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"The Ghost and the Flame," short story excerpt

Saturday 1/7/23

Years ago, a man had returned to this house in which he used to live after having to search to find it. He didn’t think it could ever be a struggle to locate a structure in which one had grown up.

He’d never forgotten his old telephone number, which remained fresh as the day he memorized it at four-years-old. The names of all of the teachers he’d had in school. What the insides of the houses of his friends had looked like. What their sisters were called and the ones that had developed first. Whose fathers had fought in wars. Advice he’d been given by baseball coaches on sandy fields with vague chalk lines where ground balls never seemed to escape the influence of the weeds.

The man’s father had hit him in this house. Hit him often. Daily. Nightly. After school. Before school, if it was early enough. Or late enough. Early and late had a tendency to be the same when the man was a boy.

His mother watched through the bottom of a bottle. Her out-of-body cataracts, those filmy, thickened lowest portions of the cylinder, the color of dazed green. The boy thought of the bottles as if they were her telescopes. She could supply the people at NASA for extras.

Each year at Christmas he asked for an actual telescope because he liked to imagine himself living on another planet, and he wanted to get the geography straight in his mind as a means of preparation so he’d be better ready if there was ever a real chance to leave.

Be first aboard, or in the initial wave of people through the gate, undeterred by the risk, or the guinea pig volunteer. It didn’t matter. He wouldn’t have to stay a second longer. That was what mattered. He could just go. And he could take her, get the help she needed in a place where maybe everyone got the help they needed in time, before time ran out.

Often she was asleep without meaning to be on the couch in her clothes, with her shoes on, unrousable. The place could have burned down around her, the flames threading along the laces, and still there she'd be.

The man who had returned to visit this house in which he’d grown up couldn’t ever remember seeing his mother’s bare feet. That bothered him a lot. Bothered him more than he thought it should have. She was perpetually shod for flight—a flight she couldn’t undertake.

He didn’t know if the same thinking that caused his mother to always wear her shoes included a part for him. That when the time finally came, when there could be no more of what there was, she’d pull him close with her arm, gather his body to hers, tug the side of his jacket with a grip that wouldn’t tear the fabric but could split a plate of steel in two.

Or were the shoes just shoes and nothing more? Merely another part of something—a habit—that was also on that same, filmy bottom?

How he hated and loved them. He hated them the most after he realized that his father was not a little like other fathers, from what the boy learned of the world, which was also when he wanted to love them the most. The world being the people he knew. The people he knew being kids his own age. Boys his own age. The girls that he found himself wanting to attack with ferocious grace, though he didn’t understand why—only that if he would he could, and that wouldn’t be right, so he kept his distance lest he do anyone any harm. But especially girls he wanted to impel with his manner to stop being girls who cared about foolish things so that they could protect those who needed it when the time came.

He loved his mother more because of what he wished she was. The boy tried to believe—was desperate to believe—that she didn’t want to be that way. Without control. No freedom, when any freedom, no matter what form it took, was better than none at all.

But she existed as if she was so bereft of choices in her own life that she couldn’t help him with his. Wouldn’t intervene. Was unable to say, “we’ll go, you and I, and it will be okay.”

He hoped the ceaseless wearing of the shoes also meant that this particular conversation in its low tones of urgency could happen at any time, including when he most needed it to. It never did, which still didn’t kill his hope completely. There were never any bare feet.

The boy thought of his mother’s shoes they way he did about the planets he never saw because of the telescope he never received. The planets were up there somewhere, and maybe his mother’s words were as well, waiting to come from her mouth, or for him to get to, if that’s what it took. In the meanwhile, he saw stars in the sky standing in the backyard with his throbbing skull, all of which looked the same, and an unchanging pair of sneakers on his mother’s feet.

He had a solution. Solutions take all forms. He would sleep over the house of another boy who was the closest to what he might call his best friend. Sufficiently close that the other boy would say they were if asked or challenged on the point by someone in authority.

Once his friend had fallen asleep, the boy who later became a man who visited this house that was so hard to find, would venture out unbeknownst to anyone. He had stashed a can behind the garage of what he was confident would be enough gasoline to do the job. The fire would be lit, and he’d return to his friend’s house, sneaking back through the front door, climbing into his sleeping bag, as if he’d never left.

