Slouching against the cool of a scooped-out plastic chair I let my eyesight loosen. The somnambulant contour of the hallway, the quiet hospital hallway, clouded around me.
"He's always been fond of fire," I said.
"He played with it."
"The bonfires? The things we saw burnt in your woodshed?"
"Poking twigs into ash. Wilting grass over flames, letting heat lick up the husks of a cornstalk until his fingers could hold it no more."
"He's been a quiet child."
My son. I could hear him moaning in the room behind me. Fever. We had tried ice. We'd filled the bathtub, one of us holding each arm, slipping his long white legs into scattering cubes. We fed him soup. We gave him bread, saltines, bananas, anything white. I gave him bread. White foods. Isn't that what they say—bland foods for a fever? The man beside me, Sam, my neighbor, our neighbor, he had been too kind, too patient. I had asked so much of him. Already I had asked too much. I owed him an explanation. Something. Anything.
"I caught him holding a coal once, a live coal. He'd woken before me, beaten me downstairs. In his pajamas, blue-spotted, he stood in the center of our living room, three full steps from the hearth. I thought I'd scattered the coals well enough before I went to sleep that night, late, having tucked him in, having said goodnight, having settled down myself for a long and comfortable read. I thought there would be no harm in my sleeping late. I thought he would wake and watch tv, Saturday cartoons. I thought he'd be more like a normal child, if only I acted more like a father. I thought the fire was out."
"That ember was still hot?"
"And he held it?"
"Until I came downstairs and scared him. He dropped it then. He dropped it and it burnt through our carpet to scar the wood beneath. An expensive carpet."
"His hand, though: what about his hand?"
"He never showed me. He wouldn't show me. He refused."
"At seven years of age, a child could refuse his own dad? Didn't you force him? Didn't you make him show you? Didn't you treat him?"
"He's stubborn. He wrapped it himself. But he never complained. Never asked to have medicine. Never stole into the cupboard for salve. And the bandages he used stayed white and clean, the gauze fresh, sterile. Just like he had never been singed or scarred or burnt. I watched. I watched that hand across the table at breakfast, at dinner, when I dropped him at school."
"The boy needs a mother."
"I do my best."
"A father isn't the same, Dave. It's love he needs. Boys compete too much with their fathers. A mother's love, that's the thing . . . "
"He's worse whenever I try to bring a woman home. You've seen it."
"I try not to look. I put that fence up between your place and mine just for that very reason. And to keep him out. I'm sorry about that, Dave. I'm sorry. I was just afraid . . . "
"He's different. But he means no harm."
"My barn. My shed. The outbuildings."
"We paid you."
"But what's next? The house? The chickens? The dog? My own children are grown, thank heavens, and I feel for you, out here in the lonesome. You and that child. He needs a mother. He needs other children. You should move back to town."
Sam—my friend, my neighbor, still in his work clothes, still in his denim overalls— sighed, stood, and ran his hand through thin gray hair. I reached for his shoulder, meaning it to be a manly embrace, a clutch, meaning only to keep him with me in the silence of the empty corridor. But I missed. I had forgotten to stand. I stayed rooted with my shirt rising up along my back, untucked, the cool plastic seat pressed against bare and clammy skin.
So my hand touched my neighbor's hand. I grabbed him. I pulled him closer, almost crying. "He's burning up. I don't know what to do."
"I don't know what to tell you, Dave."
"Will he be alright?"
Sam looked into my eyes. With the slightest inclination of his head, he seemed to say 'yes.' He seemed to agree with me, with my hope, my need. It's not possible to lose a son, not so soon after a mother. It's not possible and it's not right. It's not fair.
"Sam . . . " I said.
But Sam turned, then, and left, his heavy boots flaking mud with each footfall along the long and spartan hallway.
I took my lighter from my pocket, flicked it, and watched the flame dance against the waxed background of the glimmering floor, reflecting its light in a myriad prism of vacant black windows, rectangular black windows. Night had fallen. I shivered in the empty cold, a shiver that ran from my feet up to the cupped crucible of my hand. The flame licked my skin. The tip of the heat guttered against the cuff of my shirt, catching it, burning it, turning the pearl button black.
The moaning in the room behind me stopped then, for that instant, that moment, until I could take the heat no longer, until I could no longer bear the pain of the fire against my skin. The moaning stopped, a mercy, a father's choice, a mercy, a mercy, O.