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Smoke, Ash, and Whatever Comes After

There’s nothing special about the bureau. It’s waist-high, has four drawers with round knobs for handles, and is painted a cheery yellow. Peter painted the bureau three years ago, smothering the earlier blue coat with a color of his daughter Tracy’s choosing. Ursula used stencils to add flowers, each composed of blade-like leaves and a stem that supports a many-petalled bloom.

“It bit me,” Tracy says. She extends her hand as a reminder, palm exposed to display the ragged wound. A protruding staple had snagged her flesh and drawn blood. Further discussion revealed a history of antagonism. Pinched fingers. Corners that cracked her temple. A bare toe stubbed, purple and painful to the touch for weeks afterward. A brutal litany that extended back further and further the more Peter probed.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” Peter says. He hefts the sledgehammer he dragged up from the basement.

“My things,” Tracy cries.

And so, before the demolition can begin, there’s the removal of drawers from the bureau, the upending of the drawers on the bed, the returning of the empty drawers to the bureau, and the taking stock of the items disgorged from the drawers. Tracy performs this duty while seated cross-legged on her bedspread, brow furrowed in concentration, lower lip protruding. She focuses on several purses taken from one of the upper drawers, popping these open and inventorying their contents.

Peter pokes half-heartedly at the piles of clothing. These are wadded and wrinkled, and exude the musty smell of old pinewood and dryer sheets. Peter pulls at a small shirt that seems familiar—the PRIN of PRINCESS and a sparkly crown perched on the letter P—there’s a photo on the refrigerator of Tracy wearing it at a birthday party. The shirt is tangled with its neighbors and, when he pulls on it, drags other clothing along.

Peter slaps the whole mess against the bed but it refuses to come apart. He feels a wave of revulsion as if he has performed this action on Tracy herself. It isn’t just that it’s her shirt and that he has abused it—an overzealous tug on Tracy’s arm comes to mind, his stomach lurching at the memory—it’s because the tangle of clothing approximates the shape of a child. He holds one arm, but there’s another arm composed of purple tights, and a central trunk and two additional limbs. These are distorted, bulging in some places as if sick with cancerous tumors, slack elsewhere as if missing joints.

Most disturbing is the thing’s head. This is what convinces Peter that the bodily shape is no accident. The head is abnormally small, a knotted sock, ripped and teased apart at the top so that it forms a tangle of whitish hair. There’s real hair also, of the sort you find in corners furred with dust. The head possesses no obvious facial features but, when glimpsed out of the corner of his eye, the wrinkled fabric appears disconcertingly human in its expressiveness.

“Where did this come from?” Peter shakes the floppy thing in front of Tracy. It is almost as big as Tracy herself.

Tracy sets her pink purse down. “I made her.”

“You made it?”

“A long time ago.” She frowns. “I was a lot younger then.”

“Three years ago?” Peter is sure of this number. That is a long as they have owned the house, have owned the bureau.

Tracy shrugs.

The thing in his hand is malformed, abandoned, and it inspires a sorrow in Peter that borders on guilt. He picks at one of its knots. Threads stretch and break. It’s as if the fabric has grown together, the connecting threads as thin, taut, and alien as spider silk. “You made her?”

“I wanted a baby sister.”

Tracy’s words penetrate Peter’s brain like needles, memories stitched in pain. Ursula had gotten pregnant the year after Tracy was born but they had opted for an abortion. The timing hadn’t been right. Peter remembers the arguments, the reminders of his unemployment, and of his fatalistic acceptance of a logic so absolute it seemed demonic, as if he were a wooden puppet forced to dance in flames. Tracy is too young to know about the abortion, of that Peter is almost sure.

“Are you okay?” Tracy asks. This is currently her favorite phrase and she uses it with a frequency that divorces it of meaning.

“Do you still want your doll?” he says. He wants her to say yes.

She shakes her head. “It’s stupid.”

Peter sets the doll down. It disappears chameleon-like into the piles of colored fabric.

Tracy returns to her investigation of the purses. “Did we get everything from the drawers?”

“I think so.”

“I can’t find my earrings.”

They recheck each of the drawers for the pair of pink plastic clip-on earrings that Tracy describes. The earrings are flower-like with five petals each. The longer they search for the earrings, the more often Tracy describes them. In some ways Tracy is very much like her mother.

