Monday, February 16, 2015

Edge of Redemption: Chapter Two Kenna

Chapter Two

No matter how hard I tried, I could never recreate that day—the day I burned.
The heat of the flames licked my face, encapsulating me with a force I'd grown to savor. Tainted smoke filled my lungs, but my memories remained locked away as if it happened to someone else entirely.
It always began innocent enough with the deceptive smell of campfire wafting high in the air and bouncing toward me in a playful dance, confusing my memories with that of willow sticks and marshmallows, goodness and life. But I knew better. It was only a precursor. The old barn, abandoned fifty years before, popped and cracked. Its final battle lost and swallowed by a kaleidoscope of orange, yellow, and red flames. A cloud of black smoke filled the sky, but still, no new memories were triggered. No part of me, changed. As glorious as it was, it was all routine.
It was strange to think I'd just set my fourteenth burn, well, my official burn. The rest of my fires had been discarded long ago as simply a child's curiosity, but Cal knew the difference. He knew I was searching, and he wanted to protect me from myself.  Maybe that was why he encouraged the burnings in the first place. I bet he never expected it'd turn into this.
Even now as I played the part of showman and waved at the crowd, I recognized no one. My fans for one day. These faceless people in a crowd. My teachers. Old friends. My first love. I'd never gotten used to the spectacle, but simply tolerated their prying eyes. It was easier being the freak.
The people's chants and shouts of encouragement reeked of selfish intentions. If the billowing stench of molted flesh hadn't soured my stomach, their false sense of support would have. The fires eventually always smelled of death and decay. Maybe that was my curse—my one memory.
I heard the chief calling out to me, warning me to back away, but I chose to ignore him. I'd always pressed it until the last minute to savor each moment in hopes that the fire would never be in vain. The skin on my arms and face grew hot, but it was a heat that fueled me. Almost there. A little longer.
Shouts of warning had little effect on me. I lit fires for Christ's sake, big ones, I wasn't afraid. Besides, if I pushed just a little longer…  Mom? Did I even call her that? Why did it seem like a foreign word, tasteless and cold?
"Kenna. Pull her back. Now!"
And just like the thirteen burnings before, I came up short and retreated to the arms of the men leading me away.
A few onlookers remained in the dwindling crowd; I could see pity in their expressions. I must've been obvious nothing had changed within me.
"Next year, Kenna. I can feel it," someone called out, as if I wasn't more than just a thing to them—their creation—and an annual plaything.
Kenna Doe. God, how I hated who they'd made me. They might as well called me Brown or Green, something ordinary, something that anyone or anything could've been.
"You okay?"
I closed my eyes at the sound of Whit's voice and leaned into him. The other hands around me gave way, and eventually, I only felt his touch. I let him lead me, pretending he provided some sort of comfort, while I searched my brain for anything—even an afterthought of my former life.
"Are you okay?" he asked again.
It was times like these when I wished I could still cry, but it seemed with each added burning, my tears dried up completely. "I'm fine. I just want to go home."
"Let's get you some water," he said quietly. "Do you want to sit?"
I nodded and reluctantly opened my eyes. I'd forgotten all about the amateur preacher who'd requested I speak with him, but as I looked at him, standing next to me, in his bland short sleeve oxford shirt, my stomach turned. I wasn't in the mood for talk of God—of the Savior who allowed my mother to die.
"This is Duncan Cane," Whit said almost enthusiastically, as if this little prick held some sort of power. Like a goddamned medicine man come to banish the devil out of me. Been there. Done that. No thanks.
I didn't mean to study him as I did, but he didn't look like any student of God I'd seen, with his black framed Wayfarer glasses and trendy hairstyle. He looked like some rich kid who thought a lot about himself and wanted others to know just how little his shit stunk. No God-loving, seminary student could possibly be so shallow, even in a bad shirt.
"Sorry, Duncan Cane. I'm not interested." I turned to Whit. "Take me home."
Whit scratched his head and looked over my shoulder with a look of apology that made me want to scream.
I didn't always act like such a bitch, but burnings got the better of me. No matter how much I prepared for the letdown, I couldn't help the inevitable rage that stirred.
"I appreciate your willingness to talk to me," Duncan said.
"You know, maybe it isn't a good time."
Whit sounded nicer than I would've put it.
"I wasn't expecting what I saw today and I'll completely understand if…if—"
"If what?" I whipped around to face him.
He swallowed then stared back at me almost as if he'd slipped inside my thoughts.
"I'm sorry," he finally said, "about your mom."
I couldn't deny the concern in his voice. I guess I hadn't given those simple words of condolence much thought until then, when it felt like I'd heard them for the first time, seen it on his face.
"Thank you," I said.
Wait. What was I doing? Why did I have to continue the charade? But the truth was, as I looked back at Duncan my mind filled with things I hadn't seen before. Plain white shirts with short sleeves. Flashes of images—of people. Faces drawn and somber just like his. A large cross behind a pulpit in a little church. Singing. There was singing.
I laughed. I wasn't sure what was happening.
Duncan glanced from Whit and back to me. A stunned expression twisted his boyish face.
I couldn't help it. I laughed again.
"Is everything all right?" Whit took my hands and peered into my eyes. "Is it the fire? Do you remember something?"
"No. I don't know. Maybe."
Whit and Duncan exchanged glances.
The images continued to flicker. Numbers. One-five-seven. Two-Three-Eight. I laughed, but the images slowed. Plain white shirt. Short sleeves. Hands tight around the pulpit.
My heart began to pound.
I am one of the wretched. The words pierced through my thoughts. I am one of the wretched.
"Kenna, did you hear me?"
I am one of the wretched. Plain white shirt. Short sleeves. I am one of the wretched. Plain white shirt.
I jumped, but Whit's loud voice did little to curb my thoughts and speculation. Insistent. Foreign. Mine. I turned on my heels and started for my car. I had to get out of there. For the first time in fourteen burnings, I remembered something. But, it wasn't the fire that fed my memory.

