By Cale Plett
Home is a junkyard without seagulls. I figure when we move out, we just go scorched earth on the whole thing instead of trying to clean it up.
The smoke will be the deep, rich kind of dark that chokes the sunlight, a smell that clings in the air for days. Burning things down is
letting a breath go and not being able to bring it back. Most things are here and then irretrievable. That’s alright.
I’ve made a plan to kill Michael.
I listened close at the diner, and on the drive home from town I figured it all out.
I turn off the grid road fast, my nearly bald car tires kicking up dust and gravel as they look for something to grip. From the house to the top of the driveway, a sea more metal than grass. Endless cars and tube TVs and washing machines and boxy computer monitors, all with snarly weeds growing around them and through them. Refrigerators, ovens, a pile of microwaves.
The ground must be rusted red and full of toxins.
I park too hard, my head snapping forward then back, clenched neck.
The difference now is that all the metal has crept inside when it used to stay in the workshop and the yard. It’s only taken a few weeks for there to be engine oil staining the linoleum. I step over a computer tower in the entry with its guts spilled out among the shoes. Crackles of crushed circuits under my boots.
Claire’s beside the hospital bed, sitting on a plastic lawn chair and using a screwdriver to revive a toaster. Fans swing back and forth, pushing the hot June air around the room.
Mom’s in it, the hospital bed. Machines for her too, to keep her
breathing eating shitting drinking
I suppose. No one says hello except me, who hugs both my moms, one in the hospital bed and one in the lawn chair. They’re both unresponsive, neither of them able to sense the extra tightness in their daughter’s body. It’s my muscles holding my conviction to put Michael down. Claire says Mom turned her head today when I
didn’t ask. Claire pre-empts my questions all wrong. I want to know
did Michael do this? Not what did people say happened, but what do you really think? I try to ask. Claire’s taken hold of Mom’s hand with both of hers. I don’t say anything. I go back through the entry and downstairs, looking for Mom’s old fishing line. It’s got to be as heavy as it can be while still being semi-transparent.
Outside, I hear Michael rip past on his dirt bike, going to his trailer the three properties past our house. It’s after his shift. He’s tired; he’s going fast. There’s dust in his mouth and coating his goggles and sun in his eyes and he goes around the corner without stopping for the stop sign and then accelerates between the clusters of trees that survived the slaughter into cropland.
The engine whines up and then gasps to the next gear. Whines its way up again.
He’ll come by at the exact same time tomorrow. Michael never works an extra minute.
And here in the basement is the last corner of my family. My little brother Alan, wearing a headlamp like a coal miner, legs sticking up from underneath the guts of the pinball machine. We are, for one year only, both in high school. So we wake up in the same house
drive in the same car
sleepwalk in the same low brick building
drive in the same car
barely say a word to each other. I try, sometimes. Sometimes so does Alan, I presume. That might be what he’s attempting when he starts talking about the pinball machine. I’m not sure. It’s hard to listen to so much hope. Someone needs to tell him he’s going to get hurt, but it won’t be Claire and it would have been Mom and so that leaves me.
I ask if he wants a different station. He names one. He doesn’t care about music, lives someplace between gears. Today’s Saturday and it’s a relief to be on the road with no one in the passenger seat.
Alan and Mom found the pinball machine on the side of the road with a red FREE painted right on the glass. Before Mom took up fishing to run further away from where she was from, she had pinball. She said she used to hold a fistful of high scores in her day, which is not today, and I don’t think was back then either. That was before Alan and me. It was before Claire, so Mom can’t have been eating properly.
I see light ricocheting off her skin, pale from a summer in the arcade.
She looked like me, though there are no pictures.
It took all three of them to get the pinball machine fixed up. Claire and Alan understood the mechanics of it, but Mom knew it like she’d sat down and talked to it. Claire said the thing had no purpose. Alan asked for a part and Claire went and found it. I wasn’t much use. No point being good with machines when so many already are. Plus once I had my own car
there was a lot of sky to drift under.
When the last of the red paint was scrubbed away and all the lights were blinking, Mom taught Claire to play. Alan tinkered, algorithm-mind, never put a score on it.
I got pretty decent myself in the nights Mom was in the hospital after the accident, after Michael killed her. I cycled the same quarters through over and over, timing and touch, launching the ball to hit the right bumpers and ramps. It held me for a moment. I moved on.
Then it grew.
Alan’s made the pinball machine into a monster the size of a small car surrounded by computers and screens and
cables and wires and tubes until
it can’t function
I pick my way through the mess, searching for Mom’s fishing gear. She’s atrophy now, won’t cast a line out into a lake again.
The landline goes off,
goes quiet fast
now that Claire never lets it
get past the first ring.
I trip over a cord and Alan yells at me. I silently plug it back in. Mom’s rod has been set in a corner to make room for all the bits and pieces Alan’s carried down the stairs.
Eventually, I find the tackle box underneath a crate full of tiny lightbulbs and fuses. I set it aside carelessly and hear glass break.
