Bad Survivalist Short Story: “Common Tragedy” by Sylvan Lebrun

 

IT WASN’T THEIR FAULT, THE fire. The last time the sheriff’s department spoke to the newspapers, they said the investigation was still ongoing, nothing conclusive. So it could have been anyone or anything—bad weather patterns or a rancher burning their trash. Even if it could be traced it back to Nora and Chloe, they still wouldn’t deserve all of the blame. Nora’s parents should have left her alone about the church matter and lent her the car, Chloe’s boyfriend should have answered her calls. It should have rained more that month. Chloe has her own philosophy about mistakes, she says that they never happen in isolation or because of just one person. It’s about how we all crash into each other. Like the car accident last year, after the night down by the old ironworks—both drivers were drunk.

//

Nora’s little sister caught a frog in the backyard, and was keeping it in a plastic jar that she had poked a few holes in with kitchen scissors. The jar sat in the middle of the dining room table, the frog glaring out at them with its glossy black eyes as it inched back and forth in a pile of shredded grass. It was making Nora feel paranoid.
“Why does that thing have to be in here?”
Her mother looked up from her half-finished steak, eyebrows knitting. “It isn’t bothering anybody, is it?”
“No. Sorry.”
Nora avoided looking at the jar for the rest of the meal, eyes fixed instead on a slight tear in the floral wallpaper right above her mother’s head. She regretted complaining. It was one of the last warm Saturdays of the year, and everyone was going to be at the Bartons’ house. Levi had invited Chloe, and Chloe had gotten Nora to agree to go with her for once, even though both girls knew well enough that no one else wanted them there. Chloe was persistent like that. They needed to drive half an hour to get to the party, as the Bartons lived up near Elk Creek. According to Chloe, from their backyard, you could see the lights of all of the houses in the valley at night.
“I think my frog is happy,” Nora’s sister said, reaching out and tapping her fingertips against the side of the plastic jar. Their mother hummed in agreement.
Nora coughed a few times, throat feeling tight, before finally managing to ask her parents if she could borrow the car. She knew that Chloe was doing the same, just a few houses down the road.
“Bad timing,” her father responded. They were taking her little sister to a movie that night, some animated thing about talking cats. He offered to let her take the car next week. Nora said she didn’t think she’d be doing anything the next week, or the week after that—but could she at least stay out longer tonight?
“You can’t be late to Sunday School in the morning,” her mother said.
“I won’t be.”
“Those children rely on you. And the pastor is bound to get upset soon, what with you missing all of the time, showing up late. I don’t think you realize how important it is.”
“I said I won’t be late.” Nora stood up from the table, bringing her plates to the sink. She let them drop into the soapy water, then pushed her trembling hands into her jean pockets.
“You say a lot of things, baby.”
When Nora went outside, Chloe was already standing in the middle of the empty road, her head turned to look at the deep red clouds above the setting sun. She hadn’t been able to get the car either. But she had called Levi, and he was going to pick them up in an hour. They had an hour, so they went to the woods.

