He walked deep in the western woods of Rayburn, smelling the sweet scent of wet grass and wondering how many more warm days were ahead.
This was what his friend Jeff would call “the dying days of summer” and what he himself had always thought of as the margin of the season, where warm days merged with cool nights. Leaves which had survived months of being exposed to the elements would soon burn with color and then fall to the ground, becoming a casualty to Mother Nature.
He soon came to a break in the undergrowth, where he knew there was a tiny path which led to a small cave. The cave was almost hidden behind a curtain of Kudzu vines and was only detectable by the tinkling sound of water which fell in a constant stream inside it. The surrounding area was littered with the detritus of the teenagers who frequented the site–used condoms, beer cans, crumpled potato chip bags–but the cave was not his ultimate destination and so those things were of no importance to him.
This was not his hometown but he knew these woods like the back of his own hand. He had lived here for seven years and the big field that spread out a half mile beyond the cave was a landscape he was always happy to see. There the grass was mostly untrampled by human feet and grew wild along the hillside, where it slid from pale to dark green depending on which way the wind blew. A weeping willow tree stood smack in the middle of the field, bowing it’s branches to the ground in a graceful arch. Although he was still several minutes away from his destination, he could see that tree in his mind’s eye. He knew what would be waiting for him beneath its leaves and felt his stomach do a short roll.
In the distance, thunder rumbled across the sky.
He thought he could smell her before he even made it to the tree; it was a wild smell that made him think of flowers opening their petals at night. But then he realized that there were honeysuckle blossoms blown across the grass in front of him and recognized the smell of her hair in their scent. He breathed in deep and parted the curtain of leaves that separated the two of them.
“You’re late, Foster Black,” she said. “And so am I.”
It took him a moment to realize what she meant, and by then she’d answered his unspoken question anyway.
They’d met at a honky-tonk on the outskirts of Rayburn almost two years previous. He was playing guitar in a band full of guys he detested and hating himself for it. It was not the musical career he had envisioned for himself after moving from Asheville , but he hadn’t been able to turn down the gig after seeing the sort of money he would bring in from it. Rayburn was a relatively small town, but The Ace In The Hole was the biggest live music venue in three counties and it drew quite a crowd on the weekends.
The dancefloor had been packed that night, full of the sort of men who only drink water if it is mixed with barley and hops and the sort of women who go for those sort of men. Big hair, lots of lipgloss, not a lot of clothing.
By the time he noticed her the set was almost over and his back was soaked with sweat from the stagelights. She was sitting alone at one of the booths that ringed the dancefloor, nursing a mixed drink and playing with her hair. It was dark, that hair, but the dim lights of the bar painted red highlights in it. He briefly imagined what it would look like spread out over his pillow, and then she looked up suddenly, right at him. Almost as if she’d heard what he was thinking.
He decided to go over and talk to her despite the fact that he smelled like a pig. If he didn’t make a move fast, some other guy was going to jump in and ruin his chance. Women like her didn’t stay alone for long in a place like The Ace In The Hole.
“I like the way you play guitar,” she said when he approached her.
“Oh yeah? And how’s that?”
“Like you’re playing for your life.”
He laughed and sat down at one end of the booth. “Sometimes I feel like I am. This place…it’s rough some nights.”
“Is this the part where you ask what a nice girl like me is doing in a joint like this?”
He looked at her, smiling a little. “It had crossed my mind, yes.”
She ignored the question hanging in the air and leaned in close to him, close enough for him to smell her hair. It smelled amazing, like the orchard outside his grandmother’s house.
“Is that…dirt?” she asked, peering intently at his throat.
He picked up the small bottle that hung around his neck and twirled it. “It’s from the yard of the house I grew up in. Silly, I know, but it makes me feel better to have it with me. Like home isn’t too far away.”
And instead of agreeing that it was silly or laughing at the gesture of sentimentality, she touched the bottle with reverent care. “And where is home?”
” Asheville .”
She stared at him intently, as though trying to read his mind. “You aren’t too happy here. Why do you stay?”
He peered into her eyes, curious how she could read him so well. Was it that obvious that he hated it here?
“I don’t know,” he said after a moment. “For the money, I guess.”
“More to life than money,” she said, and coming from anyone else the words would have sounded sanctimonious; she sounded almost sad. “Isn’t there anyone back home you left behind? High school sweetheart, maybe?”
He laughed and shook his head. “No sweetheart, high school or otherwise. I was seeing someone before I left, but….” He trailed off, thinking of Roberta and her blue-blood family and her long standing membership in the D.O.R. She had once thrown a ceramic pitcher of iced tea at his head for showing up five minutes late to family brunch.
“It didn’t work out,” he finished. “We wanted different things.”
“Well then, seeing as how you’re single I guess it won’t sound too forward if I ask you to walk me home.”
