Days of Ash and Smoke

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

We got good at leaving blazes behind; Pop taught us well. A pot of tea left boiling on the stove until it bubbled and crashed to the floor, parchment paper eagerly swallowed up by the flames. The window open so the curtains could rock with the breeze as fire crawled up the floral patterns Casey had stitched. Every one of us Babbs far enough away to avoid any threatening damage, only our homes torched and remaining as smolder. The local fire department baffled as usual whether it be in Dufrane, Mississippi, or Rowan, Texas, or Hullee, Oklahoma, or Jaspern, Nebraska. Tiny towns no bigger than a gnat on a map, places where destruction went unnoticed since the family started burning in the early 1970s.

We’d pack up the night before in the hearse Pop converted to a station wagon. He’d gotten the hearse in the “deal of the century” when we were living in Oklahoma and a funeral home went belly up. Us kids painted it robin’s egg blue to mute any deathly undertones. Pop and Mama would take the front seats, him at the wheel with his long, unruly hair, red like an out of control fire as it cascaded down his shoulders, lean limbs as if he was made of wires, and a smile hidden behind a red puff of beard. Mama so blonde that in some lights her hair looked white, big eyes and rolled cigarettes, yellow nicotine stains on her fingers, handmade necklaces. A bandana to cover up the scar on her forehead from the one time the flames got too close. As the oldest, Roy sat behind Pop, a map spread across his massive thighs, barking out directions. Bette more occupied with doing her makeup in a compact mirror than with what was going on around her. Casey making new curtains, pricking a finger with a needle. I’d be wedged between Casey and the side door, not enough room to cross my legs. In the back were the twins, Little Earl and Frannie, making googily faces at the road spilling out behind us, at the house we were foolish enough to call a home. Then in the morning, a spark would be lit and a drill became a reality.

“I call first room,” Roy said when we finally arrived in Kentucky, in a three-story monstrosity that seemed drafty upon first glance. Sure enough it was, but a step up from the sad lean-to we called our last home. Being fourth oldest, you’d think I’d get the fourth choice of rooms, but the twins usually leaped ahead of me claiming they needed a bigger room since they were sharing.

“Get that room, Roy, and then meet me on the back lawn,” Pop said, displaying the football tucked in his arm. Pop never invited me out for a catch. Roy was built like a mountain, myself more like a noodle. I slipped in and out of doors barely making a sound, often unnoticed. My nose in a book. Or dreaming of actually staying in a place long enough to make a real friend. This had been the fourth or fifth home in my lifetime, and I was beginning to lose count. My first memory being the taste of ash on my tongue.

Bette ran her long slender fingers along the staircase railing, inspecting the dust that clung. She looked at me, silently saying she was better than this dump. But not that the two of us were better, only her.

Little Earl whipped out one of his many lighters and lit a fart aimed at Frannie. A ripppppppp echoed through the spare house, and Frannie laughed because everything Little Earl did amused her to no end. Mama just hugged her two youngest ones and played with their curly hair.

“Has potential,” she said, directing her chin at where we’d be spending the next year or two of our lives, since that was usually the longest we stayed somewhere. “Casey, you finish those curtains?”

Casey whipped the finished curtains from out of her blouse with a ta-da expression. The floral pattern she’d chosen this time was sunflowers, which I’d read somewhere symbolized longevity. I gave a snort under my breath that was met with only disdain. The Babbs family tried to pretend they radiated positivity and light, never scorn. They all looked at me like I didn’t get the memo.

By the time the rooms were picked, the only one left was a large closet converted to hold a thin bed, a desk made for a midget, and a tiny clouded window that faced the back lawn. Outside I watched Pop and Roy tossing a pigskin and singing the fight song from when Pop was thirty pounds heavier and a cornerback back at school. This was before the tractor accident that mauled his foot and left him with too much time on his hands and a newfound affinity for playing with matches.

~

We were sent into town to pick up food, a mile hike in the boiling sun. Everyone yapped about whatever they knew of Kentucky. The largest city was Louisville where they held the Derby. The old official state tree was the Kentucky Coffee Tree and the current one was the Tulip Tree. Kentucky was the state where Abraham Lincoln was born. It was a rite to do this with every state we moved to—showing off, if you asked me. Like knowing a couple of dumb facts about a place made it any more of a home.

“You should try smiling for once,” Casey said. “Otherwise your mouth is bound to just fall off someday from drooping so much.”

“I liked Nebraska,” I said. “Everything was flat. I could see for miles.”

“Nebraska smelled like cow farts,” Little Earl said, and then took out his lighter as a threat.

“Put that away,” Roy said, snatching the lighter. “We don’t need to advertise who we are in town. Like Pop says, we put on our good little children masks around anyone else.”

Little Earl tried to grab the lighter back, but Roy just put his palm on Little Earl’s forehead, keeping him swinging his arms and struggling.

“I liked Nebraska too, Duncan,” Frannie said, sidling up next to me. She was quiet like myself, and out of all of them, I tended to like her the most. At least when she wasn’t trailing after Little Earl and laughing at everything he said. She was young and dumb because we never went to school and after the twins’ birth six years ago our parents stopped teaching us like they were supposed to since we were homeschooled. Anything Frannie knew was just bits and pieces of knowledge she picked up from the rest of us.

“Kentucky might be all right too,” I said, cupping the back of her head. Her hair hadn’t been washed in some time and briars nestled in the nooks and crannies. I plucked one and left it tumbling down the road.

Bette caught my eye, telling me in secret that Kentucky would be awful, then she plucked out her compact and reapplied dark red lipstick to her already dark red lips.

