Tolga Bilgen a) Lives and works in Seattle. b) Has published stories in Not One of Us and nanobison. c) Figures that fear resides in the brain; specifically, in a little almond-shaped glob called the amygdala.
Her son's birth: ouch. Searing pain, a brief blackout. Doctors sniped at each other, their faces twisted ugly behind surgical masks. A nurse shook her head as if to apologize.
Still, the baby was healthy. Gurgles, dimpled knees, diapers filled with green goo.
She e-mailed photos to her husband. "I love you so much hon," he said, through long-distance crackle. He couldn't wait to come home, and meet his son.
Didn't happen. His unit took heavy casualties. His body, its parts, were never found in the dunes.
Life went on.
She watched her son grow into a happy, inquisitive child. She supplied him with books and toys and love. Spaghetti-O's, his favorite. A good boy.
At age twelve, he started eating fire. "No Spaghetti-O's tonight, mother, I'll just sit in the fireplace for dinner."
A mother's love trumps all oddity. "Let's keep this between you and me, okay champ?" she said.
She kept plenty of firewood on hand. Charcoal bricks, too, and old newspapers for afterschool snacks.
When he came of age, her son found himself able to turn into bright, cold flame, soaking up heat instead of burning hot.
Soon after, he announced himself to the world, and she found it took some getting used to, being the mother of a fire-god.
The people loved him.
He spent most of his time in the city, as a bonfire, a giant, blue-shimmering temple. People brought their things, set them alight, and he'd feast. (All very civilized; police for crowd control, fire-department for supervision.)
Furniture, rotary phones, thigh-masters, old love-letters, high school rings, pornography, Nazi regalia, Cabbage-Patch Kids and Rambo coloring books; people brought anything. "It's a true cleansing," one follower gushed, "I feel so free! FREEEEEE!"
Captains of industry and politicians also appreciated the fire-god, as he produced neither residue nor hazardous fumes; "He's the ultimate incinerator, boss," said the undersecretary of waste management. "No mess, no fees."
Non-stop TV coverage: that toxic waste he consumed this morning might've poisoned a river, Chuck. Now he's ridding the world of decommissioned chemical weapons--back to you, Skip. You'll notice, Brent, that the people approaching him need parkas to keep warm. Well, Leeza, 'What Would the Fire-God Do?' is tops on the bestseller lists again. More, live, after these messages.
His mother now lived in a sprawling house, in the city's most affluent district. People revered her name, made statues in her likeness, saw her face in moldy sandwiches. Women plagued their stylists: "I want to look just like her!" One glimpse of her, and crowds flew into paroxysms of adoration; she was a hero, a rock-star.
And she was kept busy, coordinating shipments of industrial waste for her son. Assistants rushed her from meeting to meeting. At home, endless teleconferences and correspondance; supplicants, well-wishers, governors, prime ministers and kings, all wanted contact.
"Honestly, I don't do anything," she'd say, when asked. "He's the one doing all the work."
She was happy to be of such help.
An e-mail, sent to her personal account:
>HE'S NOT YOUR SON.
What? Nonsense! He was too her son! She ought to know, she was there! She wrote as much in a reply, but it got bounced back; the sender's address, LB@secretagogue.com, apparently didn't exist.
Then she found the same message, under her pillow, in a written note. He's not your son. Such meticulous handwriting.
Who had written it? Who could get into her private rooms?
Her first impulse, to hide it, to tell no one, made her realize that, deep down, she didn’t trust her personal staff; cordial and skilled, they were hardly confidants.
She paced the room, snubbed her dinner, left the TV off.
Who to turn to?
She got on the phone, told her secretary to arrange a meeting with her son. Immediately.
Impossible, the secretary said.
She called her chauffeur. She wanted him to pick her up at the front gate, immediately.
The chauffeur didn't answer his phone.
And she felt very alone.
The night: cold, for May. Gibbous moon shone high and bright. Security guards patrolled, surveillance cameras panned, and she stole across the grounds like a commando, from bush to tree to sculpted shrubbery. "What was that?" said one guard.
Luckily, they didn't release the hounds.
