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The Secret Life of Laird Barron

That World, and the Fireworks


            They threw him off the mail boat around noon.

            He’d slipped aboard at Kona in the pre-dawn murk, crawled under a tarp near the bow, and used his rucksack for a pillow. The bags of mail smelled better than the trawler he’d worked from Honolulu and the tar-coated telephone poles he’d loaded on the tramp from San Fran. Sleep came quick, and so did the hands that yanked him out of darkness.

            He was glad he’d slid an arm through the strap of his sack so it dropped with him into the water. The men on the boat had swung reasonably close to the rocky South Point, and he didn’t have too far to swim. The current was with him though the tide was going out. It pushed him west of Naalehu, their next stop, and he made for a cinder cone that dominated the shore each time a swell brought it into view.

            Barron was a good swimmer and the water was warm. Still, he kept his strokes shallow to avoid the rip and ended tired and on his back on coarse sand. The cinder cone rose around him. The earth shook or he shook, he couldn’t tell which, but the sun was hot. He heard voices.

            He rolled over to see a couple, younger than he and pretty, hopping down the cliff from boulder to pumice. They had backpacks and camera bags and brought with them, too, the scent of sunscreen when the wind whirled around the sandy cove. He noticed the sand then, too, and knew just where he was. It was dark green and up close looked like millions of tiny gems, which it was.

            He stood up and felt another tremor. The tourists sat on a rock and took out their cameras, oohing and jabbering, then clicking away. Barron picked up his rucksack meaning to stagger out of the way of their lenses, but they called out to him.

            “Excuse? Excuse me?” The young man’s teeth were very white against his tan.

            Barron looked up. There was nowhere else to look because there was no one else he could be talking to.

            “Would you mind taking a picture? Of us on the sand? My wife and me?”

            “Sure.” What else could he say.

            They moved closer to the water and Barron moved up the beach until their trajectories intersected. They were sleek, and under the coconut oil smelled of money. The camera they handed him would have paid the rent on his apartment for three months.

            The ground shook a little as Barron waived them back toward the sea and the wife joked, “Pele must be angry.”

            He took a couple pictures, tempted at first to cut their heads out of frame or lose focus because of the woman’s crack. But he shot them straight then moved to hand the camera back.

            “One more? In the water?”


            The man stepped into the foam and lifted his wife in his arms. She giggled and wrapped her arms around his neck. Barron looked down at the camera for a different setting. When he looked up, half of the couple was gone.

            Not the wife. And not the husband. The top half.

            Their legs and pelvises bubbled a little blood, but it didn’t really start to pour out until they toppled into the waves. Out in the water something, maybe a few things, was moving. He couldn’t get a clear look at it. If he moved his head there was a shape in the corner of his eye, but it was a different shape each time he swung his vision across the cove. But the water was moving in a way that made it clear there were more forces than waves at work on it.

            He ran. What else was there to do but run. Behind him was the sound of a long and heavy dragging on the sand, but he wasn’t going to look.

He jumped the first boulder, then the second, and then he was scrabbling with hands and knees up the cliff face. The pumice tore at his skin and the blood made the climbing harder. His rucksack banged at his back, the camera at his hip. Why did he still have the camera. He wasn’t going to stop to take it off his shoulder.

A hot wind chased him up the side of the cinder cone. He didn’t know if it was natural, but he knew it smelled wrong. It could have been the trade winds or the breath of whatever dragged itself across the beach. He knew it was behind him and that was enough.

At the top he wanted to rest but the ground shook again and he could smell burning and something else, something rotten, and the wind spun dust into his eye and he heard a sound like the inhalation of the very sea itself. His senses wanted to shut down, to deny these things, but he wouldn’t let them. He did not want to hear what voice or roar or cry would follow that great gulping of atmosphere nor to see what could make such a sound. But he had to hear and see if he wanted to live.

Ahead on a trail no more than two dirt ruts sat a Jeep, clean if a little dusty, top open. He knew it would not have the keys in it. The keys were in a backpack at the bottom of the cliff, or they were in a pocket on a pair of legs in the surf. He didn’t need keys.

