The eggs never cracked correctly, no matter what he did.
Seth checked the recipe for making the oil of egg. The author of the alchemy website had assumed that anyone reading her posts would already know how to separate the yolk from the egg white. She hadn’t written anything about what to do if little bits of the white kept getting into the yolk, if the crack was never a smooth line but always a jagged cut. His mother might know, but he didn’t want to talk to her.
The egg carton he’d stolen from the refrigerator was almost empty. He’d hit an egg on the edge of the blue glass bowl, the same way his mother did when she made scrambled eggs for breakfast, and there had been the tiny white bits, mixing with the yolk and making it all wrong. He’d glanced an egg off the hard surface of his desk, his only reward a sticky yellow and white mess that he’d tried to clean up with an old towel. He didn’t know what he was doing wrong, why it seemed so easy for everyone else, so easy that no one even bothered to explain it.
He picked up another egg. He considered all the ways to crack it, all the ways that might result in a cleanly broken shell and a perfect unbroken yolk. He tapped it against the side of the bowl. Gently. Lightly. He counted each tap, one two three four, and he remembered.
The grass by the road was tall and still. He counted the blades. One two three four.
Caitlyn walked along in front of him. She was carrying his flashlight. He watched it swing in time with her.
“So I figured Tabor Creek would be the best place to park. Couldn’t really just leave the car on the side of the road.”
She stopped and waited for him to catch up. The flashlight stopped swinging.
“Hey Seth, you okay?”
One foot in front of the other. Balanced on the white line. The line was safe. The line was sane. Outside the line was the factory and the fire, but inside the line was silence and stillness and peace.
On either side of the white line the pavement was black and broken. If he misstepped, if he put a foot wrong, he would break. If he stayed on the white line he would cross the event horizon and he would keep going, but not Caitlyn and not the flashlight and not the fire. The fire would not reach him. He would keep going but no one would see and he would be a statue always perfect no cracks no breaks like the white line stay on the white line.
The line stopped.
His mother’s voice came from the living room.
“Seth? Seth, come on. It’s time to go. You know your father likes us to be there right at two.”
The egg smashed against the side of the bowl.
He put on his Math Olympics shirt because it smelled of her. He hadn’t washed it. He didn’t know if he would ever wash it.
Caitlyn had been in his room, in his closet. She’d picked out the Math Olympics shirt for him to wear, because they were going on an adventure and he needed proper adventure attire. He carefully placed his fingers on the hangers, on the shoulders of his shirts, on all the places where her fingers had been.
“Seth? What are you doing in there? Come on!”
He closed the closet door.
“Seth, seriously. Come on.”
His mother’s voice had that sort of sagging quality to it that he’d come to know in the last few years, like he was a steel ball weighing down the rubber sheet of her internal universe. She knew why he didn’t want to come, why he was being so slow. But she’d make him come anyway.
“You’ve got two minutes. I’ll be in the car.”
He stood in his room and waited to hear the click of the front door. He looked around one last time, at the closet where Caitlyn had gone through his clothes, at the side of the bed where he’d sat while she complained about his collection of khaki pants and his lack of proper shoes for an adventure, at the place under his bed where his flashlight used to be.
The front door closed. Seth stayed a few more moments, just until he heard the car start, and then he turned off the light and walked out. He locked the door behind him.
His mother looked at him as he got into the car, asked “That old thing?” He ignored her. She sighed and backed out of the driveway.
He looked out the window. It was raining. The telephone poles were dark brown and wet. He tapped his finger on the car door as the poles went by, one two three four, and he thought of her.
Inside Caitlyn’s car the air was stuffy and smelled faintly of cigarettes. He settled into the cracked vinyl passenger seat and pulled on the seatbelt. The metal buckle burned.
“Yeah, the air conditioning doesn’t work. But the tape player does! And that’s much more important, right?”
She threw the flashlight in the passenger side floorboard. It rolled against his foot as she pulled away from the curb.
“So what kind of music do you like? I only have like two tapes in here, but if you’re not into my mom’s old hair metal maybe we could get the radio to work.”
“I don’t know. I don’t really listen to music.”
“What? Seriously? Not even like, I don’t know, show tunes?”
“No, not even show tunes.”
The telephone poles were passing by but he did not see them, did not count them. He saw her.
His mother spoke.
“Maybe you could try talking to him this time. I know he’d like that.”
The windshield wipers scraped back and forth.
“No, he doesn’t. He doesn’t even know who I am.”
