The official story about how the fire started at the school was the ancient electrical wiring. But official stories never stop town rumor mills. Some believed James Duffy and his crew of dimwit delinquents had burnt the place down to erase their grades, allowing them to walk at graduation.
Another rumor was Mr. Williams, the school janitor, who happened to sleep at the school and was a known drunk, had fallen asleep again with a cigarette in his mouth. There was no proof of this vicious rumor other than the fact Mr. Williams had died in the fire, somehow clearly making it his fault to some.
Some think you did it, my cousin Ray once said to me half-joking, Mrs. Darby said she saw you running towards the school that night.
One year, ten months, and twenty-eight days.
I tumble the mantra in my head and the one-year sobriety chip in my hand, pausing every so often to run my thumb along the raised triangle emblazoned on the bronze coin’s backside. The triangle is a symbol of strength. Three sides are sturdy. I don’t feel sturdy.
I bury my foot in the dirt and push off the ground. The rusted swing chain screams to life overhead as I take one last look at my grade school playground. The playground equipment with its patina of age and decay reminds me of roadside litter.
If I listen closely, I can almost hear children playing.
One Year. Ten Months. Twenty-eight days.
I need to call Jimmy, my sponsor, but I know that’s out of the question. The nearest cell tower might as well be a state over because cell service skips right over Herrington, Missouri. Some people say it’s because of the Ozark Mountains, but I have always suspected it was something else. Some greater power, trying to keep people stuck here and in their place.
Jimmy would know what to say. He would rattle off the exact right run of quenching words. “Don’t worry, Hoss,” Jimmy would say. He likes calling me Hoss seemingly because of how much I dislike it when he does, “that place has no power over you, anymore. You are the one in control.”
But I can’t call Jimmy, so I’m alone in bum-fuck-Missouri with strangers I once called family.
I’m alone with this monster of mine.
I haven’t felt it this strong in years, but this place brings something out in me, and I can feel it slithering just below the skin. I try to rub the desire from my inner arm before walking to my car and spilling inside. I fire up the engine and guide my car out of the forgotten school lot and back onto the road and towards my father’s place.
Snow begins to fall, reminding me of ash.
One year, ten months, and twenty-eight days.
“He was such a good man,” the strangers gathered in my father’s mobile home have already begun referring to him in the past tense, “he’d give ya the shirt off his back if you needed it.”
I look to the hospice bed in the middle of the living room and take in what’s left of my father. His slumped body reminds me of the leaf-filled man we used to put out on our front porch on Halloween. He would hold the legs and let me, Brian, or Kenny fill them. “Fill ’em to the top. You don’t want them to be chicken legs. Nobody’s gonna be scared of no chicken legs!” He’d say.
My father’s mouth hangs vast and cavernous. His teeth, sparse yellow and smoke-stained, hang like stalactites. I imagine bats flying out from the blackness of his throat and a jolt of electric guilt dances up my spine.
I spot the hospice nurse pecking at her laptop and make my way towards her.
“Excuse me,” I say, “quick question.”
“Yes?” she says, looking up from her laptop.
“Can he hear?” I gesture with my head to the gaggle of strangers murmuring.
“They say hearing the last thing to go. It’s possible,” the nurse says, “but he’s heavily sedated. I’m sure he can sense your family’s presence and is probably at peace being surrounded by loved ones.”
“Thank you,” I say before turning back and taking my seat near the woodstove.
Who are They, I wonder? How would They know what the last thing to go before death is? Maybe one of They came back from the brink and decked a grieving brother or cousin who had decided to unburden themselves by confessing their ongoing affair with said They’s Wife. This thought almost makes me chuckle, and I feel guilty again.
“You remember the little neighbor girl? What was her name? Janice?” One of the strangers asks.
“Janet.” I correct them.
“Right, Janet. Her family didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. Your father saw her running behind you boys on your bikes one day, and what did he do? He went out and got that girl a bike. Such a good, God-fearing man.”
I remember Janet. More importantly, I remember Janet’s mother and how my father had wanted to fuck her. And he did. I know because Mom had caught them. It wasn’t the first nor last time our mother had found him being unfaithful.
