As the sun sank and the roads grew dark, we piled chairs in front of our father’s bedroom door. Then we took the keys to his truck and squeezed into it—three across onto the winter-cold bench, which was old and burned with mishandled cigarettes. We took flasks from our pockets and drew mouthfuls of booze to shield against the chill. And as we drove past Rudy’s store, past the empty, snow-covered baseball fields where we used to walk around with cups filled with bubblegum, we focused on lighting the cigarettes we had taken. Our father had smoked one, two, and then placed the pack on the table with his empty cans of beer, medical paperwork, and other things he wanted to forget.
We passed the hot bud of the cigarette lighter, careful not to drop it between our legs. The heat didn’t work, so we held the butts until they singed our fingers.
It was not the first time we needed to do this—to take. That was the word we used because it drew a cleaner feel across our mouths than the other word. We were not thieves.
We had no particular house in mind, but we knew the neighborhoods where high-end power tools sat, shiny and rarely used, in neat rows on garage shelves; or where jewelry luxuriated in seashell-shaped dishes on dark wooden dressers; or where honest-to-goodness wooden horses rocked in the breeze that swept across spacious backyards. We drove out to Longwood and hunted and steered clear of houses where soccer balls, scooters, wiffleball bats, pool toys, or other evidence of children littered the lawn. Well, we did our best to stay away.
Those gilded mini-mansions supplied the valuables we needed, the toys we wanted. We were still children—not one of us over seventeen. We couldn’t help ourselves. We gutted that type of house like a fish and then sat in the truck to guess the value of everything and to wish that childhood was as sweet and intact as a lullaby. But we shook our heads because there wasn’t anything that thinking like that would do for us except make it hard the next time we came up against innocence.
So, of course, when we rolled down Hammet Street and saw the house with tasteful, white Christmas lights running like a halo around the roof, we couldn’t pass it without wanting to crack open those windows like eggs.
We pulled into the driveway and sent the youngest one to ring the doorbell. Our script, if someone had answered the door, went something like this: Do you know where 252 Adelaide is? Is Matty Klein on this road or the next? We’re looking for Saint Augusts church, did we pass it? We’re lost, can you help?
No one answered. We killed the engine and left the car in the driveway where no one on the road home from holiday parties or late night ballets would notice anything out of the ordinary. We were good at it—blending in—because, before our father lost his job, we lived like these people. Smaller house, fewer pieces of jewelry and smaller stashes of cash piled on dressers. We knew what scared people around here, and we weren’t it.
We spread out, checked for cameras. We sniffed the laundry exhaust vent knowing that the smell of laundry could tell us more than a parked car could: warm and sweet with detergent meant that people were home, even if the lights were dark; cold and stale then we walked to the backdoor. In this neighborhood, we never had to break windows or smash doors—the backdoors were always unlocked and opened as gracefully as hospital doors.
A portion of the twenty-two hundred dollars it cost for him to find out that some vulture had laid a cancerous egg—about the size of a tennis ball, sitting pretty on his liver—came from our uncashed birthday cards and sock-drawers. In about six to eight months, the doctor said, that egg was going to hatch and when it came out of its shell, well, it would be hungry. It was going to pick his bones clean. We hurried to pull as much cash together as we could, but didn’t have enough or anywhere to store it.
We took his truck and drove to the bank.
We told the teller: We’d like a bank account, please.
She was beautiful in that cold New England way, which meant she didn’t show her teeth when she smiled, and she didn’t look us in the eye for long. But she did ask if we wanted a joint account. The youngest didn’t know what that meant and blurted out, It is for our father because he is sick.
Her mouth dove into a frown as she circled the words like a dog about to lay down. She seemed to feel bad for us, to think that we were abandoned pups held together by the thread of something sharp and desperate, and we hated her for that. The oldest one of us told her, Never mind, and we took the cash back and left the birthday cards on her desk.
At home that night, we spread the bills on the floor, at our father’s feet, and counted, restarting only twice before we got the number right. Two hundred and thirteen dollars. Our father shook his head and asked us to buy him a pack of cigarettes and a case of beer at Rudy’s while he called Jack. We were happy to know he’d speak to Jack, who, as far as we knew, he hadn’t spoken to in months. Jack, we thought, had the power to fix this.