It was Duncan Cane. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Edge of Redemption Chapter One

Edge of Redemption

Chapter One

Born of fire.
At least that was the tale. Elaborate and rambling. Far fetched, yet mystical. Or maybe, just maybe, the whole story was utter bullshit. I tended to believe the latter, but there I stood, waiting for the show, my camera in hand, my eyes searching the scene. Scratch that. I should be honest. It wasn't as if I arrived in Redemption by chance.
I came to this place, somewhere between backwards and normal to land Kenna's story. The real one. Minus speculation. Minus fantasy. The tricky part would be getting her to tell me anything at all.
It didn't help that I was a journalist, especially in this town. From what other saps like me reported, folks hadn't embraced my sort (soul-sucking media hound) or the stories I wished to tell (the kick ass variety). Didn't you hear the one about the journalist who walked into a bar? Spend five minutes in a town like this and you would, if there even was a bar.
Redemption did have small town appeal set in a backdrop of rugged mountains sprinkled with the last bit of winter snow. They stood like looming guardians protecting the town. Old brick buildings, grandfathers of today's towering giants, lined the main street. Imagine the stories they could tell—the secrets. I was born an Army brat so I'd been shuffled all over the world, been to places large and small, but none felt as timeless as this one or as creepy.
"It's a good day for a burning."
The line bounced around me like an annoying game of Keep Away. Me, grasping and reaching, desperate to know how seemingly good people could celebrate the worst moment in a girl's life over and over like an Independence Day celebration. Complete with cotton candy and corn on the cob.
"Are you Duncan?"
I turned toward the deep, authoritative voice. "Yeah, I'm Duncan." It was only after I said my name that I actually noticed who was asking. I recognized his face from the one news report about Kenna that came out of these parts.
"I'm Bodee. Bodee Whitaker. Most people just call me Whit." He jutted out his hand with such enthusiasm, I half expected a "put 'er there, partner" to follow.  
I probably stared back at his splayed mitt as if I was some sort of freaking germaphobe. It wasn't that, but could I really trust a man who'd let all this sideshow crap happen to his girlfriend? Did I want that bad juju rubbing off? Nonetheless, I slipped my hand in his and squeezed tight, as my old man taught me. I even did the lean-in, no back slap, just a lean. Damn, he had a grip too.
"Have you talked to Kenna yet?" Bodee rested his hands on his hips, his elbows pointed east and west in perfect superman pose. He was that typical jock I hated in high school complete with overly gelled hair and a frequent flyer gym membership. He was everything I wasn't or cared to be. I was okay with nerdy. Nerdy was popular. Nerdy got me laid.
"You're a fireman." I motioned to the emblem on his shirt.
"Yeah, kinda ironic, considering."
Kinda, disturbing, really. But I gave him an agreeable nod as if I knew what he meant and wasn't bothered by it.
"So have you talked to her?"
"No, I was going to wait until after…." I glanced around, not sure what to call this impromptu fire festival in the middle of some old farmer's field.  
Bodee scratched at his chin and chuckled. "After the show?"
"Something like that." I smiled, still trying to mask how shitty this all made me feel.
Faces of the people milling about the yellowing field caught my eye. Everyday individuals. No one particularly unique. I watched them stare, with their hands shielding their eyes from the setting sun. They focused on the weathered barn in the distance, two story and leaning slightly to one side, barely holding on, like an old man with one last sunset to take in. A million questions jumbled my mind. I had to bite my lip so I wouldn't start rambling. Those questions would have to wait until I could talk to Kenna.
