I reached the oven just as the first fat parachute of blue flame floated into a white curtain. I remembered the fear in my father’s voice. “It can be contained.” Erin picked the pan up off the burner and brown grease splattered her arm. She dropped the pan, and the contents spread across the top of the oven like napalm.
I thought of my father’s reaction when he discovered we’d allowed it into his home, the embarrassment he’d feel, the rage that his embarrassment would turn into, thickening the blood in his hands until they turned to fists and came looking for me.
With six cartons of baking soda in reach, I grabbed the first liquid I saw off the top of the fridge and poured a half-pint of eighty proof vodka into the middle of a grease fire.
A tenth of a second after, I realized what was going to happen and I tackled my sister just before the top half of the room exploded. We lay on the floor and watched in awe as the wallpaper above the oven stripped away from the wall, as a cloud of blue, yellow, black, and red mushroomed across the ceiling, as a hundred fireflies erupted into the side of the fridge.
My sister rolled away and grabbed the fire extinguisher from the hall. I got one from the pantry, and as if the last five minutes hadn’t happened, as if we were truly the children of an illustrious firefighter, we stood in the center of the kitchen and doused the oven, the wall, the ceiling, the fridge, and the curtain. Within a minute, black-and-white foam covered our bodies like birdshit.
Once our adrenal glands had closed their floodgates and our shakes had stopped, we sat down in the center of our ruined kitchen, and stared at the front door where my father entered every night at eleven-thirty. We stared at it until we both wept, kept staring long after we’d run out of tears.
By the time my mother returned from work, we’d fanned all the smoke out of the apartment, wiped all scorch marks off the fridge and oven, and thrown away the charred strips of wallpaper and what remained of the curtain. My mother looked at the black cloud burned into her ceiling, at the scorched wall, and sat down at the kitchen table and stared blankly at something in the pantry for a full five minutes.
Erin said, “Mum?”
My mother blinked. She looked at my sister, then at me, then at the vodka bottle on the counter. She tilted her head toward it and looked at us. “Which of you... ?”
I couldn’t speak, pointed a finger at my chest.
My mother walked into the pantry. For a small, thin woman, she moved as if she were overweight, with slow lumbering steps. She returned with the iron and ironing board, placed them in the center of the kitchen. In times of crisis, my mother always clung to routine, and it was time to iron my father’s uniforms. She opened the window and began pulling them from the clothesline. With her back to us, she said, “Go to your rooms. I’ll see if I can talk to your father.”
I sat on the corner of my bed, hands in my lap, facing the door. I left the lights off, closed my eyes in the darkness, my hands clasped tight.
When my father came home, his usual thumping about the kitchen tossing his lunch box on the table, rattling ice cubes in a glass, falling heavily into a chair before pouring his drink was mute. The silence in the apartment that night was longer and thicker and more pregnant with dread than I have ever experienced since.
My mother said, “A mistake, that’s all.”
“A mistake,” my father said.
“Edgar,” my mother said.
“A mistake,” my father said again.
“He’s eleven. He panicked.”
“Uh-huh,” my father said.
Everything else that happened seemed to unfold in that weird compression of time that people experience just before they get in a car wreck or fall down a flight of stairs everything speeds up and everything slows down. A lifetime passes, in all its minute detail, in the space of a second.
My mother screamed, “No!” and I heard the ironing board topple to the kitchen linoleum, and my father’s footsteps hammered the floorboards toward my room. I tried to keep my eyes closed, but when he kicked the door in, a splinter grazed my cheekbone, and the first thing I saw was the iron in my father’s hand, the electrical cord and plug missing. His knee hit my shoulder and knocked me back on the bed and he said, “You’re so desperate to find out what it feels like, boy?”
I looked in his eyes, because I didn’t want to look at the iron, and what I saw in those dark pupils was an unnerving mixture of anger and fear and hatred and savagery and yes, love, some bastardized version of that too.
And that’s what I fixated on, clung to, prayed to, as my father ripped my shirt up to my sternum and pressed the iron against my stomach.
Angie once said, “Maybe that’s what love is counting the bandages until someone says, ‘Enough.’“
Sitting at my desk, I closed my eyes, knowing I’d never sleep with the adrenaline doing its stock-car derby in my blood, and when I woke up an hour later, my phone was ringing.
I managed to say, “Patr ” before Angie’s voice tumbled over the line. “Patrick, come over here. Please.”
I reached for my gun. “What’s the matter?”
“I think I just got divorced.”
When I got there, there was a squad car double-parked in front of the house. Directly behind it was Devin’s Camaro. He was standing on the porch with Oscar, talking to another cop, a kid. Too many cops were starting to look like kids to me, I thought, as I climbed the steps.
They were standing over a huddled lump of flesh by the railing, the young cop giving it smelling salts. It was Phil, and my first thought was, Jesus Christ, she killed him.
Devin looked at me and raised his eyebrows, a smile the size of Kansas on his face. He said, “We answered the call because we asked that anything at her or your address be rerouted to us.” He looked down at Phil, at the contusions that covered his face like lesions. He looked back at me. “Oh happy day, huh?”
She was wearing a white shirt over a pair of faded cobalt shorts. There was a red bubble on her lower lip and mascara ran down her face. Her hair was in her eyes as she stepped gingerly out onto the porch in bare feet. She saw me then and came toward me in a rush. I held her and her teeth dug into my shoulder. She was crying softly.
I said, “What did you do?” trying to keep the happy surprise out of my voice, but probably not succeeding.
She shook her head and held on tightly.
Devin was leaning against Oscar, the two of them happier than I’d seen them since they both stopped paying alimony on the same day. Devin said, “Wanna know what she did?”