Firelight

by KATIE STRINE


“Every clock in this house is wrong, I swear.” My mom stood on tiptoes atop the footstool and adjusted the clock in our living room. It hadn’t been wrong, but it was now. I wasn’t sure if I should tell her or not—all the effort with the footstool and all. It read 9:45, but really it was 8:45. Saturday morning.

She had these curls in her hair that puffed out without rhythm, and she constantly blew them from her face. I first noticed this habit when we moved here. She carried boxes and blew upward at her forehead. But then I realized she did it all the time. Stirring a pot of spaghetti sauce. Writing checks for bills. She was likely trying to blow away the reality of her life. The mundane tasks. The barely-there bank account.

I didn’t ask questions. Why this house, or where did my dad go, or could we get a dog. It would bother her too much. I didn’t want to bother her.

After fixing the clock, she shuffled back to the fireplace. Already there sat a pile of twigs and logs, a small trace of mud, and melted snow trailed in from the back door.

“You’re up early.”

“I guess,” I shrugged. “Couldn’t really sleep.”

She eyed me hard, and something brewed on her brow, but she shook it off and replied, “Well, you’re thirteen now, and thirteen-year-olds should sleep in.”


My birthday had just passed—cake going stale on our kitchen counter. She had made it, no doubt sighing into the batter. She worked—I knew she had to provide income somehow—but the details of her employment were hazy. I’d say something like, Rough day at the office? and she’d laugh and discuss her day, but without offering specifics. She stayed at home. She had an office she created in a corner of her bedroom—a computer plugged into the wall that wired her to other people who perhaps did report to offices. I didn’t think she could stand any type of confines. She never said that kind of stuff, but I watched her long enough to see it—her restlessness.

I picked up the cake. “Think this is still good?”

“For breakfast?”

“For anything, I mean, not just breakfast.” She frowned, but didn’t dissuade me. “It wouldn’t be so cold in here if you didn’t leave the door open after you went out there scavenging.” I nudged the door shut with my foot then folded beside her on the floor.

“Another cold one today.”

“It’s March.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m sick of it.” Soot and ash smudged her face. Her wild, curly hair shot aghast into the air. The woman barely survived winter—the short days and oppressive skies too much.

“What time did you get up?” I heard her stirring around five. Her feet shuffled back and forth in the hallway, her worn-down slippers skirting by my doorway. Slush, slush, slush: the sound soft but loud enough to bother my sleep.

“Oh, I don’t know. Early, I guess. Probably too early.” She looked back to the clock. “Well, shoot. I guess that clock wasn’t wrong until I made it wrong.” She jumped from the floor to change it again.

Our house was a small one. Two bedrooms—mine and hers—a bathroom between the two with Jack and Jill doors. Sometimes at night we stumbled into the shared space at the same time—our eyes closed, our hands feeling through the dark for the toilet, our presence always startling the other one. Like some great surprise that we might meet each other here, the room with two doors from our respective spaces. It wasn’t that, though. It was more like the surprise that the other existed in this hour. That during night we turned off our bodies, entered our dreams, and any signposts from our realities evaporated. I don’t really know how to explain it. But you’d think after enough times of running into each other, we’d be over the shock.

Our living space was also scrunched together because the kitchen and the living room combined into one room, the fireplace pulling it all together. Some designer had planted it right there in the middle of the room, an open fireplace you could access from all sides of the room—stove and oven on one side; couch and bookshelves on the other. Mom had piled floor pillows around it, so that no matter what room, you could lounge against it.

Outside of these small, shared spaces though, land spread from all sides of the house. We had nearly two acres. Trees and bush and a whole messy lot. I wandered through there in the times between school and dinner and tried to clear my head of all things middle school. Just yesterday, some boy had unclasped my necklace during class, and the charms spilled from my chest before I could catch them. He laughed and apologized, but I was mortified. On another day, the girl who sat beside me asked me what grade I had earned in choir. She asked three times in a row before I answered because she didn’t know my name. She didn’t know how to get my attention. I had to tell her that I wasn’t in choir. I was in the band. That was middle school. You were either too present or too invisible, and I couldn’t figure it out.

