Volume 69, Number 1 · Fall 2019

Fire, Smoke, Mirrors



The last time Joey sees his mother, she is all shapes, walking the hallway with the light at her back. The light cuts at her edges, making her appear smaller than she is, her ankles so narrow and unsteady they seem they’ll break. Her arm extends. Fingers trail the white wall.

The year is 1938. Joey is seven.

He has been at her vanity again. He likes to play with the lipsticks. To take them from their gold, filigreed holder, to uncap them, to see how the shape has changed, how the tip gets thin like the mouthpiece of the recorder he plays at school. He allowed himself to put the lipstick to his mouth, as if to play it, and now he can feel the waxy spot on his lower lip, can smell the paint. He waits to be caught. He wants his mother to scold him, to slap him inexpertly like she does: on the side of the head, where his hair softens the blow. She will slap him, and he’ll threaten to run away, to throw himself off the roof. Stop it, she’ll hiss, her lips trembling and pretty. Later, she’ll come to his room to apologize, to run her hands through his hair and tell him he is a good boy, actually.

Joey can hardly wait.

But his mother is only thinking, What’s done is done is done. “Get to your room,” she says, brushing past.

▴ ▴ ▴

In her bedroom, she careens toward the mirror. That morning, she’d curled her hair on top of her head and put on extra rouge to make herself look young, but after the train ride and the walking, the appointment, the walking and the train ride—it has had the opposite effect. In the bedroom mirror, she is changed, in need of study, but she doesn’t have the time. Lying down is urgent. She pulls back the covers of the bed in a neat triangle and climbs in with her heels on. She feels that she has wet herself through the gauze, but she doesn’t look. She closes her eyes, drifts, jolts back, as if forgetting something. Joey. Her daughter, Francis. She had known the risks. But her life was like a flower plucked already, and, no more, she could not give any more of it away.

Now she is as light as a white-tufted seed in a wind, going up, up. From above, she sees herself as a girl, lolling on the farm gate. Waiting for Joseph to take her away, from that place to this one. Now she waits for no one.

▴ ▴ ▴

Joey stands in the hallway, looking from one tall door to another. His mother and father’s room, the bathroom, the room he shares with his sister. One door one, he hums to himself. One two three.

He does not go to his room. In the galley kitchen down the hall, he makes a big racket, hoping to draw his mother out. He opens and closes all the cabinets, rustles pans. He hoists himself up and sits on the counter like he knows he’s not supposed to. He bangs his heels against the lower drawers. Then up, standing, he peers into the shelves that he normally can’t reach. It’s there that he sees the matches. Small matchboxes, the kind you slide in and out like a tiny drawer.

His father is on the stairs leading up to the apartment. He knows it’s his father from the way one foot hits heavier than the other. He’ll be coming up from the shop for lunch, angry that Joey’s mother has not prepared it, and his anger will lash—and there is a choice to make now. Joey fingers the matches. His father would slap him for real. And he never apologizes. Never runs his fingers through Joey’s hair, although Joey wouldn’t have wanted it. His father’s hands are thick and coarse and smell like deli meat and vinegar. Joey often feels that his parents don’t go together, don’t match, like how his mother taught him not to wear brown shoes with black pants. The two of them together is a great confusion of his life. Sometimes when his father hits him, it’s his mother who comes to comfort him. Joey stuffs three matchboxes into his pocket and runs.

He makes it halfway down the hallway.

“Hey, you.”

Joey turns to face his father. His father, who smiles at the customers in the shop but rarely at home, as if he has two different faces. His father, whose smile, directed at Joey, would change the whole world. Joey presses the matches tight against his leg. He presses his lips together to hide the trace of color.

“What are you into?” his father says. “Come here.”

Joey takes one step. He thinks of a plank over the ocean. He’ll become a pirate.

“What did I say? Come here.”

Sharks circle below him. He’ll throw himself into a shark pit, that’s what he’ll do.

“What’s that on your face.” He grips Joey’s chin.

