She woke, as if still in a dream, to screaming, terrible screaming. Bright yellow light poured from beneath her door. The wailing continued, growing closer.
The door suddenly burst open, flooding the room with light and blinding her. She turned her head, catching the numbers on her alarm clock. 5:14.
The crying continued, its source the being silhouetted in her doorway. It drew closer.
“Grandma’s house blew up.”
What. No question mark. Just: What.
She blinked. She looked around, certain if she had heard what she thought she had heard, then she must be dreaming. She waited to wake up.
Mom kept crying.
She sat stunned.
In the aftermath, they were told stories.
From the first upon the scene: prison guards making their way to work. They saw the fire, stopped to help. Found the old man wandering around the front yard, trying to get back inside, trying to find his wife. Burned so badly he couldn’t feel it.
From the Lifestar paramedics: “Where’s Eva? Where’s Eva?” before unconsciousness stole him away.
They told stories, too.
“Last night she called. She left a message on Callwave. I assumed mom had called her back, so I deleted it. She said she loved us, and that her well had been fixed.”
“I had, only moments ago, realized I wouldn’t see them for Easter. And they wouldn’t climb up the steps to the porch with my Grandma carrying a pie, and my Grandpa hobbling into the house with his cane.”
“My family is at the hospital with Grandpa. They sedated him, so he’s not in pain. I know he wouldn’t be able to live without Grandma, so it’s almost a blessing they died on the same day. Well, actually, Grandpa hasn’t died yet, but he isn’t going to live much longer. He’s not even conscious… I know they are going to be together, waiting for us, so I guess it’s ok (it has to be ok…) that they are gone,” so said the eighth grader. And she cried.
But there were happier stories, too. Of beginnings, and not ends.
She noticed him watching her. She told herself she didn’t care, she wasn’t interested. She turned her back to him and laughed at Stella’s story. It wasn’t really that funny, but it just seemed like the right thing to do.
After a moment she turned her body just enough to sneak a glance at him from the corner of her eye. He was still watching her. Before she could look away, his eye caught hers, and a great smile stretched across his thin face.
He had caught her. She knew it, too. No matter how quickly she turned away, he had caught her looking at him. It was all he needed.
He crossed the dance floor.
Her heart jumped at the tap on her shoulder, the “pardon me, ma’am.” She turned around, an escape on her lips, when he smiled. And again she was taken aback—it wasn’t his looks (though he was a handsome man) that stole her words but something different, an innocence or lightheartedness. He looked young, carefree, and delighted—delighted, as if to see her.
“Would you like to dance?”
She was on the floor before she could think of an excuse. Though she wasn’t sure she would have wanted to give one anyway. There was something about him…
He told her his name was John, John Manko. He had recently moved back to town, having spent some time in New York. He told her he had travelled across the country, had rode the rails all the way to San Francisco. He told her stories about harrowing jumps and dodging bulls.
She listened and laughed.
He didn’t tell her about his wife. He didn’t tell her how he had watched her waste away. He didn’t tell her how he held the handkerchief to her mouth and wiped away the blood on her lips. He didn’t tell her about the fevers, the cough, or the way her ribs started to pop out of her skin. Those things he didn’t tell her.
“So are you from around here?” he asked her when he ran out of stories.
“I grew up in Cleveland,” she told him and stopped there. She didn’t like to think of Cleveland, of the long lines and aching bellies. Or later, of him. She preferred to keep the past securely in its place. There was no need for it here.
She was glad when he didn’t press her.
“Do you live over here now?” he asked instead.
“Over in Beaver,” she allowed but again, stopped there.
He let the conversation die as a new song picked up, and he whirled and twirled her across the hardwood floor. She laughed, spinning at his lead. She laughed harder when they knocked into the couples around them, mumbling shamefaced apologies with the sincerity of an imp. He liked her laugh and her moon-shaped face.
She stood awkwardly in his arms as the last song ended. She had to admit she was disappointed to see the night go.
“It was—” they both began and abruptly stopped. They laughed awkwardly, and she waited for him to speak.
“I had a really great night,” he told her, dropping his hand from her waist. He lowered his other but held tight to her fingers.
