Read Streetlights Like Fireworks Online

Authors: David Pandolfe

Streetlights Like Fireworks (15 page)

When Peter says it, Jessica smiles back at him but her
eyes tell a different story. Something about her past still haunts her, even
now.

The sun is long gone when we finish dinner and it never
occurred to me, until Peter says it, that it’s pushing ten o’clock. Peter
laughs at my surprise. “In the summer this far north,” he says, “it gets dark
late. It can be a bit disorienting if you’re not used to it. Sorry to bail
guys, but I’m beat. I think I’m going to hit it.”

 As soon as he says it, Lauren yawns and Peter adds,
“There’s a room upstairs for each of you. Lauren, are you tired?”

Lauren’s eyes meet mine and I see the message there—do I
realize I’m being left alone with Jessica for a reason? I keep my eyes on hers
as she pushes her chair back from the table.

“Definitely tired,” she says. “It’s been kind of a long
week.”

Lauren doesn’t look back as she follows Peter through the
kitchen and into the hall leading toward the staircase.

After they leave, Jessica clears the last of the plates
and I remain on the screened porch. Strangely, even this late, the last pink
rays left from the sun are still fading behind the mountains, the water between
here and there just now finally turning black. A few minutes later, she comes
back and sits down again. She’s brought a lit candle in a glass cup. She also
holds what looks like a cigarette in her hand. But when she takes a puff, I
realized it’s an e-cig. At the end of it, a little blue light glows as she
inhales.

“Back in the day, I was a big smoker,” she says. “How
about you? Do you smoke?”

“Not my thing,” I say.

“That’s good. Totally deadly stuff. Hopefully, this isn’t
so bad. We’ll see. But the way I figure it, I’ve survived way worse. You
probably already know that about me.”

Which is true, I do. Well, at least I sort of know.
According to things I’ve read online, Purge was known for some serious drug
use. “I’ve heard some stuff,” I say. “But it looks like you’re doing good now.
I kind of got the feeling you don’t want to talk about it anymore but Purge was
a seriously amazing band.”

“Thanks,” Jessica says. “We were. And way more, in many
ways. Do you really think you found my guitar?”

The screened porch is dark now, except for the flickering
candle, Jessica’s face mostly a shadowed profile.

“I’m pretty sure,” I say.

“Would you mind getting it now?” She still doesn’t turn
to look at me, that little blue light glowing as she inhales again from her
e-cig.

In that moment, it seems like part of her remains
hesitant, possibly even fearful, even while she’s allowed us to come here. I
get up and cross through the house, then down the front porch steps toward the
van, thinking how at first it seemed like a little mystery, and then an
adventure, to deliver this guitar all this way. An escape, a risk, a series of boundaries
to break while deciding to face the consequences later. But now, it feels
different. There’s meaning here, I know. An impact of some sort on a person we
don’t really know. We’ve brought the past back to the present, and the past
always carries weight.

While I expect to join Jessica out back again, she stands
waiting for me in that dining room used as a study. She looks at the guitar
case, then at me, then back to the case again. She takes a breath I don’t think
I’m supposed to hear. Then, she sits on the ottoman.

“It’s even the same case,” she says softly. “It really
doesn’t seem possible.”

I place the case at her feet, flat on the floor for her
to open. I step back, not sure what to say or do. Either way, it doesn’t seem
to matter. In that moment, I feel sure Jessica has forgotten me even being
there. She reaches for the clasps, opens them and draws the case open. She
stares at the guitar for at least a minute without saying a word, then nods and
closes her eyes.

Whatever thoughts pass through Jessica’s mind I can only
guess. After all, that guitar is a direct connection to her past, a time that
she’s for some reason chosen long ago to abandon, at least as far as the rest
of the world is concerned. Still, unlike Trevor and Michelle, it doesn’t appear
Jessica has tried changing herself dramatically while creating a new future. In
fact, despite being the one who completely vanished, Jessica seems the one most
like her past self. Which makes me wonder if in some ways, for whatever reason,
Jessica has always remained most connected to that past. Still, all I can do is
wait for her to return to the present moment.

