Fire and Light
I watched the tops of trees pass by, red crowns of oak bisected and framed within the back-seat window of my mom’s SUV. She didn’t allow me to listen to the radio in the car because “car rides should be spent having meaningful conversations not mindlessly listening to noise” but I spent most of the ride ignoring her as she prattled on about this and that.
She had just left work when she picked me up from school, undoubtedly still in her I-know-exactly-what’s-wrong-with-you-sit-back-and-let-me-tell-you-all-about-it psychiatrist state of mind. Maybe she was dumping it on me because she hadn’t got a chance to tell one of her colleagues. It didn’t matter; if I concentrated hard enough, the humming of the road and the whistling of the cracked window drowned her out. Like I did every Friday, I slumped down in my seat, nodded every so often to appease her, and watched the “nature station” whiz by.
That was until I heard her say, “Barry put your jacket-hood back on. What if someone saw you?”
Determined not to be interrupted, I silently pulled the hood of my black jacket over the top of my head, hiding my hair from passersby, and then went right back to looking out the window. Maybe the city will let them be for a couple of days this year, I thought as I watched myriads of oranges and reds flash by, the leaves have just changed their color and so it might take the city a few days to respond. But I knew the likelihood of that was slim.
“We’re here,” mom said as she parked in front of the Shady Plantations Nursing Home. With the road-noise gone I could hear her plainly.
I tried to open the door, but the child-locks were on. “Do you think you could unlock me, please?”
I waited for the salvation of the click of the mechanism and threw open my door in victory. I grabbed my mesh book bag, a net of black thread cradling my eighth grade “History of New America” textbook—hopefully I can get my report done before mom picks me up in a few hours. Mom rolled down her window before I even got around the side of the car.
“Barry, sweetie, give this to your grandmother,” she said as she handed me an old ring case, “she hasn’t talked since the stroke. Maybe this will help.”
I recognized the case right away and knew what it held even before hearing the buzzing coming from inside. What is she thinking? “Mom, you know they don’t allow animals like this in the nursing home!”
“Oh she’s so small, they won’t even notice.”
I looked her in the eyes. We were so different. Her straight black hair was in marked contrast with my red curly locks, the elongated jut of her chin and the short curve of mine, her unblemished smile and my freckled half-frown. I had once looked like my father, but he died during the fall of The Revolution.
“Mom, are you trying to get me arrested?” I tried to hand it back to her through the window, but she refused to take it. “Why don’t you take it in to her?” I wanted to add, “you’re a psychiatrist but you can’t see how crazy you are or even face your mother-in-law,” but bit my tongue.
“Bye, honey,” she said as she put the car in drive, “I’ll be back around four.”
I didn’t know whether to be happy that she had finally left or angry that she wanted me to smuggle an illegal animal into a nursery home. Ever since The Revolution failed she started to resent me, her redheaded son. She wasn’t allowed in specific parts of the city, restaurants, parks, and had to change my school, all because of me. As I approached the double doors of the Shady Plantation Nursing Home, I spotted the bronze plaques that lined the path.
IN COMPLIANCE WITH THE NEW CONSTITUTION ALL GINGERS
MUST KEEP THEIR RED HAIR VISIBLE TO ALERT EVERYONE OF THEIR SIN
I had seen that plaque so many times since my father died that I didn’t have to read it—pulling down the hood of my jacket was almost an involuntary reaction. I hated this sign because it boasted that revealing my gingerness would alert people to stay away from me, but it almost always had the opposite effect.
I passed other signs, which banned red clothing, pro-revolution reading materials, flash cameras, flashlights, and candles, scented or odorless. Then I saw the plaque that I was dreading to see:
IN COMPLIANCE WITH THE NEW CONSTITUTION
NO TALKING ANIMALS ARE ALLOWED
INCLUDES: CARBOU, RED PANDAS, WHALES, AND INSECTS
I hesitated at the double doors. As they automatically opened, I considered turning around and walking away, but this wasn’t the ginger-friendly zone in the city. The first person that spotted me would phone the police. I could leave the ring case outside, but what if I lost it?
I reluctantly walked into the lobby of the nursing home, stuffing the buzzing ring case into my pocket. As I approached the abandoned front desk, a few of the aged residents had already caught sight of me.
“What the hell is this!” an old man exclaimed. His already wrinkled face became even more furrowed. “Godfrey, come look. They’re letting fucking gingers in here now! What is the world coming to?”
The clerk appeared before a scene was caused. The good thing about being seen without my hood here as opposed to in the city was that the impending crowd that would normally have surrounded me by now was made up of very slow people.
“Easy Mr. Hastings,” the clerk called, as she whisked me through a door and down a hallway, “he has the clearance to be here.”
“Don’t touch him! He’ll suck out your soul!”
I wanted to say, “Yeah, the war is over. Your side won. I get it, you don’t like the fiery doo,” but like a lot of comments that came into my head, I didn’t say a word. All they had to do was say that I was bantering about the Revolutionist Party and they could legally clamp cuffs on me.
From there it was a short walk down the hall. I passed a large woman in an old blue pantsuit, complete with padded shoulders, who gasped at my hair. A group of orderlies clustered around a coffee maker stared at me. A few of the white-haired denizens that had been coming slowly down the hall made wide berths to avoid me.
Within the safety of my grandmother’s room, I closed the door and fished the ring case out of my pocket. A dim yellow light filled the room as I opened the case and emitted Nouri, my grandmother’s old pet firefly.
Nouri stretched her limbs and spoke in a soft, wavering timbre. “Well, It’s about time someone let me out!” And upon noticing me and my red hair, “Hey kiddo, It has been a long time since I’ve seen you.”
“Hey Nouri,” I whispered, “We don’t want to be too loud, seeing as you’re illegal in this part of the country and all, but feel free to try to get grandma to talk.”
Nouri left the confines of her red-felt ring case like a winged, sparkling diamond. My gaze followed the light of Nouri’s body from the door to the window at the opposite side of the room. My grandmother sat motionless in a rocking chair, staring out the window.
“Ruby,” Nouri cooed softly, alighting on my grandmother’s lap. “How are you doing today?” Nothing. My grandmother’s glossy stare didn’t break. Even when faced with her beloved pet that she’d lived and talked with for the better half of a century, she was unable to mutter a single syllable. “It’s very sad,” Nouri said, “it’s almost like she wants to speak, but she can’t.”
I stood there for a while watching them. If I could have spoken I might have tried to assure them that they weren’t the only ones, that being a redhead was a lot a like a stroke-patient or a firefly trapped in a ring case. We were all light and fire beneath the surface, waiting to burst free. But such words would definitely get me in trouble with the Defense Against Impending Revolution And Free Thinking Brigade.
Instead I pulled up a seat next to grandma and watched the autumn oak trees of the “nature station” until black-haired men wearing black suits, the city logo embroidered in white, showed up with chainsaws. I closed the blinds, turned grandma’s chair to face the bed, took out my “History of New America” textbook and tried to ignore the mindless buzzing noise as I did my report.