El resented her father for calling her home.
He could have died just as easily without her there, his lungs filled with tar, his esophagus eroded away. She supposed it hadn’t been an easy death, but a painful one. The same way his life had been painful. She resented him all the same.
She stood in the backyard, arms folded across her faded t-shirt, staring out at the rows and rows of dry, brown cornstalks against an empty blue sky. The wind blew long strands of her hair around her face, tickling her cheeks and nose, but she ignored them, listening to the corn shiver and crackle dryly in the breeze. She resented that sound, too, but it was preferable to the sounds from the house as they bagged her father’s body.
It wasn’t hard to know what they were thinking. How could a child allow their parent to live in conditions like that? To die like that?
They hadn’t known Daddy.
They didn’t know what kept him there was the same thing that had driven her and her mother away.
El glared at the scarecrow in the field, a good 50 yards from the house. Its burlap face hidden by a muddy, sun-bleached hat, so beaten by rain and wind and heat the wide brim had warped and folded in ripples. The scarecrow sagged heavily on its pole, arms outstretched in a morbid, perverse facsimile of Jesus’s crucifixion. The faded jeans and torn button-up were covered in mold and mildew and littered with holes chewed by mice. Hay and thin, spindly sticks sprouted from the body and face, some growing fungus, others sheltering spider sacks of white cottony threads.
Joe hadn’t aged well.
Maybe he hadn’t aged at all. El couldn’t remember him ever looking any different. He’d been a horror even when she was a child, a raggedy bundle of old clothes and old hay. Older. That’s what she’d thought as a child. That was the word her mind had conjured for Joe. Older. Older than the house. Older than the field. Something older and something—
El turned, pushing wisps of hair from the corner of her mouth as she shielded her eyes from the sun. One of the men from the coroner stood at the bottom of the back porch steps, tablet in hand, looking uncomfortable, like he had interrupted something. She hadn’t even heard the screen door open and it screeched like a banshee on its rusted hinges.
“Hrm?” she said. Then, “Sorry. Did you say something?”
“I said we were all finished, ma’am, but there are things you need to sign.”
She tried not to take offense to the ma’am and failed. It felt like a backhanded compliment from a small mind in a small-minded town that knew—or thought they knew—anything about her family and their business. But their small minds didn’t matter, she told herself. Daddy never cared what any of them thought or said about him. Or her.
“Fine,” she said, shoving her hands in the pockets of her denim shorts. She almost recoiled as she felt the lighter. Daddy’s lighter. Instead, she gripped it, the cool metal heating quickly in her hand, her nail scratching against the scars and dings from years of use, tracing Daddy’s engraved initials. EMH. Elton Major Howel. El for short.
Something else her daddy had wanted to share with her.
Or burden her with.
El shuffled across the scrub grass, tiny dust clouds ghosting around her faded Sketchers. The tails of her open, Oxford shirt just brushed the backs of her thighs. It smelled like old cigarettes and she found herself touching two fingers to her lips. She’d quit years ago, but had never been able to break that final habit. She held the phantom cigarette a moment longer, exhaling slowly as she dropped her hand, entering the shade of the house.
The coroner or whatever he was coughed delicately and lifted the tablet, holding it for her to examine. She squinted at the too-white screen, eyes narrowing in on the only information that really mattered.
Deceased: Howel, Elton Major. Age: 63. DOB: 8-13-1969.
Her eyes skimmed the rest. There wasn’t anything she didn’t already know. Daddy’d filled her in before shuttling off his mortal coil. He’d told her everything. The diagnoses of lung cancer, throat cancer, and emphysema. Impressive hattrick, she’d said flatly, watching him crush out a cigarette. Camels. That hadn’t changed either. He’d given her a list of his medications, gesturing with disdain to the oxygen tanks, the CPAP, and the plastic Wal-Mart bag filled with the tell-tale orange, plastic bottles. He’d handed her a yellow legal pad covered with spidery, scratchy handwriting. Names and phone numbers. Doctors, mostly. People she was supposed to call when it was done.
Daddy had known he was going to die, which was why he had called her home .
He’d told her plainly.
You know what you gotta do.
“Just use your finger to sign, ma’am.”
She signed her name next to the little yellow flag. Ellen Marie Howel. Then her initials there, there, and there. EMH.