Joey squirms.

“Where’s your mother?” he asks, louder. He hits Joey, not hard, a pat on the cheek to get his attention, but it’s enough to make Joey remember the harder hits, to fear them, and feel how he deserves them. He starts to cry.

“Where is your mother.”

“Her room,” Joey whines. His father looks toward the closed door, releases Joey so he stumbles back.

“Go play,” he says.

The quickest route away is to back down the hallway toward the bedrooms. Joey sticks his tongue out at his mother’s door. In his room, he throws himself onto the bed. He really will jump off the roof, he thinks. Or he’ll run away to the circus—he clutches the matches. He’ll be a fire-breather. And when someone boos him, like his father, he’ll burn his face off. Joey pictures that. No. Only his at-home face.

With a pillow over his head, he listens to the sounds of his father in the kitchen, his father leaving. Otherwise, the rooms are quiet. The closet door is cracked open to darkness, a line of black that appeals to him. Inside, he pushes his mother’s winter things, hanging, all the way over and settles in on the hard floor. With the door closed, the outside light comes weakly through the keyhole and then hot in a narrow border around the door so that he imagines the whole apartment, the whole world outside the closet on fire.

Joey strikes his first match and watches the flame flutter and grow strong. He lets it burn down until he can feel its heat on his fingers. He lights another and another, and wipes his tears, and he could not say why he loves it so. The simple beauty of the flame and how the flame moves.

“I smell smoke.”

His sister, Frankie, eleven, and something stealth. She opens the closet door, and the light hurts his eyes.

“I’ll tell Mom,” she says.

“I’ll burn your hair in your sleep,” he says.

She climbs into the closet with him. “Push over,” she says. She takes her own box of matches from Joey’s stash. She lights her own. She tries to write her name in the air but the flame keeps going out. He lets his own flames burn straight down, closer and closer to his fingers.

“I’m hungry,” Frankie says. “Where’s mom?”

“She’s in a rotten mood,” Joey says.

“What else is new,” says Frankie. Frankie is daddy’s girl.

▴ ▴ ▴

Joey and Frankie go down to the shop to see if their father will let them please share an ice pop. She asks while Joey hangs back. But maybe his father does feel bad about before, because he gives them each one, telling them to eat outside where they won’t drip on his floors. They eat their popsicles and play goals with a bottle cap and walk up to the corner and hang around the street sign. “What about the dolls?” Joey asks, because Frankie had gone to play with a girl who owned dolls. Frankie says, “Dull as doornails.”

Joey could not have been happier. “You’re dull as a doornail,” he says.

“You’re dead as one.” Frankie pushes him off the curb.

They go into an alley and light pieces of paper from the trash on fire. They practice circus acts. He will be the fire-breather, and Frankie will jump through hoops of fire. On a horse, she adds.

At quarter to six, big fat Mr. Holloway, the night person at the shop, passes their alley. “Supper,” Frankie says. From the sidewalk, they see their father hulking up the stoop of their building. “Better go up,” Frankie says. “What are we eating?”

“I don’t know.” Joey kicks the bottle cap out ahead of them.

“What day is it?”


“Fish,” Frankie says.

Joey spits. “Rotten.”

“You don’t eat anything anyway.”

“Cuz everything Mom makes is rotten.”

“You’re rotten.”

“You’re rotten.”

Their father meets them on the stairwell’s second floor landing. His face is pale, clammy, but the skin on his neck is very red. He turns them both around. He grumbles something. “We’re going this way,” he says. He marches them out of the building, his heavy-footed march, hunched down to hold on to their arms. The matches, Joey is thinking. He must have found the burned-up matches. He marches them down the stairs and into the shop. Joey develops his argument—he didn’t steal them from the shop, he’ll say. If he has the chance. But their father doesn’t yell. He brings them to the storage closet. “You stay in here and don’t come out until I get you,” he says. He closes the door without any consideration of the fact that the bulb in the closet is burned out.

