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John Harper picked up the smoking pail, nodded, and continued down the lane toward town, occasionally shifting the pail from one hand to another while Clawson’s place disappeared in the thickening flurry of ash. *** That same strange morning the woman was on the back porch of the hotel, sweeping away the ash as it fell, back and forth across the boards with relaxed, rhythmic strokes. The ash made a pale glaze on the worn wood, and she cleared a path for herself, from one end of the porch to the other and back again. She looked up at a shadow and saw him coalesce out of the fog of ash, carrying his smoking pail along the lane. She stopped sweeping and waited until he saw her. “Hello, John Harper.” “Molly?” She shook her head, smiling, with the same direct, placid, deep, amused gaze she always wore. He set down the pail heavily. “Fire’s gone out in the kitchen.” Not meeting her eyes, clenching and unclenching his fingers slowly. “Come in for some coffee.” He looked at the ash, bewildered. “Into the clean air for a moment.” The breeze picked up, stirring the ash, cooling the air. She turned, went into the kitchen and he followed her, leaving the pail on the packed earth at the foot of the steps. *** From her own porch as she swept, Lucy Harper could see across the town to the lane John had taken. It wound behind the hotel and up the far side of the valley, past the half burned house, up to the tongue of fire that waited to slither down toward town. The ash thickened the air and soon she couldn’t see past the pickets of her own yard. She retreated inside to open and close the windows. She had seen nothing but shadows moving on the lanes and through the streets. Some of the shadows passed the hotel, and some stopped when they reached it. “He must hurry.” She continued opening and closing windows. “He mustn’t get caught by the rain. He mustn’t be detained at the hotel.” *** A flurry of ash followed them into the hotel kitchen and settled slowly down as she closed the door. “You look like a ghost.” She brushed ashes roughly from his sleeves and shoulders, then crossed to the stove, wiping her hands on her apron. “Were you walking far?” He sat at the table. Kenny Gordon

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Permafrost Magazine Summer Issue, 36.2  
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