by Brendan McLaughlin
The smell struck Noah first, sharp and sweet, and he had a spare moment to wonder what his brother might be burning this time before the heat needled its way into his back. He leapt up with a shout, dropped the grass braid he had been painstakingly constructing, and peeled his shirt off. The inspection revealed a neat black hole the size of his fingernail. He picked at it. The ring of burnt cotton was rough beneath his finger, brittle and transformed. At Noah’s feet the match still smoldered. He looked at Gabe, who still held the matchbook in his hands and sat staring down at the path below, as though watching a parade only he could see.
“Why’d you do that,” Noah mumbled. He knelt and began to feel around for his weave, which had become lost in the grass. Gabe muttered something unintelligible under his breath and tore a match off the book, held the head against the striking surface, and flicked it at the smaller boy.
“Stop it.” Noah’s voice was soft, almost a whisper, and he licked his chapped lips reflexively. He was a thick boy, had always been so, baby fat stubbornly clinging to his arms and a face browned in the summer sun. A handful of black freckles clustered high on his cheeks.
“You think it’s ok what she did?”
“No, it’s just that—”
Gabe kicked him, just hard enough to knock the words out of his mouth. “It’s just that she needs to pay for what she’s done. Put your stupid shirt on.” Gabe shared his brother’s stocky build but was taller, and old enough that adults had begun to describe him as “heavy.” Though he too had spent the summer almost entirely out of doors his skin showed no sign of it. Instead it was the coarse hairs on his arms, the backs of his hands and, increasingly, his neck and upper lip that had taken the color, shifting from brown to an oily black. Gabe tore away another match and flicked it at his brother. This one caught but missed, landing in the grass to smolder momentarily.
Noah looked down at the slender spiral of smoke rising beside him, then up at the sky. The light that survived the thick clouds was bright, shimmering as though in frustration at being concealed. Predicting his brother’s reactions had become impossible. The slightest things set him off. Noah had learned to choose his words carefully and deliver them soft and delicate, as though he were placing flower petals on the surface of a lake. He could not find his lost grass weave and released a harsh angry breath, for he had chosen the blades carefully.
“How long till we can go home?”
“After,” Gabe said, rising abruptly.
After what, Noah wished to ask, but did not, and flinched from Gabe’s footfalls, waiting for a blow that did not come. He could hear the snarl of matches being struck and flicked his gaze upward, checking for projectiles, but Gabe was no longer aiming at him. Noah rose and hurried to catch up.
Gabe was not to have matches. He had been kicked out of school for lighting a fire in a urinal. There had been other fires before this too, and someone had been pulling the fire alarms, though they had never been able to prove it was Gabe. This sounded exciting to Noah. He enjoyed fire drills, and the intense, orderly evacuations they required. While it was clearly a Bad Thing, easily the worst trouble either boy had ever found himself in, Noah secretly thrilled at the idea of his brother wielding this strange and mysterious power. But this did not mean that he trusted Gabe with matches, and he maintained a peripheral watch as they moved along the unfamiliar streets. He told Gabe that he wished to forego the detour and return home.
“Don’t be a pussy. Come on, I’ll let you carry the matches.”
Noah stopped and looked at his brother distrustfully, trying and failing to conceal his desire. It would be good, he reasoned. Good for both of them. Mom had not forbidden Noah to have matches, though this was not because she trusted him. Noah understood this. Rather, Gabe’s ongoing and accelerating misbehavior consumed her disciplinary appetite, leaving Noah with a lack of oversight that made him feel transparent—as though, if you squinted, you could stare right through him.
Gabe laughed and held out the matchbook. Noah, fearing a trick, snatched and cradled the matchbook against his chest as though it were a small animal, watching Gabe distrustfully for some sort of retaliation.
“Come on, you little sperm gargler. You think this is my idea of fun? There’s a million things I’d rather be doing.”
Noah scowled and spat. Gabe had just started at his new school, one where he had to wear a uniform, and each day he returned with a new nasty name.
The boys stopped before a well-maintained Victorian, blue with white trim and a wrap-around porch, partially hidden behind a pair of massive Cypress trees. The trees, with their rusty, corrugated bark, seemed to mark the house out from the rest of the neighborhood. The house backed right up to the greenbelt, its vine-choked fastness now swathed in shadow. To Noah, still clutching the book of matches tight in his fist, it looked like a fairytale house–touched with magic and menace in equal measure. Years later, Noah could still picture the crenelated patterns on the eaves, and the way the windows seemed to be melting, especially along that southern side of the house.
