Read Singe Online

Authors: Ruby McNally

Singe

Chapter One

They bury Drew Beecher on the first really, unbearably hot day of summer. Addie can feel perspiration trickling down her back by the time they leave the cemetery and make for the Perfect Pint.

“Two Stellas,” she tells the bartender, scooping her mess of dark curly hair into a knot on top of her head and handing the second beer back to Jim O’Neill, who looks like he needs it even more than she does.

“You hanging in?” she asks him, holding the bottle to her cheek. The cool dark of the bar is a relief but it still feels like she’s sweating everywhere, between her fingers and the backs of her knees inside her funeral nylons. It was ninety-seven degrees out when Addie got dressed this morning, and still her mother called specifically to remind her to wear hose. “You gonna see Bry this weekend?”

Jim shakes his head. He trained Addie when she was a candidate three years ago, then got divorced and moved over to Ladder 15 in Lee, which is why he was at the fire—the
arson
—that killed Drew. “Working,” he tells her, frowning. Bryan’s his kid, this skinny middle-schooler with a nose that takes up damn near half his face. “Next weekend, maybe.”

Addie nods, glancing around at the crowd clustered beside the high-tops and leaning against the bar. She can see Eli Grant doing car bombs with a couple of the other guys, a rookie or two. He catches Addie looking and points to his shot glass, but she shakes her head: one, because car bombs make her barf in a pretty serious way and two, because her dad, the retired Fire Chief of Berkshire County, is probably going to turn up any minute and something tells her he wouldn’t love finding his only daughter completely obliterated at a work function at one o’clock in the afternoon. Even if Drew did like a car bomb more than any firefighter Addie’s ever met.

Jim follows her gaze and grins. “Trust Eli to come up with a way to honor Beech and get tanked at the same time.”

Addie laughs. “Trust Eli,” she echoes. The ceremony was one of those somber, in-the-line-of-duty affairs, bagpipes and a flag on the casket and the mournful tolling of the bell, everyone reciting the firefighter’s prayer together. It’s a relief to be away from the gravesite, cracking jokes in a dank bar.

Eli shakes his head at their unadorned beers like they’re letting down God and country, then drops his shot in a toast. He works out of Ladder 11 with Addie, a bit of a bro but she likes him fine—he’s friendly, plus he always volunteers to do the dishes at the firehouse. When Addie first signed up, she was worried being a woman would saddle her with all the bitch chores.

“I think I’ll go do one myself actually,” Jim says after a while, pushing back from the bar and nodding at the car bomb table. “Gotta stick together.”

Addie gets the feeling he means as more than just firefighters—most everyone is here with their wives or girlfriends, a couple of kids running loose near the doorway, but Eli Grant is recently divorced, same as Jim. He never used to come out drinking with them when he was married.

“Yeah,” Addie agrees, swallowing a mouthful of chilly Stella and nodding. “That’s probably your table.” Privately, though, she’s thinking not. Eli is twenty years younger, holding court over there with the college-aged candidates. Divorce made him fun, perpetually looking for a party. Divorce just made Jim sad.

“See you out there,” Jim says, reaching over to squeeze Addie’s shoulder, bare and clammy-sweaty. She’s finally starting to cool down, everywhere but the places her ass is touching the sticky bar stool. “Say hi to your dad for me, eh?” He shuffles away before she can reply.

Addie polishes off the rest of her beer. She’s single too, of course, but she’s young and a girl and everyone always forgets.

She’s considering a second Stella when her father breezes through the door, exactly as predicted. He’s in a suit instead of his Class A uniform, and he doesn’t give a speech like he would have in years past, but other than that Chief David Manzella barely looks retired. Addie watches as he does rounds of the room, shaking hands and remembering names. Finally, only after all the flesh has been pressed does he stop off beside her bar stool.

“Adelaide.” A three-piece suit, and he still looks as cold as charity.