The man from the county tucked the tablet into a sweaty armpit, fumbling in his dress shirt pocket as he nodded towards the house. “The fire marshal wants a word. You’re not in any trouble, of course, but I’m sure you understand. The state of the house and all.”
He cleared his throat. “You can make arrangements with the funeral home, ma’am. Hope Funerals. I have their card here.”
“Already done,” she said, but she took the card anyway. Daddy had made the arrangements himself. She looked down at the slightly damp cardstock and the plain black typeface. Hope Funerals. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. 1 Corinthians 13.
“Missed opportunity,” she muttered to herself.
“Not calling it Hope Remains.” El tapped the card. “That was always the joke around town, right?”
The man gave a thin smile and she noticed the formal ma’am had been dropped. “I forgot you grew up here.”
“Hardly,” she said, shoving the card in her pocket.
“But you’re back now.” It was not a question.
“Sure.” She turned back to the field and to Joe, whose burrowed-out eyes found hers from under the low brim. He seemed happy.
El waited till the house was empty before she went inside. Well, as empty as it could get without a match and gasoline.
Daddy had hoarded out the house with junk and trash and every manner of object. Teetering towers of magazines and newspapers filled the hall till there was only a narrow gap to squeeze through. If she dared to stoop down, she wouldn’t have been surprised to see some dating back decades. The living room and den were packed with cardboard boxes, plastic shopping bags filled with Styrofoam cups and old take-out containers. Cobwebs hung heavy with dust and ash, dropping from light fixtures and old, framed pictures on the wall. There was one of her at age seven so caked in grime and dirt she’d barely recognized her toothy smile through the glass. RC Cola cans and plastic water bottles littered the floor, some crushed flat from years of Daddy back-and-forthing through the house. Others had leaked the remnants of the contents onto the grey carpet. Or what was left of it. Bare patches showed beneath sections that had been ripped out, the padding below green and tattered. The burn marks from dropped cigarettes made it look like the ground had been peppered with buckshot.
Ashtrays perched precariously on every available surface, all overflowing or tipped over leaving enough ash about to rival the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. It stirred with every step, every breath. The walls were covered in nicotine tar, streaks of orangey-brown mixed with mold and dirt: a depressing Jackson Pollock painting. The curtains were all stained yellow, the same color as Daddy’s teeth (the few he’d kept) in the end.
The fire marshal had indeed wanted a word. Several words. About how one dropped cigarette could send everything (the house, the fields, the surrounding fields) up in flames! He’d removed Daddy’s oxygen tanks pointing out how easily one could blow under too much heat or pressure. The house was 2000 square feet of kindling and uninhabitable. A piece of paper was taped to the front door to make it official. El would be allowed to come in and clean it out, but was not permitted to sleep on the premises until it was brought up to code.
She spun in a circle, trying to remember what it had looked like before and failing.
Only Daddy’s chair was clear of debris and litter. An old, brown recliner, threadbare and stained and sprinkled with more burn marks. A wooden TV tray stood beside it offering an ashtray and the remote to the box TV, complete with rabbit-ears. A few blankets were within reach.
El stood in front of it, hands in her pockets, eyes tracing the indentation of Daddy’s frame. Tall, like her. Lanky, like her.
She’d asked him if he might want to go to the hospital on that last morning. He’d cut his eyes at her with a look that dared her to say anything like that again.
Her phone buzzed in her back pocket and El pulled it out, checking the front screen, though she already knew who it was. She swiped with her thumb, lifting the phone to her ear. She didn’t want it on speaker. Didn’t want her mom’s voice to have to be swallowed up in the hoard, trapped where she could never break free again. Bad enough she was back inside in this small way.
“Hmmm.” And then a long exhale, as if her mom had been holding that breath for twenty years and could finally take a new one. “I hope he’s at peace.”
No you don’t. “Yea. Me too.” Did she? Yes, she realized, staring at the recliner, thinking of the other chair. The one on the porch. The one Daddy had left her along with everything else. She hoped he didn’t have to linger here anymore. “He already took care of it all. Prep. Burial. All of it. He already paid,” she added, preempting what was sure to be her mother’s next question.
A laugh, a grating sound of sarcasm and bitterness given voice. “I don’t suppose he left anything to make up for ten years of no child support.”
He left plenty, mom. But nothing you want. El sighed. “I think it got all used up, Mom.” Daddy got all used up.