My mother’s funeral was the first time I saw a dead body. She looked like a smeared oil-painting version of herself. Too much makeup. My mother had always been beautiful, but it had been a natural beauty. There was nothing natural about the way she looked in her casket. I hate that’s how I tend to remember her.
My father had said I needed to be strong for my little brother, so I made it a point to never let anyone see me cry. We didn’t attend the funeral of Coach Danning, the man she had been with when she veered off the road.
“You act like mom was some whore,” I screamed at my father barely a week after we had buried her, “but you were cheating on her all the time. Who could blame her?!”
“I may not have been perfect, but I never did anything in front of you kids!” My father said, “how long was she bringing that guy around? How long have you known, momma’s boy?”
“I’d rather be a momma’s boy to her than a Daddy’s boy to you.”
“You’ll see, someday when you have some hair on your nuts, how hard it is to turn down temptation.”
“I’ll never be like you.”
I allow The Strangers to maintain their image of my father and say nothing about Janet’s mother.
“The little Mexican girl?” One of The Older Strangers asks, “I never cared for that family.”
“Can’t imagine why,” another says.
“Lazy,” The Older Stranger continues, “probably illegals.”
A tightness starts in my chest.
“You’re probably right,” another chimes in, “there are more Mexicans now than there ever was. Before you know it, we are all going to have to speak Spanish.”
I feel like bubble gum on the bottom of a desk, and someone is pushing their pencil deep into the center of me.
“Now I ain’t racist, but if you’re gonna be in America, speak American!”
I’m a star going supernova.
“Mia was fucking Puerto Rican,” I blurt out, “the Burgos family weren’t illegals. Mrs. Burgos taught at the school with mom for years!”
One year, ten months, and twenty-eight days.
The front door erupts, and my little brother Brian spills in. Tiny flecks of white snowflakes rush in past him as he shuts the door behind him.
“Colder than a witch’s titty, out there,” Brian says to The Strangers and then turns his attention to me, “When did you get in?”
“Got on the road as soon as you called. It’s only an eight-hour drive from Tulsa.”
“Only!?” Brian says, “You drove yourself?” I sense the question he wants to ask is: You got your license back? But he doesn’t, so I don’t have to lie.
Brian avoids looking at our father as he makes his way around the room, hugging everyone. I’ve always admired how good he was about hiding his true feelings.
One of The Strangers tells him to eat a sandwich because he looks like he is withering away. Another asks him if the wind carried him into town? He laughs them both off and then rejoins me.
“I need to make a phone call,” I say.
“Good luck,” one of The Strangers snorts from the corner of the room, “your daddy ain’t got a home phone, and if you want to use a cellular, you’re gonna have to go up to Terry’s Gas Station. I usually have a bar or two up at Terry’s.”
One year, ten months, and twenty-eight days.
“Have you tried my old room?” Brian asks, “I used to be able to stand in the corner and get a couple bars. Must be the metal roof or the aluminum siding.”
I tell him I haven’t, and he gestures for me to follow him.
I follow my brother around the hospice bed, down the hallway, and over the small hole in the floor, to his childhood bedroom. He opens the door, and the stench of stale air assaults our senses. His bed is still made, and heaps of CDs litter the floor like rocks in a riverbed. On the wall are posters of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Metallica.
“Crazy, man. Exactly how I left it,” he says.
“My bedroom is now the living room. I think Dad knocked down the wall fifteen minutes after I graduated.” I say with a half-hearted laugh, “which corner gets the cell service?”
Brian points to the far right corner. I climb over guitar magazines to reach it and hold my phone high, moving it back and forth, trying to capture signal as though I can scoop it up like water if only I sway just the right way. But no luck. I shake my head in defeat. “Looks like it’s Terry’s Gas station after all.”
“Want a ride?” Brian asks.
“It’s cold as hell out there and it’s snowing. I don’t mind.”
Brian drops his head to the floor and begins to sob. “Fifty-eight isn’t even old.”
