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Firestarter

Frederick, Maryland 1893

Olivia sat in her bed and cradled her two-week-old son, stroking the soft slopes of his shoulders. The baby waved his right arm, almost smacking her chin and catching some loose strands of her unkempt curls. Olivia caught his wrist with a coo when she noticed a spot of red.

She gently turned the baby’s hand this way and that. A faint red mark splayed over his wrist like butterflies and ended at his knuckles except for one ring around his pinky finger. Olivia frowned. She recognized the mark, but it had once been on her brother’s hand.

The baby’s cloudy eyes ran up his arm to his mother’s face and back down to his hand. He turned his head to a lit candle on the nightstand. Olivia’s breath faltered as the firelight danced in her son’s eyes and glimmered off the spittle on his lip. She leaned over and blew out the flame. The room dimmed. A small wall lamp illuminated a faint halo around the door.

Olivia heard her husband’s boots thumping up the stairs. The baby turned his head to the door, looking for the source of the sound. Olivia hid the mark under her son’s blanket as her husband walked into the bedroom.

“Hello, James,” Olivia said.

He sat next to her on the bed. Olivia could faintly smell on his coat the vegetables from the cannery he managed on South Carroll Street. He kissed Olivia’s forehead and stroked his son’s cheek.

“How was he today?” he asked.

“Quiet,” Olivia said, fixing the blanket around the infant.

James unwrapped her hand and the blanket. The infant curled his chubby fingers around James’ pointer finger. Olivia attempted to fix the blanket around his wrist, but James spotted the flash of red.

“What is that?” he asked, gently prying her hand away. He stroked the mark. Olivia held her breath.

“When did he get this?” James asked.

Olivia shrugged, pretending this was her first time seeing it. “Perhaps it is a birthmark.”

James raised his brows and nodded, but then he leaned forward to examine the mark.
A minute passed; the mark slowly vanished. James frowned and slowly twisted his finger out of his son’s grip. The baby groaned.

“When have you last eaten?” James asked. Olivia said a few hours ago, but she wasn’t hungry.

“I will make some tea then,” James said. He left the room without a backwards glance.

 

For the next few weeks, Olivia watched closely whenever James held the baby. The mark would reappear whenever he held his son’s wrist toward even an electric light.

“It looks like your brother’s mark,” James said one day.

“A little, but it may be nothing,” Olivia said, taking the baby. “Stop holding him to the light like that. You might burn him.” But when James wasn’t home, she did the same thing with a candle. The mark returned redder than a bee sting.

Olivia remembered her older brother Oscar, from his red hair to his monkey-feet. He used to walk Olivia and her sisters to school and sometimes bought them candy when he walked them back home. She also remembered how fire was Oscar’s lot in life. Before Olivia was born, Oscar accidentally burned the family’s first home down while playing with a candle when he was four. He had burned his hand working in their father’s bakery and later, when he was an adult, died in a massive fire that almost killed James too. James had been the one to meet Olivia in the street, his skin dressed in ashes and cuts. He had said to her with broken phrases and trembling breaths that Oscar had started a fight in the bar, which led to the fire. By the time the flames were put out, there was nothing left of him but a scattered dusting of ash.

Olivia noticed her son’s hand turned redder around fire than electric lights, so she stopped lighting candles in the house. The baby explored, ate, and slept happily and quietly. He would moan, though, whenever James lit the fireplace, and the mark would return.

Soon, James wouldn’t touch the boy. Whenever the baby was in the same room, James would pace around and fiddle with objects he’d otherwise never take notice of; he fluffed the furniture pillows or tapped the unlit candles. He barely looked at the infant crawling at Olivia’s feet.

He started to return home later with books under his arm. Olivia once peeked over his shoulder as he read. She had no idea where he found books about exorcisms or superstitions concerning the dead, but her face prickled like insects were crawling in her skin when she saw a block of text explaining how if one leaves something of theirs in the deceased’s coffin, the deceased will return for that person.