“Figures.” There was silence and El could feel her mother weighing the choice to be sympathetic to her daughter’s father dying or making a dig about her shitty ex-husband. To no surprise, she chose the latter. “Why did he even want you there at the end? Especially if he had everything arranged. ‘Cause he didn’t apologize. Why did you even go?”
“He called, Mom. I came. That’s it.”
Daddy called her home so he could die. El came back to say goodbye.
She rubbed her eyes, the smell of smoke on the cuff of her shirt burning her nose. “Look, I’ve got some stuff to do tonight. I want to shower and find some food before I have to come back here.”
A long pause. “What stuff?”
El turned to face the back of the house. The kitchen lay beyond the living room and the thin, sun-bleached curtains over the rusted sink were open, a hazy light filtering through. Dust motes mated with ash in the air to become mutated dust bunnies by the time they reached corners or crevices. El stared through the streaked, grease-speckled glass to the cornfield. Joe’s silhouette was just a black blur.
Ignoring her mother, she made her way towards the kitchen, trampling old, damp boxes trailed with mice urine and droppings. Scuttling sounds preceded her footfalls. The house wasn’t all that empty, really. “There’s a box upstairs with your name on it. Pictures and whatever else, I dunno. Do you want it?”
A sharp laugh. “That place can burn for all I care. And everything in it,” her mom said, followed by a long sigh. “Hell. . . Yeah. Bring it back with you. It might have my grandmother’s jewelry that I didn’t take and he never sent to me. And maybe some of your baby pictures. I only grabbed a couple. Not that I think your dad was sentimental enough for that.”
You’d be surprised, Mom. El studied the broken fridge, its cord gray with dust, draped and dangling over the top of the freezer. Behind it, held to the dirty and stained metal with an ancient real estate magnet, was a faded child’s drawing, curled along the edges.
“Ok, I’ll bring it,” she said, reaching up and tugging the old construction paper down, the fibers soft with age. “I gotta go. Love you. Bye.”
She hung up, not bothering to wait for her mother’s response. El slid the phone back into her pocket and uncurled the picture. She didn’t remember drawing it, but knew she had. Knew her daddy had kept it and put it on the fridge after she was gone, because there was no way her mom would have put it there.
The house, crudely rendered in brown and blue crayon was in one corner. Just squares and triangles and lines meant to show the porch. Small and almost insignificant. Nearly the same size as the two people standing next to it in the middle of the picture. Stick figures. One small with long straight lines of brown hair. The other taller with yellow hair the color of corn across the top of the circle head. They both had black holes for eyes, but no mouths. No frowns or smiles. Just nothing below the black pits. The little one stood closer to the house and the big one held her hand, the stick arms crossed together.
In the other corner, larger than the tall stick man, taller than the house, and taller than the green and yellow cornstalks she’d drawn, was a black figure scribbled in fast, erratic lines, the crayon pressed so hard into the paper she could feel the indents on the back. She had colored it quickly as if she had wanted to get that part over. The brown cross of the pole and the scarecrow in black streaks towering over the two people and the house. His head and face were black beneath his black hat so she couldn’t tell if he had eyes. But she could see the red streak of a smile.
At the bottom of the pole were wavy lines of red. And if she looked closely, she could see more red beneath the black. As if she had overlaid the black after.
She thought of Daddy, wheezing in the chair, skin jaundiced, fingers clubbed and nails curved and striated. He was all bones and bruises, age spots and apnea. He spoke to her in sentences broken by coughs filled with fluid and phlegm, struggling to pull enough air into his lungs so he could exhale words.
I called you home to do what needs doing. You know what you gotta do. Don’t you?
He’d waved limply at the TV tray. Next to his ashtray and his lighter was his pocket knife with the antler handle.
The minifridge on the back porch was new, but the elements had not been kind. Grain dust, cigarette ash, and pollen turned it a filthy yellow, pale streaks at the top where Daddy’d braced himself to open the door. She lifted the ashtray from the top just to see the perfect circle below. It was probably the cleanest spot in the house.
His chair was there next to it, just folded aluminum covered in rust, the netting fraying along the weaves. Beside it, within easy reach, was the spotlight, the flip switch at the top clean from regular use. The spotlights on the corners of the porch were still there, though they’d looked newer when she’d arrived. Probably been replaced a few times.
