Even with the classroom windows closed, Aron could still smell the smoke. Off in the distance, the Los Padres National Forest smoldered.
In front of the class, Maya was reading her essay aloud. “What I did over the summer.” Balancing on one tanned foot, she read. “In August, my family visited the Monterey Aquarium.” She didn’t look up from the hand-written page. “The jellyfish had this eerie glow. They kind of slithered through the water.” Her legs were chestnut brown, and she wore an anklet of tiny shells. Her hair, longer than it had been in the spring, was bleached blond, and she was a good foot taller than most of the sixth-grade boys. Her t-shirt, imprinted with an octopus’s tentacles, did not hide the buds of beginning breasts.
“Through the Underwater Explorers experience, I scuba-dived with a guide.” Maya spoke as if no one would believe her. “Just on the surface? It was amazing. Like a whole other world.”
Aron, short, chubby, and resigned to always being so, studied the girl. He imagined her floating on the surface of the aquarium’s great tide pool, her maturing body gleaming like the jellyfish as it lengthened and floated over the treasures below.
“Thank you, Maya,” Ms. Catcher said.
Their teacher, all the children knew, was no longer the principal’s “main squeeze.”
The mothers talked of nothing else in the supermarket. “What the hell did she expect?” Aron’s mother seemed elated when Liz Pritchard told her that the well-loved Mr. Gray “had moved on.” Aron sprouted goose pimples in the chill of the frozen foods aisle while the two women gloated.
“What did she expect?” Mrs. Pritchard said. “Ms. Catcher never had a chance. All wide-eyed and fresh out of college. Looks only get you so far.”
There wasn’t a thing in Mrs. Pritchard’s shopping cart that Aron wanted to eat. He was glad he had been assigned to the scorned teacher’s class, hoped that humiliation might make her more sympathetic than his fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Banks. He had hated Mr. Banks, who yelled “Man up” whenever Aron spaced out on the soccer field or ended up in tears after yet another recess session of his classmates’ taunting.
Aron was getting up the nerve to ask his dad if they could visit the aquarium. He longed to float. Leave the weight of his clunky body behind. Alone in bed at night, he imagined his breasts swelling. He avoided touching those parts of his body that felt like they belonged to someone else.
“Fifty dollars,” his father exploded when Aron asked. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” “The beach is free,” his father said, “go find your own damn fish.” His dad knew he hated fishing, the stink of the rotting bait, the long boring hours of sitting on the pier waiting for a nibble that never came. When he was younger, his father had dragged his two sons to Santa Cruz where the two boys had to sit with him on the rank pier for an entire afternoon. Aron’s brother, bored, bouncing his sneakers into the pier to the rhythm of his favorite rock song. TODAY is GONNA be the DAY that they THROW it back to YOU. Aron poked among the bait worms, letting them curl like rings around his finger. Their father stared into the gray waves without saying a word except “fuck” when fish eluded his hook.
No matter how many times Principal Adams gave his welcoming speech about new beginnings, Aron knew that some things never changed. Some people could go to the aquarium and some people could not. Some people got what they want. Others, namely him and maybe Ms. Catcher, did not.
He wrote his essay on a camping trip his family had taken to Big Sur. During the two weeks of his father’s July vacation, the family erected tents on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Their campsite abutted a large open field hidden by a stand of oak trees. His parents set up lawn chairs and spent the afternoons reading magazines and drinking beer. His brother, Dave, a high school sophomore, jogged in the morning along the beach and spent the afternoon hanging out with surfers. Every evening his father roasted hamburgers over a grill balanced on two large rocks over the open campfire. His brother would burp his satisfaction and then disappear to smoke grass with his new water-logged companions.
This was before the fire started. The blaze that broke out at the end of July and was expected to burn for several months before full containment.
Reservations, months in advance, were required to camp at the state park. Some campgrounds had bathrooms, electrical hookups, and barbecues, but of course, his dad wasn’t about to pay for anything he could get for free. “It’s about time you boys learned how to piss in the woods.” His dad was glad to show them how. A life lesson, he claimed. During their two weeks of camping, Aron’s mother disappeared several times a day into the woods with a trowel and a roll of toilet paper. She was the one who warned the boys about poison oak, showed them how to identify the leaves. She told them to be careful. The beach had a wicked undertow, but neither parent walked down the steep path to the beach to watch them swim.