~

The town of Elm Bluff consisted of a Main Street with a few shops directed at farmers, feed stores and such, and a Country Market on the corner that was bustling compared to anything else. Roy directed us inside, always taking charge, and reading from the list of foods that Pop and Mama wanted. Once we gathered up all the goods, we brought them to the main counter after each of us tucked a provision or two in our pockets like Pop and Mama instructed. An elderly lady with big glasses manned the cashier.

“Are y’all new in town?” she asked, with a smile that others probably described as sweet.

Roy took charge of the conversation like he always did.

“Yup, just moved here.” He heaved the jugs of milk on the counter, proving his great strength.

The lady counted all of us. “Well, if there isn’t six of you. I had just as many siblings growing up.”

“We came from Nebraska!” Little Earl yelled.

“Hush,” Casey said, twisting a fingernail into his arm.

“Where in Nebraska?” the elderly lady asked.

“Jaspern!” Little Earl yelped. Casey stuck an apple in his mouth.

“Don’t know of Jaspern,” the lady said, rubbing the whiskers on her chin.

Little Earl spit out the apple that rolled toward the lady on the counter. “Our home burned down so we had to move here.”

Casey whacked the back of Little Earl’s head and then Roy did the same until Little Earl looked woozy. The rest of us just put on dumb grins and stared at the lady as innocently as could be, except for Bette who was eyeing a stock boy in the corner with an Adam’s apple the size of a golf ball.

“Oh my,” the lady said. “How sad.”

“It is, ma’am, it is,” Roy replied and Casey agreed. Then the lady looked directly at me.

“Have your folks fallen on hard times since then?”

I gulped. Most people outside of the family didn’t talk to me much. Casey said it was because I always had a pissed off look that turned folks off.

“Yes’m,” I said, digging my big toe into the ground.

“Well, y’all just pay what you can right now. That’ll help you get started here in Elm Bluff. We want to welcome y’all to our home, your new home.”

The hairs on the back of my neck rose at the mention of “home.” Little did this lady know that soon our hearse would be flooring out of here with flames consuming our rearview and a nice insurance check to pay for our troubles.

~

When we got back, Pop and Mama were smoking pot and listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival, one of their favorite bands. Pop took out his bongos and was slapping them with a vigor I rarely saw unless he was lighting something on fire. A bottle of bourbon was passed between them like a ball in a tennis match.

“Kids! Clan!” Pop shouted, stroking the thistles that Mama had placed in his beard.

“Isn’t your Pop gorgeous?” Mama said, removing a ton of candles out of her bag and wobbling as she positioned them around the house. She struck a match and the tiny flame gobbled the darkness. They had closed all the shutters, the light from the open door the only sign of life. Mama nearly knocked over the lit candle and then cackled into her fist. I caught it from falling over completely.

“Oh Duncan,” she cooed, pinching me on the arm. “Always there to keep us safe. So reliable.”

Her words were full of sarcasm. If she ever talked to me, it was usually to tell me to get a personality and stop blending into the walls.

“We picked up the groceries you wanted,” I said as she rose to her feet and started moving my arms around to Who Will Stop the Rain? to make me join in some weird dance. I stepped from side to side, humoring her while Little Earl put down his bag of groceries to shimmy, and Frannie clapped along, and Casey lip synced the words, and Pop put his arm around Roy so they could sway, and Bette gave me a look that said, “I am not a part of this family.”

When the song ended, Pop applauded, his teeth shining out from his red beard. “My family, my beautiful clan.” He and Mama kissed with tongues and her breast popped out of her sleeveless top.

“Mama,” I said, indicating the slip-up.

“Oh pish, oh big woo,” she said, waving me away and then covering her nose as if I smelled of uncool.

Little Earl jumped in the center of us all and got everyone’s attention like he was the master of ceremonies.

“So, the groceries were all free because of me!”

“Doofus,” Roy said, pushing Little Earl aside. “You blabbed about our home burning down in Nebraska to the lady at the counter.”

Pop smile’s vanished, eaten up by his beard. His teeth looked menacing rather than beaming. He stalked over to Little Earl.

What did I say about blabbing to strangers?”

Little Earl cocked his head up at looming Pop, his lip trembling.

“But the lady gave it to us for free!”

Pop twisted Little Earl’s ear, and Little Earl let out a howl so loud it gave me goosebumps. Little Earl was crying now, since Pop wouldn’t let go of his ear.

“We can only trust each other,” Pop thundered. “Us versus the world, that’s how it is.”

“Oww, oww, oww,” Little Earl cried, his face the color of a plum. Now Frannie was crying too.

“People like to talk,” Pop continued. “That nosy lady tells her blue-haired friend at the sa-lon, and then that crone tells another and sure enough, someone knows someone in Jaspern who might remember us and the house we left torched.”

“I…I didn’t think…” Little Earl blubbered.

“You never think, none of you do. Everything is left up to me. I’m responsible…for all of you. Do you know what kind of pressure that is? Being the patriarch? We’ve left a trail of ashes, my fine family. And we don’t ever want them to catch up and burn us all.”

The song switched to I Put a Spell on You as Pop gazed into our eyes, a dire warning, a sealed pact for us Babbs to follow, this cult from which we’d never break free. Finally he let go of Little Earl’s ear, who collapsed to the ground.

“Put the milk away before it spoils,” he said to no one in particular and then he clasped Mama’s hand and led her into the bedroom so we were forced to blare Bad Moon Rising to cover the sounds of their lovemaking. God forbid they’d bring another child into the world to be cursed like we were.

“What are Pop and Mama doin’ in there?” Frannie asked me, as if it was a secret.

