All mama can afford for your birthday is a dollar store Barbie. Hope that’s alright with you. I saved up my pennies just to replace the old doll. But God. Oh my God. She’s so ugly. Look at her—big forehead, eyes off-center like a possum’s tail. And the lips! My God, Look at those stupid lips! Deep mauve, puckered like she’s got a mouth full of hacky sacks. Well. She’s pretty in her own right. Hope you like it. She was only a buck. Could say the same about you; mama met daddy on dollar Margarita night, but I’ll tell you that story another day.

            Today, you’re only ten. It’s unreal, this day. It’s unreal.

            Look at you—ten years old, almost a teenager with your mama’s gangly limbs, my meek facade. Brown hair that hangs like a thread on a sweater, bleary brown eyes the color of pagpag meat, straining to be free of their cornea bags. Just gotta shake you off a little. There’s a good girl hidden under layers of dirt and my DNA. Sure, I’m pretty. My hair and makeup always look nice, but there’s nothing there. Not like you. You’re really something special. So I’m sorry this is all I could scrounge up for your birthday, but you’re not like me. You appreciate the simple things. We’ll just put Dollar Tree Barbie in this bag and save it for later. Let’s get along, the streets get crowded on Saturday afternoon.

            We’ll go back to the house and gather the last of your things. We’re moving out, though I guess we moved out days ago. We didn’t get to grab anything before combustion knocked down our door—that oxygenated sheriff—and kicked us to the curb. I can think of at least one thing I should have tucked deep underneath my arm. But we’re no worse for wear. Things can be replaced.

Huh, you know something, girl? This doll looks a bit like you and me. If we’d been run over by a car, or put through the flame. Hmm? Enough of that. Let’s hurry on home. Hold my hand, Jojo. Wait for the light to turn red—oh? You’re too old for childish nicknames now, I suppose. Well, Justine, big girl or not, the roads are dangerous. Hold my hand until we get to the other side. Hurry now. The cars are waiting. Don’t want to get run over. We can stop at 7-11 for Slurpees, it is a special day, and we can go down to Lake Eola and ride the swings, or even—

            “Melissa!” A sharp voice flanks us on the sidewalk’s hip. I know, baby, you haven’t seen Dennis in awhile. He’s awkward now as ever with a hand tucked in his tweed pocket. “Melissa,” he says again, not really looking me in the face. “How are you doing?” I tell him that I’m doing fine. He keeps going, looking me over like an abandoned building, husked of the infrastructure, not quite knowing whether it’s safe to come in or not.

            I haven’t seen him in a couple days. Last Tuesday, he was holding my hand, thumbing the IV needle and saying how much he loved me, with the same tone he used to talk to me about marriage, or adopting you and becoming a natural father. Then I woke up Thursday morning. The hospital staff said he was gone. I’ve had no interest in talking to him since.

            “I’ve tried calling you,”  he says.

            “I hadn’t noticed.”

            I know, Justine, lying is bad. I’ll add a quarter to the lie jar once we’re back at the house. It’s okay, you don’t have to talk to him. Stay back, hold my hand. Mama’s here, everything is alright.

            “I meant to come back to the hospital.”

            “No, you didn’t. Don’t play games.”

            “I’m not playing games. I was scared. Wouldn’t you be?”

            “Yes, I was.”

            He’s uncomfortable. Good. Yes, I know it’s not nice to be mean. Sounds so simple, a child’s logic.

            Dennis points to the bag, asks what’s inside. I want to tell him it’s none of his business, but I take the high road—politeness—and say, “It’s a birthday gift for Justine.”

            He’s not expecting that answer. I don’t think anyone ever would be and I know what he’s going to say before the thought leaves his mouth, “Melissa, are you okay?”

            I want to grab him and throw him into the sewer, watch his brains become strudel under the wheel of a city bus. Of course I’m not okay. He knows as well as I. Are you okay? Jesus Christ. Come on Justine; before we get caught in this endless loop of uneasy talk.

            But Dennis is behind us. He’s not giving up so easy.

            “What is it?” he asks.

            I tell him, “A present.”

He runs a hand through his hair, ruffling one of his sideburns in the process. He doesn’t notice at all, not even when the wind stirs a stray hair to his cheek. It bothers me, that hair, and I know it bothers you too. I want to reach over and pat it down, but I don’t do things like that anymore.

