The caveat is that I’m going to lie to you. That’s how confessions work, isn’t it? There are those things that even though we want to confess, we can’t confront, and so we talk around. Lying isn’t even second nature; it’s our primary condition. The best I can do is tell you the truth about when I’ve lied.
Let’s start at the beginning. I come from a deep and worn out notch on the Bible Belt, the only child of Peter and Trudy Cadigan. Well, no. You’d need only look at the graves to know that’s not entirely true. While I can’t promise I’ll fix every misstatement, allow me to clarify that I am their first-born son and their only surviving child. Adam was the other.
Please forgive the confusion, but there are certain moments in life, it seems, that blind you to the others. Perhaps the rest of life is duller than these bright peaks of experience, and so only they stand out. I worry that maybe those spikes of experience are so deeply affecting that they gouge the eyes of memory and wiggle around like icepicks until nothing is left in the brain but the singular moments. It makes me wonder what I’ve lost, both good and bad.
Whatever else you take from me, though, this part is absolutely true: There was something wicked in our house. A darkness grew like mold from the baseboards and hung like lichen from the walls. It stitched itself together in empty closets and the shadows behind bedroom doors until, one night, it took solid form.
• • • •
Although I was very young, I remember the day Mama told me my little brother Adam was growing in her belly. I remember because my father loved to tease me about how I cried for a solid week. He found it funny, but I choose to believe that even then, I was already sorry for the thing that was growing in the middle of our family.
Would you believe I was not a typical child? I didn’t, for example, have much of a dinosaur phase. I didn’t watch cartoons. Instead, by the time Adam was growing inside Mama, I had become obsessed with wounds. Scraped knees; the jelly jar incident; Sundays staring at Christ on the cross. A hundred little injuries harrowed into me a preoccupation with holes in flesh: skin and muscle curling like lips; a public intimacy; a Möbius strip. The interior and exterior as one.
Even at that age, I was possessed of the mystical thought that a wound was the structure of infinity. If I moved forward in time—a year, a dozen, a hundred—I would find the same wound on the same body, still ringing in time. If I could move backwards, I wondered, would I find it there, too, just waiting to be uncovered?
Years later, I read about a famous author who said his stories were like dinosaur skeletons: pre-existent but buried, merely waiting on the chisel and brush. Stories are not created by writing, in other words, but excavated in the telling. Stories are always underfoot whether we believe in them or not. Whatever names we give, whatever order we impose, it’s all just guesses.
But if that were true, then who could we blame for the stories we find ourselves written into? Who bears the burden when bad things happen that we don’t deserve?
Who wrote the dinosaurs, is what I’m asking, and why must we live in prisons of dead monsters’ bones?
• • • •
If I say Daddy was a brute, certain images arise. Rolled sleeves; dirty nails; hands perpetually curling toward a fist or a bottle’s neck. Glassy eyes; leaden brow. I could tell you that was true, and that things always simply look like what they are, and that would be a comfortable lie. But no, my father was boring like a package bomb.
As proof, I offer you one of those memorial peaks that flatten the rest. We were sitting on the brown couch, Daddy and I, which means we were watching football or the news. Whatever Daddy was watching, I was picking at one threadbare armrest, absorbed in unravelling its awful pattern. It didn’t matter what we watched; being near him was almost like being a part of something. I remember Daddy was drinking Coca-Cola from a jelly jar.
Maybe you recall how companies used to decorate jelly jars with popular cartoon characters so that mothers would wash them out and keep them as drinking glasses for children. That’s how ingrained associations work, right? Sustenance and entertainment; thanking the jelly company during Grace at every meal; watching the goggle-eyed decal thinning away from wash after wash until only the ghost of its outline remains.
Of all our makeshift vessels, the one in Daddy’s hand bore a purple brontosaurus. As he raised the glass, the dinosaur’s long neck extended from beneath Daddy’s fingers to leer at me with big white eyes and a toothless smile, nodding up and down as my father drank. In between sips, it perched with pride on the couch’s arm.
Mama had entered the living room as part of her tidying up, although Mama’s tidying was worrying set in motion. She had mastered a hummingbird’s dip and dart, weaving her swelling belly around and beneath Daddy’s attention as she pecked and fussed at clutter. She moved through his space almost unseen, although the dinosaur on Daddy’s jelly glass leered at her with open-mouthed awe, until the gravity of growing Adam must have depressed the joists beneath the living room’s hardwood floor just enough to tip the television antenna’s precarious balance.
