Flick, flick, flick. A small thumb snapped against the thumbwheel of a lighter, the light of the flame alighting the young boy’s face, if only briefly. On, off. On, off. Flick; light. The flame danced in front of him for mere seconds, before he let it die out. He remained like that as his siblings bustled about the hotel room, his parents rambling to one another of some business. Where are your keys? Where’s Lucy’s coat? How many times do I have to tell your sister not to do that? And on and on it went.
Flick, flick, flick. “Ezekiel James MacAuley! Would you stop messing with that goddamned lighter?” He knew his father was serious, he had stated his full name. He stopped before his Father- an Irish American of bulky build- advanced any further to rip the lighter from his grasp. Instead, his Father’s gray eyes simply glared at him, angrily shuffling to one of the beds, stuffing his clothing in one of the suitcases that he had flopped onto the cheap cotton sheets, mumbling and grumbling his dissatisfactions.
They had been at the motel for a few days now. The reasons for this were spoken discreetly between his parents. But he knew. His older brother knew as well, but kept himself quiet. There was a very potent tension that settled between those words, and whenever a revealing hint was spoken between either of them- whether that be his parents, an accidental notion from his older brother, or likewise- there would have been a silencing glare from their parents.
Not that he himself had anything to worry about. Zeke never spoke. There had been a point in his life where he had just stopped speaking- A time, around second-grade, when he had just chosen to remain muted. This had not been met with major concerns from his parents. They were much too busy spending their time fighting each other, fighting the law, and fighting for money, fighting for booze, or fighting with the rest of his siblings. This was not to say that they didn’t notice. They noticed plenty when Zeke decided to stop reacting with his voice to his siblings and their scrambles, and they especially noticed when his 12-month-old puppy, Biscuit, died and was met with only silent grievances. But since then, they had simply assumed that he was a quiet kid. A bit of a recluse, they had even pointed out. Every family’s gotta have one, he recalled his dad saying off-handedly. Perhaps that was true.
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He remembered the conflict at school, how his teachers had concernedly inquired as to what may be wrong with him. He just didn’t participate, they had said. Why? His parents had only shrugged and shook their heads. He had seen their legs jitter up and down from beneath the table. He knew they were impatient, he knew they wanted to be somewhere else. But the teachers had persisted, wearing those somber faces. Zeke chooses to stay under the table at recess. Zeke doesn’t have any friends. We’ve taken several lighters from him, he can’t bring those to school anymore.
There was one particular case when he was met with the Principal. He had spotted a mole in one of the earthy holes in the field. He remembered sitting in the nurses office, the wrinkly Principal placed next to him, inquiring as to why he had done what he did. He smelt like sardines. Why pet the mole? Out of all the things to pet, why the mole? Moles were dangerous. Moles had diseases. He was lucky. He could have gotten sick.
He stuffed the lighter into the pockets of his grass-stained jeans, head bobbing upwards to meet the tired sockets of his mother. “We’re off to the grocery store.” He was easily tugged along by his wrist and brought to the car.
After the habitual chaos that ensued with car trips, they were at the grocery store, wandering the aisles in their usual disorder; tugging on poor and dazed employees to demand for answers. Where’s the goddamned mayonnaise? As always, Zeke wandered away from his Mother’s side- which was constantly being struggled for by the rest of his four siblings- and approached the produce section.
He was a small kid. Nearly eleven years old, his forehead still only reached his mother’s breast. A growth spurt would come in due time, he had been assured by his sarcastic Father. This wasn’t problematic for him, however. It made it easier to slip through the usual masses that huddled about in these sorts of stores, and the familiar displays of refrigerated meats. But he didn’t like to go to look at the fresh-cut salmon, the occasional cow hearts, or even the wide-eyed fish… No. He liked to wander to the crab tanks, if ever they had them. And to his luck, they did.
He approached the tank, small palms pressing up against the glass.
A cry from his mother interrupted him. “Chuck! The kids are still in the grocery store!”
He could hear his Father, arguing. Something had upset him. “Well go and fucking get them, then! I’m tired of this! I’m fucking leaving!” A string of other profanities ensued, and Zeke slowly turned from the tank, spotting his Mother from beside the doughnuts, collecting the other kids. Before he could push through the crowds, however, his Mother had already dashed through the electronic doors, the sound of a crying infant resounding beyond.
He stopped, then, pausing only briefly before he turned back to the tank. He would wait for them to return, for them to remember that they had forgotten him. He watched the crabs scuttle around and catch bubbles. His eyes followed the bubbles as they drifted to the top of the tank. Minutes passed. Nothing.
He went out into the lot, but could not find their car. The walk back to the hotel wasn’t far. He wandered back, a small silhouette against darkening city. Once in front of their door, he discovered it had been left cracked open. Not a surprise. He wandered inside, placing himself on the edge of one of the mattresses nearest the window. No one was there. Their suitcases were gone.
He dug his hand into his pocket and brought out the lighter. Flick, flick, flick. On, off. On, off. Flick; light.
He watched the flame dance onto the curtains; licking the cheap fabrics, embers creeping upwards.
It was eleven o’clock. Housekeeping would be here in an hour.