What We Left Behind (excerpt)

I am six.

My father sits at the fold-away card table in our kitchen smoking an entire pack of menthol cigarettes. He grinds each smoldering cherry into table’s vinyl top, filling the kitchen with a smog of nicotine, menthol and melted plastic. I sit on my knees in the chair next to him. The cigarettes tumble out of their green box. My father flicks his brass zippo in one motion, pulls the flame in, singeing the snowy paper. I wonder what it feels like to have cigarettes put out on my arm, my skin melting and burning like vinyl. My mother knows, but even at six I know there are some things better left unsaid. So, I sit with my father as he smokes and burns small holes into the table creating a demented smilie face. I imagine each phase of that face in my skin, my father’s fire swimming in my veins and down to my fluttering belly.

Eighteen years and change since my father died. Slightly more since I was six sitting paralyzed at his side. Here I am sitting at the same burned table. Its metal frame is rusted at the joints. My mother refuses to replace it. Her reasoning, again I leave alone. In time, mysteries like these reveal themselves. My father gave me the scars to prove it.

Tracing my fingers over the burns I stare out the kitchen window into the grey mist of morning. I’ve been up for hours. My body buzzes with exhaustion. I should eat. The idea of food makes me sick. Coffee would be good, but in this shit hole of a town there isn’t a Coffee Bean or Starbuck’s. Only Sanka and burned Folger’s at Riley’s Diner. A caffeine headache brews at the base of my skull. I consider grabbing a swig of my mother’s bourbon. But I need to keep my wits about me. That’s why I’m here. I’m the stable one. I’m the one who makes things right. So, I sit at the table willing a day to begin. A day I’m desperate to end. Once done I can go back to real life with real people and a decent fucking cup of coffee.

Three days ago my mother called me, screeching the world was coming to an end. Hadn’t I been watching the news? Didn’t I know how devastating it was? Didn’t I know what the consequences could be? I had to get my stuck-up ass back home. Of course I saw the news, volcanos and giant forest fires make great copy. What the hell was I supposed to do about it? Then my mother told me the cabin was in the burn zone. I’ve been in damage control ever since: sob stories for my boss and roommate, covered shifts, muscling my way through LAX, rattling around in the puddle-jumper from Seattle to Ashford, getting a lift from some neighbor whose name I promptly forgot, only to walk in on my mother sitting Indian style on her couch, glued to the television with a bottle of Jack Daniels snuggled like a baby in her lap.

Finally, the sun shows up and the neighbor’s rooster sounds the alarm. 5:43am. Time to get moving. Someone will be here by 6:30. Mom’s been on a bender since before I came. I check on her. She’s where I left her, sleeping open mouthed on a towel on the bathroom floor, an empty bottle of Jack at her breast. Her head is nestled on a pillow crammed between the toilet and tub. She’s kicked off the blanket and her perfectly manicured toes look yellow against the white tile. I cover her up, grab the empty bottle, put a fresh one by the sink and shut the door behind me. She won’t eat, but I make a baloney and cheese sandwich anyway and stick it in the fridge. I don’t leave a note. She knows where I’ll be.