The Red Lighter

The silence of the room prickled my skin like chigger bites on a summer night. It’s a real wonder I managed to stay here as long as I did. Time and again, the teddy bear pictures on the wall had creeped their way into my dreams. Today, their lopsided gaze warned me to get a move on. The air, a mingling of disinfectant and foul cat litter, prodded me with its sharp fingers. Even the sticky tips of the shag carpet pointed to the door, like swords raised towards sanctuary.

But I did take pause when I remembered the jewelry box on the bureau. Not because I had anything of value inside. No jewelry other than braided friendship bracelets and gumball-machine rings. It was that stupid red, disposable lighter I knew was resting on pillowed silk that made my chest grow tight. I cracked my knuckles one at a time before lifting the lid.

The red lighter felt familiar in my hand. More pink than red now, from all the rubbing I’d done on it.  I flicked uselessly at the metal wheel that hadn’t sparked in years.

The day Daddy left, I had snatched it up from the table. It was an idiotic idea; just the kind of naive plan a nine-year-old concocts. As if Daddy would have ever stayed behind just because his cheap bic lighter was missing. It did buy me about five minutes, though it was five minutes of him cussing and throwing stuff around the trailer. All the while, I stood there watching Mama. And Mama stood there watching Loreen.  Loreen from the truck stop. The way she put on airs, you might have thought her to be worldly. Unless you noticed how she tugged up her tube top and chipped at her nails.

Daddy made out like Loreen hung the moon, the way he went on about her. After he took up with her, it was like we didn’t even exist any more. And so when he gave up hunting around for the lighter that day, I knew that was the last I’d ever see of him. But I gave it one last shot. “Daddy,” I clung to him. “Don’t leave.”

“Let go now, Sugar.” He peeled me off with his hard hands.

Through the screen door mesh, I watched him drive away, his single tail light growing faint. Mama held a Kool to her lips and opened her palm to me. I lay the red lighter there on her hand, and she lit up, took a drag, and breathed out a sigh of smoke into the night.

Now here I was, leaving. Mama didn’t want to be here to see me off. Said it would be too much for her. But I knew that wasn’t true.

I dragged my suitcase, thump, thump, thump down the old steps. I pulled the lighter from my pocket and held it up to the sun, the plastic so thin now I could almost see through it. Then I let it fall. With a single stomp, it shattered into tiny bits. I kicked at the gravel until the pink shards were buried. After a moment, I yanked up the suitcase. And just like Daddy, I was gone.



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