There’s a great forest in our backyard. At sundown last night, while Grandfather was standing on the deck birdwatching, he saw something under the trees staring back at him. He dropped his binokulers. And this time it wasn’t because of his arthrites.

I do not know if I spelled those two big words right. Binokulers, arthrites. Mrs. Ignis hasn’t taught us them yet. But there are lots of words I know that she hasn’t taught us yet. Lots of words from lots of teachers. Like Grandfather. At sundown last night he taught me the word “Corpse.”

It’s easy. I don’t even have to look at his sketch anymore. I can sound it out all by myself. Co-r-pse. He wrote it in sharp letters over the drawing he made of the thing he saw staring back at him in the woods, under the trees. Guess it’s a co-r-pse. Not a “thing.”

He tapped the sharp word with his pink pencil eraser three times. I was very proud. He drew the whole thing—no, not a thing, he drew the whole co-r-pse—without shaking his hand once! Mother said she was proud also. But she frowned when she looked at the picture. And frowned again after Grandfather said, “no, this isn’t a joke.” And yet again Mother frowned (!!!) when Grandfather said, “no, this wasn’t a dream,” and, “yes, I took my medicine today.” Mother said there are no such things as ghosts. Guess she didn’t know what I know – that what Grandfather saw staring back at him, under the trees, wasn’t a thing or a ghost, but a co-r-pse.

Besides, Grandfather doesn’t lie. Unless we’re talking about that one time when he lied to me about Father. Then yes, Grandfather does lie. He said Father would be “all right”. Father wasn’t “all right”. Mr. Doctor Man said Father was “all gone,” not “all right.” Mr. Doctor Man said the fire burned Father “all up” and now he’s “all gone” and now Mother is the one who’s “all right.”

Mother used to suffer from what Mustache Police Man called Domeesstic Abuce. When I asked her why she didn’t take pills to cure herself like Grandfather did, she said that people who have Domeesstic Abuce are only prescribed one thing. Love. Then she cried all over me and just about gave me my bath!


So I try and fill her prescription whenever her bottles of Alprazolam are empty. Those aren’t for Domeesstic Abuce. Mother says those are for angcizety. I do not think I can spell angcizety. But I KNOW I can spell Alprazolam. See, Alprazolam. There, spelled flawlesslay. I see the name lying around all the time. It used to be hard. But now it is easy!

Most of the Alprazolam bottles melted with Father in the fire. But Mother got new bottles. She said Father’s smoking caused it. The fire. And also the burn marks Mother tries to hide. She must have been bad at hide-and-seek when she was my age, because you can always still see them. Mother tries to hide them with her makeup.

This new neighborhood doesn’t have any kids to play hide-and-seek with. Only my friend, Here, (WHO IS NOT IMAGINARY.) But even Here doesn’t like to play hide-and-seek. And I understand that. Here isn’t a kid. What Here does like though is Tag! And I can never catch him!! He’s so good at it, it’s not fair. We play in the woods, under the trees.

Grandfather’s drawing does not resembell my friend Here. So it can’t be him who’s staring from the forest. Here doesn’t even stare at me! He only says his name and then runs away deeper into the brush. Here and his Tag, he just loves it.

Grandfather does not love the co-r-pse staring back at him in the forest. Doesn’t even come close to loving it. More like he hates it, the way Mother hates scary movies. She screams out sometimes. But sometimes it’s worse than that. Sometimes she goes all silent and white, like she’s imitating the ghosts in the TV. That’s what Grandfather does. Screams sometimes and goes all white other times. Except not at the TV. At the woods, and what’s staring back at him under the trees.

Yesterday, Grandfather said he saw the co-r-pse step out from the forest and into our backyard. He said the sun did not shine on it. But the sun was shining just fine yesterday. I know because I smelled a cracked egg on the sidewalk cooking. On second thought, I think burning. The egg was burning. I couldn’t see from my window. But I could smell it all right!

That smell reminded me of the fire that burned up Mother’s Alprazolam and Father’s body. It reminded me also of the secret Mother made me swear not to TELL. But if I WRITE it here…I don’t think it counts.