“I’m sure they’re not here,” Peter says. He removes a drawer and holds it at the level of Tracy’s waist so that she can see how empty it is.

“Maybe I left them at Marcie’s.”

“Marcie’s?” The name doesn’t ring a bell.

“From when we had the sleepover.”

“We can get you some new ones.”

“They were my favorites.”

“Do you still want to destroy the bureau?” Speaking these words, Peter realizes that it is he most of all who wants to destroy the bureau, as if its destruction can wipe out the past. Ursula has gone shopping and Peter knows, if she were here, she would propose an alternative to its destruction.

Tracy’s brow furrows once again. Her hatred is pure and unashamed, Peter’s merely a corollary to hers. Watching her emotions take visible form, wriggling like worms beneath her skin, Peter realizes that only children can feel such emotion, and only children can inspire such emotional extremes in adults. “Let’s kill it,” she says.

“We have to burn it,” Tracy says. She is dwarfed by the shattered remains of the bureau. In the end it was easy, dishearteningly so. The bureau threw itself on their mercy but they had no mercy, Tracy least of all. She pulverized its wooden bones with her hammer. She pried joints loose, yanked screws, and danced on the products of her demolition, drunk with joy.

“Burn it?” Theirs is an old house and there are fireplaces on the first and second floors. Three years earlier, on a cold and blustery autumn evening, Peter and Ursula had poured glasses of Pinot Noir and lighted an inaugural fire in the living room. The romance lasted all of fifteen minutes, just long enough for them to smell the smoke that trickled down the stairwell, courtesy of the second floor fireplace. By the time they had the fire drenched, the second floor had become chokingly, teary-eyed full of smoke, the sheets and curtains ruined. They hadn’t had a fire since.

“Burn it, please.”

Peter and Tracy pile the broken wood onto a blanket and drag it down the hallway and into the master bedroom. The second floor fireplace vents directly to the outdoors and so, unlike the living room fireplace, shouldn’t pose a problem. Peter had tried this logic on Ursula but she would have none of it. A recent expert on fire-codes, courtesy of the Internet, Ursula said that just because it was acceptable a century ago didn’t mean that it was ever safe.

Peter arranges fragments of the bureau into a teepee on the fireplace bricks. A piece slides and his structure collapses. He tries again and fails, and again. Rubbing alcohol and newspaper do the trick and the sodden mass erupts into flame. The smoke, sweet and stinging, hovers as if unsure of which direction to pursue and then, following Peter’s urging, slides up the chimney. He turns to gather more kindling and almost knocks Tracy over. “We learned about these in Sunday school,” she says. She traces an image among the leafy curlicues on the fireplace surround, a creature winged but so stylized that Peter cannot tell if it represents a bird, an angel, or a demon.

“That’s nice,” he says.

The fire takes hold and Peter feeds it additional remnants from the bureau. The cheery coat of paint on a board blackens and blisters and the flames eat away at the wood. The fireplace exhales warmth. “How do you like your fire?” he asks Tracy.

She raises her palms to the heat. “I’ll be right back,” she says. She scampers from the master bedroom and Peter hears her feet patter down the hallway. He adds more wood and pokes at the fire with one of the bureau’s legs, sending sparks up the chimney. Tracy returns dragging the wretched bundle of clothing, her doll. “You forgot this,” she says. She thrusts the thing’s limp arm toward him.

He freezes, heart hammering, unsure why he feels so taken off guard. The bureau leg quivers in his hand. He returns his attention to the fire and pushes wood near the front toward the hotter interior. He carefully flips a broken section of drawer up to lean into the flames. Tracy has still not retracted her doll. He taps the bureau leg against the brick flooring. “What do you want to do with that?”

“Burn it.”

“But you made it. As a sister.” His voice catches in his throat.

“It’s nothing.” She shakes the thing and its knotted limbs flop about, vagrant of purpose. “I don’t want it anymore.”

“You may sometime, when you get older and want to remember what you were like as a girl.”

She glowers. “It’s stupid,” she says, the same argument she used before and to which there is no rebuttal. She gathers the clothing together and, before Peter comprehends her intent, tosses it into the fire.

