Uncle Ruckus came for Thanksgiving this year, as usual. Leo’s his real name, but we call him Uncle Ruckus, because every year there’s a ruckus about something. Ruckus is my dad’s brother, and they argue about everything. They’re like matches and gasoline. Iraq War — BOOM! Wall Street bailout — BOOM! Immigration — BOOM! The Wall Street bailout was the worst. They started shoving each other and kept shoving until Mom and my big brother Peter dragged them apart. Uncle Ruckus had a vicious look on his face that day, cold wolf eyes, like he wanted to murder my dad. Mom says we have to remember he’s lived through terrible heartbreak. True. But he’s always been a jerk.
When Uncle Ruckus arrives Mom gets sickeningly cheerful and makes us come and say hello. He hugs Mom first, and the hug always lasts longer than it should, even with my dad watching, looking disgusted.
Then Ruckus and my dad shake hands. “Well,” Dad says, “the paragon of virtue himself.”
“Big brother,” Ruckus says. “How’s my hero?” That might not sound like an insult, but it is.
“What’s up, Bugs,” Ruckus says to Peter. Meaning Bugs Bunny, because Peter has big ears that stick out. “Hey, Ugly Stick.” That’s what he calls me. My name’s Susan, and yes, my nose is too big. My eyes are blah-colored, not a nice blue or brown. My girlfriend Marie and I practiced kissing each other and she said my lips are too thin. I’m fourteen, and my breasts are just starting. So maybe I am ugly, but I hate it when people say so. At school I fight back, but I don’t know what to do about Uncle Ruckus.
“He’s teasing, honey,” Mom says. “Another year, he’ll be calling you gorgeous.”
That’s how Thanksgiving starts, everyone with hurt feelings except Mom. At dinner this year the shouting was about Occupy Wall Street.
“Losers,” Dad said. “They want everything handed to them.”
“Wake up, George,” Uncle Ruckus said. “It’s about damn time people got mad.”
Things got louder and nastier. I got sick. Couldn’t even eat pumpkin pie.
Uncle Ruckus had two kids, Ben and Lisa. And a wife, Aunt Cynthia. They used to visit us a lot. The last time they visited Aunt Cynthia didn’t come for some reason. Mom and Uncle Ruckus drove into town together one day while Dad stayed home to paint the porch and babysit. I was five, Peter and Lisa were six, and Ben was eight. Ben stole one of my dad’s cigars, and he and Lisa climbed into the loft of a falling down old barn out behind the house, in our hayfield. Peter and I stayed below, chasing wasps with fly swatters.
Everyone figures Ben and Lisa dropped hot cigar ash down into the straw on the ground level where Peter and I were. I can still see it, fire jumping up fast, a shimmery, crackling, blinding curtain. The wood was bone dry, the barn doors long gone, so the fire had plenty of fuel and air. Peter screamed to Ben and Lisa to get out, and they were screaming too, but they were afraid to come down into the flames. Peter and I ran to the house. “Daddy, the barn’s on fire,” Peter yelled. “Ben and Lisa are inside!”
Dad grabbed a canvas drop cloth, and we ran back to the barn. Dad tried to go in by smothering the flames with the canvas, but he kept coming right back out. The last time he came out he was coughing, and he ran to the house to call the fire department. The flames got so huge I had to tilt my head all the way back to look up at them. Before the fire department came the roof collapsed. Dad crumpled to his knees, stone-faced, watching. Tiny fires flickered in his eyes.
I think Uncle Ruckus blames my dad. For letting us run free. For not going into the fire after Ben and Lisa. I don’t know if Dad could possibly have saved them. I was too young to judge. Sometimes I wonder too if it hurts Uncle Ruckus, maybe even makes him angry, when he sees Peter and me walking around, still alive.
One night while she was making dinner I asked Mom what she and Uncle Ruckus did in town that day.
“Shopped,” she said.
“Groceries. Other things. I don’t remember.”
Her eyes got teary. That surprised me. Nine years had passed since the fire.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
“It’s an unbearable memory.” She opened the fridge, wiping her eyes.
“No more questions, Susan. Set the table, please.”
The morning after Thanksgiving, when Uncle Ruckus left, we gathered on the driveway for goodbyes.
When my turn came he said “Adios, Ugly Stick.”
“Fuck you!” I said. I didn’t plan it. But how much can you take?
“Susan!” Mom said. “Apologize to your uncle this instant!”
“Mom, are you insane? He should apologize to me!”
“No more of that, Leo,” my dad said. “Ever.”
“Leo, please,” Mom said.
Uncle Ruckus came toward me. When he reached for me I flinched, but he hugged me gently and whispered in my ear. “Good for you, Susan. You’ve got guts.” I felt kind of sorry then, but not enough to apologize.
He looked pitiful though, I have to admit, heading for his car with his little one-night-only travel bag, walking slowly, like he was exhausted or maybe didn’t really want to leave.
“Is he lonely?” I whispered to Mom.
“He never says,” she whispered back.
He started to drive away, then suddenly braked. He rolled his window down and stuck his head out. “See you next year, folks.” He rolled his window up and waved. We all waved back. When he finally left he drove super slow, honking his horn, three, four, five times.
I ran down the driveway and waved again, but by then Uncle Ruckus was turning the corner. I don’t think he saw me.
Douglas Campbell’s fiction has appeared in many publications, including Smokelong Quarterly, Able Muse Review, Vestal Review, and Fiction Southeast. His chapbook of short fiction, “Sunflowers, Rivers, And Other Stories,” was recently published by Monkey Puzzle Press, and can be ordered in print from the press or in an Amazon Kindle edition. Douglas lives in a challenging old house in a little town in southwestern Pennsylvania, where he watches the birds and clouds, and every day is touched with wonder.