There Was a Family
by Timmy Reed
The family was mostly made up of familiar materials: Mother, Father, and Son. It was also made up of foreign materials. The foreign materials were too many to list here or anywhere – facial tics, sexual proclivities, favorite colors and so on – but their oddity also made it familiar in a way, a family.
The most familiar materials (Mother, Father, and Son. Also, Dog) were important, but the family had trouble, over and over and over, expressing why or how they were important. In a similar way, they had trouble expressing why any stranger was important to any other stranger. Mother and Father were expected to teach this lesson to Son regardless. Son was expected to learn.
The family lived in a red house made of plastic. It was like the small plastic houses lined up in the board game, only bigger. The family’s copy of the board game, which was meant to imitate trade, was bound like a mummy in shrink-wrap. Dog was supposed to live in a wooden hut out back, but was afraid to go inside after he once encountered a opossum there. So Dog lived with the family in the house. He had his own special door.
The little plastic house was situated in the center of a square plot of lawn the color of key lime pie. Beneath the lawn, the earth was teeming with worms that chewed the burnt souls of dead Indians buried there long before any suburban housing development. The dead Indians used similar materials to build their families. The worms had families also, but they were too busy chewing to notice.
Dead Indians were not the only ghosts that lived with the family. The family created their own ghosts all the time. Their ghosts were made of words mostly and the heated tumors that grow out of love like mutations, thorns.
Ghosts were another familiar material.
There was a world that lived outside the family and the little plastic house. That world was made up of other families and fragments of families, all of them intertwined whether they knew it or not. The family interacted with the world and the world interacted with the family. Sometimes the interactions made the family feel good. Sometimes they didn’t. The family’s interactions did not have much bearing on the world, not as much as some other families’ interactions with the world, but more than the family imagined. The family imagined no bearing at all.
The housing development was near an airport. Sometimes the family and the other residents of the development would hear a noise like the clouds were unzipping themselves and turn their eyes toward heaven. It was almost always an airplane cutting the sky above them. Ghosts did not live in the sky, although everyone looked for them there. All souls remained close to the earth where they were born, to haunt. Souls and ghosts were made up of the same things.
Television was another familiar material. Television piped dreams into the house so the family could continue dreaming when they were awake. Television also produced ghosts.
Father had a girlfriend who wanted to start a second family. One family was more than enough for Father. He felt alone inside his body when he was at home with the family. He forgot about that with the girlfriend. Or he used to. Being with the girlfriend was not as fun as it once was. Life was more complicated than he pictured it. Life hurt, caused worry. Fun was not as much of a factor as he had hoped it would be.
Mother hid in the hall closet and cried when Father and Son were not home. She tried very hard not to when they were. She did not know about the girlfriend, which would have hurt her, but she cried anyway because she knew she would never understand herself or be happy, whatever that means – she was not sure. She cried because she loved her child and knowing that he would have to participate in life made her chest hurt. She saw him: he would grow old, shrink, die like the rest. She cried because she missed her own mother. She cried because she was waiting for a tragedy.
Son loved Saturday mornings best. Each Saturday he woke up early, when the world outside the house was grey, and crept downstairs in tight pajamas decorated with construction equipment to fix a toaster pastry. He situated himself on the floor in front of Television, so close they were almost touching, and let the colored lights of the dreams hit him full in the face until he fell asleep again. Some mornings, his own dreams were about the dreams Television had been giving him. Other mornings, his dreams were about ghosts. When he woke up, Dog was next to him. Mother and Father were also awake. They seemed to be ignoring each other, but everyone was together and the house was warm. The parents were still like a dream to Son, no end and no beginning. He flipped through Television’s channels, searching for more.
Some weekends, Father put a ball or a fishing rod in Son’s hands. Son did not like these weekends. They made him feel inadequate as a son. Son wanted to stay indoors and feel dreams forever.
The family often wanted to be in a different part of the world than the house and the ghosts there, so they went on vacation. They hoped travel would bring them closer together in a way they remembered being some time ago but, like a mirage fading in their skulls, never actually were. The vacations were to the beach, except one time when the vacation was to Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls covered the family with mist. Dog did not go on vacations with the family. When the family was away, Dog was put in a box in a stack of other dogs.
Each vacation the family forgot that wherever you go, you bring your ghosts with you.
The beach was a place at the edge of the earth. A warm, sandy line, past which there were monsters aswim in a wet, yawning void. There were dying jellyfish on the sand for Son to poke with a trowel. There was also a boardwalk at the beach, with rides that made you feel joyful and sick. There were frozen dairy products and airbrushed t-shirts with fringes like the fringes the dead Indians used to wear, miniature golf courses and mirror mazes, spun sugar, ships painted on grains of rice, a man who guessed your age, a lady who told your future.
Mother had her fortune read to her by a woman with a phony accent and white streaks in her hair. Father was busy renting a boat to make Son go fishing. Father did not even like fishing himself but his father had taken him when he was a son. Memories like that made Father feel bad inside and to stop feeling bad he tried to honor the memory, but usually only felt worse in the end. Ghosts made sure generations repeated themselves that way. The fortune-teller led Mother through a beaded hallway into a black-lit room with a table covered in tapestries like the ones teenagers used as blankets on the beach. Son waited outside. He looked at a wall of temporary tattoo flash until he saw the image of a devil that he wanted on his forehead. Son imagined temporary needles.
The fortune-teller lit a candle and took out a deck of cards. The candle was made from the inside of a sperm whale’s forehead. The cards trembled in her hands. I see nothing out of the ordinary, the fortune-teller told her. Is it that bad? Mother asked. The fortune-teller saw nothing at all. Mother held out her palm to be read. Tiny ghosts waltzed across the surface like it was a stage. At home, dead Indians powwowed with Television. Far off, islands formed in the sea. All fortunes are the same, a voice said, more or less. No they are not, said another.
The ride back home from every vacation was long. The highway was jammed with other families. The families were like insects crawling through a funnel. They stepped on each other without noticing. Son repeated himself like a bird call, unsure whether or not they were home. He was still asking when the family pulled in the driveway and the dead Indians went once again underground to be eaten by worms. They put the furniture back in place first and turned the photographs right-side-up again before disappearing to their graves.
Son was named Markus, Mother, Jan, Father, Bob. Dog didn’t have a name. Lack of pet name is a clear example of foreign material.
Timmy Reed is a writer from Baltimore, Maryland. He also edits the What Lit section for What Weekly magazine. Learn about his recent collection of short stories, Tell God I Don’t Exist, as well as other publications and general weirdness at underratedanimals.wordpress.com and read his tiny stories on Twitter.
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This story became the first chapter in a short novel, The Ghosts That Surrounded Them, published by Dig That Book Co. Pick up your copy here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Ghosts-That-Surrounded-Them/dp/0990775534