El didn’t sit in the chair, but stood in front of it, facing out from the screened in porch. The swing set was still there, its lead paint nearly all gone, nothing but flaking rust and oxidized metal. One broken seat fallen, its moldy, faded rubber scratching in the dirt as the remaining chain swayed lazily in the breeze. The other swing lay on the ground, half buried by sediment. She could just make out the edge of its chain in the scrub grass. The metal glider shifted just enough to squeal pitifully, an animal in its death throes.
Beyond it the field, and Joe, waiting.
There was an eagerness to the scarecrow’s posture, even though El knew it hadn’t moved. It couldn’t. It was impossible.
She stepped to the edge of the porch, floorboards creaking, swollen and rotten under her feet. She stopped with her nose brushing the screen, the tiny metal weave smelling of pennies and summer. El watched through the mesh, staring into the darkness beneath Joe’s hat.
How old had she been? Seven? Eight? Time was fuzzy and she couldn’t remember exactly how much time passed between that day and the day her mom had pulled away from the house with her and a few suitcases, watching Daddy on the front steps, hands in his pockets. As they’d turned down the road, he’d been swallowed by the corn first.
Seven, she decided, only because it let her picture herself like she was in the filthy photograph in the living room. All the details of that day were very clear except herself. She’d been swinging, bare legs burning against the rubber seat. It had been a bright day. No clouds in the blue sky. Only the heat haze along the top of the corn as she kept swinging, her legs like an arrow, going higher and higher. The squeak of the swing and the matte of the chain and the coppery taste of the metal flakes and the smell of corn ready to be harvested.
Every time she cleared the field, she could see Joe on his pole.
She didn’t like Joe, but he did his job. She never saw crows in the field. They were scared of him. She was too.
But something had been different about him that day. He looked the same as he always did. For a while—even though it made her belly hurt in the same way it did when she gave the wrong answer at school or kids snickered at her poor clothing—she stared back at him. Which was a funny thought because Joe couldn’t stare at her. He wasn’t alive. But she couldn’t shake the feeling he was watching her. That things were changing between them.
She’d dragged her feet in the dirt under the swing, stopping so abruptly her teeth chattered. She turned to see Daddy on the porch. He’d risen from his chair and was staring out into the field, watching Joe. He’d always watched Joe. It had something to do with his job. She never understood what.
But it upset her for some reason that he was out of his chair. Like something was about to happen.
Daddy had torn his eyes away from the field and looked into her face. And he’d known something. He opened the screen door and walked down the steps towards her. He held out his hand, fingers long, tanned, and calloused, nails stained yellow from smoking. “C’mon.”
El had taken his hand, the swing rattling crazily as she stood, and he’d led her into the corn.
The stalks had been thick and tall, the leaves brushing her arms and the spider-silk thin hairs from the husks ticked her face. The corn made crunching, whispery sounds as she ducked while Daddy shoved his way through. Finally, they were standing in front of Joe and he had been taller than could have been possible. It wasn’t right how tall he had grown. So tall she had to lean her head back and she’d weaved, a sensation like falling back and back and back while he came closer and closer and closer.
But her daddy had leaned over her, blocking out Joe and the sky.
“You need to know what has to be done. What I do. What we do.” He squeezed her hand, shaking it gently like they had agreed to something.
When Daddy had straightened, Joe was back to his normal height. Nothing had changed. Daddy pulled his pocket knife from his soft, faded jeans and swiped it neatly across his thumb. He didn’t flinch. Didn’t hiss. But El squeezed her legs together and shoved her hands behind her back.
The blood dripping down his thumb turned into a slow red spiral as he lifted his arm. Ruby droplets fell to the ground, splattering the brown dirt and a few fallen husks, the sound of water dripping from a faucet, steady and slow. El had watched as Daddy pressed his bloody thumb to the burlap sack that was Joe’s head, right over where a mouth would have been. A wind eased through the corn like a slow, calming breath and stirred the exposed hay and loose threads of Joe’s vestments.
When Daddy had removed his finger, the rusty, wet streak on the sack faded almost instantly, absorbed into the woven, brown fibers.
Then it had been her turn.
After, Daddy had taken her for ice cream and a tetanus shot.