They came to a stop at a light. His mother flicked the left turn signal on. The ticking was out of time with the wipers. Tick tick wipe tick tick tick wipe tick tick wipe.
Seth stared at the white line on the side of the road. He imagined himself as part of it, staying straight, staying perfect. His mother sighed.
“He knows who you are. He was so excited about you. He taught you how to ride a bike. He taught you how to play chess. He had all these plans for you, said you were really special, that you’d do something great one day. He loves you, Seth.”
Seth wanted to say a lot of things. He wanted to say that if his father had really cared, he would have been more careful. He would have checked the valves. He wouldn’t have left one open. He wouldn’t have ruined Seth’s life.
He thought these things but he did not say them. There was no point in saying them. His mother had seen the bruises, had gotten the calls from school. She knew.
Seth walked along the sidewalk outside the school cafeteria. The concrete was white, silent. Cracked. He counted the tiny cracks, the little faults in the smooth line of time and space. One two three four.
The tip of a black shoe entered his line of vision and interrupted his reverie.
“Hey faggot. Heard you got yourself a girlfriend.”
Steven’s voice shattered the silence. Seth stared down at the black shoes on the white concrete, at all the cracks radiating outward from them. He imagined bits of the silence seeping through the cracks, sliding down through them into the ground, coming together to form a wide still pool.
“Gotta give it to you, she is pretty hot. I think I might fuck her myself. Not like she’s getting it from you, huh?”
In Seth’s mind the cracks grew and grew until the sidewalk opened up and the black shoes were swallowed down into the stillness.
“You can’t get it up for a girl. Does Caitlyn know that yet? Oh man, I can see it. You standing there with your limp dick in your hand, and she’s all oh Seth, is it me, am I ugly, am I not hot enough? Do you tell her, Seth? Do you tell her that she’s right, that she’s not hot enough?”
Seth looked down at the concrete, at the black shoes. He imagined Steven caught in the white pool, his eyes wide, his mouth open, no sound coming out, his black shoes kicking, while the silence poured into all his little cracks.
Steven moved forward. Seth watched as the shoes came down on the cracks. He wondered if Steven cared about his mother’s back.
“Go fuck yourself, Steven.” The words came out low and sharp.
“Nah, I don’t think I will. I like my idea of fucking your girl instead.”
Seth took a step back. The shoes took a step forward.
“So do you tell her the truth? Do you? Do you tell her your twisted little fantasy, faggot?”
Seth heard a flick followed by a hiss. He looked up. Steven passed the lighter back and forth, just inches from Seth’s face. He could feel its heat on his skin. He looked past it and met Steven’s eyes, the black pupils and the white sclera and in between them the blue irises. Deep in the pupils he could see the reflection of the flame.
Steven’s shoes were black and the concrete was white and the flame was red.
“Oh yeah, you like that, don’t you?”
Black. White. Black. White.
“You could get it up if she was on fire, couldn’t you?”
He slammed his fist into Steven’s solar plexus . Steven doubled over. The lighter fell to the sidewalk, the flame dead and gone. Seth grabbed Steven’s head, forced it down, brought his knee up hard. Something crunched.
Steven stumbled backwards. Blood gushed from his nose. Seth pushed him down and jumped on him and his arms were hate and his fists were vengeance and the concrete was red.
He brought his fists down again and again. The fire roared around him, white and orange and yellow and red, and his skin cracked and bubbled and turned black and fell away.
“All right, break it up! Break it up!”
Someone was yelling and there were arms around him and he was being dragged away from the flames.
He stopped struggling. Caitlyn stood there on the sidewalk, next to the group of kids that had gathered around Steven.
Her eyes were blue and wide and he was red and he wanted to tell her he was okay, he had stood up for himself, but no words came and then he was being marched off to the principal’s office.
The light changed. The passenger door came up against him on the right as the car turned left. The signal stopped ticking. The white line disappeared.
His mother tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, in time with the wipers. One two one two. The silence between them was thin and fragile and he would not be the one to break it. He could not do it cleanly and calmly. He’d smash the memories against the dashboard, breaking them open and getting them everywhere, the yellow runny bits and the small sharp white bits, and his mother would cry and he’d have to clean up the mess he’d made.
He stared at the wet telephone poles and counted them as they went by. One two three four.
Sunset Valley Behavioral Health. The sign loomed up out of the rain, brick with large white metal letters.