Addie pushes over the whiskey she ordered for him, resisting the urge to straighten out her posture. When she was a little kid, she saw her father so infrequently she was convinced he was the fencer from
The Princess Bride
until she was three. Her older brother was the one who finally set her straight, pointing out that their father wouldn’t be caught dead with long hair, plus Inigo Montoya was Spanish, not Italian. “Hi, Dad,” she says. He’ll have one drink, she knows, no more, no less. “How are you?”

David shakes his head gravely. “It’s a real tragedy,” he tells her, then nudges her in the back so she’ll sit up straight, same as if she’s eleven. “It’s senseless is what it is.”

“Yeah.” Drew was a young guy, just five years on the job. The building collapsed is how Addie heard it. “It’s no fun.”

David says his goodbyes once his glass is drained to the ice cubes, but not before grilling Addie on the process by which an arson is determined—“exterior evidence, process of elimination, accelerant, point of origin,” she parrots dutifully—and reminding her they’ll see her at dinner tomorrow night, same as every Thursday. “Your mother’s making stuffed shells,” he says, sounding genuinely cheered by the idea. Addie doesn’t blame him. Her mom’s stuffed shells are that good.

She gets up to pee once he’s gone, stopping to chat with a couple of the guys in the hallway by the bathrooms. She figures she’ll have one more beer before she heads home, maybe clean up her apartment—Addie’s barely lived in the place for a month, but it turns out housekeeping isn’t necessarily a skill set she should put at the top of her resume. This morning before she put her contacts in she screamed at what she thought was a mouse but turned out to be a tumbleweed of dust.

When she gets back to the bar though, Eli Grant’s sitting in her seat. “Manzella,” he greets faux-gallantly, getting up over her protests so that she can have it back.

Addie raises her eyebrows—none of the guys at Eleven are much for chivalry on a normal day. Could be the death or the heels, she guesses, either one. “Grant,” she mimics, sitting down.

Eli makes a face. “That sounds like a law firm,” he says, downing the last of his Guinness. “Manzella and Grant. Or like we’re two crack detectives from
Law & Order
.” He motions at her with his pint glass. “Where’s your drink, partner?”

Addie smiles, she can’t help it. “I don’t do car bombs,” she tells him. “S’a personal policy.”

“Well okay, princess.” Eli grins back. He’s got a nice smile on him, these straight white teeth and the barest hint of a dimple in one cheek. It makes him look younger than he is, like he’s Addie’s age instead of four or five years older. “What
do
you do?” he asks her.

Addie considers that for a moment. Another thing she knows about Eli is that since his divorce he’s all of a sudden the worst skirt-chaser in all of Berkshire County, leaving bars with different girls what seems like every single night. Some college chick from Amherst showed up at the firehouse not too long ago, all teary about how he’d never called her after their night of torrid passion, or something equally gross. Addie thinks he was with his wife for a long time.

Screw it. Addie didn’t want to go home and clean her dirty apartment anyway. “Tequila,” she decides.

Eli’s smile turns into a grimace—he’s not
that
drunk then. “At an Irish bar?” He orders two from the bartender anyhow, slides the salt shaker down in her direction.

Addie picks it up tentatively. For no reason at all, she’s suddenly self-conscious about going through the whole lick-salt-lick routine in front of Eli Grant and his white, divorced smile. It’s the heels and the dress, maybe, big girl clothes. All of them wear station uniforms at the firehouse, collared shirts and pants in NFPA-certified thermally stable fabric.

“The Pint’s a crap excuse for an Irish bar,” she points out, wetting the back of her hand as surreptitiously as possible and sprinkling on the coarse grains. “They have nachos, for starters.”

“Ah, but with bacon on them.” Eli copies, not nearly so careful about showing off his tongue. He’s got his jacket sleeves pushed up, the hard knots of bone at his wrists. There are some old burn scars there, faded and raised—a lot of firefighters have them, small patches on the wrists and neck where the fire suits are the weakest. Addie’s dad has a matching set on his earlobes. “Bacon is very Irish.” He holds up his shot glass in a toast, and Addie clinks.

