Xenia, ----

Elizabeth Ellen

–a retelling of "Smoke House" by Blake Butler


The daughter put on her brother's tennis shoes, pedaled his bike across town. She hadn't left the house since the fires. The whole town resembled an abandoned movie set now. A suburb besieged by zombies or aliens. An episode of an old black and white television show narrated by an actor their father was supposed to resemble. Balls sat deflating in driveways. Windows were covered in dust. Birdfeeders and baths were empty or lined with dry grasses, leaves. Most of the local avian population had fled the area weeks earlier. Raccoons and possums and deer had been wandering into yards, had been reported to be seen in people's kitchens, living rooms.

She rode down the center of the street. She hadn't seen a car since leaving the house. Most of the trees had prematurely lost their leaves, were infested with masses of beetles. The lawns were the color of fried mush. It was the longest drought on county record: 92 days and counting. An entire season and on into another. No one had been allowed to water their lawn since late spring. Before the fires, the mother had made them shower with buckets, pour the collected water over the grass in the front yard, the rosebushes on the side. She'd done the same with the dishwater, the water in the goldfish bowl. The father had said the grass wasn't dead, just dormant. But that had been weeks ago. No one bothered her about showering now. The goldfish bowl sat empty on the kitchen counter.

She rode past the post office, the drycleaner, the video store. Most of the stores and restaurants in town were closed. Outside the 7-11 a group of boys congregated with cans of chewing tobacco. There had been warnings on the news about the smoking of cigarettes, the potential for uncontrolled burning. The daughter recognized some of them from her brother's swim team. The pool had been left unfilled all summer. The boys were pale, their hair darker than she remembered, their bodies less defined, thinner.

When she rode past they called out to her. Some called her by name, others made whistling noises with their mouths. They spat dark clumps on the ground. Shoved their hands deep in their pockets.

She surprised them by circling back. One of them held out a can of wintergreen and she swiped it as she passed, held it and the bike with one hand and with the other clenched a good bit between her fingers and shoved it down into her gum. Their grandfather had taught them both to chew one summer night when their parents were out to dinner. Her brother had vomited into the bushes but she had figured out how to collect the juice in her mouth, spit it neatly into a plastic cup.

The digital clock above the community center said it was 3:33 and 98 degrees. It was the tenth day in a row the temperature had topped 95. Sweat mixed with goose bumps on her skin. She had been unable to get warm since the funeral. She wore her brother's sweatshirt day and night, the one she'd given him on his last birthday. It still smelled faintly of his shampoo. It'd been in the laundry room when the last fire broke out. She'd begged her mother not to wash it.

The boys watched her pedal away; her waiflike body hidden under a layer of her brother's clothing: sweatpants worn to swim meets, a varsity school jacket.

Months earlier they'd shot hoops with him after school, made their way into the house for bottles of water, looking for her. She'd been full of flesh then. She'd flirted back but it'd never gone farther. He'd come looking for them, called them back outside.

They watched her ride off down the street, spitting molasses-like globs at the pavement. Within some of them was an instinct for protection. In others the instinct was less brotherly, more predatory, carnal. The instincts were misunderstood in either case. None of them had any true understanding of the girl. She remained for them unreal, mythical. A creature in a comic book they were obsessed with, the female entity in a video game they couldn't master.


As children they had often been mistaken for twins. There had been the brother first and ten months later there had been the daughter. She'd never known a life without him. It'd been hard for her the year he started school. The first day she'd stood at the bus stop crying. Their mother couldn't get her back in the house. After that she stopped speaking unless her brother was around. She whispered whatever she had to say to him, looked at him as he relayed it to their parents.

