Palo Alto Weekly 21st Annual Short Story
Second Place Adult
A House That Glows
| About Ly Chheng
I lightly pushed the door open. The television screen cast a blue glow over my father's face. He was lying in bed. Over his bed hung a photograph of my mother. The dates of her birth and death were etched onto a metal plate at the bottom of the frame.
"Cloud cover tomorrow," announced the weatherman. "Chance of snow. Temperatures around mid-twenties."
"I'm going out for a bit," I said.
My father lifted his head and looked up. He hadn't shaved. His eyes were red.
"Not to late," he said.
He laid his head back down.
Anton's car was waiting out front. Exhaust rose from the bumper. I opened the door and slunk in. A trash bag of books was in the backseat and papers littered the floor.
Anton had grown his hair out. .
"Greyhound station," I said. "I want to pick up my bus tickets."
The streets were empty. "Make a left at the light," I said.
"How're you doing?" he said.
"Abso-fucking-lutely perfect," I said.
He was quiet. Street lamps flew by overheard.
"Why're you going to New York?" he asked.
I turned to look at him. He wore a long black leather trench coat, the same one he wore back in high school.
"A friend from college invited me to visit for a bit," I said. "I thought it'd be nice to get away for a while."
There was no friend.
"Sounds nice," he said.
"Yeah, it's charming," I said.
The conversation pained me.
I placed my forehead on the glass and stared up at the street lamps flying by overhead. Three weeks earlier my forehead lay against the window of the 747 as it descended. The city lights glowed beneath instead of above. Arriving back in Maryland.
The next morning after arriving back, my phone rang. It was Anton. I made thin excuses the first four times, but by the fifth call I gave in.
We pulled up to a stop light. I pointed left.
I looked at him. Underneath his desperate attempt to grow facial hair and his pimple-pocked face, Anton was the same. People never changed. In high school, everyone hated him and it was a safe bet everyone hated him at his tiny middle-of-nowhere college. Back in high school they called him names. Horrible names. It just wasn't my thing, though. I'm no nobler than the rest of them, though. It's just that I held him and everyone else at that goddamn place at arms length. To my surprise, my indifference to him was perceived as an invitation to friendship. During lunch one day, he sat across from me. I was alone, reading a book. No one was ever supposed to sit with me. I pretended not to notice him the first day he did it, but then finally I looked up on the second day.
The car pulled up to the Greyhound station.
"You can wait in the car," I said.
"Okay," he said.
The attendant was a Jamaican woman with thick tied-back braids. I asked for my boarding passes. Round trip tickets to New York for three days. A dozen or so people were huddled inside with suitcases, waiting for a late bus. I accidentally made eye contact with a tired looking woman cradling a baby in her arms. I looked away. The attendant returned with my tickets. I took them, said thank you, and headed back to the car.
As I approached, I noticed Anton holding a white piece of paper in his hands, reading. I knocked on the window. He folded up the paper and put it away, then unlocked the door.
"What was that?" I asked, sinking into the seat.
"Letter from mom," he said.
He froze for a moment. Something from the letter lingered. I didn't want to ask.
"Let's go to a diner," I said.
I spotted the yellow and red glow of the Barnside Diner, an old hangout. The inside had a dirty gold tint. Walking in, you faced the counter and grill, and the chefs and waitresses were sandwiched in between. There were no other customers inside besides us. Stray straw wrappers littered the counter as though someone had just finished eating and left. A tiny Christmas tree sat at one end of the counter.
Anton and I sat down at a booth. Sitting at either end of the table, we avoided eye contact.
"We should hang out some more when you get back from New York," he said.
"Yeah, sure," I said.
I thought about what he said to me the first time he sat down at my lunch table. "What are you reading?" he asked. It was the saddest question.
The waiter came by. An old, beat up guy - gray hairs in his mustache, eyes sunk deep, and a faint grimace of resignation beneath all of it. He was hard to look at. I ordered a strip of bacon with two eggs. Anton ordered chipped beef with mashed potatoes. The waiter left and I began chewing on a straw. My fingers tapped the table counter. My Dad probably hadn't moved a muscle since I left him.