In his essay, Aron didn’t describe the family’s drive through the backcountry, the search for an out-of-the-way spot. He didn’t include their walk through the woods, each of them carting a cardboard box full of supplies. He left out his mother’s silence as she carried the heavy grocery bags. His brother’s blood-shot eyes. His father’s declaration that “These redwoods have been here forever” as they tromped through the undergrowth. “They are ours as much as anybody else’s.”
He did describe their campsite, the wonder of looking at the stars at night, the roar of the waves, and the thrill of body surfing. He made it sound as if these were things they did as a family when the best part of the trip was the freedom, the days he walked the beach on his own.
When the class took a break for lunch, Aron watched Maya take a pink lunch box decorated with stickers of mermaids from the overhead shelf. The other girls’ lunchboxes had pop stars, the unblemished faces of boy bands. The girls tittered as they headed outside. Unlike the boys, they touched each other, hugged each other in ecstatic greetings, held hands as they crossed the field.
Aron avoided the boys who headed for the blacktop, looking for basketballs to bounce, for footballs to kick. He distanced himself from the others, walking behind the girls who paid no attention to him. At the edge of the field, large blackberries hung from the bushes. In their shade, Aron sat down and began chewing on an apple, far from the school’s brick buildings and the noise of the playground. He was thinking about Maya’s description of the aquarium.
Maya had described jellyfish, ghostly transparent creatures that changed shape in the water as if constantly reinventing themselves. Their colors, pink, and purple, glowed like the outlines of supernatural creatures.
Even on the playground, smoke from the fires irritated his lungs. Didn’t it bother the other kids as they played? “You’re too sensitive,” his mom said, the only one in his life who said it with tenderness. He wondered if the aquarium provided snorkel equipment, how it felt to float on the surface and see an alternative world underneath. As he ate his tuna sandwich, he searched for Maya on the playground. He had so many questions.
“The aquarium?” Maya suggested. Ms. Catcher added the suggestion to the list of field trips on the blackboard. Maya was careful not to look at Aron after she had raised her hand. Both knew that if his classmates realized it was his suggestion, the class would vote for one of the other Monterey locales: the artichoke farm, the tide pools, the Presidio, or the even the cannery.
“Thank you, Maya,” Ms. Catcher said. In two weeks of school, Ms. Catcher had yet to determine the cause of the titters that greeted her every lesson.
Behind her back, the boys had endless conversations about what she had done with the principal before he had “moved on.” Alan Pritchard went as far as calling her a slut, echoing his mother’s words no doubt.
Only Maya and Aron viewed their teacher as a likely ally. Their friendship, begun the first day of class and pursued on the far side of the field and in the library after lunch, was as much about their outsider status as it was about their common passions. Maya was uncomfortable around her classmates, self-conscious about her long legs, agonized by the recent changes in her body. She told Aron, as they sat on the bench that her new height embarrassed her. He noticed that she now walked with a slouch.
Aron wanted to be like his new friend more than anything in the world. He grilled her about the aquarium until the day she promised to suggest it as a destination for the class trip. If he had not been so uncomfortable with his own betrayal of a body, he would have hugged her in gratitude.
Aron’s dad said the firefighters were heroes. “These guys ain’t pussies,” he said. “Hell, they put their lives at risk every day.” A bulldozer driver died when his vehicle overturned. It had been on the evening news.
“They’re just trying to help people,” Aron’s mom said.
“I heard,” his brother said, “that a group they rescued claimed they were backcountry hikers. It turned out that they were actually growers.”
“Marijuana?” Aron asked.
“No, tulips.” His brother rolled his eyes.
“Watch it,” his dad said.
The fire kept burning and burning. By September thirty-four homes had been torched. 350 families evacuated. 44,000 acres of forested destroyed.
Aron couldn’t imagine putting his life at stake. One thing he knew for sure — his dad would be the last one to risk it.
Ms. Catcher announced the class would go to the Presidio for the fall class trip. A cheer went up from the boys who had lobbied for the exhibit on military development in the region.
Aron couldn’t believe that his teacher had not stood up to the boys. They didn’t even like her. They did not respect her. “What about the aquarium? Wouldn’t that be more educational?”
