Ghost of a Smile Like Yours

By Malcolm Graham Cooper

The roof had caved in.

Through the glassless front windows, two planks forming a giant V revealed themselves among a carnage of shingles and broken furniture. The place was an anomaly: Empty, serene fields that once sluiced oil through its undercarriage made it look like some mistake of nature. Theo shielded his eyes and grimaced against the sun. He felt like the house had left a gash on his thigh. The last time he stood in this exact spot his grandfather rocked shirtless on the porch with a Remington 1100, yelling at skunks in broken English, as if they could understand. He would walk around town talking to himself, stopping to look in store windows, and accost people on the sidewalk, insisting that they shut up for once. Again shirtless, he licked telephone poles and whistled up and down the street, a tune he learned in his youth most likely, or something he heard on the radio somewhere. Now, the oil tower loomed high up in the clear October sky, almost weightless, silent and still; it stopped producing on the day his grandfather died. Theo took over the mineral lease, as per the will.

The pipeline workers stood in the empty space toward the woods. One held a giant map while the other pointed along the ground, most likely tracing the pipe's route. Both wore yellow hardhats, which to Theo seemed more like pageantry than a function of safety. They nodded quickly, and the one not holding the map began to walk.

“Looks like a pretty good read,” he said. His face was long and red with a goatee more speckled than thick.

Theo didn't know what to say back. The guy had blue eyes that looked like shattered glass. He didn't look at Theo – he stared through him to something else behind.

Finally, the worker gained some sort of concentration and looked at Theo straight in the eyes.

“Are you,” flipping through the pages of his clipboard, “Ronald Sumner?”

The ground was marked in the dying grass with fluorescent pink, a straight line drawn by a man with a pulley. “Um, no,” Theo said without looking at the man, just breathing through his mouth with his necked turned. “That was my grandfather.”

Through the empty windows, the old paint on the walls peeled in barnacles of various colors of dark decay, a cosmic vacuum; the spaces left beneath hinted a light green. Theo remembered that same front room, lit up by an unkempt fire and the black and white television that his grandfather put on a stack of books in front of his recliner. With a blunt, mangled cigar in his right cheek at all times — a fine line of yellow spittle tracing a nicotine stain down his chin — he propped up his feet, hands on a beer-bloated gut, propelling a voice against the youngsters singing on TV, their colored hair and wailing, their electronic blues and skinny dresses, grandma all the while never complaining because she knew that it was a battle she could never win. He satisfied his ever-racing mind as he yelled at the variety acts on public television, going so far as to beg his wife to murder him; he always refused to turn the channel. Finally, he up and died one day, suddenly, in the foyer as he cleaned the fake plants.

The pipeline worker stood impatiently. Theo grabbed a copy of his grandfather’s will and the mineral lease papers from his back pocket. What was printed on a few sheets of paper revealed little to him: The field in itself was worthless even before his grandfather bought it; regardless of any sort of investment as motive, his grandfather always insisted that large spaces reminded him of the movies: A vast, empty landscape that never ends or begins, cut jagged across a wide-angle, spanning infinite space as the sun outlines more nothingness in the vanishing point. With no cattle, no soil to plant, let alone the lack of some of the most basic, foundational benefits enjoyed by most commercial land — it sloped rather drastically toward the once-unpaved road — it was just some empty place of rot in the middle of nowhere.

There was little else to be said to the man in the hardhat. The worker plaintively motioned with his finger to the key boxes in which Theo was to sign his name, hidden in dense text. Theo didn’t care about anything being said to him — the effort to sign alone in itself was some caustic joke. The pen started running out of ink as he made the final S in his initial. He handed over the clipboard to the man despite the final S looking spotty and imprinted colorlessly on the page. Apparently, given the blank nod, that was enough. The worker, now free of his obligation, nodded and turned around, motioning to a faded yellow pickup entering the field from a wooden fence. Theo stood, mentally unable to move. More orange-clad workers came out of the truck, their shared color a stark contrast to the gray of field. Theo rubbed his eyes and looked up — the mass of orange bodies became a part of the landscape, as insignificant on the ground on which they tread.