For a moment all he can do is stare at her, not believing how readily she has consigned this part of herself to the flames. “No,” he cries, his heart rent.

“I told you I don’t want it.”

His vision blurs. Tracy says, “Are you okay?” He doesn’t answer. He turns from his half-crouch, fearful of what he will find among the flames. The doll writhes, its loose limbs afire, cloth fluttering like wings. Peter catches a glimpse of the thing’s wrinkled face, its features now all too human. Its hair flares in an eruption of hungry oxidation and he gags at the stench. The thing’s hopeless eyes stare at him, holes in a burning face.

The fabric gives up its shape among the flames. Bones poke through the combustion, ghostly and small, like baby’s bones. But they aren’t baby’s bones. Some are the size of bird bones, as if from a chicken or a crow, others thin and fragile as those of a mouse. There are also teeth and these disturb Peter more than the bones do. Some of the teeth are canine-sharp, others blunt as molars, perhaps from a raccoon. He throws the bureau leg into the fire, sending the teeth and bones skittering into the ash.

“Tracy,” he says. His voice carries a suitable Gregory Peck-like intonation, a father who understands the innocence of childhood but who still demands answers.

No answer.


He rises, rubs knots from his calves. When and where has she disappeared? He has a vague recollection, while he was distracted with the fire, of her saying she is going downstairs to make a sandwich. Maybe that was from another time. He limps to the doorway of the master bedroom, his left leg numb and now tingling from holding position so long. He calls again, “Tracy.”

He shuffles down the hallway, checks Tracy’s bedroom. The bed is jumbled with her clothes and he has the impression that she is lying there, as invisible among the clothing as her doll had been before. “Tracy, are you here?” he says. He upends the piles of clothing. He drops to his knees and peers into the darkness under her bed. This was Tracy’s favorite hiding spot a year ago, one she retreated to whenever punished, scooting as far back as possible, out of reach in the dark, silent and pouting. “Tracy?” He waves his arm underneath, bats something soft. He sneezes. It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim-lit space. There is nothing but a few balled-up socks and board games. The dust is undisturbed except where he has raked his sleeve, something he should have noticed right away.

He stands, calls again, “Tracy.” His voice echoes. Her bedroom seems larger, almost foreign now that the bureau is gone. He can see its silhouette on the wallpaper, the colors brighter where the bureau has stood than the surrounding area which, sun-bleached, retreats ghostlike from its imprint.

Peter checks the bathroom, although its open door already announces Tracy’s absence, and the spare bedroom, then hurries downstairs. The kitchen is empty. There is none of the mess Tracy would have left if making a sandwich. No plastic bag, bread slices disgorged, crumbs and a twist-tie on the counter, no jars of peanut butter, of jelly, no stickily gobbed knife. “Are you hiding? If so, it isn’t funny. Please.” Peter’s voice sounds too angry. “I’m sorry. You’re scaring me. You don’t like to be scared and neither do I.” He pauses, breath held, alert for any sign of her presence. Little creaks, a passing car, the smell of smoke, a spiciness to its scent, his fingers pressed against the counter. It’s funny how seldom you notice the feel of things, like fingers, normally only doing so when touch turns to pain. “Tracy?”

Up until this point, Peter has imagined Tracy’s absence but not truly believed in it, feeling that they have embarked on an elaborate game of Hide-and-Seek. Now he’s scared. Ursula bought him a wristwatch for his birthday. It’s heavy and awkward, but he wears it because it was a gift and because she made the effort. How much longer until Ursula returns home? He has to find Tracy before she returns.

Tracy is not in the house. The front door is ajar, but he can’t remember if that’s how he left it earlier. “Tracy,” he calls. He scans their front yard, the neighboring yards, a momentary eye contact and he waves in response to their neighbor Charlie as if it’s an ordinary day. “Tracy.” He can’t bring himself to bellow her name, afraid that will broadcast his inadequacy to the neighborhood. “Tracy.” He bellows her name anyway. His neighbor Charlie stares but says nothing.

He jogs along the flagstones from the front door to the driveway, and from the driveway to the street. He wipes sweat from his brow, his temples. He turns in a circle, shielding his eyes against sun glare. “Tracy.” There’s a maple at the end of their driveway, the leaves red but clinging to the branches. Autumn arrives later each year. The air is sickly warm. “Tracy.” He jogs along the sidewalk. “Tracy.” There’s no reason to run, no destination, but he has to keep moving.

