Joyland

New York |

Kindling

by Kerry Cullen

edited by Michelle Lyn King

Honorable Mention, 2017 Open Border Fiction Prize

I am collecting mothers. Mothers with loose blonde hair and glossy mouths, mothers with dark bobs and plum lipstick and freckles scattered across pale faces, mothers with long limbs, with wide hips, with heavy breasts that I always stare at, because I don’t understand. What it must be like, holding all that woman-ness against you, all the time.

The mothers shove their toiletries into our medicine cabinets with the great force of hope. They leave the bathroom full of steam after they step out, slick and fragrant, each one wrapped in the same towels that the mother before them used first: tucked around their chests, twisted up over their heads.

​I want to know what it’s like to fit in their skins. I want to see my sad toothpick-limbed father through their hopeful eyes, framed and fringed in lines and shimmer, half-used tubes they always leave behind.

​But I have more important things to worry about right now. Why fire? Now they ask, and I am not answering; I am biting my nails like a nervous girl and sucking my thumbs like an infant and not letting a single word out of my head, not for them, not for Barbara or my dad or even my brother Finn. Finn, the golden boy with afternoon-gold hair and a perfect crease between his eyebrows to express his frequent consternation, and a name that means “the end” but a cowlick at the nape of his neck that kicks his hair up, so the silhouette of his head looks like a question mark. He is made of light, and I’m his older sister: put here to keep him safe.

I set my first fire in the woods, around this time last year. Dangerous: autumn, dry leaves, and I knew that then, but it didn’t spread, because I didn’t let it. I was careful. I set it in a patch of dirt cleared bare. It was tiny, sprung from a pile of twigs: a toy fire, a pet fire; it hissed like a kitten. I sat cross-legged at its edge and let it lick my fingers, and I stared into its heart until I felt nothing. Eventually it wore itself out and sank back into the ground. I had carried a sweating bucket of river water with me anyway. After the flames were gone, I still poured out a hefty splash, just in case.

I was outside because the first new mother, Tory, was over for dinner only two weeks after the funeral and I couldn’t believe it. She was holding Dad’s hand. So I shoved the nice cloth napkin right into my tomato bisque, splattering all three of them, Dad and Tory and Finn. Finn barely noticed, just licked a splotch off the back of his hand and kept on eating. The mother stared, aghast, but I was already shoving out my chair to leave and Dad was already saying in a low voice, “Just let her.”

And so I was in the woods and crashing through. I had grabbed my backpack with me, and I was trying to run hard enough that I wouldn’t be able to think.

I knew I shouldn’t run so fast. My mother died running too fast through the woods. She tripped on a root and a jagged rock caught her in the back of the head, right in that soft spot that always feels tender.

My mother died drowning. She was in the river, practicing being a water spirit, and she saw something gleam at the bottom, something shining just barely through the muck. She reached farther and farther, back-kicking like a dolphin, and eventually her lungs gave out. By the time she bobbed back up to the surface, she was already a corpse.

My mother died falling. She was repairing someone’s roof, as a kindness, and it was early, the tiles still slick with last night’s rain. She stood and slipped, reeling backward.

I don’t know how she died and nobody will tell me. When I asked my dad the second time, it was just before the funeral. He kept messing up the knot in his necktie, so I fixed it for him. When my hand was at his neck, I asked. He shook his head, blew his nose into his fingers. He wouldn’t look at me. I haven’t asked again.

In the parking lot at the funeral home after the wake, I found my lighter and it felt like fate. It was green, my mom’s favorite color, and it glowed like a jewel on the pavement. I’d never lit a lighter before. It took me fifteen tries. Once I finally got it, I kept pressing down. The flame shot up and steady as long as I kept still, until it burned my hand.

At the funeral, I dug my nail into the blister the whole time, and it helped. When they lowered my mom in, I pushed so hard that it burst, leaving my fingers wet. A callous developed there, and it’s still my favorite one.

The current mother is Barbara. She’s third in line. She’s our neighbor—they met when my dad saw her raking leaves. She’s very clean, prim and pale. My mom was sun-tanned and athletic. My mom could run for miles, could leave before I woke and come back drenched in sweat, just before sunset. When I asked where she’d gone, she would just smile. One time she said, “Baby, I ran until nothing could touch me.”

I don’t let myself remember her for too long at once. It doesn’t hurt like the way it hurts when you are disappointed or when Tyler in your history class doesn’t ever look at you, not even when you sit right next to him, not even once. It hurts in actual pain, like a fist jammed against your sternum, and it stays.

