This piece is by Tom Chambless.
Hot Red Wolves
I woke up with a feeling that things seemed off. Looking around my room, I tried to figure it out, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. I got up and made my bed and straightened my room like I’m supposed to. It made me think of Momma already working in the garden. I knew she would be there. Momma would be working out there in the coolness of this summer morning before the day got too hot. I left my upstairs bedroom heading for the backyard.
Seeing her bent over at the waist pulling weeds this early seemed ordinary enough. When I saw her, that weird feeling, the tenseness in my tummy, hit me hard. I paused a step, then walked out to the enormous garden, a half-acre of everything from okra to watermelon.
“Hey, sleepyhead,” she said without looking up from under her broad-brimmed sun hat. She glanced and smiled from her squatted position, and I smiled, too. I loved her for being happy that I came to her. Daddy never smiled at me, always telling me, “Boy, do this,” and “Boy, do that.” Momma smiled because I came to her without her calling for me.
My mind almost caught on to why everything felt weird. The sun bounced off her hat as if it would strike like a match head and burn it up in a flash. Everything smelled like smoke, and I stopped halfway to her and wrinkled my nose, sniffing the air.
“Neighbors up the hill are burning off their yard,” Momma said. “Come on and help me pull out these suckers around the corn,” she said. Suckers come up as little fake corn stalks at the base of the real corn stalks. We need to pull them because they draw off all the water and nutrition away from the corn. So, I fall in beside her in the middle of a long cornstalk row without saying anything. I started yanking them out as she showed me how years ago.
“Danny, are you still doing the ‘Reading is Fundamental’ program at the library?” she asked without looking at me as she worked the corn. She knew the answer before she asked it. I’d bet the librarian called her, being a friend. My parents never asked me anything without knowing the answer first.
“I’ve sort of slacked off a little bit,” I said, wavering my answer to make it less harsh. I didn’t want to give Momma a flat, no. But I didn’t lie.
“A grown man succeeds or fails by his decisions,” she said. She pulled the sucker basket down the row, and we moved with it.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She stopped pulling, took a deep breath, and sighed. “You made two decisions. First, you quit the reading program, and second, you lied about doing it.” I started shaking my head while Momma kept talking. “We could have had a conversation about your first decision. But your second decision requires that you keep your mouth shut and listen to me.”
I got scared. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Momma stood up, put her hands on her hips, and leaned down in my face. “I’m telling you what you need to know to be a man. If a grown man lies about the things he does in life, no one will ever trust his word. He will fail, Danny. Do you have any idea what failure looks like?”
“You showed me those hobo men,” I said. My face burned like fire. Momma had her ways to punish me, sincere ways that tore into my heart. “You said that those men don’t have food or clean underwear, and that’s what happens when you lose.”
“That’s right,” Momma said. “Mrs. Langford at the library called me. She said she hadn’t seen you in two weeks. The fastest road to a hobo is to lie!”
Tears rolled down and seemed like they sizzled and evaporated off my hot cheeks. “I understand, Momma. But I didn’t quit that reading program. I… I took a vacation from it.”
Momma stood straight up over me, and her left eye started twitching. Her right eye looked up in the clouds somewhere. I found myself in deep here, so I took one step backward, then another. She snatched off her bonnet, and her long, blond-and-silver hair fell to her shoulders as she swung it at me. “Get out of my sight, Danny! Get upstairs and read your dang books!”
I hated making her mad at me. But I did not lie! I took a break from reading so much! I wanted to tell her I got so far ahead in my reading that I started on next years’ books. I had to wait, though. The subject of my reading had worn thin.
Momma came in from the garden and put her tools in the utility room. I sat on my bed upstairs reading one of my books when she came through the back door downstairs. It’s like I could see through the floor and watch what she did.
I saw her down there banging things around, still angry with me. A drop of my sweat fell onto the page. It had to be a hundred degrees up here. That feeling returned, the one from earlier where everything seemed off. It’s too hot in the house. That’s it, the strange feeling!
Momma went to the kitchen and started dinner, and I came up with an idea. I waited for a while, rereading Call of the Wild for the second time. I liked the story of Buck and how he heeded the call in the end. I used to play outside pretending to be Buck, and I left the humans behind as Buck did. I turned from the settlement and went into the forests and the snowy mountains.
I closed my book. If I ever heard a calling, I’d listen, for sure! I figured that I had sat long enough because I smelled chicken frying. The kitchen must be so hot.
I went down the stairs carrying my library card and my sign-off sheet from RIF. The librarian initialed beside the titles as I brought the books back. When school starts in August, I can turn this into the office and get extra points in my Reading class. I had to show Momma that I needed a vacation.
But every step I took through the living room toward the dining room seemed stiffer than the last. I stepped forward, and I turned into the dining room. Momma stood at the kitchen sink, and a skillet of chicken sat on the stove. My heart pounded in my throat. Deja vu took over like I had rehearsed this scene on a stage.
“I need to show you something, Momma,” I said, and my words came out sluggish. I had said this a thousand times. I heard about the fight or flight response in school, and I wanted to run, but my feet grew roots like corn stalks. She turned to me with her wet hands and noticed I had books in my arms.
Momma smiled and let her shoulders drop, sorry that she had gotten angry with me. I knew what came next as she turned. I wanted to warn her. I shook my head, “No, Momma, no. Don’t move!” I shouted in my slowed-down voice. But I couldn’t stop fate.
Her white apron bow tied in the back caught the handle of the skillet and spun it.