The image on the screen crumbled, hissing as it thrashed itself into static.
“Christ, Trudy,” Daddy hollered. “Can’t you do that somewhere else?”
Mama scuttled to the rabbit ears atop the set, trying to wrestle the picture back onto the screen. “It’s a mess out here,” she muttered, still fiddling.
“The boy and I are trying to relax and watch TV,” Daddy said. “You’re ruining it.”
“Is that right?” she asked me, but I turned my attention back to the armrest. I had learned the hard way not to let them argue through me.
Daddy began grumbling in a prelude to further shouting, and Mama froze, but in that moment the alignment was restored. The image was clear and the sound returned. I recall now that the local news was on, and next to the anchor flashed a picture of a house on fire. Tragedy, read the caption.
Daddy fell silent and Mama gently let go and the picture stayed. She took a careful step back, then shook her head—not at us, but at everything—and, for a moment, just stood there. Then she sighed and said, “I’ll leave you to it.”
As she left the living room, passing my end of the couch on her way out and down the hall, she bent down and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. It was barely a graze, and then she was gone.
Do I really remember that soft and fleeting touch? Or is it just a counterpoint I fabricated to balance what came next?
Craning my neck around to watch Mama disappear down the hallway and into my parents’ bedroom, something bit me.
I squealed and flailed at the sudden pain, but my hands found only Daddy’s heavy, hairy hand. Startled, I turned as much as I could. With a fold of skin from just below my ribs pinched between his knuckle and thumb, he grinned as he twisted and wrung another howl from me.
“Don’t be so soft.” He squeezed harder.
Sobbing now, I batted at Daddy’s hand, but his grip was unrelenting. Down the hall, in that distant doorway, a shape that must have been Mama hovered just on the edge. Unable—or unwilling—to leave that safety, it beckoned to me.
I mule-kicked backward against Daddy’s grip. My heel sank into the soft gut just over-lipping his belt and, with a noise between a heave and gasp, all the breath left him. His pinch suddenly released, but a wave of gravity washed over us, and time froze, and I felt the port of air around us on the verge of collapse.
A crash. The jelly jar shattering. The cartoon dinosaur blasting into a hundred pieces, each one dancing across the wooden floor and into the shadows beneath the couch.
“Oh, God—” But Daddy bit down the curse like a bug, his lips curling with the bitterness. He reached over to snatch at me, but I was already standing as if to run.
“Well?” He pointed those long, evil fingers at where the jelly jar had crashed like a meteor from the couch’s arm. A few larger pieces of the wreckage were plain, but most were just glints in the dim light and the dark, sticky spray of Coca-Cola. By reflex, I opened my mouth to call for Mama, but Daddy sneered me silent.
“Don’t drag your mother into this,” he hissed. “A man takes responsibility for his actions. You clean it up.”
When I tell you I did it—that I cleaned it all up—do you picture me, age five, getting the broom and dustpan from the hall closet? Do you imagine me finding a paper bag for the bigger glass pieces, then heading down into the cellar to pull an old t-shirt from the rag shelf in order to wipe up the soda and those splinters of glass almost too small to see? Was I mature beyond my years?
Or do you see me, bruised by the weight of all my father’s attention, my mother a shadow in a doorway, as I kneel and scrape? Am I too afraid to leave for even a second, so that I pick up jelly jar shards and hold them in a cupped hand as the edges cut my fingers and palm, and the tiniest bits work their way beneath my skin? Are my hands bleeding and does the severed head of the purple cartoon dinosaur grin up at me from the broken pieces?
I won’t tell you which way it was, but believe me when I tell you that even if I couldn’t see it, the wicked thing was in the house that day. That it hid down a dark hallway; that it stalked behind a screen of television static; that it coiled beneath the couch, lapping at spilled Coca-Cola.
And what if I told you, too, that it was around this time that the darkness in the house became more concrete? That at night, as my father’s snores rattled the house’s thin walls, the shadows in the hallway pulsed in time. That as I hid beneath my blankets, picking scabs, I heard the floorboards creak, the peel and pop of sticky footsteps circling around. That I felt the weight of the absence of light lower itself onto the foot of my bed.
Wouldn’t that be something?
• • • •
If I say my mother was a sad woman, it conjures a particular picture. You probably envision her with long, matted hair, as if she hadn’t risen from bed for a week. Or perhaps she sits forever beside a window, wrists and ankles crossed, tears brimming like raindrops on the eaves. And these might not be inaccurate, but I also remember her in the sun, arms bare, hair cut short, laughing and smiling. In hindsight, though, I wonder if that memory is too bright?
