Issue Forty - Summer 2022

Fire in the Hills

By Carrie Lynn Hawthorne

I am at Reeder’s Mortuary where everything is heavy –- the drapes, the cherry wood furniture, the dust on the fake flowers, the makeup on the funeral director’s face. It’s been a week since Luke, my six-year-old nephew, died of brain cancer.

In my lap is the stuffed Crayola bunny I’ve had since I was small. My finger finds his silky tag. His name is Bun-Bun, and I sleep with him every night, even though fifteen is too old for stuffed animals.

We file into a small room for the viewing. I squeeze Bun-Bun. Nothing can prepare me for this. Luke seems illuminated; a spotlight shines on him. It doesn’t look like him at all. He appears almost normal. What I knew was a suffering child who woke up screaming when I babysat him. Paralyzed from so many brain surgeries, he could hardly move.

My sister, Naomi, sets a pair of sneakers at his feet. “So my boy can run.”

I kiss his cold cheek and tuck Bun-Bun in beside him. So he can sleep.

I read my poem at the front of the packed church sanctuary, “Lucas, Lucas, we have only today, Lucas, come out and play…”

There are children at this funeral, Luke’s age. They fidget and chatter. They’ve got to get outside; they’ve got light in their eyes that shines brighter in the face of darkness. Kids don’t understand death, forever, never coming back. They only know the way sun makes rainbows on bubbles, how they float away on the wind, and when they pop you blow more.

After the funeral, we are at El Jardin, a local Mexican restaurant. Margaritas all around, pitchers of them. Baskets of warm, salty tortilla chips and salsa with the right amount of spice.

My family is all here -– cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws, their faces frozen in laughter. If we stop laughing, it will hit us, this axe right through the center of us, this hole so big we can feel the wind barreling through.

Naomi stands with Luke’s baby blanket, her hips swaying. She doesn’t eat or drink anything. Her words roll right off her tongue, as if she has been practicing them.

It must be the middle of the night. Everybody is on the right side of drunk. My friend, Isabel, is spending the night. We are sitting at the kitchen table drinking wine coolers. Naomi cuts us each a gigantic piece of Texas funeral cake, chocolate with fudge frosting and crunchy pecans.

“My little Luke loves chocolate, but he hates nuts,” she says.

The cake is sweeter than I remember any dessert ever tasting. When the adults are in the other room, Isabel kisses me and she tastes like piña colada. The August night is so hot we have the sliding glass door wide open. I light up a cigarette right there in the kitchen and I use the rest of my cake as an ashtray, and no one says a damn thing.

Isabel and I head upstairs to my bed, but we find it occupied with cousins. I go in my mom’s room and find her asleep in her bed. She has made me a little pallet on the floor next to her. I pull Isabel down onto the carpet and we slide under the covers.

“I don’t want to wake up your mom,” Isabel whispers.

“She’s dead to the world. Don’t worry about her.”

We explore each other’s bodies in that silent, forbidden way that teenagers do.

Across the street from our house is a hill, and on top of the hill is a windmill. Next to the windmill is a rock, and in the rock is a little groove where I have put out about a thousand cigarettes. I look down on the valley where I have always lived, and it looks so small, and I think back on my life, and it seems so long, a saga crammed into fifteen years.

I want to trade places with Luke. I don’t want to go back to school in September, pick an elective, pass the permit test, or even get a job. At the same time, I want to survive. I want to learn to kick flip on a skateboard, to jump into a swimming pool naked, and to try that bathtub trick I heard about. I prayed for Luke to get better, a long time ago, before the cancer ate him up. Then I prayed for peace. Then I stopped praying.

I notice a fire in the distance. Every year fires clear the dead brush, making way for new growth. It’s nature’s way.

They must have it under control because the smoke has gone from black to white. Ashes rain down like snowflakes, sticking to my lashes and my lips when I look skyward. I hold out my palm to catch them, but they fall through my fingers, mere shadows of what once was.

Copyright Hawthorne 2022