Finally, she surprises me by quietly asking, “Jack, do
your parents have any idea where you are?” It seems as if somehow she knows.

I hesitate before answering. “No, they don’t.”

Jessica’s eyes meet mine. “You need to call them. To let
them know you’re okay. Do you have a phone?”        

I admit that I let the battery die days ago but Jessica
doesn’t seem to judge me at all.

“Oh, I’ve done way worse than that,” she says. “But you
need to call them. I know what I’m thinking just isn’t possible. I know it’s
just that you found my old guitar. Nothing more than that. But do me a favor.
Tomorrow morning, call your parents and ask them where you were born. Can you
do that for me?”

“Sure, of course,” I say. “Why?”

“Like I said, it’s totally impossible. Just humor me.
Thank you for bringing my guitar back.”

~~~

As I try to fall asleep that night, my phone finally
charging on the bedside table, I wonder why Jessica asked those questions
before showing me upstairs. The part about whether my parents know where I am
makes sense. After all, we’re staying in her house. At the same time, she
didn’t ask earlier and also didn’t ask Lauren the same question. And while
Jessica knows we drove across the country to return her guitar, she completely
ignored that part when we arrived. Then, later, her old guitar became her
entire focus. Asking about where I was born made no sense at all. But that
question keeps ringing in my ears as if she’d been waiting all night to ask me.
Why?

Still, while Jessica had acted normal most of the time,
in other ways she’d behaved kind of strangely. Which makes me come full circle
to the obvious fact that I don’t know her at all. She’d once had a reputation
for being eccentric and moody. Also, she and Peter were drinking wine both
while preparing dinner and while we’d eaten. Maybe she was just buzzed?

At the same time, it makes as much sense as anything to
call my parents in the morning. Obviously, there’s nowhere to go from here but
back again to face the fire. I don’t even want to think about what it will mean
for me in the months ahead. After all, I ran away. There’s no other way to look
at it. Technically, I’m a runaway kid, now completely on the other side of the
country. I know I should feel guilty about that but, instead, a smile tugs at
my lips. I stare at the ceiling, just barely lit by the moon outside, and my
smile keeps broadening. Right now, regardless of what might come, only the past
few days matter—the first time in my life I haven’t felt alone. I own those
days now and will forever.

I don’t know how long it is after that when I see the
ghost again standing in the corner of the room. Long enough that I feel sure I
really am dreaming this time. But in my dream he looks the same as always, the
glowing light around him, the long hair, the rings on his fingers. The only
change being that this time he offers a slight smile like we now share a
secret. I keep staring at him and he keeps staring back, the smile never
leaving his face. Then he nods, just once, and fades out.

~~~

When I wake up the next morning, the dim light cast from the
window tells me the sun has just barely risen. I get out of bed, walk to the
window and open the blinds. Outside, gold morning light reflects off water and
mountains. I wish I could wake up every morning to this same view but I know
this will be the last time I do. Still, at least I experienced the days that
just passed, all those places and people, now the view from this window that
I’m sure I’ll remember. All of it mine to keep.

I stay there as long as I can, the sun steadily rising
while I wish for a way to freeze the moment and remain in it. But I’ve run out
of time. Finally, I cross the room and pick up my phone. Yes, there’s a truly
impressive history of calls. The same for texts. They kept coming even after I
contacted my father, of course. I don’t need to hear the messages or read the
texts to know what most of them say. My future has radically changed. But I already
know this and I’m about to hear the same as soon as I find the courage to dial.

One last choice to make: Mom or Dad. In other words,
painful emotional screeching from a victim versus a measured testimony intended
to convince me of my own worthlessness. Neither presents a good option. But the
fact is, either way, eventually I’ll end up trying to defend my actions.
Basically, it’s either tug at the bandage or tear it off. I call my father’s
cell phone.

“So, you’re still alive,” he says.

“I texted,” I say. Lame, I know, but it’s all I have.

“Yes, you did. Several days ago. How very considerate. I
don’t suppose it matters to you that your mother’s been worried sick.”

