Doug Lawson

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?”

You know.”

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.

Rochi …”

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.

It’s Rochelle.

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.