“Building their army for the apocalypse,” I said, trying to be witty, but Frannie was not the right audience for that.

~

Before bed that night, I wrapped myself up in a blanket since it had cooled after the sun went down, being late into October, and the heater seemed to be on the fritz. I wanted a glass of milk and found Little Earl in the kitchen turning on one of the burners and picking at the orange and blue flames.

“You okay?” I asked, taking a large swallow of fatty milk. I could feel it dribbling down my chin.

Little Earl turned off the flame and then popped it on again.

“Did you hear me, Little Earl? I’m speaking to you.”

“So?”

“Lemme see your ear.”

I inspected Little Earl’s ear, which had turned purple. He winced as I clasped it between my index finger and thumb.

“It’s not all right that he does that,” I said.

Little Earl spun around, the flames dancing behind him.

“Don’t talk bad about Pop!” Little Earl said.

“He hurt you.”

“I deserved it!”

“None of us deserve this.”

“Got that right,” a voice said from the shadows. Bette slinked out of the dark, wraith-like, and sat on a stool like she was posing for a painting. I was dumbfounded she was even speaking to me.

“It’s not okay how they yank us from town to town,” I said, feeling relieved to have the truth leave my lips. I’d never really bad-mouthed Pop and Mama to any of my siblings before.

“They are narcissists,” Bette said, flipping her smooth hair over her shoulder. “They only think of themselves.”

“That’s not true!” Little Earl yelled, putting his little hands into fists.

This woke up Frannie. She lumbered out of her room, rubbing her eyes.

“What’s everyone doing up?” Frannie asked, and then stuck her thumb in her mouth.

“Y’all might be too young to realize this, but this is the sixth home I’ve lived in,” Bette said. “All of ’em burnt to a crisp.”

“This is my second,” Frannie said, still sucking on her thumb.

“And this is your fourth I believe, Duncan,” Bette said. My eyes bugged, surprised that she even thought of me enough to count how many homes I’d left behind. “It’s criminal what they do.”

Now Roy appeared like a giant, tucked in the thin band of moonlight weaving inside.

“Walls in this house are thinner than in the others just so you know,” he said, and crossed his log-like arms.

“Pop and Mama are in bourbon oblivion,” Bette said. Only Bette would ever have the courage to talk back to Roy, sometimes Casey too because she would talk back to anyone.

As if Casey knew I’d been thinking about her right then, she emerged by the kitchen door with a pair of curtains.

“It’s so they don’t have to work,” she said, and hoisted herself up on the sink to hang the curtains. She ripped off the ratty ones the previous owner had left behind and carefully pinned hers up. She put her hands on her hips and studied her handiwork for a moment before it became clear she was satisfied.

“What you talkin’ about?” Roy asked.

“When was the last time either of them had a job?” Casey said, and then brayed like a donkey. She really had the worst kind of laugh. But she was right. I tried to remember if Pop or Mama ever worked, but came up empty.

“Pop is injured!” Little Earl snapped, turning on all the burners so we’d be forced to pay attention.

Casey hopped down and snapped them off. “There are injured people that work. That’s just an excuse.”

Little Earl punched her in the stomach. She clutched herself tightly, sinking to the floor.

“I’ma tell on all of you!” Little Earl declared, with an accusing finger in each of our direction.

“I didn’t say nothing!” Frannie yelped, tears already building in her eyes.

“Fine, I’ma tell on everyone but Frannie.”

Little Earl was set to march right into Pop and Mama’s room, but Roy blocked the way.

“You ain’t gonna say nothin’, you little snitch,” Roy said, and for once I actually agreed with him.

“Children,” Bette said, massaging her temples. “This is the least ghastly place we’ve landed so far. We have to figure out a way to get them to stay here in Kentucky, otherwise we’ll just be runnin’ our whole lives.”

“And how do you guess we do that?” Casey asked, rolling her eyes. Casey and Bette rarely got along. Casey favored sports and Bette makeup, so they couldn’t be more unalike.

“I don’t know,” Bette replied, “But we need to get our brains working on a solution.”

Little Earl had given up fighting Roy and sat down on the floor Indian-style.

“I like livin’ in different towns,” Little Earl said, mostly to himself. “Every place is an adventure.”

“You’ve only lived in two, dumbo,” Casey said.

“It’s time for Pop and Mama to grow the fuck up,” I said, and everyone whipped their heads at me because I never said much, let alone cursed. Little Earl giggled while Frannie gaped. “And I want to go to school. Little Earl and Frannie can’t even read!”

“What’s so great about stupid words anyway?” Little Earl asked.

“Yeah, words are stupid,” Frannie agreed.

“Books are important,” Casey said. “The history of the world is in books.”

“Like how the world started?” Frannie asked, confused.

“Anyone who’s important has their history in a book,” Casey said.

“Even us?” Frannie asked.

We all pondered this. We asked each other: Who would write our history? Who even knew of us? Pop and Mama liked being isolated, but I was feeling suffocated. I decided I could write down our history. I’d tell our tale to anyone who cared. So I raised my hand.

“Looks like Duncan wants to do it,” Bette said with a smoker’s laugh, eternally forty years old even though she was just fifteen. “Well, Duncan, since you don’t speak much, maybe you’d be a lot better with a pen.”

She opened drawers until she found a pen and passed it my way.

“Don’t ever say I didn’t give you nothin’,” she said with a wink and then disappeared back into the shadows.

“She’s so weird,” Roy said, and everyone agreed to that, but at the same time, Bette had ignited a spark in all of us, of a life beyond fleeting stops in towns, an existence full of roots that could really dig into the earth, so we could mature and become whole—all of us now just slivers of an actual person. At least I knew what I was.

