Fireworks are supposed to be fun. They’re supposed to be a grand celebratory gesture. The definitive signal that says to everyone around, “I am very excited. I like this moment very much. And I want to communicate my feelings in the loudest and brightest commercially available way possible.” Though, more often than anyone will likely admit, all sentiments of merriment are lost beneath the competitively obnoxious chorus, “We have spirit, yes we do. We have spirit. How ‘bout you?” Or at least Canner Connelly thought as much from the balcony he’d rented by the sea.
He lit a cigarette and leaned over the railing on his elbows.
He also thought that neighbors and tourists were two of the most annoying sorts of people, especially on the 4th of July, and the fact that he’d committed three weeks of his life to the beach, a place that transformed perfect strangers into both, was the kind of personal torture only he ever had to pay for.
Not to say that the unit they were staying in wasn’t worth it, emotionally or monetarily. Of course it was. The Channel Inn had, in its previous incarnation, been a timeshare, or a condo or something, so their hotel room didn’t feel like a room at all. Because it wasn’t. Their unit was almost a thousand square feet, had two bedrooms, a beautiful bathroom, bamboo floors, and granite everywhere. The only features that differentiated it from an actual, very nice apartment were the built-in wine cooler and the singular closet. Somehow triangular in shape and impossible to fit anything into.
But, otherwise, conceptually, mostly perfection.
The building sat on a cliff and they were on the top floor. Canner’s balcony was the farthest you could get from the ocean, but every balcony on all four stories had been built at a diagonal so that everyone got a view, and he couldn’t imagine it getting much better than his. Especially now. In the absolute middle of the night. The moon’s light wasn’t bright enough to define the horizon, and the twinkling ripples on the black ocean blended right into the stars. He thought he could actually see, with the help of a little wine, what forever meant.
The whole experience might have changed his life right then, if it had been one continuous stream of perception-altering awe and wonder. But there was a large group of pyromaniacs on the other side of the building, accompanied by their belligerent fans and spectators, firing off virtual artillery shells out over the water. Every few minutes there was an erratic mix of squealing and quaking rumbles, followed by flashes of color that blended like food coloring on the surface of his clarity to form a very patriotic shade of brown.
Canner knew they were only trying to enjoy themselves. And that he was prone to both exaggeration and unreasonable frustration. And that the place they had chosen to celebrate was admittedly ideal, having only a few patches of beach grass, picnic tables, and fire pits to navigate in the dark. But it was so late. And they were so close to him. And all he wanted was to fall asleep to the sounds of the waves, like the old days.
Canner consoled himself with more wine and the thought that most people just used that area to take their dogs out. He prayed for the inevitable; smeared on the upholstered floors of their cars in miraculous proportion.
He reached into his pocket, breathed in deeply from his cigarette, and pulled out his phone to check the time. 2 am. He then nearly dropped it over the railing, startled by the tap on the sliding glass door behind him.
His lit cigarette casually fell out of his hand over the side.
She knew he smoked. He knew she knew. But, gradually since Henry had left, he’d begun to smoke more and more. Half a pack a day. And now he hated to ever let her see him.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he smiled, spinning around, sliding his phone back in his pocket. “Fireworks keeping you up?”
Chloe didn’t answer. She simply held out a smoke detector, and waited for him to take it.
“A smoke detector.”
“Right. Well. Yeah, Chloe. But why isn’t it on a ceiling?”
“Wait for it.”
He watched her staring at the plastic disk, glaring at it with as much menace as she could muster. Her eyes were both blue, one slightly greener than the other, and, when she wanted to, she could turn them both into ice. Like hypothermia in stereo. Her dark chocolate hair was falling out of a haphazard bun, its tendrils drifting down behind her. And, for pajamas, she wore bright blue sweatpants that were far too big for her, and a lime green camisole that, as Canner often lamented, was not nearly big enough. Not for his twelve year-old daughter. Not even for bed.
“Holy hell,” he croaked.
“That,” Chloe nodded, pleased that it had acted up while someone else was there to see, “is why I’m up.”
“It’s just a warning. It means it’s running out of batteries.” He flipped it over and began feeling for a seam.
“I know that. But you can’t change the batteries.”
“Of course you can. You just…” He flipped it back the other way and tried to twist it open like a pickle jar.
“Of course you can,” she mimicked, even more pleased. She’d tried. There was no way about it.
Canner rolled his eyes and pushed past her, moving through the door and then through the living room. The hardwood had been so perfectly polished before their arrival that, even though the blinds were turned down, the sheen from just a little moonlight led him toward the kitchen window.
The living area of the unit was one long, open space; the couches and television were next to the balcony on the northernmost side, which then became a dining area in the middle, with an oak table and chairs set, then the kitchen to the south. The entryway was separated from the kitchen on the west by a wall of cabinets, the refrigerator and dishwasher, and the wine cooler.
The drawer above the wine cooler was the one that had the screwdriver in it.
Canner had found it last night by accident, while in search of something with which to battle the world’s most aggressive moth.
A battle he might have lost, had he been by himself. Though he argued that he only needed help because he’d had to settle for a spatula, and not a proper flyswatter.