“How do you know it’s hers?”
“Cause I know,” Gabe said, and this satisfied Noah.
Gabe was a knower of things, though the things he chose to share with his younger brother were not always pleasant. He knew that Pinto was not their father, for one thing. Lying in their shared bedroom one night with the lights off, they spoke in hushed whispers as Pinto and their mother set the house to creaking with their movements downstairs.
“Are you blind?” Gabe whispered. “Do you look anything like him?” and then, for good measure: “Do you look anything like me?”
“Your hair is black and curly. Mine’s brown and straight. Your daddy isn’t my daddy. And my daddy isn’t yours. And Pinto isn’t ANYBODY’s daddy.”
Noah allowed these words to infiltrate his mind and incinerate a number of ideas, but he found that it did not bother him. Rather, it was like watching soap bubbles climb into the sky knowing they will pop, inevitably, their skeins sucked out of existence by some unseen force. It was like the bubbles had never been. Noah turned to tell this to Gabe, but before he could speak he heard snores coming from the other bed.
Pinto taught Latin at the local university during the day, and boxing at the community center three nights a week. He wore a fresh, blindingly white shirt every day, and each morning rolled the sleeves up to reveal the tattoos that climbed along his muscular arms: trees with faces on them, their expressions twisted with anguish; a man with the head of a rooster; a hand with three holes in it; and a frayed hemp braid that wound up past his elbow. When he removed his white shirts entirely you could see that the hemp braid climbed up and encircled his neck like a noose. But Pinto never changed in front of the boys. Noah had only seen this once, when he peeked through the cracked door of the bathroom one evening as Pinto shaved.
Gabe had gone to pee on the house and Noah, unsure of where to place himself, shuffled this way and that. He picked at the bark of the Cypress, peeling away a long strip. It was thin, pliant, strong. He reached back to the tree, thinking he might weave a few strips together, when a shadow passed across his hand and he turned to see the head and torso of Ms. Judy framed in the window. Her arms, so pale the blue veins stood out like caterpillar trails, were folded across her stomach, clutching it as though it caused her pain. She was looking down at something Noah couldn’t see, and he stood there studying her. She looked like she always did: dark-haired, slim but not delicate. Noah knew she wouldn’t mind him staring; he’d done it a lot when Ms. Judy had been his Kindergarten teacher the previous schoolyear, and she still smiled and waved when they passed each other in the hallway. Noah recalled his first day, arriving in clothes he’d never worn before, his excitement withering as he stepped through the doors and into that strange place, with its too-tall ceiling. He had been afraid. When Ms. Judy came close and spoke into his face she smelled like pool chemicals, and somehow this made her seem safe and trustworthy. In the classroom Ms. Judy was unflappable, able to quell any disturbance with one of her slight, sad smiles and a series of notes coaxed from a set of palm-sized chimes. Noah could almost hear them as he watched her through the window, the matches in his hand. His palm was getting sweaty against the paper, softening it. As she turned abruptly and walked away from the window, into the bowels of the house and out of view, Gabe appeared out of nowhere and shoved Noah back the way they had come.
“Cumdumpster!” Noah hissed, skipping to get beyond Gabe’s reach.
“What did you say?”
Noah licked his chapped lips and enunciated carefully this time to be sure he got it right:
Gabe stopped manhandling him and backed away looking startled. Noah wanted to ask why Gabe hadn’t told him it was Ms. Judy’s house, but remained quiet, suspecting that Gabe’s response to any question would be to demand the matches back.
Noah sat in the closet. It was his favorite room in the house. He often cloistered himself there during those transient hours after school before mom got home, particularly on days when Gabe’s mood was sour. Gabe would usually leave him alone when he ducked into the closet. Noah enjoyed its smallness, the way it trapped the intermingled smells of mom’s coats and the boys’ sneakers. There was a corner of the windowless space where he wedged himself and let the folds of the coats fall around his face, rocking gently from side to side to feel the smooth material against his cheek. Noah would look up through the coats and, with the meager light that managed to climb beneath the door, imagine he was traversing a vast desert plain at tremendous speed. It was soothing, this idea of passing through a dead, unchanging landscape.