“He smoked two packs a day and ate nothing but red meat,” I say, placing my arm around my little brother, “Not to mention all the years of boozing. We are lucky to have him as long as we have.” My brother’s body feels like fine china, and I fear squeezing too hard. His monster is somewhere beneath his ribs. I can feel it feeding off him, parasitically. It’s starving him.
Brian pulls himself from my embrace and wipes his tears with his sleeve. “I better pull my shit together before one of those assholes sees me crying. I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Our father is dying. It’s okay to be emotional.” I say.
“I guess, “Brian says, “first Mom. Then Kenny. Now, Dad. I think our family is cursed, or this fucking place is.” Brian gestures to the walls around us.
“Do ghosts haunt mobile homes?”
“We were more stable with Kenny,” I say, “Three is a sturdier number.”
“What?” Brian asks, shaking his head in confusion.
“I miss him, is all. I miss them all.”
“Poor Kenny,” Brian says, “he just couldn’t figure it out like you did.”
“I should have been a better older brother. Maybe if I were around, he wouldn’t have….”
“Stop it,” Brian says, “you did the best you could. We all did.”
One year, ten months, twenty-eight days.
Orange halos of light hang over the street lamps, and flecks of snow dance like moths in their fiery glow. The night air scratches my throat as I swallow it in, drinking the refreshing contrast of the death hanging over my father’s place.
I hold my cell phone in my hand, checking every few minutes as I walk, but It’s not until I reach the far end of the parking lot of Terry’s does a single bar pop up on the left-hand corner of the screen announcing my ability to contact the outside world. I dial Jimmy’s number, and it rings a few times before going to voicemail. I redial his number and wait. Voicemail. I dial once more only to have the exact same outcome.
It’s not like Jimmy to not answer.
One year, ten months, and twenty-eight days. Though, like they say, relapse is part of the journey.
I scroll through my contacts and stop at Wife. My thumb trembles over her number before pushing call. There are several rings before the voicemail message kicks in. I hang up and dial again. On the third ring of the third attempt, someone answers. It’s a female voice on the other end but not my Wife’s voice: “Hello? Who is this? Hello? Please stop calling this number.”
The woman hangs up.
How much is one year, ten months, and twenty-eight days in the grand scheme of things? It feels like yesterday.
The ocean of asphalt beneath my feet rocks, and I feel seasick. Terry’s Gas Station is a lighthouse, a beacon of safety, and I float inside to seek shelter. I pace the aisles as if searching, but I knew before I entered what I came for.
They’ll understand, won’t they? They’ll have to because it’s all part of the journey. Besides, drinking was never really your monster. Drinking was your father’s bag.
I place a pack of gum on the counter and ask for the cheapest bottle of gin.
“Your total will be… damn. That’s spooky,” The Store Clerk, a skeleton of a woman, says. I look at the cash register and see the total is $6.66.
“Wanna buy something else?”
“Why?” I ask.
“Just figured you might want to buy something else. If you’re superstitious, I mean.”
“I’m not,” I say as I slap a twenty on the counter. The Clerk reaches for the cash, and I see her veins, blue-purple ropes slithering wildly beneath her translucent skin like a fireman’s hose with no attendant, and I know her monster is the same as mine and Kenny’s was.
She breaks the twenty and hands me my change. I turn to make my exit with shame wrapped tightly in a brown paper bag when the Clerk’s voice freezes me in place.
“How’s your Dad doing?” the Clerk asks. My face must have relayed my confusion because she followed up with, “I saw on Facebook he wasn’t doing so well.”
“On Facebook?” I ask, my voice coming out more accusatorial than intended,” I’m sorry I can’t seem to place you.”
“Shirley. Shirley Matheson. We were in high school together. I sat behind you in trig.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t remember you.” I lie, wanting Shirley to feel as small and alone as I do.
“That’s okay. I was just wondering how your Dad was doing….’
“He’s dying, Shirley.”
“… I didn’t mean anything…”
“What’s wrong? Didn’t read that on Facebook?”
Shirley shrinks, and I feel powerful. As I leave the gas station, I hear her murmuring something that sounded a lot like: killed your Wife and kid.