Alan booed. “Girly boy wants to swim with the fishes.” His posse tittered.
“Shut up,” Aron mumbled.
“Boys, enough of that,” Ms. Catcher snapped. “I’m sorry, Aron. This is a case where the majority rules.”
At lunch, Maya told him she was sorry.
“Everybody laughs at her,” he said.
“They’ll get over it.”
Now, when he walked down the hallways of the school, the boys whispered, “The majority… the majority…” Still, Maya’s company was better than the alternative. At least, unlike his brother whose only advice was to “Whoop them,” she understood that he had no desire to confront the boys that taunted him.
On the evening news, the sheriff announced that an illegal, unattended campfire had caused the wildfires.
“Yeah, likely story,” Aron’s Dad changed the channel. “Who would be dumb enough to leave a campfire smoking in the woods?”
On the TV screen, the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond drowned out his snarled question. Raymond (who everybody loved) complained about his mother. His brother towered over him, a cop, but nevertheless a mama’s boy.
Aron’s mom said nothing at all.
Aron’s brother was out with friends, probably getting high.
The permission slip for the class trip was sitting on the kitchen counter. Aron was hoping his parents would forget to sign it. The last thing he wanted was to traipse behind Alan’s dad listening to the military history of the Presidio. Presidio was Spanish for “royal fort” Ms. Catcher had told the class. Alan acted like he was the prince.
Royal fart was more like it.
Aron wondered if anybody in his class remembered his essay. Did they recall his description of the campfire on top of the cliff, the view of the stars? Would anybody put two and two together? Would Maya see the connection as she relaxed at home with parents who would take her anyplace she chose? Would Ms. Catcher, awake at night smarting from the daily ridicule of her students, suddenly have a revelation?
It only took a match, a spark to grow into a conflagration. No one, not even real heroes, could stop the fire once it began. Only jellyfish, floating above the ocean floor, were safe. He had no idea how he would ever get to see them.
Aron practiced talking like Maya.
“I think I know who started the fire?” he said, looking into his bedroom mirror, brushing his blond bangs out of his eyes. His mother had been after him to get a haircut, but he loved when the hair hung like curtains on both sides of his face. His voice was still high. It was easy to imitate the girl’s reticence. He liked the way she sounded, breathy and soft-spoken. Just speaking in her voice made him feel lighter.
“An illegal campsite?” his heart pounded. He located the site where his family had camped on a map and wrote down the longitude, mapped the latitude “There is a boy in my class? He says his father took his family camping?”
How right this felt. How easily he could become her.
The police only said that the anonymous informant was a young girl. She provided surprisingly accurate information.
The day the police picked up Aron’s father for questioning, Aron was on the class trip, lagging at the end of a parade of antsy students touring the Presidio Museum. He walked side by side with Maya and amused himself by matching her step, studying her posture, and imitating the sway of her hips, the way her arms swung at her side. When she laughed, he waited for a glimpse of her pink tongue. He practiced crinkling his eyelids like she did.
Mr. Pritchard strutted in front of the class, all authority and supreme self-confidence. Behind him, Alan, a miniature officer in training. Ms. Catcher faded like a shadow at the general’s side. When the doorways were narrow, the large man stepped aside to let her pass. He took her elbow to guide her to the next exhibit, placed his hammy hand on her back. The gesture made Aron squirm. He wanted the teacher to shake off the General’s solicitous touch.
One by one, the general ushered them into the Old Monterrey jail. “In its entire history,” he boomed, “No one ever escaped these thick granite walls.”
At the end of the jail’s central corridor, a solitary beam of sunshine intruded through a window set high in the door. Aron asked Maya to look out and tell him if she could glimpse the ocean through the bars.
Standing on her tiptoes, she squinted. “I think so?” But he knew the sea was out there. Waves crashing onto the beach in cycles of thirteen, inevitable, unstoppable.
Kathryn Holzman’s short fiction has appeared in over twenty online literary magazines and print anthologies. She is the author of a collection of short fiction, Flatliners, Shire Press 2019. Her first novel Real Estate was published by Propertius Press in Fall, 2020. Her second novel The Cost of Electricity will be published in 2023. You can find her online here.