//

When they were ten, eleven years old, Nora and Chloe used to sneak away from the school playground during recess—there was a hole in the wire fence just behind the monkey bars. They would walk to the nearby hill and climb the elm trees, scratching their legs, getting dirt in their hair and sap on their fingertips. This went on until the day when Chloe fell from a high branch, breaking her arm in two places. Her parents were so angry that they wouldn’t let Nora come over to their house for months. But even after that, Nora and Chloe kept coming back to that hill, after football games and on birthdays, on wet summer afternoons and on the night of Missy Barton’s party.
“Do I look older to you? With my makeup tonight?”
Chloe glanced back over her shoulder at Nora, blinking her darkly lined eyes in emphasis. She was walking a few paces ahead, the heels of her sandals sinking into the forest floor with each step. Her fluffy blonde hair was freshly cut and even shorter than usual, brushing just below her ears.
“Yeah? I mean, I think you do. With the purple lipstick,” Nora said. Chloe made a choking noise that could have been a laugh, as they reached a steeper part of the hill that made Nora’s legs begin to burn.
“It’s not purple, it’s plum.” Chloe brought her cigarette back to her painted lips, and took a short inhale. “I stole it from my grandma’s drawer when she was out. Does that make me a bad person? I swear, she never wore it anyways, I bet she forgot it was there.”
It was a clear night, supposed to be a full moon. Nora had a flashlight hanging from a strap around her neck, but it was still light enough that they could get around without it. On the walk over to their hill, about twenty minutes along the edge of a tree-lined highway, they had stopped at a gas station 7-Eleven to buy Slurpees. Blue raspberry for Nora, wild cherry for Chloe. They had shown each other their dyed tongues, laughing. As they wove through the forest in their bright tank tops, chain necklaces, and skinny jeans, they smoked while holding the striped paper cups in their opposite hands. The air smelled sickly sweet and chemical around them.
“Has Levi texted?” Nora asked. Chloe shook her head.
“He will.” She tapped her front pocket where her phone was. “Hey, have I told you about what I’m doing in art class now? I’m drawing us.”
”Us.” Nora took another drink of what was left of her Slurpee, the lukewarm slush coming quickly up the straw.
“What, like just me and you?”
“The assignment is to do a nice childhood memory, so.” Chloe gestured between the two of them with her cigarette, and Nora smiled, cheeks going red and warm in the dark. “But I want to make it sort of unsettling. Like the twins in The Shining. Because we were scary little girls—I don’t know if you remember. Cutting our dolls up and running fast, getting into trouble just to laugh about it later.”
“Trying to hypnotize each other,” Nora added. “Whittling sticks into swords, nearly drowning in the lake that one time. I remember.”
Chloe stopped walking and leaned against a tree trunk. Her thick false eyelashes cast faint shadows down onto her cheeks, in the glow from Nora’s flashlight. “Do you think everyone else was doing the same sorts of things, back then?”
Nora shrugged, and moved next to Chloe, their bare shoulders brushing. The bark was rough against her back. “I feel like a damn clown in this outfit, by the way.”
“What? It looks nice on you.” Chloe put her empty cup on the ground, and reached a hand out to untangle a few long strands of Nora’s dark hair. “Also, we’re sort of wearing the same thing, so you’re not allowed to say anything.”
“On me, it’s a costume. You look really good, though,” Nora said. Chloe just laughed, tugging at her necklace, and pulled her phone out of her pocket again. No new messages.
“He’ll text me soon,” Chloe said. “He likes to hook up with me at parties especially, says it’s more exciting than usual. I think so too.”
Nora just stared down the slope of the hill, towards the highway, where the headlights of cars flashing by were the only things moving as far as the eye could see.

//

Nora wasn’t woken by the sirens, but by the yelling from downstairs. Two raised voices, Chloe and Nora’s father. They weren’t arguing, no—it was something like panic. Soon, there was the sound of feet on the stairs. The door to Nora’s room burst open, Chloe running in and dragging her out of bed by her arms. Chloe’s eyes were wild, and she wore a thin pajama set with a winter coat thrown over. “Come outside.”
Levi had never texted Chloe, didn’t answer her calls. At eleven, she finally gave up, and they started the long walk back to their own houses. When Nora got home, she found herself locked out, the car still missing from the driveway. She sat on the porch for half an hour, ripping up grass and trying to find constellations, until her family came back from the theater. Nora went to bed soon after that, windows open to let the cool air in. And then at three in the morning, Chloe had begun to pound on the front door.
As the atonal wail of sirens continued outside, Nora slipped her bare feet into tennis shoes, dizzy and still half-asleep. She kept asking what was wrong, as Chloe led her through the house and out onto the street, but Chloe just shook her head violently and kept dead silent. They passed a few houses and the sirens grew louder. Finally, when they rounded the corner to where a thick crowd of their neighbors stood huddled, Nora saw the burning hill.
It was unbelievably bright. A line of molten orange seared into the landscape, dark clouds forming above it and growing taller by the minute. It hurt to look at it, made Nora’s eyes water. On the highway she had walked on just hours ago, she could see firetrucks hurtling towards the hill, their hazard lights flashing. The fire seemed to pulse and move, almost like an animal.
She turned to Chloe, who stared at the hill looking sick, her thin hands gripping the hem of her jacket. “Nora.”
“Yeah?” Around them, people were kneeling on the ground or pacing in circles, talking on the phone, talking to their children.
“I put my cigarette out,” Chloe said, voice high. “I always grind them out with my heel, until they’re not burning at all. That’s what I always do.”
“Do you remember putting it out?”
“I said I always put it out fully.” Chloe took a step forward, then stepped back again. “I know I would never forget to. And you, did you put your cigarette out?”
“I did.” Nora hesitated, racking her brain. “I’m pretty sure I did.”
“Great. Then we both did.”
A hot crackling sound, a sound like nothing Nora had ever heard before, came from the distance. Someone near them whimpered. “We both did,” Nora repeated.