“Me too,” she admitted. She waited for him to let go of her hand.
“When can I see you again?” he asked, so earnestly she felt guilty for her response.
“I’m not—” she hedged.
“Come out with me again,” he pleaded good-naturedly, teasingly. “You know you’d like to.”
She laughed and shook her head. “I can’t.” She pulled herself away.
“Please?” he asked, one last time.
She almost succumbed to the kindness in his brown eyes, to the sudden so recent memory of the way he made her laugh. But she just shook her head.
He watched her leave the fire hall with the short woman he had seen her with earlier. She looked back once, and he caught her. She didn’t smile though. Just walked out the door. He threw himself down onto a chair, staring at the space she had just fled.
He had had a great night. In fact, he hadn’t had a night like that in a long time. Her sharp humor, her easy laugh. He smiled. And then he smiled because she made him smile. How did she expect him to just forget her?
She tried to ignore the sinking sense of disappointment. She had made the right decision. She didn’t need a man, not after the last one. At that thought, the acrid smell of burning fabric overwhelmed her, dragging to the surface memories she preferred to forget. The lies, the yelling, the bruises and humiliation. The sight of her clothes piled high on the sidewalk, doused in gasoline, bursting into flames.
She didn’t need a man. She didn’t want one.
At the same time, she couldn’t help but think of his carefree smile and kind eyes. He had kind eyes. It was what she remembered most. What she liked most.
He couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned. He thought of her. And how he would never see her again. And how, more than anything just then, he wanted to.
He replayed the night in his mind, over and over. He wondered what he could have done differently, what he should have done. He couldn’t figure it out. She had enjoyed his company just as much as he had hers—he was sure of that. He had felt it. So why had she walked away?
She had been reserved, private. Dodgy, definitely dodgy. Especially when he asked about her past.
“Are you from around here?”
That was it. Beaver. He knew she lived in Beaver.
He rolled onto his back, having lost interest in sleep.
She went to work as usual the next day, working in the convenience store attached to the gas station. She tried to ignore the ache in her chest, the uncomfortable weight of regret. She put a smile on her face, and she went to work. She didn’t wear her red lipstick.
He drove to Beaver early the next morning. He had a plan. If he had to knock on every single door in Beaver, he would find her. Eva. She had said her name was Eva. And after all, how many Eva’s could there be?
It was a hot day. The store was roasting and so was she.
She dabbed her forehead with a handkerchief, wiped the perspiration from the back of her neck. She tried to rub her shirt discreetly as a bead of sweat dripped down her chest. She rolled her eyes when she caught the thirteen year old who swept the floors watching her.
It was too hot to be here. She propped her chin in her hand. One hour to go.
He had spent the greater part of one unbearably hot day traipsing around Beaver, searching for a girl he had met just once and of whom he only knew her first name. Brilliant plan.
He leaned against a telephone pole, exhausted. He felt resignation sink in his stomach. He wasn’t one to contemplate fate too often, wasn’t a big believer in destiny, but at the same time, he couldn’t understand why an amazing girl would flit into his life, just to pass on out of it in the very next moment. It just didn’t seem fair.
He sighed. It was time to head back.
She stared at the ticking clock. She was pretty certain it couldn’t move any slower.
Five minutes to go.
The bright sun beat down on his car. He didn’t want to imagine what a sweatbox that was going to be.
He was just about to unlock the driver’s side door when he realized just how thirsty he was. He practically groaned, debating whether to suffer his parched throat or take the extra time to pick up a soda.
He glanced up.
A gas station. They would have soda.
He crossed the street, made a beeline for the cooler in the back, and pulled out a bottle. He dug for cash in his pockets as he made his way to the front counter.
He pulled out the bill, set his cola on the counter, and looked up.
She had been watching the clock. She had heard the door open, heard the customer open the cooler, but she hadn’t looked up.
As the bottle hit the counter, she spun around, plastering a smile on her face.
It was her.
It was him.
He couldn’t help the smile that lit his face.
His smile literally lit up his face.
Maybe there was something to be said for fate, after all.
John Manko (1915-2002) & Eva Manko (1924-2002)