“Flame” by Chloe Ackerman

Flame
“Black Fish” by Laura Didyk, Sharpie on paper, 2015

Mouse leans against the wall, close to the door. “This doesn’t look like a doctor’s office,” she says. The room is warm, dark, and messy. There are puzzles and trucks scattered on the floor, books thrown haphazardly on shelves, and stuffed animals littering the couch.

An old woman with gray hair in a bun sits on a rolling chair. “That’s because it isn’t.”

Mouse can’t see what’s on the chart in the woman’s lap, but she’s pretty sure it’s about her. “I thought you were a doctor.”

“I’m Dr. Hernandez. A psychologist. Sit down where you like.”

“I don’t want to sit down. And I don’t need a psychologist.” Mouse crosses her arms and stares at the woman, who doesn’t look up.

“Your case worker says you do.”

“What are you going to do to me?” She digs her nails into her palms.

Dr. Hernandez looks up. “I’m not going to do anything to you.” She crosses her legs under her skirt and considers Mouse. “You don’t look like a mouse.”

“Yeah, well, that’s my name.”

“It says here you’re Mary Palmer.”

“My name is Mouse.”

“Does it mean anything? Like you’re small and quick, or good at hiding?”

“I don’t hide.”

“Who calls you Mouse?”

Mouse is tired of questions but she knows that anger is what got her here in the first place. She says, “Are you a pedophile or something?”

“No, why do you ask?” Dr. Hernandez doesn’t seem offended.

“You bring little girls into your office? Ask questions about their life and shit? It’s weird.”

“You can leave if you’d like. But you’ll have to come back next week.”

Mouse glares.

“If you sit down, I won’t ask you any more questions about your life today. I promise.”

A minute passes. A minute and a half. Mouse throws herself on the couch, hood shadowing her face.

“Sometimes when I first meet people,” Dr. Hernandez says, “I don’t like to talk. I’m shy, or I don’t trust them. I’m afraid they’ll use things I say against me.” Mouse jerks her head up, more like a hawk than a rodent. “Sometimes, when I first meet people, listening feels safer.” She stops, considering, then says, “I know a story you might like—”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

Dr. Hernandez nods. “You’re right, but I think you would like this story. I could tell it over the next few weeks and when the story is over, you can think about talking.”

Mouse narrows her eyes. “I’m twelve. Too old for kids’ books.”

“This isn’t a story for children.”

Mouse glares, crosses her arms. “Are you going to tell the story or not?”

Dr. Hernandez smiles, settles in, and begins. “Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a place where people were happy. This place had showers and sunshine, brooks with bridges and gardens with lovely flowers. In this place lived a little girl named Fiametta. Fiametta had a mother and father, the kind who tucked her into bed at night after making sure she brushed her teeth. They played hide-and-seek with her, took her to fairs and the park, gave her birthday parties and bear hugs.

“Fiametta loved her parents, and they loved her, but most of all they loved each other, and that made Fiametta feel happier and safer than anything in the world. Even if she had a bad dream or got lost at the zoo, she knew her parents would save her, and she would always have a happy ending.

“But then one day something horrible happened. It was after Christmas, and everything was snow and crackling fires and eggnog. There was an accident, and Fiametta’s mother went somewhere Fiametta could not go, and her father told her she wouldn’t see her mother again.”

“She died?” Mouse’s hood has fallen down, and her face is visible – light skin, dark hair, green eyes and freckles. Deep circles sink under her eyes; a scar traces her chin. She looks hollow and small.

When Dr. Hernandez nods, she looks sad, too. “Yes, her mother died.”

“But…what happened to Fiametta?”

“I’m afraid our time is up,” Dr. Hernandez says, as though she’s apologizing. “I’ll tell you more in a week.”

On the way back to the foster home, the case worker chatters on and Mouse thinks she sees Fiametta on the street in a blue dress, holding her parents’ hands. The case worker wants to know what Mouse and the psychologist talked about but knows she shouldn’t ask, and Mouse isn’t just going to tell her. She counts on her fingers how many days until she goes back. Six.

~

Dr. Hernandez wears a dark red and navy skirt this week, and Mouse briefly longs to own a skirt like that. She would twirl and dance all day.

