Wearing an extra layer in winter didn’t tip anyone off that I was trying to hide something. A jacket on, even in a classroom, in January isn’t that weird. I’m sure my teachers and other students started to notice me and could tell I wasn’t wearing the coat for warmth with the pinks lighting my cheeks as the snow started to recede and the mix of sand and salt created slush-soaked parking lots. The jackets turned to sweatshirts and still no comments, so it must not have looked too odd, but as school approached an end and the days warmed the long sleeve shirts drew looks, jokes and even questions. I didn’t like to look at the burns on my right arm and was sure if a teacher saw them there would be questions.
There isn’t much to tell about those scars, only that they formed uneven ridges and were now touched pink against my white skin. That wood stove turns red hot in the basement during the winter months and my brother and I need to keep it going and stuffed full to keep the pipes from freezing. At times I open the door with that creak and smell the puffs of wood smoke kick back and load on whatever we’ve got; we burn hardwood and softwood, seasoned wood and green wood and we even burn pallets if there isn’t anything else to put in there. We sit there feeding it into the night and watch that black pipe turn cherry red with my parents lying in their own vomit splayed across the couch or the bed after too many drinks. We were a normal family as far as I could tell; we had a few arguments, but who doesn’t? My brother and I went at it like any siblings do. One night arguing over a girl at school, I gave him a shove into the weight bench and he came firing back at me and slammed me into the searing hot wood stove. The moment against the stuffed stove burned the delicate white flesh on my arm and planed off any hair that had been there before. I tried to pull loose from that stone and iron, but his body was pressed hard against mine and I could only smell the smoldering flesh of my arm as it melted off. I finally pulled together enough strength to shove him off through wide eyed pain and send two quick lefts at his face because my right arm was screaming. We had a few days off from school to let the bruising on our faces go down, so no one suspected anything, but we didn’t say much to each other for a while.
The looks I get from teachers and other students wearing this sweatshirt in late May is something I’m getting sick of though. I look around and see shorts and tank tops. The warm weather whispers at us through school windows, but I still look like lions and lambs, which should have disappeared long ago. There are others who have odd fashion choices like mine and I wonder what they might be hiding, do they have a normal family like me or are they one of those boring ones you see on TV all the time? Allison has been wearing long sleeves the last few days and I know she just broke up with Jason. I wonder if she’s hiding her pain under those sleeves. Sometimes after a haircut done by his father, Ralph is allowed to wear his hat because it looks like he cut it himself without a mirror to work with. We all feel bad for him, even though he gets picked on for the hair until it looks a little more normal. Hair grows back though and burnt flesh or deep gashes in wrists are permanent.
Sometimes I feel like running over to Allison and pulling her sleeves up to see if we share the same imprint, a kind of kinship with our pain. I wouldn’t want someone to do the same to me and I’ve been taking the 0s in gym class, like she has because we won’t change our clothes. The other kids think it’s stupid, but they wouldn’t know because they come from a place made of actors, a place that doesn’t have fistfights between siblings or relationships that end with one person cheating on the other and the victim running a sharp blade along their wrist to regain some sense of normal.
I haven’t come up with a plan for Allison and she might not take my advice even if I did, but one of these days I think I’ll just burn down the house and that will give me a reason to have these marks on my arm. The plan wouldn’t take that much effort because both my parents are out by the time my brother and I get home anyways. After the fire department comes, the big orange flames are put out and the house is nothing but smoldering two bys and melted shingles, everything will be normal again. All the other students will say, “didn’t you hear about him pulling his brother out of the house? He saved his life and that’s how he got those burns on his arms. What a hero!” My scars might fit this world if I burn down the house and I might actually belong to a family that fits the screen the way theirs all do.
Matt McGuirk teaches and laughs at his puns by day and scribbles stories nightly. He lives with his family in New Hampshire. Stories published or forthcoming in The Daily Drunk Magazine, Goat’s Milk, Idle Ink, Literally Stories, New World Writing, Sledgehammer Lit, Sleet, Versification and others. Follow him on Twitter @McguirkMatthew and Instagram @mcguirk_matthew.
image: “Pitch Black”: Christy Lorio is a writer and photographer based in New Orleans. Christy’s photography has been seen in Auburn Art Gallery (Los Angeles), Millepiani Exhibition Space (Rome, Italy) and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (New Orleans) as well as various publications. She was a finalist in New Delta Review’s 2021 Ryan R. Gibbs Photography contest as well as a fellow for Arizona State University’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference. Christy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans and is currently working on her MFA in Studio Art from UNO.