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Just One Stray Match

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Lionel’s halfway down a gravel slope, legs braced against the steep incline, hands tense and cramping on the rope, when the peg at the top gives out and he drops. He slides twenty feet, rolling and skidding and scrambling for purchase. When he gets to the bottom he stays there, lying on his side, blood oozing from a nasty scrape on his leg. Not because he can’t move. He knows, with grim certainty, that he can.

It’s just that he doesn’t belong here.

He’s himself, Lionel Fusco - fat, alcoholic, divorced, murderous, hunted - and he doesn’t belong anywhere. Especially not here. Especially not home.

He’s not sure when he realized it. Later than he should’ve, that’s for sure. If he could’ve realized it months ago, before he killed that drug dealer, before he took that money, before he trapped himself, that would’ve been best. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, he read something about how there are people who get paid to sit in towers and speak to no one and do nothing but watch for fires crackling their way through the forests out west, and he was surprised at how good that sounded, surprised to find that all this time, he’d been looking for a way out.

So he made some calls. So he bought plane tickets. So he told his ex that he wouldn’t be around for a couple of months, and his ex had liked that. So he left.

And now he’s here.

He takes a handful of gravel and squeezes it tight, whispers to himself “You sorry son of a bitch” over and over until the pain fades and the weight in his chest lifts and his way forward becomes a blade slicing through the rocks, a ray of light.

He stands.

He first sees the tower looming black against the orange sky, fringed with dark leaves, and he thinks it’s impossible that something so rickety can stand. But there’s sunburn on his shoulders, insects buzzing at his neck, blood dry and itchy on his leg, so he guesses the tower is home for now.

The stairs creak and groan under his boots. The effort of climbing feels like an insult, a final kick in the teeth after miles of rocks and trees and hills. He wants to stop on the landing, just slump there on a flat, manmade surface and breathe awhile, but he doesn’t. It’s too pathetic, this close to the top.

He shoulders the screen door open, fiddles with the inner door until it comes unstuck, and practically falls in the tiny room at the top of the tower. He catches himself and stands there, legs trembling, as his eyes adjust and unpick the shapes of furniture hunched in the dark. It’s a long moment before he notices the button for the generator.

Power surges on and for a second the bulb burns so bright he thinks it might shatter, but it all evens out, illuminates his home for the next few months in a yellowed, sodium glow. A cot. A desk. A tiny kitchen. An overstuffed bookshelf. In the center of the room, a map on a little round table, like a sundial in the park. And windows, god, in every direction.

Fusco lets his pack drop from his shoulders, sinks to the floor so hard his tailbone hurts. He rests his back against one leg of the desk and tugs numbly at his bootlaces, all thick with dirt, knots crusted together.

A sudden, sharp sound makes him jump.

Fusco sits really still, boots half-unlaced. There’s no place for a human being to hide up here, almost no place for an animal. Is it just the tower, scraping against itself when the wind blows? Is he sitting in a death trap?

The sound comes again and this time he recognizes it as a burst of static, right next to his head. He looks up, sees a walkie-talkie blinking in a charger.

“Two Forks?” comes a stern, fussy voice, made tinny by the radio. “Two Forks Tower, this is Thoroughfare Tower. Come in.”

Fusco fumbles for the radio, presses the button, hesitates. Stage fright, he guesses. He’s fluent in City Cop; the language of park rangers and woods people is new. “This is Two Forks,” he says, finally. “Over,” he adds, as an afterthought.

“Glad to see you made it,” says Thoroughfare Tower. “You’re the last lookout to arrive.” No over. Maybe it’s not an over kind of crowd.

“You can see me?” Fusco asks.

“Not well,” says the tinny radio voice, “but I saw your lights come on. Thoroughfare is northeast of you.”

With some effort, Fusco stands up, checks the map in the middle of the room to figure out where northeast is - a woods person would know without looking, he thinks - and peers out into the deepening dark. Sure enough, there’s a little yellow light nestled atop a peak way off in the distance.

“Oh,” he says. “Hey.”

“Hello,” Thoroughfare Tower says, pleasantly. “Did you have any trouble hiking in?”

His instinct is to self-deprecate, to roll over, to say “I’m not that much of an outdoorsman,” but he thinks in kind of place, with the kind of person who does this kind of thing willingly, it’d be a mistake. “Stake popped out when I was rappelling down an incline. Took kind of a fall. But mostly, I’m just a little...out of practice. Sorry for the wait.”

“Well,” says Thoroughfare Tower. “I hope you get back into practice.”

A burst of static and a new voice chimes in: “Harold, you took a fucking helicopter to get here.”

“If I could still hike in, I would ,” snaps Thoroughfare Tower, who is apparently named Harold. “The spirit is willing, but the spine…”

“Don’t let him give you shit, Two Forks,” advises the second voice. “He’s been doing this for like 500 years and he’s a huge snob.”

500 years ,” Harold repeats, incredulously.

“You did take for-fucking-ever to get here, though, Two Forks,” the second voice opines.

Fusco’s not really sure what to say about that, so he just says, “Yeah,” and sinks back to the floor, continues disentangling his laces.