They had not talked about it. About how she’d wiped her own tears away when the knife split her skin. How she’d tried to hide her face as Daddy pressed her bleeding finger to the scratchy sack and felt it pull, juice sucked from a straw. How the wind had picked up, sending the stalks into a frenzy of flailing limbs. She had not had the words at the time for questions. She’d been too confused and scared. He never said it was a secret. She knew without having to be told. Not even her mom could know.
But maybe a week later, she woke up in the night and felt the strangeness. She got up, her long t-shirt brushing her thighs and walked out of her room and down the stairs, avoiding all the spots that would make the farmhouse groan. She hadn’t wanted her mom or the house to know she was awake.
Daddy knew. He’d been waiting for her on the back porch, sitting in his chair, cigarette dangling from his lips. Watching. The yellow spotlights on the roof of the porch angled out into the field, all aimed at Joe. The scarecrow wasn’t moving. But it knew when she came outside and stood next to her dad.
“’Cause it’s got ta be done.” He exhaled smoke from his nose, still not looking her way. “They don’t know in town. Well, some might have an idea. Their parents or grandparents might’a told them something of it. Why all the fields ‘round here flourish when they can’t grow squat down the next county. But most’ll just say fertile soil or God’s grace. But it ain’t God. God don’t want nothin’ to do with this place. Somethin’ else owns it. And we—you and me—feed it. Only takes a little.”
Maybe he’d read her mind because he’d gestured with his cigarette. “They can sit high and mighty and say trash ‘bout me. But I know. I know it’s me keepin’ ‘em safe and fat and happy. Like my daddy and his. I don’t need their help. They need mine. And I don’t ask for a damn thing because I know and that’s enough. Why I only take what we need from the harvest to keep us going.”
She eyed the extra spotlight only a few inches from his hand. “Why do you sit up like this some nights?”
Daddy chuckled dryly, grinning like the Devil. “’Cause sometimes Joe’s want to get up to mischief. Even if he’s fed. But he doesn’t like you watchin’. Doesn’t like the light.” A pause. “You remember back end of February? Power went out all over? That boy and his girlfriend found out in Mr. Myers’s field? That wasn’t no passing crazy that did that. Wasn’t one of them serial killers or whatever it was they was sayin’ in the papers.” He tapped out the long line of ash. “Got me a generator after that.”
The generator was still there on the porch looking nearly pristine. Red jugs of gasoline placed in neat rows alongside. Daddy had obviously taken care of it while everything else fell apart around and inside him.
El leaned her forehead against the screen. She would be able to feel the indentations of the squares when she pulled away. She sucked on her teeth. “Ok.”
Turning back to the minifridge, she knelt down and opened the door. Specks of mildew dotted the rubber seal, but otherwise the fridge was mostly clean. Inside was a plastic milk jug, stained. She pulled it out, checking what was left. Not much, but enough.
Daddy’d started collecting. A little here. A little there. He couldn’t afford to be cutting himself too often. When he’d known he was headed out, he’d taken precautions. The coroner hadn’t mentioned any of the marks on his arms, likely chalking it up to his doctor visits. Bad veins. Lots of sticks.
El shoved the screen door open, hopping down the stairs, jug in hand. Waste not.
Without hesitation, she entered the field, shoving her way through the brittle corpses of the abandoned harvest. Fallen stalks snapped beneath her feet and more than once she slipped through slimy kernels. What once was ripe had been left to rot. If she had to guess, the house had taken on the shape of the field and not the other way around. Once the plow was abandoned, the house followed. Daddy was nothing if not thorough when he decided to do something, even if that was nothing.
Joe was waiting for her, a black monolith against the pale sky.
“Hey, Joe,” she said because she didn’t want to seem rude.
Flies buzzed and the dry corn whispered, stirred by the wind, beseeching and promising in turn.
She held up the jug and gave it a shake, the red fluid sloshing inside. She appreciated Daddy’s efficiency and practicality, but she almost wished she had something classier to present. An old Merlot bottle, maybe. It could have been their little joke. But the jug was fine.
El popped the blue lid with her thumb and grinned like the Devil. “Gotta let it breathe. ’69. Vintage. All that’s left in the world.” She raised it in toast. To Joe. To Daddy. To her homecoming. It didn’t matter.
Then she tipped the jug, letting it spill over, splattering the ground and splashing up onto her Sketchers. She snatched it upright again. “Oops!”
