We’ll Understand It Better By And By: Fiction

Rosie Forrest                                                                                                                                            Winner of the Dogwood 2015 Fiction Award

The fire was out. Water dripped from charred roof fragments and pooled between interlocking tree roots. Dented patches of wet earth and paperbark maples simmered and smoked, and while the flames had been extinguished, the air continued to cook.

The boys, the nimble ones who had made it to safety, were tended to by a local medical team. A white tent had been erected for treating minor wounds. Coughs bounced around the smoking grounds like tennis balls, and Mr. Gilmore had maracas in his lungs. Carol Shantly, the home economics instructor, tried to cough with her mouth closed. It wasn’t that we hadn’t grasped the severity of the situation. It was only that there was nowhere to sit. Everywhere we turned, we faced a maze of smoke and sound.

Beyond that circle of black, Roanoke was drenched in rich green leaves that hung like wide-brimmed hats. But all that green was at our backs, and even though the Virginia breeze drenched our homes in pye weed and wild ginger, water ran lukewarm and turbid on this charred plot of land where a school once stood.

Pockets of clean air were scarce; some of us turned our heads and coughed politely into our shoulders, while the ones at the other end of our crescent moaned for show and complaining the smoke burned their eyes. We were too pretty to think of lunch, although it was long past the hour. We were ten girls in all, maybe more, posing in that casual tilted way, a hand on a hip, balancing on tiptoe, or ankles crossed.

A fireman called out to us, “Step away, girls,” or maybe  “Okay, that’s enough now. Nothing left to see.” But those were mechanical calls looped for the birds. Even if we had dispersed on command, there was nowhere to go. The bus had left for other routes and the crowd was expanding. If anything, we stepped forward.

When a fireman stumbled over a hose that lay twisted in the damp weeds, Stella Hembree laughed at the back of her throat—or we assumed the burble to be a laugh—and she threw an arm around her sister’s waist. The sisters were not the girls who had complained of eye irritation; instead, their sunken eyes scanned the smoldering landscape for their older brother, Jack.

Stella was sturdy with a sallow complexion, and her joints were disproportionately large for her frame. Frances, the smaller of the two, had received all the lightness of body and spirit. The adults at the scene, the doctors and chaperones and neighbors, bustled back and forth and paid the Hembree sisters little attention. The twins displayed an otherworldly serenity, some of us later remarked, like beekeepers in their stillness. In fact the more that panic enveloped them, the calmer Stella and Frances appeared.

All of us were dressed for church except for the Hembree sisters, who wore high-waisted slacks and untucked flannel shirts. The Hembree family stopped attending church once Mrs. Hembree passed away. “Nothing left to pray for,” congregants supposed. But Mr. Wentworth, the organist, frequently spotted two pairs of round eyes peering through the stained glass window. It unsettled him, he said, two girls and their heathen curiosities peeking through the blue hem of Mother Mary’s robe.

Prior to the invitation, the Fellington School for Boys was not a welcome topic of conversation, relegated instead to dairy aisle gossip. Parents swapped coded banter over heavy cream, low-volume concerns for their own children’s safety should one of the hooligans escape. These were our parents, of course, but there were others—Fellington parents—with whom we didn’t associate. Some lived beyond the accepted borders of Roanoke, where cows outnumbered people and May stank with ripe manure. The school promised these parents structure for their sons, a no-nonsense environment with a zero-tolerance policy. School promoters had developed convincing brochures for marketing purposes with testimonials from alums: a successful Chief Executive Officer for Symbatec Inc., a VP of Marketing for Kraft Foods, and an Air Force pilot.

Many of us overheard our parents’ testy words snake between soup bowls.  A school like that—so went the general sentiment—would be more suitable downstate, or perhaps further west. And the word “boys” had become sour even in the mouths of our fathers, whom we presumed to have been boys at one point in their lives. Our imaginations bucked like wild boars. “A school like that” was a phrase filled with delicious secrecy. But this was back when we were somersaulting on the grassy knolls behind our homes, tying our skirt-bottoms between our legs for freedom.