He popped the buckle on his seatbelt and opened the car door. Rain fell on his back and he realized that he should not have worn the Math Olympics shirt, that her scent was disappearing, that soon he would have nothing left to remember her by, how she’d touched his hand, how she’d left fingerprints of fire on his elbow.
His mother did not say anything as they walked to the entrance. Her shoulders were hunched against the rain. He imagined the silence surrounding them, an oval shaped container in which they were being transmuted, changing from humans into statues, perfect and still.
The automatic doors hissed open and they passed through into the air conditioning. Goosebumps rose on his arms as the cool air met the wet spots on his shirt.
His mother went to the front desk. Seth did not follow her. He walked to the waiting area and sat in a hard plastic blue chair, next to a large potted fake plant. There was a poster about depression on the wall next to him. It showed a girl with a translucent skull, a diagram of her brain where her hair should be. He read about serotonin reuptake inhibitors, about lack of appetite and sex drive. He thought about Caitlyn, about the trail of fire her fingers had left, and he decided that he was okay, he didn’t need to worry about depression.
He heard his mother’s voice, a low weighted murmur as she talked to the receptionist. She signed a paper on a clipboard. He wondered if she saw it as writing her name in the book of the damned. She was alive and the people who had died in the fire weren’t, and that was a terrible burden to bear. He knew. They haunted his dreams at night, the flames and the ghosts.
He watched his mother turn towards him, the smile she’d worn for the receptionist fading. She walked over, sat in the chair next to him, and picked up a magazine from the table by her chair. The pages made a thin crackling sound as she flipped through them. Other people came in. Gusts of air and the chill of the rain followed them. A television murmured to itself, high up on the far wall. The phone rang. Someone was typing.
The magazine pages stopped crackling and were still. His mother gazed out into space. He wondered if she was remembering.
He imagined the silence around them growing, a tidal wave of silence that would swallow the behavioral health center, the cars parked outside, the medical offices across the street. The silence would grow and grow and grow, spreading outward through the whole town, and then it would reach the factory.
He remembered the factory, old and abandoned and falling down and burnt. There’d been a fence.
“You ever jumped a fence before?”
He looked up. The chain link fence was made of diamond shaped holes. Through the holes he saw the factory parking lot. Weeds grew from the cracks in the pavement.
“Seth? You there?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I mean, no. No, I haven’t jumped a fence before.”
“First time for everything. Just watch and do what I do.”
Caitlyn grabbed the fence, put her feet in the diamond shaped holes, and pulled herself up and over. The fence shuddered, clanged.
“There, see? Easy. Now you go.”
He reached up and took hold of the steel wire. Rust flaked off under his fingers. He kicked his feet into the diamonds and climbed.
He stopped when he reached the top. There was the grass, sharp and buzzing with insects, on one side. On the other was Caitlyn, the flashlight and the cracked pavement and the dark.
“Come on dude. What are you waiting for?”
He swung his left leg over and dropped down, hitting the pavement hard. She clapped him on the back. He could feel the print of her hand, each finger etched in fire.
“There you go. Good job, son.”
His mother put the magazine back on the table and stood up. Seth stood up with her. They stepped through the waiting room door and into his father’s world. The nurse spoke to his mother.
“He’s been doing really well lately.”
Seth turned away from the woman in the blue scrubs. He counted the heavy white doors as they passed.
“I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you two. Seth has certainly grown into a handsome young man.”
One two three four.
Twelve doors, and then the thirteenth one opened in front of them.
He did not look at the man who sat in the wood frame chair, back straight against the faded blue cushion. He looked at the far wall, searched for the newspaper clipping. It was there, where it always was. It was yellowed and wrinkled now.
The headline was printed in enormous block letters.
Esker Paint Factory Fire, Ten Workers Dead: Shift Foreman To Blame
He’d never understood why his father kept that article here in his room. Maybe it was to remind him of who he was? Maybe when he looked in the mirror and saw the scars he was confused and scared, and they showed him the article to explain what had happened to him. Or perhaps a fellow patient had lost a loved one in the fire and had put it here, so that his father would never know peace, would never be able to forget what he had done.
Or maybe it just hung there on the wall, forgotten and unnoticed, and his father never even knew it existed.
“Seth? Look at these pictures.”
He turned towards his mother’s voice. On the wall nearest the door there were six pictures, all scribbled in crayon. A little boy, with brown hair and green eyes and glasses, and a tall man, with the same brown hair but brown eyes. His father. And himself, when he was eight, before the fire.
