There were no bricks. There were no bricks anywhere.
Two days after she had bought out Tobias' fireworks stand, the girl with the singed eyebrows found herself empty-handed, sitting alone at a bus stop on the corner of a quiet suburb, and not sure what to do next. All her usual haunts for dubiously free materials—the salvage yard, the Salvation Army, any and every construction site in a five-mile radius—were devoid of bricks. There was just nothing. Her kiln was shot, at least until further notice.
It was depressing, but she had other projects to work on. Her various building plans had consumed her life the last few years, and the kiln had been one of the last things on her list. She could fix up her shed, she supposed, dull as the idea was. It had started creaking dangerously in the wind lately. On the other hand, today she had found a discarded, intact gas pump handle at the salvage yard. It was such an unusual find, and she was sure she could find something to do with it.
The pump handle was at her feet, and she was sitting on the warped bench of the bus stop, waiting. She sighed, and inspected her hands again. The scrapes had scabbed over into interesting patterns that she couldn't help picking at. They hurt less, but her stores of gauze and antiseptic were thinning, so they'd remained unbandaged. Digging through debris for another afternoon had done her no favors.
She almost missed the bus pulling to a halt in front of the stop. It honked, startling her out of her thoughts, and she scrambled aboard. The driver, an older woman with startling amounts of curls, waved. "Deep thoughts again today, love?"
"What's that you have this time?" The driver nodded to the handle dangling from her fingers.
She shrugged. "Just a thing."
"One more for the collection, huh." The driver chuckled to herself, and the girl found an empty seat in the half-filled bus. She passed the businessman with the blue tie, mindlessly returned his traditional smile, and sat down.
The bus rolled on, and she thought about what to do with the handle in her lap until it stopped again. Some people got off and some people got on. She processed it in the same half-aware way she processed most things unrelated to Fire. When someone dropped into the seat next to her and said, "Heya!" loudly, she about jumped out of her skin.
It was Tobias, grinning his hockey-player grin. To complete the look, he had a pair of ice skates slung over one shoulder and a hockey stick in his hand, and was wearing an offensively bright jersey. His lip had mostly healed, but the black eye still stood out as strong as the day they'd met. She stared at him for a full ten seconds before answering. "Hi."
"Didn't know if I'd seeya again!" he started up cheerfully, and she barely got a "Yeah," in edgewise before he took over. "Man I was just at practice, yeah? We're gettin' good, I mean real good. You know anythin' about hockey? Heard'a the Sharks?" She shook her head, and he looked disappointed for a fraction of a second. "Aw, well, thassalright. That's my team, the Sharks, right, an' next week we got a game against the Jets. We're gonna kick their butts, lemme tell ya! Buncha spineless wimps, couldn't hit a puck if ya held it still for 'em!"
It didn't stop, and she found all she had to do was occasionally nod or make some kind of noise whenever Tobias paused for breath in his chipper babbling. It was nice, actually; he didn't seem to want her to really understand what he was going on about, just that she would listen.
After a while his words sort of blurred together, and she was simply enjoying his sheer enthusiasm. Enthusiasm seemed rare anymore. She was drifting in this pleasant not-listening when something prodded her arm, and she came back to reality to see Tobias giving her a curious look. "Huh?"
"I said what's yer name?" A pause. "If I can ask I mean. I forgot to th'other day."
She blinked at him, trying to shake out of the sleepiness his chatter had brought on. "Oh. Sure." And she told him.
He repeated it back to her, as if testing it, then burst into a smile again. "I like it. Good name!"
She quirked one brow up, entertained. "Thanks."
"Y'know, I got like this uncle who does all this family tree stuff? He's crazy about names. Like you can't go visit him without gettin' your ear talked right off. I go see him, right, and he's like, hmm, yes, Toby, means 'you will fall outta a tree and land on a rake' or somethin'." Tobias leaned closer to her, dropping his voice conspiratorially. "But the real kicker is his name is Nimrod. How great is that?"
Her snort was louder than she expected, and then they were both laughing. Gradually it petered off, and Tobias shifted in his seat. He was fidgeting with his jersey. "So uh, hey, like, what're you doin' t—"
There was tremendous squealing of tires, a sickening lurch, and a horrific crunch of metal, louder than thunder.
A collective noise of shock filled the bus as it pitched sideways at an angle, and the girl could feel the asphalt ripping away the rubber beneath them. Tobias was hurled into her lap, sending the pump handle clattering against the side of the bus, and the blade of one of his skates grazed her cheek.
Then everything shuddered to a stop, and someone behind them screamed.
She smelled gasoline. When the bus had swerved she'd thrown out her legs and arms, trying to brace herself against the seat in front of her and the metal to the side. Now her joints ached from the impact, scabbed-over palms complaining loudly. Tobias had wound up halfway across her knees, obscuring whatever had happened. She twisted in her seat, trying to see over Tobias' shoulder.
The first thing she saw was smoke, and then the twilight sky through a gap twisted into the metal, just above where a car had punched through the side of the bus. It was so close to them that she could have touched it if she leaned out into the aisle. The hood was lodged directly over what used to be two rows of seats, a crumpled nest of chrome and black and bright, bright red.