“Well, this is grand,” Joey says. “What’d we do?”

There is the scratch and strike and flutter of a flame, like a flag whipping in the wind, and Frankie’s face lights up, flickers with warm light. “Something’s wrong,” she says.

▴ ▴ ▴

That night and the next, they stay in a boarding house with a cousin of their father’s. A boarding house they will come to know well because it will be where their father moves, where they visit him on weekends. They eat pork chops with congealed gravy the first night, a meal Joey will remember as good, somehow. He will crave it. After dinner, they are told to go to bed.

On the second morning, their father drops off two overstuffed bags of their things, a motley assortment, they’ll find out, and tells them that they’ll go stay on Aunt V’s farm for a while.

“What’s happened to mother?” Frankie asks.

“She’s left us,” he says.

▴ ▴ ▴

Frankie can see it, but Joey can’t. He is thinking that she must have climbed out the window because they would have seen her leaving. He knows this can’t be right, but he does not ask questions he does not want answers to. She would have had to climb out the window, he thinks again. Or maybe she left while they were playing circus in the alley. She could be anywhere. He looks out the window of his aunt’s old Ford. He looks for his mother on the streets.

Frankie knows that her mother has died. She could see it in her father’s face. She could feel it in the way the adults now looked at her, as if she has become more important.

Aunt Violet, Aunt V, is their mother’s stepsister. She lives on what was their grandfather’s farm in Connecticut. When Aunt V had come to visit them in the city, she was all stabs—“So many pretty things here,” she’d say, “your eye doesn’t have one minute to rest.” Or, “It’s a perfect size apartment, who needs privacy?”

She has a curt, sly little mouth that moves her nose around like a rabbit’s when she talks. And she talks and talks. On the way out of the city, she says how it’s a good thing she was home this weekend and their poor father and what did their mother say to them two mornings ago? And a shame, a great shame, and she is buoyant with it. Their mother’s failure. Failure to? What exactly? Frankie sits on her hands to keep them from trembling.

“Uncle Gregory is getting some rooms all set up for you but don’t expect to have all the amenities like you do, all those sweets that your mother lets you—”

“Aunt V?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What’s happened to my mother?”

“Oh, good Lord,” she says. “This is just like your father, not to spell anything out for you. Your mother did a bad thing. A very bad thing.” She goes quiet. “I’m going to tell you straight. Because it’s better to hear from family. Your mother.” She quiets again, but her mouth moves back and forth and her nose twitches, and then she says it, tells Frankie about an operation and how her mother had not wanted another child.

Frankie looks out the window. Rocks and trees blur past, the city is gone. Like us, Frankie thinks. She didn’t want another child like us. She tries not to cry. She hated her mother just as much, she thinks. Frankie hates her still. And more.

In back, Joey hears the words but they barely mean anything to him. They are just words spoken by an aunt he doesn’t like. Outside, the lines of the tree trunks blur behind the green leaves. When he tries to focus on one tree, it hurts his eyes. He closes them. He imagines his mother out in the forest, following the car, walking through the blur silently, like a deer. Then she bursts into a single beautiful flame.





The farm is no longer a farm. Even the road leading up has become studded with houses, the whole area on its way to suburbia. Their grandfather used to raise chickens. Frankie has vague memories of playing with the marble nest eggs, rolling them across the wooden floor, her grandmother baking cardamom bread in the kitchen. Now the farm is just a hardscrabble tract of land with the last of the unused coops out back, a rotting barn, a mass of woods a quarter-mile away where old logging roads forge for miles only to dead-end.

The house feels ill-conceived and close—low ceilings and narrow hallways cluttered with the debris of two generations. Aunt V has a dull husband named Gregory who has a long face and a gummy smile. They haven’t been able to have children, a point she makes often in the next few weeks, often on the phone, sniffling while she does it, “My own sister, knowing how some people lack.” But she doesn’t seem to like children, not even Frankie. “Don’t think that pretty face will get you any special treatment in this house,” Aunt V says.

