There was a space station on the news that summer and some mention of the moons of Jupiter and the asteroid belt. My grandfather yelled at the TV whenever it switched to politics and round table discussions. I’d been staying at his house for a while with my three aunts, listening to their talk of bitchy bank tellers, bad drivers, and awful co-workers. I was ten and tall and shy. I could be so quiet that my aunts would sometimes forget I was in the room, and they’d start talking about boyfriends and sex positions.
My mother slept at my grandfather’s house on the weekends, when one of the aunts would take her spot in the hospital bed next to my younger brother’s. On Saturdays and Sundays mother would take me with her to see Lucian. Even though my grandfather’s house was much closer than my mother’s, the children’s hospital was still a thirty minute drive into Knoxville, with interstate cows and silos most of the way, and we had to drive past the burning mountains, which had been smoldering for weeks from a controlled burn that had gotten out of hand. Smoke covered that section of the interstate like a thick fog bank, and a few times I thought I could feel the heat from the fire through the windows.
Lucian had been in the hospital since before spring. His doctors kept saying they were close to figuring out what was going on with him, but every day there was still no news. They’d suspected and dismissed Leukemia and about five other diseases. No one had believed my mother when she said he was sick. She’d spent the last month trying to contact my father, but no one knew where he was. His parents were dead and his brothers were scattered across the country. His only kin left around our parts said they hadn’t seen him since the day he married my mother.
When I’d visit I’d bring balloons from the lobby and sit on the bed next to Lucian’s, where my mother slept. On the bed, she kept a pile of books and a pack of playing cards held together with hair elastic. I’d play Lucian’s video games, draw in his sketch book, examine all the presents he’d received, which were always lined up on a table next to the TV. He was three years younger than me and small for his age, but he looked younger and smaller in the big bed with his loose Mickey Mouse hospital gown, which kept sliding off his left shoulder. I would hold his hand with the IV, while he practiced his reading. Sometimes there were dogs to pet.
One aunt owned a consignment shop, and most weekdays I’d go to work with her and watch her clip tags on dresses and organize pieces of paper. I’d sit behind the counter with a bowl of cornflakes and my embroidery hoop. Mother had taught me the arrowhead and bonnet stitches before she left, and my aunts had all surprised me with a stash of metallic and silk threads. My aunt would look up from the sales floor and say, “Since you’re here, I might as well put you to work.” And then she’d send me out to change large bills for smaller ones at the customer service desk of the grocery store down the street.
I liked driving around town with my aunts, watching runners on the sidewalk, looking into restaurant windows and people’s homes, trying to see right into the wallpaper patterns and the paintings in their living rooms, but that summer I mostly watched the burning mountains. Beneath the smoke everything was black and orange, the color of lava. The whole mountain was a crackling ember. That summer our town had the aroma of winter, with its chimneys and backyard brush fires.
For dinner we’d slice up vegetables from the garden, and one aunt would make a new casserole from Betty Crocker’s One-Pot Dinner’s nearly every night. Everyone would be humming different songs to themselves. And then we’d all sit around a big table, and I’d look at my aunts and wish I had more of their genes. They were small ladies, with delicate bones and all had blonde fluffy hair. They had matching gold rings and drove sports cars and wore strappy leather sandals. They looked like their mother who had died when I was five, and who visited them on the porches and in the laundry rooms of their dreams.
My grandmother’s roses still bloomed in the yard and around the front and back porches, and there were still heirloom hydrangeas and sweet peas growing. No one wanted me to pick anything, but I’d sneak a peony or two into my room and keep them under my bed in some water in a paper cup. I’d pull them out at night and smell them before falling asleep. They smelled like the house did when grandmother was alive and a little like Lucian’s hospital room. Grandmother’s wedding picture hung on my wall. She had those same flowers in her hands and a strange smile that made me worry when I looked at her.
All summer I dug things up out of the yard. I had shoe boxes full of bulbs and root pieces, cicada shells, river rocks from the flower beds. In their places, under rocks and in the ditches, I’d leave scraps of cotton with messages I’d embroidered. On one it read, ‘Tis the season to be jolly. I thought of Lucian and how he’d explode his cars and army men with the firecrackers mother kept hidden on top of the refrigerator, and how he’d burry their broken bits in the field behind our house.
One weekend at the hospital, I sneaked in one of the daffodil bulbs I’d dug up. I’d trimmed its long, green leaves down and placed it in one of grandfather’s candy tins. My aunts were always going on and on about those daffodils, how you couldn’t find that kind anymore even in the seed catalogs, how grandmother had gotten them from her mother. When they bloomed they had layers of pale buttery petals and a whorl of dark yellow in the center. When mother stepped into the hall to speak with a doctor, I gave the tin to Lucian.
“Don’t let anyone find it,” I said.
He opened the tin and took out the bulb. In the light from his window its papery skin glowed like amber.
“What is it?” he said. “An onion? A cacoon?”
“A daffodil. A rare one they don’t make anymore.”
“I can keep it?” he said.
We could hear mother’s footsteps coming, her conversation dying down. Lucian smiled and put the bulb back in the tin and under his pillow. I knew mother would find out. Lucian was terrible at keeping secrets.
On the weekends, when mother spent the night, she’d sleep in my bed and talk to me until I fell asleep. I didn’t care what she talked about. “I just want to hear words,” I told her. I could never sleep straight through to morning, and many nights I’d stay awake from four o’clock on, when I’d wrap in a blanket sit at the kitchen table.
One night I walked outside, barefoot on the wet grass. I smelled the burning forest and watched the mountains glowing behind the houses. I wondered if Lucian could see the smoke from his hospital room, but I knew he couldn’t. The buildings of downtown obstructed any distant views. Next time I saw him, I thought, I’d draw him a picture of the mountains and explain the layer of smoke, the smell, what smoldering was. I walked to the edge of the driveway and stared into the flickering orange.
Lydia Copeland Gwyn’s stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Florida Review, Appalachian Heritage, Elm Leaves Journal, Glimmer Train, SmokeLong Quarterly, and others. She lives with her husband and two children in East Tennessee where she teaches English and works in a public library.