Meanwhile, my mom scraped at the land and brought in piles of branches and logs to burn. The fireplace was a constant. Once in school, my teacher—who often talked in tangents and used our questions as a way to deviate from lessons—told us about a time when she felt like her whole life was out of control. Just spinning away from her wildly. As a response, she cut twelve inches from her hair and got a tattoo. This, she explained, was her way of putting some control into the situation. I think the fire was my mom’s own way of holding onto her life so it couldn’t spin away from her. I didn’t tell my mom the story about my teacher, but the kids sure talked about it at their lockers. What was so wrong with that woman, anyway?

The day my mom made an offer on the house, I walked away from the conversation—the realtor was a slightly obnoxious know-it-all—down to where our property extends. Once upon a time, she had told us, there had been a pool, but now it was filled, covered with grass, and only an old pool house remained. I was surprised to find it had electricity. I pushed at the switch, and a single bulb lit up the space. I was more surprised to find a bat hanging from one of the rafters. I worried the light would affect its sleep, but it didn’t stir. Probably because it was tucked into its wings something fierce. I couldn’t sleep like that—my bedding webbed around my body. Watching that tightness made me want to stretch my arms until my elbows popped.

But the bat, albeit creepy and rodent-like, slept peacefully. I could make out a pair of dark lines were its eyes must be, and I waited for them to open, but they didn’t so much as flutter.

It had soft, peach-like fuzz covering its body, and I thought maybe it wouldn’t notice if the tip of my finger just barely grazed its back. I inched toward it as quietly as possible. The structure was old, and I thought surely it would give me away. One board below me had to be a squealer. I stretched my arm almost there, my finger hovered over its back, and then my mom yelled my name. In a backward fall, I felt my heart lurch into my mouth. A metallic taste.

I haven’t seen that bat since. My mom replaced those old pool toys and chemicals with her collection of axes. They hung along the wall evenly spaced, arranged in order or size. Neat and tidy and gleaming their little heads off. Shiny eyes. Hungry eyes. She didn’t keep the blades covered despite how sharp she kept them.

“Don’t touch,” she told me. “You may look all you want, but don’t touch.” I couldn’t help but stare every time I set foot in there. My mind skittered into this disturbingly dark place where I pictured severed limbs and accidents. Unnatural images brought on by these axes. Nothing intimidated me more. Not even my middle school gym class.

I sat at our kitchen table while mom moseyed between maintaining the fire and cooking dinner. I picked out records to play, turned them from side A to side B, blew the dust bunnies from the needle. We had a small collection on a shelf by the table. I mean, it was my mom’s collection—a couple of boxes from another life. That’s how she phrased it—oh those? Those are from another life. Another time.

I bent toward them and looked for one. I had alphabetized them at one point, but she rearranged them one night when she couldn’t sleep. Instead of alpha order, she arranged them by their release dates. Dates completely lost on me since they all came before my time.

“Where’s the Janis Joplin?” I asked as a pile of pots tumbled from a cupboard.

She left them and turned to me. “What? I never had that one.”

The pots remained on the floor as she went back to the stove. But she had had that record. How else would I have known the name Janis Joplin when all the girls at my school talked about Brittany Spears and Gwen Stefani?

“Are you sure?” I asked, but immediately considered this a mistake.

“June,” she said my name so firm and calm, some type of passion flaring in her eyes. But then it snapped out. Whatever her initial intention, she said instead, “Please come grab plates to set the table.”

That night, I tossed and turned in between sleep and dreaming, but my dreaming was persuaded too easily by my worries. I had a history test coming, and I couldn’t keep the dates right. As I tried to force my brain off, the dates swam ahead of me. 1942. 1900. In my dream-state, I attached the dates to records instead of whatever points of history I was meant to learn, but the struggle of matching the right dates to the right records woke me up.

And then I heard her slippers scratching at the floor, and I knew she couldn’t sleep either. I turned to my window and looked into the expanse. She had sprinkled spotlights throughout the trees. Some shone bright while others only cowered in the shadows. Then, sure enough, her form slithered in between those tall, expansive shapes.

I closed my eyes while the image of her among the trees stayed. In my mind, I watched her selecting fallen branches from the ground. I sensed her excitement at finding one dry enough, dead enough. A type of game to her. This calmed me a little, because as I created this scene, she collected a hearty bundle, and I watched her reenter the house.