Joe didn’t move, but he knew.
Backing up, she spilled a little of the blood every few steps, the corn slowly closing in front of her, bars between her and the scarecrow. An inefficient, breakable cage, true, but one he wouldn’t cross. Not yet.
She left a trail of Daddy’s blood all the way to the house, that last little bit dribbling onto the back steps. “Don’t worry, Joe!” she called. “I’ll be back tonight!” She entered the house, tossing the jug onto one of the many haphazard piles and went to get the box for her mom. As she hit the landing at the top of the stairs, she leaned over and touched a wet drop of blood on her shoe, lifting her stained finger, the thin line of an old scar white through the red.
It was easy to forget how dark it could get in the country, where backroads were all shadows and winding turns and empty fields. Where you might mistake a star low on the horizon for a porch light.
It was not dark at the Howel house. The spotlights over the porch were blazing, the hum just about drowning out the sound of the crickets. They lit the field like it was a July day, the shadows long and deep, disappearing into total darkness about 100 yards in.
El sat in Daddy’s chair, an unlit cigarette dangling between her lips, legs crossed, staring out at Joe.
She’d done exactly as she’d said. Packed her mom’s box safely in the back of her Corolla and headed back to her motel. She reeked of smoke and mildew and memory. It had taken a solid ten minutes for the water to warm up, but when it had, she’d let it scald her skin, turning it red. She used the entire miniature bottle of discount, knock-off brand body wash provided by the management and scrubbed at her skin till she left claw marks. Then she pulled her wet hair into a ponytail, tugged on clean, dry clothes, and gone to a drive-thru. She gobbled down a greasy burger and fries on the splintered front steps, washing them down with a flat RC in a Styrofoam cup, listening to the breeze rustle the condemned sign on the front door.
She scratched at the nylon wrapped around the arm of the aluminum chair with her thumbnail. It had taken some courage to sit in it, but she’d done it, feeling the way the seat sagged from years of Daddy’s weight that had gotten lighter and lighter.
Lighter. In her opposite hand, she flicked the metal top over and over. She’d never learned how to snap it open and shut like Daddy could. When she’d smoked, she’d used a Bic. Colorful, cheap plastic. Something you used up and threw away.
She took a drag on the unlit cigarette, closing the lighter with a snap, rubbing Daddy’s—her—initials along the metal.
Deliberately, she stood up and walked to the open door into the house. Reaching inside, she flipped the switch that controlled the lights, plunging the field into darkness. The dark was so deep and so complete she could almost feel her pupils growing, desperate to find a point of light. As the hum of the lights died, so did the other nighttime sounds, and the entire world held its breath.
El strained to hear, but there was nothing.
Slowly, carefully, she edged around the minifridge and eased back into the chair, the aluminum squeaking as she settled. She waited a heartbeat. Then another. Then clicked the switch on the standing spotlight.
Joe stood behind the screen door on the top step, hat tipped as if he’d come to call. His arms were down and this was probably more shocking than seeing the scarecrow off his pole and standing at her porch. He didn’t move and, for a long time, neither did she.
Then El eased forward, leaning her elbows on her knees and drew the cigarette from her mouth, holding it in her old scissor grip. “Hey, Joe.”
He didn’t speak and she hadn’t expected him to, but she felt the anger. The betrayal. Knew it like she knew her own. Whatever dwelled inside, beneath the moldy hay and stained clothing burned and seethed with as much rage as she hid inside her own breast. They weren’t that different. Not in that way, at least.
“I’m glad you came by to offer your condolences on Daddy, Joe,” she said. “It has to be hard for you. I know the two of you were close. Closer than he and I were, certainly. It might have been different but…” She splayed her hands and shrugged. “It is what it is.”
The scarecrow remained outside the screen, saying nothing. The mice and roaches and whatever else lived inside its husk were either silent or fled. Still, he managed to look more solid, more real. The weeping wounds of hay and spider silk sharper, crisper in the spotlight. From where she sat, she could smell the musty odor of decay and dirt. Beneath that, something sharper, like sulfur. Something ancient and evil.
