If Dahlia Rutledge has ever been one thing, it is practical. She knows this to be true. After all, isn’t that what it said on the kindergarten graduation certificate her teachers gave her? Most practical. “And rightfully bestowed,” her mother had said.
Dahlia is not one to believe in something where sense cannot be found. Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny can all attest to this. Though her mother tried, Dahlia would not be convinced. “The world is too big for one man to fly to every house in one night.” Hands on her hips and head titled to the side, she challenged her mother to say otherwise.
“You aren’t considering the different time zones. He’s real, Dahlia,” her brother said in an effort to convince her. “Plus, he has magic.”
“Magic isn’t real, David.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it isn’t.”
Of course, her mother tried to change her mind on matter. She showed Dahlia videos of Santa being “caught,” she made sleigh tracks on their roof, and one Christmas she went as far as paying for a reindeer, acting as if it couldn’t find its way home to the North Pole. It was futile. “It’s a reindeer, Mama. Just a reindeer.” In the end, it was easier to admit that Santa Claus was in fact, not real. “Dahlia, tell me,” Her mother said one Christmas after she tucked her into bed. “How did you decide Santa wasn’t real?” She did not have to think before she answered. “It is just not practical for him to be real.”
Dahlia’s practicality is something she takes great pride in. In fact, she was being practical right now. She was laying on her belly, coloring in her bedroom. The only light was coming from the lamp she moved onto the floor. Her coloring sheet is titled: Make It Your Own, but if she is to make it her own, “I ought to make it right.” And so, the sky is still colored blue, the grass is still colored green, and the squirrel -the main focus of the picture- is colored with a mixture of browns, yellows, and whites, “to make it realistic.”
It is coming together nicely, the picture, and she decides that if she was to hold up the blue of her colored sky to the blue of the real sky, there would be no difference in color. She smiles to herself, pleased at the thought.
The smells of dinner begin to rise up from the kitchen and into her bedroom through the open door. What is it? She takes in a deep breath in through her nose. Garlic. It is a familiar scent, but one that she has not had the pleasure of smelling in a long time. Mom never makes spaghetti. She thinks this as she selects a light pink colored pencil – the picture is too plain and is in need of some flowers. Dahlia taps the pencil on her chin. Where to put them? The bottom left corner? No, the squirrel is slightly off centered and placing the flowers on the left would look too crowded. The bottom right corner makes much more sense.
The pencil connects with paper ready to draw, but wait –what is going on with the light? Dahlia retracts her pencil, confusion coming over her features as shadows and light take turns dancing across the picture. She looks up at the lamp. She sighs. “Not again.” The light flickers in response.
On more than one occasion, Dahlia petitioned her mother to buy a new lamp and dispose of this one. “It’s perfectly fine.” It was not perfectly fine. The lamp is old. Older than Dahlia. It hums when it is turned on, a testament to its age. The paint on its body is chipping and it is missing its shade. It might of had one before, but as far as anyone knows, it never did. “Mama, it’s broken.” Her mother seemed to consider this, but then – “Just a bad bulb. Best put a new one in.”
The thing was, Dahlia had put a new bulb in. She did so before going to her mother with this complaint. In fact, she had put several in. The flickering continued. It was not the bulb. Something was wrong with the lamp itself. Maybe faulty wiring, maybe the light socket was bent out of place, or maybe it was just too old. Whatever the reason, her mother could not be persuaded that the lamp needed to be replaced. Understanding her refusal to budge, Dahlia no longer brought the matter of the flickering light to her mother’s attention. For what is the sense in continuing an argument you are destined to lose?
Dahlia sat up, suddenly frustrated with at the flickering light, at the hum of lamp, and at her mother with her insisting that the lamp was fine. “It is not fine and it needs to go.” Dahlia grabbed hold of the cord and yanked it from its plug. With the hum of the lamp now gone, a powerful silence came over the room, one she was not expecting. Dahlia stood there in the shadows staring at the cord in her hand. She thought she would feel satisfied, ripping the cord out like she did, but instead she suddenly felt very alone in her dark and silent room. Plug it back in. She wanted to, even made a move in the direction of the plug, but her practicality was taking over and would not be ignored.
Rather than plugging it back in, she picked up the lamp and turned in the direction of her trashcan. She was ready to drop the lamp in the trash, ready to hear the thump of a heavy object hitting plastic when her brother’s voice stopped her.
“What are you doing?” His voice was sharp, alarm laced through it. Dahlia jumped; she had not heard him come in. David stalked towards her and took the lamp. “Tell me you were not about to throw this away.” He plugged the lamp back in. Flickering light and humming returned and Dahlia's shoulders seemed to relax because of it.
