Maria and I were trading stories, squatting up in the high rafters of the barn and licking peach juice from each other's fingers. A neat circle of pits lay in the hay between us. This was our holy tradition: arriving an hour or so before the arranged meeting-time (always sunset), climbing as high as we could inside the target barn and throwing away time together while we waited for Dorcas. We played card games and made out in the darkness. We drank out of tiny glass bottles pilfered from Maria's dad's liquor cabinet. Today we were taking care to have even more fun than usual because Maria's dad had gotten a job running a distillery in Chicago, of all things, and this sudden artisanal whim of his meant she was moving. We'd never see her again. It was our final Friday arson.
Maria thumbed through her red Bicycle deck, the cards sticky with sweat and beer and summer air from so many of these nights. "Any fours?"
"Go fish," I said.
We both had to squint to see our hands. We had a strict no-flashlight rule. Friday nights were all about preserving the darkness—this made the fire itself, when it came, more consequential.
"We can't both keep guessing four," I said. Four was the safest guess because the deck had six of them, for a reason nobody could remember, so every few minutes one of us guessed it.
"I'll do whatever I want."
"Okay. I told you, go fish."
Maria closed the space between us and kissed me, still holding her cards. "You go fish," she said.
Maria was like that: She always wanted you to be the one following along. She never asked people for things unless she was playing a game with them. I didn't mind because I knew her well enough that I couldn't be tricked, we both knew what we were doing. We'd had this tradition going all summer, just the two of us at first. But even after Dorcas found out and we had to rope her along with us to keep her from telling, we still kept this time exclusive: riding our silent bicycles down empty roads and across dark, windblown fields, tiptoeing through the lofts of long-abandoned barns. Like the kids in E.T., off to do some woodsy work that did not need to be understood except by us, secret until it of course wasn't. The barns always belonged to strangers and were clearly ill-cared for. Rusting toolboxes, cobwebs, splintered walls, busted-in doors and thatched roofs torn to shreds by wind and rain—these were our indicators that the structures weren't wanted, that they could be done away with for all their owners cared.
Only Dorcas had ever caught us in the act, sprinting away from her father's burning woodshed. We hadn't stopped then, but she'd cornered us at school the next day. We hadn't meant to target someone we knew. Other than hers all the barns had been far from home, scattered across Indiana, place-markers of our midnight bike trips. We were all sixteen and could drive for the most part, but didn't have cars, so sometimes we wouldn't get back from these excursions until five or six in the morning: cheeks flushed and hair frayed, exhilarated and bone-tired with the rising of the sun, kissing each other goodbye and crawling into our beds and sleeping past noon with our parents never noticing. Our clothes smelling like smoke, and the fire of someone else's belongings ribboning hot under our eyelids.
Tonight was different. We go out in style, said Maria. My dad's Ford pickup truck, borrowed for this special night and planned to be returned by the early morning, was parked on the shoulder a little ways down the road. A getaway car. I wanted to try kissing Maria again under its cover later that night, gently and softly, once we were inside the truck and the fire was far behind us. I was going to tell her how I really felt. What she already knew but was too afraid to want to hear, usually, and so I was too afraid to say.
The barn we sat in now was also different from our usual targets. It belonged to Maria's father, Mike. But our plan for it was the same.
Maria and I were still kissing when a stray flashlight beam struck our chins from below. "Maria?" It was Dorcas's voice, timid and nasally. "Are you up there?"
Maria broke away and rolled her eyes at me. "Yeah," she said, her voice soft but audible in the vast barn. "Yeah, be right down."
I left the peach pits and cards and followed her down the wooden ladder, past the shadowy landmarks of our shared childhood. The rakes and hoes and shovels arranged on hooks by the door, the open windows, now splintered and spiderwebbed, through which Maria and I had often ducked while playing hide and seek years earlier. Her father didn't keep livestock, but still wanted to preserve the image of himself he'd had in mind back when he'd bought the property: that of a hardworking American man, down-home, wholesome and personable. To that end he kept the barn stocked with hay bales, which Maria and I had always loved clambering around on. I loved their honeyed color, their soft yet prickly spaciousness.
Dorcas was waiting when we got to the bottom, big-eyed, her flashlight dangling in one hand and blinding us both. She looked a little surprised when she saw me with Maria. She always looked surprised, and it always deeply annoyed me. "Oh, hi, Ellen!"
"Hi, Dorcas," I said.
"When did you get here?"
"A few minutes ago."
"Can you turn that off already," said Maria, glaring into the flashlight. "We've told you so many times."
