of options is progress.
And she talks about Nathan, too, something neither of us had been able to do with anyone else. “I never admitted how much that little guy meant to me,” she says, loosely holding a cigarette, and staring out the dirty window of her room into the gray December fog. “How much that whole time meant.”
* * *
Later on, I tell Hope I know what Rochi means.
“So this is where someone else would hug you,” she says. “And say we’re never going to leave you, that you can open up and trust us and be yourself and see the kid who’s actually in front of you and everything will be just great.”
“But not you,” I say.
“I’m going to tell you to woman the fuck up and get over it,” she says, grinning. “Now pour me some wine.”
I pour the wine. We’re on the beach in Capitola, around the corner from where most of the tourists hang out. I’ve brought the longboards. They survived the fire, though most of the house did not, and at Rory’s I’ve stripped them down and revarnished them so the grain pops.
Hope’s not a surfer yet. But we sit there together on the boards with Noah, away from her dad and all of our other dramas, and today we drink wine and tell him stories. His favorite is about the superhero Surfer Kid. That kid, we tell him, is the best surfer in the world. He rides waves that are as big as buildings, with one foot on the back of a seal and the other on the back of a dolphin. He’s got smoke in his hair and sand between his toes and all around him the gulls cheer him on.
And then we put down our glasses and all three of us get up on the boards, to practice our moves. We take turns calling them out, and then together we all do them.
“Tail-slide!” I tell them. “Kick-out!”
We all move around on the boards.
“Floater!” says Hope.
“Pig-dog!” says Noah, in his little-kid voice that only we can understand.
“You think we’re ready yet?” Hope asks, from down on her hands and knees. We’re all hanging on to the front of our boards, as if for dear life. “I think I want to know what it feels like out there for real.”
For real? It feels just like all of this, I want to tell her. It feels just like flying.
Doug Lawson’s fiction has been cited as a 2014 Distinguished Story by the Best American anthology, received an Honorable Mention from the O. Henry Awards, and has appeared in a good number of literary publications, including multiple times in Glimmer Train Stories and the Mississippi Review, as well as in Passages North, the Sycamore Review, and other places. He has won Glimmer Train’s yearly Fiction Open, received a Transatlantic Review Award for fiction, a Henfield award, and a fellowship in fiction from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. “The Night Witches” will be included in his second collection of short fiction, forthcoming from Red Hen Press.