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Waiting for the Flames

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Rachel had now been in Quinn for six days, and she finally felt strong enough to venture out, lapped the town again and again, driving in circles, safe in the night. Nobody knew who the town of Quinn had been named after, although rumor had it that the original Quinn had been a railroad hobo, who in 1910 jumped a train, fell out drunkenly, and then decided to remain in the thick woods and found the town that would become his namesake. Wildfires completely decimated Quinn in 1939, and then again in 1946, just after people had finally rebuilt. As a result, the town was sloppily organized, streets named arbitrarily, or not at all, businesses only formed out of absolute necessity, no street signs or sidewalks or traffic lights. The whole town seemed to be waiting for the flames to return.

At night, the town was dark and still, no headlights from cars. The bars shut down at two o’clock, and the Sinclair had long since closed. She was thankful for the darkness when she pulled into her driveway. In the daylight, the sight of the trailer house filled her with dread.

She stepped through the gate, carefully navigating the narrow path, unlit and uneven, stepping-stones made of giant pieces of shale that were sunk at dangerous and unpredictable depths. What remained of the porch light was a jagged black hole, rimmed with papery gray clumps of hornets’ nests. Rachel hadn’t bothered to lock the door. Frank had left behind nothing worth stealing, and the trailer house already looked like it had been vandalized and squatted in. She turned on the living room light, and it glared off the plastic sheeting that covered the entire east corner, where the chimney had collapsed into the fireplace. The carpet was filthy, so Rachel sat on a cardboard box of unpacked clothes and reached for the cordless phone. She had been amazed to find that her father still had phone service, despite his dying. Maybe he had known she would return like a boomerang, and had paid in advance.

Seeing all those people at the Fireman’s Ball had reignited her shame. She had felt the fire in her cheeks as she leaned against the firehouse wall. She always thought that the people had been frozen in time when she left, but fatter and older versions carried on like they always had, only stopping to glare. Rachel thought she had moved past her shame, after it manifested itself in her first month of sobriety as spectacular crying jags and handwritten lists of the terrible things she had done, the things she could remember. Doing this inventory with her sponsor took two solid weeks, every evening spent unveiling yet another thing she thought unforgivable, while her sponsor made endless cups of tea. The sponsor massaged Rachel’s shaking hands and assured her that other drunks had done much worse things.

Rachel’s sponsor was called Athena. This was not her real name. Athena had ditched the name Louise after attending a

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