Sharon rubs her hands together with a satisfied sigh. The heat from the fireplace penetrates her clothes and warms her legs. Her fingers and toes are assaulted by pins and needles as they begin to thaw.
John grabs a large stick and pushes one of the logs closer to the flames, making a loud crackling sound. Sharon hopes they have enough firewood to last through the night.
As John stares at the logs, he murmurs, “So. The Sierra Club.”
Sharon snorts. She wonders how long he’s been waiting to bring up her former employer. “What about it?” she asks.
“What made you want to work for an environmental organization?”
“My grandma was a…” Sharon shakes her head, smiling. “Well, to be blunt, she was a hippie. She had my dad young, and he had me young and then didn’t move too far away when he got married, so when I was growing up, Grandma was this… force of nature in my life. She grew a lot of her own food, she composted, she went to rallies and marches to raise awareness about climate change—and when my parents would let her, she took me along. She’s the reason I became interested in environmental science.”
“You studied it in school?” John continues to poke at the fire.
“Yeah, at Sacramento State. I have a degree in environmental studies. My senior thesis was on the effects of contaminants on river algae.” Sharon glances at John to see if he wants more details, but he doesn’t look particularly intrigued. “Anyway, after graduation, I moved to Minnesota to take the Sierra Club job. I met Fresler here, a little over two years ago.”
“You know,” John says, “I don’t think our paths would ever have crossed if the world hadn’t gone crazy.”
“You’re probably right.” Sharon studies the dancing flames. She is beginning to understand why Fresler has a hinky feeling about John. The man isn’t exactly personable, and she can always sense him calculating. She doubts he ever acts on emotion, keeping cold logic as the ruler of his actions. Even his comments are clipped and overtly to the point. Fresler on the other hand, loves lengthy conversations about music and nature, pondering the complexities of them, the beauty in the intricacy.
“Where did you grow up?”
“Fair Oaks, California.”
“What was that like? All hippies?”
“Actually, it was a real hodgepodge of wealthy and blue-collar families. My parents weren’t wealthy by any means, but we did okay. And no, they weren’t hippies. My dad was an orthodontist and my mom worked as a counselor for the San Juan Unified School District.”
“You got along with your parents?”
“My mom was tough on me, but I always knew she loved me.”
“What about your dad?”
Sharon laughs. “His big passion was basketball. He had a great experience playing in high school, and I guess he wanted the same thing for me. He coached my rec teams when I was in middle school and made me work on my ball-handling skills after school every single day.”
That makes John smile. “I used to run drills with Jennifer, once upon a time, except she chose the volleyball team.” He smiles wistfully into the flames. “Sounds like your father really loved you.”
“Oh, he did.” Sharon smiles fondly. “He was just a little nutty.”
John looks puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“He so badly wanted me to be five foot ten. He thought it would help me get more rebounds, maybe even a scholarship. So, he bought this inversion table.”
“What’s an inversion table?” asks John.
“Basically, a table that you lie on and strap your feet into, so you can invert it and hang upside down. He thought it would stretch my spine, so I’d be taller. Mostly, it just made me dizzy.” She chuckles at the memory. “He also had me drink these watermelon smoothies because he thought they would somehow stimulate my growth hormones.”
John surprises Sharon with a belly laugh. “Did it work?”
“No, I’m only five foot eight,” says Sharon, infected by his mirth.
“That’s pretty tall for a woman,” John points out.
“Only as tall as my genetics predisposed,” Sharon replies, still laughing. “Trust me, Dad’s voodoo magic didn’t work.”
“Well.” John clears his throat and meets her eye. “Either way. Your watermelon-smoothie childhood is very diﬀerent from the world I grew up in.”
“What do you mean?” Sharon turns to face him, resting her arms on her bent knees.
“Ever hear of Brightmoor, Detroit?”
“In Brightmoor, there was no shortage of abandoned and boarded-up homes. There was also no shortage of drug dealers and crime. I wasn’t concerned about watermelon smoothies or environmental activism. I was worried about survival. When I was thirteen, I thought the best way to survive was to join Young N Scandalous. I thought they would protect me.”
“Young N Scandalous?” Sharon repeats.
“They’re a street gang. I wasn’t a member for long. My dad found out I was hanging with them instead of going to school. When I came home late one night, he beat me within an inch of my life. I was bedridden for over a week.”
Horrified, Sharon can only gawk. What could she possibly say to that?
“After my dad beat me, he stood over my bloodied body and told me that if he ever caught me hanging out with another gang member, he would finish it.”
Sharon puts her hand over her mouth. “Oh, my God.”
John shakes his head. “See, I knew you would have that reaction. But my dad saved my life that day. From that point on, I feared my dad more than anything else. I finished high school and got my diploma, then enlisted in the army. I met my beautiful wife, Jackie, in high school, too.”
“Aww, that’s so sweet. So, she’s your high school sweetheart.”
John nods. “After the army, I got a job with the Louisville Metro Police Department.”
“Based on how you grew up, you must have had a much diﬀerent perspective than some of the other cops.”
“Yeah… I think so. The problem that you have in areas like Brightmoor is that everyone is pre-judging everyone else. Cops are pre-judging the people who live in these areas, and the people living there are pre-judging the cops. A lot of these young kids in Brightmoor just don’t trust cops. But I’m sure in Fair Oaks, people do.”
“I suppose so,” Sharon says. “Other than the officers working the marches I’ve attended, I honestly haven’t had many interactions with the police.”
John’s nod is curt, like that proves his point, but then he goes on, “Let me ask you a hypothetical question. If two police cars roll up in your driveway at two a.m. with their lights and sirens on, and bang on your front door demanding to come inside your house, what would you do?”
Sharon answers without hesitation. “I would be scared. I would wonder what was so earth-shattering that they had to bang on my door at two a.m.”
John presses. “Would you let them in?”
“Of course. I would want to help in any way I can.”
“In Brightmoor,” John tells her, “if an oﬃcer bangs on the front door at two a.m., our first instinct isn’t to invite them in and ask how we can help. Our first instinct is to run!”
Sharon sits quietly, listening to the fire pop and crackle and hearing animals call to one another outside. The animal calls sound normal, like the comforting sounds of nature she relished before the pandemic. Finally, she says, “I guess I knew all of that, from watching the news. I’ve just never experienced it myself, or talked to someone who has lived that experience.”
John looks satisfied. “I just wanted to make it clear that you and I come from very different worlds.”
Sharon nods. “That may be true, John, but I’m glad our paths did cross.”
“Me too, Sharon. Even if it took an apocalypse for it to happen.”