For example, I have a flash of her at a Sunday social on the lawn behind our church’s Family and Life Center. It could have been right around when Adam started growing, but I don’t think I’d yet been told. The afternoon was brilliant and humid; the grass so high you could smell it beneath the vinegar tang of the barbecue. I was sitting at a picnic table next to Daddy, picking at a hole in the plasticized shell of the checkered tablecloth, teasing out strands of its inner fluff, when my father grabbed my hand.
“Quit scratching at things all the dang time,” he said. “Why’re you always ruining other people’s stuff?”
“Sorry,” I muttered, and he released me.
“Go find your mother,” he said. “I’m done.”
Mama’s seat across from us was empty. A blue Solo cup rimmed by kiss marks and a chewed over thigh bone on a Styrofoam plate were the only evidence she had been there. The only evidence other than us, I mean.
I left Daddy to weave through the crowd of adults and the few other children. I felt no animosity, really, but I knew that people were generally happier if I wasn’t there for them to have to ignore.
I found Mama drifting away from the crowd, arms stretched out, there in the expanse of grass between the picnic area’s concrete slab and the woods beyond. She was craning her neck like a featherless bird and had lost her shoes somewhere. Her sundress was the same yellow as the buttercups and wild dandelions smoldering beneath the midday sun, and it looked as much like she was summoning those bright weeds around her as it did like she was falling to pieces.
“Mama?” I called out. A dense humidity clotted the air, though, and each golden-petalled head between us seemed a landmine, so I hung back. When she didn’t respond, I shouted: “Mama!”
Now, a child shouting “Mama” should turn every mother’s head. It should pull them up from cornbread and sweet tea. It should reel them out of bed and down dark hallways. It should bring them back from the fields where brilliant dandelions burn before turning ash-white and blowing away, instead of ignoring their sons until, gripped in frenzy, those sons wail for them from the picnic tables.
I would like to tell you that my mother returned to me immediately. That, wrapped in her bare arms, I could smell the sun on her skin. That she was always smiling.
But that fabric falls apart when I pick at the strands, because I remember her, too, with long sleeves over yellowing dime-sized bruises. Forever tidying, bobbing up and down just beneath the surface of Daddy’s attention. In the church’s pew, arms crossed over her swelling belly in a succession of Sundays. Then worn down, thinner and thinner, after Adam came.
“We have our lot in life,” Mama would say. Our lot. In my mind, those words have become entwined with the Bible story of Lot and his wife, who turned into a pillar of salt. You might recall that Lot and his family fled from the filth of Sodom and Gomorrah just as the Lord put the match to it, and how the angels had warned, “Don’t you look back.” But Lot’s wife did look back and for that she was punished. The moral is: if you don’t listen to God, if you can’t help but look back, or have second thoughts or questions: Boom. Salt.
But maybe you’ll remember, too, that earlier, Lot’s house had been beset by a rapacious mob demanding Lot turn out his guests—angels in disguise—so they could be ravished. Instead, Lot offered the crowd his virgin daughters. Well, the mob declined, but the angels said to Lot, “Thanks for trying, old man. Now, God is going to do some smiting, but your reward is a slight head start before He ends your fucking world with fire.”
Can you imagine doing all of that—living virtuously amid sin, sheltering angels, and even offering your innocents to the heathens—only to be told that everything is going to burn anyway? And that your reward is to strike out into the desert to start again, forever fearing that someday another angel might come to torch it all once more?
And so sometimes I wonder if maybe, as they fled, Lot’s poor, nameless wife had some misgivings, rousted as she was out of her house by angels and dragged along by the man who’d just that night tried to throw her daughters to the jackals. It makes me wonder if, when Lot’s wife turned back around, it wasn’t a hesitance to leave wickedness behind, but a firm rejection of that future with Lot and his God stretching out before her.
I wonder, too, if she tasted the salt of her own tongue as she turned. If she felt like she was falling into ten million tiny pieces, or if she finally felt whole and pure as crystal? Punishments are only punishments when you want something different, I suppose. Same for rewards, I’d wager, and acts of mercy, too.
• • • •
It might sound like a lie, but I don’t remember much of Adam beyond the shadow he cast from between the bars of his crib in Mama and Daddy’s room. It isn’t fair, but I think of him in terms of absences and what he took away.