She didn't need any damned secretary's permission to talk to her own son! Still, it had been some time since she'd left the house without an armed escort, or police honor guard. And on foot, yet.
If she kept to the main roads, she'd be downtown in a few hours, by about midnight. Wearing sweat pants, her husband's itchy old sweater, and a wool knit cap, she became invisible to motorists--nobody looks twice at a shabby pedestrian at night.
But one car pulled over, and slowed to a stop, its brake lights glaring red.
The driver climbed out. He was small; at first she took him for a schoolchild, but soon she saw the middle-aged face, the receding hair-line. He wore a dress shirt, a tie, and well-creased slacks.
She approached--her bodyguard would've gone apoplectic if he saw this.
The little man avoided eye-contact; shy.
"He's not your son," he said.
Questions, questions: she fired them like a TV lawyer.
The little man shifted gear and slid the car into traffic, keeping his eyes on the road. "The fire-god does some great things, it's true," he said. "But that's only part of the story."
He headed east, to Fodderford, one of the city's poorest districts.
She couldn’t recognize it; the apartment blocks, those dour monoliths, had all been razed, burned. Block after block, street after street.
"What is this?" she asked. "How did this happen?"
The little man's shoulders slumped. "His people set fire to it, and he ate it all."
This couldn't be. Not her boy, her good boy. "Why? Why would he do this?"
"It's a shock, I know," the little man said. "I'm sorry. But we thought you should see it firsthand."
He showed her Appalingast, Mizzlehurst, and Lackwood, all in ruins. Shantytowns cowered in the moonlight. People huddled around glowing fire pits, like refugees from a foreign war.
She stared out the passenger window and felt her life drain away.
In summer, when he was little, she'd set up the sprinkler in the back yard. He'd dash through it, over and over, shrieking with delight. He brought home earthworms once, a squirming handful, his eyes filled with wonder.
The little man now offered her a choice: he could drop her off at the nearest police station, and she could return to her life. Or, she could go with him; "I belong to a group of concerned citizens, working to bring about change."
Her words came so easily; "I want to meet them."
Her expectations: a rustic, mountain hideout. Relief maps spread out on tables, rifles propped up against the walls. Rugged revolutionaries, scratching three-day beards.
Instead, a ranch-style house in the suburbs, with beige carpeting, wall to wall, low-pile. A handful of men and women sat in the living room, people she might see at Wal-Mart. They called themselves Elbees, and only gave their first names, all except for the little man; he remained nameless.
And he told her a story.
The fire-god had started off alone, but as people saw what he could do, his following, and his appetite, grew.
Lines formed between faithful and heretic, and fire-agents infiltrated both sides, to aggravate mob passions. People began keeping tabs on neighbors, friends, family; how much are you willing to give the fire-god? Vying for devotional status, or to avoid reprisals, people offered cars, houses, anything they could. The denunciations were many--she'd seen the desolation herself.
All this time, she'd had no idea.
She saw him so clearly; a child playing with Legos, doing homework, making colorful, sloppy pictures for the fridge door.
Was this her fault? Should she have been a better mother? Somehow? Maybe if his father had come home?
"Now," the little man said, "the fire-god can be stopped. The final conflict is coming, and we need your help."
Asking her to betray her own--
"You don't think he's my son. Why?"
The Elbees eyed each other, as if to ensure a consensus, then the little man showed her the way downstairs. She went on alone, down a hollow-sounding staircase.
The basement: finished, cozy. Fluorescent lighting, dowdy furniture, full bar. Cool, stuffy, basement air.
On the bar, a gallon jug. Glass.
Floating in a clear fluid, a shape, as if made of orange putty.
It had her husband's face.
"Hi, mom," it said.
"It's okay, mom. Have a seat." It spoke without moving its lips, its voice soothing in her head.
"They took you from me?" she said, after a time. "Kept you from me?" Would this one have eaten Spaghetti-O's? Played with Lego?
"For safety, mom. Fire-agents are everywhere, especially in hospitals. And your staff is crawling with 'em, in case you didn't know.
"You remember the nurse, in the delivery room? She was an Elbee, managed to get me away. They caught her, eventually. She died in custody."