Around her, the air had become filled with panicky voices. Dimly she was aware that Tobias had pushed himself up off of her, and that the driver was yelling for everyone to get off the bus, get the hell off. All of it seemed faraway, unimportant, compared to the mangled thing wedged between the hood and the seats.
She could scarcely tell what was what. It was a mess of blood and torn clothing and hair. Chunks of sheared flesh were stuck behind the bumper. Bone shards decorated the stained fabric. Half of a face and a wide and unseeing eye stared out at nothing from under the car. A blue tie splattered with red spilled down over the mess like a lolling tongue.
It was the businessman, she realized.
"Oh," Tobias was saying at her side, in a weak voice. "Oh, Jesus. Jesus Christ."
Something unfamiliar and suffocating and electric was to settling over her. Not revulsion—not fear—something else. "He's dead," said the girl. "That's. He's dead."
"No shit?!" snapped Tobias, tearing his eyes away to give her an incredulous stare. He looked sick.
Everything was noise and sound and horrible. The driver was there then, suddenly, telling them they had to go, they had to go now.
She stared at the wreck and the body for another long second before she obeyed, grabbing the miraculously intact handle as she followed a keeled-over Tobias. The smell of diesel and smoke followed her out.
The girl with the singed eyebrows picked absently at the band-aid someone had put over the cut on her cheek.
An hour had passed, and no one had been allowed to go home yet, for reasons she had missed. She and Tobias had spent most of that time sitting with their backs to a pockmarked telephone pole, facing away from the crash. Neither of them had said anything, and she preferred it that way.
The suburban street seemed quieter than it should have been. A police car was parked on the curb near the crash, idling with a soft rumble. One or two of the people who had come out from their homes to see what the fuss was about were still watching from their porches. Far away, the blurry town lights glowed and flickered, and at either end of the street headlights would sometimes reflect off the day-glo yellow tape that read POLICE LINE - DO NOT CROSS - POLICE LINE.
In the last hour, she had learned the following: a car had pulled out of a blind alley. They hadn't been able to identify the body in the bus yet. The bus driver had a stronger stomach than the police officer that had come to handle the crash. Tobias performed badly under stress. Up close, ambulances were loud.
For the last few minutes, she had been thinking about the body. More specifically, how two hours ago the owner of that body had looked over his newspaper at her and smiled before looking back down, like he always had. Now he was chunks of meat in a lumpy body bag being wheeled away by the paramedics. She had never seen a dead person before, not really, and it occurred to her that the fact she had seen one at all did not actually trouble her.
She wasn't upset. She had a kind of idea that maybe she was meant to be. Maybe—the businessman had been a sort of friend, as far as she had friends. Human emotion dictated she should be, at least, a little troubled. Right? Bothered, surely. And yet there was nothing. She did not feel much different than she had a few hours ago.
Tobias was certainly upset, and he hadn't even known the guy.
A glance his way found him sitting with his long legs crossed, knees sticking out so far it was comical. He held his face in one hand, and the other was tangled in a handful of weeds growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk they sat on. At his side lay his skates and hockey stick. He was staring into the distance down the street, his eyes out of focus.
Tobias flinched, hard. He sat bolt upright and it took him a moment to realize it was her who had spoken. There was something haunted about the way he looked at her. "What?"
The girl put her head to one side, questioningly. "Should I be upset?"
A silence fell over them. Tobias was perfectly still, and his expression had suddenly gone impenetrable; she couldn't place it as anything for a few seconds, and then it went from blank to completely nonplussed, and then incredulous. He opened his mouth, and then shut it, and opened it again. In the end he said nothing, and, irritated, she spoke instead. "Because I'm not."
Beside her, Tobias exhaled, slowly. "Well," he started. "I uh. I guess I dunno."
"You're upset, though," she said pointedly.
At her words he jerked away, visibly, like she'd tried to hit him. "Well 'scuze me for havin' a problem gettin' up close and personal with a corpse!" he snapped, getting to his feet. She stared. "I'm gonna have nightmares for a, a fuckin' year, alright? God! The guy was friggin' … he was right there, an', an' there was blood everywhere an' … Jesus Christ … how can that not upset a guy?"
An uncomfortable pause, and she realized he actually wanted an answer. She had no such thing. For a long few seconds she looked at him fixedly, and then back at the horizon. She regretted the question, now. Of course Tobias was upset. Tobias was an emotional loudmouth.
He sagged, and the tension in the air drained away. He kicked at his skates. "It's," he started, then stopped. It took him a moment, and then it all spilled out so quickly she didn't process it right away. "I was gonna to sit next to that guy 'til I saw you." With a deep, shuddering breath, he knelt to pick up his hockey stick. "I keep thinkin' about that. Okay? That coulda been me under there, I coulda…" He bit his lip, and spun the stick between his palms.
"Excuse me?" said a new voice.
The girl twisted to look behind her. A man, clad in a light blue dress shirt with a black tie and wearing a peaked cap, was standing behind them. He had one hand pressed against the telephone pole, and he looked tired. "You're free to go now. Apologies f'the wait, couldn't be helped. Do you two need a ride?"