“It’s broken.” David shakes his head. “No, it isn’t.”
“David, look at it.” They both looked. The flickering light casted deep shadows across their faces. “You don’t understand.” David’s voice drops to a whisper as he stares at the lamp. “He’s in there.”
Dahlia watches as David stares into the light as if he is hypnotized. He nods to himself and repeats “He’s in there.” She rolls her eyes. She is used to David spinning stories to mess with her head, it is one of his favorite hobbies. She recalls his most recent tale – “If you poke someone’s bellybutton, their arms and legs pop right off their body.” She responded by poking his bellybutton and when nothing happened, she walked away.
“What are you talking about?” He looks at her like he forgot she was there. “Dad,” he stresses the word. Dahlia crosses her arms. “Really?” she looks at him incredulously. Out of all the things he had told her, this might to be the most ridiculous, and the bellybutton thing was very ridiculous.
“I’m not five anymore, David.”
“Exactly, you’re six which is why I can tell you this now.”
Dahlia walked away. “Where are you going?” David followed her into the hallway. “Mom told me to walk away from you when you’re being annoying.” He seized her wrist, “Listen to me.” She yanks her wrist back, “Dad isn’t in the lamp.” She says annoyed. “He is. You don’t understand because you weren’t born yet.”
Dahlia opens her mouth to say otherwise but then closes it, thinking. David is right in some respect. Not about the lamp, but about not being born yet. She never met her father. He left before she was born, and despite the hundreds of questions she has asked her mother about him, she still knows next to nothing. David was instructed to keep quiet on the topic. “Just know he is better off gone.” Both her mother and David answer this way when she asks questions about him. But here is David ready to offer her something about him. Surely, she will have to pick apart David’s story, decide what is true and what is not. Nothing will be true. He just said dad was inside the lamp. “Do I have your attention?” Before Dahlia can answer David has hold of her wrist again and is pulling her back into her bedroom.
David takes a seat on the floor beside the lamp. Dahlia sits opposite of him, the lamp is in the middle of them. “It was about three months before you were born.” As soon as David says the words, the flickering stops. Dahlia eyes dart to the light. What was that? It’s as if the lamp is standing at attention, ready to listen. David’s smile is mischievous. “Looks like dad wants to hear the story, too.” A chill runs down Dahlia’s spine as she tries to make sense of what just happened.
David stares into the light, his face illuminated. “About three months before you were born,” he starts again. “Dad came home from work. Mom was cooking dinner and he came up behind her, wrapped his arms around her belly, kissed her cheek. You know, married people stuff.” Dahlia nods, completely understanding. “Anyway, they stood there like that for a bit. But after a while mom asked dad what the smell on him was. He said he didn’t know, but mom turned and smelled his shirt and then they started yelling and screaming at each other.”
“About what? What did she smell?” Dahlia was eager to know as this is the first story she is hearing about her father. David holds up a hand to silence her. “Apparently, he came home smelling like another woman. Now, no questions until the end.” he scolds her. “Mom kept yelling “How could you do this to me!” over and over again. She was throwing things at him,” David grabs at the air and throws his fists, demonstrating. “Just grabbing them off the counter and chucking them. Dad was trying to get away from her, shielding his face from getting hit.”
Dahlia thinks she can picture it – mom throwing things at her father, chasing him all throughout the house yelling, her father trying to block the blows being delivered to him. “Mom screamed “I want you out!” and then just like that,” David claps his hands and then throws his arms out wide as if he was performing a magic trick, “he disappeared.” David nods at her, his way of confirming what he just said. “Mom took off upstairs crying and the next think I know, this lamp” he points to it, “starts flickering.”
There have only been a handful of times when Dahlia has seen David as serious as he is now, and she doesn’t like the feeling it brings to her. David is all about fun and games. He can’t help but crack a smile at the most inappropriate times. For heaven’s sake, this is the same David that laughed at their aunt’s funeral. Dahlia watches his face closely, trying to find that easy going persona in the stone cold look on his face.
“I know. I know. Sounds unbelievable. I didn’t believe myself at first, but then I started noticing things.” He slowly leans forward until his nose is only inches from the light. “What things?” Why is she asking? She doesn’t really believe what her brother is saying. Does she?
David’s eyes flash to hers and she is taken back by how wild they look. It scares her, seeing her brother like this, and she’s not so sure if she wants to hear the end of the story. “Well,” he says moving his face from the lamp light, “say there was a show on that dad used to watch, the light would start to flicker. The cooking of his favorite dinner, it would flicker. Any mention of his name, it flickered. Anything that has to do with dad, the light is going to flicker, and you know why? Because he’s trapped inside.” David taps the lamp. “He’s been stuck in there for years. No way of getting out. The flickering is his way of trying to communicate with us.”