They do two more after that, and then a couple of the younger guys from Company 15 come over and start a quick game of Waterfall, Addie parked unluckily at the end. The candidate, a skinny kid with a pin on his collar to indicate he’s fresh out of the Academy and still on probation, smiles at her shyly. His Adam’s apple looks like it’s in danger of popping the top button of his dress blues.

“Who are you here with?” he wants to know.

Addie grins, shaking out her hair before securing it in a tighter bun. A couple of the frizzy curls at her neck keep getting caught in her cross. “With myself,” she tells him. It’s a question she gets a lot, mostly at big firefighter barbecues where she’s always mistaken for someone’s wife. She read a pamphlet once that said less than two percent of the service was female. “I’m over at Eleven with this one.” Eli raises his glass helpfully. The candidate blushes a dull red.

There are a couple more speeches after that, Drew Beecher’s firehouse getting up one by one to talk about him, drunk to varying degrees. Drew didn’t leave a widow, and his mom was driven home right after the burial, so ultimately the whole thing is less heart-wrenching than it could be—a lot of macho talk about getting the bastard who set the blaze, et cetera. Addie toasts when everyone else does and lets Eli keep ordering for both of them, glad for the excuse to keep drinking. She doesn’t want to think about Drew’s burned-out body.

Finally, Jim O’Neill staggers up after three car bombs and leads them all in the fireman’s prayer again to close out the afternoon:
When I’m called to duty, God, wherever flames may rage…
Addie learned the words when she was five. After her candidate ceremony, her mother gave her a Florian Cross with the whole prayer engraved on the back. Addie keeps the medal in her rubber fire boots, tucked up under the left sole.

It’s not until the last line,
And if according to your will I must answer death’s call
, that Eli Grant turns to her and asks, “Want to get out of here?”

 

Eli’s drunk enough that when Addie Manzella says
Amen,
for a whole two seconds he thinks it’s in response to his question. He catches up quick.

“Seriously?” she demands, swiveling to face him on her bar stool. She overshoots and her heels knock up against his pant leg, smearing dust from the gravesite. “Are you for real?”

Eli has had enough women ask him that in the past few months to know it isn’t necessarily a bad sign. “I’m for real,” he confirms. And he is. It’s the damp curls at the back of her neck, the faded black dress that’s a touch too tight around the hips for a funeral, like she bought it five years ago and keeps forgetting to replace it between deaths. Eli knows, because he’s been doing the same with his suit—he picked it up for a funeral in ’08, Dave Vidal’s off-duty heart attack, and hasn’t set foot in a store that sells dress pants since. There’s a safety pin holding the third button on.

Addie raises her eyebrows. She’s got a lot of eyebrow, dark and straight and boyish. They’re a surprise in an otherwise feminine face. “You’re drunk,” she accuses.

“Only a little,” Eli tells her, opting for the truth or a version of it. He’s done this enough to know that that’s not always a bad thing either. She’s pretty. Christ, all that hair and her olive skin, the freckles on her shoulders. He doesn’t think he’s ever been this close to her shoulders before. “Come on, let’s make like a tree, et cetera.”

“Make like a tree and—no,” she says immediately, laughing. “You’re ridiculous.” Then, though, “
Why
?”

Eli shrugs. “S’hot in here.”

Addie rolls her eyes. “S’hotter out there, don’t you think?” When he only grins at her, “So what, then, we work together for three years but today you had a hundred beers and I’ve got a strapless bra on and you suddenly just noticed I’m a girl?”

She’s wrong about that part actually. ’Course he’s noticed her, her rowdy laugh and her curvy little body, how she’s a good fireman who keeps her head down even though her pops is who he is. But regardless of what Eli’s been getting up to the last six months or so in regards to the fairer sex, he isn’t stupid, and until now he’s been real careful not to shit where he eats.

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