There were boys at our public school. They freckled our classes with Dockers and strong soapy smells. But we outnumbered them three to one. It was strange to have so much power, as though they were a separate, lesser race. Sure, we had brothers and friends with brothers, but they weren’t the Fellington Boys; they were nice boys who were interested in igneous rocks and photosynthesis. They were the obedient ones, or they quickly learned to be, with the threat of Fellington skittering inside every reprimand.

The day after the Fellington fire, when we were questioned by the authorities, not a single girl recalled the agenda of the luncheon, nor if any adult had ever mentioned its purpose. Eighth grade had barely begun when fifteen of us, maybe more, were given invitations the size of change purses. Addressed to our parents, the cardstock squares requested—in calligraphy—our presence in the Fellington outer courtyard Wednesday at noon for an organized chaperoned affair.

“The Fellington School for Boys,” we mocked in private, our hands clasped as if we harbored fireflies, “is a private correctional institution for wayward adolescent boys.”  We passed the school every day to avoid the malfunctioning light at Jasper and Franklin. It was across the street from the post office but lacked an official sign or telltale entranceway. If you didn’t know, you’d never suspect what lived behind so much shrubbery.

A brown stretch of the Roanoke River ran behind the school and could be accessed through the woods if one was willing to negotiate the undergrowth. There was no dock at the riverbank, only a grassy ledge and then a drop to shallow waters. When the river was low as it often was, the twists of naked roots protruded from the riverbank wall, curving like old inviting limbs. Refuse collected there: bottles ensnared in fishing line, baseball caps like round cotton boats, and old athletic shoes.

The boys were rarely seen. Sure there were rumors of sightings, like when Catherine and Gina bought machine-dispensed hot chocolate from the Piggly Wiggly and loitered at the store’s employee entrance with their paper cups. Gina said—and Gina believed all liars go to Hell—that four teenage boys in matching red shirts dashed past them, drenched from head to toe. The tallest one smoked as he ran, and a little guy with sopping wet sneakers winked at Gina as he trailed after the bigger boys. “Let’s go, Benny,” the tallest one hissed. And Gina said she wouldn’t have thought anything of it, that maybe a new family moved into the giant house on Pauley Street, but not a minute later, two cop cars careened around the corner, lights a strobe of red and blue. Gina, a regular flamingo girl, gripped Catherine’s sleeve and balanced on one leg.

“Shit,” she said. “Fellington boys.”

Earlier that summer Mr. Wentworth claimed he saw Jack Hembree lazing in the church balcony without his sisters Stella and Frances in tow, hymnal in hand. One would notice a person huffing around up there in the empty pews because our church balcony was off-limits due to rotten support beams and an overall unsound structure. Mr. Wentworth was playing a hymn advising the congregation of grace during difficult times:

By and by, when the morning comes,

When the saints of God are gathered home,

We’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome,

For we’ll understand it better by and by.

When a community fails its members, everyone is to blame. That’s what our teacher Ms. Blickers had said, reading from her scribbled notes, after Jack Hembree had set fire to his family’s garage with pressurized oxygen or some such volatile gas, landing his father in the hospital with burns that blistered on his face and neck. One of Mr. Hembree’s ears was shriveled to half its size, and skin grafts left his complexion a plastic patchwork of smooth, red squares. We prayed for Mr. Hembree and his troubled boy. They were lucky to survive, our parents said.

We were in the 5th grade then, tittering over Ms. Blickers’ fallen stockings. The nude nylons bunched around her ankles and embarrassed us. The metal microphone stand wobbled, and the base was warped, so she steadied it with both hands before asking us to bow our heads in silent prayer.

The damage incurred by Jack to his family’s property was comprehensive, and the town gathered around that grilled garage in a manner that foreshadowed the Fellington disaster. There was a layer of guilt then too, like a thin slice of Swiss cheese. In twos and threes, adults asked each other what they had ever really known of the Hembrees. Didn’t Mr. Hembree always use holiday stamps on his outgoing mail? What was the youngest Hembree girl called, and had anyone seen that darn German Shorthaired Pointer?

“Ugly dog,” said Mrs. Reddish, Catherine’s mother, a woman of sculpted muscles and fake tans. “That pup’s got one eye that doesn’t shut.”

The crowd lobbed more rumors, and each one hovered like a dragonfly, wings vibrating like mad, then gone.

While the spectators traipsed around the Hembree place, not a single Hembree nor a brown-eared canine was present, and pollen drifted by in green and yellow clouds.

