The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen

SIX YEARS EARLIER

1

On the night I asked my father the question, my family had been five years in the basement. Five years since the fire. It hadn’t been quite so long for me. I was born just after they went down there.

“Why can’t we go out?”

Dad amended the wall calendar and sat at the table, the large one we had in the main space, where living room, kitchen, and dining room merged.

“What would you want to go out for?” he replied. “All your family’s here.”

Mom lowered her head, her chin touching her chest. I think she also shut her eyes. There wasn’t much light down there, just the bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Sometimes I thought of them as suicide victims, glass bodies hanged and swinging from a cable.

“Come here, son.” Dad pushed his chair back and slapped his knee a couple of times. I walked over to him, dragging my feet. I could feel the cold of the floor through a hole in the heel of my pajamas. I still wore the type with feet. Dad took hold of me under the armpits, lifted me up, and sat me on his lap. As I often did in the early days down in the basement, I held my hand to his face. I liked the feel of his burned skin. From his left eye to the corner of his mouth, the irregular folds of his deformed features were appealing to a child’s touch.

“Stop it,” he complained, lowering my arm. “I want you to look around you. At your family.” My mother, brother, and grandma turned to me. Everyone except my sister, who was looking away.

“And the one who’s not facing you,” said my father, “she’s part of this family, too.” The white mask turned on its neck then, and fixed its eyes on me.

“See them?” Dad asked. “Them, you, and me, we’re all we need. There’s nothing worthwhile up there. Do you remember when your mother splashed you with hot oil when she was cooking?”

It had happened a few weeks earlier, while Mom was making breakfast. The darkness of the basement and the shadows that danced around, distorting reality with each gentle sway of the lightbulbs, made some tasks difficult. The morning she splashed me with oil, I’d gotten between her legs and made her trip. It was actually my fault.

“Do you remember how much the blister hurt? The one you had here?” my father went on. He opened my hand to examine the back of it. He pointed at the exact place where the blister had been. There was no trace of it anymore.

“You’re covered in drool. When’re you going to stop sucking your fingers?” He barely moved his head, but looked at my mother for a second.

“Do you remember how much that little bubble of liquid hurt?” he asked again, pinching the back of my hand. “Well, the world up top is made of bubbles like that. But not little ones like yours.”

He pinched harder with his fingers, making it hurt as if the blister had grown back again.

“Up there, outside, the bubbles are a hundred times bigger. You wouldn’t be able to stand the pain.” He began twisting with his fingers. “Pain that would finish you off as soon as you set foot outside this basement.”

I opened my mouth but said nothing. I was stopped by the pain on the back of my hand, much worse than I’d felt from the blister when it was still there, and the pain in my wrist, which my dad wasn’t aware he was crushing. I remember the snotty sound in my throat, the dampness of my cheeks.

“Stop, please.” It was Mom who said it, her voice barely a whisper. Dad let go. The pain lasted a while longer.

“See how you don’t want to leave this place? If you can barely stand that, what would happen to you out there?” He stroked my wrist and kissed the spot where the blister had been, reddened again by the pinch. “There, there, little soldier, it’s not so bad. Daddy doesn’t want to hurt you, he just wants you to understand. You have to learn that this is the best place you could be. The best place in the world. Do you want to touch my face?”

He moved my hand to his scars and let me stroke them. He knew I liked it. He managed to calm me down. I used to linger on a line of hard hair that sprouted from a fold across his cheek, a place where Dad couldn’t shave. It was like a scar of hair. I liked running my fingertips down it.

“Anyway,” he said, shaking his head and moving my fingers away, “who said you can’t go out?”

My grandmother snatched her hands back from the table. I saw them disappear underneath. Something changed in the posture of my siblings, too. They straightened up, their backs rigid. Mom kept her head bowed.

“The door’s there,” my father continued, gesturing at it. With the other hand he grabbed my head and forced me to look at it. “It’s a few steps away. And it’s open. It’s always been open. Who told you otherwise?”