Paper in Fire – Jenn Lee Smith

Cabot squints to see what remains of the old family barn as wind and smoke swirls around him. Fueled by a crazy-ass wind, the flames are scaling up to the roof like overblown CGI. Their barn, their loft, gone. For a split second he actually blocks out the maniacal sob-screams from cousin Lydia, but he would be throwing the pitch to end all innings if this was his wedding. But this isn’t his wedding and honestly, he’s more upset over dirtying up his only tailored suit to put out the hay fires. Mechanically, he digs out the Nikon DSLR from his bag and zeroes in on the steeple. It sits cool and unfazed behind glimpses of rushing smoke.

A fireman pushes past him jolting his eyes away from the viewfinder. For the first time, Cabot sees the steeple clearly. It reminds him of the church near that Pacific Heights studio where Trent had lived years ago in San Francisco. The stained glass windows were most vibrant in the late-afternoon sun especially when Trent took him by the hand and led them out those large, ornate doors to rice and applause. Oh, how that fantasy always finds a way of slipping itself in.

But this is all irrelevant bullshit. He tosses the equipment bag onto the passenger seat, starts the ignition, and imagines the car tiptoeing away. A glance into the rear-view mirror tells him that Uncle Mack is standing there watching him go.

The day began like any mid-summer day on the farm. When vaguely familiar faces greeted him, Cabot genuinely thought he’d enjoy himself. They’re family after all. The day carried on with the ceremony running late. Shocking. His role as wedding photographer – a role he agreed to last minute – kept him from the pack of unsmoked cigarettes that seemed to burn a hole in his shirt pocket. Later, as vows were taken, a composed wind had picked up the scent of dandelions and alfalfa from the farm, a scent that floated deep inside his bones and stirred up the last summer of high school spent with Trent, the tall pale boy with distant eyes.

They had bonded over smokes behind the Blockbusters until Trent led them to a Rocky Horror show somewhere out of town. In his unfashionable Geo Metro – much like his current vehicle – they found the best places to go when certain trucks weren’t around, but it wasn’t long before they stuck to the loft. It smelled of sour hay and dandelions and sweat.

After the wedding ceremony, Cabot found himself back in that same barn. He crouched with camera in hand to direct the newlyweds and barely heard the paunchy groom say smugly, “You shoot straight now.” The late-afternoon light filtered through growing cracks above the loft where the boys hid from everyone but Uncle Mack, whose heavy steps always announced his coming from miles away. Mack was good like that.

“Let’s get you two leaning ‘gainst that beam. Hold this flower, up close” was the last thing Cabot said before dropping the dandelion. The loft, the walls, the cracks clamped together to extinguish him. He stumbled outside, pulled the pack from his chest pocket, and fumbled for his lighter. Cigarette in hand, he thought of Trent’s last words: you keep it.

All their memories Cabot had so carefully, so deftly captured and saved, were his to keep, alone. He took a long drag, blew out a slow stream of smoke that the wind caught and swirled away. The memory of Trent’s voice, at once big and distant, mixed with muffled squeals from inside the barn. Cabot stomped his feet and flung the waning cigarette in a long and straining arc as it burned and flickered along with all that had not been said between them.

Mid-way through a PhD in Cultural and Feminist Geography, Jenn Lee Smith decided to spend more time writing what she enjoys. As a new writer, she can only boast awards in research, however, this has proven useful in the world of writing grants for non-profits. She is currently at work on a novel.

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