Anton looked up.
"What do you think about when you don't talk?" he asked.
I hated the question. It made me want to hate him.
"Birds," I said. "I think about birds."
A quivering, half smile spread across his face. I looked away and stared at the lights from the tattoo parlor across the street.
"What's your mother up to?" I asked. The question slipped out before I could stop it. His eyes stared at his fingers as they folded the wrapper from his straw over and over.
"She's in Mexico," he said.
"Doing what?" I asked.
"Some Mexican, most likely," he said.
His bluntness shocked me.
He shrugged. "She's taking photographs or something."
Poor bastard. His mother's out screwing Mexicans while he's reading letters about it.
The food arrived.
I stabbed a piece of bacon with my fork and took a bite. Anton ate his chipped beef voraciously. Sauce hung from the corners of his mouth.
"Sorry if I'm not more forthcoming with my sorrows," I said.
He didn't say anything.
I squeezed ketchup onto my plate and shoved eggs into my mouth. Anton polished off the rest of his chipped beef.
"I'm a little strapped for cash," I said. "You mind spotting me?"
He paid without a word.
Back inside the car.
"I'll take you home now," he said.
I could've said a number of things, but instead I just said, okay.
I placed my fingers on the window glass.
There was silence for a few minutes.
"You don't have to be an asshole all the time," he said suddenly.
I felt the cold from outside on my fingertips through the glass.
"Just drive," I said.
As we neared my neighborhood, Anton made an unexpected left.
"Where the hell are you going?"
"Just shut up and relax."
"Stupid bitch," I said under my breath.
We headed down Del Mar Avenue and made a right into a neighborhood I'd always seen from the backseat of my family's car, but never drove into.
The houses in the neighborhood were one-story ramblers made of brick.
"I want to find a house," said Anton.
"Well, you've come to the right place. I've spotted a handful already."
"Just stop being an asshole all the time."
I turned away.
"The house belongs to a kid I used to know," he said finally.
I stared at the houses. They were covered in Christmas lights - tiny white ones which hung down like icicles, red and green ones alternating sporadically, and ones which glowed steadily through the night. The inside of the houses looked empty - shades of black and grey. But outside the lights glowed. Outside, the Santa Clauses waved, the reindeers danced, and the artificial snow fell softly inside giant plastic snow globes.
Anton pointed to a one-story red brick with untrimmed bushes and an old yellow Volkswagon Beetle parked in the driveway.
"Hamilton Street," he said, mouthing each syllable slowly.
Rain-rusted gutters, cracks in the cement walkways, black handrails with chipping paint. Just like my house, I thought. The paint chips were black on one side and maroon red, like cooked kidney, on the other.
"Let's go home, Anton. I'm tired."
"This street isn't it," he said.
A dead end - he swung the wheel around, mumbling unintelligible words.
Columbus Avenue. "This is the way."
He wasn't talking to me anymore. As much as I wanted to get away from there, I couldn't help but stare at the houses.
Christmas lights - I was seven the last time we put up lights. Having a house that glowed - that was great to me once. I saw the street lamps flying by overhead, and the city lights flying by beneath.
Anton moved from street sign to street sign.
We turned onto Carver Street and the houses changed shape. They turned into two-story cookie cutters with perfect lawns, square hedges, and smooth, unmarked driveways. Houses that looked like they'd been put together from do-it-yourself kits.
"What the hell happened?" he said.
The houses rose up higher than the one-story ramblers we'd passed already, but the new developments felt flimsier compared to those older ones. They weren't made of brick but, instead, looked like they'd been formed from paper.
"They must have bulldozed his house down," I said.
The street lamps' yellow lights washed over his face.
"I can't even find the street he lived on, though," he said. "Can they make a whole street just disappear?"
I was angry, but at what, I wasn't sure.
