The house was asleep before he returned. Wife and child tucked away in their beds, air conditioner droning, lights dimmed. Inside, the thick quiet of midnight. But outside, a symphony of cricket songs and passing cars. Everything was so perfectly still. Peering through the windows was like looking at a photograph—a single moment frozen in time.
Then, he broke the silence, smashing it into tiny shards of night. He flung the door open so fiercely it smacked the back wall like a crack of thunder, reeling and knocking against the drywall, leaving chips in the faded olive paint. As it teetered, the sharp autumn wind crept in at leisure, poisoning the warmth.
The perfect picture of calm suburbia lay in ruins.
He stumbled in like a seaward sailor, swaying with the inconsistent rhythm of a stormy ocean. In his wake, he left muddy boot prints on the carpet, and the stench of liquor. His vision crawled with blurry fog, and his fickle limbs steered him to the stale yellow light of the kitchen.
You cannot fix, so you destroy.
Moments of memory and reason flickered through his feeble mind. Those words she had spat at him so sharply that night when he had come so close to ruining everything:
Overcome with anger, he swept his heavy arm across the kitchen counter, sending an empty glass crashing onto the tile floor, breaking into a hundred pieces. He looked down and surveyed the mess he had made in his fit of rage.
You cannot fix.
Defeated, The Destroyer leaned his aching body against the corner cabinet. The room spun and split in two before his eyes over and over, as he pulled the small flask from his coat pocket once again.
The Fire Girl
Cleo was the first to be torn from her sleep. The shattering of glass jolted her from dreams—dreams of running far away from home, her flaming red hair trailing behind her, out of reach and unbounded. Upon waking, she was greeted with the familiar pang of fear in her stomach—the fear she fought so fervently to conceal. It was times like this, in the dead of night, lying in her bed, free from observant eyes, that she let it overtake her, leaving her glistening with sweat and trembling. Her eyes darted to the closed bedroom door beside her, waiting for him to burst through, grabbing her and cursing her “smart mouth,” spraying bitter pungent breath on her face with every word. The thought of this sent discomfort creeping up her spine like the spindly legs of an insect.
She curled up into a ball like a napping cat, thinking that maybe if she balled herself up small enough, she could disappear altogether. But it never seemed to work that way. So she simply listened to the heavy shuffle of his feet echoing from the kitchen down the hall, and the frantic beating of her own small heart. She tried to focus on the complexity of her arteries, pumping blood through her body, like the diagrams she saw in the anatomy books she hoarded at the school library on reading days. She zeroed in on the varying shades of orange in her hair—warm cedar, apricot, and auburn rouge, intertwined in matted curls, curtained over her face as she huddled. The Fire Girl slowed her breathing to a lazy cadence, fading back into sleep to the soundtrack of The Destroyer grumbling chaotically somewhere in the dark house.
A few moments after the sound of glass breaking on the tile, another inhabitant of the house began to stir. Leona fidgeted nervously between white linen sheets. She thought about the glaring disapproval she’d receive the next morning at work from the woman in her connecting cubicle. She could practically hear the patronizing coo of her voice, and see her shifty eyes, scandalized and diverting direct eye contact. She shooed these thoughts away with logic:
Cleo knew not to leave her room when her father got in late—check.
All the car keys in the house were in her bedside drawer so he couldn’t get behind the wheel—check.
The dog was kenneled in the laundry room so it wouldn’t wander out the probably open back door—check.
Both bedroom doors were locked from the inside so he couldn’t get in and throw a fit or make more of a mess than he most likely already had—check.
Leona knew the routine; she had learned how to manipulate an atmosphere that some would view as entirely unruly and chaotic. She made lists, set alarms, locked doors, made rules—but her husband’s disease was the one thing she couldn’t hash out in a chart or regiment. She, The Controller, lay alone in her shadowed room, haunted by the one thing out of her control.
The dusk bled blurring into the dawn, and the morning was stark, with white blinding light glaring harshly through the slits of the blinds. The Destroyer was slumped in a stained arm chair, asleep until The Controller awoke him.
“The appointment is made, all you have to do is show up!” she reminded him in a voice so artificially sweet, it left the taste of cough syrup in his mouth. She waltzed out the back door as quickly as she had come. He watched her leave with relief and resentment in his tired eyes.
The clock on the wall read quarter past four, which meant this dreaded appointment was in fifteen short minutes. He sighed harshly, listening to the sound of his lungs deflating, audibly releasing a warm wind of breath.
He didn’t want to go.
Behind his closed eyelids, he saw her sickly sweet smile, and those pleading eyes. He saw one small chubby face, eyes equally as pleading, running to climb his low hanging limbs after a long day of cubicle work. He saw an empty wallet, and an empty house, and an empty stare from the woman who once loved him, now plagued with shame and loss of the man she married.
He saw the hazy vision of broken glass on the kitchen floor. He saw that chubby face, now slimmer, more slender, scattered with freckles and framed by a mess of red curls. The Fire Girl shifted her eyes away from him, seeming afraid to meet his gaze.
It tore him up inside how afraid she was. He needed to go. This appointment, they preached, was for self-betterment, all about his healing. But he would not go for himself, he would never go for himself. He would go for them. He would go for Leona, even in his hatred for her constant self-medication. He would go for little Cleo, even though she’d cower from his touch nonetheless.
He felt his head rattling with decisions, and his heart darting between selfishness and selflessness, like a rat in a maze, dying to escape with every turn. Like his mind was halved, and the two halves were attacking and seizing each other’s integrity, and his real self, somewhere in the middle of malevolent garbage and moral gold, was trapped in between.
He pulled himself out of the misshapen rocking chair, and approached the door, with car keys jangling in his pocket. He could smell the liquor he had spilled in the carpet the night before, and grimaced.
And he went.