true believer

by: Mary Ellen Lives

Stacy Carlson sped down Highway 221 holding tight to the wheel of his VW Beetle. Wind buffeted the little car, threatening to push Stacy over the yellow line and into oncoming traffic. The emergency scanner in the passenger seat beside him cackled; the Coronaca volunteer fire department was being dispatched.

They were the fourth station to be called out. That made this a big story. It was sure to run on the front page of the Maddens Examiner. Maybe it would even get picked up by one of the larger newspapers –The State out of Columbia, or the Charleston Post and Courier. Flyme Willis thundered by, passing on the left. The hulking Ford 150 pick-up created a zephyr that nearly pushed Stacy’s Bug off the road.

“Damn.” Stacy floored the gas pedal, winding out the engine. He gained no ground on Willis’s more powerful vehicle, careening up the next hill, blinkers flashing. Willis would again beat him to the scene.

Stacy wished Flyme would stay home and stop scooping him. It wasn’t fair. Flyme had connections from thirty years of reporting, not to mention being a generational South Carolinian. His family boasted two prominent branches, one in Charleston that went back to the seventeenth century, and one almost as old that settled here in Laurens County. Officially retired from the Examiner, Flyme had parleyed his family connections into a part-time stringer job for the Courier. He showed up everywhere, with his big truck and his big head of wavy white hair. He always greeted Stacy the same way, blue eyes alight with humor. “Hey, Ichabod,” Flyme would say. “Where you been?”

He bestowed the nickname on Stacy at their first meeting. It reflected Stacy’s lean frame, tall stature, gold-rimmed spectacles, and blond hair that stood up in spiky tufts without the aid of styling products. Never having read the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Stacy wasn’t sure if he should be pleased by the nickname or insulted. He toyed with dispensing a comparable moniker on the veteran reporter. Humpty Dumpty, Peter Pumpkin Eater, Methuselah – all were considered and rejected. “What can you do when the man’s first name is Flyme?” Stacy muttered. Ahead, the pick-up rounded a curve, disappearing out of sight.

Stacy let up on the gas. He might as well enjoy the ride. It was beautiful country, the Piedmont. Low hills covered with Carolina pine, furrowed acres of corn and hay. This summer however, with temperatures near one hundred and no rain for weeks, the pines were brown with an infestation of beetles. The insects attacked the drought stricken trees too weak to fend them off. Likewise, it had been a bad year for crops. The Farmers Market on the square closed weeks early for lack of produce to sell. Only desiccated stubble remained of the corn stalks, clicking like cicadas in the hot breeze. Hay fields were hit hard. Cattlemen were already feeding winter fodder to their stock.

Stacy wrote a whole feature story on the drought and its effect on the community, a human interest piece full of quotes from farmers facing foreclosure and homeowners whose wells ran dry. It was poignant as well as topical. He had visions of it getting picked up by the AP and spread to papers across the country. It could even have hit the Internet, gone viral.

His editor pared it down to nothing to free up advertising space. The story came off maudlin and hackneyed with unattributed quotes taken out of context. Stacy saw the chop job as lack of respect. He didn’t have the pedigree of Flyme Willis. Stacy wasn’t from here. He was a Yankee transplant. A refugee from Michigan winters. If a story needed to be cut, it would be his.

The property on fire was a mobile home on the lake. The fact that crews from multiple fire stations were being dispatched held promise of a good story. Maybe more than one. Stacy caught his breath at the possibility of a series, a four-parter to run a month of Sundays. His usual beat reporting on the court didn’t lend itself to follow-ups. Most were cases of meth dealers or petty robbers, motorcycle thieves. They usually pled guilty. In his three years reporting for the Maddens Examiner there had only been two murders: the shooting of a bartender at the VFW, and a vehicular homicide involving an abused wife who ran over her belligerent husband. The jury deliberated for all of an hour before finding the first defendant guilty of murder in the second. The abused woman ended up copping to involuntary manslaughter. She received a suspended sentence. Stacy tried to do a sequel on that one, but was stymied when the woman refused his calls.

Stacy didn’t have to look at his GPS to know he was getting close to the blaze. He could smell it before he saw the smoke. The air stank of odoriferous plastics, like Tupperware melted in a microwave. Mixed with that was a tarry stench and metallic tang. He turned off the highway onto a narrow shoreline road. Across from the small cottages and trailers that occupied a sheltered cove was a forest of dried pine and scrub oak. The wind blew in off the lake toward the woodland. Stacy noted a woman standing by her mailbox, cigarette dangling from her lips. Garden hose in hand, she scanned the treetops opposite with a worried expression. The rest of the cove seemed devoid of residents. When Stacy pulled in behind Flyme’s pick-up he saw the reason why. The drought had sucked the water from the lake, exposing mud flats and sandbars that were normally submerged. The vacation homes were useless.

