A Weird Western Saga
week in Serenity... A fire -- set (unbeknownst to most) by the two strange children Marshal Boxer gave over to the Gundersons -- burned the saloon to the ground and claimed the life of barkeep Chaney and his wife -- the former dying heroically saving Raven Clark and the Crombie children. Despite being up to his six guns in villainy, Marshal Boxer had nothing to do with the tragedy...but the greater villainy continues to unfold as, after the fire is extinguished, Boxer is visited by the two children (who everyone believes died in the blaze).
We buried two friends and two children today. All in the same service. No, that’s not really what we did. We went to the still smoldering, burned out stain on the ground that used to be the building they died in and held our service there. Two good people and two innocent children, all killed in the same fire on the same night, and we had nothing to bury.
I’m not sure I want to be here anymore.
When I first arrived in Serenity, Arthur and Caroline Chaney went far out of their way to make me feel I belonged. Art, especially, always looked out for me. It was Art who carried me to the doctor’s office when I was attacked in his saloon. It was Art who made sure I was covered after a gang of riders ripped my britches off me in the streets. (back in Episodes 2 and 4, respectively ~ the ed.) I know you don’t know about these things, Mother, but they happened. I’m only telling you about them now because I want you to know about Art Chaney, and what he meant to me.
He saved me from the fire, Mother. He’s the reason I’m alive to write you this letter.
I was trapped in the fire that took the Chaneys away from Serenity. I tried to save the Putnam children from the flames and succeeded only in bringing all four of us to the brink of death. Art saved us. He delivered the children and me from the fire as his entire life burned down around him.
Art’s last words to me have echoed in my head every second since. “I belong here.”
He didn’t know I noticed, but I often caught Art looking at me the way I imagine a father looks at his daughter. The Chaneys never had children, and Art didn’t know I never knew my father, but still, he looked at me that way. Maybe I should have told Art no one ever looked at me the way he did. It would have made him feel good to know, I think. He could have looked on me as his daughter openly then. I would have liked that very much. I should have found the time to tell Art I would be proud to have him as a father, but I didn’t.
Now he’s gone, and I feel fatherless all over again.
There are other things going on in my Serenity life. I’m in love with a man who’s helping me discover the things this town has kept hidden. I try not to think about leaving Serenity someday to make a life with him somewhere else, but I do. Often.
That’s all I have to report, Mother. I hope all is well at home. I’m going to put this letter with the others now. Maybe someday I’ll forget enough about you to send them.
“And so, that is how a bill becomes a law. Any questions from the class?”
A small hand in the front row rises.
“Ma’am, why do people have to die?”
Elsa Benjamin exhaled into a slouch. Three days after the fire was indeed too early for school. “I’m not really sure that’s a question I should answer, Tommy. It’d be best if you asked your parents.”
The little boy, all bowl haircut and big, brown eyes, matched his teacher’s slouch. “I asked my pa, he told me to ask my ma.”
Elsa straightened. “And what did she say?”
“To ask you.”
“Oh.” Elsa planted her hands on the desktop and pushed to her feet. “Well, maybe it’s a discussion we can have. Is anyone else thinking about things like Tommy’s question?”
Gradually, every child in class raised a hand, including Dick and Jane Putnam, who had experienced the fire first hand. Little Abercrombie Putnam was not in school, still too upset to leave his mother’s skirts.
“All right then.” Elsa Benjamin motioned the children’s hands down and circled to the front of her desk. “We’ll talk about it. Why do people have to die? Does anyone have a thought or a feeling about this?”
Not a hand was raised, and Elsa let out a heavy sigh. “All right, I guess it’s up to me to get us started, then.” She cleared her throat and stepped to the first row. “I won’t pretend I know the answer to Tommy’s question; I can only tell you what I believe. People die for many reasons. Some bodies just grow too old and weak and give out on the spirit inside. Some people are stricken with an illness that kills them from the inside. And some people, like those who take another person’s life needlessly, deserve to give their lives as penance. I believe all of these things are God’s will. People die when, for whatever reason, God calls them home.”
Silence. Then, after several moments, a hand rises. “How does He decide who to call?”
Elsa drew another deep breath, and let it out slowly. “That’s a good question, Maddie. I’m not really sure how He decides; I’m not sure it’s even for us to know. Sometimes, we just have to have faith that God’s will is the way things should be.”
Tommy Donnelly’s hand was in the air again. “When my Grandpa died, I heard Ma tell Pa she was almost glad on account of Grandpa was suffering with the cancer for so long.” His big, brown saucers welled with tears. “I thought it meant Ma was glad Grandpa was gone forever, and I didn’t understand, cuz I didn’t want him to go.”
Elsa knelt in front of Tommy, her hands on his shoulders. “No, no, Tommy. Your mother didn’t want to see him in so much pain, that’s all. See? It’s like I said. God called him home.”
The boy managed a tiny smile. “I hope that’s true.”
