The story below was originally published in Be Wilder, an anthology from Word Portland.
The Happiest Place on Earth
I was dreaming of an empire of parasites under my skin when I woke up to a sound like chicken bones snapping between a quiet dog’s teeth. I was in the back bedroom of Ma’s new house, about as far from the front door as a body could get, and it was still dark out in the swampy St. Petersburg night. I lay there for a while feeling the strangeness of my dream slowly wash off of me—the bugs had built fleshy towers like distended, purple nipples along the insides of my thighs, which would tangle and rub uncomfortably as I walked along this cracked highway crowded with people but no cars—until gradually I wasn’t thinking about my dream anymore. I was thinking of the sound that’d woke me. Crackles and pops.
It was a hot July night so the bedsheets were sticky from all of my sweat: I had to work to claw myself free. I don’t know how long I’d slept but it didn’t feel like nearly enough. My head ached with too many Pacificos with dinner. I felt whipped. It’d been a run of bad luck that had me all at once staying with Ma, but then again, it was likely some such bad luck that’d forced her down to Florida in the first place. Yet all in all, things weren’t so bad. A long clean house in the working-class end of a tight little suburb. There are people who work their whole lives to live here. So why’d it seem so cheap to me? In the hallway was a sliding door that opened out into Ma’s flower garden, which was small but nice enough with a stone patio and a couple scratched-up metal chairs she’d found on the sidewalk on trash day. I stopped and rested my forehead against the glass on account of its coolness—to be honest, I was still kind of rattled by my dream—and it was while I was standing there like that that I saw that some of Ma’s plants were burning. There was a tall stone wall between us and the neighbor’s and the vines on the wall were all flossy with flames and the azalea wore flames and some woven twiggy ornament like a wreath hanging from the eaves was already burnt and black with little cinders like cigarette cherries speckling around the ring.
“Huh.” I stood there blinking with the middle of my forehead suction-cupped to the glass. The cinders seemed to breathe. I wasn’t sure yet what about this wasn’t right.
It was around then I heard Ma open her bedroom door.
“Donny?” Her voice was a single high rising note of worry. It was almost pretty, the way she said my name. “Is everything okay?” Down the dark hall, I could only see the shape of her: low and thick in a way that meant post-menopausal. I stood there thinking about that—about Ma’s age and her shape—for a while before I spoke.
“I think the garden’s on fire.”
I remember, my words felt far away to me, but Ma’s voice sounded close.
“I mean—yeah. Sorry. Your house is burning, Ma.”
“Well we should get out.”
I didn’t disagree. I went back to my room and put on some jeans while Ma found the cat under a pillow on the couch. Then we went out into the black sea-breezy night, and that’s when we saw that it wasn’t our house burning at all but the neighbor’s. Just a few flames had jumped the wall like vandals bent on ruining Ma’s flowers. No real danger. But still, it struck me as best that we’d gotten out. Some things aren’t wise to sleep through. The house next door was in a full rolling boil of flames but that wasn’t stopping anyone from having a party. I guess they’d been living it up inside the house before things started to burn. There were whooping drunk people everywhere and two men fighting in the grass and the first fire trucks were just arriving as Ma and I waded into the crowd. In her nightgown, clutching her fluffy white kitty, Ma looked panicked and strange and beautiful in the blue and red flash of lights. Like she was still asleep and caught up in a bad dream. I closed my eyes in a slow meditative blink and when I opened them again, the scene had changed into a circus—the lights and the bodies and sirens singing like calliope songs—and Ma was smiling her lopsided grin. The goofy way she smiled to hide her fucked-up upper teeth. She wasn’t afraid anymore. She was having fun. Isn’t that strange?
I guess I sometimes miss my mom. She was nice to me. I think people forget how far something like that can go.
Around the time the firemen first started hosing down the neighbor’s burning house, I heard a voice behind me say my name. I wasn’t sure whether to get excited or to run. It was like that in those days. There were men serving papers and there were friendly ghosts popping out of nowhere and you often couldn’t tell one from the other until it was too late. It was hard work finding any middle ground. So it was with a certain white-knuckled apprehension that I turned around and saw on the sidewalk a small dark-haired girl with big eyes made wider with recognition as she said my name again.
“Donny the fuck O’Malley, are you kidding me?” She was holding a red solo cup with a purple bendy straw tilting against its rim. She was maybe Hispanic or maybe a New Jersey Jew and was cute like Mila Kunis. I’d never seen her before in my life.
It’s this last detail that should’ve mattered most. But I must have a thing for women saying my name, because I smiled and said hi and lifted my arms in a wide, open gesture of general welcome or surprise or whatever. And this sweet little big-eyed thing, she dropped her solo cup right there in the grass and stepped into my open arms. Like she fit right there with her hands on my waist.
“I can’t believe you’re here.”
“Uh, neither can I?”
This kind of conversation? Almost impossible to get right.
“What even are you doing here? Where’ve you been?”
“Oh. Around.” I had zero intention of explaining about the wives or the charges I faced in Utah. In the driveway, the neighbor’s Camaro was turning from red to black. There were half-naked people all around, drinking from plastic cups and shouting and getting in the firemen’s way. The two fighting men were gone.
“Do you know who lives in this house?”
“No,” she said, then bringing me back, “How long’s it been?”
Again, I just smiled and shrugged.
She moved in closer until her face was nearly touching my chest. I still wasn’t wearing a shirt. Whatever she put on her skin or in her hair made her smell like a lemon drop. Her lips were kind of parted and her wide eyes shined like maybe they were wet. I was liking where this was going.
“Too long,” she said.
I think it bears repeating that I’d never been in this town or even this state before. And anyway, I’d just arrived here a few days ago, shaky and desperate. But already it seemed like things were falling into place for me. Mom. Fire. Girl. So I did not disagree:
The diseases that girl would give me would make me wish I was lucky enough to have bugs under my skin, making rubbery towers and castles from what my dying body gave up. But I couldn’t know that then. I let her squeeze me and I squeezed her back, then we turned to watch the fire like the happiest two people on earth, and there was Ma in the neighbor’s yard with her kitty and her nightgown, standing in that green green grass before the fireball’s fury—right where the two men had earlier been fighting—and while the firemen’s hoses cast Biblical arches of white water all around her, Ma turned to me laughing—mouth open and crazy-looking—and pointed and sang “look!” and though I laughed back and nodded, I could not figure out what she wanted me to see.
Douglas W. Milliken is the author of the novel To Sleep as Animals and several chapbooks, most recently the collection Cream River and the forthcoming pocket-sized edition One Thousand Owls Behind Your Chest. His stories have been honored by the Maine Literary Awards, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and Glimmer Train Stories, and have been published in Slice, the Collagist, and the Believer, among others.
Art by Madeline Fishburn, a watercolor painter from Baltimore, Maryland. She is very serious about tea, poetry, and trashy TV shows. You can check out more of her work at her website or email her at [email protected].