The boys’ mother arrived home and kicked off her shoes, letting them sail one after the other into a corner of the room. She followed them with her purse, slinging it against the wall where its elaborate metal clasps left divots in the crimson paint. The manner in which she removed them from her person was not always this violent, but it was always immediate, the first thing she did when stepping inside the door. She vibrated with the urgency to discard them, to splay her toes in the carpet, to get on with the forgetting of another day. Noah winced at the noise, and the damage, but before the purse had stopped moving his mother had shifted her attention away from these things. Noah clutched at her, relishing the familiarity of her smell, the cigarettes and the coffee and something flowery that he would later, as an adult, come to know was lavender. She squeezed tighter and grunted in mock exertion, though this was not her way. She was compensating, attempting to play a role that was not hers, and it only magnified Pinto’s absence. Pinto was the squeezer and the grunter. Big, loud, always moving, dragging the boys around by their legs. A rough-houser. He liked to sneak in the door when returning from work in order to pin the boys to the floor and tickle them. Noah loved these evening wrestling matches, the wordless growling and rug-burning that left him panting and giggling. Last week, forgetting that Pinto had moved out, he had taken up position in the closet, preparing an ambush. It had been Gabe who finally threw the door open and looked down at him. Instantly Noah had remembered and felt ashamed for forgetting something so important. He cringed, waiting for a blow, or at least a nasty name, but to his surprise Gabe had let out a playful cry and tossed one of their mother’s coats onto him like a net before wrestling him into the corner. When at last they collapsed, exhausted, in the wreckage of shoes and coats, Noah found his head resting on Gabe’s stomach as it rose and fell rhythmically. The moment’s intimacy gave Noah the courage to ask his brother why Pinto had moved out.
“Cause he’s a punk homo dick lick. He never cared about Mom, he just wanted his fucking green card.”
Noah could hear the blood pounding in Gabe’s body and decided not to press the matter, though he found this answer horribly confusing. A green card seemed such a trifling thing—something he could handle easily.
Noah pushed the spaghetti around his plate, swirling it into spirals, thinking it looked a little like a tornado. He had studied tornadoes in school, poring over the pictures of ruin and wreckage, houses deroofed and even, yes, carried off, dropped into the river, bashed to pieces. He remembered that scene from The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy’s house is carried off, and was surprised to learn that such things could happen in real life. Mom smiled and asked them questions about school, but it was clear to Noah that she was not happy, that she did not particularly care what he had done in math. She did not persist in her questioning as she would normally. Instead she sat, swaying slightly, and accepted their answers without complaint. She had not touched her dinner either, Noah observed.
He wanted to tell her about Ms. Judy’s house, and how Pinto was there. This seemed to be the sort of news that might cheer her. But Gabe had made him promise not to tell, and so he sat and watched her through the distorting green glass of her wine bottle: neck thin, elongated; red cardigan dulled; and her face washed out, as though someone had smudged it with a thumb. When she called to him, that smudged-out version of his mother, Noah became afraid. He feared that if he looked at her directly she would not return to her natural form, but would remain her wine-bottle self: freakish, twisted.
“Noah,” she said again, and when he would not look at her she dipped her fingers into her glass and flicked wine into his face. He reached up and slowly wiped it away.
“We just took a look,” he mumbled, still not looking up. “We didn’t do anything.”
One morning about a week after Pinto left, the boys had come downstairs for breakfast to find the table covered with partially full bottles: wine mostly, and some gin. Their mother handed them each a bottle, gathered up the rest herself, and asked the boys to follow her out into the small side yard. There she explained that she was giving up drinking again. She asked the boys to pour the alcohol over her head. Noah held his bottle with two hands, for he was afraid to drop it. “Come on,” she said. “Please. I need this.” She uncorked a bottle of wine and poured it over her head. The red wine sheeted down her face, over her closed eyes and closed mouth. The wine slipped in little rivulets beneath her pale orange shirt. Red stains appeared on the fabric. She sighed and set the empty bottle down. “See how easy? Now it’s your turn, Noah.” She had to kneel down on the wet grass so he could reach. He looked down at the top of her head. She shivered. Droplets of wine continued to run down her cheeks and fall to the ground. “Hurry, please,” she’d told him. “I’m getting cold.”
