Jean’s thighs had gone numb squatting by the arsenal, and by the time the final bottle rocket soared above the cul-de-sac trailing sapphire cinders, her craned neck was stiff. Bowing her head, she counted down the last two mortars. Each launched on cue, and she watched them showering the night sky with white and red flecks more numerous than the stars.
The rocket’s pops and mortar’s whizzes died while the applause and cheers rose behind her.
“Take a bow, sis!” said Luke above the hoots.
The echoing booms and crackles of distant celebrations dulled his shout, but those nearby repeated his call.
Jean straightened among the charred papers, the sulfurous clouds, and ash streaks marring the asphalt. Pivoting with one arm lifted a dramatic arc worthy of any Broadway stage, she then froze. Her heart thudded against her ribs more forcefully than when she lit a fuse. Her eyes grew wide despite the sting in the air and ice replaced the coating of sweat the summer heat and adrenaline had inspired on her skin.
While gooseflesh covered her bared arms, flames danced along the roof line of Luke’s avocado green ranch house and nibbled at the sun crisped leaves he’d never cleaned out of his gutter. Embers alighted the dried wreath pinned to the front door, the one Meredith had made before she had had enough of home and hearth.
Jean covered her mouth, smothering an expletive from her twin boys who still had fingers plugged into their ears.
Bruce stepped forward, holding the kids back with both hands as he encroached her no-go zone. He, like the rest Jean noted, hadn’t turned around yet, their gazes drifting between her and the sky.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
She motioned at the house and forced her parched tongue to function. “Call the fire department.”
“What?” Following her gesture, Bruce swiveled and the crowd spun with him.
Luke, however, went rigid. His stare riveted Jean to the asphalt and a guilty punch slammed her in the gut. When he finally turned, he did so slowly, as if already certain of what he might find.
Jean slinked to his side. “I’m so sorry, Luke.”
He grunted from what she imagined was a stunned stupor.
By then, Bruce had joined them and the neighbors had surfaced from their own shock. They whipped phones from the pockets of shorts or windbreakers, their glows illuminating like one of her flaming stars. Beeps sounded from some, while others began speaking with operators, reporters or friends and more than one bent their heads over forming text.
Luke never moved. Jean touched his elbow, and he tilted his head without taking his eyes from the swelling flames.
“Sure.” He nodded methodically, like a slowing bobble head doll.
“The fire department’s on their way,” said one of his neighbors.
“Thank God,” said Jean. “Hopefully they can put it out.”
“Hopefully,” whispered Luke.
“And I can pay for the damages,” said Jean.
She raised a hand, cutting Bruce off. “When he asked me to put on a show, he didn’t mean for it to end like this.” She thrust a finger at the fiery rooftop. “This is my fault. I’m going to make it right.”
She flinched when Luke wheeled on her, the shadows playing havoc with his stubbled chin and sunken eyes.
“It’s not your fault,” he whispered in a breathless rush. “It’s not my fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. Sometimes bad things just happen.”
“Something smells funny,” said Renny.
Like Ryan, he dislodged one finger from his ear and pinched his button nose shut.
“It’s just the fireworks and the flames,” said Bruce.
Frowning, Jean clasped Ryan to her ash-flecked jeans when she recognized the scent.
“No, that’s gas.”
The statement rippled around them and collectively the crowd began shuffling backwards.
Bruce gathered Ryan to his hip and scowled. “Did you shut off your grill, Luke?”
Luke shrugged and stuffed his hands into his pockets, hiding the charcoal smudges on his fingers. The smell of cooked beef mixed with the propane wafting off his tee-shirt and blended with the fireworks’ spoiled eggs and roof’s cooking tar.
Then the first window blew somewhere near the back, where the grill stood on the patio stretching beside the overgrown vegetable garden long in need of tending. Shrieks joined the snap of flames and the blasts of other windows, by the sound, the ones in the kitchen and its gas appliances.
Everyone started fleeing for the safety of their homes or cars parked along the sidewalk. Grabbing Renny’s hand Jean backpedaled, but she shoved her second born at Bruce and Ryan, however, when Luke remained.
Lifting a hand to ward off the heat, she looped her arm through his and tugged. “Come on, it’s getting dangerous.”
He chuckled, his laughter crackling like the inferno.
“Luke? Are you okay?”
He looked at her, a smirk on his face. “I’ve never felt better in my life.”
“Why don’t we feel better where we won’t get scorched?”
“Sure,” said Luke, “I don’t think anything else needs to go up into flames today.”
Jean frowned at him but held her tongue, wary speaking might disrupt the slow plod Luke had started from the conflagration. A dopey smile crept onto his lips and she thought back on how many beers he’d had.
Three, maybe four, she tallied but the dearth this time didn’t make her feel any better. Maybe he’s in shock, she considered. I’d be a wreck too if someone had lit my house on fire.
Remembering her responsibility for the flames made Jean cringe. She started going over the arsenal she’d fired, the same sequence she’d use on Friday when she’d arranged and shot off the show for their neighborhood. Distance had been carefully calculated to prevent anyone from being hit, and the homes were far beyond the range of even the largest rocket. Tonight, the winds too had cooperated. They’d struck her back all evening, pushing the smoke down the street and away from the kids and neighbors, from Luke and his house. She hadn’t been that lucky on Friday but nothing else seemed to have been different except—
She stopped short and jerked Luke to a halt.
“You did it on purpose.”
He frowned although the quirk in his smile remained. The curve reminded her of the one he’d had when he’d taken one of her stuffed animals and hidden it.
“I did what, sis?”
Luke shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The faint wail of sirens filled the silence of their stare. In his house, more windows blew and timbers began groaning. The warping beams drew her gaze back to the flames and a whoosh of warmth tossed back her loosed bangs.
“It’s alright.” He draped his arm around her shoulder and hugged her close.
“How is this alright?”
“You remember how paranoid Meredith was about everything?”
Jean grimaced recalling the scolding she’d received when she’d dared to let her kids play unsupervised on their suburban block, the list of ailments her pyrotechnics would cause in the short and long term, how she should find a proper office job, something safe and secure where she could wear pastel skirts and product in her hair.
“Yeah,” whispered Jean.
“Well, let’s just say the house has one hell of an insurance policy.”
The sirens grew louder and Jean imagined a whole line of police tailing the fire engines. A picture of Luke behind bars dominated her mind’s eye next, like the teaser for a show’s second season.
“It’s okay, Jeanie.” He squeezed her tighter, and his cackling laughter returned. “It’s going to be okay.”