Olivia glanced at her son. His brows rose, and he practiced smiling at his mother. There was no trace of the mark. She carried the baby upstairs and set his cradle on her side of the room. She slept lightly until James left early in the morning for the cannery.

 

One night, Olivia felt the bed shift. She quietly turned her head away to watch the cradle. The wardrobe door creaked. Clothes rustled as James got changed. His boots thumped faintly against the wooden floor and down the stairs. Olivia slid out of bed, careful about where she put her feet down on the floorboards. She grabbed one of James’ jackets and a pair of his boots as the downstairs door opened and clacked shut.

The sound must have woken the baby because Olivia saw him blink groggily toward the bedroom door. He laid with his right, spotless hand to his mouth. Olivia stroked the peach fuzz on his head before tiptoeing toward the door.

The baby whimpered and squirmed. Olivia shushed him as gently as she could, looking back and forth between the cradle and the door. With a heavy sigh, she picked up the baby, swaddled him in a blanket, and hurried after her husband.

The spring air was warm and damp as it settled on Olivia’s goosebumps. James strode up the street with a shovel in his hand for about twenty minutes until he turned into St. John’s Cemetery. Olivia hid behind the brick archway as James looked over his shoulder and every which way before going any further. She shifted the baby from one arm to the other to stretch her stiff elbows. The baby blinked his round eyes at the dark buildings and sky, pursing his lips but never making a sound.

Olivia crouched behind a stone cross as James began to dig. She didn’t have to go up and read the gravestone to know who he was looking for.

When she wasn’t watching her husband, Olivia watched the stars. Normally, they were veiled behind the lamplights, but in the cemetery, Olivia could faintly point out the Big Dipper wheeling overhead, marking the minutes. The smell of soggy soil rose as James sunk further into the grave, and the dirt sliding off metal kept a steady rhythm until the shovel suddenly struck against wood.

The baby whirled his head toward the sound. Olivia peeked over the cross as James bent down, out of her view. She could only hear the wood creak as he opened the coffin.

The baby wrestled his hand free from the blanket and reached up to Olivia’s cold face. She clutched him to her breast and ran back home.

When she returned, Olivia packed a carpet bag with clothes, cloth diapers, blankets, bottles, and an illustrated fairytale book. She made up her mind to hide away at her sister’s place. The baby moaned and smacked Olivia’s hand away, but she took him in one arm and the bag in the other. The clock on the mantelpiece downstairs read it was almost five in the morning.

Olivia swung the front door open, and James jumped back with his key in his hand. His eyes made Olivia think of an orange moon that stared from a foggy sky, and she choked on her own breath. James lowered his shoulders weakly. The baby whimpered.

James walked slowly past Olivia and shut the door. He took a match and lit a candle on the round parlor table near the window and wooden armchair. The baby’s mark deepened to a cherry red as he watched the curtains with pursed, spittle-coated lips.

James nodded to the bag and asked, “Where are you going?”

Olivia put the bag down. Her lips had dried shut, and her breath quickened. The baby cried at the candle.

James looked away and said, “You followed me, didn’t you?”

Olivia licked her lips and asked, her voice shaky and hoarse, “What did you find?”

“There was no body,” James said.

“Of course there was no body,” Olivia said with a quivering mouth. “There was nothing left of him after the fire.”

“There were a few trinkets,” James said. “Pictures, a rosary, his favorite hat—”

He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a stiff pair once-white-now-yellow children’s gloves.

“And these.” He fiddled with the fraying fingertips. “I remember you wore a pair of white gloves to school.” James glanced up at her with narrowed eyes.

Olivia swallowed a dry lump in her throat. She thought back to the books James brought home—all those superstitions about the dead coming back for those who leave something in their coffin. The baby cried and put his right hand to his mouth to suck the deepening mark.

“Oscar bought those for me when I was young,” Olivia said. “That’s all.”

James reached out his hands.

“Let me see the boy.”

Olivia narrowed her eyes and asked why.

“I am putting him back where he belongs.”

Olivia’s face burned. She slapped his hands away as her voice rose to a snarl.

“Have you gone mad? This is not Oscar. He’s our son.”