Daddy brought Gramma Joy-Anne to stay with me when he took Mama to the hospital. For two days, the house had baking bread and frying chicken, songs during the day and stories at night. It’s not that Mama and Daddy never did those things, but rather that those particular moments have become emblematic of my life before Adam. I have trouble not feeling like he took this from me.
And Mama? She was always cold after the baby was born. Beginning while she was pregnant, Mama grew her hair long to cover the back of her neck and hang over her eyes. She wore long sleeves in the summer, and I recall her as always under a blanket. Even though it never really got cold where we lived, Mama dug an old kerosene space heater out of the cellar and every night she ran it in their room. From my bed, I heard its wheeze and saw the orange glow seeping from beneath their door into the dark hallway.
As for Daddy, whatever spark he’d had, kind or cruel, went out. For days at a stretch, he wouldn’t talk to us at all, not even to say, “Good morning” or “Leave me alone.” His eyes were glassy, and once, as he and I sat on the brown couch eating TV dinners and he was drinking Coca-Cola from a mason jar, I watched the last of it go. There was a brief smoldering and then a flare as some enormous emotion contorted his brow from beneath his skin and I cringed into the corner, sure he was going to explode, but no. His face merely collapsed, slack and dark.
We were all exhausted because, more than anything, what the baby stole was any sense of peace. All evening, hour after hour, he yowled like a cat that saw a ghost. He’d tire himself out around when I was put to bed, but sure as stars, he’d start up again around midnight, tearing through the house’s walls like a bull’s horn.
I’d like to say I am ashamed that at night I’d pray to God to grant peace to the screaming baby, but after I said “Amen,” I’d twist my hands upside down. At that age, I thought my clasped hands were an antenna, and so with the steeple of my fingers inverted, I’d whisper beneath the baby’s wails, “Dear Devil, please take him away.” Somewhere in Hell, I imagined a television set flickering to life to show me sinning on its screen.
Now, some folks say the Devil is real and walks among us. Others say it was made up by men as an excuse—or at least a reason—as to why they do bad things. If that was the case, though, what would you make the Devil out of? The pieces you have handy, I’d wager.
• • • •
I can offer you one final night at a party in a garden, the last evening of the fall. Another potluck church social, congregants arrayed at the picnic tables behind the Family and Life Center. Reverend Mott pressed and flipped hamburgers on the grill, while bowls of green beans, macaroni, and four types of potatoes sat nearby to distract the flies. Sweating gallon jugs of sweet tea lounged next to plastic cups, although the bags of ice had long since melted. The smell of sizzling meat and the buzz of conversation filled the air.
My family, however, sat in weary quiet at a table on the gathering’s outer ring: Mama, Daddy, Adam in his carrier, and me. Evening had settled down around us, and although strings of holiday lights crisscrossed overhead, our table was just far enough from the center that everything was dim. I had eaten and was sitting quietly, staring out into the distance, and Adam was mercifully sleeping. Mama and Daddy mostly just looked past each other across the table, every now and then speaking softly. Their voices buzzed like the gentle waves of a television tuned almost too low to hear, and I was beginning to drift.
Daddy took a sip from a red plastic Solo cup and set it down. From the corner of my eye, I saw Mama reach for it, but just as her fingertips touched it, Daddy placed his hand over the top.
“Give me a sip,” Mama said, smiling as if it was a joke.
Daddy shook his head. “Go get your own.”
“Cause it’s mine.”
Mama’s smile didn’t leave, but it tightened. “You promised you wouldn’t.”
He stared at her. “I’m not.”
“Then give me a sip.” She grabbed at the cup, but like a snake striking, Daddy’s other hand pinned her wrist to the table.
“I said, don’t drink that.”
“Why not?” With a grunt Mama pushed against him, but Daddy held her there.
There was a long moment before he answered. “You know why. You’re—”
“I won’t be.” She let go and twisted her slim wrist out from under from his palm. She stood up and was loud. “Not again or anymore. I can’t keep on like this.”
Daddy pushed himself up from the picnic table, too. “Keep it together in front—”
“In front of him?” She pointed at me and laughed, but it was too bright. “Or him?” Now pointing at Adam. “Or, or—”
“The neighbors,” Daddy hissed. I looked around and he was right; the lot of them were already doing a mighty poor job of pretending not to stare.
Mama flashed all her teeth. “Let them watch.”