He pretended to consider it. “I don’t know, I don’t usually make it a practice to walk anywhere with a strange girl.”
She stuck out her hand and he took it gently, only to have it crushed by her strong grip. “I’m Annabell. There. Now we aren’t strangers anymore.”
She smiled then, and that smile had won his heart forever. That was what he told her later, and she believed him. The truth was, she had him from that first look across the crowded bar.
“What if it’s a girl?”
He rolled onto his side in the grass to face her and swept her hair away from her face. It always smelled the same, that hair, even though she smoked more than he did. The curve of her rosy cheek felt warm against his palm and he marveled at the beauty of a post-coital woman. She snuggled into him, letting him wrap his arms around her.
“What if it’s a boy?” he countered, smiling a little.
She tilted her head and regarded the shimmering leaves above them for a moment. “No, it’s a girl. I feel it.”
“You got a name picked out already?”
“Scarlett. Or maybe Joanna. I’ve always liked that one.”
“Scarlett Black,” he said, adding his surname and rolling it around on his tongue. “Sounds like the lead singer of a Goth band.”
She swatted him gently and laughed into the hollow of his throat, making him shiver. “Bite your tongue! I think it’s pretty.”
They were silent for a moment, thinking their thinks, and then she said quietly, “Was that a half-hearted request for my hand in marriage?”
“Not half-hearted,” he said. “Not in the least.”
He knew how she felt about marriage and when she didn’t immediately respond he told himself not to get upset. She didn’t move away from him or give any indication that she was irritated, but something in her body language changed subtly. The silence spun out for a few moments, and then she sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees.
“I could really use a smoke,” she said softly.
“I think Scarlett would disagree with you.”
She turned and looked at him over the soft skin of her shoulder and he saw the barest hint of a smile turn up the corners of her mouth. “So you light one up, then, and let me smell you.”
He fished his Zippo out of the front pocket of his jeans and obliged, being careful to blow the smoke away from her face.
“I don’t want this to come out the wrong way,” she began, “But I don’t want to marry you.”
“I thought you might say something like that.”
She leaned over and picked up his lighter off the grass, running her thumbs over the engraved initials on the cover.
“It’s not that I don’t love you enough, or that I don’t think I can spend the rest of my life with you,” she said, and her voice sounded sad. It hurt his heart to hear that sadness.
“I know that,” he said.
She flicked the lighter open and began playing with the flame, waving it slowly back and forth. Pale orange light played upon the leaves above and around them, making the onset of evening even more prominent. The shadows were thickening around them.
She breathed in deep in a contented way. “I love the smell of a Zippo. It reminds me of my grandfather. He used one for as long as I can remember.”
Foster sat up and touched her back lightly. Her skin was cool and his fingers left a trail of goose flesh behind.
“I guess I’m still holding on to the things I learned from my parents’ marriage,” she said. “Those things have become like a talisman, something I carry around from my childhood that never changes. I don’t know who I am without it…sort of like your hometown soil there.” She turned and gestured to the small bottle around his neck.
What happened next was so quick and horrifying that Foster barely had time to recognize it for what it was.
As Annabell turned to look at him, a long strand of her hair was blown into the stream of fire coming from the Zippo.
It caught immediately. He watched in paralyzing horror as a thin line of pale blue flame ate its way up the silky tresses toward her face. Her eyes grew big as she realized what was happening, but she never screamed. There wasn’t time to scream.
Foster could see, from his peripheral vision, the clothes the two of them had shed beneath the tree. His first coherent thought was that he should grab his shirt and wrap it around her head, but it seemed miles away, much too far for him to reach in time. The seconds were ticking by. Annabell’s head was surrounded by a blue halo now, but she was too shocked to even bring her hands up and smack at the flames. It was all happening so fast …
He felt his hands move up to his neck, almost of their own accord. The small bottle that had hung there for years broke in his fingers and he felt a flood of cool dirt fill his palm. It would never work, he knew it wasn’t enough, but something in his mind told him to do it anyway. Quickly, before he could second-guess himself, he threw the soil on Annabell’s head.
He brought his hands up to smooth the dirt down over her hair, wincing at the expectation of blistered palms, then found it wasn’t necessary. The fire was out.
He was almost afraid to look at her face, for fear of what he might find, but when he did he saw a most miraculous thing.
The fire hadn’t done any damage to her hair or face. She looked just as beautiful as she always had.
She looked up at him, lovely eyes as big and round as dinner plates, and there were no words needed between them.
Fall had come.
The wedding was perfect. She was perfect.
And afterward, their walk took them along the property that had belonged to his family for almost a century. They buried their toes in the soil–the very same that had saved her life and the life of their unborn child–and twined their fingers together.
This was love.