Lanton put the kerosene jug down on the oak table. The table was off. He’d drawn, cut, and measured it, in that order, himself, as a wedding gift he knew Jo would like.
Never sanded it though. Splinters with morning coffee wake you up right, she joked. Twenty years they had breakfast every morning, at the table, before he went off to the yard. Buttered biscuits heated on the tin over the stove. Six days a week. Seventh was church. She taught after, he daydreamed on the bench out back, rain, sleet, snow, and sun.
Six Sundays ago she came home and coughed into her dress and pulled back her arm, revealed a strawberry of sputum, and looked at Lanton. Just said “Hon?” before she fainted and cracked her jaw on the table’s edge.
Lived out by the county line. Volunteer firefighters first to arrive. At the hospital, it was as suspected. Six months on the optimistic side, he heard.
He didn’t listen more, only thought about Matson, the fireman who called her Joey and picked up her tan heels and placed them on the gurney on their way out the door. No man touches another man’s wife’s shoes unless he’s touched her otherwise, before, familiar-like.
For a week she slept and sipped broth when she was awake. More appointments scheduled for next week, he told her.
She said, “Hon, I don’t think that’s necessary.”
He said, “Necessary or not, it’s what’s happening.”
They skipped church, he explaining that God will understand and so will Pastor John. “They don’t, they oughtta ask why He sent the ravages of hell to nest in your lungs, sweet as you are.”
“We don’t get to question,” she replied through a tissue, trying to hold in a wheezing cough. “Not our place.”
He shrugged. He needed answers. She slept; he called out sick again. He searched the house for letters, phone numbers, evidence of the crime, of her betrayal, and he pictured Fireman Matson stopping by at lunch, telling her that redheads are gifts from the heavens, rare as they were, sipping on lemonade and then smelling the sweetness under her bra.
Matson worked the mill, out past Route 46. Lanton stopped by the next day, telling Matson he wanted to thank him for his quick response.
“Joey gonna be okay,” he asked, straightening his overalls and removing his canvas gloves.
“Jo will be fine,” Lanton said. “Doc said she’s gonna be fine.”
“Thanks to the Lord,” Matson said. “Maybe I’ll come by next week, see how she’s doing. She was always nice to me at church-school, even though I realize I’d probably put it to her a few times, questioning how men live inside whales and whatnot.” His shoulders shook as he chuckled.
“Thanks,” Lanton said. “I’m sure she’ll be delighted.”
Two nights later, she’d taken the final turn, he went up the stairs to their room to bring her warmed sweetmilk to settle her stomach, to open the window, air the room out. She didn’t respond when he came through the door. He looked for her breath in the sheets, found none. Put the milk down, and walked down to the garage for the jug of kerosene.
Loaded the shotgun and the pistol. Realized his hands were sweating. He spread the kerosene around the house, splashing the chairs and the table. He took a framed wedding picture outside with him.
He called the fire station before he threw his Zippo down inside the house. Gave them a five-minute head start.
He went to the garage, and wiped his hands again. He found the resin jar. Read the label. Tincture of benzoin, it said. He rubbed it on his hands.
When Matson came, he stepped out from behind his Ford, leveled the pistol at Matson’s chest.
“Lanton, what the – is Joey in there?” he yelled, pointing.
“I’m out here,” he said. “Both of us.”
The house flamed, the smoke turning from white to black as the fire dove under the house and climbed the walls.
“Lanton.” The sound was muffled, perhaps a confused cry through the window. “Lanton!”
From inside the house.
Lanton looked at Matson, cocked the hammer.
She’d called for him.