An excerpt from
The Weight of Ashes
Another minute flipped by. 8:45. The red numbers seemed to burn hotter. Like they were mad at me for still sitting on the floor. Two hours had passed, and I hadn’t moved. If the bed wasn’t at my back, I’d have probably dropped flat on the floor, curled up with my pack and bat, and never moved again. I needed to get up, but the fear wouldn’t let me.
What if Mama had the box?
What if I couldn’t find what I needed at the Junkyard?
What if I made it to the witch and she couldn’t…
She could. She had to.
My arms trembled.
I was supposed to be gone already. The walk to the Junkyard would take thirty minutes. No way I could avoid being late now. If my friends didn’t wait, I’d be on my own. I couldn’t do this alone. And if I waited much longer, there wouldn’t be time to do it at all. It’d take a while to find Gordon’s car, then it was at least another twenty minutes through the woods to the Mall. Then, from there, we had to find the trail. We’d be pushing dark getting back as it was. Any later and we had bigger problems. Trying to get through the woods at night would be impossible, even with Mitch leading the way.
A sting ran deep into my chest. The corner of the box peeking out of the rip in my pack jabbed into my collar bone. My arms wrapped tight around the pack like it was the only thing keeping me alive. I didn’t know how long the box had been like that, but the sting didn’t go away when I lowered the pack. In fact, it spread until my entire body ached.
“Get up, Mark. Get up and go. Now. You have to. Mitch needs you.”
Mama’s door was always open unless she was out of her room. I just needed to sneak in, switch the ashes, then sneak out and go. That’s all. If she woke, I only had to be faster than her. She’d forgive me later. I didn’t want it to go like that, but there was no other way.
My heart beat so hard I thought it might bust through.
Mama was up.
I’d waited too long.
She couldn’t be up. That wasn’t the plan.
I bounded to my feet as if my legs hadn’t refused to budge for the past two hours. The door stuck in the frame. In the summer months, the humidity made the wood swell. Took my shoulder to knock it loose, setting it to pop and rattle as it swayed outward, into the wall. From the sink, Mama gave me a tired smile.
“Morning, baby. You hungry? I was just about to make some eggs.”
I wasn’t and I’d never hated the thought of eggs so much in my life.
“No, ma’am.” My stomach hurt. I was pretty sure I’d never be hungry again.
Her bedroom door was shut. She’d already showered and looked presentable. On Saturdays, she was always in her blue sleeping gown until late morning. She showered while I watched cartoons. It was all wrong. Mitch was waiting. I couldn’t go tomorrow. This was the fourth day. There wouldn’t be a fifth. Mitch would be gone.
Took me a second, but I shook my head. Words weren’t coming.
With Mama up and about and already showered, I didn’t have any chance at all.
“You need to eat something, Markie. It’s been a tough week.” She lowered to me, her hands on my shoulders, and kissed my forehead. “I know I haven’t given you much since … Well, I know. I’ve been… It’s been hard. Let me make it up to you. Whatever you want for breakfast. Then we’ll spend the day together, okay? Just you and me. We could go watch that Indiana Jones movie you wanted to see.”
Her eyes glistened. I looked away, but the only place I could think to look was her door. When she noticed, the slim line of her smile dropped.
“Don’t be mad. We can talk about it. It’ll just be the two of us.”
Now there were tears. She pulled back, arms folded.
“I’m not mad.” Spending the day with Mama sounded nice, though I’d already watched the movie with my friends. Mitch got most of the attention. Usually, she’d ask him what he wanted to eat on Saturday. He was older. He got to choose. Mitch always said the same thing, even if she only gave in every once in a while. It was the best answer I could think of, and I could only hope she’d bite. “Donuts!”
When her smile returned, I saw Mitch. I’d never really noticed how much his trouble-making grin matched Mama’s. “Donuts? We haven’t had donuts in a while, have we? I like it! We could sit around for your cartoons, eat donuts, then go watch the movie. How’s that sound?”
It sounded perfect. Like something I’d very much like to do. If I could. I nodded. It felt less like a lie that way. Not that I felt better about it. The sting in my chest pressed again like a pinecone trying to worm its way to my stomach.