When I open the tackle box, the carefully organized trays fold out and it smells like being beside the water with her, like cool air. I rummage around. I prick my finger on a hook, but there’s no rust on it and the barbs have been flattened with pliers. In the bottom, organized by weight, extra line. I take the one on the right, then drop it at Claire yelling from upstairs.
She sounds excited, and that makes me nervous.
Claire’s waiting for us in the kitchen, like we’ve got to keep the conversation from Mom. From an article Claire read, she believes Mom can hear things. She keeps all Mom’s medical records in a chronological folder.
Traumatic head injury.
No police report.
A shelf gave way and a stack of plates at the diner hit her. Heavy impact to skull,
skull to counter, skull to
freshly mopped floor.
No note that Michael is a dishwasher at the diner or that he put the plates on the shelf or of all the words he’s put up against my moms over the years.
He’s not the only one who’s got something against them, but he scares me the most. Some don’t care, a few cry damnation, but no one around here seems bothered enough to do anything much anymore. Mom said it wasn’t worse than when she was my age, and that was something. Then she’d talk about something else.
Mom and Claire didn’t see bricks through their window and acted like our family was in the clear when they should have kept their guards up.
Because Michael bears hate like an unfulfilled birthright. It’s in his jaw and his eyes. When Mom went from waitress to manager, it simmered softer and hotter in the back corner of the kitchen for years. The hateful words slid behind her back. He couldn’t spit in her face, get fired, rage against her. He couldn’t get another job and has never shown enough to move up.
The way he looks at Mom when she’s not looking at him, it’s worse than wanting her dead. It’s a desire for her existence to end, for her to be erased.
The medical records in Claire’s folder say brain damage, damage to the spinal cord, and now Claire says the hospital called again
but this time the scans show reduced swelling. Alan gives her a hug when she starts crying. I sit on the counter. We’ve gone through this before. It’s foolish to grip tight to news just because it seems good,
like celebrating when you hook the fish before you reel it in. Mom taught me that.
It is good, says Claire. They can operate. It has to be now, and Alan’s crying too even though in this case “now” means tomorrow. Either it works and maybe Mom wakes up or else
things stay the same. It can’t make it worse.
Claire looks confused by my question.
If she wakes up, I want to know, what then? There’s nothing left of her, zombies are alright so long as they’re in the ground. She’ll look down at her body and scream. I don’t say zombies, but I say decay and bedsores and that’s not a life. It’s a nightmare compared to a blank sleep.
Claire uses soft words like grieving process, allow for feeling, and different stages for different people, so I know she does read the books on her nightstand.
Alan tells me I’m ableist, and I say we’re all ableist, everything’s ableist, of course that’s how Mom sees herself. She lives in her body. He lives in his brain, is making an automated pinball machine that will play perfectly so she can watch it, because she says she loves the lights and sounds.
Mom said they’re like home. And I tell Alan if Mom wakes up, watching that pinball machine will be
being a vampire at your own door, able to hear
It’s a porch light left on for her that she can never reach.
Alan’s gone, back to the pinball machine or to Mom’s bedside. Claire hasn’t said anything; she’s just looking at me. I think she hopes she can hold me so we can have a cathartic sob together. In my chest, there’s a flicker that reaches toward her. Claire has held me together through a lot of things.
Mom would want to die, I tell Claire. I’ve known her longer than you and she’d want to die.
Claire says she’s jealous for the extra years I have. She smiles a smile that I can’t place as happy or sad, which makes it the saddest to me. It’s you she wants to wake up for, Claire says, you know that, right?
I’m gone too, outside to choose trees.
Walking up the driveway to the grid road, I feel early June burning forward against my shoulders. Toward a vacant summer in this house. I have a plan for Michael tomorrow and that’s all. My plan needs two strong trees. They have to be close enough after Michael rounds the corner that he won’t see
the line stretched tight across the road
but far enough that he will have picked up
There are two aspen trees, one on either side of the road. The line will cut into their white bark before it breaks. I’ll double, triple the line. It will still break when it hits Michael’s neck, but it will be enough. He doesn’t wear a helmet.
It’s not the plates that did it, said the doctor, it was hitting the ground.
These are good trees. I thank them.
That night, after Claire’s gone to bed, I sit in the living room with Mom. She was always best to talk to when she was doing something; it didn’t have to be much. So if I needed to talk to her, I’d say, let’s go for a walk, let’s go fishing, let’s repaint my bedroom. She’d hear me all the way through and ask questions until I figured out what was going on inside of me. From heart to mind, I’ve been all internally disorganized, tangled up since she’s disappeared into the living room. Since she became
I ask her, was it Michael who overloaded that shelf, who waited until you were beside it before reaching high with his lanky arms and adding one more stack of plates? I went to the diner today and I listened, Mom, and I didn’t hear him deny it. I heard him laugh when the other dishwasher asked if Michael had loosened the shelf, and he didn’t deny it so I’m not being paranoid. He said
all’s well that ends well. See that’s wrong, Mom. It can’t end well for everyone once there’s hate.
She hasn’t heard any of it. She can’t hear when she’s still, so she can’t ask the right questions. Inside me is clutter I can’t seem to sort out.