When Frankie and Joey track mud into the foyer, it’s Frankie that Aunt V slaps—which never happened at home. Joey hangs back, grinds the toe of his muddy sneaker into the floor, smears it around. Aunt V ignores him.

He’ll run away to the woods, he thinks. He’ll set himself on fire—but who would care if he did? Not his aunt. Not his father. Only Frankie.

▴ ▴ ▴

The farmhouse has recently been wired for electricity, but only the ground floor because Aunt V didn’t think it worth the money to put light into the upstairs rooms, rooms meant for sleeping. Rooms where Frankie and Joey sleep—separately, because Aunt V says it’s indecent for a young girl to share a room with her brother. They are given kerosene lamps and each a stash of matches, although she says they shouldn’t need them. They should go to bed as soon as the sun sets, because God has made the world with a certain schedule in mind. She herself never follows this rule, staying up to listen to soaps on the wireless.

Upstairs, the kerosene lamps barely emit light. It is like walking into a dim past. Frankie imagines her mother along the same hallway, climbing the creaking stairs with her lamp held out. Sleeping in this same lumpy bed with the window onto the field and the night sky. Same sky, same stars. Frankie feels sometimes that she is her mother’s ghost. She does not sleep well.

One night, there is a ping at her window. Ping. And then silence. Ping. She parts the curtain, and sees Joey turn and run toward the forest, drawing her eye toward the forest. At the tree line, a huge flame wavers. Frankie climbs out of bed.

Joey has dragged a wet, wooden barrel from somewhere and built a fire inside it—he is dancing around it when she gets to him. “You’re going to get us killed,” Frankie says, but she is smiling.

Joey steps on a branch to break it in two. He dips one end into the fire and holds the other half out to Frankie. The fire crackles. The wood of the barrel hisses. The house feels very far away. They light their skinny torches and march around, feeling the warmth and the light.

“We are kings,” Joey says. “Wherever the light goes is our kingdom.”

Frankie is thinking that her mother probably never did something like this. She holds up her torch, the fire moving down its length. “I’m the king,” she says. “You’re my servant.”

“Whoever builds the fire is the king.”

She pushes him, turns to the fire, feels her face flush. Her mother never had a brother.

Looking into the fire, Joey feels closer to his mother, not further away, as if she is part of the flames, as if the fire is a kind of puppet for her soul.

▴ ▴ ▴

They hold two more ceremonies, until Joey runs out of the old barrels he’d been finding along the tree line. And Uncle Gregory finds the charred ruins. “Must be those Connor boys up the road,” he says. “Troublemakers.” He looks to Aunt V for approval.

“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about it,” she says to Frankie.

Frankie shakes a bowed head. Joey begins to say something—he’d like to take credit, but Frankie kicks him under the table.

They push farther into the forest, out of sight of the house. Without barrels, they spend the last days of summer gathering wood, taking turns chopping up fallen branches with a dull hatchet. Joey wants to build a house to burn. They try to make a crude frame but end up with a teepee instead, about the size of one of the chicken coops. Joey lays wood for a campfire inside the frame. “I don’t think we should really light this,” Frankie says.

“Why not?” Joey says.

“It could be dangerous.”

“You sound like Mother,” he says. He kicks at the dirt. “Don’t be a girl about it.”

“I’m not a girl,” she says.

When the pings come on the window, Frankie is awake to hear them. They run across a field lit by a large yellow moon. Frankie can feel small things, crickets or grasshoppers, bounding out of their way. She sees her old life through a tiny pinprick window in her mind, her mother pouring coffee in the kitchen, the bowl of fake fruit on the small breakfast table, bananas and apples and grapes filled with air. The night seems to snuff the pinprick out like a dying star.

The light of their lanterns gains power as they enter the forest.

Joey is surprised to see that the teepee is still there, as if it were some animal that could have run off. But, no, it is a dead thing, a husk of a thing—that Joey will bring to life.