We went to Rudy’s. Two of us stayed in the car and watched the people drift through the store. The lights inside shone so bright that we couldn’t tell if it were day or night—so bright that they blocked out everything except for the bottles glinting like potions on the shelves. We imagined the oldest explaining that we were buying for our father, who walked out of there with a case of something every few days—that our father had gotten some bad news.
The oldest came back to the car and told us that Rudy had given it to us for free, even though we offered to pay. Rudy had said, I’ve always liked your father, which didn’t surprise us because all of the men in town felt the same way Rudy did about our father—they liked him at a distance, felt bad that he was sick, but they figured it was a reckoning. We agreed that the oldest should go in and buy a bottle of vodka and another case of beer for us to crack open on the drive home.
At home, no one asked about his conversation with Jack, and he didn’t tell us, so we knew that Jack would not fix this. We sat on the floor so he could lay across the couch. Our disappointment and optimism wore the carpet thin in front of him. The fabric was starting to separate from the floor, and if we looked into the room on a bright day while he slept, then we could see thousands of fibers floating like birds. Our father’s sickness pulled the quietest parts out of him, but we could tell he was happy to be surrounded by us, or he would have told us to go away.
We watched him grab a beer and pull the tab. We watched his thumbnail give way—snap off at the tip. Blood dripped down his finger. We rushed to help him, to take the can, but he screamed at us to stay away, and none of us understood then that the blood was dark magic. We opened another beer for him and he stumbled into the kitchen. He settled on the couch with a wad of paper towels and watched a Bob Ross rerun on PBS.
He said, Can you believe how it all comes together? Look at those mountains. I’ve never seen any real mountains. Not like those. Can you believe it?
In the last two weeks, he would not remember where he was. Sometimes he would look at us, fearful and suspicious.
That night, we did not know to be grateful for his coherence, but we watched the television with him, even when he closed his eyes and groaned with discomfort or sadness or pleasure—we couldn’t tell which. And we whispered about the nearest mountain range, which was only four hours away in Vermont.
At the beginning, we thought superstition was for fools and the poor, but we submerged ourselves into it like a warm bath and enjoyed the momentary weightlessness of it. We began counting everything—making sure that the number of steps it took us to get to the bathroom, the kitchen, the living-room, or the number of beers he drank, or the television channel we watched, all came out to odd numbers. Otherwise, something pristine and divisible and even cast a heavy and dark feeling over us. With odd numbers, there was no middle, no neat halfway mark to tell you that you were almost done. With odd numbers, we told ourselves, you could make time stretch.
We took canned peaches and olives and pumpkin-pie filling from the pantry where flour and sugar and rice were all stored in plastic containers to keep out the grain moths. We took ibuprofen, toothpaste, floss, and drugs with names we couldn’t pronounce from behind the mirrored vanities. From the walk-in closets with overhead lights, neat shoe racks, and cardboard covered wire-hangers, we took shirts that felt expensive, despite the coffee-stained collars and wrinkles and missing buttons. We took jewelry and cash, silverware and anything small enough to feel precious once it was tucked away into our pockets.
One of us collected sugar spoons, another took a pillbox or two from each house we had been to and had stored up over ten. It may not seem like it, but we followed rules and were generous in our restraint. We considered the absence of certain items, like wedding rings, to be traumatic, so we never took them. But we did take hair gel, rolls of toilet paper, which would always go unnoticed. We took as much as we could and were always grateful. It was the scraps we were after, the fatty bits of food that sat to the side of what was important. Occasionally, we got some of the meat.
Other things we took: a black silk tie, a lockbox left open wide as a mouth under the bed, a pair of muddy leather boots that might fit the oldest of us and hopefully be passed down, an unused journal and some dull pencils to write with, a strange ornament in the shape of an owl that sat on the stovetop. We took one or two things that we would each hide deep in our pockets and keep secret, even from each other.
We trained our ears to hear beyond walls of the house. We listened into the nearby homes, could feel the click of the curtains as they peeled back to look at the strange truck in the driveway across the street where, inside, we were at work. And, before the neighbors had a chance to worry, we would walk out of the house, our hands full with what looked like tinfoil wrapped dinner plates and bags of dirty laundry.
Our bones twitched and that’s how we knew to leave.
This time, the youngest called us to an upstairs bedroom and, once we were there, pointed to an envelope stuffed with four-thousand dollars in the bottom of a predictable sock-drawer hiding place. At first, we took half, but the small bundle felt light and incomplete in our hands so we took all of it.
