He hears a call, or so he keeps saying. There in the distance is the sign of the one who is supposedly on the other end of the line. Now entering New Orleans.
Yes, he claims the city itself is communicating with him.
Like most things in our lives, this call is for him and him alone. I picture a wholesome, smiling, middle-aged woman, with her arms open wide, saying, Come on in Roderick Doucette, uncle, and martyr extraordinaire. Please wipe your feet and tell your misbegotten nephew, Aayush Khanani, not to touch anything.
The only voice I hear in my head is his, saying the same words he said to me when I was five with a firefighter’s jacket around me. It should have been you.
According to him, his place in life is firmly ahead of him. Mine is in the far-flung past, back in that wreckage where I should have died and she should have lived.
This move to New Orleans is not my first big trip. That first time we were returning from Italy after my much-maligned father’s death. The landing gear malfunctioned, and then there was fire. I remember the fire.
However, my clarity for the present isn’t nearly as good. It seems that it took one second to move from being in the car and seeing that foreboding sign to moving into this ramshackle house he’d found. A place separated from being a Unabomber-esque cabin in the woods due only to the presence of running water.
All I need to do, to see I am home, is to look at the refrigerator. Since I was young, he’s kept them all on the fridge, any fridge in any of the multiple places we have lived. He had taped every article detailing the accident, and yes, even my mother’s obituary.
He should’ve spelled: It should have been you with the refrigerator magnets. It would complete the picture.
Home sweet home.
I get the feeling my uncle thinks the minute he crossed the border that New Orleans herself should’ve shown up with his destiny on a silver platter. We’ve settled into the small little house he rented, but all he’s done is rant and pace.
“My family comes from a long line of mystics,” he says, as if we don’t share fifty percent of the same DNA. “The males in my family were all shamans and holy men, up until about a hundred years back. Then the line went fallow.” He’s saying all this to himself, but he likes having me around to pretend he’s talking to someone. Like is probably an exaggeration, but I do think he enjoys that he’s trained me, more or less, not to talk back and simply nod.
There are, however, moments where this training slips.
“Maybe it’s you.” He turns to me with such a sincere look of misery I almost feel bad for him for half a second. “Maybe you are an omen after all. You will not ruin this for me. You hear, Aya?” he snaps.
“I’m eighteen,” I mumble by way of response, the words barely escaping my mouth.
“What?” he snarls, his despair turning to rage instantaneously.
“I mean…” There it is, that sensation of the words becoming bricks in my mouth. “I just mean…” my breath quickens, “if I’m such a…I mean to say if I’m an adult now, I could…You don’t have to…”
I feel the sting of his hand even before his arm is in motion. It hits just below my ear before flipping expertly to grab a fistful of my hair.
“Why, you ungrateful little shit,” he sneers. I only assume what the last word is, as I miss hearing it when my head hits the wall. “My sister’s last wish was for your miserable life, and you intend to waste it, to throw it down the drain?”
I slump to the ground, leaning into the ringing in my head, embracing the pain. It makes it easier for his words to blend until it’s just white noise in the background, or perhaps just the simple crackle of a fire.
“Are you listening?” I finally hear him say, if only because he’s gotten right up into my face.
“Yes, Uncle.” I sigh.
“Good!” He steps back. “I’m off to get us some kind of income. Do yourself a favor and behave. Oh, and get your goddamn hair cut. You look like a girl.” His smile is menacing as he trots out of the room.
Quiet falls once more. I’m left alone with just the picture of my mother staring back at me from the fridge.
He does actually follow through and get us jobs. We’ve been hired under the table to clean out an old church for some bougie house flippers. It hasn’t been used since the early nineties. He is an electrician on a good day. That’s where he spends his time, other than kissing up to the yuppies to secure the next job. The rest is up to me. I work on clearing out the junk and debris left from years of squatters, teens, and storms.
I am currently hauling out an old nativity scene I found in the basement. The prop manger was obviously the biggest obstacle, with all the figurines tied in what appeared to be an old tennis net or something.
I think I’m pretty safe. I can hear him on the phone. He is equal parts schmoozing and begging. I make my way outside with a fresh heap of garbage, allowing my mind to finally quiet until I hear my own little voice.
“Feels like trouble,” a garbled electronic voice sounds. In my bemusement, I drop my haul. From underneath the refuse, a small form tumbles. What one may have mistaken for a child’s dead body is instead a plush doll. It is made in the shape of a cartoonish young boy. He wears swaddling robes instead of the colorful outfit I remember him by, but I still recognize him as a Tommy Tommyache doll. They used to be pretty popular way back when.
