Lullaby on Fire

Submitted into Contest #60 in response to: Write a post-apocalyptic story triggered by climate change.... view prompt

23 comments

Drama Creative Nonfiction

“I don’t understand,” is what he whispers into your ear, his fingers locked into yours. There’s no key for the chest of secrets you’ve created—you know that much already. 

He is the man from your nightmares with eyes that are mood rings. They shine like the stars and their court; today they are black and deep. Reminding you of midnight swims in that pool you used to own. 

You know he understands. He has to. 

Your throat aches and you head into the kitchen. As you pour water and dump an uncountable amount of grounds into the machine, you look at the peeling hummingbird wallpaper that was stuck unevenly over the countertops. It matches your thoughts exactly, you think. But you don’t know why. 

The grind and hum of the machine blends into the background. You run your quavering hands over the windowsill, conscious of the dust tickling your fingertips. The sky is dyed orange today. Not the spring-blossom orange that you love, but rather the unsettling, patternless orange from all those nights sipping wine with your feet on the table, eyes glued to the screen of your phone. 

Perhaps that’s why you don’t drink anymore. 

The machine hums to a stop and silence floods through the kitchen. There’s one last trickle before you take the pot and tip an abundant amount of steaming coffee into a mug. 

You don’t recall asking him if he wanted any, so you set the pot down and stumble back into the living room. He’s not there. You call out his name, whatever it is, and wonder if it’s Greek. It sounds Greek, for sure, with the curly letters and the way his friends mispronounce it all the time. 

Before you can worry about him leaving too soon, you hear a grunt from the next room. You pat over to the ajar door, peering in cautiously. 

He is there, sitting in a rocking chair made of rotting wood, and cradling your baby. 

You inhale sharply. Tripping over your own feet, you reach out for the child and try to take her. It doesn’t work because he jerks the baby away, his mouth just a tiny frown made from curiosity and green tea. 

“I don’t understand,” he mutters, and you can practically see his breath brushing over your baby’s forehead. “Who is this?” 

You blink because you know he understands and you know who the baby is. “Your niece,” you answer, grasping the baby’s wrinkled hand. He twists your forearm until you whine with pain. It feels like skin being stretched in all the wrong places; burning. When he releases you, you support the arm with your other one. 

The baby is awake now, moaning and closing its fingers around his jeweled thumbs and clawing at his throat. He smiles, but you know it takes energy when his lips finally dip back down into a line. “I’m an uncle.” 

“You’re an uncle,” you confirm, and it tastes like the short-lasting love you used to find at bars. Now you find it in coffee shops at five o’clock in the morning with a newspaper shoved in your face to keep strangers from engaging in conversations with you. 

The baby begins to cry, her mouth opening to reveal pink toothless gums. He jumps a little, and for a second you think he’s going to hand her over to you, but he doesn’t. 

With eyebrows creased in frustration, he calls out your name. “Emilie, it’s upset. Do something!” 

You sigh, the breath hissing through your teeth as you suggest he sing her a lullaby. 

His expression is a careful thoughtfulness at first, but it dissolves into thorns the next second. “I can’t sing,” he insists, “but you can.” 

You press your lips together until they are white and lifeless. You don’t want to do what he wants, but you also don’t want you or your daughter hurt. Gulping visibly, you cross your legs on the ground and begin. 

Your lullaby is of the pain from the fires just outside your town. It feels like a peppermint candle melting against your tongue, hot and sticky and reminding you of pine trees ablaze and skin glowing from dried sweat. 

He strokes your baby’s wispy strands of hair with hands formed from clay and marble. They’re cracked from pressure over the years, you observe. 

This next verse of your lullaby sings of the beginning. Where the greenhouse gases got caught in the Earth’s atmosphere and suddenly the sun was hotter than before. That’s how the fires started. 

You wonder if he’s even listening to the lyrics, or if he’s too wrapped up in your baby. You don’t mention her name in the song like you usually do, but you know she doesn’t mind and likes it anyways. 

You fumble with her brightly colored toy blocks as your voice dissolves into the rhythm of her breathing. It’s even and effortless, which tells you that she’s back asleep. What’s also effortless is the way you’ve arranged all the blocks. They spell out your name, Emilie, and his name which must be Greek, and your baby girl’s name which is perfect and raw as it is. 

You knock your baby’s name away before he has the chance to read it. As if reading your mind, he asks, “What’s my niece’s name?” 

You stand and brush nothingness off your leggings. Lifting the baby out of his arms, you plant a quick kiss on her cheek and set her back down into her crib. Flicking the mobile once, the yellowing paper stars are out to dance. You watch for a second. Mesmerized by something so simple. Too bad she’s already asleep. 

You know he knows you ignored him. He’s at the door faster than she could say your daughter’s name. When you walk over to him, knees almost buckling from quivering, he steps aside and you pass into the hallway. He follows you into the kitchen. 

Tapping his nails against the coffee pot, he mumbles, “I don’t understand.” 

You take out another mug from the cabinet because you realize you’ve left your other one in the baby’s room. This mug is decorated with inspirational quotes that you can’t be bothered to read now. 

“What don’t you understand?” you inquire, only allowing half as much coffee to enter the mug as last time. 

“I don’t understand,” he repeats, flickering in and out of sight like a shadow. 

You continue pouring coffee because it’s the only thing that’s grounding you at the moment. He finally fades into the amber afternoon light. 

It’s then you understand. He was going to leave no matter what and he was asking you to join him. You had foolishly decided to stay where you can see the smoke in the air and breathe it in until you can’t anymore. You need to keep your daughter safe, but perhaps it was just you. Perhaps he never actually existed. 