Two blocks away is an undeveloped strip of land that runs perpendicular to the sidewalk. Bordered by young trees, it has something to do with the sewer lines, a touch of wildness that extends fingerlike into their neighborhood. The leaves have turned yellow and the uncut grass has also turned yellow and loosed its seed. People walk dogs here and a path has been beaten by their passage. This is one of Tracy’s favorite places and maybe he subconsciously chose this route because of that. She could be hidden among the trees or sprawled among the weeds. He cups his hands and calls into the emptiness. “Tracy.”

Peter remembers how, soon after Ursula and he bought their house, Tracy found a dead cat in the grass and, pulling at his hand, brought him over to see it. The corpse was desiccated, jaws locked into the snarl it had bared at the car that killed it. Peter wrapped his hand in a plastic bag and pulled the corpse loose from the grip of secretion-bound grass. The body with its cardboard-stiff fur released a stench so strong it stung his eyes. They held a funeral, mostly for Tracy’s benefit, burying the cat in the strip of flower garden that bordered their yard. Peter thinks of Tracy’s doll and of the sequestered bones and teeth, a child’s magic visited on her mimicry of a sister. He wonders, were he to return to that garden grave with a spade, would he unearth the cat’s remains or find nothing no matter how deeply he dug.


A honk.

Peter whirls. A Toyota in the far lane, Ursula’s Toyota, has slowed. She has returned from her shopping trip. Ursula rolls her window down. “Hey sailor,” she says. Unlike most of their women friends, Ursula has not cut her hair and it froths about her shoulders, a coppery red more fiery than the strawberry shade Tracy inherited. Discovered, trapped, Peter almost gags. He jams his trembling hands into his jean pockets. He wants to run, to disappear along that grassy path, maybe to find Tracy, but most of all to just keep running, to run so far, so fast, that he might outrun his failures.

“You’re back,” Peter calls, his tongue ash-dry. He makes no move to cross the traffic lane that separates him from his wife. “How was shopping?”

“I’ve got groceries.” The implication is that Peter will help her unload these back at their home.

Peter glances left and right and beyond the car to take in the familiar span of their neighborhood. It is possible, just possible, that Tracy will choose this moment to reveal herself, to peer around a maple’s trunk, to emerge from behind a fence or a hedge, so near that he should have guessed her hiding place. Nothing, just the advancing roar of a lawn mower that devours and mulches the autumn leaf-fall. The man restraining the mower wears oversize sunglasses. He turns at the edge of the far sidewalk and retreats along its length.

“ . . . stopped at Kohl’s on the way home to buy her something new to wear.”

Peter nods, not sure what part of Ursula’s story he has missed but agreement is good family policy. His queasy stomach informs him the conversation has already turned to their daughter. He has to tell Ursula, to employ her help before it’s too late. “Ursula,” he says. He pauses not knowing what to say next. There is a shadowy movement in the passenger seat. A forearm flashes beneath the sun-spattered windshield. A ripple of hair, straw-colored and timid as a fresh-kindled flame, appears and is gone.


Peter starts across the traffic lane. He knows that distorted silhouette in the passenger seat, has known it since he cradled his newborn daughter slick with blood at Saint Mary’s Hospital. He marked its transformation from chubby-cheeked baby to inquisitive toddler to puckish girl. “Tracy,” he calls. “Tracy.” A hand stretches past Ursula’s blouse and waves. That gesture disperses his ghostly fears and gives his lungs license to breathe.

Another car approaches, slows, and comes to an unwelcome stop behind Ursula’s Toyota. She shrugs. “Meet you back at the house.” Her car lurches forward and the smell of exhaust envelopes Peter. He casts one last look at the strip of undeveloped land, then jogs homeward after her. He understands now what must have happened. Tracy ran away on a lark, bored with the demolished bureau, the fire, his company. She was probably only a few blocks away when Ursula, returning home from shopping, intercepted her. Now here she is chauffeured home in style.