An older girl’s hand came up in the back row as Elsa got to her feet. “Yes, Darcy.”
“I want to believe what you’re saying about God’s will, Ma’am. My parents have talked about it, too, sometimes. But, I’m confused . . . I don’t know. Never mind, I guess.”
Elsa took a few steps up the aisle, beckoning to the girl. “No, go ahead, Darcy. What’re you confused about?”
The girl licked her lips. “Well . . . how could what happened to mister and missus Chaney and Lars and Lili Gunderson, I mean, with the fire and all, how could that have been God’s will?”
More silence, much longer this time. The students exchanged glances as Elsa Benjamin swallowed hard, the sight and sound of burning Caroline Chaney filling her head.
“Sometimes, God isn’t making the decisions.”
Staggering, Vaughn McCallum wheeled on the occupant of the wooden chair. “You damned sunuvabitch! I’ll never forgive you for this one, not for this one; I won’t ever. You hear me? Ever!”
His shirt collar unbuttoned, its white band hanging from one side, Serenity’s preacher threw his shot glass across the room, where it shattered against the wall. McCallum stumbled to the bedside table, snatched the whiskey bottle by the neck, and downed several gulps before glaring again at the current resident of the wooden chair, spitting his words. “Look at the way you look at me. Look at the way . . look at how you . . . like I’m a piece of shit . . . like I’ve failed you. How could I not fail you? I’m bullshit! I’m not . . . not real. How could I not . . . the fucking way you look at me . . . it makes me . . . I think I’m going to throw up.”
The preacher fell to his knees in front of the wooden chair, tears in his bloodshot eyes. “I try. I always try. You know that, don’t you? Even though I’m not what they think I am, I always try. For you. And for them. It’s not what it started out as anymore. I know what you expect of me, and I know I owe you. For saving me from my past, for giving me my present, my future, I owe you. I know that. Please . . . don’t ever think I don’t know.”
His eyes narrowed. “But still, still you give me that fucking look.”
Quaking and red-faced, McCallum got to his feet and teetered over the wooden chair. “What you made me do today, it wasn’t fair. Fuck you, it wasn’t fair to me! Those people, they trust me. They look to me for . . Art Chaney was my friend, damn you! My friend for all these . . . he deserved better than . . . should have been something real at his service, but you sent me. Why? Children died there! Don’t you care? He was my friend!”
McCallum leaned over, snatched the crucifix from the seat of the wooden chair, and held it at eye level. “He was my friend, you bastard, and all you gave him was me! This is too hard!”
The preacher flung the icon across the room, then collapsed to the floor in a heap.
In the back of the abandoned sawmill, Marshal Boxer squatted between the two small children. “Does this meet your needs?”
Lars Gunderson, grinning and wide-eyed, glanced at the dusty accommodations. “If you believe no one will find us here, it is satisfactory.”
“All right.” Boxer got to his feet. “I’d better get back to my office before anyone notices I’m gone. I’ll be back around midnight.
The marshal took three steps before Lars’s voice stopped him. “Something troubles you.”
Boxer didn’t turn around. “Of course not.”
He heard Lili Gunderson giggle. “No, you’re amiss. They know. They always know.”
Boxer turned slowly to face the children. “I’m fine. I’m telling you. And them. Now, let me go.”
Lars stepped forward, his eyes locked on Boxer’s. “Tell us what troubles you.”
Boxer took a step back. “Nothing. Nothing can trouble me, you know that. That’s not how I’m built.”
Lars was in front of him, looking up. “Tell us what troubles you.”
The marshal took another step back, which Lars mirrored. Boxer stared down at the boy. “Nothing could, would, or will bother me. I promise you.”
Lars’s grin remained as he spoke. “The Four are troubled when that which cannot feel . . . feels.”
“I’m not feeling!” Boxer rolled his eyes. “I just . . . note his absence. Both of them.”
Lili Gunderson spun in place. “The toy is broken. The toy is broken.”
Lars froze his sister with a glance, then looked up at the marshal. “This is an obstruction. Remove it.”
Boxer nodded, even bowed a little. “Absolutely, consider it removed.”
The marshal backed away from the grinning Gunderson children, and left the abandoned saw mill.
That night, Boxer was asleep in his chair when Deputy Richter stomped into the office. “Hey Marshal, lookit this.”
Boxer started from his slumber and fixed Richter with a glare. “What is it, Bump?”
“I jus’ saw Nolan Paige put this where the saloon usedeh be. What a sissy he is, I swear.”
Grinning, Richter tossed something from under his coat. Boxer tracked its flight and watched it land with a soft crunch on his desk.
It was a small bundle of wildflowers.
Art Chaney always called his wife, Caroline, “wildflower” when they were alone. There was no way Paige could know that.
But Boxer did.
“Put them back where you found them, Bump.
“They belong there.”
Serenity is copyright by Jason Chirevas. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)