Theo’s father had died ten years earlier of a pulmonary embolism. Seared onto the meat from which memory arises in the brain, there was the image of his father on the ground, groaning in pain, and Theo’s own inability to act or do anything. He never did call 911. He often felt an urge to feel responsible, but in the end, it was a random act of the universe that could never be stopped by the likes of men. The role of the self-loathing child was too self-involved, an excuse to discount the past. Theo had loved his father, but nothing could be done about the rest.

Theo sat there in the room as the lawyer itemized the will of his grandfather. As the oldest of three — one brother and a perpetually young sister — he was given the useless property. It was his own to deal with. Everybody seemed to find that okay.

“What about the jewelry?” Theo’s sister had the attention of the entire room, her voice a frightening wail penetrating the borders of socially acceptable sound levels. “My grandmother’s

jewelry.”

The lawyer looked down at his desk. Theo imagined him searching for something he had been looking for for quite some time. As an afterthought, perhaps to gain a second sight, he lowered his glasses, long gray eyebrows luminescent by a slant of light against the shadow of the frames. He frowned and turned another page.

“Your grandmother is not mentioned in this document.” He looked above his glasses, which were resting so far down on his nose that he had to make the effort to lean back in his leather chair to read. “And I was not her attorney, so either she was buried in it, gave it away, or somebody else in the family has it. Who knows?” The chair rested back on its front legs. The lawyer folded his hands on the desk.

“Wasn’t that supposed to be taken care of? Didn’t she have a reading like this?” Some impetus in her body sent her shoulders forward and the wrinkles on her pale forehead to tighten. Her green

eyes had somehow lost their shrewd glare, reminding Theo of a much younger version of herself, a vulnerable, frightened girl who would never leave the house.

Baby Brandon made himself known for the first time. “How do we find her will?” He furrowed his brow in the way he does when worried of some lingering threat, some outrageous act of injustice. Theo gave him the simple nickname and it stuck. It gave Brandon hell. But as quickly as his face tightened, it relaxed in some sort of understanding — Theo knew that it was the realization that their mother had found out a way to get the jewelry, the entire stockpile, pearl necklaces and tight diamond chokers. There were so many diamonds, probably even more than Theo had ever seen, glinting out there in the afternoon light as his mother brought him a sandwich during some endless summer afternoon.

Lexi got out of her chair without making a scene, pulling at the heavy door and nearly falling over from the unnatural nature of her pumps. Theo met her outside. He bummed a cigarette from his sister. There was a homeless man in front of the convenience store next to the office; the man’s long beard and wanting stare loomed over Theo’s chest. He grimaced as he inhaled the smoke, his hand over his mouth. Lexi always liked menthols.

She lifted her head up — long, dark auburn hair in a tight bun, making her profile that of a pharaoh. “I fucking love smoking,” Lexi said. She turned and regarded Theo, slowly squinting her green eyes and looking deep into his eye sockets.

“I do too,” Theo said. He blew a long rope of smoke down onto the concrete, marking the ghostly manifestation of a sigh.

“She’s doing it again,” said his sister.

“Yeah, but I guess I owe it to her this time.”

Lexi snorted in the way that made Theo want to rip her face off. “You owe that brat nothing,” she laughed. After a short walk, she stuck out her tongue and made big, bulging eyes — her representation of his wife, Natalie, that frankly made him cringe.

“Fuck off,” Theo said in response, falling short of any sort of witty reply.

Lexi buckled her knees and descended onto the concrete, her legs resting sideways, curled and with her arms splayed wide in the sun. After a few scant, silent moments, Lexi hoisted herself off the ground with mock intensity. She arose and took a deep breath.

“Ah, now that’s why she gets away with it.” She pointed a twirling, accusing finger at Theo. “You are whipped,” she cackled, “like a gelding.” She pushed Theo back on his forehead. “Little man.” Her lips tightened white against the cigarette filter, manicured eyebrows perking up.

