posted Jul 7, 2015
Jimmy Burke’s father died on the night of the earthquake. He drank too much at the bar and then got on the highway heading in the wrong direction. When he saw headlights zooming his way, he swerved off the road and went flying down a steep hill into a tree. Jimmy didn’t know if the collision took place before or after the earthquake, but later he imagined it all happening at once, his father coming to a final stop as the world spasmed below him in the dark.
Jimmy and his older brother, Ray, were at home with Sasha, the babysitter, when the ground began to shake. Ray said he was too old for a babysitter, now that he was almost a teenager, but their mother knew what Ray could be like. Jimmy and Sasha had been building a house of cards, and when everything started to tremble, Jimmy at first thought Ray was playing a trick on them. Sasha cried out and grabbed the edge of the kitchen table. Then the cards toppled into a pile and Ray called down from upstairs, “What the hell was that?”
Jimmy looked outside the window and saw that a few trees had fallen down, like the one that he used to climb in secret when the Smiths weren’t home. The basketball hoop that the Wilsons had just installed at the base of their driveway had nose-dived into the middle of the street. For a second Jimmy didn’t recognize the neighborhood anymore. This wasn’t where he lived.
The police officers came a few hours later. Jimmy had fallen asleep on the couch while Sasha watched a television show about vampires. She paused the TV when she heard the knock on the door. Jimmy slowly woke himself up and he heard the officers ask if his mother was home. She was still at the bar, where she picked up a few shifts per week. She had to stay after closing time to clean everything up. He pictured her there all alone when the earthquake happened, the bar and everything inside being swallowed up by a hole that had opened up in the earth.
Jimmy heard the officers say, “There’s been an accident.”
Sometimes he went with his mother while she worked. On those nights, his mother dropped Ray off at a friend’s house, knowing that Jimmy liked to sit in a corner of the bar reading his books until the customers left. Later he helped his mother turn over the barstools, sweep up the dirty napkins and broken glass, and arrange the bottles behind the bar, turning all the labels out.
If he wasn’t doing a night shift at the General Motors plant, Jimmy’s father was usually at the bar while his mother was working, which was why they sometimes needed Sasha to come over. Jimmy liked Sasha. He liked the way she snapped her gum and laughed at commercials. He liked that she knew everyone in town. She knew the police officers, too. Jimmy heard one of them say her name softly from where he sat on the couch, and it sounded like she was crying.
“But those are the nights I drink for free,” his father said when Jimmy’s mother complained that money was tight, the babysitter wasn’t cheap, and why does he think she has this extra job, anyway. “Maybe a night off would be good for you,” she finished, which was when Jimmy’s father hit her in the face with the back of his hand.
When Sasha came back into the living room, her cheeks were streamed with tears. Ray was still upstairs playing video games. He’d locked the bedroom door to keep Jimmy from bothering him, so Jimmy was the first to know. The words at first didn’t make sense to him. But then Sasha called the bar from the kitchen and he heard her say the words again, so he knew they were true. He heard his mother’s wailing over the phone even from the living room where he sat staring blankly at the TV. A darkly handsome vampire leered at Jimmy from the screen, blood dripping from his fangs. Jimmy finally started to cry. He had never known a dead person before.
At the funeral, Jimmy sat in the front row with Ray and his mother. His jacket wasn’t warm enough, but it was the only one he had. The casket had been closed during the wake, which meant he had to imagine what was inside. Gashes and cuts, his father all sliced up. The pieces maybe not quite fitting together, as if his father had been assembled with spare parts, like in a movie Jimmy had seen once about bringing dead things back to life. He imagined seeing his father in his new body and not recognizing him at all.
Trees had fallen down in the cemetery after the earthquake. Some of the gravestones had been cracked, and some leaned to the side now, like they had been trying to wrench themselves free of the ground. Broken vases were everywhere, flowers scattered over the grass.
Everyone in town had seemed rattled by the earthquake. The morning after, people crept outside and tapped on the walls of their houses, making sure everything was still intact. Drivers slowed down to look at the Johnson house which had crumbled into itself during the earthquake, trapping the whole family inside. When they were eventually pulled out, news reporters from the city crowded around them as if they were celebrities. Jimmy thought they looked like ghosts.
The pastor finished the readings and invited the attendees to proceed up to the front for one last goodbye before the coffin would be lowered into the ground. Right then, Jimmy’s mother began rocking back and forth beside him, a low moan escaping her mouth. Then she stood up and belted out a series of chants in a language Jimmy had never heard before.
“What’s she talking about?” said Ray. And when Jimmy just gaped, Ray pinched him behind the neck. Jimmy squealed in pain just as the procession slowed and then stopped altogether, all eyes on their mother. She waved her arms in the air and craned her neck to stare up at the sky, wailing a single high note and holding it as long as she could. The pastor fidgeted with his papers and occasionally held up a hand as if to halt her antics with the power of God. Other attendees stepped back away from the family, and eventually it was just Jimmy and Ray and their mother looking out as if from a snow globe, waiting for someone pick up the world and shake it again.
Jimmy tugged at her dress to make her stop. Loose threads poked out over her leggings. The fabric was soft and thin and he felt her inside it like a butterfly pressing at the edges of a cocoon.
By the time the coffin was lowered into the ground, only a few people were still there to watch. Some of the other boys from school had attended—boys who grudgingly accepted birthday invitations over the years, but had only brought Jimmy secondhand gifts, things they didn’t want. Later that night, his mother wandered the house, stumbling around the old furniture while taking long gulps from a gigantic bottle of pink wine. Eventually she fell asleep on the couch in front of the TV, but only after chanting again, twirling around in faster and faster circles. Jimmy was sitting in the corner of the living room the whole time and it was like he had become invisible. Maybe like his mother couldn’t see the real world anymore.