“What about that mark, then?” James pointed the baby’s glowing hand. “What? It just happens to look like Oscar’s?”

His son wailed.

“It is probably just a rash from the way you kept holding it to the heat,” Olivia said, smacking his hand.

James threw up his hands and cried, “Who are you trying to convince? Me or yourself?”

Olivia faltered but said, “Even if Oscar was somehow involved, he would never hurt us.
You are not putting our son in that coffin.”

“Do you have any idea what he will do if I don’t?” James cried. “He wants me dead after what I did.”

“After what?” Olivia cried. “What did you—”

The firelight danced in James’ pupils. Olivia glanced to her baby, remembering the first day she saw the mark— how the candlelight danced in his eyes like a finger beckoning him. She turned her gaze to the candle, and James followed her eyes.

“Oscar never started the fire,” she whispered. She raised her voice. “You bastard.”

“I never meant to,” James cried, pacing the room. “I got into a fight. Oscar tried to stop me, but—”

He waved the gloves at Olivia.

“No, it was his fault. He shouldn’t have tried to stop me. I—”

James cried out and hurled the gloves at the table.

“My brother is dead because of you,” Olivia cried. “You didn’t even have the decency to tell the truth.”

“Oscar was already dead,” James roared. “I still had to live here!”

Olivia’s brow darkened. Smoke seemed to flit around her like a ghost as she said, “Not anymore, you don’t.”

The baby shrieked, making the two jump and smell the smoke for the first time. He smacked Olivia’s face and pointed his burning red hand at the parlor table. The flame from the knocked-over candle spread over Olivia’s gloves like a phoenix’s wing.

Olivia cried out. James made a frantic grab for the gloves, knocking the candle onto the wooden armchair. He flung the gloves to the floor to stamp them out, but the fire leapt onto the green curtains and bloomed upward. James tried to tear down the curtains, but Olivia screamed as the candle ate into the wooden chair. James ripped off part of the curtain in his lunge for the candle. The fiery ribbon spread its seeds all the more.

The baby screamed as smoke slithered up from his mark. Olivia wrapped her hand around it and turned to run out the door, but he squirmed and reached back for James. Olivia looked over her shoulder incredulously as James stomped around in his panic. The baby squealed at his father.

Olivia lunged forward, grabbing James’ arm. She yanked him firmly away, almost to the floor, but he stumbled after his wife who screamed, “Fire,” into the street.

Neighbors bolted outside to watch. A few ran for help. James and Olivia could only stand and stare, marked with ashes and burns. Olivia still had her hand on James’ arm, clenching the fabric of his sleeve in her fist. James placed his hand over hers. The baby whimpered at his smoldering hand and up at his parents like one who had been betrayed.

Our Places at the Table

I walk into the dining room and notice that my chair is missing from its normal niche. My eyes are possessed by that empty space. I look away to check the other seats to discover if they too had been taken. Dad’s chair is accounted for, right there to my left. My brother’s is an orthogonal swing beside his. And Mom’s chair is there at the other head of the table.

I didn’t even notice that Mom is in her seat. And there’s my chair, pulled alongside hers, occupied by Dad. The backs of the chairs are pushed against the sill of the window. They are sitting there together for who knows how long in a quiet that is becoming more distinct every moment.

The light is punching through the glass and forcing itself into the room. But somehow the brightness falls away into a low glow of aged sunlight. It’s something that seems to happen in most rooms at the end of summer days. Mom and Dad camouflage well in the indoor darkness. Their faces aren’t all too clear but their bodies are in distinct profile, outlined by a sliver of soft white.

I say, “Hey guys.” I walk into the room. I go past Dad’s chair and stand in the spot where my seat would be. I pass the large cabinet that keeps its place against the wall. The thing is filled with overly fancy dishes, china plates and crystal glasses that are taken out for special occasions, but are otherwise kept inside the case for the entirety of their lives. Adler is paranoid that the cabinet will fall over one day and crush everyone at the table in an explosion of glass and porcelain. He’s being ridiculous of course, but as I walk by, the vibrations of my footsteps cause it to shake. I move slower. Where is he? The last time I saw him was at breakfast before he left for his morning shift.

