Last Embers by Tomas Marcantonio

I explode out of the fireplace like a collision of honeyed stars, hanging nimbly in the air for a moment before settling onto the carpet to dissolve. My sister sits with her legs tucked under herself, her cheeks like toffee apples warmed by the burning coals. She sits there every night through winter like a melancholy cat, absorbing the hot embers and then radiating second-hand heat through the lounge. She stares at the last of my bronze sparks, twinkling on the carpet for her, under my spell.

‘Put it out then,’ Dad says from the long sofa behind her.

He needn’t worry; I’m not going to set the place alight. My sister reaches for the brass companion set next to the coal bucket. Stained with the soot of thirty years, its handle chipped and rusted, she takes the shovel in her hands and holds it above my last glow. But she doesn’t extinguish me.

Dad opens his mouth to speak, but Mum places a hand on his arm. Her hand is purple and bone-blue in vein-tangled patches, my sister having swallowed up the best of the cauldron heat. Together my parents watch my sister and the way she looks at me, aglow on the carpet. None of them says anything. I dance for a moment, glimmering for my childhood playmate.

She recalls the glitter of the wig that she placed on my head when I was five. I was a clown in oversized pyjamas, lipstick circles chalked onto my cheeks. I pulled the wig off when it became too itchy and she forced it back onto my head until I cried. Then she thrust a feather duster into my hand and dropped Mum’s straw picnic hat onto my head. The lipstick bled from my cheeks as I bawled.

Now my sister smiles. I let my last ember fade into the carpet.

###

Dad is on all fours in front of the rose bushes in the garden. His faded jeans are crayoned green at the knees from the rub of the summer grass. His gloves, too big, smell of leather and the iron of his ancient garden tools. His back creaks like the mast of a ship in the wind.

I appear before him in the soil, adorned in a whirlpool shell the colour of marbled chocolate. I extend one antenna towards him in greeting, a slow jelly movement of wonder and innocence. He breathes through his nose, heavy, like a bull; snails are second in notoriety only to the stray bobtail that shits behind the apple tree. Invaders of his green haven. He draws himself up and fetches the half-brick that props the shed door closed.

He’s already killed four today. They were gathered at the compost heap in a plate of discount beer that he had left for them overnight. New lines are etched into his gentle face every time a shell cracks and he takes a life. He tells himself that it’s either the snails or his plants, but he still winces with each murderous implosion of gelatin and shattered coil.

He returns to me with the brick raised inches from my face. I extend both antennae towards it. My father pauses.

‘Tea’s ready,’ Mum calls from the kitchen door. She stands there, watching him with his hand aloft and the brick poised above me. ‘What are you doing?’

Dad shakes his head, watching the swirl of my shell. He remembers the water at the pool when I was three. I charged into the deep end like a tiger with its teeth on fire. Dad was still blowing up the armbands. He ran over and hauled me out and I cried and spluttered, snot blue to my lips. Dad laughed when he wrapped the towel around me. How I always loved to run, and how I loved the water.

Now he smiles and his eyes are still on my shell. I take off, slow, towards the wall.

‘Coming,’ he says. He puts the brick back at the foot of the shed door.

###

Mum is putting my old things into boxes. She turns the age-hardened pages of my books, collecting dust on her fingertips. She looks into the empty black eyes of every cuddly toy. Last is the big golden retriever, the one I called Luath. She looks into his eyes and sees me staring back at her. She brushes the dust off my felt nose, the grubby fur out of my eyes. I’d bark and nuzzle into her shoulder if I could but I can’t. All I can do is look back at her and help her remember.

She sees me dragging Luath along the gravel path when we walked through the gardens. Dad was running on ahead with my sister in pursuit, her ponytail bobbing behind her like a golden curtain tassel. Luath was almost as big as I was back then. Mum laughed as she pushed the buggy along behind us.

‘I think Luath needs a rest,’ she called as I trawled his paws over the small stones. I crunched along after the bobbing ponytail, ignoring her, refusing to leave my loyal retriever behind.

Mum looks back into my eyes and smiles. She takes me in both hands and caresses my cheek with hers. A tear falls into my fur. She closes the box; I’m not going in. Instead she carries me into her own bedroom and places me across the two pillows at the head of the bed. At night they take turns holding me under the blankets.


Tomas Marcantonio is a fiction and travel writer from Brighton, England. He has been published in various online journals and print anthologies, most recently Ellipsis Zine, Firefly Magazine, and Storgy. Tomas is currently based in South Korea, where he teaches English and writes whenever he can escape the classroom.

 

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