“A writer,” I said to myself, gripping the pen and feeling an ache in my arms as if they were branches growing outward.

~

The next morning at breakfast, Pop and Mama were hungover as usual, trying their hair of dog routine as Casey fried eggs and bacon, Bette did her hair while looking in the reflective toaster, Roy chugged milk from out of the carton, and Little Earl leaped up on the table because nobody was noticing him for one gosh darn second.

He cleared his throat and then launched into song.

“On top of spaghetti all covered with cheese, I lost my poor meatball when somebody sneezed. Wachoo!”

He let out a snot rocket that unfortunately landed right in my eye. Frannie clapped, delighted with the show. Pop and Mama were chuckling, Little Earl being their favorite, since he was nothing more than a jester and named after Pop.

“Bulls-eye,” Little Earl shouted, and poked me in the ribs.

I flung my arm out to knock him over, but he was too fast. The booger forced my eye socket closed and remnants remained even after I attempted to wipe it all away. I decided to head into town so I wouldn’t have to deal with any of them.

I brought along the pen Bette gave me, thinking maybe I’d purchase some paper to write on, but then I remembered I had no money. Past the Country Market was a small library, tinier than even the one in Jaspern that had like two hundred books in total. The librarian was asleep at the wheel so I figured I could swipe a novel or two to take home. I found Wuthering Heights by some woman named Emily Brontë, no clue how she pronounced her last name and what the two dots over the “e” meant.

I opened it up and the first chapter transported me. The language so mysterious. Heathcliff being all weird and brooding. The huge gothic house they lived in seemed to have three hundred years full of family history. I couldn’t make sense of most of what I was reading, but I wasn’t thinking about Pop and Mama’s foolishness or feeling pissed at Little Earl, or when we’d wind up racing out of Kentucky before the flames overtook us. I was about to start chapter two when I heard two ladies talking in the next aisle. One of the voices sounded familiar so I removed a book from the shelf so I could spy.

Sure enough it was the lady from the Country Market talking with another woman, the two hunched over as if telling a secret.

“Whole family just moved here,” Country Market said. “Six kids.”

“You don’t say,” the other lady responded. “Where from?”

“One of them said Nebraska. Jaspern, Nebraska I believe was the place.”

“Jaspern? My cousin Etta lives there. What was their surname?”

“Didn’t get it.”

“Hmmm, well six kids is sure a lot, and Etta always said what a small town Jaspern is. I’ll ask her if she knows ’em.”

“Said their parents had fallen on hard times. Think they moved into that house up on Pine that’s been empty for some time.”

“I’ll have to tell Art and we can bring over some of my famous Kentucky Burgoo.”

“How’s the sheriff’s croup been doing?”

“Oh, he’s all fine now. I think my burgoo is actually what cured him!”

Then they cackled like hyenas, and I slid the book I’d taken out back into place. My first reaction was to run home and tell Pop and Mama what I’d just found out, a likelihood that this lady’s cousin could spell trouble if she knew what we did to our house in Jaspern. But then I thought: fuck em. Maybe some trouble coming their way was what Mama and Pop deserved.

~

When I got back to the house, I felt confident that I had knowledge none of the rest of the family knew. I thought about telling Bette, since after yesterday I figured I was closest to her, but none of the kids were around. Mama was fanning herself with the old curtain Casey had removed last night.

“They’re at the Country Market,” Mama said. “Pop wanted fatback for salt pork tonight. He’s nappin’ now.”

Good, I thought, maybe stupid Little Earl would tell the cashier our last name so that lady’s cousin could find out who we really were and end Pop and Mama’s awful ways of raising us for once.

“You looked like you just crapped a piece of gold,” Mama said, and then lit a cigarette, chuckling. I eyed her screwy. “I mean you’re actually smiling. Didn’t know you could do that.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”

She blew a plume of smoke in my face. “Oh, is that a fact, smartass?”

“Why don’t you have a job?” I flat out asked, surprised I had the nerve. But ever since it had been mentioned, I needed to know.

She chuckled again, but this time it was laced with venom. “I ain’t ever bustin’ my ass so the government can take more than half of what’s rightfully mine.”

“So you just take what isn’t yours from them instead?”

She glanced at me differently than she ever had, as if the two of us had reached a more level playing field.

“Where is this all coming from?”

“I liked Nebraska,” I said. “Why couldn’t we have stayed?”

She ashed her smoke in a half empty old water bottle.

“Had no more money.”

“Why couldn’t you or Pop just make some?”

Pop came out of the bedroom, haggard with spittle in his fire-red beard.

“Thought I heard some bees buzzin’ about me.”

He limped over to Mama, who took him in her lap and rocked him like a small child. He picked the cigarette from her fingers and blew smoke in my face too.

“You grew a mouth all of a sudden, Duncan?”

I never stayed quiet because I was scared of them. It had always been easier to try to remain out of their crosshairs. But enough was enough, and if I didn’t say something I felt like I would explode.

“I’ve always had a mouth,” I said. “More like you grew ears all of a sudden.”

Pop and Mama turned to each other like they were pissed off at my lip, but then started guffawing. Suddenly, Pop stopped, his body gone rigid.

“I should smack that bullshit smirk right off your face,” he said.

We stared each other down, neither giving in. I wanted him to hit me so I could show I wouldn’t cry and make him feel smaller.

I had no idea what might happen next, but then the doorbell rang, eliminating any brutal outcomes.