Theo wanted to punch her. This interaction had gone on like this for the better part of a decade. But despite his self-loathing, his acknowledgment that deep down — down there where things

get stuffed and buried, where he was afraid to face the world on his own, fractured and alone — Natalie would always be the best thing for him. Since their miscarriage, he learned to love her in spite

of himself, in spite of their shared tragedy.

His sister looked down at the ground, blank. Her smooth, tight skin secured an ageless face in all its charm. “I guess it’s true about boys and their moms,” she said, flicking the butt into the parking lot.

“They say the same about girls and their dads, too,” Theo said.

Theo negotiated the unpaved road through the back corners of the small town leading up to what amounted to his land, thinking about how everything was really endless and how things only gave the illusion to the contrary. Everything was grayed by a slight fog — a common occurrence in this country that Theo never really got used to — obscuring outlines of former car tires guiding the path on which his car was supposed to take. Some black outlines of houses cut through as he drove, houses from another time, some decrepit and cold with trash in adjacent lots, as if giving up was the only way to survive. A strange purple glowed through the dead branches of trees, Theo’s eyes drawn to its conspicuous glare.

And then the tremor from below. The truck rumbled, kicked up, sputtering against the dirt. Theo felt the impact in his jaw, tightening, a sudden rush to the head both blinding and outrageous. Theo’s jaw clenched in response, black dots frantically bouncing in front of his eyes. He turned around, more to gain some composure than anything, and squinted through the single-pane back window, the only view behind the car given a missing rear view mirror. At first, the thing looked like a suitcase — a threadbare lump of brownish material left in the middle of the road. It gave no sign of mobility, no movement to indicate what it was exactly.

The dog was sprawled on the dirt. Its intestines milky, crooked sausages, its eyes still moving. It breathed intermittently. Twitches in legs marked something being lost in quick bursts, again and again and again. How long? It was a golden retriever, and the overwhelming effluvium of blood dotted a dozen places at once, coating the fur in a dark matte. The woman’s voice lowered as he saw her approach — arms at her sides, defiant against the image before her. The old man kept his head down, silent in a sort of defiance; he shook his head, rubbed his eyes, blinked, and shook his head again. Her wrinkled lips came within an inch of Theo’s ear. “You fucker,” she said. The words, like endless smog dissipating over a distance, seethed into the canal down the small of his back. She proceeded to grab the front of Theo’s shirt, at which point his brain melted into black and blind anxiety, starting at the peripheral and bulging to the center of his vision. On and on, he was blind, left to baser matters.

“Fuck your mother.” It was all he could say in that endless moment.

The husband had already begun guiding the lady by the shoulders inside before the sentence could register on her face, his old man face giggling as he whispered. Theo’s knees gave out, his breath too hard to find. He found it as he sat on the curb and covered his face with his hands. He wanted to look at what was left of the dog. Look at his handiwork. But looking — not only the seeing but the physical act of turning his head and moving his eyes — would then make it real. The old man and the old lady were already closing the door to the dark house. Theo grit his teeth — he felt sorry for the thing. Mostly sorry, though, for how he handled himself behind the wheel with his mind at work.

Soon the old man walked laboriously out his front gate, carrying a shovel almost useless with rust. He had a look of pale action on his face — this was a routine, albeit a tragic occurrence. Without looking at Theo, he slammed the shovel down near the dead dog and hoisted the carcass with a heavy scrape. He began emptying the contents into a blue plastic trash can. After a couple more loads, all that was left on the blacktop was a crimson pool with some white flecks scattered within. Saying nothing, the man picked up the trash can and went back to his house, closing the gate behind him. Theo decided to sit on the curb for just a moment longer, trying to let his thoughts justify whatever it was he saw. He breathed in again, heavily, and thought about his wife; she loved dogs.

The lady and the old man came out of the house. Now she had a smile on her face, a stark contrast to the former shrieking surprise from a moment ago.

“I’m sorry,” Theo said. He couldn’t come up with anything better.

