As soon as the adults leave him alone, Lark takes a shower to get the smoke out of his hair. He’s tall enough to reach the knobs all by himself. The only shampoo in Uncle Lee’s bathroom is coconut scented. This is Lark’s first time smelling coconut. He likes it. It smothers all the other smells as he suds up, like it’s erasing what he did tonight.
Buried in the towels, he cracks the bathroom door. It doesn’t sound like Father is here yet; he’s still busy with the police. Uncle Lee is talking to Lark’s brother, Brantley.
Uncle Lee asks, “You want some more cereal?”
Brantley says, “No thanks. I’m all full.”
Uncle Lee says, “Then why are you climbing on the counter, buddy?”
Brantley asks, “Where’s your fire extinguisher?”
“Oh. Oh. Let me show you.”
Lark rubs a towel over his head, drying out his hair as best he can, while he watches his uncle down the stairs. It feels wrong seeing an adult be so helpful. Uncle Lee actually lifts Brantley up so he can reach the white plastic extinguisher. Brantley hugs it to himself with both arms and looks up the stairs, at Lark.
Lark hides in the bathroom until Uncle Lee knocks for him. He pretends he was brushing his teeth.
“You’re such a man already,” Uncle Lee says, showing him to his room. “I don’t have beds in here. It’s going to be like camping.”
Lark and Brantley share a room that is too large with too little in it. The carpet is softer than pillows. They lie in sleeping bags that their uncle says they used when they camped one time when they were smaller. Neither of the twins remember that.
Uncle Lee hugs them one more time and says, “If you need anything, come knock for me. I’ll leave the hall light on. You guys are totally safe here. Your Dad will be here before you wake up.”
The door is open too much, letting too much light for Lark to sleep. His sleeping bag warms up until he feels like a microwaving hotdog. The carpet’s softness invades through the sleeping bag. Lark pinches the carpet, and it feels fine, like the lint they clean out of the drier. That lint always burns fast. Before he can stop himself, he worries.
Where he pinched the carpet, the fabric sparks with an orange flame. It looks for a second like someone hid a cigarette lighter under the floor. Lark’s whole body seizes up and he begs the flame to go away. It grows taller instead, turning soft fabric into fire.
A liquid hiss cuts through the night, and the flame is doused in chalky foam. Brantley lies on his side in his sleeping bag, hugging a fire extinguisher like a teddy bear. He keeps the nozzle aimed where the flame had sprouted, and his eyes aim dead on Lark.
It is the same look Brantley had earlier tonight. The same look from right before he made Lark do what he did.
— # —
When Uncle Lee isn’t looking, the twins steal as many bags of his colorful cereals as they can. Lark knows they’ll need it when Father forgets.
Lark says, “Thanks for coming and getting us, Uncle Lee.”
Uncle Lee pets his hair back. Lark tries not to flinch at the touch. Uncle Lee says, “I was happy to. You’re my family. I’m glad you weren’t hurt.”
Brantley asks, “If something bad happens again, will you come get us again?”
“It’s not going to. That was an accident last night, and you’re all safe.”
Lark asks, “But what if something did happen again?”
“If it did? Then your dad would take care of you.”
Father picks them up in the navy minivan. They sit in the back, leaving a row of empty seats between Father and themselves. They do not speak on the way to the hotel. Occasionally, Father’s gray eyes look at Lark through the rearview mirror.
Three little black holes are in Lark’s seat. At first he thinks they are from thumbtacks. Later, he realizes they are tiny burns. They are older than his memory.
Brantley pokes him once on the drive. Lark is good. He sucks in air and doesn’t make a noise. He puts his palm under his shirt and presses on it so it won’t bleed.
This is fair. He has to pay Brantley back.
— # —
There are rules. Lark and Brantley will share a room, as part of Father’s suite at the hotel. They will stay here until Father finds them a new home. They will not go into the rest of his suite, just as they stayed in one room in their old house. They will not touch the telephone, or turn on the television, or go outside.
Lark and Brantley are good boys. They understand rules.