"Well, if you're looking for a better seat, I can take you near the front." Bodee pointed at the fire truck parked in the prime location between the barn and the gathering spectators.
"Yeah, that'd be great. Are you sure I won't be in the way?"
"Nah, we've been through enough burnings. Nothing ever happens. Plus, you've got it in with the man upstairs, right?" He gave me a shoulder slap with a bit more force than I would've imagined necessary. Again, nerd here, not a jock or even a half a jock so I wasn't sure his gesture was some sort of male bonding thing or if Bodee was smarter than I thought.
I nodded and smiled, not ready to confront my lie. Yes, I was a complete jackass for saying I was a seminary student, but the truth wouldn't get me the story of my career—at least my college career. For today, or until I fleshed out Kenna's tale, I was Duncan Cane lover of all things Godlike, or God-ish.
Oh, I suppose I didn't mention that I wasn't a legit journalist with the degree and my Daily Planet name badge. Nope. I was a college journalism major, but don't judge. I was damn good at it. My soon-to-be-realized career was going to be big. Ask any of my professors, any except Professor Crow, who thought I was a little wiseass without talent. He was wrong. I was a huge wiseass and as far as the talent… well, I shouldn't brag.
Kenna Doe's story was big and soon, it'd be mine. Crow would have to swallow his words with his Metamucil chaser. GIRL RESCUED FROM BURNING SHACK AND ADOPTED BY PYROMANICAL TOWNSPEOPLE. How awesome was that? I needed to work on the tag line a bit, but first, her story—the real story and not what The Redemption Society wanted everyone else in the country to believe. And even if pyromanical wasn't a real word, it should be.
It will be.
Bodee weaved me through the crowd of people who looked at me with wonder, yet despite their curiosity nodded a hello and wished me a good evening. It made my gut ache a bit thinking of the lies I'd have to tell. My fake background. My self-serving intentions. It wasn't as if I hadn't gone through it before. Made a few enemies. Broke a few hearts. Life moved on eventually. It always did. My responsibility to the truth weighed more on my mind than a few superficial relationships anyhow.
"Is it always like this," I called after Bodee, but kept my eyes on the people around me, some in folding chairs, others standing with a child on their shoulders. They shifted their weight right to left, left to right.
"What's that?" He turned his head slightly my way but kept trudging toward the fire truck.
"This"—I made a gesture with my hand to indicate our surroundings—"is it always like this? I mean… with the whole town?"
Bodee smiled and nodded.  "Not everyone supports Kenna. There's quite a few who don't think kindly of her. Think she was brought to Redemption by evil, but they stay away for the most part. I think more out of respect for my uncle. He rescued her, ya know."
"Calvin Whitaker's your uncle?" I said, as if I didn't already know. Considering they had the same last name, my fake surprise came off a bit dodgy. I'd watched a local interview with him, not about Kenna, but about the reintroduction of wolves in the area and the effects on the cattle. He had that Wyatt Earp kind of air about him. Made a man want to stand taller to avoid drowning in his shadow as he passed. I couldn't imagine what'd be like being son or nephew. He seemed like a whole lot of man to live up. "Are you two close?"
"As close as anyone is to him. Most just call him Cap or Captain. On account of his time in the service. He's a great man."
I bobbed my head, speculating, filing questions about Ol' Cappy for later. "That must be hard for Kenna. People not supporting her—judging."  
Several people in the crowd started to cheer and clap.
"She's an amazing person." Bodee had to raise his voice above the noise. "Not much fazes her, as you can see."
We neared the truck and I finally understood the rush of excitement that hit the crowd. I'd seen pictures of Kenna, mostly from a few years back when she seemed like a less than ordinary girl with frizzy hair and a face sprinkled with freckles, but the years, holy shit, were they kind to her. I couldn't help myself as I stared back at her—I actually laughed this freakin' schoolboy doofus kind of laugh.