Mama clapped her hands and hopped into action. “Give me a few minutes and we’ll head out.
We can talk on the way.”
“Head out? You want me to go with you?” If I left with her, that’d be the end of that. “Can I stay
“You don’t want to go with me?” It was like watching all the happy melt away. Every part of her body seemed to let go at once. My shoes were all I could stand to look at.
“I—” Answers drifted around my head like dandelion seeds on the breeze. “Please? Can I stay here? I just, I really don’t feel like being out. I want to be here. With Mitch.”
Mama had this way of looking at me sometimes. Eyes cut, teeth clamped on the bottom of her lip. Like she was sorting through my head to see all my devilish plans. She didn’t ask, but I still worried she had it all figured out. I pushed back against the desire to confess to everything. Even the things I hadn’t done.
“All right. It’s your day. Stay here.” Her bedroom door didn’t open much. She squeezed through, into the darkness, then closed it. Sounded like she was talking to herself a moment, then it got quiet.
Took a few minutes for her to return. I watched every second on the clock above the television. When Mama wedged her way out of her room, she almost clipped her heel shutting the door so fast. After a kiss on my head, she jingled her keys. “Back in about fifteen minutes. I’ll get a mix. Sure you don’t want to come with me?”
“Just stay—” Whatever she wanted to say didn’t make it out. She looked me over, smiled a smile that was somehow sad at the same time.
“You’re growing up so fast.” Then she was gone, eyes welled with tears.
As soon as the car cranked, I jumped to my feet. The sting in my chest left with her. At a distance from the diamond-shaped window high on the front door, I watched her reach the end of the long muddy drive. When she turned right, I sprinted to my room.
I’d checked the pack already, but I did it again anyway. Patted the back pocket of my jeans to confirm I had the map. Not that a shoe box of ashes or a folded map were going anywhere on their own. I just couldn’t help myself. Once I left, that was it. I couldn’t return without Mitch. In the living room, I set the Easton by the door and wiggled the box halfway out, until the lid opened enough for me to fish out the baggie. The ashes felt heavier than before. Now that I looked at them in daylight, I could see visible bits of charred twig poking into the plastic. I should have been more careful. If Mama looked too close, she’d know in a flash that they weren’t right.
Nothing I could do about it.
There wasn’t a breath deep enough to make me feel at peace.
Maybe when I was on my way, I’d feel better.
Maybe when I was back with Mitch, Mama would forgive me.
Even though she was gone, I took her bedroom door easy. Like she’d sense anything more and turn the car around. Silly though I knew it was, sometimes I’d swear she had a crystal ball. She came to school during lunch once. Said she sensed I’d caused a scene in class. Just an hour before I’d gotten into it with Mr. Vance over math problems. He gave me detention. Mama gave me worse.
The shades were drawn. Bedroom was mostly dark, but with enough light to see the white box on the dresser. I let loose a sigh of relief. Just a quick switch and I’d be gone and on my way. Maybe Mama would look at them today, maybe she wouldn’t. I’d have a head start no matter.
The box wasn’t anything extraordinary. White oak, trimmed in swirls of gold. Gold latch on the front, small knob to lock it shut. Looked more like one of Mama’s jewelry boxes than, well, than what it was. Picking it open wasn’t easy. The tiny knob slotted tight. When I finally got it turned and released the latch, the lid was lighter than expected. It clapped against the dresser like a gunshot, which gave me as much a start as the bag within.
For a moment, I froze, staring at it. A charred silver medallion tied the top of a clear baggie. My bag—a plain ole zip top that looked nothing like the thick-walled plastic bag in the box—didn’t have a medallion. I wasn’t even sure why it was there. The slightest scent of soot tickled my nose. The bag was much smaller than I’d expected. Much too small for Mitch. It should have been bigger. Mine was almost twice the size.
It’s not Mitch. That can’t be Mitch. There’s not enough in there.
That’s when I noticed the belt and holstered gun at the end of the dresser.
I didn’t turn. I didn’t need to. I could see him in the mirror atop the dresser. I turned my gaze back to the box, like I’d peeked in on something I shouldn’t have seen.
