What the Fire Takes [Fiction]

By Hans Klein

Mason placed one foot in front of the other as he walked along train tracks. Rain melted out of the gray blanket above and he struggled to keep his footing. He slipped into gravel between the ties but picked his feet up, kept walking along the steel bars. In the distance, a green and rusted bridge sutured two sides of a river. The metal cage shadowed the water like spider legs around a fly. Across the shore a pulp mill billowed fumes in large mushrooms.

As Mason neared the bridge, he stepped off the tracks, walked along the ties and gravel. His feet were kindled as he made out foundations holding the steel structure. He descended to the beach below. The river was a delicate flow. Only water ahead and the crunching sand scraped Mason’s eardrums.

He stood under the bridge. It was tall above him and, about two stories from his head to the road, its green paint scabbed with rusted metal. The dull sores ate the paint and Mason thought it looked familiar. He looked to a buildup of large rocks that sat between rushing water.  Cloudy liquid splashed as it flowed. Obstructed by rocks, the river fractured into rushing white.

He saw footprints in the sand. His heart hit a little harder but he kept walking, followed the fresh indents. They led him to some large rocks circling a pool of still water. A woman sat upon driftwood and she looked up at him as he stepped toward her.

“You look good in black,” she said, her swollen eyes slowly blinking.

“Thanks.”

Mason looked to where the sand met the bridge. A black and splintered tree clutched the river bank.

“Wait here,” he said and walked to it, tore off a branch, and went back to the water’s edge.

He reached out with his stick, caught hold of her face, and pulled. The stick came free.

“Try again,” she said.

Mason looked on the ground, saw a rock with a jagged edge. He bent over and picked it up.

“There you go. That might work.” Her lips were lurid blue and her eyelids half open.

“Thank you. Can I touch you now?” he asked as her body fell to the sand beside the rock.

Mason knelt, and as his mother’s face rested between his legs he felt his knees saturate. He took the rock in his hands and placed it under her chin. Carefully, he made a cut just below her chin. He grabbed hold of the skin and pulled it across her mouth. Over her nose. Past her forehead where it came free at the edge of her hair. He took the piece of his mother and placed it over his own face.

“I love you, Mason.” Her voice ached as her eyes remained wide.

With the stick, he pushed her across the sand and into the pool where she slowly began to spin.

“I love you too,” he said.

Mason turned and left the bridge. He climbed the embankment to the tracks, followed them over the decaying ponds and away from empty trees that stabbed the wet ground. When he reached the edge of town sunlight was falling. Mason saw driveways leading to box houses without shadow. Light sucked away the color so vacant hues were left on wooden frames.

Mason cut behind the high school, where he spotted three kids standing against the brick building. They waved him over. He watched as they stretched their arms with their mouths shut, felt his stomach curve as they grabbed at the air and tried to take his attention. His feet began moving and he felt his face ignite. The kids kept their arms daggered at Mason as he walked. He saw their lips murmur and their arms shift, and he wanted to see why. Growing closer, he noticed the confusion on their faces. He wanted to tell them, but he didn’t know how.

“We’re sorry, Mason,” One of the kids said.

Mason remembered eating lunch with this boy. He’d been very nice to him and told jokes about all the kids in the cafeteria.

A second boy nodded his head, and Mason recalled spending time with him on the weekends. They used to run through the woods and steal beers from his dad on summer days.

The last one held up her hands. Mason grasped hold. They felt like he remembered, and he saw her eyes begin to fill.

“Wait here, all right?” said Mason.

“Of course,” she said.

Mason walked to the nodding boy he went running with and reached into his pocket. When he felt the pocket knife, he lifted it up and showed silver.

“Can I see your hands again?”

He traced lines with the blade around her wrists. He grasped hold and pulled hard until her hands peeled away. He kissed her, arranged the hands so they lay perfectly over his own, and looked back at the other two.

The nodding kid nodded.

“We’ll miss you,” The first one said.

They waved at him as he turned down the road past his school. The last of the sun’s flicker drowned under the horizon. Streetlamps seared the world in circles of light. He passed quiet houses with dark windows, their shadowed outlines branded beneath the false glow, until he found a place where he’d spent time as a child.

He walked over grass that cracked under frost to where three swings sat in a row. His brother rested on the end. Mason sat down in the middle and kicked his legs out, pulled them back in, kicked them back out. His brother began doing the same. Mason started to move a little bit as he pumped his legs, started to get higher, and he felt the wind begin to press into his face. It was biting from the cold and Mason felt his cheeks glow, his hands warm. His brother smiled at him in the dark.

“I’m going to make it over this time.”

“Not if I make it first,” said Mason.

He kicked harder, soared in the plastic seat. He was lifted by the chains his warm hands gripped and his feet stepped above the metal bar that held him. He fell back and when he moved forward he pushed hard, his whole body thrusting above the metal bar, but he fell down. When he felt himself move forward again, he kicked the air wildly. He felt his stomach forced to the dirt and then shot to the sky. The swing froze for a moment, suspended in the dark air, and he saw his brother next to him. They glanced at each other. And Mason felt himself falling. The chain jerked and his body jostled. When he stopped the swing, he looked over.