Dusk arrived early that day, capping the afternoon’s morbid entertainment, but as the bystanders drifted home, Mr. Abernathy pulled up in his white Chevy truck. He never stepped out of his vehicle, but he did roll down the driver’s side window to inform Officer Meeks, a Gumby-like cop, of bulk shipments that had arrived weekly for Mr. Hembree by train. Cases of Libby’s Corned Beef Hash and Stokely’s Fruit Cocktail were first, followed by cartons of Jell-Well Butterscotch Pudding. For five dollars a week, Mr. Abernathy persuaded his adult daughter Carla to deliver Mr. Hembree’s foodstuffs to the garage on the west side of the farmhouse. Every week Carla drove the white Chevy truck out to the Hembree place and unloaded the two or three boxes by the padlocked door.

By early spring, the grass had grown so tall that the boxes, once delivered, were camouflaged by a scraggly green and brown mess.

Carla told her father she was worried about the Hembree children; they watched her from the upstairs window with sullen eyes that dipped down at the corners, heavy with what Carla only imagined were feeble hearts.

Then she told her father she was worried about Mr. Hembree. Every inch of that spindly man was shutting down, she said, disconnecting from the world. He left Carla notes taped to the garage frame with wide strips of duct tape, instructions regarding the manner in which she was to stack the boxes. His instructions ended with a quote scrawled at the bottom, often a nineteenth century scientist confessing the intricacies of his process. One such quote read: “ ‘In my solitude I have pondered much on the incomprehensible subjects of space, eternity, life, and death’—Alfred Russel Wallace.”

The reclusive habits of Mr. Hembree didn’t develop overnight, for if they had, there might have been cause for alarm. Our mothers might have urged our fathers to knock on his front door, and Mr. Hembree might have opened it to reveal the pallid state of the Hembrees’ indoor life. Our mothers themselves might have checked on the Hembree children, ensuring calcium consumption and direct sunlight. Instead, when Frances’s lazy eye flung further to the left and Stella nervously picked at her face until dark scabs formed near the corners of her mouth, these things were dismissed as inevitable and just the way of things.

It happened just a little at a time, these upticks to Mr. Hembree’s privacy. They coincided with the passing of his wife after a blood clot in the lung, followed by difficulties with Jack, who was leaving old photographs of his mother around the house and experimenting with voltage. Mr. Hembree, to keep a closer eye, removed him from school as soon as the law allowed. That was the same month the curtains went up, black ones in all the windows, never drawn.

The far end of our school property abutted the north end of the Hembree acreage, and the detonation of the house occurred midday. The ground vibrated the soles of our shoes and rattled us like a bag of beans. A few of the younger students crawled under the lunch table, while our high school monitor, an overweight senior named Bea Bosco, chuckled and slurped yellow gelatin cubes with a spoon.

The Hembree sisters ate lunch together outside under the dogwood tree, far away from both the lunchroom din and Jenny Drake’s supersonic eardrums. Dandelions shot back a quarter mile before white and yellow honeysuckle climbed the chain link fence. They shared a single paper bagged lunch and a common bag of green beans. After the blast, they scrambled onto the picnic table for a better view.

Were they looking for their brother in the smoke? They must’ve known.

The little ones, the second and third graders who slept with nightlights, curled into nervous pods under the family-style tables. We—the older students—remained steadfast in our seats, grasping hands till red and white-knuckled beneath the table ledge, our expressions mature.

The lunchroom shades were pulled halfway; we could see two pairs of black and white Hembree oxfords straddled their disappointing lunch. Stella was on the left, identified by her bowed limbs, and between four ankles, we saw a billowing cloud of black puffed higher and higher like a gentle sea creature lost in the sky.

Jack was discovered one hour later at his mother’s gravesite, his fingers blackened. There was a ravaged quality that circled him like a murder of crows. The police, familiar with the personal trials of the Hembree family, waited for Jack to nod his head before arresting him, and two days later he was transferred to Fellington for a complete evaluation, after which his belongings were delivered by pick-up truck.

It was said that Mr. Hembree, rather than deal with the decay at home, checked himself into Bowmans Psychiatric Hospital located fifty miles west of Richmond. Gina’s mother has a cousin who works there, and apparently Mr. Hembree said he could see his wife’s face in every full moon.