“How are you today, Mouse?”

Mouse shrugs. “What did you do?”

“Nothing.”

“Do you want to hear more about Fiametta?”

Mouse shifts her gaze to her shoes. She knows how it works when someone has something you really want, so she doesn’t respond.

“Mouse? Do you?” She settles on a minuscule shrug and Dr. Hernandez clears her throat.

“Fiametta had just lost her mother, remember? And Fiametta’s world became cold and damp and nothing grew because there was no sun. One by one, Fiametta’s treasures disappeared, until all that remained was the dark. She forgot her dolls and how to play imaginary games and how to read storybooks, and instead drifted through the house humming old songs. Her father, instead of taking her to the beach or museum, wandered by himself at night, so when Fiametta had nightmares she woke crying for her mother, but found the house empty, her father roaming in the dark.

“Fiametta’s clothes were gray, her father’s hair was gray, and the sky was always gray. But she was not. She was clear, like she could walk through walls or stand very still in a room and disappear. Her father felt the same way, she thought, because sometimes he would just stop in the middle of a room and stare at the walls. Then Fiametta would take him by the hand and help him take off his cardigan and slippers and tuck him in to bed, where he could fall asleep and forget. Fiametta would sit in the dark and watch him frown in sleep because there was no one to put her to bed.

“She was scared of the dark. Darkness carried her mother away to a place she could not follow, a place her father searched for as he wandered shadowed streets, calling his dead wife’s name.

“And so Fiametta began to steal candles, slipping them into her pockets when no one was looking. She gathered one hundred of them, arranged them in her room, and lit them one-by-one in the same order every night before she tucked herself into bed. Those nights her room flickered with yellows and oranges, with color, warm like summer, with a smell like winter fireplaces. This way Fiametta could dream and not wake.”

Mouse is silent, even though Dr. Hernandez has been watching her. Mouse knows she will cry if she moves.

“I’m not going to tell you anymore today.” Dr. Hernandez speaks gently, like breaking bad news. Mouse nods. “What do you think of the story so far?”

“It’s sad.”

“Yes. Do you want to hear the rest?”

Mouse hesitates, measuring, then says, “Yes.”

“Even though it’s sad?”

Mouse thinks hard. The story doesn’t make her feel good. “I need to know what happens to Fiametta.” She bites the inside of her cheek.

“I want you to do something for me this week,” Dr. Hernandez says. “I want you to make me a picture every day, anything you like. It can be big or small, made with paint or crayons or glue and dirt, whatever you want. Can you do that for me, and bring them with you next week?”

Mouse nods. She can do that.

~

Each night, Mouse sits at the kitchen table with a piece of paper. Her foster brothers and sisters pass through, her foster mother makes dinner and everyone eats, then they come back into the kitchen to clean up. They don’t ask what Mouse is doing because they know therapists ask people to do weird things and if someone told Mouse to stare at a blank paper every night for three hours, they’re not going to comment. Mouse has already fought three of them since she moved in. No one wants to be the fourth.

And then, with the TV blaring in the living room and loud music coming from upstairs and the streetlights turning everything orange and forlorn, Mouse lights a candle and begins tracing the shadows that fall across her paper: bits of furniture, dishes, even her own hand, and then she colors them in. At the end of each night, Mouse has a piece of white paper covered in shadows.

~

Dr. Hernandez’s skirt is black this week; the color folds sorrow into Mouse’s belly. She clutches her seven sheets of paper but her hood is down and her eyes are on Dr. Hernandez.

“How was your week?”

Mouse shrugs.

“Did you do what I asked?”

She nods and clutches her pages, soft from her sweaty palms. “You aren’t going to take them?”

“Only if you want me to.”

Mouse looks at the one on top, and all she sees are stupid lines. They aren’t drawings at all. She’s done it wrong. “No.”

Dr. Hernandez nods. “Okay.” And that’s it. No argument, no pushing. “Are you ready to hear about Fiametta?” Mouse nods hard.

“Fiametta lit candles every night, remember? So she could sleep alone in the dark. And Fiametta lived like this for many years, slipping candles into her pockets as she wandered through stores when she was supposed to be in school. Every night, she lit them when the sun dipped beneath the horizon, until her room was ablaze and she could sleep.