“Not this time.” He smiled and looked down.

“No, not this time,” said Mason.

Mason got up from the swings and started to move away, but his brother said, “Wait a minute, I have something for you.”

His brother took off his shirt and Mason gave him a hug. Looking over his brother’s shoulder, Mason noticed a garbage can by the edge of the park. He walked over, reached in, and pushed around the trash until he found an empty bottle. Mason held the handle and shattered it against the garbage can. The sharp edges glinted in the dark.. Mason cut around his brother’s waist. Around the base of his neck. He dropped the broken bottle, held onto the skin of his lower back, and pulled it over his brother’s head, down his chest, where it separated below his stomach.

Mason put his own head through the skin and it rested comfortably on his shoulders. His body flared beneath the weight.

“Thank you,” said Mason. He left his brother alone with the shirt in hand.

Back under streetlamps, he continued down the road to a place with fewer houses and more trees. A light breeze grazed the pines. Farther down the road, Mason saw a motel sign glowing orange. He passed the stations, into the parking lot of the motel, and looked around at ground level rooms. The bright neon sign flashed over sick white exterior. Each room had a window and a black door with a gold number nailed to it. They were on both sides and in front of him, surrounded him, they consumed the parking lot and digested the concrete with a lone blue sedan parked next to the only room with light on.  Mason walked to it, turned the cold handle, and stepped in to see his dad in bed with the TV on. On the table beside him rested a half bottle of clear liquor and a smaller bottle.

Mason’s father frowned and took a sit of the drink he held as he looked at Mason’s face.

“Where did you find her?” he asked.

“Under the bridge.”

His dad let the air seep slowly from his lungs.

“I thought so. She liked it there. And your brother?”

“At the park.”

His father stepped toward Mason who stood just inside the door. He held out the glass in his hand and said, “Try some of this.”

Mason took the glass, poured it onto the carpet, and handed it back. His dad looked at it. Held it in both hands and twirled it around. He lifted it in the watery light so wisps danced along walls next to Mason, and threw it against the floor, smashing the glass to shards. His dad fell to one knee and, while untying his shoes, Mason touched his curly hair like when he was young. With his laces severed and socks off, his dad picked up a large piece of the broken glass, made two incisions around his ankles, and peeled the skin off his feet. He held them up in a balled fist and let go when Mason held out his hands. Mason slipped them over his and walked around the room. They smoldered against his soles. He pulled them the across carpet under his toes, and looked back at his dad who was crawling to the desk next to his bed.

“She left half the bottle.” He picked up the container, crawled into the bathroom, and locked the door.

Mason left the hotel room and crossed the parking lot that spit him onto the street. He followed the burning lampposts down the road and came to a familiar driveway. There was a white mailbox with lichen clutching the surface. He’d seen it many times on his way home from school. He turned down the gravel road.

Mason felt rocks stab his toes and pools of heat shock his soles as he walked down the drive. He stepped across the sharp gravel and, while the light from the street choked into dark, cold wind blew threw his fingertips. It slid across his face. Surrounded his torso and burned at his toes. Rounding a corner, he looked out and saw an opening in the trees. A scar where the ground was black.

With each step the warmth became bitter. It seeped into his feet and touched cracks under his father’s toenails. The rocks he stepped on felt like coals melting. The breeze picked up as he grew near the dark clearing. It surrounded him as it pushed its way up his mother’s nostrils and reached beneath his brother’s arms. Heat lined his mother’s lips as he opened his mouth and inhaled. It rose up and drowned the top of his father’s feet as he kept his pace toward the dark clearing.

He could make out a foundation resting in the ground. It bordered the large patch of earth that was choked by darkness and, as Mason reached the edge of the foundation, he stopped. He looked down at his hands then reached out, twisted nothing in the night air, and stepped forward into the blackness.

His feet hurt. Particles of ash covered them, hot against his skin. He went into the dark patch and, holding his hand out, ran it across a wall he couldn’t feel. It ended, and his arm fell back at his side. He turned into a room no longer there, remembered being there with his mother, his father, and his brother. Mason walked inside and felt cabinets. He walked in a circle around the table where his family had eaten dinner not so long ago, and put his hand down where the smooth wood once was.

He turned out of the room and back toward the hallway. Mason felt with arms outstretched until he came across another room. He walked around where walls used to be, reached out, and touched the air where he’d looked out of his window before getting ready for school. He knelt down and felt ash. His classmate’s hands burned as he touched melted glass, smooth against his fingertips. Even in the dark he noticed that it had become cloudy and grey, mixed into the cinders it rested in.

With his feet, he began tracing an outline in the ash. When he’d finished, he stepped back and looked at the rectangle. It was slightly longer than he remembered, a little skinnier, but still, he walked inside and lay down in the soft dust. His entire body felt the searing earth. His back burned and his hands withered. His feet flared and his face melted as he closed his eyes.

*

Hans Klein lives in Bellingham, Washington and recently graduated from Western Washington University with a BA in English. He primarily writes fiction but experiments with non-fiction and poetry. He also makes pasta for a living and wishes he had a dog.