She walked up to him. He braced for a slap, a punch, some sort of violent contact. Her head came up to his shoulder, and she got very close to him — uncomfortably close. She looked up into Theo’s ear.

“Now you’ve done it,” she whispered.

“Done what?” he said.

“Now you’ve got to explain this to my daughter.”

The old man had disappeared into the house.

Inside, everything was a wreck — yellow newspapers, stacked high, made a small path for Theo to take through the entryway; on every wall was some sort of cow-related memorabilia, from commemorative plates to roadside signs advertising “mooving” sales; in the kitchen, some rusted signs and advertisements from a racist chain of restaurants towered over him.

The old lady started to make grilled cheese. The old man sat next to Theo, smiling wanly. The tablecloth was checkered red and white. She served him with what seemed like a sincere smile on her face. He bit into the sandwich and immediately caught the taste of mayonnaise.

“So, where are you from?” she said. She pulled out the chair across from Theo’s and sat down, putting her hands underneath her chin. Was this an act? It looked as if she made a violent transformation from the crying lady in the street.

“Farstead,” Theo said.

“Oh, a country boy, then?” she said.

“I guess.”

The old man scooted his chair closer to him. Their legs touched.

“Do you want to see her?” said the old lady.

“Who?” said Theo.

“Adelaide — our daughter.”

Fearing he had no other choice, Theo said, “Yes, please.”

As they climbed the steps, Theo asked the couple if they had any more children. No, they insisted. Only Adelaide. At the top, the old man caught Theo as the old lady went into the room down

the hallway.

“Listen,” he whispered, “I don’t know what you’re doing here, but I don’t like it.”

Theo scratched his nose, looking for a way around what he said. “Excuse me?” Theo felt like pushing him down the rotting stairs, taking off down the ledge and leaving out the front door.

“Look,” he began again, “our daughter died ten years ago. She can’t cope.”

Theo’s heart calmed down a little. At least he wouldn’t have to explain himself again. “I see.”

“Just take it easy,” he said, pushing past Theo down the hall.

The room was bright and airy. Lace was everywhere — on the curtains, on the bedside table, on the floor like a rug. The light that came through transformed everything crystalline. On an ornate,

golden chair in the center of the room sat a beautiful doll, transformed by dust and age but still retaining its everlasting, lifelike luster. Its eyes were a deep brown, overtaking the milky white color of her skin. She was dressed in an emerald flowing gown with lace on the neck, which went high up to the base of her empty face.

“What’s your name?” the old lady said.

“Theo.”

“Nice to meet you, Theo!” The old lady spoke in a voice not unlike her own, but it was perverted in some way; it was much too high and cracked as it went up.

Theo looked down at the doll, at the old man, and finally back to the old woman. She smiled.

“Nice to meet you,” Theo said, looking at the old woman and back down to the doll, “Adelaide.”

The old lady clapped, joyous. The old man walked over to her and took her hand, smiling at Theo again.

“What is your favorite color?” The old woman used that voice again, that high-pitched squeal.

He thought about it. “Blue,” he said.

“Oh! How very noble of you!”

Theo looked at the old man. He nodded at him. “Yes, very noble indeed.”

“Did you kill my dog?”

“What?”

“A simple question — “ The old lady began to rock the doll. “Did you kill my dog?

He didn’t have to think about it this time. “Yes, I killed your dog.”

The woman clapped. “And do you have any siblings?”

“Two. A sister and a brother.”

“Do you ever feel alone?” Now the voice backed off, a note or two lower than before.

“Alone?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t say.”

The old woman covered her face. “I feel very alone. Adelaide feels very alone.”

Theo stood up. The woman followed, looking into his eyes. “Sorry. I can’t do this,” he said.

The wrinkles in the old lady’s face began to move, her mouth began to quiver, and she began to cry. Soon, she was sobbing. She ran out of the room.

The old man came up to Theo, his face stern, and took his elbow. “Let her go,” he said.

