Birke continued to explore Canby's downtown. on the main street, he passed a butcher’s shop, a seamstress' shop, and a bookstore. then he reached a hardware store with a hiring sign in the window.
upon entering the hardware store, Birke was pleasantly greeted by a stocky man. their conversation flowed easily. when the owner emerged from an aisle and walked closer to greet Birke, his enthusiasm faltered as his gaze went to Birke’s shoe. the employee’s gaze followed and he frowned as well.
“no,” said the owner. “my customers know where I stand. I can’t hire you.”
Birke left, unsettled, and glanced at the splatter of silver on his shoe. he thought he had been careful while melting mirrors with Ashton, so he hadn’t given a second thought about his shoes.
a thin man walked by, nodded in greeting, and then stopped a few feet away and turned toward him. a nervousness flittered behind the man's deep brown eyes, and dark patches rested beneath them, but the man noticeably relaxed in Birke's presence.
“Birke!” said the man, with a smile. it was a smile Birke recognized; though the man's light beige skin was recovering from a sunburn, and his wavy dark brown hair had become long and tangled, it would take more than that for Birke to forget the face of someone from his mountain village. “didn’t think I’d see you around here! heard you left the village after-”
“no need to be so formal, Al’s fine. so, you sticking around? we could always use more help.” he smiled. “there are two Houses now, which keep us busy. or, if you want, you can help out Crafting. you were always good with metal, right?”
“no,” said Birke, hoping his shoe would go unnoticed. “it always melted.”
“well, we don’t want that happening!” another smile. “so, you interested? we’ve got a few people from our village helping, remember-”
“thanks, Al. but not right now.”
“sure, that’s cool. if you ever change your mind, the offer’s always open.” he patted Birke’s shoulder, and left with a wave.
frustrated, Birke headed back to his hotel.
while waiting at a crosswalk, two young teenage girls joined him.
“I’m sure they’ll fade,” said one girl, as she handed her friend a tissue; the friend's eyes were red and puffy and her pale beige face was covered in white lines. “I’m sure your mom'll be able to help.”
the signal switched to walk and they began to cross the street.
“maybe; I don't think she'll understand,” the girl with lines said. “I even went to the one by the old cannery, so she wouldn’t notice.”
when they reached the other side, the girls and Birke went in opposite directions.
back in his hotel room, Birke worked to remove the silver stain on his shoe. his thoughts kept wandering to the girl; he hoped her mother would understand. he also wondered how his neighbour from the village was doing, almost thirteen now. in his frustration, he didn't realize his efforts had removed the silver and were beginning to wear away the shoe itself; he stopped, set the shoe aside, then busied himself with tidying the uncluttered space.
after supper at his hotel, Birke grew restless. catching a glimpse of the sunset out the window, he ventured outside to observe it better. at a small park he found an unobstructed view of Canby's westerly edge; the forest gave way to farmers' fields and the stream that connected the town to points inland. parallel to the stream ran the road he had bused in on that morning and he realized he had left Indigo twenty-four hours before.
when he reached the end of the street, tongues of flame came into view. worried, he hurried forward. beyond a stand of trees, the full scene was visible; on a clear patch of concrete in the overgrown foundation was a bonfire. Birke caught his breath and noticed a rusted out sign with weeds curling through the holes that read: “Ne r Ca n ry”
climbing down a makeshift stairway at the edge of the foundation, Birke studied the figure facing the bonfire; the person was tossing rectangular objects onto the flames; sparks flew skyward with each additional piece of fuel.
when Birke reached the fire, he noticed paintings scattered all around its base. the figure, upon hearing footsteps, turned toward him.
“Theo,” said Birke, recognizing him from the gallery. “your art!”
Theo pulled the sleeves of his grey sweatshirt farther up his dark brown arms as he scanned the pile of his artwork. he pushed a strand of shoulder-length dark brown curly hair behind his ear as he leaned forward to pick up another piece; as he threw the painting on the fire, the strand released itself, and he sighed.
“it’s useless,” said Theo. “nobody in this town gives a shit. where better to set it aflame than here?” Theo leaned forward to pick up another piece, but Birke snagged it first.
“where’s this lake?” asked Birke. “it’s beautiful.”
“it’s Avemyr,” said Theo, narrowing his dark brown eyes at Birke before taking a step toward another painting, “near where I grew up.”
Birke reached the painting and tucked it safely with the first.
“look,” snapped Theo, “this is my art.” he kicked a painting into the fire. “I'll do whatever I please with it, got that?” he stomped on another piece before tossing it into the flames. “see, at least now it’s useful, it’s keeping people warm.” he motioned to the foundation, unaware of, or simply ignoring, the absence of anyone but himself and Birke.
Birke glanced at the second painting, an abstract in brilliant blues and greens with gold accents. Theo used Birke’s distraction to his advantage and threw another piece onto the flames.
“I’ll buy them,” said Birke, swiping a third canvas, a sunrise, from the concrete.
“sure you will,” said Theo, attempting to reclaim the artwork in Birke’s arms. “just give me my kindling.”
“no, I’m serious.” Birke backed away and held the pieces more firmly.
Theo circled the bonfire for more paintings, but came up empty. “fine, have ‘em.”
he accepted the cash Birke handed him and had nothing nasty to say about the amount. after pocketing the money, he began breaking up a discarded wooden crate.
“you’re a good painter, Theo,” said Birke.
“you got that line from her.”
“just because this place doesn’t see it, doesn’t mean you’re finished.”
“whatever. thanks for the money, okay?” his words were accented by a resounding crash as the crate split apart.
Theo tossed the crate onto the bonfire and ambled off in search of another. not wanting to linger in case the foundation yielded no further kindling, Birke left.
halfway to his hotel, he heard people muttering in undertones in a dimly lit alleyway.
“are you sure he’s gone?” one of them said.
“yeah,” said another. “there was a huge explosion and everything. one of the higher-ups arrived at the House and it was all demolished.”
Birke stopped beside a brick building, out of the faint glow of the flickering streetlights, where he could safely listen to their conversation.
“do they know what happened?” asked a voice he recognized as Al’s.
“maybe, but they’re not likely to tell us, are they?” was the reply.
“it’s just, if Sable’s gone, then who’s in charge?” asked a nervous voice.
“hell if I know,” said Al.
Birke snuck away quietly.
he knew how much Sable had tried to change the trade and he wasn’t sure what would remain with him gone. but he also knew how the trade had flourished in an isolated mountain enclave. he feared for Canby, especially its youth, and its increasingly uncertain future.