I stand in the empty spot and try to fill it. The room feels unbalanced with my parents on one side. There should be a parent on my left, a parent on the right, and a sibling sitting in front of me. These are fixed places, truly eternal. So I say, “What’s going on?”

Did they just wince? I lean against the table and the cabinet trembles again. I’m thankful for the clinks and clatters; the silence is becoming unbearable. My hand rests on the tabletop and I feel a small spot of rawness, and I looked down under a finger. I look down and see a black mark beneath it. Where did that come—oh yeah. That was from my tenth or eleventh birthday. Can’t say for sure. But that was the year Adler started first grade. We were sitting together in my chair as Mom was lighting my birthday candles. It must have been a freak accident, but a lit match fell onto the table, just inches away from Adler’s face. We stared at it for a moment and then suddenly—clang! Mom had grabbed the metal cake server and slammed it down onto the flame in one perfect strike. That was also the first time either of us had heard her say, “Shit!” It’s hard to say which shocked us more.

My eyes move from the burn mark across the wooden field of dinner scars to look at Adler’s chair. God, this table is well-used. I guess there was a time when it was unmarked, and unstained, and unscratched, and just plain un-. Did Mom and Dad buy it before or after Adler was born?

My head snaps to the sound of small shrieks. Mom and Dad’s chairs are shaking, old chairs that cry out with every movement. There’s something wrong. I don’t know what but something is wrong.

I ask, “What’s happened?” I don’t know if they’re looking at me or not. There’s only the shadow of their bodies and the way they seem to pant and gasp together.

Dust is flying around them, floating through the frames of the window panes. I still can’t see them. If I could only actually see them I might know. I don’t know what I’d know, but I’d know something. I need something.

I don’t notice I’m clutching the edge of the table. I don’t notice that the dishes in the cabinet are rubbing and scratching and moaning against each other. I don’t notice that the chairs are loudly crying out, screaming. I notice the dust. And then they tell me that Adler was killed today.

I’m in Adler’s chair, but I can’t remember sitting down. Mom and Dad are to my left together at the window. They haven’t moved. I look at the space in front of me. It feels so unnatural to see where I sit, to see where I should be. But I stay in this seat as the light outside drops away into the late evening darkness.

Witchgrass

From childhood she concaved around
herself, ripped at the pink skin of her lips.
Little brat, her cousin called her and she took

the name and wrapped it around her like an absolute.
She had been given a name all of her own.
In church, she cracked the bones in her kneecaps.

The linened ladies gave her odd looks
and she wore them royally, because those looks
were all hers as well. She stole red paper valentines

and faded cotton socks, forced others
to call her thief for it. She wanted an existence
entirely of her creation. Grew up armed to her gap-

teeth, wading a foot deep in ancestry and filth.
She lit fires in the forests at night, danced around them
like the Devil. Howled them out of existence. She ate

foul language so she had something of weight within
her body that she could digest. When she went north
for the winter, just to show she could, they knew

that she would rather be devoured than denied.

Detection and Care of Root-Rotted Thoughts

he contemplates the stain unfurling
from the ceiling, dark and autumn damp,
the deadwet plant musk of it drawing him in. can’t
remember if it was there before; can’t remember
the difference between water and blood.

upstairs, something overwatered in the bathtub: cracked
porcelain buckling away from the pressure of it,
rhizomes like fingers choking copper throats.
if anything could leave this room, he’d like to see;
these days nothing ever comes clean here.

says every source: sanitize the scissors first,
but the sharpest thing around is the urge to wrench
the rot from the body, so his fingers stretch instead
to grasp the leaf at the base, tear it away.
the others sink their teeth in, hold on until they splinter.

if he felt any better, he would pull thorn from flesh; if this
had made him better, he would not notice his hands dripping.
downstairs, the bloodwater must hangs there undiminished,
grown no more than before, yet still the same jagged drape
the size and stink of a body.