“And then one night, as she lit her hundred candles, one tipped over, knocking over two more, and soon the room was hot and dark and Fiametta fled through the window as her room went up in flames.”

“Oh no…” Mouse whispers.

Dr. Hernandez’s eyes are sad, her voice low. “Fiametta ran and ran until she came to a river. She took off her clothes that smelled like ash and threw them in the black water, then jumped in herself, scratching the soot off her skin and out of her hair.

“In the morning, people found her shivering, naked and blue on the rocky bank, and they told her that her father had been in the house, that he had been burned up, and that they would take care of her. Then they washed her and gave her cast-off clothes that didn’t fit, then told her she would be sent away.”

Several seconds pass before Mouse realizes Dr. Hernandez has stopped. “Where is she sent?” she asks, too urgently, but she doesn’t care anymore.

Dr. Hernandez shakes her head. “That’s all for this week.”

“But…I have to know what happens next.”

“You will. I promise. Will you show me your pictures now?”

Mouse stretches out her hand. The pages are wrinkled, the pencil smudged. Dr. Hernandez examines each one. Mouse tries not to squirm.

“Will you tell me why you drew these?”

“That’s what grownups say when the drawing’s too bad to figure out.”

Dr. Hernandez raises an eyebrow. “You’re very perceptive. But I know what these are. It’s a clever idea. I never would have thought of it.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. I’m interested in why you chose to draw shadows.”

Mouse shrugs. “That’s what was on the page.”

“What were you thinking about when you drew them?”

Mouse chews on the inside of her cheek. “I was thinking…about shadows.” Her words fall lamely between them. It was a stupid idea.

“What do shadows mean to you?”

“Darkness. And…and hiding.”

“Safety?”

Mouse squeezes her eyes shut. “No. Because there’s still light. I can still be found.”

“…and you’re still afraid.”

Mouse’s eyes snap open. “I’m not afraid of anything.”

“It’s not wrong to be afraid.” Dr. Hernandez’s voice is gentle. “Fear makes us protect ourselves or run away.”

“I don’t run away.”

“I know. But it’s okay if you do.”

“I didn’t run away.” Mouse’s fury is ebbing, her chin quivers. She will not cry.

“But it’s okay,” Dr. Hernandez says again, “if you do.”

That night, Mouse sits at the kitchen table with a pencil, a piece of paper, and a candle. A path of shadows falls across the paper. She draws it, then gets another piece of paper and draws more path, darker path, and on the next a smaller and more etched path of shadows, until the candle drowns in its own wax and she has to go to bed. She dreams her house is burning and everything is light, and she is safe.

~

“You brought me something.” Dr. Hernandez accepts the papers from Mouse’s clenched hands. She flips through them. “Let’s lay them on the floor.”

Mouse kneels and together they organize the papers into a long trail. The old woman surveys them, chin resting in her hand. Her red skirt fans around her, and Mouse only just resists the urge to rub the crinkled cloth between her fingers.

“Shadows,” she finally pronounces. “But I don’t know what they make.”

“It’s a path. To here.”

“To this room?”

Mouse nods.

“Because it’s safe here?”

Mouse pauses, then nods again.

“Will you tell me where it starts sometime?”

Mouse rests in that sometime. She nods.

“Okay. Fiametta’s house burned down, remember? Her father died, and she was being sent away.”

Mouse moves to the couch, Dr. Hernandez to her chair. Shadows stretch between them.

“’Sent away’ meant boarding school. Old musty smells and scratchy blankets and loneliness. In boarding school, Fiametta learned modest fashion and penmanship and manners. She learned to cook and type and balance a checkbook. She also learned to sneak out and smoke and sweet-talk strangers on corners at night and be back under scratchy sheets by the six o’ clock wake-up call.

“Fiametta didn’t burn candles anymore. The dormitory didn’t allow it, and the other girls made fun of her for being afraid of the dark. Instead, Fiametta took her solace from the simmering glow of cigarettes in the dark, from the flare and sizzle when she sucked in, and she held that image close as she tried to fall asleep, plagued by memories of happiness she no longer believed in.

