While other people living on the same street seemed to follow, within the expected standard deviation, the local and proper weather patterns, at my family home it never rained. Around us were lots rich with the flora one would expect: Elms and cottonwoods and lilacs and each garden with a row or two of pornographically ripe tomato plants. Ours was a ¾ acre wasteland of burnt earth – dead trees in two clumps flanked the driveway, grasses choked into needles anchoring dunes made of blown dust, the stumps of a rosebush, all thorns and memory. My sister would tell me that it was my fault that everything had died, and always had a different reason why I alone was to blame: ‘You forgot to say your payers’ was a favorite, even when it was clear that God was not in the business of calling back – I would tell her I did – every word, before each meal, even a pop-tart or fruit-loops, which, as food goes, probably didn’t rate much in the way of holy benediction. “Sure,’ she would say, ‘but you didn’t mean it.’ Well, neither did she, I’m sure, and my god – I never said this to her, but – my god wore slippers and a bathrobe and read books that only god could read and thought very little about the world on account of how depressing it was all the time. I expected a certain realism from my deity. One time she blamed it on a high school boyfriend: ‘He has the personality of a nutsack,’ she said. He did. But how that effected the weather, or how she intended on proving her hypothesis – this was past her, and her argument was buried under dead tumbleweeds and almost inert soil.
There were five of us: Two sisters – me, and her. A brother, mother, father. I tried not to come home, not unless I had to. I was the one who put out fires, that was my job – and everything burnt so well at home – brush, trees, siding, sheds, memories, paper spilling from my father’s office – these often lit up on their own. Many things would combust with the least suggestion. So often an attempt at a family dinner would end with the fire department and take-out. Once, when I came home, my mother met me at the door, a curl of smoke rolling through her hair,
‘Your father is out back, trying to ‘weapon-ize’ the neighbor’s pet goat,’ she told me. ‘He’s been on this for three days now. If it doesn’t stop soon, I think I’ll have him murdered.’ Later on she fell down the stairs leading to the basement and elected to stay there. It was my job to bring meals to her, taking a tray down stairs and to her hiding place behind the old couch. A thin, pale arm, buoyed by it’s own blue veins would snake out from the deep shadows and snatch the food away. She had settled on eating exclusively with her hands at that time – I considered it a part of her ‘primitive period.’ I could always feel her eyes, buried in deep behind the black of the shadow, they bored pinpricks into my shoulders as I walked back up the stairs.
Later on that week, as a storm was drenching the homes around us, bone clear in our world, the septic tank exploded. Given how things were at home, and in general, this was unexpected, but not much of a surprise. It left a hole the size of an in-ground swimming pool and no one could breathe within a hundred yards all the way around. My father thought that enough gasoline and a match could take care of that problem, but he was, of all of us, the most a creature of his place – of course he would fight fire with fire – for him, there was never another way. My bother considered the philosophical implications, but offered nothing of substance. He was quick to point out that thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Martin Heidegger and David Hume would have all agreed – that is to say that the present situation, seen through such different lenses, could be nothing but miserable. He made it clear, that no matter what happened to the septic tank, it was still a victory for philosophy. My sister punched him in the dick.
As usual, it became my problem to solve. I attempted to rent a back-hoe, but the local merchants all knew who we were and heavy machinery, once on the property, rarely made it back off intact. At last, after much effort, I was forced, resigned, to making the family, nose-plugs and sunscreen, fill the stinking hole one shovel full of baked dust at a time.
Eventually it ended, as all things do – ash is always the result. But then it had to – nothing burns forever, and in time nothing was left but the house itself. Mother had called – she said it was time for me to come home – no reason this time. I knew why. I pulled into the driveway, the trees nothing more than the grey-black fingers of a dead thing uncovered from the dirt of its body. In the maw of the front door I saw my father, his hand gripping a thick file-folder of reports and print-outs, the edges curling, half-alive where the paper became the orange of the embers. Beside him my brother, who looked into the corner of the doorframe – the soles of his shoes had already begun to melt. My sister crowed between them, not knowing who to blame, her anger now loosed was iridescent all on her own. Behind them, somewhere in the black of unused charcoal, I knew my mother was looking at me. She invoked the name of a god to busy to care and I could hear as she stumbled back into the kitchen. They waited.
And I did not go to them. I stood by my car in the driveway and watched them all turn back into the house, my father last. He looked at me – unblinking – and it was the closing door, not his gaze, that cut our connection. I stood as the fire began at the corner of the house, on the roof, at the junction box, the unused planter by the bathroom window – I stood and flies – innocent and hateful – licked away the sweat on my neck.
Hours later, when the structure had fully fallen into itself and had stopped pretending to be anything distinct or separate from it’s landscape I forced myself back into my car, and backing up all the way down the driveway I declined a last look, and drove off and into the rain.
Oliver Knudsen is a fiction and poetry writer. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and likes to laugh.