His father had known him once. In the pictures, the little boy played chess, stood in front of a chemistry set with test tubes and beakers, knelt down to weed a plant in a garden.
He couldn’t remember what it had sounded like before, the last time he’d heard his father say his name. Before the fire.
He spun around to face the man in the chair.
The eyes held no recognition for him, no awareness that he existed. They were focused on the pictures. On the eight year old Seth.
He wanted to scream. He wanted to take the old man by his shoulders and shake him. He wanted to shout “I am here, I am real, I am not eight years old, can’t you see me?”, but he did not. The silence, hermetically sealed and perfect, held him and his mother, held his father too, held them as they became statues, perfect as the silence was perfect, immortal, safe from time, safe from the fire. The clock on the wall ticked the seconds as they passed. One two, one two.
He jumped when his mother’s phone rang.
“Seth? Yes, he’s here. Just a second.”
She held the phone out to him. He thought she might be upset, that she might hiss at him to tell his friends to not call while they were visiting his father, but she looked more surprised at the idea of his having friends who would call him than anything else. He took the phone and slipped out to the hallway.
“Hi! What’cha doin’?”
It was her. Caitlyn. He took a breath and realized that the scent of her was still on his shirt.
“Umm, well, we’re kind of visiting my father right now.”
“So you’re at the loony bin?”
“No. It’s Sunset Valley Behavioral Health.”
“Right. The loony bin. Well, we’re at Paul’s family’s house on the lake, me and Paul and Gina and Steven and everyone. You could come join us when you get out of the loony bin. If you promise to not set anything on fire.”
He dragged his finger along the concrete of the factory floor, traced diamond shapes into the dirt. There.
One two three four one two three four one two three four.
“So what time does your mother get off work?”
Caitlyn broke his concentration. He retraced the diamond he’d scuffed and answered her.
“Three. But she said she was going to do errands this afternoon and she’d be home around five or so.”
“Good. We’ve got some time then. Figure we’ll head towards the boiler room.”
“You know where it is?”
He’d thought that maybe exploring abandoned factories was a hobby for her, something that she did for fun, something that she’d wanted to share with him. An adventure that they could go on together. He’d thought that maybe she didn’t know the story, that she was innocent, and that was why she talked to him and took him on adventures.
He looked up from his dirt diamonds. She was looking at him.
“I read some old articles about the fire at the library. I know where it is.”
Valves opened. Valves closed. Atria filled, ventricles pumped.
He stood up.
Dirt on his hands. Dirt on his Math Olympics shirt.
Dirt in his veins.
“You ready to move on now?”
He did not answer her. He stepped around her.
She got up, brushed the dirt off her pants.
“Seth, listen to me.”
One foot in front of the other.
The flashlight swung around. Its light cut into him, cast his shadow on the floor.
Pressure on his elbow. The dead had come for him.
“Listen! You are not your father!”
He stopped. She dropped his arm.
His elbow burned where she had grabbed him.
“You’re not, and I brought you here because you need to know that. You need to know.”
She stood in the shadows, holding the flashlight. He could just make out her white shirt, the sweep of her throat, the outline of her lips.
“I thought you could have, I don’t know, closure or some shit.”
In the dim light her eyes looked black.
He gazed at her, took note of how thin her arms were, how fragile she was. How they were alone in the dark, miles from other people.
When he spoke his voice came out rough and full of dirt.
“I don’t need your help.”
He turned away from her.
“Damn it, Seth! I didn’t fucking bring you all the way out here for you to fucking run away!”
Something whistled past his ear. Light streamed across the floor. She had thrown the flashlight.
Concrete. Dirt. The corpse of a bird. A wall that he had no idea they were so close to.
The flashlight hit the wall and crashed to the floor. He heard the bulb break.
“Why the hell did you break the flashlight?”
“Hey Seth, you there?”
He thought of the pictures on the wall, drawn in crayon. He thought of his father, sitting alone in his chair, saying Seth’s name for the first time in years.
“Dude, you aren’t going crazy on me, are you? You aren’t catching anything from your old man, right? Don’t set the loony bin on fire or anything.”
He thought of his mother, hunched over in the rain.
“Seth, you bastard, talk to me.”
He thought of his attempts to make the oil of egg, of what he’d read about its abilities to heal burns. He remembered holding the eggs in his hand, hoping to break them just right, crack them perfectly, so that the yolk would be whole.
The phone smashed against the wall.