She retained the memory of bathing with him in their parents' oversized tub. The games they played, thinking their bodies were for each other. She'd slept with him most nights then, too. She'd fall asleep in her bed and wake up in his. It was only later, somewhere in the midst of adolescent that things reversed. She'd wake in the middle of the night, the instinct to find him, and he'd already be there, an arm thrown over her chest, a leg under hers. The parents didn't know or pretended not to. They were older than other parents, the father in his early forties when they married, the mother only a couple years younger. The children had been what the grandmother called, "change-of-life babies." The parents had been grateful they hadn't been born full of disease, mentally handicapped, challenged. The parents were tired. They worked and watched TV. They drove their children to swim meets, violin practice, school plays. They provided food and shelter.

Years earlier they had taken the daughter to a child psychologist. The daughter had believed she was cursed, had refused to go to school. Her mother had called her in sick six days in a row. A girl in her class had been diagnosed with Leukemia over Christmas break. The class had written her letters, sent cards, but she'd never come back to school. Another girl, a girl disliked by the daughter, had fallen off the monkey bars at recess, cracked her head open on the asphalt. Then a plane had fallen from the sky. And a man had been hit by a car. All of these things the daughter had witnessed firsthand. She stopped leaving the house, kept to her room or her brother's.

The child psychologist was well-recommended. She had graduated from impressive universities, been practicing many years. She was more New Agey than the parents would have liked. She did not believe in forcing a child to talk, and so the daughter didn't. The daughter sat on the floor, drew pictures of herself, her brother. The parents didn't have money for New Agey practices. The daughter, they reasoned, could draw at home. She went for two or three sessions and then she never went again.

For a while after that they tried home-schooling, but the mother needed her job, the money, and the daughter missed her brother. She went back to school and for whole years nothing happened. No children died, planes remained in the sky. And then the drought and fires began. And then her brother.


The daughter rode half a mile before she realized someone was following her. Her mouth full of juice, she turned her head to spit. She saw the shadows of the bikes first, hers and then the other's. She rode another three minutes without looking back. She was used to being alone now. She liked the world as it was: quiet and desolate and simple. There was little to think about, little to do. For the first time in her life, she was unafraid. She no longer worried about the curse, the darkness within her.

She spent hours in her room painting and watching movies she'd borrowed from her brother's room, films with French titles and controversial directors and musical scores she could listen to while she painted. She'd found a series of photographs hidden on her brother's hard drive; photographs he'd taken of himself in the months leading up to the fires. She was reproducing them in backward chronological order. It was a return for her also.

The other bicyclist sped up, rode beside her. It was one of the boys from the 7-11, an older-looking boy she had not recognized. He smiled and his teeth were yellow and full of tobacco and there was something shiny in his hand. She pedaled harder. She saw now that the shiny object was a knife. The boy was coasting easily alongside her. The boy was not going to let her get away.


Much of what had transpired between them the brother had blamed on his somnambulism. He had ripped an entire rosebush from the yard, frightening their mother when she found him naked, a trail of dirt and blood leading outward, his bare feet muddied, his hands full of thorns. Another time the father had gone to the kitchen for a glass of water and discovered the son standing in the light of the refrigerator, his mouth red, glistening, an empty jar of maraschino cherries in his hand.

It was six months before the fires began that the daughter woke to find her brother's head lain neatly along her abdomen, the hem of her nightgown lifted. And then his head had slid downward, her mouth fallen open. After, she did not question her brother. She allowed his explanations.


The boy overtook her, signaled her to turn. They were coasting down the hill that led to her school. It had not reopened after Labor Day as it had every year past. The weathermen could see no end to the bad weather. The families who could afford to leave their houses unsold had moved out of state. Other families had gone to stay with relatives, temporarily enrolled their children elsewhere.

The town had been in bad economic times before the weather turned. Already there had been an exodus, a suburban migration. Unemployment was at an all-time high. Factories closed. Houses with For Sale signs in their yards outnumbered those without. The town had never really recovered from the tornado that wiped out three hundred homes and killed forty-two people, sixteen years earlier, the summer the son was born.


There had been rumors at school. Someone claimed once to have seen them kissing full on the mouth in the brother's car after school. A girl the son had broken up with blamed the sister's jealousies and possessiveness. She had called her brother incessantly while they were on dates, the girl said, made up excuses for him to come home.

