Edge of Redemption
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."