“Stand back after you light it,” Frankie says.

Joey strikes a match and then lights the end of a branch, spreading fire around the base.

They watch until the whole structure is swept in flames—reaching, ragged, roiling flames. Frankie steps back at the same time Joey steps forward.

“You’re too close,” Frankie says. When he turns to look at her, his face is flushed and serene. She pulls him back just as the teepee collapses. Embers flood from the base, and fire sweeps out over one side of the clearing.

Frankie drags Joey away. Clutching his arm, she runs in the direction of the house. Once inside, they watch from the window of her bedroom. Frankie can’t see the fire, but she imagines it following their path across the field. The house would burn in minutes. She gazes at the tree line until her eyes grow tired from the strain.

When she finally falls asleep, she dreams that she is in the old apartment. Smoke fills the room, her mother shakes her awake. Her mother—she feels so real, her perfume and her hard hands, her soft chest. She carries Frankie like a baby to the window, but the fire escape is gone. Only a slick black street sways below.

In the morning, there is no sign of the fire from the window, as if the whole thing has been a dream. Frankie and Joey walk to where they had built the teepee. The remains: branches turned to char and white ash. Around the perimeter of the clearing, the ground cover is blackened. “We got lucky,” Frankie says, and, “We’re not doing this again.”

Joey is floating his hands over the ashes. “I can still feel the heat,” he says.

▴ ▴ ▴

Aunt V enrolls them in the country school, where the teachers don’t wear habits, and the kids wear everyday clothes, dirty dungarees and work shirts. Frankie and Joey see their father in the city some Saturday afternoons while Aunt V goes shopping. He shuttles them between the store and the boarding house. He always has a hand on each of them now, as if they will run away.

Aunt V wants to charge him room and board for keeping the children. They fight about it outside the car one Saturday afternoon in September, their voices only slightly muffled.

They are eating her out of house and home, Aunt V says.

He doesn’t like the circumstance, not one bit, he says. He’s working on a solution. It won’t be long.

After that, Aunt V pays closer attention to them—how much they eat and how much more laundry there is. They are burning much more wood, “for your benefit,” she says, when it starts to get cold. It is confusing because she is nicer to them, too—she lets them stay up to listen to Mercury Theatre. She gives them hard candies from a high cabinet. When Frankie finds a brood of kittens in the barn, Aunt V won’t allow them in the house but lets Frankie feed them. She finds Frankie with the kittens one day and says, “You know, you and your brother are welcome to stay here. Don’t you want to stay here?” her nose twitching.

At night, Frankie hears pings at her window. When she tries to ignore them, she dreams of wildfires, she dreams of Joey locked inside her mother’s bedroom. She gets out of bed, she goes, she supervises.

But then, October, and Frankie wakes to slamming doors. In the distance, the clanging of a fire truck bell. She has been waiting for this, she realizes. She is up—expecting smoke, expecting fire to meet her in the stairwell. And would he? Without warning her? But the sound of the bell steadies and stops at a distance. Aunt V and Uncle Gregory stumble out the front of the house, Frankie following. They can see it from their lawn, through the newly bare trees—the Linden’s field is on fire up the way, a blazing square. Joey joins them from behind. He is out of breath.

Uncle Gregory goes to gather buckets. Aunt V rushes to squawk with the women along the road.

“No more,” Frankie says.

Joey doesn’t look at her.

“No more,” she says louder. “I’ll tell.” She shakes him by the arm. He flops like a ragdoll, as if playing dead. It infuriates her. She turns him and slaps him across the face. She’s never slapped anyone before. It makes a sound like a firecracker. They continue walking, heads down. When they get to the blazing field, to where the men are throwing water all along the edges, the firemen pumping from the cistern at the back, Joey looks at her, his eyes slick with tears. The fire reflects in them—Aunt V would have said he had the devil in him.

“I’ll run away,” he says, “I’ll throw myself into the fire.”