With their brother enrolled at Fellington and their father in the psych ward, Stella and Frances packed their personal belongings in twin army duffle bags. Their mother’s sister, who never married but grew corn, squash, and sunflowers on her land, agreed to take them in, poor orphans that they were.

And then there was Jack.

We had all wanted Jack Hembree to be something he never was. If we closed our eyes and beckoned to him into our dreams, he would assume characteristics that we pasted upon him, like dressing a paper doll. Jack Hembree was neither tall nor mysterious; he was not our gallant protector, and he never whispered to Catherine that he liked the color of her blouse. His hair was a matte shade of dark brown, not shiny and black, and his jaw—not the angular, confident type—was easily lost in the length of his neck. He cursed openly and was punished for it. He drew intricate mazes on the cardboard backs of his notebooks. When it rained, he wore a yellow rain hat. Jenny Drake posited that it might have belonged to his mother, and we had little reason to dispute her claim.

Jack, like his twin sisters, kept to himself. Maybe the sudden passing of his mother engaged our collective empathy bone, or perhaps our inability to peg him as a teenage type revved our adolescent motors. But there was one instance—one story—that rippled the school walls one week before Mr. Hembree withdrew his son from school.

Jack was three grades ahead of us, and members of his eighth grade class were sharing written assignments related to The Old Man and the Sea. The response was open-ended and students had free rein when it came to topic selection, and this freedom excited some and terrified many. One by one each student presented his or her paper to the class, and Jack Hembree volunteered to go first, taking everyone by surprise. Jack leaned against the blackboard, one knee bent. With curved fingers he combed his hair to one side, and he scanned the room as if taking attendance, locking eyes with every classmate before reading his essay entitled, “We Are the Marlin Bones.”

His black Henley brushed against the chalkboard, accumulating wipes of white, and his paper rattled in his anxious hands.

“My father is Santiago,” Jack Hembree said, his voice cracking over impatient seat shifting. “My sisters and I are the giant fish. We can make him right again. We will sacrifice ourselves to make him right,” he said, and the room grew still. “You. All of you are the sharks. Greedily, you have devoured us, tracked our wounds, eaten our flesh, leaving nothing behind but sea-soaked bone.”

Those who were there said it was not delivered with vengeance, that his words conveyed atrophy of body and heart, that the sun inflated to blaze unapologetic and hot on the guilty ones. Wherever you were during Jack’s speech, you might have tugged a collar or wiped your brow, fanned a piece of notebook paper, or tapped a single ice cube to your wrist.

But then it was over, and within a day we were discussing the clogged toilet in the girl’s bathroom. By the following Monday, Jack’s locker was hollow and cold; a month after that Jack displayed his amateur pyrotechnics, singeing what was left of Jack’s spirit.

The morning of the Fellington luncheon, the one that left us crescent-mooned around a fire pit, we were all thinking of Jack. He was one of the few Fellington boys who had once walked among us. We had strolled past him in the hallway, allowing our forearms to brush against his; we had stood behind him in the lunch line, requesting the same hot specials; we had lingered near his red bicycle after school, knowing he would unlock it and ride away.

Our fascination with Jack rumbled low inside of us, so that the notion of an encounter, however brief, set us spinning. The day of the Fellington luncheon began with a level of preening to which we were unaccustomed. We curled our hair on pink foam rollers and powdered our faces with furry puffs.

Our dresses—most of them ill-fitting Easter dresses—were the colors of candied almonds, and we hated them. Seams pulled across our chests, and the backs of our dresses bunched in unsightly pleats. Our parents cloaked us in these childish outfits as if the fabric itself would reverse our adolescence, while our lips were bright and waxy from heavy coats of coral lipstick.

The fire was under control when the orange bus parked behind the fire truck, although men in bloated firemen suits continued to douse the remaining sides of the schoolhouse from twin ladders. Carol Shanty thought it best if we clustered beneath a giant oak for shade. Triangles of glass reflected the noonday sun, while crisscrossed banisters trapped the blackened half of a door. The single school desk turned upside down on top of a twin mattress enchanted the Hembree sisters, who pecked toward the structure like curious gulls.