“Probably don’t do that next time. You don’t want to be hiking around these woods after dark if you don’t have to. It’s pitch black under the treeline, the terrain can be tough, the whole place is rammed with caves…”

The second voice is interrupted by more static and a third very small, very feminine voice: “Bears.”

“You bet your ass, the bears,” the second voice agrees.

Static and then, a fourth voice says, “You’ve got all summer. You’ll figure it out.” And then, “I’m Joss, by the way. In Beartooth Tower.”

Fusco reaches for the radio, presses the button. “Thanks. I’m Lionel in Two Forks.”

The others sound off: The second voice is Sameen, Wapiti Tower. The third is Root, Cottonwood Tower.

“And I’m Harold,” the first voice finishes. “Thoroughfare, but you knew that.”

“I didn’t realize there were gonna be so many of us out here,” Lionel says, kicking off his shoes and biting back a groan as blood rushes back into his beat-up feet.

“You’ll hardly know we’re here,” Harold says. “If all goes well, none of us should have to meet in person all summer.”

Sameen: “I’ll drink to that.”

Root: “ Will you?”

Sameen: “I will if I find more beer.”

Fusco asks, “What are the odds of that, out here?”

“Not good,” Sameen says, sadly. “I left a stash in my cooler at the end of last summer, but my tower got ransacked during the off-season. Some dipshit backpacker got trashed on Pete’s Wicked.”

“Fucking tragic,” he says, peeling off his socks and wincing at the carnage. Probably he’s in luck there’s nothing to drink out here. It’ll keep him out of trouble. He spots a white first aid kit mounted on the wall.

“It’s Shakespearean,” she’s saying. “I brought two six packs all the way from Palo Alto last spring, hiked them in like they were my babies, made one six pack last all summer, left the other one behind knowing I’d come back for it, and…”

“My heart bleeds for you,” Fusco grits around the roll of bandages he has in his teeth.

“Just lemme know if you find anything in your tower, you little shit. Share the wealth.”

“Speaking of sharing the wealth,” Harold says, “I happen to be flush with both sunscreen and bug spray at the moment. Any takers?”

Joss: “I’m good.”

Root: “Got both.”

Sameen: “Send bug spray.”

“I’ll take both,” Lionel says, thinking of the sunburn radiating warmth through his t-shirt.

Harold tsks. “Hold out for a few days. I’ll send some over to you via bear.”

Via what? He for sure heard that wrong. “Are there bears out here?” He already knows the answer. He saw a notice when he hiked in, at the bulletin board near where he parked his car. Dos and don’ts for bear country. He read it carefully, nervously, hoping he wouldn’t need to remember it. “I mean, do you see ‘em that often?”

Sameen: “You bet your ass.”

“Not that much,” Joss says firmly. “Don’t freak out the new guy.”

Root chimes in: “They’re much more scared of you than you are of them, Lionel.”

Sameen: “That is not true.”

“Just keep your food secure,” Joss says. “And there’s probably a bell in your cabin you can tie to your pack. Bears mostly don’t want anything to do with people. If they can hear you coming, they’ll avoid you.”

“Thanks,” Lionel says. “I’ll see if I can find a bell around here.”

“What good advice, Joss ,” Harold says, pointedly. And then, “Well, I’m glad we’re all here.”

A cacophony of cheers and general agreement.

“Sleep well. Get ready to watch for fires. And here’s to a very uneventful summer.”

“Hell yeah.”

“Good night!”

“See you all never.”

“Good night,” Lionel says into his radio and finally, it’s all quiet.

Lionel doesn’t go to sleep, not right away. He’s too keyed up, too sweaty from his hike. He snags a tiny packet of aloe vera from the first aid kit, forces everything else back in. For a while he just sits there in the dark, rubbing cold gel on the back of his neck.

Finally he stands, takes a casual lap around the room. He takes the blankets from the cot between his fingers, finds them scratchy and warm and musty. He lifts the thin mattress padding the cot and stuffs the gun that’s been burning a hole in his pack all the way up here and stashes it beneath. He peers at the spines of books on the shelves, finds a lot of political thrillers, a lot of bad shit he’s going to read this summer ‘cause there’s nothing else to do. He tries the sink, finds that the pipes groan and shudder but the water works. He finds a box of dry supplies: pasta and beans and rice and canned vegetables and jerky and an unopened jar of peanut butter when he opens the cabinet to put the food away.

When he opens the other cabinet, he finds a tall, slim bottle of whiskey, four bottles of beer huddled in the corner. He picks up one of the beers, checks the label. Pete’s Wicked Ale.

Hell of a coincidence.

Pete’s Wicked Ale he’s never really heard of, but he knows Pappy Van Winkle like any drunk does. The bottle glistens amber in the low light. If he’s smart, if he’s brave, he’ll step outside and throw it off the tower, watch it shatter on the ground below. He picks up the bottle. He stands. He sets it on the counter.

There’s no point in throwing it out, his drunk’s brain justifies. Not when his new friends would be glad to have it. Would be a shame to throw away something so nice.

“Oh, I am in trouble,” Fusco whispers to himself. He steps away, backs right into the map on its little table in the center of the room, the room that is his world for the next three months.

It’s so small.

The world outside the windows is so wide.