Other rumors centered on their physical resemblance to one another, their shared white-blond hair, their pale skin and blue-green eyes. Some said they actually were twins. Or genetically engineered ("test tube") babies. They wore identical gold necklaces with a symbol no one could identify. They dressed similarly, rode to and from school together in the brother's car.

The daughter had never dated. The year she was named to the Homecoming court she went to the dance unescorted. She rode to and from the dance with her brother and his date. The date sat in the backseat, was dropped off before her curfew at ten thirty.


The boy stopped near the pool, dropped his bike on the sidewalk. She could have kept going; she was close to home. The knife did not frighten her. She was mildly interested in the boy, in what the boy wanted. She was tired from riding. Her mouth was full of chew. She spat in what had once been grass, watched the chaw sit on top.

The boy signaled her to climb the fence; began to climb behind her. He looked as though he had already been swimming; his hair was drenched from the sun. Once over he grabbed hold of her wrist, led her around the pool. It was nine feet deep and empty. She remembered the way the girl's head had looked, after she'd fallen on the playground. In her memory everything was black and white, only the blood in color.

The door to the locker rooms was locked, but the window of the food station had been broken. He lifted her up, let her stand on his leg. Most of the food had been gone through. There was a jar of mayonnaise, some packets of ketchup. There was nothing to drink, only empty pop cans, plastic bottles that had once contained juice drinks, Gatorade. He led her further back, into the locker rooms. There were vending machines there. He reached his hand up into the one marked Pepsi-Cola, opened a can, handed it to her. She stared at his arm. It was red and scratched where it had entered the machine. She didn't normally drink carbonated beverages but she drank it down fast then held it out for him.

He stared at her as he drank, tilting his head back to finish the can. She did not look away. It was understood they were going to be together a while this afternoon, maybe other afternoons as well.


The daughter had been careful with her brother the nights of his sleep-walks. She had remained guarded and firm, even as she softened to him, even as she allowed his cheek to her stomach, his mouth elsewhere. She had not forgotten the curse. The velocity of the plane as it fell from the sky. The smile on the man's face seconds before the Accord skidded into the intersection, knocking his ski cap from his head, a snow boot left standing.

The first three fires had been small, little more than nuisances. An outbreak in the foyer, a kitchen cabinet, the backyard shed. They had been easily contained, causing no real damage. The next three were larger, consuming parts of their attic, their laundry room, a guestroom closet. 

Still they dismissed them, let their parents worry, the insurance agents. There had been no real danger. They had not infiltrated the bedrooms. She was careful with her brother.


The locker room smelled similarly to how she remembered: damp, metallic, like wet paint and chlorine. It hadn't been remodeled in twenty years. It had always looked exactly this way-aquamarine painted cement block walls, black linoleum tile beneath a black rubber runner, green metal lockers-all the summers they'd spent here.

She leaned back on one of the changing benches, allowed the boy to remove her brother's jacket, pants. She had kicked off the tennis shoes. Her eyes were closed and she was remembering all the times she'd changed into a bathing suit, quickly, between entering and exiting groups of other teenage girls; how she'd chosen a lawn chair that faced the pool; how she'd pretended to read a book while watching her brother swim and dive and wait his turn on the side with the other boys; how the other girls had tried to befriend her in an attempt at getting closer to him; how they had failed.

She could not remember the last time she had been fully undressed, the last time she had bathed or showered. How long had it been since the funeral? The fire? She was unembarrassed by her scent. It did not seem the boy had washed recently either. The hair beneath her arms had grown and the boy started there. It was a hundred and five degrees in the locker room and her teeth were making a chattering noise in her head.

