House on Fire
A half hour before midnight the greatest day of Kip Conley’s life came to an end.
The day would have ended regardless. It was the greatest part he expected to go on forever. That afternoon he got into his top-choice school; in thirty minutes he’d be eighteen and legal to do anything he wanted in the world except drink and run for Congress; meanwhile, the beer was flowing at Atwood’s party and some excellent weed was circulating; and finally, the girl currently wriggling on his lap was glowing a steady green light at every intersection of her plush, pliable body.
“This is the greatest day of my life!” he shouted, and the girl preened, imagining herself to be the cause. The party was in full Tilt-A-Whirl swing throughout the Atwoods’ well-appointed suburban home. Music streamed into the Jambox and funneled out through the family room to blast through the entire first floor and up both staircases. In the front hall, the overflow crowd wheezed in and out of the flanking rooms like the bellows on an anesthesia machine.
The better part of St. Alban High’s senior class was there—not numerically but qualitatively, at least in the eyes of the people in attendance. They all got into someplace that week, and they were all in the mood to celebrate. They pogo-sticked to the beat, bottles to mouth and shoulder
to sweaty shoulder. Taylor Swift was shaking it off on the Jambox, and the kids were shaking it off, too. Shaking off the weeks of mailbox-watching, the months of vocab drills and personal statement essays, the years of trying to shape themselves into every college’s dream candidate. Shake It Off. Shake It Off. That song was every high school’s anthem in the spring of 2015, and the same party was playing out in every affluent neighborhood across the country, everywhere there were seniors with acceptance letters and at least one set of parents out of town.
When the song ended, Ryan Atwood vaulted onto his mother’s granite-topped kitchen island and muted the Jambox. “Here’s to us!” he screamed with a bottle raised to his classmates. “And to bigger and better parties next year!”
The crowd roared its endorsement. Someone switched the music back on and the dancing resumed, but Atwood switched it off again and stopped all movement like a game of freeze tag. “But here’s what I want to know,” he yelled. “How the fuck did Conley get into Duke?”
Everyone laughed, no one louder than Kip. He leaned back, ready to revel in his roast.
“I mean, okay,” Atwood said. “Maybe he had the scores, but what else? Sports? His only contribution to the soccer team was running the betting pool. Theater? He almost got kicked out of the drama club, remember? When he ad-libbed those new lines for Hamlet so he wouldn’t be such a pussy? Community work? Volunteer activities? Zilch.
“So no good deeds but plenty of bad. There was that DUI on New Year’s Eve. He lost his driver’s license over that. But guess how he got here tonight?”
“He drove!” the chorus cheered and hooted.
“Then there was his arrest last year for retail theft.”
“Hey, that was only catch-and-release,” Kip protested. He was still laughing. There were times he could enjoy his bad-boy reputation, and this was one of them. A joint finally made it his way, and he took a hit and passed it on to the girl with a heavy-lidded grin.
“He has the thickest disciplinary file in the history of St. Alban High.”
“Only because I submitted a twenty-page rebuttal to every allegation.”
“Dude. You put a goat on the gymnasium roof.”
“Ah,” Kip said, basking. “Good times.”
His classmates remembered it that way, too, and laughed their appreciation. “Well, whatever,” Atwood said. “Here’s to you, Conley. Congrats and all that shit.”
Kip grabbed his empty off the end table and held it up in a salute, and Atwood thumbed the music back on and the dancing resumed.
The greatest thing about the greatest day of his life was that it would only get greater from here. In an hour or so, he’d pull the girl into an empty bedroom, and after she staggered downstairs and found a ride home, he’d flop over and fall asleep, and in the morning he’d wake up sober and sated, both feet firmly on the launch pad and ready for blastoff. Out of Podunk, Virginia, and off into the great wide world beyond. He’d rocket his way through college and grad school, do a couple years on Wall Street, a couple more in a think tank, then onward into politics. He felt like he’d scaled a mountain today, and from up here he could see the path ahead so clearly, a ribbon of all his bright promise unspooling before him.
But at 11:30 p.m., the best day of his life turned into his worst.
“Who’s that?” the girl said, squirming upright on his lap.
He followed her line of sight across the room to a head of penny-bright curls bobbing through the herbal haze. His fourteen-year-old stepsister was pushing her way through the crowd and scanning their faces with desperate, darting eyes. She was too young for this party and not the type to crash. There was only one explanation for her presence here. “Oh, shit.” He groaned and scrambled to his feet.
Chrissy turned her search in the other direction, and he followed, tracking the beacon of her hair through the kitchen to the front hall. She was wearing a rain slicker and barn boots over her pajamas and reflective cyclist cuffs wrapped around her calves. That gave him a particle of relief. If she rode her bike over here, it meant his father wasn’t waiting—seething—in the driveway. He reached around a pair of grinding classmates to grab her by the shoulder.
She whirled. “Kip!”
“On their way. Mom called from the road.”
“Shit.” He was supposed to have two more days of this furlough. “Why didn’t you call?”
“Oh.” He’d attributed the vibration in his lap to something else.
“There’s still time, though. We can beat them home.” She tugged on his sleeve. “Come on, hurry!”
He grabbed his jacket and raced her out the door.
