I smelled ash in the air. He was even more disturbing in real life with his bright flames tattooed on his arms. His gaze flickered over me.
"Dear God," I said.
He took out a beer from a cooler behind his chair and offered it to me.
"No, thank you," I said. "You're the fireman from my dreams."
He didn't answer.
I took the pearl from my pocket.
"I think you know about this," I said.
Lowering the beer can to his lap, he nodded.
"And the crazy woman with the shovel?" I asked.
"The spirit," he said.
"She attacked me last night because she thought I had the pearl. I gave it back to her, but it keeps returning to me."
He took a sip of beer.
"It's supposed to," he said.
I shook my head.
"It can't be," I said.
He leaned toward me.
"Hope in the world can be individual as well as universal. I've walked through so many fires in my time and seen so much destruction. I need my own glimmer of hope, and I found it in you," he said.
"I wasn't supposed to carry you out of the fire. You were supposed to die with your husband, but I have the power of reckoning, like the crazy woman, if not more so. I tend to the fires in the world. I'm one of the guardians of the universe making sure the spiritual clockworks keep ticking."
"You take lives," I said.
"When it's time. I allowed you to see me in the fire. After that, you could see the other guardians and the clockworks like the skulls and the pearl."
"But I don't want the pearl," I said. "The crazy woman told me it belongs to the world."
"You don't want hope?" he asked. "I told you not to look back, but you did. Your hope was turned to ash. I'm giving you the chance to find it again."
"I can't keep it," I said. "The crazy woman will come after me."
In the car, I thought about what the fireman said. Was it true that he and the woman were some sort of spiritual guardian? I didn't want to give the pearl back to the woman directly, especially if she had her shovel. If I could put it in the original skull it came from, perhaps it would stay put, and she would find it there.
On Saturday afternoons, the university was nearly empty. I grabbed the crowbar from the trunk for something to dig with. At the spot where I saw the first skull, I dug into the earth. A chunk of grass came free. Then dirt. There was no skull. It was good enough, I thought. I dropped the pearl