Monday, February 28, 2011

"The Course of Nature Aflame"

Note: The following piece was written as part of the flash fiction challenge Scarry Night hosted by Patti Abbott. Patti has published numerous short stories in various literary journals and crime zines, including Spinetingler Magazine, A Twist of Noir and Thrilling New Detective Magazine. She blogs about writing, books, movies, politics, life and music at pattinase.

Leland didn't have a happy childhood.

This wasn't due to any fault of his parents, save one: Phyllis and Maxwell Newfield doted on their only child. From new teeth to toddling steps to T-ball, they praised him, as any parent would. But that was all they did. So on Leland's first day at Happy Kitten Kindergarten, he expected to face a world that would lift him to heights unimagined.

Phillip Phillipson soon dissuaded him of that notion.

"You have funny ears," Phillip told him. It was play time, and they had been discussing Very Important Matters, such as who had the coolest shoes (Leland said his Keds were inherently superior to Phillip's Nikes), whose daddy was the strongest (Leland's daddy could knock out a shark with a single punch, for sure) and who had the right to play with the blocks (Leland had gotten there first, so duh).

"No, I don't," Leland said, who didn't see what his ears had to do with anything.

"Yuh-huh," Phillip insisted. "They stick out like Mickey Mouse. You have Mickey ears."

Heat rose in Leland's cheeks. "Stop it."

"Mickey ears! Mickey ears! Mickey ears!"

Before he could answer, Leland felt a searing pain on the side of his head, and heard Miss Johnson, his teacher, begin to scream.

In the emergency room, Leland's parents nodded worriedly while the doctor murmured about "dermis" and "risk of cellulitis." Leland fingered the dressing on the side of his head. He didn't understand what the doctor was saying, but he comprehended one thing: Phillip's words had somehow caused his ear burst into flame.

When the dressing came off and Leland could see the twisted chunk of cartilage attached to the side of his head, his parents spoke with him about tutors and long-distance education. Leland shook his head. He now knew the world of his parents wasn't the world in truth. He would learn with others or not at all.

His parents picked a new school, and lawyers made everyone sign papers, and when that was finished, Leland was free to roam the falls of Country Isles Elementary. Learn he did, because the doctor couldn't restore the denuded section of scalp. Plenty of eyes saw it and tongues spoke, and every time they did so within Leland's hearing, fire was quick to come.

"Melissa, sweetie, it's not polite to point."

"But, mommy, what happened to his face?"

The burns were never particularly deep or dangerous. But each one drew attention, and attention drew comment, and comment drew flame. By the end of elementary school, Leland's mother was placing rolls of gauze in his backpack, quiet torment brimming behind her eyes.

"Hey, Newfield, kind of cold today, isn't it? Quit kicking and we'll give you a taste of this lighter fluid."

Silver Trail Middle proved far worse. Leland came home with scorched shirt sleeves and blackened inseams. His father bought stock in the companies that made Bactine and Jack Daniels.

"See, he totally looks like that guy in that horror movie, the one with razors on his fingers."

"No, he doesn't. Shut up, Mindy. He can hear you."

Leland had always applied himself and so had little trouble getting into the magnet program at Neuqua High. And instead of offering cocked fists, his fellow students parted for him in crowded hallways, holding their tongues as much as they employed them. But quiet was little different from words. He grasped what he'd yearned to know after Phillip Phillipson, that the course of nature itself seemed aflame, that he would burn one way or another, outside with gibes or inside with silence.

At least he thought he grasped it until that day in the cafeteria.

He was methodically chewing a ham sandwich when a tray clattered on his table. He looked up into hazel eyes in a pixie face haloed with auburn hair.

"Hi," the girl said. "I'm Eileen."

"Dare, huh?" Leland said.

Eileen blinked. "Uh, no."

"Brave for your own sake, then?"

"I ... I just wanted to introduce myself."

Leland snorted. "Why? Going to ask me to the prom?"

Eileen's face went white, then red. "No, I ... I'm in your calc class. And I sat near you in English last year. You ... no one ever talks to you. I mean, people talk about you, but never to you. And I thought that was, well, mean. I thought I'd try."

"Of course they don't talk to me. You're not very observant. See, I've got these scars."

Eileen's lower lip quivered, but she grabbed Leland's hand and squeezed. "Well, my name's Eileen, and I really don't mind the scars."

Leland recoiled, knocking over his soda. He didn't see those seated around him shoot quizzical glances in his direction. He didn't see Eileen shrink back and slip between the cafeteria tables, wiping her eyes. All he could look at was his scar-encrusted hand -- and the splotches of pink, new flesh where her fingers had pressed.


Loren Eaton said...

Many thanks to B. Nagel and the Fourth Friday Feeback Group for providing very helpful commentary on an early version of this short.

B. Nagel said...


I'm a big fan of the interspersed commentary. And of your writing generally. Just saying.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Worth waiting for, Loren. Scars from childhood never really heal and this lays it out elegantly.

YA Sleuth said...

I love that last line. Great story.

Evan Lewis said...

Very nicely done.

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks, B.! I appreciate your help and the help of the group. I needed it.

Loren Eaton said...

Gracias, Patti, and thank you for organizing it! I do hope childhood scars fade, but there are precious few people willing to reach out like Eileen.

Loren Eaton said...

Thank you, Fleur!

Loren Eaton said...

Many thanks, Evan.

R L Kelstrom said...

Lovely story. Great characters and dialogue.

Loren Eaton said...

Thank you, R L.

Scattercat said...

Cool story!

However, I was badly misled by my initial assumption that the idea was to write a darker take on Richard Scarry's beloved series of children's picture books, and thus I was racking my brain trying recall the names of some of the characters from that world and place "Leland" and "Eileen." (I think "Eileen" was one of the cats, actually, which made it even more confusing.)

Loren Eaton said...

Alas, I had little exposure to Scarry as a child. Most of my reading was Little Golden Books and Laura Ingalls Wilder. That was before I graduated to the post-apoc SF of John Christopher.

Leland is actually the name of one of my favorite college professors. He called himself LeeLee and had an absolutely acid wit. Great prof.

I have no idea where Eileen came from.