With a small stack of books off to one side, away from the entrance of the crawl space, Brian Oliver shimmied feet first into the darkness. Before his shoulders disappeared into the void, he grabbed the top book off the pile, A Guide to Scat: Common Mammals of North America.
“You look ridiculous,” Lana told him, his adoring wife of exactly 8 months. She giggled and he craned his neck to take her in, in all of her upside-down glory. He reached a hand up to switch on the headband light, which elicited another giggle.
“We’ll see what you say when I bag me a critter,” he did his best Southern drawl, which was not bad (if a bit cartoonish) and disappeared beneath the house.
He was surprised to find he had enough space to crouch as he made his way across the dirt floor. His feet disturbed the long dormant particles, sending a cloud into the air, which danced in the beam of his light. He moved forward, cautiously, scanning the ground for animal dung.
He sniffed the air, but all he could identify was dirt, must, and possibly mildew. He made a mental note to take out some library books on mildew and the dangers of mold. It was while he was reordering his mental to-do list that he happened, with the corner of his shoe, upon a small pile of dung. He tore through the pages of his book in that dark space, his small light now a spotlight.
A little more than half-way through he found a reasonable match, North American Opossum. He dog-eared the page and continued. “Hey, Lana,” he called back toward the entrance of the crawlspace, “I think it could be Possums, or O-Possums. How do you say it?”
He thought he heard her begin a reply, one mixed with equal parts disgust, fear, love, and annoyance; but she never got to finish her sentence. She was interrupted by what would be the most talked about event on that quiet suburban street for many months.
The house above him shook; decades of dirt suddenly loosened and rained down upon him, as the neighbor’s house exploded. A fireball reached to the sky and the shockwave managed to knock Lana to her back. Brian saw her hit the ground, her face obscured by blood and hair, and ran to her. He almost made it out of the crawlspace before he knocked his forehead into a floor joist, knocking himself unconscious.
He came to a minute later, dazed, lost. He smelled burning, an acrid, chemical scent that burned his nose. He couldn’t hear much of anything, the distant wail of sirens, something nearer crackling and popping. Then he heard Lana, she was crying, calling out for him; but he couldn’t see her; couldn’t see anything at all.
Something thick and warm ran into his eyes and burned. He wiped the back of his hand across his face, and light flooded into his retina. He blinked his eyes clear, and saw that his hand was now painted a deep crimson. There still was not much light where he was, now that he had adjusted his vision, and he suddenly remembered where he was.
He felt around for the exit and crawled out onto the grass, collapsing next to Lana.
“Help,” she croaked, “We need…call…” And she slipped into silence as a troupe of men came running through their gate, carrying all manner of medical equipment. Brian took up the cause, crying out, “Help her,” then slipping into unconsciousness again.
This time, when he woke up, he was in bed. The room was unfamiliar, there was a television attached to the ceiling, dangling above him. “I’m in the hospital,” he said, then immediately felt self-conscious and looked around his room. He was not alone.
“You always were very astute.” Sitting on the other bed was a familiar, but unmissed face. Her hair, long and dark, draped around the sides of her face. Dark eyes looked over a sharp nose; there was no humor in her face.
“Hello, Lana,” there was no warmth in the greeting for his ex-fiancé. “Why are you here?”
“I saw your name in the list of injured. I saw your wife’s name, too. ‘Lana Oliver’, why does that sound so familiar?” She stood up; a stunted torso plopped upon a pair of long, chubby legs. “I knew you weren’t over me.”
“Is that why you’re here? To be a bitch? How did you even get in my room?”
She pretended to think for a moment, her face screwing itself into what was impossibly an even uglier version of itself; then she reached into her back pocket and pulled out a laminated badge. “Press pass, I’m writing a story about the bomb.”
He laughed, a genuine, throaty laugh, and pain shot through his head. “I thought you were going to be an actress? What do you know about reporting?”
“I know a lot.”
“Well excuse me if I’m unimpressed. You’re already messing it up. The doctor told me, it was a meth house. It exploded. Wait,” he sat up, “Did you go see Lana?”
“You mean Lana number two? No. They wouldn’t let me, she’s in the ICU.”
Brian fought back tears; he would not show weakness to his woman.
“Relax,” she sat down on the edge of his bed, placed a cold, clammy hand on his, “They said she’s going to be fine. Scarred for life, but fine.”
He pulled his hand away, wiped away the thin layer of cold moisture in the shape of her spindly fingers, and glared at her in a way he hoped said, “Go away, bitch.”
“You’ll excuse me if I don’t take your word for it,” he pressed the nurse call button, “But you already told me there was a bomb, but I know that’s not true.”
Lana sighed and hefted her awkward frame off the bed. “It was a bomb, Brian. Your neighbors were an accountant and a travel agent. They were not drug dealers. Someone blew them up, and I don’t think they were even the right targets.”
“Since when are you a reporter?”
“Since when are you married?”
“So who do you think was the real target, Encyclopedia Brown?”
She walked to the doorway, turned to face him, and breathed a deep sigh. One of the things Brian always hated about her was her flair for drama. “I think it was you, Brian.”
Six blocks away, in the back of a white cargo van, the hulking figure of a man gingerly placed a pipe bomb in a gym bag. It was cradled by blankets and half-popped bubble wrap. The man zipped the bag closed, slung it gently over his shoulder and stepped out of the van. The late afternoon air was crisp; a light breeze rustled the autumn leaves. The county hospital was due east, the stranger set off to the West.