An excerpt from Flashover by Sonja Condit
Just there on the bridge where the new piece of safety rail shines silver by moonlight, a girl named Lilly sometimes stands, soaking wet and barefoot in a black dress, saying Help me, somebody help me, I dropped my baby. Strangers might stop for her. Locals turn their radio up and run their windshield wipers. The water that drips from her dress’s hem is clear at first, and then blue, draining the color from her dress, and then blackish-red and sticky. While the helpful stranger runs along the shore, prodding boulders and bushes with a branch he picked up, Lilly comes behind him, no longer sobbing for her child, and her hair turns white and her nails grow long, and then he turns to her in despair and says, “I can’t find your baby! Let me call for help.”
“There is no help,” she says.
Too late he remembers the phone in his car, the call he should have made twenty-three minutes ago when the emergency happened. Too late he sees the yellow teeth, and the slime of algae in her wet blond hair. Too late, and she bears him down into the water. Tomorrow, a deputy will find his car. They’ll drag the river, and use his cellphone to call his wife.
Jessa Machrae told me this story when we were eight years old. Lilly was her father’s grandfather’s sister, who died before the bridge was built. She was crossing the dam from the East Mill to the West Mill one winter night in January of 1906, and she slipped. She and her baby were never found.
I looked it up online. The story is listed on four websites about ghosts of the south, and there have been three deaths of men who left their car on the bridge and jumped. She’s seen once or twice each year. Three deaths, three and a half if you count Kalen Machrae.
Sometimes, I ride my bike to the bridge and walk from one side to the other, back and forth, waiting for a face in the river mist, a voice compounded of tree frog and cicada song. Sometimes, I wear a long black dress I found in a thrift store, and carry an old baby doll in my arms. Sometimes, a car crosses the bridge, and my dress turns white in its headlights, blood-red in its taillights as it accelerates away from me. Nobody stops. Lilly, Lilly, my heart calls, Lilly Machrae, are you there?
I wonder if Kalen saw her. If hers was the last face he saw. I wonder if, for him, she showed the predator face, the algae and the fangs, or if she cried out in warning, if she tried to save him, if she knew his name. Blood calling to blood.
On the seventh day of Christmas, which was New Year’s Eve and seven swans a-swimming, Kalen Machrae drove off Mill Dam Road. He was underwater for twenty-three minutes. I know the time exactly because he was on the phone with me. “You wouldn’t have liked the party, Little Bo,” he said. “Not the kind of party you would’ve liked.”
“I would have liked you to ask.” I wanted him to take me somewhere, be with me, be seen with me. We’d had sex four times, six and a half if you count oral, and he hadn’t yet spoken to me in front of people. “I would have liked—”
“Jesus, Lord,” he said.
Then there was a sound and another sound, something like an animal’s scream, and something like a cough. The engine was louder and then stopped, and there were more noises, and then there was nothing but a long, murmuring, quiet line of music, like a young woman singing a lullaby in another room, and me saying over and over into the phone,
“Kalen—Kalen—Kalen?” There was a delay and an electronic echo, and my voice came back to me altered and monstrous, Kalen, Kalen.
He ran off the road at one fifty-three in the morning. At one fifty-five I called 911, and they found him, Mrs. Machrae told me later, at two sixteen. Twenty-three minutes.
“Thank God, oh thank God you were there,” she said when she told me. New Year’s Day, when she came back from the hospital to change her clothes and call all her relatives. She knew I would be waiting. She knew I needed to know. She came across the street and hugged me and said, “He’s still unconscious, but he’s breathing on his own. Thank God.”
A month later, she wasn’t thanking God any more, or me either. Twenty-three minutes is a long time underwater. It washed his mind smooth as a river stone.
They have to tie him to the bed so he won’t wander, and even so, he bites. Mrs. Machrae gave up her job managing a baby boutique in downtown Greeneburg, where she sold baby sweaters in the pattern of the state flag, blue with the palmetto tree and the crescent moon, and a lot of other things that look hand-knitted but really aren’t. She used to sit behind the counter with a piece of knitting, the back of a blue sweater with tree and moon, knitting all day long while the tourists browsed the shelves and watched her out of the edges of their eyes, comparing her work to the adorable sweaters and scarves with the tags embroidered Made with love for you in South Carolina, USA. When the shop was empty, she’d unravel the knitting down to halfway, and lay it aside until the next group of tourists came in. The sweaters are knitted on machines in the basement of what used to be a pillow factory south of Greeneburg. The rest of the factory makes seatbelt strap material for Hyundai. Kalen applied for a job there but didn’t get it.
Now Mrs. Machrae stays home and takes care of Kalen. Her work goes on and on and is never done. She has to get up two or three times a night, she says. He gets some disability money. Mr. Machrae works as much overtime as he can, which means he’s never home.
She’s told me how hard it is to get anything done, being sleepy all the time. She hasn’t felt this tired since Jessa was a baby. Here are some things she never says to me:
“Why did you let him call you from the car?”
“Why did you let him go to the party without you?”
“Why did you let him have sex with you?”
“Why didn’t you let him drown?”
Flashover is when a fire drowns. Everything has burned that can burn, and the air fills with smoke, floating and drifting. When a house burns by daylight with all the doors and windows shut, you can see the smoke fill the rooms. It rises from below. Night comes into the house from underneath, swirling watery bands of darkness and particulate matter, tiny fragments of the walls and the carpet and the floor under the carpet, and any furniture that might be there, and the piles of logs and branches somebody dragged into the house before setting fire to it. What you do then is, you find a stone, a good one made for your hand, a stone the size of your fist. Throw it through a window, any window. The air rushes in and then—flashover. The dead smoke springs to life when oxygen touches it. The whole house turns white, turns gold, and the flames jump a hundred feet in the air.
I love to see that happen by daylight, the darkness in the house turning white like a lightbulb popping. But the burn is better at night even though you can’t see the smoke. You have to be patient at night, and let the fire eat all the oxygen in the house, let it char the inside of the house to a black and simmering drift. You can hear it. The walls creak and whine. Windows chime like glass bells far away, as the house pulls and pulls for air, like a drowning person. If you throw the stone too soon, all you get is an ordinary burn. Wait long enough, and it’s the most glorious sight in the world.
I am waiting. Waiting while I drown.
It’s also important to get the right stone. The right stone is always there, by my foot, as if someone—Lilly Machrae, who else—stands beside me in the dark and drops the stone when I need it. I wait, listening to the house whistle and moan with its burden of choked fire, the way sadness builds up inside when nobody wants to hear you cry anymore, because you have no right to be as sad as you are. He does not belong to you. He belongs to Jessa and to their parents, not to you. Shut up and go away, stupid girl. I wait until Lilly whispers now and I throw the stone. It is always perfect.
Sonja Condit is an author and musician living in upstate South Carolina. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Converse College, and her frst novel, Starter House, was published in 2014. She teaches at Anderson University, North Greenville University, and the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.
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