Barron hit the side of the Jeep with his hands splayed, the only way to stop after his full-tilt sprint from the cliff’s edge. He pulled his knife from his rucksack, dropped it in the foot well, took it up again. The column was tough to crack, but he’d learned more than how to load telephone poles on the San Fran waterfront. He was losing time, he wasn’t that good with wires, but if he could get the car started it would be better than running.

It was. Over the roar of the motor he made out the cracking of rocks, as if some terrible pressure were squeezing the very heart of the shoreline. He spun the Jeep around and accelerated up the trail, ignoring all but the worst dips and stones. He heard the ground scrape the undercarriage over and over as he clung to the wheel to keep from being launched out of the seat. He crossed pasture empty of all livestock, then on to a black sand road. As he crested a rise he saw macadam ahead that lead to an intersection with a highway. He cut wide and right but there was nothing coming, nothing on the road at all. But not nothing.

The sun was gone. Ash floated across his vision and at first he thought he was passing out. But flakes landed on his arm, his lap, and he turned to see fire on the hillside to his left. To his right was the ocean, coming into view as the highway swung southeast. There were great ripples in the water, counter-current oddities. Queer motions shook the sea and temblors shook the land. He was on the Belt Road, the road that would take him up to the volcano, and the volcano was erupting. Had people already evacuated? If they hadn’t, they should, and not just because of the lava. At least the lava was something you could believe in, something you could see and understand and name. It was the unnamed thing that scared him more.

Flaming cinders passed overhead. In front of him was a sign for a village, Kapaahuu, just off the highway. The road ahead was burning and he braked and turned right. Fingers of lava coursed over the fields and into the little town. Vents had ruptured in the hillside, bringing the spouts of fire and rock and ash closer to the sea.

Barron slammed to a stop at a filling station whose office had been abandoned not long ago, maybe just after the mail boat had passed by. The door hung open and he ran in, turned on the pumps. In the garage he found two flares, a Zippo, a tow cable. He wished they’d left the tow truck, too. He took the flares. Outside he laid the pump handles on the ground and jammed broken pieces of asphalt under their triggers. Gasoline spewed across the pavement and into the grass.

He roared out of the lot looking for roads and trails that would get him closer to the water. His knife rattled on the floor. He picked it up and had another thought. Just north of him a village blazed and smoked under the onslaught of the lava and spumes leapt from vents no more than a mile away. The Jeep skidded across a sandy patch between dirt roads and came to rest against a guardrail. On the other side was a blowhole where the sea roared in to hollow the land. This was a place where the land fought back.

Barron moved to the passenger seat and leaned over the edge. He could stretch his hand over the rail from here. The knife was sharp though not too clean but he drew it across his palm anyway. Blood pooled in his cupped hand and he squeezed it onto the wet rocks at the edge of the blowhole. A plume of salt spray drove some of it back at him. The sea surged toward the pumice outcropping, driven faster than the tide. He squeezed his hand again and heard or felt or smelled, he would never be able to say which, a response from below that drove him scrambling back to the wheel and racing uphill. In the rearview mirror he saw the guardrail crumple along a thirty-foot length.

He followed his own tracks back to the village, drove until he could smell gasoline. Each glance back showed the hill caving, bending, reduced to rubble. His hand hurt and he held it to the slipstream whenever he could afford to take it off the wheel.

The first flare went wide, lighting some grass that just smoldered as it rolled into a sandy rut. He kept driving but slower now despite the scent that flowed at his back and vied with the gasoline to make him dizzy.

Barron steered the Jeep straight across the blacktop of the filling station, gas spraying from his rear tires. He was afraid to light the flare until he got across, afraid too to wait. When his wheels struck the road he ignited the flare and threw it straight back and accelerated again.

The flame unfolded behind him like a liquid rose in bloom, petal after petal of red and orange and yellow, each edged with black, blossoming it seemed endlessly against the ash sky. Hot winds carried cinders and coals over the town, and from the heart of the flame something dark and salted and deep at the last exhaled.

For more stories about Laird Barron, check out a list at jplangan 's livejournal.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 16th, 2011 04:06 pm (UTC)
Sure, but does he get the girl?
Mar. 16th, 2011 04:22 pm (UTC)
They split her.
Mar. 16th, 2011 04:39 pm (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 16th, 2011 11:02 pm (UTC)
Teach you to go to warmer climes.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )