August 6, 2013 9:44:23 AM
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mississippi University for Women professor Michael Farris Smith, whose novel "Rivers" has already drawn rave reviews nationally in advance of its September release, has agreed to share a previously unpublished short story, "Chasing Rabbits" with Dispatch readers in three installments, which concludes today. In the previous installments, Rachel's home has been vandalized as she hides under the bed until the intruders depart. Her live-in boyfriend, Dale, is away in Hattiesburg pursuing yet another get-rich scheme. As she imagines the grim unchanging monotony that her life has become, she finds herself walking through the shambles of her ragged home. As she passes through the living room, the lit cigarette falls from her fingertips...
Read Part 2
Rachel sits on the ground by the road, leaning against the mailbox post. She watches the fire through the windows as it spreads from the sofa to the carpet and begins to crawl up the walls of the living room. Smoke seeps from underneath the closed windows in a slow exhale. It isn't long before the flames spread to the other rooms of the house--the kitchen to her left, the bedroom and bathroom to her right. More smoke drifts out and up and she watches it trail away into the clear morning sky. She stretches her legs out and unties the robe and lets it fall open. She hopes the road will remain quiet, that the distant neighbors are all at work, so that she can watch it burn to the ground.
In a few minutes the roof of the living room caves in and a gust of black smoke shoots up through the burning hole. That'll do it, she thinks. Somebody will see that and know this isn't trash burning. The flames grow and a breeze brings its warmth to her bare skin and she closes her eyes and again imagines lying next to a hotel pool. Kids flapping in the shallow end, mothers reading, a tan stranger asking if he she wants a beer from his cooler.
She hears a car coming and she closes the robe and stands. She sticks her purse in the mailbox, then prepares herself to appear frantic. But there is no need as the car is her own, Dale making his way home. He stops next to the road, hurries out of the car and over to Rachel and says, "Are you all right?" She nods. "What happened? Have you called the fire department?"
"It's okay, Dale. How'd it go in Hattiesburg?"
He looks at the house, then back at her and he grabs her firmly by the shoulders. "Honey, you're in shock. Sit down."
She brushes him off and says, "I'm not in shock, Dale. I lit the thing myself."
He sits down, his mouth open as he watches the blaze. Chunks of roof are caving in from side to side and the heat makes waves high into the blue sky. She sits beside him and says, "It's kinda pretty in a way, isn't it?"
Dale looks at her, his mouth still open, and back at the fire.
"Say something, Dale. You always have something to say, some sales pitch. Something. Describe what you feel in twenty words or less and I'll open my robe."
He hasn't noticed until now that she is in her robe, barefooted. "What are you doing?" he asks.
She grits her teeth, suddenly impatient with him. "What are you doing? Huh? Tell me that, Dale. What are you doing?"
A large section of the roof caves, glass shatters, something pops like a pistol. The growing heat pushes towards them and Dale says, "Let's move back." But when he tries to stand, she grabs his arm and says, "Sit down."
"Have you lost your mind?"
"Sit down and tell me what you're doing. What happened in Hattiesburg? Tell me and you can get up."
He gives in and leans back on his elbows. "Nothing happened. Nothing ever happens. You should know that by now."
"There's plenty of buffalo. But they want a twenty grand investment. Minimum." He sits up and huffs. "One thing's for sure, there ain't no gimmicks. Money makes money, not some wild-eyed 19.99 gadget thought up in the middle of the night."
She takes his hand and holds it. He keeps his eyes on the ground in front of him, unaffected by her softness. She moves his hand away and feels the heat on her face. She will call Steven and ask him to keep quiet about the break-in. She will give Dale the money once the insurance pays for the house. Then she will sell the land and they will move close to the buffalo so they can keep an eye on their investment. Maybe even help with the herd, whatever that means. They will buy a house of their own, with an alarm system, and she will get a job and he will get a job in case there is a buffalo plague. This will be part of the deal. This is her plan and it comes to her simply as if someone has handed it to her on a note card. If nothing else, she thinks, it will be something different. She will tell him about it but not now.
She stands and takes his hand and leads him around the snapping fire, behind the house and into the tall grass in the shade of a cluster of pine trees. She takes off her robe and lays it on the ground, then she brings him down with her and the wind blows smoke around them. Dale raises his head and says, "I think I hear a siren." And then she puts her hand over his mouth and tells him to stop talking.