"Sorry! Sorry." She fumbled with the light until it flicked off, her gaze darting between the two of us. She started saying something along her usual patterns—something simpering and apologetic—but as she spoke, Maria and I heard the sounds of a few more voices coming from outside the barn. Muffled snickers, more flashlight beams snaking past the hay-strewn threshold.
Maria shoved past Dorcas, and again I followed her. Outside, in the vast and unused yard that stretched between the barn and Maria's house, were three boys: Jake, Freddy, and Drew.
The boys were all taller than us, and all, like us, juniors. They loitered in the grass, grinning sheepishly, stupidly. Freddy held a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels in one giant hand.
Maria was livid. "What the hell are you all doing at my house?"
"The boys and I were talking and I thought it would be nice," said Dorcas. "Like a send-off party."
"The boys and you were talking," said Maria flatly.
Dorcas's lips turned up in a small, childish smile. "Well, yeah."
It pained me how obvious Dorcas was. She wasn't a girl most boys looked at. Every chance at attention she got, she snagged it, like she'd starve otherwise, and tried to look modest doing it. Now here she was leaning on one leg and tracing her foot in the dirt, cocking her head shyly, tilting back into Freddy's broad chest. Every time she smiled it looked hopeful. I couldn't stand it.
Maria actually was the type for a send-off party; she liked things that were all about her. But she knew that wasn't what this was. The boys weren't here out of friendship, they were here because it was a Friday night and this gathering meant fire and alcohol. They didn't want Maria. They wanted fun.
"Yeah, Maria," said Jake. "We're all gonna miss you when you're in Chicago."
Freddy held up the Jack Daniels. "And look, we brought a parting gift."
Maria turned to Dorcas. "Come on, seriously?"
Dorcas raised her eyebrows innocently, let the moment linger. The unspoken thing here was the power she had over us: the power to tell. Only this time, she wanted more. Of all times.
Dorcas didn't know Maria's father, didn't know the myriad of reasons Maria had—or felt she had—to hate him. The old barn was really something. You could get lost inside its darkness, like stepping inside a big old circus tent. It had a distinct smell which it shared with Maria, a smell of hay and dirt swept around over the years. It was deep and round, cavernous and above all unused, full of rust and hard, evil edges. Yet a hundred yards away slept Maria's dad who never spoke to her, who'd propped up an uneasy silence between them over the years such that there was no discernible love between them at all, only a sense of shared history and habitat, like she was someone else's animal he regretted telling a friend he could take care of. Every so often, the silence became insufferable and he'd send her up to her mom's in Minnesota or down to her aunt's in Florida for a while, until he felt the old guilt of love and brought her back.
So, yes—the barn was monumental with shadows. But it was Maria's house that was empty, Maria's house that was evil. Maria's house that, soon, would be unused. In a way, her being as extreme a person as she was, it was a kindness that the barn was all we were burning tonight.
We were doing it—she'd made it clear—and now again, she made the call and gave in. "Turn off your flashlights," she commanded the boys, her voice grave, and they did as they were told. They were in.
Maria stepped back inside the barn. I started to follow instinctively, but she emerged again a moment later, lugging a big metal toolbox. I'd seen it before; it contained her father's pliers and wrenches, hammers, screws, nails. She carried it several feet away, the rest of us trailing along behind her, into the tall grass on the other side of the barn. I carried the red gas can I'd brought from the hardware store. Trees rose up at the barn's back, opposite the yard, ruffling and stirring dark in the midnight air, numbered with crickets. In the clearing near the tree line Maria dropped the toolbox, bent down so that her knees were pressed into the cold dirt, and flipped the thing open with a metallic creak. She pulled out a pair of work gloves, which she slipped on, and a small wooden box of matches.
"Maria," said Drew, "isn't this your dad's barn?"
"Look, do you want to be here or not?"
I grinned a little as I put down the gas can, both at Maria's curtness and at the fact that I really knew the answer. Maria was angry with her father for leaving her mother, for taking her with him. For loving her and not her brother, who was living far away in Minnesota and barely knew her anymore. She was angry with him for buying a farm and wearing flannel and pretending to be wholesome and then taking the job in Chicago anyway. For tearing her away from her friends and her life, halfway through high school. The worst possible time to leave home, she said. But is there any time that isn't the worst? Nobody ever wants to leave home, not if a home is really what it is.
I traced my foot in the dirt near Maria, waiting for her to look up and share a smile with me, but she didn't. Her head remained bent.
When she stood up, she looked not at me but at Dorcas, who was leaning against Freddy's body with a little smile, his arm around her back, his hand tangled lazily in her brown hair. Jake, now holding the Jack Daniels, had moved closer to Maria.
"What," she said.
"We'll have to run off right when we light it, right?"
"Yeah," said Maria. Usually we watched the fires a bit from a distance, but I didn't know if that was what she wanted to do today.