Downstairs, I can hear Alan animating the pinball machine. I go to bed, lie awake. Claire’s moving around the kitchen. She’ll bake bread with multiple rises so she never has to try to sleep for more than a couple hours. Everyone’s awake and no one’s talking.
Or all already dead.
Or all bound to silence.
I have a hard time telling.
I’ve decided not to go to the hospital today. I can’t breathe buried under the empathy for Alan and Claire’s hope. At best, the surgery doesn’t work. At best, it kills her. I picture Mom waking up like in a movie, suddenly present but forgetting everything. I picture her eyes opening full of fear, full of pain, full of confusion. That would be worse. If I can wait for surgery results at home or in a hospital, I will stay beneath the open sky.
The ambulance arrives early to pick Mom up. I stay in the bathroom while they move her out of the house, brushing and brushing and brushing my teeth until my gums hurt. I hear the surgery time. They’ll operate on Mom in the afternoon, just before Michael will ride out then
on the road while I remove the remnants of the line that caught him.
Mom’s on her way to the hospital in the city. Alan and Claire were going to follow the ambulance but they’re behind on sleep and behind schedule. Don’t forget to bring a jacket, says Claire, hospitals are always cold.
I’m not coming.
Claire looks at me in a way that’s hard and soft and Alan looks at me in a way that splits my skin open.
It’s your choice, says Claire, one hand on the doorknob. You have your car, I’d like you there, together as a family, Mom would understand, Alan won’t. Someday maybe.
I can’t, I say.
It’s okay to be scared, says Claire, but in the end maybe you’ll be glad you were there. I tell her there’s nothing to be afraid of.
And maybe for her that’s true, I hope so, but not for me, not for Mom.
I leave through the back door before my family is even out of the driveway. The house is a furnace, like a closed black casket waiting on a graveside. It may be messy, but there’s nothing inside.
Outside, the air is dry enough to taste, and before me is the scrapheap stretching away to the back of the property. If I lit it on fire today, the flames would spread through the stands of trees and into the crops. They’d consume Michael’s house. A gust of wind,
leap over a road, over the highway
animals running underground
getting choked out.
A hazy sky would be even hotter.
I walk through the wreckage. I climb into a truck and sit behind the wheel, fiddle with the dials on the stereo. It smells like dust, though I can’t think where the dust would have come from. I guess it’s everywhere.
I sit in a convertible, push the top back and imagine its speed is creating the wind.
I sit in a semi, ready to drive through the night.
I sit in a car with a crumpled side where it got t-boned. I imagine the impact. One of my classmate’s cousins died when this car got hit.
When someone hit the car.
When the car got hit.
When someone hit the car.
When the car got hit.
They don’t mean the same thing.
I find a station wagon in the shade, crawl into the back, open all the windows, and fall asleep. When I wake up, I’m sweating, disoriented, joints aching. Then I remember where I am. I’m in the back of one of Claire’s cars that she got for parts or let someone store here or swears she’s going to get running.
It’s hot, but there’s no fire. I’m safe.
Check my phone. No messages, no missed calls, nearly time. Soon Michael will turn the corner for home and soon they will cut open Mom’s skull. They’ll be prepping her now. Michael will be leaving a mess for the next dishwasher, punching out, putting his goggles on. I walk back through the cars to home, open the door, and feel
the house is not still.
I need to get the line from the basement. As I get closer to the stairs, I sense aliveness, a shifting from beneath my feet. I stand at the top of the stairs for a long time, because Mom’s bed is empty. For one moment I picture her risen, sores bleeding, creeping down the stairs to play it with glazed eyes. I know that isn’t true. And if it is,
I choose to go into the dark and see what’s there.
The pinball machine’s between me and the fishing line. I flick the light switch and nothing happens. Alan’s stolen the power to feed his project, all tentacles across the carpet. As I walk by it though, I stop.
I still recognize this machine.
There’s no coin slot anymore, just the start button. I hit it, and the arcade game hums to life all around me and in front of me.
The plunger pulls itself back and launches the pinball into a world of light. Immediately, the red numbers start climbing. Colors dancing off the wood-paneled walls. It fills the entire room with pinging and whirring as it plays itself.
It’s perpetual, beautiful, haunted perfection. Continually rising numbers.
I just stand there and let it run, believing little by little that
no matter how long I watch,
I will never lose.
I cannot move. I’m held in place by this light. Hallelujah. There are some people who will not think I need to be forgiven at all
for changing paths late, when the way I’ve walked so far has already hurt people who love me. For choosing against bloodshed at the last moment, when violence hinges on intentions and my intentions remain uncertain. If Michael knew, he might get home today, body unbroken, and call my choice mercy. Or he might call it cowardice. He’s wrong. I just have someplace else to be. I grab my car keys
and leave the pinball machine running.
Cale Plett is a nonbinary writer who lives in Winnipeg, where they are watching and listening for stories. Their short fiction and poetry have appeared in Riddle Fence, Prairie Fire, PACE, Grain, CV2, and elsewhere.