The Flames they Rise and Fall | The New Engagement

The Flames they Rise and Fall

By Nicole Holtzman

Almost every night I sneak out to the highway. It's dark when I leave the house. I stand on the highway ledge, next to the things that have survived there; the stray tree, patchy grass that is yellowing and hard, and wild flowers. They are crazy to be beautiful in this place with their white skirts sullied in the dirt, touched by the hot breath of car breeze. 


My dad and Michael left on this highway but I stand on it every night. Have you ever watched a moth shimmy upwards into the light? I watch them sometimes from the kitchen window. They bump into the glass, startle themselves with their own reflections, but they still push up towards the light. Recently I've been more careful to turn off the kitchen light. I know they will never reach it. 


On these nights I take: a backpack, one shirt, a pair of pants, two pairs of yellow cotton underwear, an apple, and a magazine. On my way out I count the stairs and avoid the seventh step, which creeks. I know my mother will not ask me to stay. This is my game with myself. Normal mom, normal family.


I am sitting near the ditch. Tonight is humid in the way that sucks in tiny winged creatures and spits them out anywhere ugly. The first car that comes by slows but does not stop. I do not put my thumb up. Usually I don’t.

What I like about the highway is that I am still but I am near others who go fast. It makes me feel like I get more time. In this way I often think that I would like a disease. Some diseases or cancers are fast. I wonder how it would feel to have such a fast paced thing in my blood while I am still foggy and slow. I think something like this could transform time for me. Slow and fast together in a kind of rhythm rocking back and forth, going nowhere.   

I like to look up. Up is where they keep the long necked ghosts, lights so tall you must imitate their posture to see them. Once, I came early and witnessed the lights turn on. They snapped on together, ceremoniously, like an orchestra tuning up. But they glowed and buzzed slow and continuous like it took them a while to understand their purpose.


I am startled when I hear sirens, lights flashing. But I realize this must be Danny. The main thing Michael, Danny, and me would do together: in the summer we used to drive out to country roads. They oil country roads in the summer, something about keeping the dirt from blowing away. The pot holes fill with oil. We would light them on fire. Imagine what we left behind, a dark street filled with glowing creatures, waving to the moon, the sky, the stars.

Danny parks on the shoulder.

“I don’t have the heart to ticket you.”

He never does.

“Heard from Michael?”

I keep my eyes on the road and focus on what my mom calls the one two. That’s crazy person talk for breathing, not crying. I am like my mother. People don’t realize because I am average looking and not skinny. I consider this my greatest failing. People expect crazy to be frail. They don’t realize that it can be stored in swimmer’s shoulders or fat thighs. Average I think is worst. There is something unusual about fatness. People assume depression. Beauty forgives depression. But there’s nothing to do with average.

“He called me a few weeks ago. Said he’s doing fine. If you ever need anything, or if your mom does,” He pauses because I think he realizes there is something crass about talking to someone like this. Better not to offer anything at all. What an interesting feeling, the shadow of an expired relationship. Instead, he asks if I want to come with him tonight.         


He’s taped pictures to the inside of his squad car. I look at the ultrasound picture on the ceiling. Everybody knows Danny got a girl pregnant in high school. The story is that the girl miscarried in Danny’s parents’ barn. Kids used to dare each other to sneak into the barn at night and find the blood spot. That was the year Michael went crazy.

Danny tells me that he’s off duty, and how would I feel about going to his house? I don’t say anything, so he drives in silence for a while. Funny to see my ghosts from this angle. From here they look sinister with their gaping faces.

I realize we’re not going to Danny house when he pulls off the highway and onto a dirt road. He hands me a lighter. When we get out of the car he talks about how he wishes that he could burn the past few years instead, or maybe burn that old barn down. But this will have to do. For a second, it really is like it used to be. He starts on one end of the street and I start on the other. But we always used to have Michael there to meet us in the middle.


When we are done we sit on the edge of the road. He tries to kiss me like he always does when I let him take me from the highway. He talks about how we could be a real family, have a real baby one day. What he wants me to do is to burn my backpack. This, he doesn’t realize, would be impossible. I am always in-between something. Like my brother and my father I am fast and empty, and like my mother I am full and slow. 

Nicole Holtzman is a graduate of Knox College. She works as a librarian and she is involved with an afterschool program for at-risk youth. Her work has previously been published in Catch Magazine, Quiver, and Cellar Door.

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