Peter turns up the driveway, his legs already rubbery, a stitch in his side. Leaves crunch underfoot. Ursula is out of the car, beckoning him over. When he reaches her, he bows, panting. “How was shopping?” Has he already asked her that? He lays a hand on Ursula’s arm and breaks into a fit of coughing.

“Allergies?” Ursula asks.

He nods, tastes salty phlegm and autumn smoke.

“Sorry for being so late,” Ursula says. She wears open-toed sandals even though it is late in the year. Her toenails are enameled a red darker and bloodier than the color of her hair.

“No problem.” He waves her concerns away. “Where’s Tracy?”

“Over there.” She gestures at the car and Peter’s heart blooms. Vindication. The passenger door hiccups then opens, propelled by a spangled sneaker. A child, a girl, his girl, slides off the seat and out of the car.


Ursula is in his way, blocking his view. “Don’t just stand there,” she says. “Grab a bag.” Grocery bags are arrayed orderly as teeth across the rear seat. Ursula presses a button on her car key and the trunk yawns open. Tracy, his Tracy, circles the far side of the car.

“Daddy.” Tracy appears around the trunk, bypasses Ursula’s hip.

“Tracy,” he says, his voice shrill. Déjà vu all over again, her name having been repeated so often it seemed a spell to turn back time. He squats and she runs to him, arms outstretched as if they have been parted for days, even years. She throws her arms around his neck and he hugs her. “You scared me so much,” he says. The pang he feels is a mixture of grief and love. He luxuriates in her physicality. “Tracy,” he says. He hoists her into the air, something she’s outgrown but he can’t help himself. She throws her legs around his waist. “My little monkey.”

“We would have arrived home earlier except for your daughter,” Ursula says. Her emphasis on Peter’s role as progenitor encompasses exasperation and amusement.

“Did you do something to upset your mom?” Peter asks Tracy. He receives a solemn headshake in response.

“We were all finished,” Ursula says. “We had already checked out and gone to the car, but then Tracy insisted we go back.”

Checked out?

“She wanted to buy new detergent for the washing machine. She said ours made her clothes itch.”


“But that wasn’t the end of it. She said the dress she had on gave her a rash because of the detergent.”

What was all the talk about shopping and clothing?

“We stopped at Kohl’s on the way home and I bought her something new to wear so that she would give me some peace.”

Peter twists his head, his five o’clock shadow scraping Tracy’s warm flesh. She wears a lemon-yellow blouse. He tries to remember what she had on earlier but all he recalls is the raggedy doll and its pink shirt with the sparkly PRINCESS logo. He can smell Tracy’s clothing, the astringent chemicals that department stores used to combat mildew.

“You bought a new dress?” He can think of nothing else to say.

Tracy tilts her head and something small bats his cheek, near his eye. He flinches. It’s an earring, a child’s earring. It’s pink, plastic, and shaped like a flower. Tracy points behind him. “Daddy, look.”

He turns and follows her finger’s trajectory back toward their home. He glances at the house long enough to confirm its existence and then returns his attention to Tracy. Her face is white behind her freckles. Her earrings are pink. She’s wearing a new dress.

“What is it,” he asks. He whispers because she’s so close and because he’s suddenly afraid.

Tracy does not immediately respond. Her arms encircle his neck. She pulls him in more tightly. Her eyes are wide, her face pale, and she wears the earrings his daughter has lost. His heart hammers in his chest and sweat trickles icily down his temples. “Look,” she says again, insistently.

Peter raises his eyes. Tracy presses her forehead against his, the spot of contact warmer than the unnaturally warm autumn air. He breathes in her scent. Her hair smells like smoke. “Are you okay?” she whispers. He stares over her shoulder at the house that Ursula and he bought only three years ago. At first there is nothing. Then, as if Tracy has known what is going to happen all along, flames erupt from the chimney and their tongues, yellow, lithe, and pointed, lap at the sky. Blue turns to gray and ash begins to fall, silently and more softly than any rain.

Originally published in Black Static, Issue 56, January/February 2017.

About the Author

Eric Schaller’s debut collection of dark fiction, Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, was released in 2016 from Undertow Publications. His stories have appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Fantasy: Best of the Year, The Time Traveler’s Almanac, Nightmare Magazine, and Resist and Refuse. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and an editor, with Matthew Cheney, of the online magazine The Revelator (