As soon as Father leaves, Lark shies away from his brother. He knows what is coming. Brantley follows, wanting to poke him again. There is no rule against poking.
“A real poke this time,” Brantley says. “Not like in the car.”
Lark asks, “Does it have to be now?”
“It’s what I do.”
Their closet contains a fire extinguisher, too. This one is big and red. Lark drags it across the floor and sets it between them.
Lark had hoped that Brantley lost his thumbtacks in the fire. They lost everything else. Why couldn’t they lose small things, too?
Brantley saved at least one. It is the color of blueberry candy, with a shiny metal piece. The tack could be brand new. Its point is so small that Lark doesn’t understand how it exists.
Lark holds out his bare right arm. His fingers quiver. He tries to be still, and to cool his breathing.
Brantley shoves him and says, “You want me to leave a mark where somebody would see it?” His voice sounds different saying that. He sounds like Father. The instant Lark recognizes it, a black scorch mark sears down the covers of his bed.
Brantley pokes the scorched cotton like it’s a bad pancake. “It works.”
Lark says, “I didn’t mean to.”
“Did too.” Brantley rolls the thumbtack between his fingers. “You found what you do.”
Lark looks at the blackened spot on the bedsheet. At least this one isn’t burning. He asks, “Is this what I do?”
“Everybody has the thing they do. You do this. I do this.”
He pokes Lark, and this time Lark yelps. It’s shrill and brief and he falls to the floor. It’s more shock than harm.
Brantley says, “Don’t be a baby. Look at it. Look.”
He holds the thumbtack close to Lark’s face. There’s no blood on it.
“See this? See how small it is? It doesn’t hurt.”
“It does hurt.”
“Don’t lie. I do what I do, and it makes you do what you do.”
Lark’s head is full of hornets. They buzz around and make him unable to hear his feelings. His imagination is full of melting crayons, and the smell of lint turning to fire, and a longing for coconut shampoo. Will the fire extinguisher stop it if he does his thing too much?
Lark asks, “Does this have to be what you do?”
Brantley pokes him two more times.
— # —
The first of the two times, Lark has to wait so long for it. Brantley holds the point of the thumbtack inside Lark’s belly button so that it tickles. It’s the tickle before the pain, and as small as the point, Lark can already feel it inside his body, stabbing him all the way to his spine. The wait for the tack fills him with more feeling than the tack itself ever could.
The stink of smoke assails them. They will definitely have to wash their hair to get the smell out before Father returns. Brantley opens the windows so the smoke detector won’t go off. Lark shoves the smoldering trash under a mattress to kill it.
Lark says, “That was really close. We have to be careful.”
That’s when Brantley pokes him the second time.
— # —
It’s a relief when they don’t sleep in the same room. Father returns with his blue satin tie (‘Sat in’, not ‘Satan’) undone and very grumpy. As usual, he forgot to bring food. He wants a word with Brantley. They go into Father’s room, closing the door behind them.
Father lets Lark put his TV on. There’s a news story about their house burning down, which he doesn’t want to watch. Spongebob is better, as are the nature documentaries about mountain lions. Mountain lions are very strict with their young, and they make cute noises. Just like before the house burned down, Lark turns the TV up so that he only hears the TV.
It’s one of those nights where Brantley stays in Father’s room. If either of them asks, Lark will say he didn’t hear a thing. He understands the rules.
— # —
Brantley says, “I didn’t tell him.”
Lark asks, “Tell him what?”
“Don’t be dumb. Dumb isn’t what you do.”
“Can people do more than one thing?”
Lark tenses up before the poke. Brantley still pokes him.
Brantley says, “Thank me.”
“I didn’t tell him what you do. He doesn’t know. I protected you.”
That isn’t why Brantley wants to be thanked. But saying that would bring attention to the wrong things and break the rules.
Lark says, “Thank you.”
Brantley pulls the ottoman over to the window so that they can perch on it and look outside. He says, “We’ve got to see how much you do.”
Brantley takes up most of the ottoman. Lark makes do with less of it, because arguing for space makes him too nervous, and he’s smart enough to worry that his nervousness could hurt them both. He imagines the one time Mother roasted marshmallows, and dropped hers into the barbecue pit, and how it was hard and black and bubbling all at once. He doesn’t remember who told him that that is what happens to little boys who ignore the rules.