He wasn’t afraid of bugs. Or of touching them, really. Spiders, yes. Completely terrified. But bugs in general, no. He wasn’t afraid of this one explicitly, either, though the hairy creature was obviously plague ridden and determined to fly into his mouth. And eyes. And, once, straight into his ear. It was the frantic flapping of its wings that had gotten to him. It made the battling impossible. There was just no way to attack it with any resolve. Not beneath the 60 watt track lighting. Its flapping created such a strobe effect that it screwed with his depth perception, and he’d needed something longer than his bare hand to increase his arc of success. A sword to slay the Questing Beast. But, in the end, he hadn’t been able to lay blade to flesh, or spatula to bug, or connect with the moth in any way that it itself hadn’t instigated. So, truth be told, if the hotel hadn’t been insistently pet friendly, and Chloe hadn’t begged to bring their great black cat, and Charlie hadn’t been such a savant in the art of pest control, and the moth hadn’t landed on the wall directly in front of the weevil assassin, Canner may have been forced to spend their entire vacation cohabitating with a tiny, nocturnal pterodactyl.
He kicked something in the kitchen, the corner of the refrigerator, stumbled, winced, and wished for the first time in his life that he’d been wearing shoes instead of flip-flops. He also wished that the people who’d taken such painstaking care, superbly renovating this building, had considered putting a light switch nearer to the balcony. Or by the front door, maybe. Or just anywhere that wasn’t only in the kitchen.
He’d spent the last eighteen months building a house, and found those were the sorts of things he thought about now. Picking apart the choices builders had made. These sconces were hideous. Was that molding supposed to be a joke?
It had all started as a hobby. Something to do while Chloe was in school. Also, rebuilding was an honest and responsible way to manage Uncle Henry’s estate. But, after realizing he could do almost entirely by himself, however slowly it came about, he’d become sort of a professional. And he finished the thing. He did it. He built it. A beautiful little craftsman bungalow right over the top of where he’d once burned Uncle Henry’s house to the ground. So, now, obviously, he was a definitive expert in every construction related realm, and why anyone would put the switches, that controlled all of the lighting in the entire apartment, in the kitchen alone was beyond him.
It was probably money. It was always money. But he’d so much rather be mad at some construction crew for being lazy, or inept, or even jerk-off smartasses who were screwing with him specifically than at an architect or contractor who couldn’t care less about how he probably just broke his toe. Because that person would be nearsighted. Obtuse. And would only really care about staying inside the dark confines of an unrealistically estimated budget. And he couldn’t imagine liking that person. A money person. Money people were the worst.
He hadn’t always felt that way, but Canner had begun to hate money.
He’d always worried about it, of course.
But now that he had it, and couldn’t seem to get rid of it, he hated it.
It ruined everything.
Canner laid the smoke detector on the cold stone countertop and opened the drawer. It opened beautifully on greased wheels, and, he thought, if they’d just used cheaper cabinetry they could have installed more light switches. He pulled out the long, sharp screwdriver.
Chloe flipped the lights on behind him, three feet away, and shook her head at him. “Dad?” she asked, worrying he’d drifted off in thought and was going to hurt himself. She’d seen him recklessly stuff tools into things before. “You can’t open it. I already tried.”
Canner grunted. A preoccupied acknowledgement. Surrender was near. They both knew it. It just wasn’t there yet. It was past two in the morning now, and he had drifted off. The kind of drifting off that happens to everyone at two in the morning and some wine. He’d stubbed his toe and that had led him to thoughts of construction; construction to thoughts of home building; to the home he’d just built with his uncle’s money on his uncle’s land. Willed to him or not.
After more than eighteen months of silence, despite some apparent reluctance on Henry’s part, and even more apparently on Jane’s, she’d convinced the old man that Canner deserved to know everything. It took them seven pages, but every detail leading up to the events that happened that night in November were recounted. Everything. Canner now knew everything.
There was no return address, and no way to ask them why they’d decided to clarify that he was, in fact, an accessory to murder. But that’s exactly what he was. And that’s exactly what happened.
He may have had the best intentions. He may even have thought he was doing the right thing. But that was all in the moment. And that moment was gone. The things that he’d done to help Henry and Jane that night hadn’t been rational, well thought out, make your mother proud things. If anyone found out, he could get life in prison. Accessory after the fact! Ipso facto! Avada effing kadavra! And that would be it. It wouldn’t matter to anyone that he was going through a rough time emotionally. That, after all, he’d just stood up to his dead wife. That he’d only recently found his confidence again. Or that he’d just thought he was being helpful. It wouldn’t matter that he had been trying to save his uncle, the uncle that had just tried to save him and his daughter. That he’d been in protect-my-family mode. It wouldn’t matter to anyone.
It just wouldn’t.
A man in a black robe would simply stand up and look down at him, and ask him, “You did what?” And then they would take Chloe away. They’d send him to prison and take her away. And the rest of his life would be lived in his own personal hell. And then he’d die there, and probably go to hell for real.
Canner tried to swallow his tears, but found his heart had climbed in the way.
“Thank you, Chloe. You’re right,” he said as cherishingly as he could, staring down at the back of the smoke detector that had no screws showing, no openings of any kind, and was beeping louder and more frequently than ever. Nothing in the world made sense, and he threw the screwdriver back in the drawer and opened the freezer.
Chloe looked into the freezer with him and smiled, “Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re a genius or retarded,” and she scratched his back as he laid the noisemaker next to a tub of Tillamook ice cream.
“Me neither, kiddo.”
He shut the freezer door and everything was quiet. The last of the fireworks had stopped and the detector was muffled. Chloe flipped the lights off as they walked to the hallway where neither of them said goodnight. It was too late, even for niceties. And breakfast with Birch was going to come too soon.