Our pastel dresses were grotesque against the smoldering remains of a schoolhouse. The lipsticks and powders now seemed absurd. Wordless, a few parents huddled together where the flagpole once stood. The force of the explosion had split the rod in two, both ends protruding from the charred earth like primitive weapons.

Only Jenny Drake heard the Hembree sisters speak that day

As an ambulance pulled away, we watched the Hembree sisters inspect the overturned desk. “This one was Jack’s,” Stella said. She gripped the wooden arm where the desk leaf attached, and it snapped free, cracking like an old tooth.

“How do you know?” Frances asked. Her nose grazed the desk arm, as if she could smell her brother in the burnt wood fibers. “Thirty boys in all. Could’ve been anyone’s desk. Could’ve belonged to that one over there.” She pointed to a limping boy with wispy blonde hair. Hopping on one foot, he was assisted into the white tent by a woman in a blue uniform.

Stella found some nuts in her pocket and nibbled on them one at a time. “If I say it’s Jack’s desk, it’s Jack’s desk. I don’t have to prove it to you or Pop or anybody.”

“Swear on Ma’s grave,” Frances said.

“Excuse me?”

“Swear on Ma’s grave that it’s Jack’s desk.”

“Why can’t you just believe me?”

“Because if that’s Jack’s desk, then Jack would be as charred as this chair, as fried as this wooden leg, as crisp as that ashen piece of whatever it is that you’re holding in your hand. So if it’s Jack’s desk, we better look for Jack. He can’t be much further than the honeysuckle.”

Jenny Drake told us later, when we flocked around her, that Stella didn’t respond verbally to Frances. Instead she guided her sister away and left the desk arm behind. Jenny thought Stella must have seen, over Frances’s shoulder, the stretcher wheeled from the Fellington side door. A few of us saw it too. A crisp white sheet cloaked the figure and hung low on either side, nearly sweeping the concrete steps, as two careful men angled the gurney toward the irregular sidewalk squares. It could have been anyone; the sheet softened any telltale features, reducing the person on that stretcher to casual topography.

Jenny thought Stella might have goosebumped a shiver of recognition. Jack wasn’t on that stretcher, but it didn’t matter. A magnetic charge pulled Stella toward the gurney, held her there, and released her. A quick about-face sent Stella linking her arm playfully with her sister’s. Arm-in-arm they foraged for square items, flat sections of fence, and furniture shapes, dragging their treasures into the woods one by one. They pretended not to see the other shapes, rounded ones that curved and sloped, stepping to the side the way one does at the sight of a dead sparrow.

Our legs buckled beneath us, aching arches and hunger pangs dropping us to the dirt like laundry sacks. We were not dainty. We leaned back-to-back for support and crumbled wet earth over our bare shins. The clumps dribbled, choosing which side of leg to tumble down. Potato bugs curled into themselves, embarrassed by the daylight, and we shook them like dice in our palms.

An officer approached, the first adult to engage us all afternoon. He looked us over as if the answers to his questions lived in our headbands, our pearls, our fingernail polish.

“Can we help you?” Catherine asked. She propped herself up with her elbows, supporting her long torso: she reclined like that, lounging at the ashen panorama.

“Any of you gals sisters? Supposed to find sisters,” he said. “Name’s Officer Wesson.” He patted his belt.

“What happens when you find them?” Catherine asked. We were wondering the same thing, but only Catherine dared to ask the question. Jenny smacked Gina’s shoulder and mocked her open-mouthed gum chewing.

“Supposed to find sisters,” he said again, disinterested in our troupe’s wily riddles. His wide stance was comical, all Abbott and Costello, and he puffed out his chest as though it might silence us.

The wind picked up, first rustling the trees then fluttering our hemlines. The leaves flashed their underbellies, and cooler air settled on our skin like a clean bed sheet. The school bus returned on schedule, and its yellow boxy presence seemed to remind the anxious adults that ten girls, maybe more, had been left unattended. Mr. Gilmore helped us to our feet with an outstretched hand, and Carol Shantly filled Dixie cups to the brim with water and distributed them, water dripping on our dress shoes.

“Ma’am,” Officer Wesson interrupted. “Can you tell me which of these girls are sibling-related?” He raised a wiry eyebrow to Catherine and smirked.