On the way out, the oldest spotted a painting in the hall. We stood around, mouths gaping, wondering how in the world someone could have fit an entire mountain on a postcard and still made it feel wide as heaven. We took the painting from behind the glass and placed the frame back on the wall. And we were done, we felt it—after that, there was nothing else.
We each had dreams for that money: a new car, a fancy wardrobe with collars so sharp they looked dangerous to wear around your neck, a visit to the dentist to fix the teeth that ached but that we didn’t have the courage to rip out on our own. And then the guilt pushed up in us like vomit, and we pulled over to breathe while the oldest vomited the leftover steak he had eaten from the fridge into the snow. Sometimes this happened after a big taking.
By the time we were driving again the snow was falling in huge clumps.
Jack became a part of our lives before our father got sick. He worked with our father at St. Mary’s Hospital and helped people who had lost their minds. He came over most nights, after dinner, leaned into our father’s arms, and told us stories about patients: a young man who thought that he was a butterfly, a woman who ran naked down the hall, laughing wildly and screaming, “The tea is boiling over!” We were too young to find the stories sad. We blamed people for their illnesses.
The night before our father lost his job, he and Jack woke us. They were fighting. Jack pounded walls but never punched through one of them. They cared about the house and the furniture and cooking meals and not getting drunk on a work night.
They’re not idiots. The hospital probably already knows, Jack said.
His voice was high and strained and sharpened with desperation.
No, our father said. They don’t. They can’t. I’ve been clear about that.
That’s how he spoke before he got sick—short sentences, denying the possibility of the things he did not want to recognize.
Then his voice fell, and we could not hear, but we laid in bed with our eyes open and the sheets pulled up to our chins.
You can get a different job, Jack said.
We feigned sleep, our lips slightly parted, our hands splayed at wild angles. Neither Jack nor our father would come into the room to ask what we heard.
Jack’s presence left the house as fast as the heat sneaks out through the windows or under the doors in the winter. We pulled the blankets tighter to fend off the chill that rose up in our guts, numbed our fingers, and we tried to sleep.
The next night when Jack did not come back, it was the youngest of us who took it the hardest, who imagined the possibility of that chill lingering in the house for all time, who stared at the walls and imagined the wallpaper peeling off in large strips, bending over as top-heavy flowers do. It was the youngest who said the walls underneath were melting like wax—that the sink leaked rusty water and the toilet had shattered to pieces. Our father held the youngest on the couch, and they tried to remember that the rhythm of their breath was supposed to flow free and easy. The other two of us hid in our beds, but we were fully dressed under the blankets in the event that the walls of the house did melt and we needed to make a quick get away.
The next day, the hospital fired them both.
Our father came home early in that morning, before school let out. His habit of stopping at Rudy’s started then.
We found him sitting on the couch, which he had moved into the back yard. He must have hired someone to help him carry it. Even when he was healthy, he was not strong. He was drinking, listening to birds. He invited us onto the couch. Of course, we were excited and climbed on with him—how fun!
Of the things that we remember from that afternoon: male Cardinals were always the reddest, most beautiful birds, and his favorite, mountains never started as mountains and always pushed themselves out of the Earth, places like St. Mary’s thought they knew the only way to live. That’s how our father explained it to us—talking in circles, sometimes coming up against what we knew was at the middle of what he said and what he wanted to say.
He leaned back, took the three of us into his arms. We did not know to call this drunk. He rested his chin on the head of the youngest and said, I’d like to go on vacation. What do you think?
The night was thick and black, the cold unrelenting. At first we blamed each other when we saw flames coming from the windows of our house. For a moment, superstition took hold, and we thought this was punishment. Then we stopped caring how it started. Our father was in there, sleeping probably, unable to tell the fire apart from his fever.
We ran from the truck without putting it in park, so it rolled forward and crashed into the house with a thick crunch. One of us had to run back and reverse it, but the other two ran into the house.
Smoke stung our eyes and scorched our throats down to our stomachs. A pile of chairs burned near the bedroom door.
We grabbed metal kitchen utensils—spoons we had taken from other houses, a heavy ceramic bowl that held someone else’s mangoes—and threw them at the chairs. One of us aimed the sprayer from the kitchen sink at the fire, but the water did not reach. The youngest of us caught fire, and we patted the flames before they melted skin. Then we used the sprayer from the sink to soak our clothes.
The door fell open on its own.
