Hickey

By: Cora Brent

PROLOGUE


Branson





I still can’t stand remembering that fucking fire.

Since that night seven years ago I’ve visited a variety of hellholes.

I’ve seen things much more horrific than a burning building.

The memory of that night tears me up anyway.

Every single time.

It was the noise that jolted me awake, a choir of damn sirens that penetrated the haze of sleep and hard liquor. Instinctively, my hand stretched out to touch my wife but there was nothing there. That’s because earlier I’d taken my bottle and my misery to the couch instead of the bed where she slept.

“Oh my god,” she said as she stepped into view. In the chalky moonlight I saw that she was wearing the stretched out gray t-shirt I always used to yank over my head after senior year football practice.

Cecily didn’t glance my way. Instead she went straight to the front window and peeled back the papery shade like she was afraid. The sirens grew louder, closer.

I rubbed my eyes and sat up, trying to get my bearings. I hadn’t a clue what time it was, how long I’d been passed out. We’d fought earlier, I remembered that. I’d gotten in just after midnight, intending to crawl into bed beside her, but things went sour. That happened a lot lately.

“You should know better!”

“Fuck you for saying that.”

So I left her alone in there, shutting the curtain that separated the closet-sized bedroom from the rest of the apartment and planted myself on the ancient sofa in the tiny living room. Before I sat down I grabbed a whiskey bottle. It belonged to my father but he wouldn’t notice it was gone and even if he did he wouldn’t ask me about it. Over the last week I’d been slowly draining it, one shot at a time.

As I brooded alone in the darkness I didn’t bother with a stupid shot glass. I swallowed scorching mouthfuls until my vision started to blur. When I woke up there was a lot of noise and my young bride was staring fearfully at something out the window.

“What is it?” I croaked.

My throat was as dry as desert sand. The only thing in arm’s reach was the nearly empty bottle. I seized it and let a few drops of liquid fire roll over my tongue as sirens shrieked from all directions. The commotion surrounded us; a hysterical sound that warned something terrible was about to happen.

Or, more likely, that something terrible had already happened.

“There’s a fire,” Cecily said.

She still wasn’t looking at me. Somehow it seemed like she hadn’t really looked at me in days. I missed the way she used to look at me constantly, how the awe and shy happiness in her eyes made me feel like I could wrestle a fucking bear to the dirt if she was cheering me on. It hadn’t been that long ago, not really. And it was already damn near untouchable.

When I joined her at the window she didn’t move aside when our shoulders touched. I felt a shiver roll through her and I was tempted to wrap my arms around her body to keep her warm.

Then I saw it, the fire. I flicked the shade open all the way and stared at the chaotic scene visible on the horizon.

Cecily moved away and opened the door to the area we always jokingly referred to as ‘the balcony’. The small square of space scarcely fit two standing adults and led to a rickety, steep staircase that stretched to the ground. My mother used to come up here all the time to the unfinished apartment over the garage where she’d play her old violin for hours on end. And then my older brother Caden hung out here a lot during his stormy final months, stomping up the steps and warning me not to follow after his latest screaming match with my parents. But I didn’t like to think about those days. Or the ones after it.

When I trailed Cecily outside I accidentally kicked an empty clay pot down the stairs. I didn’t give a shit. I was too transfixed by the sight in front of me.

The huge fire roared just beyond the northern border of town. At first glance it looked like a war zone. But wars never visited dying Ohio towns, at least not the kind of wars anyone wrote about or featured in movies.

Our wars were quieter, waged mostly on one another.

“It’s the factory,” I said. “The factory is burning.”

It was true. The sprawling, old structure that was a recognizable landmark for miles was being rapidly engulfed. For seven decades the tile factory had thrived on the outskirts of Hickeyville, Ohio. The doors had shut for good five years ago and ever since then the town had been bleeding people like it was one big leaking wound. The factory itself remained; a ghostly, slowly crumbling reminder on the edge of town.

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