Noah wandered away from the other children, out along the furthest reaches of the playground where the dandelions and tufts of leggy grass had laid hold of the dirt. He ran a hand along the fence, listening to it rattle, dragging his shoes in the parched earth. A cloud of dust blossomed and huddled around his ankles. He looked down and could not see his feet. A sudden gust snatched at the dust, dragging it through the fence and into the street beyond. He gouged his feet into the ground, kicking furiously, scraping up more. He snaked his fingers into the holes in the fence for leverage and kept stomping, letting the cloud form around him, waiting for the wind to come and carry it off again. But it had gone dead calm, the clear-skied heat like a blanket holding everything down but the dust. It billowed up into Noah’s eyes. He squinted, feeling the grit in his teeth. A big truck rumbled past. Noah recalled Gabe teaching him to make yanking gestures at such trucks, the shocked elation when the driver of a cement mixer obliged and blew the air horn. Noah had turned to Gabe and said, “We did it.” Gabe shook his head and snatched Noah in a tight, affectionate headlock. “Nah,” he said. “You did it, Noah. That was all you.” Noah’s chest had swollen with pride, so much so that he’d managed to wrestle out of the headlock and pin Gabe’s arm behind his back, and it didn’t matter that Gabe let him do it. But that had been the old Gabe, before he turned sour and mean and grew all those red bumps on his nose.
A flagpole rose out of the cement in front of Noah’s school, and it was here that he met Gabe each afternoon. Gabe had promised their mother he would not to dawdle. He would be there first, so that Noah would not have to wait alone. Noah did not have permission to be out on his own. But Gabe had begun showing up later and later, and now it was common for Noah to wait at the flagpole for five, ten, fifteen minutes. One day Noah slowly spun himself around the flagpole as the after-school scrum of students and parents dissipated. Soon he was alone, except for a woman tapping on her phone and a child lying flat on her back on the pavement, arms and legs thrust out, as though to make a snow angel. The woman kept telling the girl to get up as she tapped her phone with her thumbs, but the girl remained splayed on the pavement. Eventually the woman, with an exasperated snort, grabbed the child by an arm and hoisted her roughly to her feet. The child tolerated this silently and stumbled for a moment, staring at Noah as she regained her balance.
Noah shuddered. At any moment the woman would look up and see him, and she would take him to the office. He did not want to go into the office, for they would make him call his mother, and she would be angry at Gabe, and then Gabe would be angry at Noah. He picked up his bag and ran.
His hands shook as he wove his grass. The blades kept breaking. Surely Gabe will think to come here, he thought. We always come here, straight from the flagpole.
“Nutlicker!” he yelled, then looked around to see if anyone had heard. But he was quite alone, the grassy hillside empty, and still no sign of Gabe. After a few more minutes Noah decided to try to find his own way home. Two blocks into the journey he stopped, looked around at his surroundings, and concluded that he was entirely lost. He had no idea where he was, or which direction would take him home. He did know that if he managed to get there he could remove the key secreted inside a ceramic toad. He could open the door, and lock it behind him, and wait in the closet. So he guessed a direction and continued walking, slower now. He still had the matchbook and worried it with one hand as he walked, eyes on the sidewalk and mind fogged. He wandered the streets in this manner for the rest of the afternoon without coming across any familiar landmarks, just cars and houses and intersections that were dizzying in their sameness.
Finally he did find something familiar: the park with the grassy hillside. Somehow he had wandered in a circle. He stopped to drink from the fountain and rest in the shade, and there the gravity of what he had done began to press down upon him. Gabe, arriving at the flagpole and discovering his absence; then the phone calls, and perhaps the police, and search parties. He had some vague memory of police using dogs to search for missing people and he shivered. Dogs frightened him terribly. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the matchbook. There were only four matches left. He folded one over. The black paper bent easily and he folded it back, afraid it would detach of its own accord.
“You haven’t lit those yet?”
Noah looked up to see Gabe hovering over him, his face pale, blotched, eyes eruptive and bloodshot. Noah wanted to ask Gabe why he hadn’t been at the flagpole, wanted to tell him that he had been afraid, and maybe even that he felt he could no longer rely on Gabe the way he used to. But instead he said:
“Suck my balls.”
Gabe laughed and shook his head.
“You got balls, eh?”
“I got balls.”
“Oh yeah you do.” Gabe laughed. “Huge cojones.”
“Fucking A,” Noah said.