"So we should prob'ly finish this first, don't you think?"
"You guys can do whatever you want with it."
"Maria," I said softly.
I didn't want the togetherness gone—that was why I was here. But when Maria looked over at me, her eyes a flash of fury, I wished I hadn't said anything.
"Fine," she said, looking away, and for a moment all the edge was gone from her voice. "Ten minutes."
The boys all smiled. I saw what Maria saw: how dumb they all looked, standing off-kilter in the clearing, disgustingly expectant. Jake took Maria's permission as a cue to play music, and started blasting Migos out of his iPhone's built-in speaker. Freddy and Dorcas started swaying and dancing, giggling like children. Drew, Maria, and I sat down in the dirt.
At some point Drew offered Maria the bottle. "Some liquid courage?"
I thought she was going to say no, just out of contempt. Maria was courageous already, without anything. But she accepted the bottle, took a passive swig, and handed it over to me.
I drank too, and felt the whiskey light up my insides. When I passed the bottle to Jake, he finished it off, then tossed it to the side and popped up to his feet. He extended one arm down to Maria. She shrugged and took it, and when he pulled her to her feet he also pulled her in against him, against his body. Maria looked surprised, but didn't move.
"I will really miss you, you know," he whispered. Freddy and Dorcas were still absorbed in their own thing, and I suddenly felt weird listening in, like the moment had all at once become a private one.
"All right, Jake."
"You remember kindergarten? When we had kindergarten together?"
Jake tilted from one leg to the other in a lazy dance, trying, from the looks of it, to keep to the beat of the music, but slipping off the rhythm of it. Then he closed the space between them and murmured something into her hair, and his hand snaked around to her rear.
Maria lurched away, at the same moment Drew and I scrambled to our feet. "Jesus," she said, running her hands self-consciously down her jeans.
"Maria?" I said, stepping closer and then awkwardly back, away.
She snatched up the box of matches in one hand, the gasoline in the other. "It doesn't matter. Come on," she said. Jake turned off the music. We all followed, as I had followed so many nights with her: active, helpless.
The summer had taught me never to feel guilty for what we did. Our first target had been an impulse burn outside Fortville. We were both a little drunk and very angry. My stepdad had taken me hunting with him and his brother and sister in the Hoosier National Forest. They hunted deer, rabbits, pheasants. I didn't mind the hunting so much, but the company I didn't like at all. They were big, boring people who talked a lot and said little, joked about all the different groups of people they hated, left things lying around and teased the animals after they killed them. All day long I watched them kill things, and when I got home I went to Maria and said, "Let's burn something," and so the two of us biked up to my stepdad's sister's property, set fire to her unused woodshed, and biked away. If she didn't care, I didn't care. If she didn't feel bad, I didn't feel bad.
Maria, a week later: I need another.
And Maria now: traipsing through the tall grass, a flock of us behind her. Unscrewing the cap of the red can, scattering the gasoline in the trampled hay, around the barn in a narrow ring.
I liked burning better than hunting because you had to go right up into the heart of the thing and do it yourself. It was an old art: no guns, no middle ground. And it made a point, when you went up to something somebody else owned, even something left in shitty condition—especially something in shitty condition—and just got the hell rid of it. Property gets through to people. But nobody around here really cares if you kill an animal.
"It's evil," I said to Maria one night that summer, our second or third barn, "when people own things and don't cherish them."
"I agree," she'd said firmly, but I wasn't sure if she meant it the way I did. For me, the barns were about accountability—like, fine, if you don't care about this thing, then you don't need to have it. It was about how people took things for granted, which had been on my mind a lot lately and was probably, looking back, all tangled up with Maria.
For her, sometimes it seemed like it was just about anger and revenge. All she ever wanted to do was inflict things on other people: pain, loss, love, any kind of impact. Not that I didn't feel the anger, too—maybe our motivations were all the same, and her version of the logic just had a sharper edge than mine.
Mike didn't care about the barn, Maria had said, her voice determined as always, planning this out with me a week earlier. If he cared, then they wouldn't be moving. It was what Maria wanted to do, and if it was the thing for Maria, then it was the thing for me.
"Is this gonna be like Burning Man?" Freddy asked.
Jake let out a hoot of laughter. "No, dumbass. The hell do you know about Burning Man?"
Without paying them any mind, Maria handed me and Dorcas our matches and took one for herself. Our tradition was to each light a match and whisper our own name, then throw all the matches together into the fire. I couldn't remember why or who had started it, but it was something I cherished—of all the times in my life when I said my own name out loud, these were the times when it most felt like it meant something.
One look at Maria and I knew we would not be honoring this tradition today. Dorcas, as usual, didn't get the memo.