Peter Conley was the kind of man who couldn’t be a passenger. If he was in a vehicle, he had to be the one driving it. It took some time for Leigh to adjust to that. Her father wasn’t that way, and neither was Ted. But she’d come to view this as one of the perks of her second marriage. She learned to use the time to work, or on rainy nights like tonight, to lean back and let the rhythmic swish of the wipers lull her to sleep.
But Peter liked to listen to the news as he drove, and tonight the news was too awful to sleep through. Another school shooting here. Another terrorist attack there. This wasn’t the note she wanted to end their anniversary trip on. It was already bad enough they were leaving the resort two days early. They’d just clinked their champagne flutes in an anniversary toast—(“The best five years of my life,” he said. “Here’s to fifty more,” she said because love was greedy that way)—when the phone rang in her clutch. Parents of teenagers couldn’t ignore phone calls, especially when they’ve left them home alone for the first time. But it wasn’t the kids. It was Richard Lowry, calling from New York with the referral of a new client who could only meet Saturday morning. Could she be there?
Leigh couldn’t ignore that either, not when her billings were down and tuitions were up. But this was their big anniversary getaway, and she’d worked so hard to make it perfect. As a matrimonial lawyer, not to mention a happily remarried divorcée, she knew that the secret to marital success was to work at it. Prioritize it. Treat your marriage as Job One. Two-thirds of all second marriages ended in divorce, but she was determined to beat those odds. She hated to let her work disrupt her efforts.
But Peter didn’t mind. That afternoon Kip had called with the thrilling news about Duke, and Peter was happy to get home to celebrate. The kids would be asleep by the time they got in, but he was planning to take them out for a big diner breakfast in the morning.
The rain would end overnight, the radio told them. Sunny and high of sixty-five tomorrow. But then the broadcast looped back to the school shooting in Missouri, and Leigh couldn’t take it anymore. “Want me to drive for a while?”
Peter shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“You sure?” She trailed her fingertips along the length of his forearm. “I mean, you must be exhausted.”
He laughed and gave her hand a squeeze. His golf game had been rained out at the resort, along with Leigh’s trail ride and the mountain hike they’d planned. Instead, they had stayed in, dined on room service, and had as much sex as any couple approaching fifty could hope for. Not since their honeymoon had they been able to make love under a roof that didn’t also shelter a houseful of sharp-eared adolescents. But now the kids were old enough to be on their own for a few days, long enough for Leigh and Peter to get away and throw off all their restraints. It was thrilling, albeit a little shocking sometimes, to hear what animal noises still lurked inside each other’s skin.
“Oh!” she said as the memory struck. “We forgot to listen to the kids’ mixtape.”
“Mixtape?” Peter teased. “What year is this? 1985?”
“Hey, keep up, Grandpa. That’s what the digital version is called, too. All the cool kids say it.”
“Says the lady who still uses an iPod.”
She laughed as she rooted in her bag. Chrissy had tucked Leigh’s old iPod in there on their way out the door Wednesday night. We downloaded some road songs for your road trip, she said while Kip pretended to hide a smirk behind her.
Peter ceded the radio, and the first song began. After a few bars, Leigh recognized the intro to “Highway to Hell.” “Ha-ha. Very funny,” she said. But it wasn’t the AC/DC original, and when the vocals came in, she realized it wasn’t even a cover. “It’s the kids!” she hooted and turned up the
volume. She could make out all five voices on the track: the twins’ booming basses, Kip veering from a theatrical tenor into a beatboxing rap, and there was Chrissy’s strong clear soprano rising above the fray with Mia’s whispery little voice piping in below. Leigh and Peter looked at each other and burst out laughing. The kids must have borrowed a karaoke machine, last month when Zack and Dylan were home on spring break, during a weekend when Peter had Mia so all five kids were together. A dozen songs followed—“King of the Road,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car”—and Leigh laughed till she cried. “I can’t believe they did this!”
Peter shook his head fondly. “What a goofball that kid is.”
Leigh smiled. She could also see Kip’s mad genius behind this stunt, but she knew it would have taken Chrissy’s special powers to get everyone on board. Chrissy was the glue who held this family together. She loved everyone and everyone loved her, so almost by default they had to love one another.
The final song on the mix wasn’t karaoke. It was just the kids singing, a cappella, “We Are Family,” and that was when Leigh cried for real. Six years ago she felt like a dried husk—forty years old and suddenly single and financially strapped with three children to raise on her own. And now here she was, married to this good man, mother and stepmother to this amazing bunch of kids. Theirs was the most successfully blended family she’d ever encountered, in life or in work. Remarriage was the triumph of hope over experience, so the cynical saying went, but theirs really was a triumph, of luck and love and looking forward instead of back. Blessed wasn’t exactly a word in her vocabulary, but there was no denying that some kind of fortune had smiled upon them and the new life they’d built together.
Her phone rang in her bag as the mixtape ended. It was after midnight, she couldn’t imagine who— She shot Peter a questioning look as she pulled out her phone, and at the same moment, his rang, too. He answered it through the radio speaker as she pressed the answer button on hers.
“Mom!” Chrissy cried in her ear as Kip’s “Um—Dad?” came out of the dashboard speaker.
Peter braked and pulled off to the shoulder of the highway, and they stared at each other as they received the same news in their separate calls. It seemed the kids weren’t safe at home after all. They were at the police station.