Over at the playset a woman held a child aloft as it kicked its legs in a blind rage, its face red and folded in on itself. Noah realized it was the same woman from the front of the school. She looked over at them and scowled. She seemed about to speak, but then the child in her arms began to squall again, distracting her. Gabe spat. He walked into the public bathroom, a brick bunker that, in place of a door, had a whitewashed metal security grate, currently flung open. Noah could hear the rattle of a hand towel dispenser. A crumpling followed, as of large wads of wrapping paper being thrust into paper bags after a birthday, and then the snick of a lighter. Black smoke began to billow out of the doorway. The boys walked down to the footpath and stopped to look back. There was still smoke coming from the bathroom, but not very much, and it was sucked up quickly into the thirsty sky. The woman at the playground was talking on her phone and looking at them. Noah tugged on the edge of Gabe’s shirt.
“Fuck that bitch. Come on, let’s go to the greenbelt.” Gabe seized Noah about the shoulders and crushed Noah’s face into his armpit. Noah drank in Gabe’s scent. Beneath the sweat smell and rotten fruit stink there was a hint of something else: a sharp smell that made Noah think of gas stations. With that smell and in that one instant Noah experienced an entire alternative lifeflow in which Gabe was a stranger: just another frightening older boy. When the instant ended he peeled his nose away and rested a cheek on Gabe’s chest, enjoying the warmth of Gabe’s body and the dead weight of his arm as it held them together. The boys strutted down the street thus entwined for several steps before Gabe, suddenly and without explanation, dropped his arm and stepped away.
Noah did not like the greenbelt. Its trails were trash-strewn and tortuous, traveled by strange men in foul clothes. It felt wrong in an uncomplicated way, and he trusted this feeling. But he also trusted Gabe, and had followed him into the greenbelt before, where they had sharpened sticks and lit small trash fires, or built forts among the untamed greenery. These activities were diverting enough to distract from the looming menace of the place. The greenbelt lacked a formal entrance, and the boys made their way in and out by way of a steep, mostly hidden path beaten out between the vines. The slope grew steeper until it could no longer support plant growth and turned into a wash of hardpacked earth, which the boys slid down into the greenbelt’s ivy-choked understory. Below the slope descended to a small clearing of dull dirt and bright garbage. Off to one side several trash bags huddled together, knotted at their tops and bulging with unknown artifacts. Noah noticed Gabe studying these bags and felt a flutter of unease. Nothing stirred; whoever frequented the clearing was gone.
“Let’s see what’s in those bags,” Gabe said.
“I don’t want to.”
“I’ll bet he’s got magazines.”
“Why do you need magazines?”
“The other kind of magazines.”
Noah was silent, and wondered what this other kind of magazine could be as Gabe trotted over and began tearing the bags apart. His unease grew to a mild panic and he turned away, not wishing to witness this defilement, and started scuffling his feet in the dirt to distract himself, but the dirt in the clearing was clammy and clung stubbornly to the ground. Noah could hear Gabe cursing under his breath. He turned to see the contents of the bags strewn upon the ground: clothes mostly, warm winter clothes, and he pictured the small cupboard beneath the stairs with the plastic tubs where they kept their parkas and woolen hats. Even here, it seemed, there was a seasonal ordering of the wardrobe, and Noah found himself wondering at the owners of these things, these jackets that Gabe mounded up and set alight. They caught quickly, which surprised Noah and also seemed to surprise Gabe, who flopped onto his backside and scuttled away from the flames like a crab.
They fled the clearing and stood for a time on the trail below. Up the hill, through the gaps in the trees, the flames and the smoke sputtered and gasped. Gabe took deep breaths and rubbed his hands aggressively against his jeans.
“Will it burn down the trees?” Noah asked.
“No, they’re too big.”
“Big trees can burn too. A forest fire.”
“Shut up, Smokey Bear.” But Gabe seemed nervous as he sparked the lighter over and over.
“Can I have a turn?” Noah asked, reaching for the lighter, but Gabe shook his head and pocketed it.
“You’ll just burn your hands off.”