Outside, in the back, the husband and Theo hoisted what was left of the carcass of the dog out of the trash can and buried it. They drank warm beers and shoveled dirt over the remains.

“One more thing,” he said, returning to the back door.

“Yes?” Theo said.

“Don’t forget to write to Adelaide.” He went inside and turned off the light.

In his car, Theo’s chest began to ache. Theo hooked up his iPod to the auxiliary and turned the music as loud as it would go. On the way home, he stopped off at the stationary store and bought some paper with roses on it to send to Adelaide.

Theo went back to his grandfather’s field. It was busier than when he last left it — a state of dismal, silent fury; where once there were stakes colored with plastic flags, workmen walking up long rows of trenches, marking on clipboards, now were four steel siege tower structures moving cables up and down between the metal pillars. Somewhere rang that constant yawn, a phantom echo of some sleeping behemoth or machine lumbering past the point of sight in the dusk. The drone wouldn’t go away, no matter how much Theo plugged up his ears with his fingers. Theo couldn’t help but second guess where he was — was it the wrong road? How could this have been built up in a day? A worker approached him; it could have been the same guy from before, but Theo couldn’t be sure.

“Mr. Sumner, your lawyer’s gotta get you outta this plot,” he said. He held up his hands, palms first.

“Why?”

“The gross impediments, sir.”

“Gross impediments?”

“Yessir.”

“I know, but what impediments?”

“As you can see, it’s a safety hazard.” He motioned behind him, revealing an entirely new aspect to the machine that Theo had failed to notice. The long strings of the pulley system were hauling mammoth ivory disk-shaped objects.

“What are those?” Theo said.

“Long as half a football field,” said the man.

“Ok. But what are they?”

“Pretty sure they’re bones.”

“Bones?”

“Bones, sir. Yes.”

Theo knew that couldn’t be right. It didn’t even sound right — bones in a pipeline.

He licked his lips. “How did they get there?”

“I dunno, sir. They ain’t supposed to be here. There ain’t even any pipe what’s left.”

“No pipe?”

“No pipe. Giant bones. Or so a man tells us.”

Theo wanted to scream at the deranged absurdity of it all.

The man squinted his eyes. “Not a trace of pipe left. What we gonna do with these bones? They’re not supposed to be here. Didn’t even see them on the screen. They aren’t here.” He scratched

his cheek. “Well, they are here.”

“Yes. You’re right about that.” Theo turned around to his car.

Theo got back to the house and a note from his wife Natalie was waiting on the newly-polished kitchen counter. It said something about the inevitable, the timing of it all being right, but Theo couldn’t really care; he knew it was going to happen like somebody with the flu facing the basic facts of the human body. He tried to feel something, which was followed by a Fuck It within his mind, then back to the push toward a responsibility to feel something about it, but in the end, he couldn’t muster anything he felt he was supposed to. He couldn’t help but compare this to the death of his father — the overarching will enforced upon him to behave a certain way when all the while inside grief, in all its complexity, was disturbed and questioned by whatever was pushing it from outside. All grief returning to him now took the form of some loss of flesh — her immaculate palms, the way her mouth twitched while concentrating, legs that twisted and turned like milk.

As Theo went to his car, he could see the dark red remnants of dog gore baked on his tires. He hesitated before he turned left onto Orchard because he knew that if he started the route to his

mother’s house, he had little chance of turning back; nothing else was there behind him. The drive was marked by long stretches of crumbling shopping malls, places that once encouraged an upper

middle-class paradise out in the middle of endless fields and rain, but now fell under a shadow of empty parking lots and lone shopping carts cradling homeless inventory.

Out to where only a few shops — check cashing places, liquor stores, Goodwills — dotted the fields passing by, Theo pulled into his mother’s apartment complex, finding no space save for a

handicap spot; he pulled in and parked anyway. He knocked on her door, apartment 357. Inside, Led Zeppelin played low. Theo looked through the vines and could see movement. He knocked again, and

then another time. Finally, the door opened and his mother stared at him, squinting against the sun. Her kinky hair sparkled as the sun flowed through it into the dark apartment.