Carol Shantly dropped handfuls of oyster cracks in our ready palms, barely registering the officer’s question. “Hmm? Hembrees? Where have they wandered off to?”

But Stella and Frances never returned from the woods. They weren’t officially missed until we boarded the school bus and Mr. Gilmore, still pounding his chest as he coughed, called roll. By that time our dresses were splotched with dirt and our curled hair hung limp against our oily faces. Jenny Drake had a heat rash blossoming on her arm. When Mr. Gilmore called Frances Hembree and no one responded, we were too exhausted to swivel in our seats, too hungry to care about the lithe girl who hadn’t heard her name. He called out “Stella Hembree,” and was also met with silence.

The search was launched immediately, and Officer Wesson called their names with a bullhorn. Like a music box wound to the hilt, activity resumed, and the chaos of lost children and a looming sense of dread boomed from the earth.

“Girls, stay here,” we were ordered. The vinyl smell of the bus made our temples pulse. In pairs we tangled ourselves, drawing filthy knees into chests and resting our heads on laps and shoulders.

The bus pulled away from Fellington while we dozed in the humid air, jostled in our seats as we motored over dips and mounds toward the main road.

There was no assembly to announce what was discovered floating face down in the Roanoke River, bobbing against the riverbank between dross and debris. Ms. Blickers did not steady a metal microphone stand this time, and no speeches were composed about community responsibility existing within an indefatigable human spirit.

It was one of the other boys—a younger one, Benny, with minor scrapes and bruises—who led Officer Wesson and his partner through the wooded lot toward the river’s edge. Unbeknownst to the school administration, Fellington boys, when the confinement needled their brains, would traipse through the woods when the moon was new and wade across the Roanoke River for a night of freedom. Nervous, Benny  lied and said he’d never been across the river, since he was terrified of getting caught. The other boys had teased him for it, stole his shoes and released them in the currents, but he said he didn’t mind. It was enough, he continued, to pass a few hours on the riverbank.

The sun was still high, so the bends in brush were easier to spot. Benny ducked under low-hanging branches and urged the officers onward; when it seemed Benny was leading them in circles, the trees thinned and gave way to a muddy ledge that dropped three or four feet to cloudy river water drifting by.

It was Benny who spotted them. He was explaining to the officers how the river level rose and fell depending on the season, measuring the markers of the late-summer dip. The sisters’ hair swirled about their heads, marbling the water; the back of Jack’s head was shaved close. All three held hands as though they were parachuting through the air, falling, falling down with the force of the wind supporting them. Their legs fanned out like spokes, Stella’s foot caught in a tan patch of weeds. The water rushing downstream tried to spin the Hembree wheel, to set the siblings free, but the force of the current was too weak to do more than stir them, nothing more than a mother’s gentle attempt to rouse her sleeping children.

The damage to the Fellington School was too great to repair. Temporary trailers and tents were discussed, but the Board of Trustees concluded that, for insurance purposes, the school should shut its doors with the promise to reopen once a new site had been acquired. Despite massive fundraising attempts, they were unable to secure adequate backing, and the school was forced to fold.

Officially the explosion was ruled an accident, but nobody believed that to be true. The natural gas pipe in the basement had come loose at a critical joint, seeping odorless noxious fumes. It was a wonder an explosion hadn’t occurred days or even weeks earlier since the basement—the section beyond Jack’s private room where the boiler lived—was a frequent smoking hovel for the oldest boys.

Our preoccupation all these years later is rarely with that first spark or brand of cigarettes. Most of us have left Roanoke and fewer have reason to return. We live in other southeastern states and send our children to public schools, where they misbehave, cheat on French tests, score soccer goals, and twist tongues in the dark. What burns in our chests when we kiss our sons and daughters goodnight is how, so many years ago, our tired legs ached standing on charred ground, and how easily we slept, limbs entwined, as the school bus pulled away. It scrapes our lungs raw, our indifference concerning two girls who had only one another’s hand to grasp for comfort, and the blatant disregard we had for Jack’s intrepid plea for kindness. This is what keeps us up at night. That, and the tormenting image of our own hands holding three heads underwater, so many pairs of hands pressing stubbornly, our thoughts impervious to thrashing limbs, while we wait patiently for the inevitable calm.

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