Noah did not believe this, and knew that Gabe did not either—why, then, had he trusted Noah with the matches? No, Gabe’s reason for keeping the lighter weas purely selfish, but that was fine, the prerogative of the elder. Noah studied him now, the way his face had begun to change, and so suddenly. In addition to the pimples there was the little dark hair on his upper lip, and purple bags beneath his eyes. He was transforming, Noah understood that, though the broader significance of this transformation would not make sense to him until the changes began to spiral through his own body, some years later. Already Gabe seemed to know things that seemed to be the provenance of adults. He had known about Pinto’s leaving immediately. As far as Noah could recollect there had been no warning, no indication of the impending fracture. Not even a sound, an echo of the crack opening up. One night he had gone to bed, just as any other. Pinto had carried him from the living room to the bathroom, and from the bathroom to his bed, tucking him in and kissing him, the roughness of whiskers contrasting with the dry warmth of lips. When he awoke in the morning Gabe was sitting at the foot of his bed, awake and fully clothed, to deliver the news.
Noah had assumed an event of this magnitude would prompt a mad outpouring of corrective energy, an immediate campaign to restore the natural order. But he had been wrong. No restoration had been attempted, just the endless cascade of confusing words from his mother and other adults.
They were never the right words. Nobody wanted to talk about where Pinto was. Nobody except Gabe, and Gabe seemed more intent on revenge than rescue.
“He doesn’t care about us,” he’d said that morning. “He doesn’t care about you.”
Which was untrue. Noah could still feel Pinto’s whiskers on his cheeks.
“He’ll come back,” Noah had said, and reached out for Gabe’s hand, which was lying lifeless in his lap. But that was the moment that Gabe had stood, picked the lamp up off Noah’s headboard, and thrown it against the wall.
Noah was holding out the green piece of paper, folded carefully into quarters. Across the front it read: TO: PINTO. Gabe grunted and snatched it, opening it to read the inside: Ola Pinto. We mis you. Do you want to play? The words Yes and No were below, with small check boxes next to each word. Noah had drawn stick figures of himself, Gabe, their mother, and Pinto. Their mother was distinguished by wavy hair that ran down nearly to the ground, Pinto by a scribble of beard.
Gabe held the card, staring at it in what Noah took to be admiration. But then he reached out and slapped Noah across the mouth, knocking him to the ground.
“Jesus fucking Christ.” Gabe used his lighter to set flame to the corner of the card. Noah scrambled to his feet and lunged, but Gabe held him off and the burning card aloft, the flame blue as it ate through the green paper. After several seconds it was gone, a whisper of ash lost on the wind.
Noah bellowed. He put his hands into his brothers’ chest and pushed as hard as he could, legs churning with a mad fury. Gabe stumbled backwards. The boys clung to one another, stumbling and spitting, until a tree root dashed them apart and they knelt, panting and staring at one another.
“I’m not…” Noah began, but his voice caught, and he discovered that he did not know what words came next.
“Not what? Going to play anymore? Fine. Go on, then.” Gabe made a flicking gesture using only the tips of his fingers. “Find your own way home.” When Noah made no move to leave he repeated the flicking gesture and said, “Then shut up.”
Noah saw the tops of the Cypress trees first, like the soaring spires of a castle. A car was parked in the driveway, sleek and black. From it came an attentive ticking sound, like a pencil tapped on the radiator pipes at school. Voices came from the open back door and he strode up, afraid that if he hesitated he would turn back, and peered in to see Ms. Judy and Pinto standing and talking. Pinto wore his work clothes, white shirt rumpled and tie loosened, oiled hair stretched up into the air.
“Your head looks like an octopus,” Noah said to him.
The adults turned and stared at him silently, somberly, and for a panicked moment Noah feared they would not admit him. He even took a step backwards down the steps, prepared to retreat. Pinto recovered first, stepping over and kneeling in front of him.
“Noah! Hey there buddy.”
His voice sounded funny, gluey, like he had been eating Ritz crackers without water. He reached out and ruffled Noah’s hair. It felt like a slap. Never had Pinto failed to greet Noah with a hug, not since the first time they’d met and exchanged a cautious handshake. There was a strangeness to him, as though he were an animal putting off a repellant odor. Things were not going the way Noah had imagined. Pinto’s smooth movements and easy intimacy had been replaced by a rapid tapping of toes and uncertain smiles. Noah shuddered so violently he had to squeeze his butt shut to avoid pooping himself.
Ms. Judy squatted carefully before him. For a long moment she just gazed at him, one smooth palm resting delicately atop the other between her knees. Noah wanted to reach out and run a finger along one of the blue veins that made its way up her pale arm, navigating the scattered freckles before disappearing into the coil of her shawl.
“Noah,” she said. Her voice, though soft and high pitched, seemed to come from deep down in her belly. “How wonderful to see you. Are you OK?”