            For the first time all day, I want a cigarette. I haven’t smoked since I got out of the hospital. You were always ragging on me to quit. Even flushed my cartons of cigarettes down the toilet. My own mama would have beat me for doing such a thing, but I couldn't bring myself to punish you anymore than I could bring myself to quit. Nicotine is a hell of a drug. So is being a mother. Both are bad, in their own way. Both bring pain.

            Insult, meet injury. Dennis pulls out a cigarette out of his pocket protector. The cheap Misty Slims I always teased him for smoking, like a teenage girl. The smell is arousing, the bitter, rotten sting of tobacco. I miss it. But I’m too proud to ask him for a puff.

            He blows out, then asks, “Where are you going now?”

            I tell him, “To the house,” and don’t wait for his reaction. He’ll think I’m crazy, and so what? I have some things to do. “Don’t give me that look,” I say.

            “What look?”

            “That one you’re giving me now.”

He adjusts his face. You know well, as he does, my voice demands respect. My lips convey what my eyes and hands cannot. My voice commands him to answer my next question. “Where have you been?”

            He stumbles over an excuse about work and stress and blah, blah, blah. I inform him that I saw myself out of the hospital. My dad put up enough money for a few weeks’ fees at the extended stay motel by the mall.

            “That’s good,” he says.

            “It’s not good. It’s pathetic and sad.”

            “You want some adjectives with that sentence?”

            “Shut the fuck up,” I tell him. Yes, I know, I said a swear. Not a nice thing to do, but Dennis was being a jackass. Another swear. Well, some people deserve it. Life will teach you that, Justine. And it serves him well. He shut his mouth, didn’t he? Him and dollar store Barbie, silent at my side, as they should be. The only noise around us is the traffic and the crinkle of the plastic bag against my thigh.

            Eventually he asks, “Going to the house you say?”

I affirm, yes; the house I share with my daughter.

You wouldn’t know Justine—you were asleep—but the other day our house burned to the ground. You were carried out in a charred slumber. You still don’t know what happened, I reckon. Our abrupt move was just a chance of location, an adventure of mother and daughter.

“Is it safe to go in that house?” Dennis asks.

“Probably not.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t go.”

 This is what eats me alive, baby. Dennis is absolutely right. Dennis is always right—comes with the territory of being a philosophy professor. I’m gonna let you in on a secret, Justine—he makes me insecure, what with my high school diploma and Steak ‘N Shake paycheck. He loves me, I’m sure, but he’s always been right, and he knows it. That’s why he keeps talking about smoke inhalation this and exercising caution that. “The firefighters,” he says, “they say the home isn’t habitable. Maybe you should listen and stay away.”

“I should.”

“I haven’t seen it for myself, but the paper said it was horrific, like a small scale explosion. They had a hard time believing the damage was from a couple of matches and cigarette lighters.”

He’s right again. In fact, that’s an understatement. My dad went by the other day and said there was still caution tape, some news reporters. Our place is burned inside out, black like a smoker’s lung. But I won’t give Dennis the satisfaction of turning back. Our street is just up the corner, past the stoplight, tucked between dueling gas stations and Chinese restaurants. We’re like vultures, we need to scavenge what’s ours. Or maybe that’s crows, digging in dirt for shiny things.

Dennis interrupts my thoughts. “Today’s the twenty-sixth, right?”

I don’t answer him. Stupid questions get no answers.

“Justine’s birthday,” he observes.

“Nothing gets by you, smart guy.”

He brushes me off. He does that a lot. My nerves are nuclear, I suppose. Nothing I can do to get rid of me. He follows me—us—step for step to the end of the block. Probably would have taken my hand if not for your dollar store Barbie. Or his cigarette. He takes a puff and drops the white stick to the ground.

Without his smoke, Dennis wants to talk more. All about the fire, of course. In the wake of trouble, the man is as interesting as a backwoods radio, playing only one song. “Your father and I talked in the hospital.”

“Before or after you left?”

He clears his throat, just like a coward. “He said the house will have to be demolished, or what’s left of it anyway. Even the surrounding trees are completely decimated, all the animals retreating into the the neighboring gardens.”

I’m not surprised he’s using his big boy words. He does this when he’s nervous. That or quote Socrates, which he hasn’t done today. Good thing, or I’d turn his teeth to Fruity Pebbles.

The main road runs out. So do the expanses, the cars, and the stores. We’re here, almost. I can smell the char.