"You okay," Bodee asked with a slight laugh of his own.
"Yeah. I'm good." I closed my wide mouth and shook off my complete look of awe at sight of her, but I could see clearly in Bodee's expression, I was too late.
He nudged me. "You can say it."
Silence. What the hell could I say that wouldn't result in Bodee popping me in the eye?
Bodee folded his arms around his chest, which made his biceps seem even larger than they were, and me, as small as ever. "I think this is the part where you tell me I'm a lucky guy," he went on.
I turned to drink her in. It was as if I was looking at a woman for the first time and my body was feeling it too. I wasn't one for freckles typically, not that I had a lot of choice with the women I'd been with, but there was something about the randomness of those light brown flecks kissing her creamy skin. Her long, wavy red hair rested just at the small of her back, above an ass that… I ran a hand over my face and laughed again. My heart raced. This was either the best assignment, or the one that would ruin me.
Bodee was right. He was a lucky guy.  
She looked my way—okay, Bodee's way—and smiled. It wasn't a full mouth smile, but one of those barely there, subtle sideways glances that instantly made my mind bound with curiosity. She tucked her hair behind her ear as her smile fell. Sadness pulled at her eyes, no matter how hard she tried to appear otherwise, she was broken and I had to know why.
A lanky man with salt and pepper hair and pristinely tailored fireman's dress uniform wandered over to Kenna. I assumed he was the Fire Chief by the way Bodee and his comrades tightened their expressions as he took center stage. He held a wireless microphone in one hand and smiled less like the protector he should be and more like a politician. A wave to the crowd. A nod. God, the dude was smarmy.
"Good evening, Redemption." His voice echoed and cracked which prompted him to adjust the mic from his mouth. "I want to thank you for coming out tonight to celebrate and to offer support for one of our own." He turned and winked at Kenna. "It's been sixteen years since Kenna came into our lives. I still see that little four year old when I look at her sometimes. She may have not been born to any of us, but she is ours. In our hearts."
"We love you, Kenna," someone shouted and triggered applause.
"That's right," the chief said. "So, in honor of the day this precious girl came into our life, we celebrate with fire. May it cleanse you of the past and help you understand where you came from."
Bodee sidestepped around me and started forward, a blazing torch in his hand. He passed it to Kenna with little ceremony or affection I would've thought appropriate. She situated it in her grasp, her back still facing the crowd. I almost expected her to turn and raise the flame high in the air, like an Olympian or a Gladiator. But she slowly made her way to the barn, looking smaller with each step. She paused only a moment before tossing the torch inside.
She didn't back away as the flame flickered and grew, but dropped to her knees. No fear. No hesitation. Smoke filled the sky. The brittle wood spit and popped. It was all strange, and I felt guilty for watching. I turned to a man next to me and wanted ask him what the hell we were doing? What this all was for? But as I returned my attention back to the flames, I swallowed, mesmerized by her. The wind tossed her loose curls about—a firestorm of its own. In that moment, I understood nothing but couldn't turn away.
"It's pretty incredible, don't you think," Bodee said as he returned to my side.
"This happens every year?" The disgust in my voice was unmistakable. 
"This is what Kenna does." Bodee came back with his own defensive tone. "This is what she'll always do. At least until…"
I couldn't bear his pause. I had to know. "Until what?"

"Until she remembers who set the fire that killed her mother."