Before going to bed, Jimmy took a sip of the wine from the glass she had left on the coffee table. It tasted like poison. He spit it back out on the floor and went upstairs to bed.
When he finally returned to school a week later, Jimmy refused to take the bus home at the end of the day. He couldn’t stand the questions behind everyone’s eyes. Instead, he went to the town library near the school to read and wait for his mother to pick him up. The librarian, a grandmotherly woman who had round eyes like perfect little lakes, insisted that Jimmy call her Rose instead of Mrs. Hood. She knew what had happened to his father—everyone in town did—so she tried to help out by setting aside new arrivals for Jimmy to look through, mostly sports novels and adventure stories, even though his favorites were scary stories with haunted houses, anything with monsters. After she caught him reading a graphic novel about zombies tucked inside a Hardy Boys paperback, Rose was horrified. “What would your mother think if she saw this?”
But he just told her that his mother allowed him to read whatever he wanted. After that, Rose started asking all kinds of questions about what else his mother let him do. She asked what Jimmy was watching on television. “Sasha watches vampires,” he said. Halloween came and went, and Rose was appalled when Jimmy told her that he didn’t go around the neighborhood asking for candy, didn’t spend any time goofing off with his friends. “Your mother didn’t make you a costume?” said Rose.
Jimmy actually dreaded Halloween. He didn’t want to look outside his window and see all those monsters walking around. He was happy to stay inside with one of his scary stories. In books, the monsters always stayed between the pages. But he didn’t know how to explain that to Rose.
Usually his mother had to search the library aisles to find him, and Jimmy would be curled up in a corner or lying down with a book pressed against his face. His mother was late today, though, so he was waiting in the lobby next to the check-out counter when she arrived. She hurried inside and met Jimmy’s eyes from the other side of the metal detector. She looked tired and distracted. “Ready to go?” she asked.
Jimmy gathered up the books—a novelization of a slasher film, a collection of old ghost stories—and pulled on his jacket. When he looked again at his mother, he saw that she was staring at the cover of the book of ghost stories. There was a haunted house on a hilltop, lightning striking down from dark clouds above. Strange symbols etched on the cover in glossy silver. She reached out and plucked it from his hands, tracing the symbols over and over again with her fingers, her eyes wide. Jimmy heard her repeating something under her breath, the words eerily familiar.
“Mom?” he said. She blinked and looked up. “Let’s go,” she said.
Later that night, Ray was playing video games while Jimmy tried to read in bed. He couldn’t concentrate with all the gun blasts, the characters on the screen exploding in fiery bursts, his brother cursing under his breath when the enemy attacked. So Jimmy started down the stairs, and through the wooden bars of the railing he saw his mother on the couch with the ghost stories.
He remembered long nights spent waiting up with his mother for his father to come home. She made hot chocolate and taught him poker, how to hide your cards, how to pretend you weren’t going to win even if you knew you were. Also how to pretend you might win even though you knew you were going to lose. But he knew he couldn’t suggest cards right now. She was whispering something under her breath—the same words as the night of the funeral. She pulled at her hair and her nightgown dipped low on her chest as she repeated the words over and over again. “Vesh, varakhar,” she said. “Vesh, vesh, vesh.” And the next morning he woke to find her in his room staring at the illustrations in his graphic novels, circling the zombies again and again with her fingers. He thought she was trying to find answers to questions she wouldn’t ask out loud. She searched his bookshelf while he watched from the top bunk. She looked behind the books, too, holding them open and shaking them over the ground like she was sure something was hiding inside.
Ray was in another fight at school. He had always gotten into fights, but since the funeral they had been worse. He fought like he was looking for something.
Jimmy heard a group of kids talking excitedly as they ran past him in the hallway after the last bell. “Ray Burke is totally about to kill Benny Meyer,” said a girl in Ray’s class. Jimmy followed them out through the double doors to the back parking lot, pushing his way through a group of students yelling encouragements, cheering loudly after each successful blow. “What did you say?” said Ray, punching Benny in the face. “What did you say about her?”
But Benny couldn’t answer because the punches came too fast, knocking his head back against the concrete. Blood gushed from his nose and spattered Ray’s face and Jimmy couldn’t tell if Ray was hurt at all or if he was like a vampire, bloodless but still always looking for it. Ray kept punching until a teacher—his baseball coach, it turned out—pulled him off, dragging him back inside the building before coming back for Benny. Jimmy looked inside through the window and Ray met his gaze, licking his lips and smiling a bloody smile. I liked it, said the smile. I think I want some more.
“He had it coming,” Ray said to their mother when she came to pick them up. He would never have said that to their father. Jimmy remembered being in the same backseat before, Ray bloody and fidgety up front next to their father, staring out the window like a frightened animal.
Later, lying awake in bed, Jimmy heard his mother’s chanting start up again downstairs. He closed his eyes tightly, pulling the pillow around his head to cover his ears.
“She’s at it again,” said Ray from the lower bunk. He made Jimmy sleep on top because he knew Jimmy was scared of heights. But now he pulled himself up and stared at Jimmy through the metal guardrails. Jimmy tugged the blanket over his face, but Ray ripped it away.
“What’s she talking about?” said Ray.
Jimmy closed his eyes tightly. He whispered the words from the chanting. Entire phrases came to his mind unbidden, almost like telepathic messages. “Monsters,” he said finally.
Ray disappeared back down below. “But I thought the monster was gone.”
© 2015 Richard Scott Larson