“In the cold nights Fiametta leaned on door frames in bars and smiled at men who reminded her of her father, men with sad eyes and limp wrists and sloping shoulders, who stared at the mirror behind the bar waiting for someone they missed to walk up behind them. And so Fiametta would. She would call the man Joe and touch him like she’d known him a long time, and she would leave him sleeping with a smile on his face, the hollow shadows on his cheeks diminished.

“But each morning Fiametta felt as though the hollowness she’d taken from him had nestled behind her ribs, and she felt a hook there, pulling her out again each night to find another lonely man and offer him her name to call as he wandered empty streets.

“It didn’t help. The cigarette’s flame was not bright enough, the man never warm enough, and Fiametta shivered until her teachers thought she was ill, and she hoped she was dying. They gave her pills to stop the blue in her lips from spreading, and the pills were warm. Dissolved in gin, they were warmer, and injected warmer still.

“Slowly Fiametta forgot about the wakeup call. She forgot about the boarding school, and met in alleyways with other shivering junkies to hover around flaming barrels until they could score enough cash for a fix.

“Fiametta called herself Flame now and belonged to a man named Joe. She was sixteen years old, half-starved, half-dead, lonely and lost.”

~

“Mouse?” Dr. Hernandez whispers. She kneels by the couch and peers at the girl.

Mouse shakes her head from beneath her hood. She’s folded in, hiding in her baggy clothes. “Mouse. Will you tell me what you’re feeling?”

Mouse stifles a sob. “It’s not right.”

“What isn’t?”

“Fiametta didn’t do anything wrong. But everything went wrong anyway and she couldn’t stop it and no one helped her. No one even cared.” Mouse is now sobbing uncontrollably, barely managing words, barely managing breath.

“I know. I know. It wasn’t her fault.”

“Her parents left her!” Mouse roars. “They were supposed to keep her safe and they left her!” She pounds on the arm of the couch with tiny clenched fists.

“Is it? Could her mother have kept from dying? Could her father have stopped being sad?”

“They should have! If they loved me, they would have done anything!”

“Oh, Mouse,” Dr. Hernandez whispers. “Oh, my dear Mouse.” She places a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

They sit there for a long time, the woman with her hand on Mouse’s shoulder, Mouse curled up and crying until her head hurts and she can’t breathe through her nose. She sits up and wipes her face on her sleeve. “You have to finish the story.”

“Are you sure?”

Her nod is resolute, her face firm. Dr. Hernandez sits beside her. “What do you think happens to Fiametta?”

“She runs. She runs as fast as she can. Until she sees a policeman.”

“Are policemen safe?”

“No one is as bad as Joe.” Mouse shakes her head, clenches her fists. “But the policeman won’t help. She’s got crack on her, so she turns herself in. He takes her to jail. She’s safe there.”

“And then?”

Mouse falters.

Dr. Hernandez waits a moment. “Mouse, where does the path lead?”

“To the end of the story.” She fidgets. “Here.”

“What is the end of the story?”

“I don’t know.” Such a small voice.

“You know, Mouse. What happens?”

Silence. That inward folding.

“Mouse? Are you ready to tell me what happened?”

“…yes.”

 

 

Chloe Ackerman hails from the Land of Enchantment but currently resides with her dog in the much rainier (but no less enchanted) Pacific Northwest, where she recently completed a doctorate in clinical psychology. She has edited or contributed to a small number of literary magazines and anthologies and has been published in Mirror Dance. She hopes to one day be both a famous author and a renowned psychologist because she believes in having it all, but she would also be happy with a supply of tea and a tiny house in a forest.

6 thoughts on ““Flame” by Chloe Ackerman

  1. Gripping. I couldn’t help but finish the story. I’m glad I didn’t have to wait weeks between to keep reading, like Mouse.

  2. I became aware of Chloe’s extraordinary and insightful writing potential when she was my student in middle school English. Now, as an accomplished professional, Chloe will continue to be a positive, motivational influence in our world!

  3. Pingback: Interview with Chloe Ackerman | Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal

  4. Oh my, my eyes are leaking damn it. I am so glad not to have had to wait weeks between chapters!

    Beautiful, gifted, never stop…thank you for enticing me from the very first line. Amazing color and detail that I love….