Officer John rustled the sheets aside. The bed creaked when he sat up. He made a noise like a yawn, though it could as easily have been a gasp. I had no idea what to do, but as if I was one of his suspects, my hands rose. If he didn’t see the bag before, he would now.
“Turn around, Mark.”
I had a vision of Mama coming home to find me in handcuffs, bawling and stuffed in the back of Officer John’s car. Prison would be better than what she’d do to me.
But whatever Mama would do wouldn’t be worse than failing Mitch.
Mama had never had a man over before. It’d just been the three of us forever. Didn’t even know I had a daddy until I learned that he ran off to have another family elsewhere before I was born. I didn’t want to see Officer John in her bed, but I couldn’t let him stop me neither. The bag in the box was there for the taking, wide white sticker on the plastic blaring “Mitchell Murphy” at me. As fast as I could, I swapped out the baggie of firepit ash for the bag in the box. I knew instantly that Mama wouldn’t be fooled. My bag didn’t fit in the box well enough to close the lid, and the bag I held didn’t feel like ash at all. Some of the bits within were sharp against my palms, like ground pebbles.
Like ground bone.
When I gave it a squeeze, it didn’t give the same as my bag. I pinched the medallion between my fingers, looking for some sign I had it all wrong. That this wasn’t Mitch. But the inscription bore his name. Black soot marked my fingers. I’d printed the lid of the box with sooty fingerprints.
Something in my throat twitched and I nearly threw up.
Once the lid to the white box was as shut as it’d get, I turned to Officer John, bag clutched to my chest.
A white tank top covered some of his hairy chest, slacks draped over the wooden chair by the wall, shoes on the floor at the foot of the bed. I knew I could get all the head start I needed. Couldn’t imagine he’d chase me outside in his briefs and bare feet.
“Put the bag back, Mark.”
I slid a step toward the door. “I have to go. Tell Mama it’ll be all right. We’ll be back later.”
“What do you mean? What are you doing?”
The sheets shifted aside. A bit of hairy leg draped over the edge of the bed, challenging me. Not wanting to wait until he completely stood, I took off. The trailer floor shook as he landed hard, calling my name, but I got to my pack in a flash. By the time he reached the bedroom door, trousers half on in a one-legged dance, Mitch’s ashes were in the shoe box, pack zipped, bat in hand.
“Whatever you’re doing, think about your mom. She doesn’t need this.” He nearly tripped trying to get his second leg in but caught himself on the doorframe.
“She needs Mitch. So do I.” And I ran.
“Needs Mitch? Mark, your brother—” Officer John’s voice cut short as the storm door clapped shut. His patrol car was there, right out front of my bedroom window. If I had looked at all, I’d have seen it. Better I didn’t. I wouldn’t have chanced going in the room.
Sky was still grey, but the rain had finally stopped. Mosquitos were out in full force, air thick and swampy. The yard and drive were nothing but puddles. Much more and we’d have been the start of a new pond. I did my best not to slosh, but the faster I ran, the more impossible it became. Water seeped through the legs of my jeans. My sneakers were coated in mud and heavy as tires.
I didn’t look back until I reached the end of the long drive, and only then because I heard the siren of the patrol car yelp. Officer John shouted something I couldn’t make out, half in the car,
uniform shirt unbuttoned. The Junkyard was to the right, straight down Moody Road into downtown Hogan, but I wouldn’t get far with Officer John trailing me. Only choice was to cut straight across Moody, through the Herberts’ lot, into the woods behind their house, until I reached the train tracks. They ran along the same path as Moody, but with no cross street until Silver Lake Drive in town. The Junkyard was on the other side of the Square.
Another blast of the siren gave me a jolt as I crossed the road, but there was no way I was looking back.
I hit the tracks at full speed and didn’t slow down, no matter how much it hurt, no matter how hard it was to breathe. If I kept at a run, I could cut some time. Hopefully, my friends would wait for me.
By the time I neared the break in the trees just outside of downtown, my legs were screaming for rest. I didn’t want to chance coming out in the open, so I ducked back into the woods the rest of the way.
At the clearing near the Square, I saw the swirling lights and knew I was in for it.