Mammaw burned up on Thanksgiving when I was thirteen. She was sipping bourbon, staring daggers at her daughters-in-law when she leaned over and said, “Chiclet, go sit by Grampy.”
I’d smelled that whiff of blown-out match before, thick and heavy when she was angry, so I crossed the room. Mom and Aunt Corkie kept talking about Jackie Kennedy. Mom wanted a pillbox hat like Aunt Corkie’s even though Daddy voted for Nixon. Everyone’d been bickering all day. Mostly about the election, but the turkey was too dry, and stuffing was wrong.
“You have the lava blood too, Chiclet,” Mammaw murmured her secret, and mine, in my ear in ‘53 after my cousin Dip pushed me down and walked off, a giant striding past a cockroach. He was thirteen that summer. I was eight, a child-sized lifetime before Mammaw finally let it rip. I’d felt the sludgy fire moving through my veins as I watched Dip run off with the other cousins, never looking back to see if I was okay.
“It’ll eat you up, baby girl,” she’d said, picking pine needles out of my hair. She taught me to take deep breaths. How to count to ten, twenty, five hundred. How to imagine a knob I could twist like a thermostat. How to feel the heat without letting it burn.
But she also whispered how one day, “a long time from now,” I might want to, need to, fan the embers. I could turn it all the way up. I could loosen my grip. “It won’t hurt,” she promised. “I know it won’t hurt. Not more than a second anyway. It’ll be like picking a scab, what you’ve been wanting to do for so long that the pain’ll feel good.”
Now Mammaw was glaring at Mom and Aunt Corkie, but then she looked right at me and smiled. Every bit of air left the room, so fast no one else noticed, and then she was slumped to the side, a wisp of smoke curling out of her ears.
I moved to touch her arm, to feel the heat. “Mother?” My dad’s knowledge that something was very wrong hadn’t risen to the surface of his brain yet.
“Charlotte, get back!” Dad shoved me aside as everyone else gathered around their tragedy. Grampy gaped like a goldfish while all the women cried out and fluttered into useless moths. I went and sat on the front steps. I was the only one who knew what she was capable of. The only one who knew she was a dragon who could breathe her fire inside herself. Everyone called it a stroke, a heart attack. I was the only one who knew she’d just let herself burn it all down.
Sixty years later, I was the old lady drinking bourbon. My crepey skin glowed green, gold, and red next to the blinking Christmas tree with that tacky silver garland.
“All these Antifa thugs,” Dip grunted pieces of a conversation he’d had with himself all day. He settled into the recliner with another beer, tucking a liver-spotted hand against his belly. “This country… I just don’t know.” His middle-aged boys, all divorced with kids they only knew from every other weekend and holiday, stared at the football game on the screen, ignoring him.
I didn’t want to be there. I’d had enough of them when we were together at Thanksgiving with them all muttering about the elections. But my idiot daughter-in-law in that reindeer sweater she wore every year even though it was ninety degrees outside picked me up again from my condo, chirping, “Merry Christmas!” like I didn’t know what day it was. She deposited me on her ugly sofa where I sat all day.
One of Dip’s grandsons brought a girl this year. When we opened presents, she sat on the outskirts of the family, clutching her cell phone, pretending to be interested in everyone else’s gifts. She had one present she’d opened early on because the boy insisted she open it first, his voice like a toddler begging everyone to look, look, look. I wondered if she didn’t have a mama at home to teach her she was worth more than a strip mall diamond chip necklace and a lifetime of regret.
Sydney, the only tolerable grandchild, sidled over to me. She must have been ten or eleven, chubby and awkward. Her older brother and cousins wouldn’t let her play some video game in the other room, and her cheeks were mottled with rage and shame.
I crooked my finger at her. “Siddy, take this to the kitchen.” When she leaned in to take the glass from my hand, I could smell the sulfur just under her skin, like a secret river pulsing. I’d already told her what she needed to know at her eighth birthday party after her mother snatched a second cupcake from her hand. “You don’t need that,” her mother whisper-hissed, and the feral scent rose up as the fire-beast in Siddy blinked awake.
She came back from the kitchen, and the flames pushed against the back of my breastbone, above where I’d carried my boys, an endlessly red oven. Siddy had everything I could give her. There was no reason to keep counting to ten.
I glared at my sons, two watching their wives cleaning up and one passed out in the sunroom, just his feet showing from where they were propped up on the ottoman. I looked at their wives packaging all the leftover food and cleaning every last scrap of the ribbons and wrapping paper. I dropped my eyes to the little grandchildren, already bored with their new toys and the older ones taking pictures of themselves and thumbing through their phones.
Mammaw had barely scorched the couch she’d been sitting on. I’d be doing them a favor if I ruined this one. I caught Siddy’s eyes and held them tight before I took a deep breath, winked, and let go.
Andrea Rinard is a Florida native and current MFA student at USF. She has pieces published in places she loves and has even won a few awards for her writing. You can find her at www.writerinard.com and follower her on Twitter @aprinard.