“Stop it,” Frankie says. She brings him close and hugs him. “Stop it, don’t talk that way.”

She is surprised to feel him hug her back. When she goes to pull away, he clutches.

▴ ▴ ▴

He had not meant it to be so big, the field fire—a breeze had come up and swept the fire away. Watching the flames and warmth move off without him, out of his control, he’d felt light and empty, an object in the fire’s wake, made of the blackest char and about to become ash.

He tells himself he’ll stop. Frankie wants him to stop. But then Frankie has her kittens and friends at school and Aunt V and their father who care about her. Without fire, he finds that nothing in his life belongs to him.

And so a vision comes. It involves the chicken coops out back, the fire moving at his will and on his command. There are six coops, in two staggered rows of three. Joey walks the zigzag between them. He shouldn’t—Frankie will be angry. He could care less about Aunt V. Aunt V should know to care more about him.

On the day, Joey searches for Frankie. Uncle Gregory dozes in front of the woodstove. Aunt V is visiting some neighbor down the road. Frankie’s in bed, even though it’s two o’clock on a Sunday. She’d gotten out of church, too. “I don’t feel well,” she says.

She has started to bleed—she knows what it means, learned from girls in school, but she doesn’t know what to do about it. The first couple of months had been light and brown like a skid of mud, but now it is a startling red that makes her think of her mother. If she stands upright, she feels it will all come rushing out. She lies in bed with a sheet of newspaper folded down her underwear. “Leave me alone,” she tells Joey. She imagines the words. Aunt V, I need help. The words disgust her.

When Aunt V comes home, when Frankie says the words, she cries from shame, and then cries harder for the shame of crying, the shame of being a child.

Aunt V brings her close. She smells like the farm, wet wood steaming in the fire. “Poor thing,” she says. “You poor, poor thing.”

“What’s wrong with her?” Joey asks from the bedroom door.

“You find someone else to bother,” Aunt V says. She gives Frankie a heating pad for her stomach and what she calls “a napkin” for her underwear. Before bed, she makes Frankie half a hot toddy to help her calm down. Frankie climbs in under the covers and submits.

Later, she hears the pings only in her dreams. She rolls over, away. She sleeps but fitfully, afraid she will get blood on the sheets.

Outside, Joey sets everything up. Piles of kindling in all the coops, splashes of kerosene from a can he’d found in the barn, a precise trail of it from one coop into another. He throws a pebble at Frankie’s window. Shrugs. The moon is nowhere, the stars thick, stars beyond stars beyond stars, so that looking for the black sky amidst them makes him feel dizzy. He starts at the coop farthest from the house. He lights the brush pile he’s set up inside and stays to watch it catch, then ducks out. He stands in the middle of his masterpiece, watches the fire move from the first coop through the grass and dirt like a snake, just like he’d hoped it would. He wishes Frankie were here.

At the third coop, something goes wrong. The fire catches, and the little house goes up, flames licking at the sky, but there’s a screeching sound underneath the snapping of fire. Inside the small doorway, he can see one of Frankie’s kittens crouched in the space of floor that the fire hasn’t gotten to yet.

No problem, Joey thinks. He can hear Frankie telling him, No. But Frankie is not here. Frankie had told him to go away, had allowed Aunt V to tell him to go away. He looks up at the house. He feels a space around him that no one can enter—it makes him feel powerful, and alone. I’ll throw myself into the fire, he thinks. But, no, nothing so dramatic as that.

I saved your kitten, he’ll tell her.

Joey is not afraid. The door is all flame, his flame.

▴ ▴ ▴

A little while later, Frankie wakes to the sound of the last coop collapsing.





They looked all over for Joey that night. They checked every nook of the house, every corner, every closet, in denial. The coops were smoldering piles. Frankie brought Uncle Gregory and the other men into the woods. She called Joey’s name into the night.

When they pulled his body from the coop, they wouldn’t let Frankie see. Later, she heard Gregory say that he was barely there. It was another death, like her mother’s, that was more of a disappearance, like in a magic show. It felt like a trick.