“Do you expect me to believe that?” Dahlia asks. David shrugs. “Think about it this way, why else would mom hold onto the lamp?” She considers this. It is true Dahlia has no idea why her mom will not throw the lamp out. “You’ve told her yourself to get rid of it. Haven’t you?” She looks at him, eyebrows furrowing. She has, several times. But people don’t get trapped in lamps. “She won’t because dad is inside there.”
David stands up, “I know you don’t believe me, but I thought it was time you knew. Anyway, mom told me to tell you it’s time for dinner.” He walks towards the door. “We are having spaghetti.” The light starts to flicker. Dahlia’s head snaps in the direction of the lamp. That’s not possible. The cooking of his favorite dinner. Her stomach dropped. David's smile looks wicked in the flickering light. “Dad’s favorite, don't you know.”
Dahlia spent the rest of the evening in deep thought, turning David’s words over and over in her mind. He made it up. She is sure of this, but – did she not see the light flicker at the mention of dad’s name? At the mention of his favorite dinner? It’s not logical, she thinks to herself. People do not get trapped in lamps. She wanted to ask her mother, and she would have if David didn’t swear her to secrecy before they went down to dinner. “You don’t want mom finding out we know what happened to dad.” Until that moment, her mother was the person she went to whenever she needed anything explained. Now, she had to rely on David, and she wasn’t so sure she wanted to talk to him about it anymore.
When bedtime came, David slipped into her room, “Just saying goodnight to Dad.” He made a show of talking to the lamp, hugging it, and even placed a kiss on the body of it. “Make sure you say goodnight to him, too,” and then he slipped back out.
Dahlia wasn’t sure how long she stared at the light, watching it flicker, stop, and then flicker again. She felt silly even considering that David’s story could be real. It wasn’t like her. She was a practical sort of girl, one that shouldn’t have thought twice about the tale. But she did and she was. What if – no, no.
If it was real, however, Dahlia would have a chance to talk to her father. She thought as much as her fingers began to twitch. She wanted to reach out and touch the lamp, hold it. She sat on her hands to stop the feeling.
The light flickered again. He wants to talk to me. She shakes her head. Stop it, Dahlia. You have more sense than this. But she couldn’t stop. As sensible and practical as she may be, she was still just a six-year-old girl who wanted a chance to talk to her father. Before she could stop herself, her hands were on the body of the lamp and her arms were swinging it full force into the wall, and POP– the light bulb exploded as it collided with the wall.
Her room went dark. “Dahlia!” No. It’s not possible. Her pulse begins to quicken. No. No, it can’t be. “Dahlia!” she looks at the lamp in her hands, turning it over. “Dad?” “Dahlia!” there is a roaring in her ears. “Dad!” David wasn’t lying. Dad is really in here, He’s –her door opens to reveal her mother, wild eyed as she takes in the scene before her. “What is going on?” she asks breathlessly. David appears behind her seconds later. Dahlia’s eyes look to her mother, then to her brother, and then finally to the body of the lamp in her hands, broken into pieces. The roaring ceases in her ears and she can feel herself turning red. “I thought –” David laughs and shame overwhelms her.
After explaining what happened Dahlia sits on her bed and watches as her mother cleans up broken pieces of glass from the floor. Dahlia’s eyes are glued to the trashcan where the busted lamp sits. “I don’t understand.” Her mother shakes her head. “It isn’t like you to believe David’s stories.” “He made it sound real.” Dahlia mumbles back. Her mother picks up the final pieces of glass and takes a seat on the edge of the bed. “Well, I hope you learned something from this.” Dahlia nods. I will never listen to David again. Her mother sighs. “Try to sleep. I’ll get you a new lamp from the attic.”
Dahlia tucked herself into bed and was drifting off by the time her mother arrived with the new lamp. She plugged it in and switched it on, lighting up the room in a soft glow. Dahlia’s mother placed a kiss on her forehead then exited the room, shutting the door behind her.
Dahlia opened her heavy eyes and studied the new lamp. This one has a shade and it doesn’t hum. It looks brand new and she wonders how long her mother has had it. She stares at it a while longer waiting for it to flicker. When it doesn’t, she closes her eyes again. She takes in a deep breath and feeling a little silly, she whispers, “Goodnight dad.” It is an utterly senseless and illogical thing to say, especially given the earlier events. She isn’t quite sure why she said it, maybe she isn’t as practical as her kindergarten teachers believed her to be, but it felt right to say it.
It wasn’t until her breathing evened out, a sure sign one has fallen asleep, that the lamp flickered in response.