I spin on the spot to face her. “What was that?” I ask, clenching my teeth so hard my ears start to crackle.
“Please, Ben,” she says with her broken smile, “a house fire? First the school, then your own home?”
One year, ten months, and twenty-eight days.
I put the bottle of gin in my front pocket, where it threatens to sink me and slink out into the night. I stop at the edge of Terry’s parking lot and pull out my phone one last time. No missed calls from Jimmy, and I take it as a sign. I make my way over to the gas pump, an old vintage type with just a handle and a lever. I look to the store window and see Shirley has turned her attention to her cellphone.
I dump the booze out onto the concrete before taking the vintage gas pump handle out of its resting place and begin to pump.
I should have been there with them that night. I should have been there that night because three is stronger than two, and maybe they’d still be here. I should have been there. It should have been me.
When I reach the porch leading into my father’s mobile home, the hospice nurse stops me. She is saying something, but I cannot process the words. But I don’t have to because the look is all I need to know he’s gone.
The Strangers are cacophonous in their mourning. In between fits of hysteria, I overhear one of them saying how he should be buried next to my mother, and I think about how much he would hate that.
Brian is draped over our father’s body weeping, and I join him at his side. I wait for what feels like an eternity for the room to go quiet before saying, “I would like a moment alone with our father. I think it would be good for all of us to take a moment with him. Say whatever you need to.”
No one objects. Some of The Strangers even think it’s a good idea. They empty the house one by one, Brian being the last one out, rubbing my shoulders before joining the others. I hear someone ask about the smell of gasoline before I shut and lock the door, and I take a seat at my father’s bedside.
I search for words, but none feel right, so I sit and say nothing until the silence becomes suffocating. I pull loose bills and my sobriety coin from my pants pocket and stuff them into my father’s death-soaked sweatpants. I lean in close to his ear and whisper: You were right.
“She knew,” I continued, “wives always know, don’t they? I should have been there that night, but I wasn’t. I was staying at some shitty motel because she’d kicked me out. I scored some dope and passed out alone. A sheriff’s deputy found me the next morning… still fucked up… and told me what had happened. They said faulty wiring. Probably the clothes dryer. But they never really know with fires. They just guess. Kind of like with the school. You remember the night at the school?”
I think you were drinking harder than you ever had following her funeral. On that particular night, you stormed out of the house, gin in hand, bellowing something about that cock sucking Coach Danning. After I got Brian calmed down and in bed, I stepped outside to see if I could find you, and that’s when I saw the flames just over the hill. I knew it was the school. And, I don’t know how, but I knew it had to be you.
I sprinted as fast as I could.
I found you sitting near the playground with a gas can in hand. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen you cry.
I lifted you to your feet and got you home before the first responders showed up. As I put you to bad, you told me you loved my mother, and you were sorry.
The next day, after you sobered up, you acted like nothing had happened, and I never brought it up. I expected the cops to show up the next day and arrest us both, but they never did. Rumors be damned, no one ever spoke to either of us.
I often think about how you could probably draw a line from the fire at the school to the one that took Susan and Billy from me.
Do you know what the last thing I said to him, my boy, was? He walked in on us fighting that last night. He hugged his mother, probably because she was crying, and I said ‘nothing but a goddamn momma’s boy.’
I pull the gin bottle from my pants and begin making a circle of gasoline around my father’s death bed before turning the bottle on myself and letting what’s left of the gasoline dribble over my face.
This place is not haunted. We are.
I forgive you is the last thing I say to my father. I plunge my hands deep into my pockets and pull out a book of matches. I strike one and drop it into the circle.
I smile as the flames begin to kiss my feet and devour us.
And I swear, for a moment, I hear my father murmur momma’s boy.
Ryan (He/Him) is an English/Creative writing Graduate from Missouri State University. He is a published photographer, filmmaker, and writer. His work has appeared in publications such as Dark Beauty, Rising Model Magazine, Lunar Magazine, and the upcoming anthology Writing Lifeworlds: An Anthology of Creative Nonfiction. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of the genre publication Pyre Magazine. Ryan resides with his wife, two daughters, and their two dogs in Nixa, Missouri.