Pop gave me a look not to move and opened the door to the lady I’d seen in the library earlier that day, a heavy pot in her hands. She was younger than the cashier lady but they had similar bouffant hairdos. She had chipmunk cheeks and held her weight in her neck, which wasn’t directly proportional to the rest of her head. Next to her stood a man in a sheriff’s uniform. He rested his hat in his hands, revealing a few wisps of hair that stood awry from his bald head. His eyes were penetrating, as if always scoping for lies.

“So sorry to bother,” the lady said. “I’m Luella and this here’s my husband Art, the sheriff of the county. We heard you recently moved and wanted to give y’all a real nice welcome to Elm Bluff.”

Mama poked her head over so she could see what was going on. I looked to make sure her breast hadn’t popped out of her blouse.

“Mighty nice of you, mighty nice,” Pop said, planting on a fake smile. I knew when he wasn’t truly happy since his smile would consume his beard. He wanted these people—really all people—far away from him and his brood. “Earl here,” he said, and swept his arm back. “That’s Georgia and one of my children, Duncan.”

Mama gave a flirtatious wave as Luella and Art stepped inside so they could see her. The shutters were closed so it was dark as usual.

“My wife makes the best Kentucky Burgoo,” Art said. “And when she told me we had new neighbors, I said we needed to bring ’em our leftovers.”

Mama finally rose to take the pot from Luella. “And here I was gonna slave over making salt pork for dinner. Now I just have to turn on the burner and set to boil.”

“Easy as sunshine,” Luella said, her chipmunk cheeks growing wider.

“Well, come in, come in,” Pop finally said, since Art and Luella seemed like they were on the edge of their seats for an invitation.

I set about opening all the shutters. Casey hadn’t finished making curtains for each window, so the sun revealed the squalor we’d been living in. I could see Art and Luella trying not to make faces, but failing. Pop wasn’t stupid and could sense their disdain.

“You know how it is with moving,” he said. “Everything’s a mess for a while.”

“Sure, sure,” Art said, his eye catching anything suspect that had been accidently left out. The almost empty liquor bottles, overflowing ashtrays, the funk in the air that us Babbs couldn’t smell anymore.

“So will you be starting our school soon?” Luella asked me.

“We’re homeschooled.”

“Oh,” Luella said, clearly taken aback. “Well, isn’t that modern.”

“I used to be a teacher,” Mama said, in a haughty tone, but that wasn’t true. “So me and Earl have it covered.”

“Oh, you both don’t work?” Luella asked, and then held onto her neck. “I’m sorry, I’m just a bundle of questions, ain’t I?” But the sheriff was watching Pop like he was waiting for the answer no matter what.

“Not working right now,” Pop said, sucking at his teeth. “You know how it is with new places, gotta get a sense of ’em before I decide what I can do.”

Everyone gave a half nod to this, not entirely sold.

“And where y’all from?” Art asked, directing the question at me since I probably seemed the most honest of the bunch.

Pop came up behind me, his powerful hands resting on my shoulders, dictating the precise answer he wanted.

“We moved from…” I began to say, but Pop gave a squeeze. “We’ve lived all over.”

“That right?” Art asked, picking at an itch on his nose.

“I like to show the family America,” Pop said, and Mama nodded like a crazy bobble head. “Best kind of education I can think of.”

“Where were you last?” Luella asked.

“Nebraska,” I said, before anyone else could answer.

Mama looked to Pop, Pop glanced down at me, his fingers squeezing tighter.

“My cousin Etta is from Nebraska…”

“Lovely state,” Mama said, as if that would end the conversation.

“Where in Nebraska?” Art asked, fully morphing into arm-of-the-law mode. He rubbed his chest where his sheriff’s star sparkled, reminding us of the trouble we could be in.

“Small town,” Mama said. “Most don’t know of it.” She opened a jewel box. “I make necklaces, started as a hobby but I sell them as well.” She held up a purple painted one stitched together with hemp and beads. “But I’d love to give y’all one for your kindness.”

“How darling,” Luella said, taking the necklace but seeming like she was unsure what to do with it. Mama indicated for her to put it on. Luella played the good sport and displayed it to everyone like she was some model. “Very talented.”

Mama hummed as if she’d heard this kind of praise again and again.

“So where in Nebraska?” Art asked.

“Tiny town called Uhearn,” Pop said, the lie rolling off his tongue.

“Uhearn, huh? Can’t say I know it.”

“Told ya,” Pop replied. “Tinier than tiny.”

“Well, Elm Bluff is a little bigger I’m sure,” Luella said. “Anyway, we don’t want to keep y’all, just came to say hi and if there’s anything you need, we’re about five minutes away down the main road.”

“So great to have such wonderful neighbors so close,” Pop said, his smile bigger than ever.

“Sure is,” Art replied, and then they were gone.

Mama took the saran wrap off the pot and gave a sniff. “Looks like puke and smells much worse.”

Pop was watching them out of the window as they made their way back into the sheriff’s car.

“She left the pot so they’d have to come back,” he said. “They were fishing for something.”

“Law always likes to be nosy,” Mama said, and lit a cigarette over the sink. “She looked like a half-wit.”

“And he looked like Humpty Dumpty,” Pop said, and then the two couldn’t stop laughing until Pop quit it when he realized I was still there.

“You weren’t gonna tell them about Jaspern, were you, Duncan?”

“I let y’all do the talkin’ as you saw.”

“That you did,” Pop said, but he had a suspicious glint in his eye. “That you did.”