*

Tonight, my dad is taking me and Finn to Olive Garden with Barbara. They have a fight before we leave. Finn and I go out to sit in the car and wait. I pull down the car mirror and flick on the lighter, moving it around my face so I look like a scary storyteller, or a skeleton.

“Let me try,” Finn says.

“You’re too young.”

He pushes his heel hard into the back of the passenger seat, jabbing my spine. I hunch forward.

“You’re not gonna be able to sit there when they come out,” he says.

“I can sit here now.” I move the flame closer to my face.

“Watch out,” he says. He eyes me in the rearview mirror.

“I’m careful,” I say.

Outside, the crickets chirp and croak, while clouds sail across the dark sky. Fir trees lean tall over us on my window side. The gravel road extends before us into darkness. I click off the lighter, but the propane smell lingers.

Finn looks out the window, sticking his thumb in his mouth. He presses his forehead against the glass, and the window fogs up in two little spots around where his thumb blocks it.

“Don’t suck your thumb. You’re way too old,” I say. I flick the flame on again then off.

“Too young, too old. I’m hungry,” he says. He pulls his thumb out of his mouth, contemplates it. I drop the lighter in my bag.

“Do you want to check on them?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “But I hope Barbara doesn’t leave.”

“You like her?”

“She’s better than Tory.”

“True,” I say “But anyone would be.” I watch myself talk in the window reflection. My shadow self is shot through with tree trunks and leaves. Fireflies zoom and glow outside. The window smells like wet, like grass. “I liked Heather.”

“I didn’t. She was always yelling at me about brushing my teeth.” He blows more fog on the window and draws designs in it, sharp arrows and mountains and teeth..

“You should brush your teeth. Do you brush your teeth every day?” I turn around to look at his mouth. It looks normal.

“We have enough fucking mothers, Cass.”

A bug smacks my window.

“Language,” I say. I catch my own eye. His finger squeaks against the glass. My stomach grumbles.

“Gross.”

“You’re gross.”

The drivers side door opens. “Out,” my dad says to me. Barbara looms behind him. He looks mad. I consider bolting, running off down the dark street until I disappear in its winding curves, under its looming trees, going so fast that I set fire to the road with every step.

“Backseat,” my father calls in his serious voice, and I climb back in.

They almost don’t let us in because it’s so late, but Finny does puppy eyes behind Dad’s back and the hostess relents. I order breadsticks for all of us. Specks of mascara are clumped under Barbara’s eyes. She tries to smile.

Finn gets spaghetti with extra meatballs and Dad lets him, even though he knows there’s no way Finn’ll eat all that. The food comes fast. They want us out.

“So, kids,” Barbara says brightly, her teeth white and neat as pearls in her big fake smile, and then she starts to cry. My dad doesn’t touch her. Finn keeps cutting meatballs, oblivious. I stand up without excusing myself and walk to the bathroom.

I check the stalls. They’re all empty. I flick my lighter on and the jet of flame calms me down. I grab a roll of toilet paper, used almost down to cardboard. I pull the last few squares of paper off, and I run the water. I only let it flame for an instant before I drop it in the sink.

When I come back out to the table, Barbara is gone.

“What happened?” I ask. My dad chews, staring straight out in front of him.

“She’s packing her stuff,” Finny says. “At the house.” He hasn’t eaten any of his meatballs. Dad leans back to catch an eye and motions for the check. I grab Finn by the hand and stalk to the entrance, not waiting for Dad, just walking out and flinging my arms open to the sky. Finn copies me. Together we stare open-armed, crane-necked at the stars, letting the night swallow us whole.

The second fire I set was on the riverbank. The water was low, and you could see the traces along its long bank—the line from rough and jagged land to smooth, and worn-away. The sun was sinking below its horizon, and the moon hung in a pale sliver over me.

Tyler, a boy from my history class, was working at the ice cream shop. Normally he’d have been too young to work, but his parents own it. He’s two years older than me, and a lot taller. His eyes are like a bottle of honey in the dark.

“Cassandra, right?” He asked, scooping me one scoop of chocolate and another of strawberry.

“Cassiopeia,” I said, pressing my nose against the glass. He should have reprimanded me, but he didn’t.

“Cool,” he said. The toast popped out of the oven, perfectly golden. He shoved it into the ice cream bowl with casual grace.

“Is that actually good, the toast-ice cream thing? I wonder every time you get it,” he said. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out from under the counter, stuck one in his shirt pocket. A book of matches, slapped on the counter.

“You should try,” I said, pressing my glass-cooled hand against my hot cheek.

“Maybe I will,” He smiled, looking at me for a long time.

“What, sorry?” I said.

“I said that’ll be $3.50.”