“Who the hell told you to come here?” she said as the door began to close in front of her.

“It’s nice to see you, ma,” Theo said. Theo just stood there as the door slammed. He could hear his mother rummaging around — glass clinking, a coffee table screeching on the linoleum tile, the

t.v and music coming down. After a long time of waiting out there in the fall weather, watching some leaves fall to the ground, his mother’s door opened. He stepped inside.

The darkness of her living room didn’t surprise him. Soon his eyes adjusted and he saw her sitting there on the couch, all slouched and weary-eyed and small. On the coffee table in front of her was a sheet of tinfoil with a zig-zagging line going down the middle; next to it, a straw.

“Mom,” Theo said, “I thought you cut that shit out.” He motioned toward the table.

She just shrugged her shoulders. Her face sank in, the skin harder and more worn than Theo remembered. She was skinny — the tank top she wore sagged over her body like a wet trash bag, her shoulders pointed and hollow. She wore no makeup like Theo always remembered, and her eyelashes were nearly gone, what was left of them haphazardly growing out of the flesh above her sunken eyes.

Theo’s mother tapped on a cigarette but it missed the ashtray. “I ain’t got them pearls, by the way.”

“How do you know I was here about the pearls?” Theo said. He moved closer to his mother.

“Lexi came around here the other day. Said your grandfather wanted her to have them.” She stubbed out the cigarette and grabbed a liter of Mountain Dew. “But I knew that was bullshit. I witnessed that will. They ain’t in it.”

Theo walked up to the coffee table and grabbed the tinfoil; the tar was still fresh — it hadn’t been smoked yet. He rolled it into a ball. “You’re done with this, ma. I’m here for Lexi.”

“You fucking give that back to me, I swear —“ She stood up and started to rummage around inside the couch.

“You never gave a shit about Lexi. You were alright to Brandon and I, but Lexi —“

Theo’s mother stood up straight. She pointed a handgun at Theo, shaking. It looked like she was going to cry, judging from the quivering of the muscles around her eyes. “Give that back to me, Theo. Now.”

“Ma, are you fucking crazy?”

“I ain’t got the pearls, I swear. Look around.”

“Ok, I believe you,” Theo said. He held out his hands, reaching and grasping at nothing. He tried to keep his voice calm, remembering everything he learned about de-escalation from the marriage counselor. Of course, that never involved a gun, but Theo felt calm enough to assess the situation, believing his mother would never even think of firing. “Just think for a second, ma.”

His mother just stared at him and shook violently; her entire body seemed to want to ooze out of its skin.

“You can’t even afford to fire that gun,” said Theo.

When she looked up at the ceiling for an instant, Theo pounced. He tackled his mother, and the gun clicked before falling to the floor. They hit the floor at the same time, and the gun slid into the kitchen.

“Ouch, fucker!” His mother’s voice rose to a bloody wail. The insides of his ears started to burn.

Theo stood up over his mother. She shook back and forth, holding her left arm; it was bent at the elbow but already red. It was unlikely that anything serious had happened to it — the force with

which Theo restrained her wasn’t enough to fracture a bone.

“Mom, you’re fine.”

“You broke my arm, you idiot! What have I ever done to you?” She was crying. A spit bubble formed out of her mouth and popped when she sobbed again.

“Get up,” Theo said.

“I can’t. You broke it!”

Theo wondered if it was really broken. What would that make him? A horrible person. Who beats up on a junky? On their own mother? He really didn’t mean to do it — he could have handled it some other way. Or so he thought. He reached into his pocket and grasped the ball of tinfoil. He threw it at his mother on the floor.

“Do what you need to do,” he said, “and I’ll drive you to the ER.”

She looked up, resigned. “You know,” she said, “I never meant to hurt you. Or your sister. Please believe me.”

“I know,” Theo said and walked out the door.

When Theo dropped his mother off at the ER, he reached over to her seat and gave her an awkward, sideways hug. She kissed him on the cheek and rubbed it in.