Once they opened a new bottle, I grabbed the old curtains Mama had been using as fan and made my way into my closet/room. At the desk, I took out the pen Bette gave me and started writing our history since I didn’t have any paper. I began with us fleeing from each of the houses, flames in our rearview. The first one for me had been Dufrane, Mississippi where Pop and Mama had us light candles in every room and then we ran through the tiny house knocking them all down. In Rowan, Texas, Pop doused the place with gasoline, enough that I could smell it on my little fingers for days to come. Hullee, Oklahoma was where we lived in the funeral home where Mama left a flaming pile of laundry by the water heater. In Jaspern, they had us kids leave tons of oily rags in the trashcans and Pop tossed burning logs through the windows. It sounded like fireworks. After that, we arrived in Kentucky and everyone chose their rooms leaving me with the smallest one as if I was nothing more than a mop and a bucket. It felt good to get it out of my head and down onto something because our story needed to be told, this tale of tethered children tied to wild parents until we’d finally find a way to clip the cord. I wondered if that had already been set in motion.

~

My siblings returned from the Country Market in a whirlwind of chatter that forced me to quit my writing and see what was going on. Someone was barking, which I assumed was probably Casey since she often liked to make animal sounds. But an actual dog was causing the racket, a tiny white nugget of a thing with a black splotch over its eye.

“This is Patch,” Little Earl said. “Cause he has what looks like an eye patch on. He followed us from Country Market. I love him.”

Patch started biting at Bette’s ankle. “I don’t,” she said.

“Can we keep him, can we keep him, can we keep him?” Little Earl whined. Frannie started whining too and even Casey agreed that the family should have a pet.

“More the merrier,” Pop said, shrugging his shoulders. Mama didn’t seem pleased.

“I ain’t gonna be the one cleanin’ up after him is all,” she replied, before grabbing a bottle of rum and shutting herself up in her bedroom.

“Your Mama’s a bit miffed right now,” Pop said.

“Why so?” Roy asked.

“Well son, we just had a visit from the sheriff and his wife and they were asking a lot of nosy questions.”

“What about?” Casey asked, as she put the pork they’d gotten in the fridge.

“Where we came from,” Pop said. “Just how the law typically bothers regular folks. Po-lice are some of the most crooked ones you’ll ever meet.”

“What did you tell them?” Bette asked, cross-examining Pop as if she was a lawyer on some TV show.

Pop regarded Bette carefully, since the two of them rarely spoke, neither trusting the other.

“Made up a place.”

Bette’s laugh was cruel and designed to inflict pain.

“Think that was so smart?” she asked. “What happens when the sheriff looks up the place you lied about and can’t find it?”

“He ain’t gonna do that,” Pop said, waving her away.

“If you say so.”

She walked into the shadows, finished with delivering her atom bomb of a point. I could see it wasn’t setting well with Pop, the gears turning in his mind. What if? What if?

“’Scuse me,” Pop said, stumbling out of his chair into the bedroom and slamming the door. We could hear he and Mama talking low.

“You upset him, Bette!” Little Earl cried, but she was nowhere to be found. “Wha…where’d she go?”

I spied Bette through the window on the front porch, inhaling one of Mama’s cigarettes into her triumphant smirk.

~

That night, Pop’s wild beard loomed over me as he shook me awake. “Drill!” he screamed. “This is a drill!”

“Huh?”

“You get the fuck up, Duncan!”

He yanked me out of bed while I stood there shivering in my undies. In the dark, I managed to rustle up a pair of pants and an old shirt. The moonlight ignited a pathway into the hallway where Pop was clapping behind a sleepy Frannie and Little Earl with Patch whimpering at his bare feet. In the main room, Bette was covering her face since she didn’t have on any makeup. Casey and Roy were nodding off on each other’s shoulders before Mama snapped at them to wake up.

“Car,” Pop shouted, lining us up as we made our way to the outside chill, the hearse hazy in the distance.

“Why are we…?” I began to ask, but Pop slapped the back of my head.

“Stop being a nagging nelly, Duncan,” he said, getting in on the driver’s side as Mama slid next to him. Then in birth order Roy entered with Bette and Casey next.

I looked back at the drafty house that I already felt a soft spot for. I wasn’t ready to leave Elm Bluff and dug my feet into the mud in defiance. It had nothing to do with Kentucky. For once, I wanted to not worry that any day Pop and Mama could whisk us away.

“Move along, Duncan,” Little Earl said, kicking at my shins. Patch scooted around me to hop aside. “Good Patch, good dog.” Little Earl glared at me before jumping in.

“What’re you doin’?” Frannie asked, a soggy thumb hanging out of her mouth.

“Not feeding into their shit,” I said, and turned and walked back toward the house.

“Duncan!” I heard shouting behind me. “Duncan!”

Pop caught up with me before I reached the door.

“Who in the hell do you think you are?”

He was grabbing my arm. I twisted around until we were locked in this weird dance of wills.

“You’re already thinkin’ of leavin’,” I said.

“You heard that fuckin’ sheriff. He’s got our number.”

“It’s all gonna catch up with you eventually. I’m surprised it hasn’t already. Don’t bring us down with you.”

He blinked in disbelief. “We are in this together. It’s not your Mama and I versus the rest of the brood.”

“All you know is how to destroy.”

“You gettin’ mighty briggedy, ain’t you, Duncan? Think you know more than your old man?”

“It’s not gonna end well, Pop. What about that time in Oklahoma when Mama got hurt?”

“The flames surprised us that day. It won’t happen like that again.”

“How you know that? Her forehead got charred. What if something even worse happens the next time?”

“I’ll tell you this, I hope you get swallowed up by a hell storm of fire.”

“You mean that? You really mean that?”

We were in each other’s faces now, the rest of the family peering out of the hearse at our all-star fight.

“Sure do, cause you’re a deserter,” Pop said. “You’ve always regarded this family like you want nothin’ to do with us. So go, you weakling. Wander back into that house and see what destiny awaits you.”