There are yellow cats outside the hotel. At first Lark thinks they are mountain lions. Father’s suite is on the second floor, overlooking a neatly kept yard that is separated from the parking lot by an adobe wall. In the yard are a few mewling cats, much smaller than mountain lions. They’re wet from the sprinklers, hair flattened to their backs like straw floor mats. They keep opening their mouths, and since Lark cannot hear their noises, he imagines the mountain lion sounds from last night. It makes him giggle.
Brantley says, “Do your thing to them.”
“I said so.”
Brantley points a thumbtack at Lark. This one is a slightly greenish-white, the color of things that glow if you turn off the lights. It does not glow. Its metal point shines in the window light.
The flood comes over Lark. The anticipation of the pain, and the dread that he’ll burn the building down—and this time they’ll be trapped inside—and the scary images of the kittens, unable to extinguish themselves. Every possible future he imagines makes him sick. His brain is a roasted marshmallow dropped into the fire.
It has to stop. He asks, “Can’t you do a different thing?”
He’s looking into his brother’s gray eyes when he brings up the thumbtack, like he’s going to poke the inside of his nose. That is a place people might not see. Mother got nosebleeds. Nobody asked about them.
Brantley says, “Do your thing to them. Pay me back.”
Lark doesn’t look at the kittens. He doesn’t look out the window. He keeps looking into those scary gray eyes, like the eyes of cartoon wolves, like monsters rather than real animals, and wishes his brother would be more like a real animal. Brantley needs to feel this fear. Then it’ll be different.
It’s a sudden audible puff, and Brantley’s blonde hair crisps. Flames shoot off the top of his head like he’s wearing a hat made out of angry fire. Lark beats at his brother’s scalp, trying to put him out, afraid he’s cooked him.
He shoves Brantley into the shower. They climb in together, and Lark keeps holding his brother and fumbling with the water knobs. One of them cries like a baby.
Brantley doesn’t cry. He doesn’t make any noises. He makes stunned huffing sounds, like he’s forgotten the taste of air. Why doesn’t his brother cry right? Brantley’s silence crushes everything, so Lark doesn’t notice the fire alarm.
— # —
Brantley is gone for days. Father does not say where he is. Father unplugs Lark’s television with the unspoken rule that if it is found re-plugged, he will have a word with him.
Lark doesn’t want to watch television. He wants baths. Before she ran away, Mother took long baths like these, letting the water cover her entire body. Ever since he did his thing to his brother, ever since they held each other in the shower, he’s wanted to spend more time in the tub.
It’s cold porcelain that resists his warmth. Sometimes he climbs in still wearing his clothes, and lets the water rise up until it’s over his head. If he’s surrounded by water, maybe he won’t burn anything no matter how worried he is.
He worries most on the nights when Father returns. Brantley does not come with him. At the thought that Father will ask him to spend the night in his room in Brantley’s place, Lark feels fires sprouting and dying in the bathwater around him.
Whenever it sounds like Father is coming near the door between their rooms, Lark submerges in the bath. He holds his breath and tries to hold his thoughts. If he can hold them both, maybe nobody will do what they do.
One time Lark emerges from the water and Father is standing in the bathroom door. Gray eyes watch Lark, his satin tie undone and hanging around his chaffed throat. Lark freezes in the water. He doesn’t know what to think.
The fire alarm goes off. Thank God they have to leave and Father can’t ask him to have a word in private.
— # —
Brantley comes home—home to the hotel, anyway. He has fancy violet and indigo kerchiefs that he wears over his scalp. He has several pills he’s supposed to take with food. He has an ointment that Lark must apply twice per day, because Father is busy and can’t be expected to do everything.
For some of the first day, they draw animals with big horns, and draw houses.
Brantley plugs the television back in to watch One Piece, a cartoon about happy pirates who obey no rules. Brantley is sure to unplug it when that’s over.
They do not talk. When Lark asks if he’s putting the ointment on right and if it hurts, Brantley is mum.