“I was never going to shoot you,” she said.

“You say that now,” he said, “but I dunno.”

“I swear on my life,” she said.

Theo remembered the time she pulled a knife on Brandon when he refused to give her a ride to score. And the time she pulled out most of Lexi’s hair when she caught her with a boy in the basement.

“Whatever,” Theo said. “Just get yourself checked out.”

She opened the door with as much force as she could muster, which was barely enough to separate the door from the frame. Theo had to reach over and push it even more. She stumbled out onto the concrete, crossing the threshold of the automatic doors with at least enough balance to convince the security guard that she could walk on her own volition. He tipped his cap at her and motioned for Theo to move his car. He wondered if he would ever see her again.

Lexi was waiting at their grandfather’s former house as Theo pulled into the dirt driveway. The sun painted the sky an obscure shade of purple in the west, illuminating the clouds and violating the mountains with a wash of gold. The pipeline workers all seemed to have left. Out in the field, the neutral light revealed a field of broken white — pieces of bone, a fine powder in patches along the road, and four or five enormous pieces that looked like tusks from an elephant. Theo still wasn’t so sure about the bones — it all seemed so elaborately convenient. But there they were, and the trenches along the field, deep and wet, were void of everything save for more of the white chunks piled high.

“Nice hair,” Theo said. He walked up to his sister and tugged on a clump of the new green mane that frizzed up around her head.

“I’m just trying it out. I haven’t decided.” She drank from a Pabst can. A twelve-pack sat at her feet.

Theo grabbed a can out of the box. There were two left. “Christ, how long have you been here?”

“Since four,” said Lexi. “So I guess about three hours, give or take.”

She sipped from the can and wiped her chin. “Hey, did you know there’s a bunch of bones out there?”

“I’m well aware,” said Theo.

“Weird,” Lexi said.

Theo sat down on the porch. “You know mom pulled that gun on me tonight? By the way, she doesn’t have the pearls. Let alone any diamonds.” Theo reached out a hand, indicating he wanted a cigarette. Lexi pulled one out for him. She blew out her cigarette smoke in a violent puff of air. All Theo could see was the cherry and the outline of her face. “But I guess you knew that,” Theo said. “She said you were there.”

“Yeah, she tried to do the gun thing with me,” Lexi said. “The trigger spring on that Glock has been broken for at least three years. It used to be mine, but she took it from me.” She flicked her cigarette butt out into the yard. “She wouldn’t know what was wrong with it. And besides, she can’t possibly have any ammunition.”

“That’s what I said.” Theo took another beer, cracked it open, and took a long sip. He grimaced. “I’ve got a plan, Lex, and you’re the only person stupid enough to help me.”

“I already know what you’re thinking. That’s why I’m here.” Lexi stood up and balanced on one leg.

Theo had Lexi follow him into the basement of the decrepit house. Inside, moonlight shone through small holes in the walls that had been boarded up. The stars were visible from an empty patch in the ceiling. Theo marveled at how his grandfather could have lived in such conditions for so long — years, almost, at least since his grandmother died. The place was primitive in every sense of the word — everything was either board or nails or rust, some galvanized piping or electrical wiring exposed in the walls. They went down into the basement and carried up three red tanks of gasoline. They began to pour it out on the stairs, the floorboards, against the walls, and all around the kitchen.

“Watch it,” Theo said. “Don’t get any on you.”

“How am I supposed to do that? It’s all over the place.” Lexi threw down the last empty tank.

Outside, the siblings looked at the decrepit house.

“Now what?” Theo said.

“We can’t just walk in with a lighter and blow it up,” Lexi said. She smelled her hands.

“Wait,” Theo said, running to his car.

He came back with two cylinders. “Roman candles,” he said.

He didn’t know exactly how this would work, but he knew how a fire started; there’s an accelerant, there’s a spark, there’s a flame. Theo always knew he was going the wrong way, but that all

depended on where he was coming from.

©2020 by Variant Literature Inc.