You sip coffee and lean against the counter, peeling the hummingbird wallpaper off piece by piece. You still don’t know why it matches your thoughts, but none of that matters now. 

Far off in the distance, you could hear your baby girl calling out his name, whatever it was. 

September 23, 2020 15:36

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

23 comments

Batool Hussain
17:23 Sep 23, 2020

Oh em jee! I officially declare you as one of my very few favorite writers on Reedsy. This is pure talent. And I mean it. I am, once again in awe. Love this story very, very, very much. I truly do. {I'm still stuck with my story. Hope I get it done soon } :((

Reply

Scout Tahoe
17:52 Sep 23, 2020

Oh em jee right back atchya. This comment made me smile. You’re one of my favorite authors on Reedsy too, Toolie. I wish you the best of luck with your story. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
10:43 Sep 26, 2020

I think this story was marvelous. It has a lot of beautiful words. You have truly grown. I didn't get a few parts. When he asks who the child was, she called the kid his niece. That definitely means the guy is her brother, right? But the start almost makes me believe they are dating or in a sort of complicated relationship. She thinks about the peeling wallpaper and the sound of the coffee machine and you dwell on that but I really wanted to know why she'd be alarmed when she realized he was in the other room with her sleeping child. Why th...

Reply

Scout Tahoe
12:50 Sep 26, 2020

Hey Abigail, thanks for reading and letting me know this was confusing. You might not even read this comment, but honestly, I was trying to get at that the brother was imaginary. Emilie only imagined him because she was split in half. She wanted to get away from the fires, but she also wanted to stay and protect her daughter. She knew in the end she’d just have to stay, and her relatives had stopped caring about her a long time ago, so she imagined her brother to be someone who cared about her and wanted her to leave. This turned out bac...

Reply

13:31 Sep 26, 2020

Oh, now I get it. It's powerful. I like this so much. I'm so sorry if the comment upset you.

Reply

Scout Tahoe
13:35 Sep 26, 2020

Oh, no, it didn’t upset me. I knew it wasn’t unclear, you just shined light on it. It actually taught me a few things and how to write a less confusing story. I don’t think your constructive criticism was harsh at all. Keep writing, A. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Genevieve Taylor
15:49 Sep 23, 2020

Wow Scout! This is incredible. As I've said before, it's so cool to watch your writing style develop and improve with each story. I think you've really hit the mark in this one. I loved the amount of balance between metaphors and regular narration. Fantastic job. Stay safe and keep writing! -Genevieve

Reply

Scout Tahoe
16:01 Sep 23, 2020

Thank you! I’ve really been trying to find a balance.

Reply

Genevieve Taylor
17:48 Sep 23, 2020

Well, you certainly found it here! Again, this was a great story.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Iris Cordova
04:17 Sep 29, 2020

I truly enjoy your style. The hummingbird wallpaper was great. The paragraph where you described how the lullaby was like a melting pepermint candy was one of my favorites. The comparison and image worked well. There were parts where l was a tad confused, but l still liked it. Maube it is just a sign that l should go to bed. Kudos to you for submitting multiple pieces.

Reply

Scout Tahoe
13:55 Sep 29, 2020

Thank you, Iris. (Love your name btw) I don’t think it was the fact that you were tired, believe it or not. Many other people have told me that I need to work on being clearer. Thank you again for stopping by. Would you like me to return the favor and comment on your story? :)

Reply

Iris Cordova
14:58 Sep 29, 2020

Oh, thank you! That would be lovely. Only if you have time though.

Reply

Scout Tahoe
15:07 Sep 29, 2020

Okay! I’ll try and read sometime this week.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Faith Hunter
04:18 Sep 25, 2020

Wow! The title is really good! I liked it a lot. Keep writing. -Faith

Reply

Scout Tahoe
16:01 Sep 25, 2020

Thank you!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
K. Antonio
19:18 Sep 27, 2020

I like the story and the emotions you build. I like the use of metaphors and comparisons. You write in a poetic manner and poetry can often be misunderstood or not understood at all, especially if the reader can't assimilate the interactions or imagine it all too well. Some parts of the story are pure poetry, other parts seem forced and confusing or even a bit distracting. There is an abundance of vocabulary here, but some parts I personally feel do not add anything to the story. 1) "...his mouth just a tiny frown made from curio...

Reply

Scout Tahoe
20:51 Sep 27, 2020

Wow—thank you for the lengthy comment and criticism. I must say, I’m not the proudest of this story, so I understand I could’ve done better. I love descriptions and I overuse them a lot. I’m working on that. If you don’t mind, I’d love to hear which parts actually work so I can write a clearer story next time. Thank you again.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Jamie Schmitt
21:18 Sep 26, 2020

"You sip coffee and lean against the counter, peeling the hummingbird wallpaper off piece by piece. You still don’t know why it matches your thoughts, but none of that matters now. " This is an amazing few lines. This was my favorite part of the piece. Great job!

Reply

Scout Tahoe
00:50 Sep 27, 2020

Thank you so much, Jamie!

Reply

Jamie Schmitt
13:40 Sep 28, 2020

Thank you so much! If you have time, I would love to hear what you think of my writing! Thanks!

Reply

Scout Tahoe
14:58 Sep 28, 2020

Of course! I’ll stop by when I can!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Mia S
00:32 Sep 25, 2020

I loved how mysterious this was and how it made me want to read more. All your stories are amazing, and I envy your writing style. Awesome job :)

Reply

Scout Tahoe
00:32 Sep 25, 2020

Thank you so much, Mia!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.