We rounded a corner. Back at Del Mar Avenue.
"We're back," I said. "Take me home."
He remained silent. He pulled a three point turn and we headed back in. His grip tightened on the steering wheel. A single car flew by on Del Mar - where were they going? Off to dig up deceased memories?
I wondered how much more I could handle. I stared at the reflection of Del Mar Avenue in the rearview mirror. I shifted my eyes and saw my own reflection then looked away.
"Why aren't you guys friends anymore?"
"The kid who lives in this house we're looking for."
"Jarrett Bowma - that was his name. We had a falling out in elementary school."
"How old were you?"
"Do you remember what the falling out was over?"
"No," he said, "But one memory I have, though...it happened one of the last times I was at his house. My mom had just moved out - midlife crisis, decided she wanted to explore the world and the world didn't include her family anymore. I didn't want to be at home and have to see all the empty places she'd left behind, so I went to Jarret's house. I was sitting in his room. He was in the living room asking his mother if I could sleep over. And I don't know why, but I got down on my knees right there in his room and prayed."
"What'd you pray for?"
"I prayed for things to turn out okay."
"For your parents to get back together, you mean?"
"No," he said. "Just for things to turn out okay. For me to be an okay kid. For everyone to feel okay."
The houses had changed back to red brick.
"Are you going to ring the doorbell when you find it?" I asked.
"No," he said.
He tightened his grip on the wheel.
"Then what's the point?" I asked.
"To prove to myself that it exists," he said.
We turned a corner. The trees opened up and a steady stream of cars passed by in the distance.
It was Del Mar Avenue.
"I'll take you home now," he said.
I said nothing.
A part of me wanted him to keep looking, to prove to himself that he didn't make it up alone in his room, ten years ago, a pathetic little fat kid on his knees. I wanted to know the this place where he prayed still existed.
The light turned green, but Anton just sat there. A few seconds passed and it was red again. I stared at him. A few more seconds, then green.
"Let's go," I said.
He didn't move and neither did the car.
"Go!" I yelled.
The car moved forward.
I sat quietly and let him drive me away from the neighborhood. My hands clenched. I stared back at the houses in the rearview mirror. It grew smaller and smaller. I rocked slightly back and forth in my seat.
The car stopped in front of my house. I got out of the car and Anton got out too. We headed to the house. Halfway across the lawn, I turned around. His fist struck me on my chin. I fell to the ground.
I tackled him onto the lawn. And began unleashing blows. He threw some back.
"You stupid son of a bitch!" I yelled. I felt something wet. His face became soft, a sickening kind of softness. I couldn't tell how long it lasted.
And then finally we stopped throwing blows. We both lay on the ground, exhausted.
Stillness. I touched my face. There was blood on my hands. I couldn't tell if it was his or mine.
I looked up from the ground and he was walking away.
"You can always go back tomorrow," I said.
He paused then turned.
"No, I can't," he said, then continued to his car.
He got into his car and drove away.
I looked at my watch. Close to one.
I stepped through the door. It was dark inside. The floorboards creaked as I made my way through the living room. I placed a hand on a wall to guide myself as I walked through the hallway. I opened the door to his bedroom. He was still in bed.
The television was still on. I shut it off. Completely dark now.
On my way out, I heard him stir. He mumbled something incoherent. I walked over to the bed and placed a hand on his shoulder. He looked up at me, confused, his eyes red, searching for something.
"Where is she?" he asked.
Dead. Cancer. A year already. He'd dreamt that the urn over the fireplace wasn't there, that she was cancer free, was 130 pounds and not 65 pounds, and was lying next to him in bed.
His eyes stared up at me, confused. His jaw shook. Then I saw. In his eyes, his world realign. I placed a hand on his arm and told him to go to sleep.
"You're tired," I said.
I could see his eyes searching for a face to connect with my floating voice. I wished for the bright lights to fill the room. He laid back down and went to sleep.
I left the room and closed the door behind me.