//

They cancelled Sunday School the next morning because of the fire. Nora didn’t have to drive over and help teach children about the Holy Trinity in that stale church classroom, full of stacks of bibles and coloring books. Instead, she sat at the dining room table with her parents for hours, watching the news as the hill continued to smolder in the distance. The fire had mostly been put out, but smoke still rose up as the trees slowly crumbled to ash. No one had died. But according to the day’s paper, two horses had been burned alive in their locked stable.
At school on Monday, Nora made a list of all of the other possible causes of a forest fire. She added to it all through physics and history, didn’t listen to a thing her teachers said. After the bell rang, she met Chloe in the parking lot. They got in Chloe’s car—her mother’s, really, but she was allowed to take it on weekdays—and drove off in the opposite direction from their houses, towards the flatlands.
Neither of them said a word at first. As they got further away, Chloe’s face tightened as she looked out at the passing billboards, and she drew her lip in between her teeth. The billboards began to pass more quickly.
“You’re driving too fast, Chlo.”
No response. Glancing over at Nora, Chloe pressed her foot down harder onto the accelerator, eyes defiant. Nora’s heart began to race, and she reached over to tap Chloe’s shoulder. The speedometer read 95 mph. “Slow down.”
“Why?” Chloe asked.
100, 105, 110. There was an intersection off in front of them, not close yet—but they would be there soon enough. Nora pulled at her hair until her scalp burned. If Chloe didn’t want to slow down, there was no way to make her. 115. “Do you want us to get arrested?” she shouted, voice cracked and strained.
Chloe let out a high-pitched laugh. “Maybe I do! Maybe I don’t.”
But with that, she lifted her foot off of the accelerator. The car began to slow, and Chloe kept driving as if nothing had happened, until they pulled into a Walmart parking lot. Fingers shaking, Nora took her list out of her pocket and flattened it out across her lap. A ripped-out sheet of notebook paper, covered in messy scrawls from a dark blue pen. Chloe leaned over to read it, smelling of strong citrus perfume. They were at the furthest corner of the vast lot, without a car near them, and everything felt secret. No one would have heard her, but Nora still didn’t want to read the list out loud.
Things that can start a forest fire—people burning yard debris like branches or leaves, sparks from an engine, campfires, someone cooking in a cabin, fireworks, other people than us smoking, bright sun, lightning, matches, birthday candles, car crashes, arson.
Chloe looked up after she was done, nodding slowly. “That makes sense.”
In the car’s side mirror, Nora could see the mountains behind them, air still hazy from the fire. A black smudge just above where their hill was. The smoke would be gone in a few days’ time, the forest would grow back by the spring, and people would begin to forget. “We shouldn’t blame ourselves,” she told Chloe. “When there are a million things that could have caused it, so many hours in that night, it very well wasn’t us. Just by the odds.”
As she turned the car on again, Chloe grabbed Nora’s hand in a quick desperate motion. “I’m so sorry for scaring you earlier,” she said. She brought Nora’s hand to her mouth and kissed her knuckles, before dropping it. “We’re okay.”
“It wouldn’t be fair if it was us,” Nora said, lost in thought. They began to drive.