But Daddy moved quickly around the table to take Mama by the arm and half push, half drag her out beyond the lights, leaving Adam and me alone. They stumbled out into that brittle, balding field where once bright yellow buttercups and dandelions had grown. Too far away to hear, in the dying light my parents might almost have been dancing, arms on one another, small steps swaying them out into the darkness. The trees beyond them swayed, too, as if some great beast was moving through the forest just out of sight.
Would you believe, too, that they had just left it there on the table—the red Solo cup that started this all? Well, my curiosity got the better of me. I picked it up, only to be disappointed when I found it was just Coca-Cola. But no, that wasn’t quite right, because as I tipped my nose closer, a whiff of something like woodsmoke beneath the surface gave me pause.
I took a sip and nearly gagged. The soda had gone flat and syrupy, but it burned in my throat. Later, I grew to know spirits, but right then all I knew was that beneath the cloying sweetness, I tasted smoldering oak, and it kindled a heat that filled my chest.
As it worked its way through me, the holiday bulbs above burned brighter, swelling up like full moons. The patio grill glowed like Mama’s kerosene heater and the world started to lose its hard edges. I took another deep pull from the Solo cup and this time welcomed the fire. Everything around became so bright the shadows all receded up into the sky. Even Adam’s face began to beam like a beacon, so bright that it seemed perhaps I might finally, truly see my brother.
I raised the cup once more, only this time it exploded in my grip. I stared at my wounded hand in shock, then looked up to see my father next to me, his hand already raised for a second smack. It took a split second for the sting itself to hit me, and then I squealed.
“You little shit.” He grabbed me by the injured hand and squeezed. All the old scars, little white ridges left from the jelly jar shards and its cartoon dinosaur, were seized with a new pain as he crushed them into a single ball of agony.
“Stop that!” Now Mama was pushing Daddy, her voice high and on the verge of breaking. “This is your fault!”
Daddy flinched, but then shoved me aside to grab Mama by the arms again.
“I told you, not in front of—”
But then Adam wailed behind us, and I remember that Daddy spun around and howled, too, screaming right back in the baby’s face. Of all the commotion, that final outburst was so shocking that everyone and everything went silent, even the night bugs and Adam himself. We all just hung there.
Then the world cracked right open.
It was Adam screaming, people moving and talking, other babies hollering, and me being pulled to and fro by who knows whose hands. In all the bright chaos, the warmth in my stomach went sour. The vapors burned, and I recall the overwhelming sensation that everything inside was coming out.
And then it did: Coca-Cola; hamburgers; potato salad; darkness. Everything. All of it bubbled up inside me and I surrendered, retching, sinking into the shadows.
• • • •
After that are only bits and pieces as my little head bobbed in the dark lake of Drunk. Me over Daddy’s shoulder, looking back at the sad choir of neighbors, their lips frozen in a hymn of gossip. My head in Mama’s lap in the backseat, sprawled out from my wounded hands and belly. My face in the bathroom mirror as Mama scrubbed my chin and Daddy behind us, filling the doorway. And then me in bed, in pajamas, with Mama and Daddy standing just outside the doorway, the light so dim that their faces looked like holes.
Then Adam screaming from the other room, pulling them away. And me, trying to hold onto that one thread of connection before slipping back into the darkness.
• • • •
I woke up in bed, my mouth still syrupy and my throat burned raw. The house was as near as it came to quiet, Adam having screamed himself to temporary sleep and the darkened walls gently vibrating with the kerosene heater’s hum and Daddy’s snore. I don’t know whether some disturbance in the air or in my gut woke me, but I was looking out into the hallway when the orange glow oozing from beneath Mama and Daddy’s door quivered. Then I heard them: soft, wet footsteps coming down the hall, each one a little like it was sucking through mud. Pulling the covers to my chin and half-closing my eyes, I pretended to sleep, willing whatever it was to pass me by.
The footsteps stopped outside my door.
Near the top of the frame, a tiny face peeked around the corner, and then its long, thin neck followed. The little round head and preposterous neck swayed into my room like a snake standing upright, skirting the ceiling and dripping with cobwebs of shadow. Its yellow eyes flashed bright, and the outline of its mouth split into a toothless grin.
At first, I thought it was an enormous serpent, but then a tiny hand with long fingers gripped the side of the doorframe. As it leaned around the edge, the neck connected into rounded shoulders and its squat, naked body slowly emerged. Teetering on stubby legs, arms out to the side for balance, the monster walked into my room.