Before the fire started I heard Mother and Grandfather arguing from my room. The shouts were so loud they woke me up! Mother was calling Grandfather nasty names and Mrs. Ignis told us that if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all. And I really liked that so when I went to go tell Mother not to call Grandfather a “coot”, I made BOTH Mother AND Grandfather go all silent and white like I was the ghost in the TV.

Mother was holding a large red container, the color of a firetruck!, that had a yellow hose sticking out its top. Grandfather had a pack of smokes crumbled beneath his hand, Lucky Strikes, the kind Father used to puff on, but Grandfather doesn’t puff on anything except his Darth Vader oxcigen mask! This time it was Mother who dropped something.

When the large red container hit our carpet, beer spilled out. Father’s favorite drink. Or that’s what it looked like, beer without the bubbles. It didn’t smell like beer, though. More like rotten eggs!

I can’t believe Father didn’t wake up! He just sat in his chair the whole time, snoring through the arguing, the spilled beer, and Mother making me swear not to TELL anyone about her accident. I’m glad Mother is allowing Grandfather to tell me about the co-r-pse. This morning he said it’s getting closer, that he doesn’t need his binokulers to see it anymore…and Grandfather needs his binokulers to see just about everything!

Me, I can’t see the co-r-pse. And neither can Mother. Every time Grandfather screams for us to come outside and look—and boy, does he ever scream for us, so loud the little punching bag in the back of his throat must wobble a hundred miles per hour—the co-r-pse suddenly vanishes! Just poofs away in a cloud of smoke.

Which is what I always seem to smell right before Grandfather screams. Smoke. The same kind of smoke that swallowed up our old house. Black…ugly…gushing smoke. I asked Grandfather this morning if he ever smells ugly smoke and he bobbed his head yup, and said sometimes he smells the smoke of lit cigarettes, then he looked at Mother with the most serious face, like he meant reeeal business, and whispered, “Lucky Strikes.” Mother said, “That’s ridiculous,” and she hasn’t “had a toke in a coon’s age”. That’s when Grandfather half hiccupped, half laughed and pointed out that he sertantlee hasn’t been smoking. I raised my arm and I said “me neither!”

“Well, someone has,” Mother suggested, so I went a step further and made my own suggestion. “Yeah, it could be my friend, Here.” They don’t like it when I talk about my friend Here. So they pretended they didn’t hear me, oh wait, here’s a good one, they pretended they didn’t hear Here! Hahahaha, get it? Hear Here? Anyway, it was quiet after that so I asked Mother, “Have you smelled anything recently?” She looked pretty proud to say “No.” But she said it without even thinking! Maybe if she hadn’t been so quick, Grandfather wouldn’t have had to correct her.

“I saw you drop down on the driveway this morning and check for leaks under the sedan.” Grandfather jabbed his finger at her, the finger with the skin tag on it (he lets me flick it sometimes). “You weren’t coming or going, the sedan had just been sitting dead all night and still I saw you inspecting the undercarriage. What for?”

Mother got so red in the face I thought her head was going to EXPLODE! “I didn’t smell what you guys smell. I didn’t smell smoke.”

“No,” Grandfather agreed, and then looked out at the great forest, to the exact spot where he saw the co-r-pse staring back at him, under the trees. “But you smelled gasoleen.”

It wasn’t even a question!

That was this morning, out on the deck when Grandfather wasn’t birdwatching, but co-r-pse watching. Since then not much has happened. Mother made a few calls to some “homes,” chewed on her fingernails and gazed out at Grandfather on the deck. I’ve been decorating my journal with cat drawings and cursive practice. I filled two whole pages with just writing “Chris Burns” over and over again. Practice makes perfect! That’s another one of Mrs. Ignis’s sayings. And look, I’m getting pretty good at it, “Chris Burns.” I would write Christofer Burns, but I am afraid I would misspell his full name a zillion, bajillion times!