“Hey, Ichabod, where you been?” Flyme approached from around the Coronaca pumper truck. Mopping his forehead with a handkerchief, Flyme’s Lions Club golf shirt hung limp and stained with perspiration. “The fun’s nearly over.”

He jerked his thumb at the ladder truck a few yards up. Its crew was retracting the hose. The Coronaca pumper truck was spraying water onto the shoulder closest to the woods, while an ambulance angled around the other two fire trucks idling in the roadway. All warning lights were turned off. Stacy waved at the paramedics to stop. They waved back but continued up the street.

“Nothing there anyway,” Flyme said. “No one was hurt, though the trailer is a complete loss, as you might expect. It went up like lint.”

Stacy grabbed a fanny pack off the floor of the VW. Slinging the pack over his shoulder, the digital camera and voice recorder inside bounced against his rib cage.

He followed Flyme around the fire trucks, motors rumbling, toward a smoldering pile of twisted metal and charred wood. The walls were gone. The blackened rectangle of a refrigerator teetered against mangled metal bed springs. Though the back porch steps were untouched by flame or smoke, they led only to ashes. Portions of the roof shingles covered the lawn, and bits of paper winged in the wind, settling on thorny vines and bastard pines. One of the fire crews drenched the empty carport next door.

“What happened?” Stacy asked Flyme.

“Idiot was burning and, of course, it got away from him. A red flag warning against having fires has been out for two weeks, but does he care? Not a bit. Now he’s burned down his neighbor’s trailer.”

Flyme turned to face the four fire trucks parked along the roadway. “Oh well, the boys had a good time putting it out. Took enough of them to do it. Thank God it wasn’t a double-wide.” Flyme chuckled without opening his mouth, the rumble coming from deep in his chest.

Stacy couldn’t tell where the fire pit had been, so much of the terrain was scorched. “What was he burning? Driftwood? No leaves down yet.”

Flyme swiped the rag over his face. “Books,” he said.

“Books?” Stacy removed his glasses. “What kind of books?”

He figured on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Harry Potter–books that he had deemed immoral or sacrilegious or both, and so set aflame.

Flyme bent down, his belly leading the way to the ground. He picked up a sheet of the papers flying about. He handed it to Stacy. Stacy put his glasses on and scanned the page: capital letters, small case letters, numbers, lines. “A schematic? He’s burning electrical manuals?”

Flyme Willis shrugged. “Maybe he flunked a test.”

“Where is he?”

Flyme jerked his thumb again, this time in the direction of the smudged carport that still dripped water from the ridged overhang. A man stood underneath, watching the last of the fire trucks getting ready to depart. He had a sculpted profile, though strings of sweaty graying hair plastered his high forehead. Stacy figured his height, weight, and age as if giving a police report. Six foot, one seventy-five, Stacy stumbled on the last. This guy could have been forty, sixty, or anything in between. His eyes were deep set, like an older man, but the flesh was tight on the bones of his face. He stood casual, hands in trouser pockets, apparently unconcerned by either the puddle he stood in or the destruction he had caused.

“Have you talked with him?” Stacy asked.

“Tried to. He’s a crackpot.” Flyme took a small spiral notebook from his pant pocket and flipped it open. “Wouldn’t even give me his name. I’ll get it from the chief, though. We go way back.”

Flyme Willis stowed the notebook and the handkerchief in his pockets and turned to leave. “Won’t take me more than an hour to e-mail this off to the Courier. Stop by the house later. I’ll give you what I got.”

Stacy had fallen for that invitation before. He knew Flyme would give him bad advice and poor whiskey. He might show Stacy pictures of his late wife, but the old reporter would offer nothing that could flesh out an article.

Flyme walked back to his pick-up. The remaining firemen boarding their truck waved to him. Flyme Willis saluted. They’re probably fellow Masons, Stacy thought. They probably belong to the same Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. Hell, they’re probably related.

He sighed. There was no big story here, just a redneck burning technical manuals on a windy day. Still it created a stir, causing four units to respond. That alone could make it front page material especially if Stacy could find an angle. He unzipped the fanny pack and withdrew the digital voice recorder. He sauntered over to the carport.

“Heck of a barbeque you had here.” Stacy showed him the recorder. “Mind if I ask you a couple questions? I’m from the Maddens Examiner.”

The man’s dark eyes swept over Stacy’s face, then went to the sky. “Ain’t got nothing to say.”

Stacy pressed the button to record. “You started the fire, didn’t you?”

“’Spose I did.” He worked his mouth, chewing the inside of his cheek.

“Why were you burning those books in the first place?”

“Devil’s diagrams.” Staring upward, the man raised his voice. “Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together and burned them before all men. So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.” The arsonist fixed his gaze on Stacy. “Book of Acts, chapter nineteen.”

The man nodded at the smoking heap that had been his neighbor’s vacation home. “I may have started the fire, but God burned the trailer down.”

Stacy smiled. He could see the headline now.


“True Believer” was first published as a selected entry in the 2011 short story competition.