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Family Circle 2010 Fiction Contest: "Divorce Circus"

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In the weeks and months and years that followed that afternoon, Ralph often dreamt of the agonizing time between the glimmer of flame and the moment when Bethany emerged, whole and intact, from the tent. In his nightmares, people burned and rolled on the lawn and in the streets. In reality, everyone made it out in time, shaken but mostly unscathed. But Ralph's nightmares never let him forget what could have happened.

After the fire department left, Ralph and Vicki put Bethany to bed on the pull out couch in the living room, because she wanted to be near them. They sat on lawn chairs in the driveway and stared at the charred remains of the tent.

Vicki took a long sip of her beer. "Bethany could have died."

"I know," Ralph said. The fire chief had explained that when the tent collapsed, the canvas sagged onto one of the buffet's warming trays and it had ignited instantly.

Vicki pressed the bottle of beer against her forehead. "I saw the guys from the tent company set the whole thing up. I can't believe it could have just collapsed."

She had driven him to it but there was no one but himself to blame for the actual act. On his tongue he felt the prickle of almost telling her—just to see the shocked look on her face, just to let her know that he was capable of such a thing. He resisted the impulse—out of shame, out of fear, but also knowing that there is some power in being underestimated.

Ralph scraped the toe of his sneaker against the driveway, trying to come up with the right thing to say, some words that would not betray him. "We shouldn't think about what could have happened."

"We could have lost our daughter." Vicki's sobs were sudden and heavy and wet and Ralph watched the way her body shook, thinking about how it was that you could know and not know a person so well at the exact same moment.

"I'm sorry," Ralph said.

"Why?" Vicki blew her nose into a wad of tissues. "It's not your fault."

"I mean I'm sorry that it happened." The fact that he could get away with it felt like both a victory and a defeat. Ralph picked up a piece of red balloon, charred at the edges. "It's just a good thing no one was hurt," he said.

Copyright 2011 Meredith Corporation.