Hang on journal, something’s happening. I can hear Grandfather screaming again. The co-r-pse must be here! I’m going to go check it out! Don’t go growing legs and running away on me while I’m gone!


Okay, I’m back. Grandfather’s having what Mother thinks is a stroke. I don’t know what the heck a stroke is, but Mother won’t even let me see him! She dug her nails into my arm and dragged me back here, into my room. When I tried leaving again she locked the door. She promised me that she would come get me when it’s safe. The ambluence is coming. But so is the co-r-pse. I know because I can smell the ugly smoke again, the cooked eggs.

And I think the co-r-pse is going to beat the ambulence here.

I think the co-r-pse is closer than the backyard now. I think it might be on the deck with Grandfather.

Oh, I hope the amlance comes fast! I can hear Mother screaming for them. “Help! Help!” she’s shouting, so loud her punching bag must be putting Grandfather’s to shame. Silly Mother, doesn’t she know the ambluence can’t hear her?

I wonder if Here can hear her. I don’t think that joke is funny anymore. Uh-oh, now it’s not “Help!” and now it’s not a scream. Mother must be near my room. She’s mumbling, “Chris, I’m sorry. Don’t hurt her. Don’t hurt her, Chris. Take me instead.”

That smoky smell is really coming in strong, and it’s starting to get a little hot in here. I can feel my Hello Kitty shirt sticking to my back. I don’t like that feeling. I don’t like the heat. I don’t like the smell. Something doesn’t feel right. I’m going to go try and push open my door.


Hand’s burnt. Door’s locked. The knob is practically on fire. It felt like that one time my finger bumped into the stove by accident. Mother isn’t saying anything anymore. But someone else is.

“Here,” my friend who I play Tag with in the great forest, is calling out to me. Usually when he speaks he’s farther away, somewhere under the trees. But he sounds like he’s inside my house.

“Here,” he’s calling again and he sounds like he’s in the hall.

I better go tell him I’m not in the mood for hide-and-seek.


Matilda Burns rolls off her Disney bedspread; she stands behind the door preserving her childhood innocence. She leans toward the searing knob, careful not to touch, having learned her lesson like the good little girl she is. In the calm of her room, she peeps, “Go away, I’m not in the mood for games. I think Mother is hurt; I think Grandfather is hurt; and I am scared.”

On the other side of the doorway, amidst riptides of spitting flames, amidst roiling seas of ugly smoke, a corpse ablaze replies, “Here.”

Matilda does not possess the talents her favorite Power Puff Girl possesses. She cannot tap into a miraculous wellspring of superpowers. So she has no way of knowing her “friend” on the other side of the doorway isn’t a friend at all, but her father. And that his name isn’t Here, but Christopher Burns; and that he doesn’t want to play Tag, but Catch.


Whorling tongues lap up at little Matilda’s door. Soon the fire-gutted house comes burning, burning down all around her.


And she was right. The corpse beat out the ambulance.


The ghost of her father closes a scorched hand around the doorknob, liquefies the lock, and pushes the door open.


Hell breathes through Matilda’s room. White butterfly wallpaper warps like the fun-house mirrors Matilda and her late father made funny faces in last summer. The butterflies all fly away on inferno gusts.

Christopher Burns meets his daughter again. Though his eyes are clenched closed. Though burnt skin flakes float weightlessly around him like some shaken-up snow globe. Though black, ugly, gushing smoke fumes from where his hair stopped growing. Matilda knows it’s him. She knows it’s him and she knows exactly what he’s here for … to reclaim his daughter … to maybe, once again, make some more funny faces in fun-house mirrors. She knows this only by his upturned, outstretched hand.


There’s a burn blister ripening on Matilda’s palm. She looks down at that fire bubble, marvels at just how quick something so painful could form, and slips her hand into her father’s.

At that very instant, flames spread to Matilda … Christopher’s eyes finally open … and all the tears they shed won’t extinguish what he’s done.

He collapses onto his knees, scoops Matilda up into a cradling embrace, like he remembered doing not so long ago, and through the dragon fire that comes tormenting out of his throat, he screams, “NO!”