It doesn’t go unnoticed that my father doesn’t say the
same of himself. Of course, he isn’t one to freak out easily as opposed to my
mother. At the same time, it’s totally understandable that she’s been worried.
I guess it wouldn’t have killed me to have kept the phone powered up to send at
least a few more texts. But there isn’t anything I can do about it now.

“I’m sorry,” I say. I mean it but also realize it’s an
easy thing to say.

“Thanks for that. I’ll be sure to tell your mother,” my
father says. “Now, would you care to tell me where the hell you are? And why?”

My eyes go to the window, the sky still brightening.
“Seattle. Well, in a town near Seattle.”

Silence. Seconds pass. “Seattle, Washington?”

This is one of the few times I’ve heard my father say
something stupid. After all, I ‘m pretty sure there’s only one Seattle. Still,
his confusion is understandable and this isn’t exactly the best time to update
him on geography. Maybe someday we’ll look back and laugh about this but I
doubt it.

“Yes. Near Seattle. In a small town.”

I can almost see my father closing his eyes impatiently
while trying to keep his temper. “I see. Tell me, are you in the small town
near Seattle because of the girl?”

My heart jumps. They know about Lauren. Of course, they
do. They just don’t know anything about her.

“Not exactly,” I say. “And we never planned on going this
far. It was just…well…one thing kind of led to another.”

It isn’t hard to picture my father clenching his jaw in
annoyance at my evasive language. “Might I ask which things led to which
things? Or would you prefer that I keep attempting to tease information out of
you one bit at a time? I guess the ball is in your court. But let’s also
remember you have more free time than I do.”

While for some reason I imagined him standing in the
kitchen at home, that isn’t the case at all. It’s three hours later back east.
He’s probably been at his office for an hour already. I get it. He’s on a
schedule. After all, he has high-paying clients. I, on the other hand, am
taking up valuable time. I’m an inconvenience. The fact is, I’ve always felt
like an inconvenience. For some reason, that makes me connect with Jessica’s
seemingly random question. It doesn’t seem to make sense or have anything to do
with what we’re saying to each other. Still, I get a feeling about it. A very
strong feeling.

“Dad, where was I born?”

A couple of seconds tick by. I can’t imagine why. It’s an
easy question.

“What do you mean, where were you born?”

My father has now said two stupid things, something that
just doesn’t happen. This time I have to call him on it. “Not a trick
question,” I say.

Again, a pause. “Who have you been talking to?”

It doesn’t seem possible that I’ve managed to trip him up
that easily. My father is an impressive trial lawyer who wins nearly all of his
cases. He prides himself on always being completely prepared. He spends weeks,
months if need be, poring over every detail, analyzing each possibility. But
preparation is the key and this time he’s been taken off guard. In saying as
little as he has, he’s already tipped his hand. He could still say any number
of things and recover. For example, “Do you mean which hospital?” Or,
“Obviously, right here in Edmonds. We’ve never lived anywhere else.” Or even,
“For a moment, I thought you asked when you were born.” But he doesn’t say any
of those things.

Now, it’s not a feeling. Somehow, I know. I clasp my
phone and my heart keeps beating faster, the light beyond the window blurring
as my eyes start to fill. I try to keep my voice steady. “I don’t see why it
matters at this point who I was talking to. I just want to know if I was
adopted.”

Again, seconds pass. I know the tables have turned but it
isn’t like I feel good about it. I’m not winning anything. My entire universe
is about to shift and I have no idea what to do with that. I feel cold and
numb, even as I stand in the sunlight. I’ve brought the past back to the
present. Now it’s time to carry the weight.

“Listen, Jack,” my father says, “we were going to tell
you. We thought probably when you turned sixteen. But we decided to wait until
you were eighteen. All things considered, it seemed like you had enough going
on already.”

I hear the words and struggle to process the information.
It feels like I’ve suddenly been plunged underwater.
All things considered
.
In other words, we never knew how to deal with you. So, we kept our distance.

“Jack? Are you still there?”

“I’m still here.”

“Are you okay?”

It takes me a few seconds. “I think so. Yeah, I’m okay.”

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