“Hello,” it whispered. “I got your messages.”
Pretense abandoned, I threw the covers over my head and curled up like a fetus. Trembling, I tried to remember every prayer, any prayer, but all the words fled my stupid tongue. Step by step, I heard the monster cross the floor and then it sat down on the bed beside me. The mattress springs sighed beneath its weight, and I slid down to rest against the heat of its body. I began to sweat, and when I finally had to let go of the breath I was holding, the thing’s odor overwhelmed me. It didn’t smell like sulfur, as I’d have imagined, but instead like spilled Coca-Cola left out in the sun, evaporated down to syrup and buzzing with yellowjackets. Beneath that odor, though, was the hint of greasy fat burning on a charcoal grill.
“I’m the Devil,” it said as it shifted on the bed, settling in. “Why don’t you pop your head out and see?” Its soft voice came from up toward the ceiling, and the edges of its words faded across the distance like the garble of television static. The peripheral hiss pulled a wire in my skin and my hairs stood up like antennae.
When I didn’t answer, the Devil sighed. The covers shifted beneath the Devil’s hand, and I watched from beneath as the spindly fingers outside pinched the fabric. The Devil gave a gentle tug, but I have never held onto anything as tightly as those blankets. The Devil gave a little chuckle and let go.
“That’s fair, I suppose,” it said. “We don’t need to look at each other to see eye to eye.” The Devil moved again, reclining until its pudgy body was lying beside me on the mattress. I felt its long neck coil around, up over my head and then down my back. When the Devil spoke next, the voice came from down at my feet.
“What if I could take away the shadow? If I could leave you with so much light, you almost couldn’t bear to look right at it?” the Devil asked. “All you have to do is tell me you want me to do it.”
I didn’t answer.
The Devil sighed again, its hot breath now between my toes. “Just give me your darkness.”
It draped one arm around me from the front while its long neck encircled me. I curled tighter, trying to make myself into a stone, but I could feel its tiny head nuzzling in face-first beneath me, worming its way under the blankets. I thrashed against it, but the Devil’s arm held me like a seat belt and its neck coiled tighter.
“Give it to me,” the Devil grunted, mouth muffled by the sheets as it pushed up by my ankles. It hissed, and a raspy tongue licked across my heel. “Tell me I can have it!”
With that contact, my self-control shattered, and I screamed, and the Devil immediately vanished. Like a bubble popped, all of it was gone: the heat, the weight, the syrupy smell. It left me there, alone, perspiring, the echo of my shout still ringing in my ears.
And yet, when I try now to recall exactly what I had yelled while under the weight of the Devil, I know I had meant to scream “Go away!” although I can’t say for sure I got it all out. I didn’t have a chance to reflect on it at the time, however, because a second later Adam started howling in the other room.
A second after that, I smelled the brimstone.
• • • •
They say the old kerosene heater must have tipped. Just boom, right up in a ball of flame. It had been plugged in by Mama and Daddy’s bedroom door and, well, that was that. The door was closed, and so there was no way out into the hall for my family, but not for the flames, either. Lucky me.
They found Daddy by the bedroom window, which the firemen reckoned was him looking for a way out. What else could he be doing but trying to help Mama and Adam escape? Mama herself was draped over the crib, holding onto what was left of Adam, and it brought a tear to every eye to think of her reaching for her baby as the flames licked her heels. What else could she have been doing, but trying to snatch him away?
As for me, I had smelled the smoke and heard the screams. Without looking back, I ran outside, barefoot through the grass to the O’Neil family next door. I watched with them from their porch as the fire engines rolled in, wailing like babies, and my house went up in flames, my family with it.
And that was that.
I never saw them again except in my dreams. There, they are whole again, but made of ashes white as salt, frozen in the moments I remember: Daddy on the couch; Mama in a field of dandelions; Adam in his crib. So perfectly are they held there, that I don’t dare to breathe for fear of knocking them over.
But then the wind blows, and the ashes scatter like smoke, and when the smoke clears, I am back standing on the O’Neils’ porch. My feet are damp from the dew, and the coldness is setting in from my toe tips and the bottom of my soles. The fire trucks are still down the block, crying out, but then the house of my childhood erupts into a pillar of fire so bright that the tall, skinny trees behind it are lit up like daylight and finally, in the terrible illumination, I can almost see the thing that did this.
That’s the truth, and the Devil take me if I’m lying.