“Oh,” I said, “Sorry.” I dug my hand in my back pocket. “Oh my god, I don’t have any money. I thought I--I’m so sorry.” I shoved the ice cream across the counter. “Here, you can have it back.”

He picked it up with the tips of his fingers and looked at me like I was five. “It’s already melting,” he said. “The flavors are mixing. Why don’t you keep it? You’re here all the time anyway. I’m about to go on break,” he said. “You could take it when I’m not looking.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again. The room was violently hot. He tapped one hand against the counter in a soft beat, smiling again.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Really. My mom would be happy to give it to you.”

“She would? Why?”

“You know,” he said. “I don’t know. She feels bad.”

“Bad?”

“About your mom,” he said. “Mostly how she did it.”

I looked at him hard, and he turned red. He leaned down to pick up something he must have dropped, so I ran out of the store, jangling the bells. I left the ice cream melting on the counter, but I swiped his matches.

The blaze that the river driftwood made was hot, bluish with salt or something else from the river. It leapt high and reedy, burned my fingers, and I pressed it like a torch against my thigh. It seared, and I yelped and threw it back in the water. The mark was ugly. For hours, I couldn’t remember anything but pain.

2 am tonight: I can’t sleep, my heart is pounding so hard and so fast. I get up. Sparks are shooting up and down my veins, playing in my blood. I slip my bare feet into my sneakers, squashing down the heels, and pull a hoodie over my tank top. The flannel shorts are from one of the mothers who left them behind—soft and worn, and still smell a little like honey and vanilla. She must have been just my size.

The air outside feels charged. Heat lightning flashes in the distance. I barely feel any wind, but the spare remaining leaves on the crimson-orange trees flip up to show their silver backs. I walk a few blocks down and over, to Barbara’s house.

One room is lit. Her shades are pulled down. The glow is yellow and smooth. I creep up along the side of the house. There is a crack between the blind and the window. I squeeze between the bushes and press my forehead against the corner of the glass.

She is unpacking. She has an overnight bag, and she is taking things out one by one. I know the things—the pot of honeysuckle hand cream, the shiny hair dryer. A bottle of Advil. She unscrews the cap and takes one, gulps it dry, rubs her throat.

She begins to pull the clothes out of the bag, laying them flat on her bed. She stares at everything then covers her mouth with her hand, walking out of the room.

When she came back, she has a glass of water. She hangs up the shirt, smoothing it first. I want to watch her unpack and get glasses of water from the kitchen and set them on the side table all night. The light is so soft in the room, and she is so careful with her clothes. Her bedspread is blue, with small white flowers. I’ve never seen anything so pretty.

I hear a rustle behind me. She hears it, too. She looks up, her face afraid. My palm feels clammy against the glass as she glances right over me. She turns back, and I turn around.

Two rustles. There are bears in the woods that flank this town, wolves, we almost never see them but we all know. I walk out to the middle of her driveway and sit down on the hot pavement. I feel like an offering. I hold my lighter tight in my fist and close my eyes until I feel something stop in front of me. I look up. Finny stares back at me, pale and big-eyed in the moonlight.

“You followed me?”

“I was scared.” He sits cross-legged in front of me, his knees touching mine. He looks at my bare legs, at the constellations of scars. They shine, looking almost wet in the moonlight

“It’s weird that you do that,” he says. “You should stop.”

“It feels good,” I say.

He reaches between us, picks up the lighter. “How does it work?”

I take it back, flick it on with my blistered fingers, blow it out, hand it over. He gets it on the first try. I take it back, spark it again, lighting it after a few tries. It’s low on fluid. We don’t say anything. We pass it back and forth between our hot hands until it won’t light anymore, until it is just spark and gutter, and then nothing.

He looks around. The wind is shrieking in the branches. “Let’s go home.”

“You go ahead,” I say. He looks at me for a second. He pockets the dead lighter and goes.

I step over onto Barbara’s lawn, with its tall silent trees and its heaps of autumn leaves. I step inside and pull the matchbook out of my shoe.

The river glows like oil in the far distance, past the crosshatched streets, past the graveyard, past the trees. In Barbara’s house, a glass stands, drank almost empty, on the dresser. In her kitchen, a faucet drips.

I strike a match and drop it at the base of a fir tree, where the branches hang so low they scrape the ground, where streams of dead leaves have collected to dry before they rot. It catches quickly, snatches and leaps, spreading its hot fingers. In Barbara’s house, a light goes on, then another. I see her face at a window, a dark spot that flickers there and not there, and then the front door swings open, mother in her robe, her phone at her ear, calling in the emergency, taking care of everything.