Burn by Chloe Chun Seim

Jun 26, 2022 | Bubbler

Saturday morning. Hours before you’re due for your sister’s college volleyball game, before either you or your mother shuffle out of bed and greet the mildew and cigarette smoke layering your apartment. The doorbell comes to you first as a wren’s warble in your dream and, when you wake, a threat. Neither you or your mother are the kind to answer the door. Your sister always the one to do it, and she is so far away from you now, so it rings and it rings until finally you’re sitting on the mattress, heart booming. Your mother opens the door.

You’ve never heard a sound like the one she makes then.

A fall. Onto the couch. Over the dog. Down the long, nail-lined stairs of the farmhouse. Your father making sounds like you’ve never heard before. Small and closed in at the throat and echoing throughout your young life. Your mother doesn’t catch him, never quiets his cries. It takes twelve years and a trip to rehab for her to pack you and your sister up, steal you from the country and force you to live in a cramped apartment she can’t afford.

Seven years pass and all that time the wick burns.

It ends with a lie. Your mother wailing for five minutes before she drags herself to your door and asks you to come to the living room. The presence of a police officer no longer surprises you. He doesn’t look at you. He doesn’t move from his spot by the door. When he leaves, your mother says she first assumed it was your sister dead and ushering a policeman to your door. That’s why she screamed the way she did, she says. A lie.

You decide, the both of you, that your sister should play her game before you tell her, but it’s your mother who tells your friend’s mother who makes a sound you’ve heard a million times before. A gasp-sigh. An I’m-sorry-this-happened-but-we-both-knew-this-was-coming. Little consolation.

A crash. Four-wheeler into a bramble of thorny bushes. Into a ditch. Your father stepping into the farmhouse, blood carving a line from his ears to his collarbones, hands ghostly still, the skin of one eye, paper-thin, torn and resting on his cheek. The roundness of his eye you’ve never seen before. 

It begins with healing a body never free of pain.

A whimper. A loud noise. A trip down the stairs. His head against the concrete, which has never been kind to any of you. As you watch your sister spike the ball, jump up, up, up, higher than you’ve ever seen before, you wonder if she knows somehow. Already, a weight has lifted from her body. 

This was coming. You remember the times you’d hoped it would. Your sister, smacking high-fives all around as she scores the final point, has a look of triumph on her face. You hope that look can return after today. Next month. Next year. Time is a lit match and you, all of you, will be burned.

Chloe Chun Seim is a writer living in Lawrence, Kansas. Her work appears in LitMagNorth American ReviewYemasseeHobartPotomac Review, and other places. She holds an MFA from the University of Missouri- Kansas City, and her short story collection, Churn, was named a finalist for the 2020 St. Lawrence Book Award and 2021 Hudson Prize. She is the winner of the 2021 Anton Chekov Flash Fiction Award from LitMag.