//

The frog died that day, either from asphyxiation or starving. By the time Nora got home, her mother had removed the plastic jar from the dining room table and thrown the frog out in the garbage can, wrapped in paper towels. They told her little sister that the frog had escaped, hopped out of one of the dime-sized holes in the jar and vanished into the backyard. She seemed to believe it—maybe in a few years, she would realize she had been lied to.
As they ate a dinner of microwaved rice pilaf and roast chicken, Nora’s parents talked about the city council elections. All Nora wanted was to interrupt their conversation. She wanted to tell them all that had happened, and she wanted them to justify it for her. They could tell her that she was good at heart, innocent and foolish. Tell her that she shouldn’t put herself through pain. She would then finally be purged of it all.
But the story was one she couldn’t bring herself to tell. Nora finished her food quickly and asked to be excused, trying not to look at the blank and somber expression on her little sister’s round face. Trying not to look at the garbage can.
Once she was back upstairs in her room, with the door firmly shut, she called Chloe. Chloe picked up on the second ring, said she was in the middle of watching a quiz show on TV. She turned the volume down, but Nora could still hear muted cheers and buzzer noises in the background as they talked.
“So about the fire,” Nora started.
Laughter. “I thought we were done with it, but okay. About the fire.”
“I think we could consider it an act of God.”
“You mean like fate?” Chloe asked.
“Yeah, sort of like fate.” Nora sat down on the edge of her bed, staring across the room at the closed door as she pressed her phone against her ear. “Giant, catastrophic events are always called acts of God. Earthquakes and fires and storms. And even in insurance, I think, acts of God aren’t blamed on anyone, no one has to pay damages or get punished. Because it’s above us all.”
Chloe sighed, seeming irritated. “Then there’s no point in worrying about the cause. It was divine intervention. If that’s how you need to think about it, to make you feel good.”
“It’s not just about what makes me feel good, Chloe. I want to be sure it wasn’t us.”
“So use God,” Chloe snapped. “Let’s just never talk about it again.”
Nora lay down on top of her worn plaid comforter, feeling her chest rise and fall, faster, faster. “I think we should go to church,” she said.
“But we did nothing wrong!”
For half a minute, neither girl said anything, though they stayed on the call. Then Nora cleared her throat, and asked Chloe if she was done with her drawing of the two of them for art class. Chloe said she wasn’t, only finished their faces and shoes. “Good, then there’s still time to switch it,” Nora said.
“Wha—” Chloe stuttered. “Why would I switch it? It’s coming along great”
“I don’t want anyone to see it.” Nora knew she was being unfair to Chloe, that she was messing everything up for good. But she kept talking, the phone making it easy to pretend that she wasn’t really being heard. “Us as kids, all scratched up and superstitious and wild. Unsettling, that’s what you said, right? You have to switch your project. They’ll know what we did if they see it.”
“You’re selfish.”
“I’m sorry.” Nora really was.
“You’re paranoid and a coward,” Chloe continued, voice shaking. “And I don’t want to do this, this game, not right now. Because I think Levi’s cheating on me, by the way. That’s why he didn’t pick us up that night.”
Was it a game? One hot summer day nearly a decade ago, Nora and Chloe had gone to the river and skipped stones, standing by the water in shiny swimsuits and tennis shoes. After a while, they started throwing the stones at each other instead, bored of staring into the glittering water and holding their breath until they found the right angle. Most of the time they couldn’t get them to skip anyways. Nora and Chloe picked up bigger and bigger stones, threw them from closer up, hitting legs and shoulders and stomachs, laughing the whole time. The next day, they of course woke up with a few bruises. But neither of them got hurt.

 

 

Sylvan Lebrun is a student and fiction writer living in Tokyo, Japan. In the fall, she will begin her undergraduate degree at Yale University. Her work has been previously published in Bending Genres, Lammergeier, Construction, and Shirley Magazine, among others. Sylvan is an alumnus of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and the Adroit Journal’s Summer Mentorship program. She loves walks in the mountains and dead languages.

Image: ruraldream.wordpress.com

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