I faded into sleep, but woke an hour later. This time I kicked off my covers and went out to the kitchen for warm milk or toast. I rustled around in the pantry. I didn’t see her there on the floor, but I should have known she wouldn’t be back in bed yet. As though my crafted, dreamy image of her had worked up until now. Except instead of slowly feeding each branch into the fire, her body and her attention folded toward a slightly opened cabinet. The firelight pulsed behind her. She must be using it to see. But see what?

“Mom? What are you doing?”

I startled her. I heard it in her voice. “June? Is that you? What time is it?” I looked from her to the clock but it was wrong again.

“What do you have in there?” The same pile of pots from dinner splayed against the floor.

“Oh, I just. I found a bat outside with the smallest bit of broken wing . . . ”

My heart tightened and my fingers prickled. That soft peach fuzz. Those tightly wound wings. “You put it in our kitchen cabinet?”

“It’s not forever, June. She’ll be okay—just needs some food and some rest, and then I’ll release her, and she’ll be able to provide for herself again.” She secured the cabinet and looked up at me as she said this, this matter-of-fact statement. Since when did she have the skill set to nurse an animal’s health? Last winter, I caught the flu, and her remedy was a hot, boozy drink. I poured it down the toilet and flushed it with another raging round of vomit.

I studied her now, the fire’s golden light reflected against her body. Dark, puffy skin below her eyes. Her cheeks slightly sagged. Was this the same woman, always had been the same woman, this version of my mom who I tried to see differently than this tired, worn-down woman? She blew an upward sigh at her puffed-out curls before she smiled at me. She asked about the birthday cake, but I had thrown it out.

“This winter’s been too long,” she finally said.

“It’ll be April soon,” I offered, but her mind was made up: we’d be stuck in this season forever. “Can I see it? The bat?”

“Not now, June. It needs its rest, you know? If it could only just sleep, I think it’ll be okay.”

The fire gasped for more air. I could only agree with her. “You’re probably right. It’s probably worn out. I think we kicked it out of its home—the pool house—it probably just hasn’t had time to settle.”

She closed her eyes and nodded. “Very perceptive, June. Just like you to be so . . . so perceptive.”

The clock behind us offered a gentle tick, tick, tick. Its arms in slow motion, shifting the minutes from future to present to past. Shh, shh, shh, they said. My mom’s eyes stayed shut. “So perceptive,” her mouth repeated to me. “Just like you.”
The fire’s warmth reached against my chest, and I swallowed its hazy smoke. Tick, tick, shh, the clock cooed, and just as I released my last effort stay awake, something shuddered from the other side of the glass.

I sat up and twisted toward the sound to find a sight. A flourish of bats swarmed the house—an eerie cacophony. Their wings flapped against the wall of windows that separated us from outside. Beady eyes—hundreds of them—searched us. Their bodies fluttered and splashed against the glass.

“Mom! Mom!” Sleepless on any other occasion, but this, sound asleep! Useless! I stretched over her, nudged her head to one side, and opened the cabinet. The bat stumbled out. It didn’t look ready to fly. Not enough strength. What then? What now? I scooped it into my palms, and the fluttering against the glass hastened.

I shifted its body into one hand and cranked open a window. I slid the bat through the opening, the tiniest sliver, and quickly cranked it closed.

Outside, the bats formed a funnel whipping into a frenzy around their wounded friend until finally, all of them fled back into the night, back into the wide, open expanse of winter.

I collapsed there and felt waves, red and orange embers, pulsing in my chest. My mom, now awake and unaware, loaded more logs into the fireplace. She positioned everything just right – each placement thoughtful and precise – before she turned to me and pointed, “That clock’s wrong again, isn’t it?”

Profoundly puzzled, I watched her scratch her slippers along the floor, mount the footstool, and stretch from her tiptoes toward the clock. “Goodnight,” she said over her shoulder as she shuffled back to her room.

I piled the pots into the cabinet and locked the back door. A mixture of anger and sadness scratched at my throat, and I fought the urge to cry. I recited the dates to my history test—just like that, out of nowhere, I remembered them—and then I fell into a slumber, the fire popping at my side.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Excited by books’ imaginative worlds at an early age and later inspired to become an English teacher, Katie Strine’s life revolves around literature. Reading it, writing it, digesting it. Otherwise, she delights in hiking, yoga and other basic necessities like coffee, bacon and morning cuddles.

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