Frankie didn’t stay much longer at Aunt V’s. Very harsh things were said between Aunt V and Frankie’s father. He came in a borrowed car to pick Frankie up, and Aunt V would not even let him on the property. Frankie had to wait for him with her things at the gate.

She would never see that house or Aunt V again.

From the farm, her father took her to stay at the boarding house, and soon he carried out what he thought was the solution to all of their problems: he remarried.

The woman he married was dour and dowdy and very Catholic. She was named Wilma, but Frankie was supposed to call her Mother. She was a widow with two sons, both younger than Frankie, younger than Joey, and so a new life began.

The few people in her life who had known her mother said that Frankie grew to look just like her. People who didn’t know her said she looked like Greta Garbo. Which meant that she was pretty, although when she looked in the mirror she didn’t think so. But she was aware of what others thought and wore her prettiness like a mask, her mother’s mask, and used it as currency, purchasing as many tickets out of the house as she could. She fought with Wilma about when she could go out and with whom and what she could wear. Frankie’s father told her she was just like her mother, as a kind of insult. Sometimes she imagined what her life would be like with her mother and Joey still in it. They wouldn’t like her: her mother would be both aloof and resentful. Her brother would think her foolish—and that felt right, the idea of their scorn. She scorned them, too. Nobody likes to be tricked.

Frankie worked at her father’s shop in the afternoons and spent her wages on cosmetics and dresses, the mask. She had trouble sleeping, bad dreams, recurring, and she would try on her dresses in the middle of the night, one after another, twirling in front of the mirror, happy in her costumes, rehearsing roles. She thought she would easily escape that life with her father and Wilma and her two dull sons, and the brother and mother who had disappeared.

But one night, she turned to the mirror and saw her mother there—approving, as if living through her, just underneath her surfaces. She took her dress off and sat on the bed in her slip. She wished she were a boy. But then she thought of Joey.

Much later in her life, once she had outlived her mother’s age by at least a decade, she would look in the mirror and not see her at all anymore. She felt as if she had survived something. Also that she had lost her for good.

▴ ▴ ▴

She didn’t talk much about them, her mother and brother, even to the man she ended up marrying, to the children they had, three, or their children, eight between them. So when the oldest, her grown granddaughter, comes to ask her for stories—her granddaughter who is both of her and apart from her, an amalgamation—Frankie tells her, It’s not like people now. We didn’t tell our sad stories back then. We tried to forget them instead.

But Frankie continues talking despite herself and is surprised, that in seeing them again in her mind, her mother and Joey and the young girl, Frankie, tears come to her eyes without her bidding. It is counter to who she has become—salty, her family describes her, teases her, calling her “Frank” because it suits her. This is her second family, the family she made and not the one that made her, the latter vanishing into a dim pre-life life. At her tears, her granddaughter backs away, and they talk of other things.

Once she’s gone, Frank, Frankie, mom, Grandma Frank closes her eyes, traveling to that early part of her life, the senses and sounds, her mother’s heels hollow on the floor, her smell of perfume and powder. Her brother’s smooth face in the light of the fire. She remembers standing at the farm gate, waiting for her father. Between two lives. Despite everything, she’d felt an impossible hope.

▴ ▴ ▴

Another year. Two. So that she’s lived more than ten times as long as her brother. She’s lived her mother’s lifetime almost three times over, her own life making theirs smaller and smaller. But as she approaches her own disappearing act, she feels closer to them again, dreams of them again, the dreams recurring as if it had really happened this way—her mother and brother trapped in that old apartment, a storm of smoke rushing from underneath the door.

Caitlin Hayes’s short fiction appears in Ecotone, Epoch, the New England Review, and the Southern Review. She earned her MFA from Syracuse University and has been a fellow at Colgate University, Yaddo, and the Carson McCullers Center. She lives in Ithaca, New York, where she is working on a story collection and novel.