The pan flipped off the burner and into the air, sending grease and fried chicken flying. Hot oil splashed on Momma’s back and into the gas burner. The stove and Momma erupted into flames, and so did the floor. I dropped what I held in my hands and looked around, looked around, looked around. There! The fire extinguisher sat inside the archway leading into the kitchen. I lunged for it and pulled the pin, aimed, and fired!
The grease exploded in my face sending me reeling backward. I waved my hands to clear the fireball out of my eyes, then screamed, “FIRE!” I ran to the living room and snatched the bedspread off the couch, and yelled, “FIRE!”
Patricia, my big sister, came bounding down the stairs. I ran back to the kitchen, holding the bedspread up and out at arm’s length. I needed to wrap Momma up and get her out of the fiery kitchen.
Behind me, my sister screamed, and I heard the front door slam. Good. She needed to get out! I darted through the dining room to the kitchen arch, and there they were! Buck’s pack! They fought off wild wolves, red fire wolves, biting and lunging surrounding Momma. “I’m here!”
I went in despite the howling wolves. The fire wolves tore at my legs and bit my back as I wrapped the bedspread around Momma. I began backpedaling. The red wolves tore at my clothes and bit my arms and hands. “Fire wolves!” I yelled. But Momma didn’t run. She got stuck crumpled over the sink. I screamed and pulled and broke Momma free, then dragged Momma onto the dining room floor. Water rushed over me.
Patricia stood near me in the utility room, spraying the garden hose. She had pulled her shirt collar up over her nose. Men in firefighter hats pushed by her and came in with big hosepipes.
“No water! Grease!” But more and more water came drenching me with Momma in my arms.
My vision blurred, and I blinked my eyes, and it hurt. I took a breath, and it hurt. The overhead lights shined in my eyes, and it hurt.
“He’s waking up,” someone said. A face loomed into my range of vision, and Patricia smiled. Her silky blond hair fell all around me.
“Hey there, brat,” she said. She got close to me. “You burned the house down. Good one,” she said and laughed. Her puffy, red-tinged eyes told a different story. But what she said struck me as funny, and I tried to smile around the tube in my mouth. It went in my chest, blowing air.
Dad shouldered her out of the way as he took off his black Stetson hat. He ran his thick fingers through his greying hair. “You’re going to be okay, son,” Dad said and looked away from me and down at the bed. “You’ll be okay,” he said to the floor.
I reached for him to try and touch him, all sad and hanging his head. But Dad touched my arm, and I stopped. “Lay still, Danny,” he said with wet blue eyes. His lips pressed hard together and curled down. He looked empty.
“Momma?” I asked around the tube in my throat. When my mouth moved, the gauze at the edges raked over my lips and cheeks.
“I knew you’d ask about her first thing,” Dad said. “You and Vicky always had that special bond thing.” Someone in the room spoke, and Dad turned to them. “His Momma could be out in the yard talking to me about him, and he would come to her. Vicky could find him in a crowded store and walk right up to him. It beat anything I ever saw. They had a rope tied between them, Mother to son.”
“Liv?” I asked over the tube. It hurt to talk.
Dad sucked in all the air in the room and sighed so deep the shades rattled. He moved over me and looked peered through my bandages with a turned-down face. “No, Danny. Your mother died.”
I stomped my foot, and it HURT! I tried to scream, but it sounded like a pig grunting. Beeps and alarms went off behind me. The nurse ran in and touched buttons on a box that had drip lines running through it. The warnings stopped, and warmness washed through me and made me sleepy.
“That’s silly, Danny, of course, I lived,” Momma said. She leaned over me and peered down through my gauze. I smiled around my tube.
“Try not to upset him,” the nurse said. She leaned over me and tried to speak to Dad close so nobody else could hear, but I could. Why did everyone talk like I had lost my hearing? She said, “His vitals are low, sir, too low. I’m not going to pull any punches with you.”
“Tell me the truth,” Dad said. “He’s going to make it, right?”
“He won’t last the night,” she said. “Considering the body coverage and lung damage…
Momma leaned over me and interrupted. “You are fine, Danny. Why don’t we get out of this place and go home? We can stop and get ice cream on the way. How does that sound?”
“Sounds great,” I said but garbled over the tube.
“He’s trying to talk,” Patricia said.
“Does he know?” Dad asked.
The nurse shook her head. “That’s a bad idea. We try to keep their hopes up. That’s all they have left in cases like this,” she said.
“Take my hand, Danny, and I’ll help you out of bed,” Momma said. I raised my gauze-wrapped arm, and I had no hands. Momma giggled as she ran her hands along my arms and the wrappings disappeared. My arms and hands looked brand new! I held Momma’s hand, and she helped me sit up. My gauze wrappings fell away. Alarms rang out behind me.
People in white coats rushed into the room. I got up, and Momma took my hand and walked me to the foot of my bed.
“What’s going on, Momma?” I asked. “They pushed Dad and Patricia out into the hall.”
“Nothing’s left there except a life of suffering, Danny,” Momma said, pointing at my bed. “Come with me, and we’ll grow our garden,” she said with a smile.
“I’d rather shuck corn with you than be all burned,” I said. “Momma?”
“Buck heard the call of the wild. Is this like that? Is this my calling?”
Momma giggled. “It can be anything you want it to be, Danny.”
“Then that’s what I want,” I said. I laughed as we walked past Patricia and Dad. They cried and hugged, holding to one another as I waved goodbye.