by Chris Milam
He slid to the mantel in his socked feet. On top sat a brushed-metal picture frame burdened with a glossy portrait of blonde chameleons wearing church clothes. Timmy cocked his head like a rifle, peeked in my direction with a blank blue eye, but didn’t act. He was a deliberate boy, a methodical half-man who understood that patience is a form of brutality.
I’ve been living in this festive dome for seven weeks. We arrived here in Michigan from a factory via the postal service; a family of three chasing the dream inside the curved walls of a seasonal trinket. It’s just me now.
The boy’s father was the first to break the pact, a couple of benign shakes a year didn’t square with his greed for authority and domination. The image of his bleached, laughing teeth is a snuff film that loops in my mind from the night I lost my daughter, when he flicked his elegant hand and rolled us down the wood floors of the hallway like a bowling ball. Their three-legged cat, Roscoe, found the wreckage and licked the glass clean, as if he could have fixed anything with a kind tongue. While we grieved, safe and unbroken in a Victorian carriage, the father traded fist-bumps with his son. The family celebrated with a bucket of spicy-glazed chicken wings and iced cola. Ate pie for dessert.
The kid plopped down on the charcoal sectional, switched on a crime show, and went about mimicking a typical teenager. He took a sip of strawberry milk. Scratched his armpits. Cheered at the gunshots on the screen. His casual laziness was as comforting to me as a concrete pillow. I understood Timmy and I knew the score. He yawned. I waited.
His mother, a ponytailed menace with a taste for cream pantsuits, honed her own black cleaver in this suburban butcher shop. At night, she would approach our home on the oak slab, extend a french-manicured finger and roust us from a deep sleep with a rhythmic tapping.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
She was relentless and never tired. That pretty nail of hers tapping on the glass, the conductor of an insane melody that sought more than just our surrender. She wasn’t the creator of torture, but she grasped its nuances, those pressure points that snapped one’s resolve like a paper-thin cracker, erasing any doubt to who dictated the household law.
The rest of the family began to filter into the room, including Alexis, the one person in the house who I originally thought could play the savior. She always wore pink pajamas with faded rainbows on them, and drank hot cocoa with those tiny marshmallows drowning on top. Her crayon drawings of suns and trees hung on the burgundy walls. Once, she set us in front of the fireplace while she giggled at the exploits of Dora the Explorer and munched on candy corn. Her innocent smile curled wicked as the heat blistered our home, turning it into a cauldron of wintry funeral stew. The flame, like Alexis, did not believe in tender gestures. The hysteria that exploded from my wife’s throat when she howled her final words is a sound that ruins a man. I failed her when I saved myself inside a red-wrapped artificial gift. Her screams continue to move under my skin, an accusation living in the noise of terror.
The father held me like a glass infant as the clan marched to the kitchen. Timmy grinned like a carved pumpkin when he opened the freezer. I glanced back into the living room, at the aquarium, where a lone striped fish stared back at me with a sympathetic, dazed eye. He seemed to know the score, too.
When the door slammed shut, nightfall came in a flash. I could have pleaded with them to spare me, tapped out a SOS, retreated to my plastic home, but there are times when you must accept your fate. And your cowardice. They had pled allegiance to hate long before we arrived in a cardboard box, and to try and reason or negotiate with a dark pulse seemed pointless. My family was as dispensable to them as a used coffee filter.
As the glass began to frost, I scooped up a handful of fake snow, tossed it high into the air. The white flakes floating above were as pristine and haunting as Timmy’s unblemished pale face.