The pile of dead Christmas trees rose two stories high. Amongst the dried evergreen Millie could see bits of red ribbon, tangled wire, and the occasional forgotten ornament in silver heart shapes and golden bulbs. But mostly the pile was shades of green. The boys tried to climb it but quickly returned scratched with smears of sap.
“Let’s get a beer,” Dane said to her, the children already running ahead to the circle of lights where food trucks had parked and the firefighters had set up a table to sell raffle tickets and auction off restaurant gift certificates and tropical timeshares.
Millie’s toes were cold but she didn’t say anything. Soon the night would be on fire.
Millie got the boys hot chocolate, waiting in a separate line from the beer truck. Behind her a toddler in a puffy one-piece snowsuit began crying, so Millie let the family go in front of her. It had not been so long ago — nearly six years, but still — that Patrick used to cry like that.
“What took you so long?” Patrick asked when she finally found them all watching a man with a chainsaw sculpt ice.
Millie held his hot chocolate out of reach while warning Louis that his would probably be too hot to drink for a while.
“Don’t talk to your mother like that,” Dane said.
“Sorry,” Patrick said, not that he sounded like he meant it, and Millie handed the white paper cup into his navy-mittened hands.
They walked back to the pile of trees as the sun disappeared. Ever since she’d recovered from her first pregnancy, one beer made Millie drunk. She sipped slowly as hundreds of townspeople made their way toward them. Soon they had a large crowd at their backs. They watched the man who had won the auction to start the fire come forward and hold a small flame to the nearest branch.
“This seems dangerous,” Dane said.
Louis had Millie’s blanket scarf wrapped around him so only his eyes showed beneath the brim of his hat. He’d had two sips of his hot chocolate and declared himself full.
“There are about 100 firemen here,” Millie said — she agreed, but she didn’t want to scare the children — and pulled Louis farther back from the pile of trees.
“More like a dozen,” Dane said.
“I count eight,” Patrick said, still incapable of understanding what an estimate was. They had tried. Millie and Dane rolled their eyes over the kids’ heads and smiled at each other. Millie loved the frequent inside jokes parents got to have with each other.
The fire caught quickly and pillows of smoke hovered and rose and began to twist like a maelstrom in the night sky. Millie looked straight up so she could see only smoke and sparks, and the sparks danced the way flocks of birds sometimes do, undulated here and there.
“Can we win the auction next year?” Patrick asked.
“No,” Millie and Dane said together.
As the crowd grew, Dane put Louis on his shoulders so he could see better. Millie wrapped her arm around Patrick’s chest. He was only a foot shorter than her now. The heat was intense as the flames reached the top of the trees and crackled and burst.
“Is tomorrow a Chloe day?” Louis asked. Chloe was the nanny. At 4, Louis still didn’t know his days of the week.
“Duh,” Patrick said.
“Hush. Yes, tomorrow is Monday, sweetie,” Millie said.
“I don’t want it to be a Chloe day!” Louis yelled.
“You love Chloe,” Dane said, which was true.
Millie looked up at her younger son and squeezed his leg. “Let’s just enjoy this day, okay?”
The truth was Millie looked forward to Mondays. By Tuesday she wished it were the weekend again, but Millie really liked Mondays, leaving the house and the boys behind, going into her office, fully confident in the work she did and how she did it.
“I’m too hot,” Patrick announced.
Dane slipped his black-gloved hand into Millie’s gray-mittened hand and squeezed. The only way to get through this — the beauty and the tedium, sometimes both at the same time — was together. But she never wanted that to be the only thing that kept them married.
“Let’s go home,” Dane said. He and Louis were already moving away. Millie hadn’t felt his hand leave hers, the mittens were too thick.
The fire would burn for hours still. Later, when Millie tucked Patrick and then Louis in, and kissed their foreheads, she smelled smoke on them. When she got downstairs, she picked Louis’s coat up off the floor where he insisted on leaving it every time he came into the house despite many efforts to get him to hang it on its designated hook. There on the sleeve her finger brushed across a tiny burn hole, crusted and uneven. A spark, presumably. A spark that had alit and quickly gone out. A spark that could have been so much more.
Hannah Harlow earned her MFA at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her writing has appeared in The Maine Review, Vol. One Brooklyn, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. Her story “The Farmers’ Market”, originally published in SmokeLong Quarterly, was selected for The Best Small Fictions 2017. Find her online at hannahharlow.com.
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