El pushed up on her knees, standing. Joe didn’t flinch and El had to resist the impulse to sit again and pray for daylight. She sidestepped around the cooler once more, shoving the cigarette between her teeth again. Keeping her eyes glued to the burlap and what dwelled beneath that remembered her—how she tasted—she stepped back into the darkness of the house, moving one step at a time back through the tight tunnel of paper and once-glossy magazine covers. The smell of cigarettes and ancient smoke was so strong in the house. Almost strong enough to cover up the smell emanating from Joe.
Almost strong enough to cover up the other scent. The one that tingled her nose.
You know what you gotta do.
“I do,” she said aloud, echoing her reply to him. She held his gaze as she reached for the tray, letting her fingers graze the knife. Pulling back, the key to her inheritance in hand. She’d shown him, watching his eyes grow wide, listening to him sputter and choke on what would be his last breath.
It’s ok, Daddy. I know exactly what to do.
Daddy had his pride. He’d been so proud of taking care of a town that didn’t give a shit about him. Proud to martyr himself for a greater good. So proud to have a purpose bigger than himself—bigger than he thought he could ever be—that he’d sacrificed his family to it. More important to be a martyr. And that was the worst part. He’d wanted it. Needed it like a junkie. Needed that responsibility like Joe needed feeding.
She was like her daddy. She had her pride. And she was walking away. The sins of the father were laid before his children, but she wasn’t stupid enough to pick them up.
El eased the front door open, Joe still waiting outside the back porch. The night air rushed in behind her, blowing in the corridor she had created from one door to the other. She took one more step back, straddling the entryway, one foot in and the other out. Leaning down, she picked up the extension cord she’d run to the spotlight outside before she lifted the lighter with her initials—the only inheritance she wanted—and lit her cigarette. She’d quit, but one more wouldn’t kill her.
She shoved the lighter in her pocket. She touched her fingers to her lips, gripping the cigarette, and blew smoke out with her words. “Nice seeing you again, Joe.” She took one long drag as she yanked the cord.
The spotlight went out.
The screen door wailed.
With a flick, El tossed the cigarette into the room and the gasoline ignited with a whoosh, sucking the oxygen from the room like a black hole. El felt all of her exposed skin searing from the heat, but she didn’t move her eyes. Joe stood, maybe ten yards from her, the flames spreading all around him, licking along the walls and carpet, gobbling up the hoard, spreading like red ribbons of blood around the room and straight down the corridor towards him.
It took seconds.
She watched him burn as she backed down the steps, his hay blackening and curling, breaking off as it turned to ash and floated away. He was the picture she’d drawn, black overlaid upon red as the flames slipped through his straw bones and veins and ate him from the inside. A cancer tearing through him. The burlap face scorched and broke away, falling to dust. There was a hint of white beneath. Maybe bone. Maybe teeth. But the fire climbed too high, blocking a clear view. Still she watched, all the way to her car. By the time she was seated in the driver’s seat and turning the key, the house was totally consumed. As she eased the car in reverse down the drive, the blooms of her headlights lost in the glowing inferno of her childhood home, explosions began going off. First one, then another. The spare oxygen tanks she had hidden. Or maybe the generator, it’s cap left open so its fuel would light faster. Or whatever else might explode in a house. She’d never aspired to be an arsonist before.
When she reached the edge of the drive and pulled out onto the road, the field itself was on fire. The smoke billowed into the night sky, blotting out all the stars, and she could hear the roar of the flames over her car’s engine. They would probably be able to see it from town soon, the wind blowing the fire across the fields, ravaging them, claiming them.
She didn’t know if it was over—she thought it was—but it was over for her.
El tossed the lighter onto the passenger seat. It landed on the picture she’d taken from the fridge of her and Daddy and Joe. Maybe she’d burn it, too. She doubted it. All clean slates left some evidence behind. In some secret chamber of her heart, she wondered if Daddy was proud of her, wherever he was.
It didn’t matter.
Daddy had called her home and she had come.
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Tanya Pell has been published in multiple academic collections and edited two of her own: The Gothic Fairy Tale in Young Adult Literature: Essays on Stories from Grimm to Gaiman and Toy Stories: The Toy as Hero in Literature, Comics, and Film. Her horror fiction has most recently appeared in Well, This is Tense with Bag of Bones Press. She is currently on submission with her YA horror novel and is represented by Cortney Radocaj of Belcastro Agency. You can find her on Twitter or IG at @tanyacarinae.
Copyright ©2022 by Tanya Pell.
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