There are no thumbtacks. Lark is sorry that he got what he wished.
He is also scared that he’s sorry.
— # —
Two days is too soon. Already, Father wants a word with Brantley.
Brantley spends the night in Father’s room.
Lark spends the night watching One Piece at very loud volumes. He mostly hears the sounds of brave pirates. He tries to draw them, but the drawings keep their ships on fire.
— # —
Brantley is in their room again. He sits on the floor, in the bathroom door, legs splayed. He is watching Lark. His kerchief is matted with ointment. He rotates a thumbtack in his fingers. This one is shiny gray, like the whole thing is made of metal.
The point of that tack is so real. Where previous tacks made Lark’s belly feel full of pain in anticipation, this one makes his whole future ache. Looking at it feels like wondering where Mother ran away to. It feels like coming out of the tub water and finding Father in the doorway, waiting to be unprotected.
Lark pulls the ottoman over to their window. Their minivan is parked two spots from the brick wall, next to someone’s sports car. He tries to see into the back windows of the minivan, to see if he can see the tiny burns on his seat. It’s too far away.
When he sees Father walk across the lot, he drops off the ottoman to hide. He puts his back to the wall, like a hiding pirate.
Brantley is there. He says, “Let me poke you.”
The room could be on fire already and he’d be too terrified to know. Lark grabs onto the ottoman to center himself, and climbs on top of it. Father isn’t in their room, isn’t waiting to be seen. He’s unlocking the minivan door, looking annoyed at the existence of his keys, annoyed that he’s outside in the humidity.
A low whine comes from Brantley, and now Lark’s face is definitely on fire. He stands on his tiptoes, staring at Father, hearing every sound he isn’t supposed to hear through a wall. He hears all the sounds he will one day make. Father hears everything, but does he listen?
Father starts the car.
Lark helps him start the car.
For an instant it is almost as orange in the parking lot this morning as it was last night under the lamps. The afterimages blaze in Lark’s eyes. He is surprised he doesn’t smell the smoke.
He opens the window to breathe the smoke. It smells like gas stations and melting plastic. It is awful—a present awfulness, which is a relief compared to all the anticipated awfulness before. He inhales deeply, unable to smell Father. The smell of Father ceasing to be is too small to overpower melting plastic. Lark won’t have to bother to wash it off.
Alarms ring and somebody outside is shouting. Some of the noises are like mountain lions when they’re not being cute.
Brantley climbs onto the ottoman, taking less than half of it. His gray eyes looked bluer closer to the window and the light of the outdoors. He holds the thumbtack, which is the deep gray of parking lot pavement.
Lark says, “Give me that.”
“Because this isn’t what you do.”
“What he does, doesn’t happen anymore. So what you do doesn’t happen either.”
“Because I did what I do. I did it for you.”
For the first time, Lark approaches his brother when a thumbtack is out. He pries it from his fingers. He holds it by the metal tip, pinching it so that it doesn’t poke anything. The metallic gray nub juts out.
Brantley asks the nub, “What do I do without it?”
Lark takes his brother’s thumbtack, the plastic nub still warm with his brother’s hands. He pulls the curtain from the wall and sticks the tack there, where nobody will see it. Then he drops the curtain over it. It’s gone.
There’s a fever in Brantley’s voice, like he’ll cry without an answer. “What do I do now?”
“We need to call Uncle Lee.”
“No.” Brantley squirms, nearly falling off the ottoman. “What is my thing? What is the thing I do?”
Lark says, “Maybe Uncle Lee can help us find out. But you don’t do those things anymore. We don’t do those things.”
Brantley inches closer, his face so open like he’s surfacing for the first time. “What do we do? What is our thing?”
“We do better. We do better or we burn.”
© 2022 John Wiswell
About the Author
John (@Wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees.
He is the winner of the 2021 Nebula Award for Best Short Story, and a Hugo and World Fantasy Award Finalist.
His works have appeared in places such as Uncanny Magazine, Nightmare Magazine and Nature Futures.
He wants to remind all victims of childhood abuse that you are not alone.