Before I could even see his reaction, I spun around into the darkness and fled into my tiny room. I hovered over the desk, tears leaking on the old curtains where I set to continue writing our history here in Elm Bluff all the way up to my fight with Pop. I could hear them all coming back into house, talking about me but I didn’t care. I lost myself in my words until dawn broke and the sun had risen, dangling orange and bright along the horizon. My heart nearly cracked in two because I thought I smelled smoke. I rushed into the kitchen but it was just Casey over the stove, re-grilling the salt pork we had eaten last night.

“Where’s Pop and Mama?” I asked.

The rest of my siblings wouldn’t catch my eye as they waited for breakfast.

“Getting some fire-making provisions,” Bette said, the only one to meet my gaze. “We ain’t long for Elm Bluff.”

~

When Pop and Mama returned, they corralled us kids by the fireplace: newspaper crackling and stoking the flames that were like fingers reaching out to grab and take hold. I was transfixed by the power of the fire, the way it ruled us Babbs like our god, since we didn’t bow to any other—the very reason Pop and Mama never talked to their own pops and mamas.

“House should go up easy,” Pop said, flicking the top of his trusty Zippo, which always lit the first flame in any burn down. “Fire loves wood and this place has got wood aplenty.”

Mama curled her palm to her mouth to stifle a laugh; Pop enjoying their twisted foreplay.

“I’m thinking we leave the burners on and have the curtains go up, just like in Falmouth,” he said, licking his lips. “That house wasn’t much different.”

Casey beamed because everyone was looking at her curtains. “Yes, Pop,” she said, like she had final say in the matter, as if any of us did.

“So this’ll just be a pit stop, cause Mama and I ain’t feelin’ this town. Too many busy-bodies.”

“People need to mind their business,” Mama said. She started nodding until we all did, except for me. And I noticed Bette didn’t either, the two dissenters.

“So I’m thinking Tennessee,” Pop said. “Tennessee’s got great music, and Mama and I have been really into getting out the bongos and jamming. We wanna teach you guys about music more. We know we’ve been a little lax with your studies, but it’s because we weren’t groovin’ with Jaspern or this town. Mama, what’s even the name of this town?”

“Lameville,” she snorted.

“See that? And us Babbs, we ain’t lame folks. We’re special. We walk in the light. Our god lives in the flames, but it isn’t the devil, no siree. The devil doesn’t touch this family as much as he does everyone else. We use fire to beat him, keep him at bay. The devil left its mark on Mama’s forehead.”

Mama unraveled the bandana around her head, a thumbprint of a grape scar etched into her forehead. Pop left a kiss dead center.

“And I feel the devil here,” he said. “In that woman who brought over that funky soup—could’ve been laced with poison, and her husband being the sheriff is no good. Mama and I were in town at the Country Market and we heard whispering behind us, these folks here don’t like new blood. They’ll sniff it out and then pounce.”

He pounded the table with his fist, causing Frannie to jump. Little Earl giggled.

“Scaredy-cat,” Little Earl said to her.

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not.

“R2D2,” Little Earl said, and then fell over in his chair from laughing so hard. The last movie we had all seen in the one theater in Jaspern had been Return of the Jedi when Pop snuck us in.

“Goddamnit, pay attention,” Pop thundered, and pounded his fist again. Frannie got rigid. Roy picked up Little Earl and sat him back in his seat.

“Tomorrow at dawn, not a minute later, we’re out of this dump. And we never look back. I want you all packed and ready with your one suitcase. The smart ones should’ve never unpacked, just like Mama and me. We did the drill last night, all of us except for Duncan.”

His eyes bore into me, demons swirling in the pupils.

“You enjoy your little stunt?”

I could feel everyone’s eyes on me too, their gazes hot.

“Was no stunt.”

This time Mama smacked the back of my head. I bit my tongue, dots of blood forming.

“I bore you,” she said. “Yet sometimes I don’t believe it.”

“Don’t give him no thought, Mama,” Pop said, stroking his feral beard. “He can decide tomorrow if he’s still a Babbs or not. That’s right, you all can make that decision, cause once I put my foot on the gas, we ain’t turning around.”

“We’re with you, Pop,” Roy said, giving a sober nod. Casey followed quickly after. Both of them looked proud—the hypocrites. Little Earl pumped his fist in the air, while Frannie made moon eyes, enamored by all of their energy. Mama cradled a bottle of rum like the baby she no longer had, singing Creedence Clearwater’s “Long as I Can See the Light.” Only Bette was hard to read, not allowing any of us an idea about which way she leaned.

Normally Pop would be revealing in this jubilation, but he still zeroed in on me, his one child gaining the power to fuck everything up.

~

I couldn’t sleep, my mind buzzing with all the worst outcomes for tomorrow. I went to make a glass of hot milk and smoke was already coming from the kitchen. Bette was examining the curtains over the stove, cigarette in hand.

“Couldn’t sleep either?” she asked.

“What do you think Pop would do if we just stayed in bed past dusk and didn’t participate in his fire shenanigans?”

“If you and I did?”

“I’m serious.”

“If it was you and I he’d leave, Duncan.”

I knew that but needed to hear it said out loud.

“What about the rest of them?”

Bette took a drag from her cigarette, leaving a long ash hanging on.

“Mama he’d die for, that I believe. He’s crazy but he’s crazy in love with her, and she him, it’s the only good quality about both of them. You and I are too reasonable to ever be in love like that, to lose ourselves like they have.”

“Pop would come back for Roy,” I said, and Bette agreed.