"This is . . . What about--the other boy? Where did he come from?"
"He's a god, mom. Mysterious ways, I dunno.
"And his agents are pulling a pretty sweet scam. Razzle-dazzle; people are always so needy for it, and you can make them do anything once they're hooked. Just wait 'til they decide Mexico's holding out. Or Canada.
"The Elbees--they call me Little Brother, LB, right?--they've taken a lot of chances for me, and I'm grateful. But they're also full of crap, okay?
"They told you about the 'final battle'? See, they want you to present me to the world, claim me in a stunning, televised, propaganda coup, and then my 'powers' are supposed to kick in--the Elbees think I'm here to take out the fire-god! It's insane!"
She shrugged. "Maybe you've got some untapped potential."
"Fer cryin' out loud, mom, I'm a baby in a jar! A jar!"
Something expanded and contracted in her head, like a heartbeat; his despair.
"Dear," she said, her fingers touching the cold glass.
He started sobbing. "Every time I saw you on TV, I just wished . . . that you'd be my mom."
Her heart quickened and she felt a rise of determination.
The living room was empty. The Elbees had convened a hushed conference in the kitchen.
She found the little man's car keys on the coffee table.
A mother's love trumps all oddity.
A stolen vehicle, a quarter tank of gas.
They headed west on the interstate, through corridors of forest and shale cliffs. Behind them, a flimsy dawn. Little Brother sloshed about in his jar, on the floor in front of the passenger seat. He sang 'One hundred bottles of beer on the wall.'
Did this count as kidnapping?
She pondered this flare-up of maternal-felon-instinct; was this tiny stranger's helplessness enough to set it off? What about her boy, her other boy? (He was still hers, wasn't he?) He'd simply been led astray, hadn't he?
Couldn't she help both of these--her--children?
"I don't have to call you Little Brother, do I?" she said.
"I like 'Flash.'"
"Tell me what you want to do, Flash, and I'll help."
"A face-off with the fire-bug would be a disaster. Totally. We've got to go media-centric on his ass."
"People are funny about the news. They see stuff they don't like, they call it fake. But movies--they always believe what they see in the movies."
That's why he wanted to be a screenwriter.
Plans took shape. She knew some people who could hook him up with an agent. He already had a few treatments worked out, they just needed typing up. He was ebulliant, his laughter ticklish; "We'll shmooze at Sundance!"
She spotted the police roadblock, and alternate plans took precedence; with trees hemming them in on both sides, she could make a u-turn, or smash through the median to the eastbound lanes.
A patrol car pulled away from the roadblock, and headed towards them. It mirrored the morning sun.
Another idea; she stopped the car, grabbed her son, and ran.
The forest: her every move made a crunching sound. The air smelled woody and scorched. With his jar, Flash weighed heavy in her arms. A branch snatched away her cap.
"Never got much nature with the Elbees," Flash said.
"We'll go camping," she wheezed, "every summer."
And maybe she could invite the fire-god along; maybe they could be a family.
She only stumbled once--a root snagged her foot--and sent Flash tumbling through the air, end over end, a winking diamond.
She felt a fluttering-freezing in her chest.
The jar didn't break, but did develop a fine, branching crack along one side. She scooped it up and ran, and found it slick with leaking fluid.
Her clothing soaked it up, and stank like ocean water mixed with something curdled.
"Bummer," Flash said, his voice tiny. "Indie films are so vogue right now."
The clearing: a sunny patch of grass, circled by oak, poplar and tamarack. Birds twittered overhead.
She sat with him, cradled him, and they talked about the future; movies and vacations and picnics. The bathing fluid had drained away, and his extremities curled and turned black.
She was still crying when the police entered the clearing, pistols drawn. They looked frightened, for a moment, as they quietly burst into blue-white flame.
"Mysterious ways," Flash murmured.
Flickering peacefully, and in chorus, the flames called her Mother.
She shivered and clutched the jar and told her adopted son, "Your little brother needs your help."
Then she waited to see what the fire-god would do next.
copyright © 2005, T. Bilgen