Dennis reminds me, “It’s not too late to go back.”

I defy him with my footsteps. “I need to do this.”

He wants to pull out another cigarette—that’s how he deals with tough situations. But instead he says, “Know thyself, I suppose.”

He should stop me, but he doesn’t. One life lesson, baby—no one can stop a mother. Hell, I can’t even stop myself as I approach our little shanty. The place isn’t fancy—one bedroom for you, a couch for me, a kitchen, a bathroom. It’s still our home. What’s left of it, anyways. I cut down the ticker tape with my nail clipper and hand dollar store Barbie to Dennis.

            I enter the house, a Chernobyl of nitrogen and flame. The chemical composition of a burned down house is as follows: blankets and quilts reduced to pieces of fabric bacon; My Little Ponies that look like they’ve been smoking battery acid or meth; open wounds of bookshelves; two ends of the same bed in the middle of a divorce. There are pictures with no faces, shoes with no soles, and each hallway is a tunnel, a cigarette, and the air’s a cinder fest.

Really, there’s nothing left but the remains of a village, a family.

            I tell Dennis, “I was hoping some of the stuff would be salvageable.”

            He’s behind me saying, “I’m sure some of it is, in its own way.”

            My steps become heavy, hands clawing through trash like a bear mauling skin. The flesh of the house is turned over and exposed, covering my hands in obsidian dirt as I look from room to room. By the couch, I find a few cigarettes and a knocked-over ash tray. The lighter and some matches, an indiscernible pile of plastic, oil, and wood. Imprints of your sneakers—who knows where they’re going, where you’d be found. But worst of all, I find your doll.

            This goddamned doll.

            Under the rubble where they reckon you died.

            Thought it was lost forever but here it is, by the door of the closet, that real Barbie you’ve had since you were knee-high to a bobcat. I don’t remember where you got it, but now I know where it lays. Right here, in the dirt. She has no face, no hair. She’s all ash.

            I turn to face you, but Justine, you aren’t there. It’s just Dennis and me—a mutated survivor of a travesty.

            Dennis tells me, “It’s okay, Melissa.”

            I’m sniffling. “I should be in jail.”

            “It’s not your fault.”

            “I shouldn’t have left the matches out. Or the lighter. Maybe I fell asleep with the cigarette lit. God, she was only nine.” I’m crying onto my hands until Dennis takes me into his shirt.

            “Socrates said that death is a human blessing.”

            “The man has a fucked up idea of a blessing.”

            Dennis pats my back. “Or he never lost a child.”

            We sit in silence for awhile, a mess of humans on a burnt up floor.

            “You were right,” I tell him.

            “Of course I was.” He clears his throat. “About what?”

            “I should not have come back here.”

            He stands me up. I step into the place of your rubbery footprint.

            “What’s done is done,” he says. “Why don’t we go somewhere else. Did you have other plans for today?”

            “7-11 for a Slurpee. Then the carnival.”

            He lets out a sharp breath. “The carnival is already over. There’s a few leftover rides, but the carnies are all gone.”

            I tell him to take me anyways. He thinks I’m crazy, but what else is new? I’m a mother on a mission for her baby girl. I find dollar store Barbie. Dennis takes me by the hand and we catch the bus. We stop for Slurpees—coffee for him. I buy one for you and carry it alongside the bag with your birthday present.

            As Dennis predicted, the carnival is long gone, and I remark, “It’s like a bomb went off in here.”

            He looks to the overcast sky and says, “Maybe it did.”

            There is very little left—a few hotdog stands, abandoned ticket stubs, a carousel without color saturation. I board the carousel, the highest horse, with its jaw unhinged. I look around me, see what could have been, with you—ferris wheels, roller coasters, high-rising swings. I could go around and around Justine, but I guess we’ll never know. Don’t play with fire. That’s a story from experience.

            There’s a bench in the carousel. Dennis sits there, and eventually, I join him. We leave a spot between us for you, the Slurpee, and dollar store Barbie. I’m on the far end, and my feet scrape the ground. I catch the deluge of muddy waters in my white shoes.

            It’s unreal, I feel you here. It is what it is, Justine. Happy birthday.

 Anastasia Jill is a queer poet, fiction writer, and aspiring filmmaker. Her work has been published or is upcoming with, Lunch Ticket, FIVE:2:ONE, Ambit Magazine, apt, Into the Void Magazine, 2River, Gertrude Press, and more.