But the boy didn’t sneak out and he didn’t light the fire. Truth be told, he’d never lit a fire in his whole life, even when some of the other boys he knew experimented with bundles of dried leaves and twigs they’d gathered inside circles of stones in the forest behind the last of the houses of the development. He just watched and thought about it. Harder than he had ever thought about anything, save what he wished for his mother.

One time the boys had even burned a mouse that they pulled out of its hole in winter. A boy said it was dead. The thing was rock hard. He flicked it with a finger, but there was no thud. Another boy, taking the mouse from his friend, said it was alive, you could feel a heartbeat. The same boy put the mouse’s body in the fire and it didn’t move until all of its fur was gone, and then it was just a twitch.

His mother would be asleep. There’d be nothing to feel, which was also how she lived, and anything that happened, and anywhere she went, would be better for her.

But then he wouldn’t get a chance to love her as he knew he could, as she might also love him. His father wouldn’t live forever. Someone had to die first. That’s both the best thing and the worst thing about life, the boy contemplated, depending on circumstances.

He berated himself for a dearth of nerves. Felt shame. Cut his bruises open with a pen knife just before they were completely healed to punish himself for his inactivity. His acceptance. He was as bad as anyone, he figured.

He thought about his plan at school, and if there was another. Or if time could speed up, and the future gotten to faster. His plans were more like wishes. They’d all be there, in that future, rousable, intact, and kind. The past would be such a dim memory that no one would talk about it. All that mattered would be tomorrow, and how great it could be.

The boy was somewhere off in thoughts of that future that hadn’t come, wasn’t slated to arrive, when the school nurse and the principal came to get him in his class. His head throbbed from the events of the morning with his father. He was used to the ringing in his ears. It’d stop by lunch, in all probability.

He hadn’t known the nurse and the principal to ever work together. They seemed separate in their respective positions of authority, and like they’d prefer to keep it that way, unless the nurse wanted a raise or the principal had a heart attack.

On that day, though, they were linked in purpose, working as one on a shared mission. The nurse called his name from the side of the teacher’s desk, having first bent down to whisper in the teacher’s ear.

The nurse had the softer voice, more suitable for summoning. The principal, meanwhile, motioned with his arm, moving it slowly, like he was signaling to a dog he didn’t want to scare away. His face wore the expression of a man in pain who is trying not to show it, even though the pain is not primarily his, but rather something about the world.

“Is it my mom?” the boy asked, as he walked between the nurse and the principal in the empty hallway to what the boy anticipated would be the principal’s office, but he could also envision the walk ending in the room where the nurse sometimes asked him about the cuts on his arms, which the boy dared not tell her he made with his penknife.

He couldn’t wait, so the boy stopped his feet from moving and said one word.


He had to know.

The hallway would do for a response, the principal decided. The time needed to come. The “where” wouldn’t matter in the end. The where would be the last thing the boy took from this day.

The boy never forgot the quiet. How a space in which there was normally so much noise, a space he associated with noise, could possess the absence of sound. That was a thing. It wasn’t a non-thing. That quiet existed as an entity, just as the boy did. No more, no less.

He felt as if the classrooms up and down the hall were mausoleums at the cemetery, but with bodies that would exit through their now resolutely closed doors in less than a quarter of an hour. Not that much different than the dead coming back to life save in the most crucial of regards.

The silence was the same, only there was more of it, and no wind, nor birds.

“It’s your father,” the principal said.

The nurse gave the principal a look, as if the principal’s words hadn’t been completely accurate or were lacking in thoroughness. Or else that he had failed to take the correct initial approach, but she also couldn’t fault him for having to start somewhere.

‘There’s been an accident,” he continued.

That was his word for it. The boy knew he was lying. But also that he was telling the truth.

It was then, without the principal needing to say any more—or the nurse anything at all—that the boy understood his mother had shot his father—because it couldn’t have been anything else, or done any other way—because she loved him very much, though that love had also come to an end now that they wouldn’t know each other.

She’d be leaving, and he wouldn’t be staying either. He couldn’t take her to the other planets after all.

And as the boy screamed in the hallway, so that some of the resolutely closed mausoleum doors were opened, and concerned teachers in the world of the living stuck out their heads, all he could think was how he had failed her.


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