Tobias slid a hand through his cropped hair and sighed. "That, yeah. If you're offerin'. My ma's gonna be wonderin' where I'm at."
In another ten minutes, they stepped out of the police car onto the inner city sidewalk ("Can walk from here," Tobias had said, and she had no complaint). Night had set in, and it was the bleary haze of a city night that never got quite dark. A streetlight stood a few yards away, and they were on a bridge above the canal that weaved from one end of town to the other. Tobias stretched out his long legs, sighed, and plodded over to the rail to look at the water. She did the same. There was nothing better to do.
He had slung his arms over the railing and leaned out over the water, so she followed suit, carefully. For a long while they just stayed like that, despite the chill in the air, and the headache she discovered beginning to throb in her temple that grew worse the longer she looked at the water.
"Y'know I once had this friend named Lenny?" Tobias said. She glanced over at him. "Good guy, pretty much a dumbass, built like a truck. Me and Lenny, we was pals from the word go, yeah? Met each other in second grade. He got me into hockey, kicked my ass at it every day til we was fourteen. But he wasn't ever a jerk about it, right, he'd just laugh and be like, hey, keep trying, it'll happen."
His voice trailed off, and she had been about ask why he was telling her this when he went on. "He said that a lot. 'Keep trying, it'll happen.' He was a real softie, too. Like, once, my neighbor's cat had kittens? An' she couldn't feed no kittens, she said, so she was gonna drown 'em, and when Lenny heard 'bout that he went right over and bought 'em all for ten bucks. Ten bucks for a buncha cats! And he wasn't loaded or nothin'. Hell, he was poorer'n shit. Didn't sell the cats, though. Gave my sister one when it was old enough. God, she loved that, still has the damn thing. Named it Puzzle." As he spoke, he'd let a smile drift onto his face. She watched him, silent, and he didn't look back, just stared out over the murky ripples of the canal. "Real softie…"
Tobias reached up and pressed his fingers to his forehead, like he had a headache too. His eyes were shut. "Shit, I dunno why I'm tellin' you this." Met with silence, he exhaled heavily. "Moron couldn't let nothin' go under his nose if he thought he could stop it. He lived over in Sunrise, y'know that neighborhood?" She shook her head. "No, well, you're from outta town, Sunrise is bad news. Nowheresville. Ghetto. Gangs, lotsa flakes and hippies. Lenny's folks couldn't ever really hack it so they was stuck there and lemme tell you, he got his ass kicked all the damn time 'cuz he'd go stick his nose anywhere he thought there was trouble. An'… y'know… one day he got trouble back."
He cricked his neck, and slouched. "Guess this was round about three years back. Way I heard it he was tryin' to get this girl's ex or somethin' to lay off her one night in an alley or somethin', keep him busy while she legged it. Kept him busy all right. Got stabbed four times. When they found Lenny, he'd already—y'know. Gone to see the big guy upstairs."
The canal burbled under them, and the girl had taken to looking at it instead of Tobias, even though it made her headache worse and her stomach lurch. His voice had gone wobbly near the end. She was supposed to say something, she thought, like "I'm sorry" or "How awful", but she had nothing to say.
By the time he began again, at least, he'd gotten himself under control. "I can't figure it out, I guess. I mean Lenny died kind of a hero. If he had to go that'd'a been what he'd pick, savin' somebody. But why'd he have t'go at all? He kept tryin' an' all that happened was he got killed." He started fumbling for something in his pocket, and when she heard the familiar snap of a Zippo lighter she looked up. He was cupping it and a Newport in his spindly hands. He pocketed the lighter and took a long pull before speaking again. "An' the guy under the damn car back there, what'd he do to deserve that? Nothin'. Or hell, whadda I know, maybe he did deserve it, maybe he friggin' beat his wife or somethin'. Or maybe he coached his kid's baseball league and rang Salvation Army bells at Christmas. We sure ain't ever gonna know."
There was more he wanted to let out, she could tell, but he held it in. She found herself chewing on her tongue, in the same sore place from the fall, and her headache was getting sharper. "I'd see him on that route a lot," she said at last. "Always smiled at me."
"There you go, and now he's smoked meat on a gurney," Tobias hissed, biting on his cigarette. The mental image brought back the scene on the bus, and she discovered, finally, a reaction. The memory moved something in her, at least; there was the faintest lurch of horror in her gut, so pale as to be a ghost. Then it was gone, utterly overridden by—what? Fascination, maybe, or curiosity. She wasn't sure. What would fire do to a human body?
Tobias took another heavy drag, twisting the cigarette between his fingers as he exhaled a long trail of smoke. Then he offered it to her. His hand was shaking so faintly she nearly missed it, and his skin was clammy when their knuckles brushed as she took it. She fitted it between her lips, took an experimental pull, and he asked, "You really ain't upset?"
She glanced over at him and found him watching her steadily. She thought about it.
"No," she decided.
It occurred to her, as she blew the smoke out through her teeth and admired it, that there might be something wrong with her.