“And Mama would for Casey, they have this weird bond. Casey’s like a little Mama.”

“And Little Earl’s a little Pop. They’d both come back for him and Frannie.”

“Yeah, it’s like by the time they had the twins they realized they didn’t have to parent so they don’t resent them like they do us.”

“I never thought about it that way.”

“Imagine how free they’d be without us, Duncan? A fire in every state, never unpacking.”

“I don’t wanna do it anymore,” I said, crying now, sniveling really, wiping my nose. “What if I called his bluff and put out every flame he tried to set?”

“This house is going ablaze tomorrow no matter what we do. And as much as I agree with you, Duncan, I ain’t going down with it.”

She ashed her cigarette on the counter and found the shadows like she always did, the cherry still growing orange. I watched it get bigger, ready to threaten, but then it died out, a thin band of smoke swirling to the ceiling.

~

Since Patch the stray dog was a beagle, he howled all through the night. A few times I heard Little Earl trying to calm him down. I caught about half an hour of sleep before morning came, hot and ready, the sun like a spotlight.

Pop’s cowbell rang throughout the house.

Clang! Clang! Clang!

“Up and at ’em, up and at ’em,” Pop roared from room to room. White powder crusted in his moustache, Mama swinging from his arm.

“Moving day, baby,” she said, and kissed him. They stumbled back into my desk, knocking off the old curtains where I’d written our stories.

“Don’t ruin this for us,” Pop said, when I went to pick up the curtains. Pop was too quick, swiping the curtains and gazing at my words.

“Well, this must be your little baby girl diary, Duncan. Baby girl’s got her first little journal where she writes down her pretty little thoughts.”

I’d go for his bad leg, having already planned the fight between us . He had no kind of balance. He’d topple over immediately.

Pop took out his Zippo and lit the curtains, which instantly went up in flames.

“You can’t do that!” I screamed.

“Nuh-uh, we cannot have our secrets displayed like this. You know better.”I wanted him to be tortured. He needed to understand the pain of watching my writing become scorched.

Like lightning Pop was gone. I ran to the hallway, pushing Mama aside, the rest of the family already in the main room, suitcases in hand.

“We got no time for your suitcase, Duncan!” Pop shouted, marching toward the kitchen. He turned all the burners on high, the Kentucky Bargoo still in a pot, starting to sizzle.

I looked over at Bette, but she avoided me by pretending to fix her hair.

Mama galloped from the hallway like she was riding a horse, the apocalypse falling into place. The Bargoo bubbled red, eager to spill over the sides. Mama flung open the door, the sun making us squint. Roy headed outside followed by Bette and Casey while Mama directed traffic. She didn’t even give me a chance to hesitate, her fingernail digging into my wrist as she yanked me out the door. I stumbled to the ground, skinning my knees on the hard dirt. Little Earl and Patch barreled out afterwards, giddy with excitement, and Frannie popped both thumbs in her mouth as she blinked at the light.

The hearse sat idling, smoke pumping from the back pipe. Gasoline in the air. From the ground, I had a view of the curtains being eaten by fire in the kitchen as Pop sped out. I stayed put, but he grabbed my arm, not even looking me in the eye, dragging me to the car. Roy, Bette, and Casey filed inside, and Mama sat shotgun, the window rolled down as she popped her head out. Pop dragged me relentlessly, my body flopping around like a puppet, bloodstains left behind from my skinned knees. I tried to wrench away but he was too strong. The hearse his only focus, and Elm Bluff already in the rearview.

Little Earl helped Frannie into the back with a push, then went to scoop up the dog.

“C’mon, Patchie,” he said, but the dog slipped through his hands. Little Earl tried again, and Patch scurried through his legs. I watched the dog zip by me to the house, self-destructive like the rest of us Babbs.

“Patch!” Little Earl yelled, his face turned red, tears ready to overflow.

Patch ran toward the faint smoke already showing its might. The air crackled with crumbling wood. Fire shot out of the kitchen window, shattering glass. Patch was inside before anybody had a chance to move. Pop gripped my arm tighter.

“Patch!” Little Earl wailed, kicking up dust as he burst toward the chaos. I was frozen, my brain not working well enough to stop him, or maybe that was just an excuse I’d decided on because I set my mind to the fact that something needed to change. Pop did grab me tighter, and it would’ve been hard to wrestle away, but I didn’t even try.

A sonic boom blew out my eardrums. A house in disrepair like this could have exploded without Pop’s assistance. That was why he chose it, chose all of them. I was knocked unconscious, a blessing as I saw it, for the rest of the Babbs had to watch what they’d done.

I’d never pretend I wasn’t guilty too, just saying I was spared.

~

I woke up to a mix of smelling salts and sirens, in and out of consciousness, fire hoses spraying water, the air clogged with screams. And then I went under again, before reviving in an ambulance. Through the back window, I could see Pop and Mama handcuffed over a police car. The rest of the kids being led into the sheriff’s wagon, and a tiny body covered by a dark blanket, unmistakably Little Earl. An untamed, impulsive creature whose death allowed us to finally be free.

Lee Matthew Goldberg is author of the novels Slow Down and The Mentor. He has been published in multiple languages and nominated for the 2018 Prix du Polar. The first two books in a thriller series, The Desire Card and Prey No More, are forthcoming in 2019. After graduating with an MFA from the New School, his writing has also appeared in the anthology Dirty Boulevard, The Millions, The Montreal Review, The Adirondack Review, Essays & Fictions, The New Plains Review, and others. He is the co-curator of The Guerrilla Lit Reading Series. He lives in New York City. Follow him at his website and on Twitter @LeeMatthewG.