We yelled for our father, who sat in his bed, eyes wide, unafraid because he was unsure what he was seeing. He did not turn toward us, but watched the fire climb the walls and billow out black smoke that stained the corners of the room.
Help. Help. Help. Help. Help. Help, he said. His voice was almost a whisper and the word droned like a prayer.
We ran forward, and all three of us carried him, for he was light as balsa wood now, out of the house. We lowered him onto the truck bed. He was shivering, and our clothes were wet, freezing around the cuffs and hems. We ran into the house and took the blankets that were not charred. And we tried to say, It’s okay, Dad. We’re here. We buried him in blankets, made a nest around him, and soothed him, but the night spread out wide and black, and it blocked out his sense of who and where he was. At that moment, we knew.
We ran back into the house and grabbed anything we could that wasn’t burning. We took a laundry bin filled with dirty clothes and the hat he wore when he used to take us to the baseball field. We took a mango cooked from the fire near his door. We took a burnt magazine from the counter in haste, knowing that none of us would read it. Our hands grabbed as many useless things as they could because we felt like we were helping him. We were light-headed, dizzy, and blind with smoke.
It’s enough, we yelled.
We did not want to save our house, which was filled with dozens of police reports worth of stolen goods. Better to let it burn, to watch it for a while like the campfires we set when we were young and sleeping outside seemed like luxury. There was something of that sweet excitement to it—watching it all go up in flames. We sat in the truck bed, remembered the mango, and peeled back its skin. We shared it around, and when our father took none of it, we picked somewhere else to go. We had our envelope and all the other things we had taken.
Our father moaned softly and stared straight ahead. Our superstition made us believe that a part of him, the part that remembered, was floating behind his eyes. But it was probably just that he was sobering up and his nerves were scorched with pain. There wasn’t time to think about it. Someone would see the smoke even if we did not call for help, and the fire engines would scream down the streets just in time to see chunks of fiberglass insulation suspended in the sky like low-hanging stars.
We put him between us on the bench and drove. The oldest shifted the rearview mirror so that looking back showed us our own ash-covered faces and the haul of other people’s belongings hidden underneath a fine bed sheet in the truck bed.
We stopped three times on the way to Vermont. Twice to piss off bridges into the frozen rivers, once to let our father puke in the snow. We propped him between us, letting his head rest on our shoulders. His eyes hovered over wakefulness, landing on it like a butterfly onto a leaf and then, fearing the strong wind, alighting again. His forehead burned, and every few miles he muttered fever-dream phrases we did not understand. In the distance, the mountains sank heavy into the sky. We exchanged glances, calmed one another, and decided that it was not yet time to wake him.
His breathing grew labored, harsh, watery. We poured our booze into one flask and gave him sips every few minutes to keep his mouth moist. We were not ready to stop the truck. Dawn pushed away the night. When the sky was bright and swirled pink, then, we decided, we’d wake him.
The mountains rose high in the fragile sky. We thought that dome was taller than this—that the peaks, covered in snow, should have broken the sky like a mirror and sent the shards raining down on us.
Dad, we said. Come on, Dad. Look—the mountains.
We jostled him, waved the booze under his nose, called his name, which felt odd and suggestive in our mouths. His eyes opened once, and then they closed with force. He slumped forward, and his head smashed the dashboard, cracked the vent. Blood trickled down his forehead.
We pulled over and stood outside the car, looking at him, waiting for him to snap to attention. None of us wanted to touch him now—now he seemed frightening, now he seemed like he was playing a game of hide and seek, except we were not hiding under the sink and holding our breath while he stomped around the kitchen, pretending not to see us. We wrapped him in the shirts we had taken from that house, which had all absorbed the scent of smoke, and lowered him onto the truck bed with the necklaces, the ties, and the shoes that now seemed obviously too big for us, but that we had taken in our excitement.
We took the highway, heading south again, hoping to get as far away from the mountains as the road would allow. We dreamt of driving to Mexico. We would drive through the ocean, waving at the stupid fish that ate everything filtering down to them. We would drive until we found the tallest edge of the world that would make even the mountains look unremarkable. We had four thousand dollars, a few soiled shirts, singed legs and hands, smoke on our skin, some cigarettes, a few swallows of booze that we would decide to dump on the side of the road, a picture of the mountains that we had forgotten to show him, our father’s body and each other, among other things.
–winner of the Editor’s Prize in Prose for issue 29