She closed her eyes and the boy mounted. She reached up his back, felt the width of his shoulder blades. He was thicker but less broad than her brother. He was not a swimmer, had maybe once, in junior high, been a wrestler. He was shorter, more compact. She said nothing, did not stop. She felt neither upset nor encouraging. There was no wind and the sun was unstoppable and the ground parched. Her father was upstairs in the master bedroom and her mother was on a cot in her brother's. The pool was empty and the lawn chairs were stacked somewhere inside and the boy's mouth tasted gritty, like dirt.


At a family member's wedding in the spring they had both ingested too much champagne. The daughter did not drink, was unused to its effects. Her head swelled and then lightened, as though all worries had evaporated out of it. It was a large wedding, the dance floor crowded. None of the other guests had noticed anything odd about a brother dancing with his sister. They had not paid attention to the closeness with which he held her, the agonized looks on both of their faces. They had not noted their absence from the reception after that, or their return forty-five minutes later. Not even the parents had detected a change in their offspring: the flushed faces, the elation mixed with melancholy, the exhaustion and spentness. Or if they did, they attributed it to the wedding reception itself, the loud music and large amount of people, the lateness of the hour, the length of the day.

On the drive home the daughter slept under the brother's arm as she often did in the backseat of their parents' car. She slept similarly in her bed after her parents went to sleep. They did not discuss the dance, or what had happened after.

A week later the fire found the son in his bedroom. It was early yet in the evening, before the son normally began his sleep-walk, before the son found his sister in hers. The sister had never really believed the curse broken. The sister had been waiting all this time.


The daughter passed the For Sale sign in the yard, swung left into the drive. She entered the house unnoticed, same as she'd left it. They were more like tenants now, each keeping to their designated rooms, interacting only when forced to make conversation in the kitchen or laundry room.

The father, already in the stages of forgetting, remained mainly in the master bedroom. The mother visiting him once a day to remind him what was lost. She surrounded him with their son's medals and trophies, opened his yearbooks and report cards. All he'd ever wanted was a son. This was what he repeated now, with a sense of dejection, forgetting a son was what he'd had.

The house still smelled vaguely of smoke. It filled the hallways, the wallpaper, the curtains. The daughter did not know the mother was smoking also. She did not go down to her brother's bedroom anymore, now that her mother had taken it over, sleeping on a cot she'd slept on years before when the brother was sick with mono, the sister believing herself the cause.

The daughter went to her bedroom, removed the blankets from her bed. She lay down in her closet, layered the blankets over her brother's ski jackets and terrycloth robes, the cardigan their mother had made him wear at Christmas, the suit jacket he'd worn to the wedding. The weight of so much fabric eased her breathing, relaxed her fists. Through the opening in the doorway she could make out the most recent painting she'd made of her brother. The painting was only of his face and nearly identical to the other fifteen that lined the wall of her room. It was unlikely anyone else would be able to detect the subtle differences, the slightest variance in pupil dilation, the degree to which his face is obscured by patches of color, the blurriness of the lines, softening of borders. She stared at her brother. Did not try to sleep.


That night there was a sudden change in atmospheric pressure unpredicted by the weathermen on TV. The daughter woke to the lightening first, the thunder somewhere far off. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three…Then the first droplets of water came in through the holes the fire had left in the roof. The father had not bothered to repair them. There had not been a need. The daughter was suspicious of the water. She had grown used to the way things were. She did not want things to go back to the way they'd been. Nothing could ever be normal for her again.

She lay and waited and wanted. She had not wanted anything in so long. The feeling made her uncomfortable. She had thought there was nothing left to feel.

What she wanted now was a great flood. What she wanted was for the house to come loose from its foundation, to be carried down river, out to sea. She wanted to find herself in the belly of a great beast. She wanted to know that taste and smell and obscurity.

She stared out at her brother, watched the colors blur his face further. The flood would wash all that away, too. The flood would take her from him. Finally.

She lay back, stared blissfully at the ceiling. The rain was increasing in volume. She felt it rise beneath her. It lifted her off the ground. She was no longer cold. Her teeth did not rattle in her head. She needed the blankets no more.