Hell. It's January.
He's going in late tomorrow, so I can afford to do this. I can sit on the couch at midnight and listen to the music on my iriver. I can sit and stare at a wall and watch the songs uncurl there. It's how I get out. I can let my heart float close to the surface. I can remember. I can do more than that. I can go backwards and forwards with each song played.
A hot wind shimmers across the wall, and a synthesized chorus sings, “Stranger...” until Billy Idol growls his way in, and I'm eleven years old, curled up in a rocking chair in the middle of a sticky Illinois summer. It's a Saturday, and my dad is making the only thing he knows how to cook – chili. It's just beginning to burn, I can tell by the smell, but I'm too involved in trying to escape from the incomprehensible and ever-present tension in the house to try and tell him that he should take it off the heat. Instead I fall deeper into the book of short stories on my lap. It's far more comfortable to live inside Stephen King's Night Shift, a grown-up book I'm smart enough to read and too young to comprehend, like most of my life up to this point. Oh, the story with the boogyman in the closet scares me, and I'll never forget how horrible it is to read that as he turned into a grey ooze, a boy's father thought it 'felt kinda nice.' Perhaps I understand more than I think I do.
The chili is definitely burning as Billy Idol sings that it's hot in the city, and it's just as hot here in the country, I can tell him. The childish voices echoing 'Hot!' will be forever entwined in my haunted head with the children of the corn and their fiery midsummer rituals.
To remove the pot of chili from the burner myself is unthinkable. Nothing moves in this heat, and anyway, I've never cooked a thing. I wouldn't know what I was doing. Besides, my dad will get it. To move the pot might be a criticism, might show that I know better,when I don't. Worse, it might hurt my dad's feelings. I could never be sure.
My mom isn't home from work yet. It's just me, my dad and my brother. I don't know where my dad is exactly; probably out front watering or mowing the lawn. My brother is on the loveseat, where he always is, propped up on pillows, looking at nothing. I don't give it much thought. He's been this way all his life, all my life. His petit mal seizures are so common, I don't pay much attention. I don't have enough experience to understand I'm callous. But not completely; I rub his head from time to time, thinking he might like it.
We don't hug a lot, my family. We don't say, 'I love you.' It's too much, too thick, like the heat. We let music and books do a lot of the talking. My dad and I almost have a second language that plays through the radio. I wonder if he has his little transistor radio out front with him, and I know that if he does, he's listening to the same station I am. Maybe Billy will remind him about the chili for me. There's a newspaper clipping with his photo taped to my bedroom door, his angelic face, his diabolical smile. He might remind my dad, he might not.
What does happen is that the chili burns. My dad eventually comes in and turns off the stove. He swears and stirs, serves up two bowls and apologizes to me. I tell him it's fine, it tastes good, really. Kinda nice.
My dad asks how far I am in Night Shift. I tell him I'm skipping around, reading the shortest stories first. I thought they'd all be scary, but they aren't. Really? he asks, chuckling and covering his mouth. Which ones don't scare you?
I Know What You Need didn't scare me. I felt sorry for the guy.
Oh yeah, my dad laughs. Wasn't he a demon or something?
It doesn't really say.
Did you read The Boogeyman?
Yeah. That was scary.
I had to close the closet doors before I went to bed, after that one.
My mom gets home. She takes one whiff of the air, asks, What's burning?
I made chili, my dad says.
Why would you make chili on such a hot day? She laughs, looking at me, trying to rope me into the joke. I just look back down at the browner-than-red stuff in my bowl.
You're not actually eating it are you?
I shrug. Yeah.
It smells awful, she says, walking in the bedroom to change. My dad doesn't look at me, just gets up and pours the rest into the trash.
I can't move.
It's midnight, O mouths to me, since I can't hear him over the earbuds. I wipe my eyes before he can see, and turn down the volume. I'm going to bed, he says. I smile at him. He smiles back, glad that I'm enjoying my Christmas gift.
And I do. More songs play. They are better than heroin, better than LSD. I can drift. I can stretch out and feel all the stories...
Anyway. It's just past noon now. It's snowing again. No, it's still snowing, it's never stopped snowing. It's Narnia out there, and I keep waiting for a red-scarfed faun to traipse past. But how is that different from any other day since I was eleven?
I think I need some green. Now.