I was scratching under the stiff collar of my Sunday dress when Toby, our bulldog, growled. He raised his hackles and stared into our empty fireplace. That’s when the two round lights floated right out of the chimney. They spun over the hearth, dancing around the iron poker.
Aunt Catherine screamed. The lights spiraled over to her dropped knitting needles and crackled bright, orange, and fuzzy.
Toby barked as thunder clapped. Aunt Catherine picked up Ma’s willow-branch broom and tried to stamp them out. I thought the hem of her black mourning dress might catch on fire. Then poof! The balls disappeared and the room smelled like a spring storm.
She sat down and put her hand over her heart, shaking her head. “Heavens! Devil’s sprites. And here, on this day . . .”
I looked at the white crepe on the mantle and at the covered mirror. My baby sister Jo-Jo was in the next room, in a wooden box and wearing her christening dress. Everyone was paying attention to her and not to me, which really wasn’t fair. She’d fallen in Chokecherry Creek, back behind the house. Now she was dead.
Because this was Jo-Jo’s day, I wasn’t allowed to play with my dolls, be loud, or ask for extra sweets. I even had a loose tooth that no one cared about it.
Aunt Catherine fanned her face, shaking her head again. “Let me check on your Ma.”
Once she was gone, I slipped out the front door. The crepe on the handle felt like old flower petals.
I walked down to the creek. The air was dry and strange, with a storm brewing on the horizon behind the barn.
I had it in my head that if I drowned too, people would pay more attention to me. Then Jo-Jo’s and my spirit could come down the chimney, just like those lights. Like Santa Clause. We’d surprise everyone! Then we’d explode in a puff and be back as the girls we were.
I waded into the creek, and my dress got as heavy as burlap bags. The first time I put my head under, I got water in my nose and popped up, coughing.
The same thing happened the second time. How did Jo-Jo do it?
Aunt Catherine told me you die when God calls you home. I sat on the bank, shivering, pondering it all. Jo-Jo must have died first, then gone under. I guess she happened to be in water when she was called.
But last harvest I’d seen a draft horse, crushed and rolling the great white of its eye like a marble. Alive. Pa had brought out the gun and put it out of its misery.
“You’re going to be switched if you get caught playing in the creek!” It was my big brother, Mark.
I told him about the lights.
Mark pinched his nose under his glasses, like he had a nosebleed, but it was something he always did. He was so smart, maybe that’s how he kept all his marvelous thoughts in his head. He won awards at school and teachers said he could go off to a university.
“I wish I’d seen them. People used to say they brought visions. But it’s just electricity, like static.” He motioned to the lightning on the horizon. “It’s science.”
“What is it when Santa comes down the chimney?” I asked.
“That’s . . .um, magic.”
“Then what’s heaven, where Jo-Jo is?”
“That’s religion,” he said.
Science, magic, and religion. A person must be really smart to tell the difference.
“Soon everything will just be facts and truth,” Mark said. “Machines will help too. Even here on the farm. Pa will see. Life won’t be as confusing, in the future. And I’m going to help do it.”
After he started walking back to the house, I tried to drown myself one more time. This time I held on to the weeds that grew at the bottom. I saw spots. A flash on the water, and dream-things. Then I felt Mark’s hands pulling me up. Both of us gasped, soaked and shaking on the bank.
A week later, when Mark got the chill in his chest and his face went white and waxy, like baby Jo-Jo’s, I wanted to tell him what I saw before he pulled me out.
I’d seen the future: cities, things flying in the air, churches, schools . . . wires and towers and little balls of light in everyone’s window.
But I didn’t tell him. And I let Toby chew on all his books because I didn’t want them after he died. Because what I’d seen was surely lies — church steeples next to libraries, cemeteries next to hospitals.
No. People would have figured everything out by then.
Joy Kennedy-O’Neill teaches composition and literature at a small college on the Gulf Coast. Her works have appeared in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction Online, New Orleans Review, and in such collections as Zombies: More Recent Dead by Prime Books and Cats in Space by Paper Golem Press.