"Dorcas Peltz," she whispered very seriously, looking down at her match. Freddy laughed and tugged her in against him, ruffling her hair, and she smiled again, embarrassed.
"Can't believe this," Jake said through a snorted laugh. "And you say you guys've been doing this all summer? Can't believe this, the police are out there looking for hardened criminals and here we got Ellen Diver and Dorcas and little old Maria Eames, gonna light a fire..."
"Be careful I don't miss the barn and burn you out instead," said Maria.
Jake held up both hands as though he had said nothing.
"So you're really doing this?" Drew asked. "No messing around, you're really gonna do this? Like, arson?"
"We're doing it," I said. "Not you. We."
Maria looked over at me and smiled, for the first real time that night. In that moment I felt like I'd lit a fire, but this time just from speaking. It was the same: You asked for this, you came here, you got on board. Either you made this happen or you let it happen. But you wanted this, and now here: You have it.
We lit the matches. One by one, little flames striking in the dark.
"Oh shit," Drew muttered, "you really—"
And because we didn't care about the end of his sentence, we threw the matches into the barn, in a quick continual flurry of arms. Consequential, like the Rockettes. Maria, then me, then Dorcas.
The flames licked up instantly, and already we were running. Full speed through the tall grass, ripping through the airy midnight meadow, the pounding of our feet drowned out in the roar of the fire picking up behind us. I loved this part, when your head clears entirely, of everything—when for a moment the fire is inside you and you can't think, it's only fight or flight and Maria's hand. Somebody yelped, I can't believe you really fucking did that, fucking bitches, and somebody else told them to just shut up already.
Maria and I gripped one another as we broke out of the field and onto the road, running so fast we nearly stumbled over each other every few steps. Back at the farm, an engine started up with a loud rumble. A moment later, Jake's pickup rounded a wide corner out of Maria's dad's driveway and tore past us, belatedly flicking on headlights. Dorcas's voice sailing out the skylight, a high-pitched, I-love-being-young-don't-you whoop.
After a window of silence, blurry and buzzing, Maria and I reached my dad's pickup truck parked on the shoulder down the road. We piled in and slammed the door shut. Maria still had the matchbox clutched in her other hand, and after we got in she tossed it in the backseat and I suddenly remembered the deck of cards we'd left in the loft of the barn, and the peach pits. I hadn't meant for those to be left up there, gone for no reason, burned away.
I thought, suddenly, about the time it would be in my life after Maria went away. Sometimes I worried I let all my emotions get wrapped up in her. I let Maria be thrilled, let Maria be angry, and I was just content to catch some of her heat, to be nearby in the light of it. She felt so much, it was easy. It'd been like that since we were kids. But we were growing up now, and maybe it would not be the worst thing to have her gone.
Maria leaned back in the passenger seat, winded, her dark hair askew. I wondered if she could still feel Jake's breath there.
When she started kissing me, I knew it was only because she was sad and angry and because nobody else was around and because she knew I was all in love with her and whatnot. I kissed her back anyway. What can a girl do? She was leaving and it had been a hard night. But I felt less happy now than before, now that the rush was fading, even as through the windshield I could see an orange glow starting up far away, above the roadside fields of corn.
"You know I love you?" Maria whispered. Her questions never really sounded like questions. They were just lines, she said.
"You know I really want this?"
Wanted what? I wanted quiet, I wanted us both out of the car. Then my unhappiness twisted into something worse as in the distance the orange glow began spreading further, away from the old barn, as flames began catching the first trees.
My tone must have reached her, because she pulled back and turned to look. I saw her mouth drop. This had never happened before. The fire was a livid blaze, smoke gathering massively between the fields and the stars. Somewhere far along the road a siren began to sound, directionless, implacable. I imagined Maria's father Mike at home, weeping, knees in the dirt. Asking, why now? Why here? Looking for his daughter.
Maria took me gently by the chin and turned my head so that I was facing her again. Her eyes were deep and grave, and I knew this was the moment right before we were going to drive away.
She lowered her hand into her lap, still looking at me. "Maria Alvarez Eames," she said.
There was no point in whether I replied or not. I'd already answered her so many times, in so many different ways. I knew I was going to be angry for quite a long time, and empty, and hollow, and sad. We'd lit the fire, after all. The cards were gone. The trees, tomorrow, would be fallen and razed black. Because of us.
Maria clasped my hands in hers. I knew what she wanted me to claim a role in. And because I knew this was a contract I had already entered, because this deed had been done and now somebody had to sign their name to it, somebody needed to be held responsible, to allow myself that one ounce of forgiveness—on my own part rather than on anybody else's—I answered her.
Title image "Smoked" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.