“Good,” Noah replied quickly.
“May I give you a hug?”
Noah started to say yes, but realized he could not do so without crying. So he nodded, averting his eyes so she would not see the tears collecting there. He drank in her chlorine smell as she lifted him onto her hip in a practiced motion and wrapped her cool arms around him. Noah hadn’t been held like that for a while, and never by Ms. Judy. As his teacher she was affectionate but never intimate. She would only ever touch him by placing two fingertips between his shoulder blades as she looked over his shoulder to examine his work or answer a question. This was something else entirely and the sensation made his stomach tremble. She continued to murmur as she walked through and out of the kitchen, though afterwards Noah couldn’t recall the words she’d used. Window blinds sliced slender shafts of sunlight onto the creamy white dining room walls, walls which were bare except for a length of twisted driftwood held in place with a pair of iron brackets. An ice-filled pitcher rested close to the edge of the table. Too close, Noah thought, sensing a spill hazard. Condensation had smoked the pitcher’s sides. Noah stared at it thirstily, running his swollen tongue over his chapped lips. He could hear Pinto speaking quickly into the phone from another room and announced that he needed to use the potty.
Ms. Judy led him down the hall and showed him the bathroom. He went inside and closed the door, an old one with a glass knob. He twisted the lock and tested the knob to be sure the door wouldn’t open. Then he went over to the toilet beneath the window and urinated carefully, his anus screwed up tight to prevent any leakage, and began to unravel the toilet paper from its spool. When the roll was empty he took another one from a small cabinet and unrolled it until the downy material was knee deep. The book of matches was creased and had absorbed some of his sweat, so it took three tries but he managed to get one lit and touched it to the toilet paper. The black smoke coiled around him and snaked towards the window, which was open a few inches. The smoke stung his eyes so he shut them. In that darkness his equilibrium abandoned him and he reached out, eyes still closed, hands grasping for anything solid and finding nothing but air. A moment earlier it had seemed there was barely enough room to move in the small bathroom, that he could stretch his arms out and touch both walls. But that had all fallen away somehow. There was nothing to contain him, no dimensions to the space. He was untethered, released into a great void both black and hot. He had no doubt that he was alone in this place, and that he would burn, consumed by his own fire. A small sound escaped him, a mewl.
But then he thought of the floor. Yes… The floor was still there. He knelt, reaching blindly, until he felt the tiles beneath his fingers, still cool despite the flames, and the rough lines of grout. The heat was less intense there, and he opened his eyes. The curtains had caught and the smoke had somehow climbed straight into the ceiling, leaving a growing dark smudge across the plaster. The fire was hotter than he had expected and had taken over the room already. He crawled away from the window, alarmed once more at how small the room was, how quickly he bumped up against the door. The window frame and sash were smoldering; the glass finally shattered with a regretful sigh and as it did the flames within seemed to rejoice, leaping to paint more smudges on the ceiling, which was now almost completely black. Noah felt a heat on his back and turned to see that the flames had climbed across the ceiling and down the doorframe; smoke began to pool along the cracks, trying to force its way out into the hallway. The door wouldn’t budge, no matter how hard he rattled it. He could hear Ms. Judy’s voice, muffled and frightened, and tried to call to her but his lungs filled with smoke and he could only cough. He remembered and reached for the lock but it was too hot and burnt his finger and thumb, which he thrust into his mouth. The window was reduced to a throb of light coming through the smoke. Something heavy struck the door, twice, three times. There was coughing and shouting and hands laying hold of him, wrapping him in towels, carrying him as though he were a piece of delicate furniture. Voices, shouting, shaking. But nothing registered, for Noah could and would only think of his brother. He imagined it was Gabe carrying him, snuggling him close, and allowed himself to believe that this might be the act that unlocked his brother from his black, troubled thoughts. He could see it quite clearly. Gabe would release his bearhug and ruffle Noah’s hair, slap his cheek with that lost, gentle playfulness, and wrestle him to the floor. A tang of butane flooded Noah’s nostrils and he giggled within his towel wrapping.
“Noah,” Gabe would tell him. “Noah. You did it.”
Brendan McLaughlin is a freelance writer and editor from Seattle. His stories explore identity, loss, privilege, desire, and the unspoken complexity of male relationships. He draws inspiration from the history and landscape of the Pacific Northwest and his daughters, who remind him that the world is silly and serious in equal measure