Feels like trouble in my tum-tum was one of his pre-recorded lines. He must be busted since he didn’t finish. I lift it from the ground and squeeze it again.
“Feels like trouble, Ash.” He falls once more, but this time my motivation is fear, not confusion.
He…it couldn’t have just said that, right?
“It should’ve been you,” it says in its glitchy stuttering way. Now I know I’m imagining things as that particular phrase is pulled right from my waking nightmares.
“No, not in the plane crash, my dear boy,” the thing responds to my inner thoughts. “It should’ve been you who received the call.”
I’m not entirely uncomfortable with the idea of going mad. It might make for a nice change of pace. Perhaps, even the promise of an institution, or at least some medicinal escapism, could be part of my end of that deal.
“I had a different deal in mind,” the doll speaks, once more responding to words I have not said aloud.
“Aya!” Uncle Rod howls. “Stop fucking around!”
“Why does he call you Aya?” the doll ponders as I pick up the trash.
“It’s my name.”
“Your name is Ash.”
The headline that always adorns our fridge flashes before my eyes, particularly the phrase: Pulled From the Ashes.
“See? You know it.”
I pick up the doll without fear. All of this insanity does not even dent the numbness with which I live my day-to-day life. I place it back in the pile, even as it keeps whispering to me, the words burning their way into the back of my mind.
“It should’ve been you to get the call. I can help you with that.”
“Oh? How so?”
“Ever heard of a warlock?”
“Aren’t they male witches?”
“No, male witches are witches, surprisingly enough.” He laughs, the electronic fry of his voice making the sound all the more unsettling. “A warlock is someone who takes advantage of an opportunity. You want to change your life, but don’t know how? Let me do it for you.”
“Tommy Tommyache comes with all that?” I scoff, hoisting the sack back over my shoulder. “Those dolls were way underpriced then.”
“Funny. See, he hasn’t quite broken your spirit yet, Ash.” The doll chuckles. “No, my name is Grimaçon. I’m a demon,” he says it so casually.
“Ah, so we’re doing the Faust thing,” I jest, even as a part of me accepts this is true. This is really happening.
“You’ve already tied yourself to one demon, at least this way, you’d get something out of it. I offer power, magic, a tie to that same Source that so foolishly called your uncle here instead of you. In exchange, I get you.”
“Everything you’ll do with what I’ve given you. All the entropy and destruction you will sow.”
I could feel it in me. The desire to do just that, to strike out as I had been struck, to rage with as much passion as I had once cowered.
“Yes.” The electronic hum blended with the sound of a cat’s purr. “All that anger in your gut, I’m offering you a place to put it!”
I collected the trash and said nothing else.
Uncle Rod’s one job isn’t going as well as the many I was tasked with. I allow myself to take a soupçon of pleasure in that.
I keep myself busy in the former main hall while listening to the sounds of him taking out his rage on the electronics down below. I thank what small grace there is that it isn’t my head at the other end of his blows.
Then there is the silence. Between each clang and shout, the whispers come back. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the Tommy doll sitting there, staring at me. The memory of plucking it from the trash heap and bringing it back in with me returns to me in a flash.
“Wasn’t me.” He said…it not he…he’s not…it’s not…real. It never moved, but somehow I felt it shrug.
“It’s all you, Ash. It should be you.” Never heard that before.
“Sales pitch, again, eh?”
Another bang comes in time with what it’s saying.
“He knows it too.”
“His anger? It’s impotent. It’s getting him nowhere even as we speak. But yours? Your anger can take you places, Ash.”
“Like where?” I feel my resolve melting.
“Let’s start with downstairs,” it hums in delight.
The voice fills my thoughts, the same way Uncle Rod says NOLA’s voice does his. Every step I take down the staircase, I hear it, softer and softer as my own thoughts encourage me to say yes.
As I enter the basement, I find Uncle Rod kneeling in front of some wiring. He looks near tears, frankly. I hear those words again, but this time it’s not him, it’s from that other voice.
It should be you. It whispers in my thoughts. Should not should’ve. “You just need to say yes.”
I knew it to be true. I felt it. All I had to do was say yes, to reach out, to want it. All I needed to do was embrace what he had called me my entire life, a mistake, a curse…a demon.
“Will it? Will it be you?” the voice calls.
As it hisses in my subconscious, I picture Uncle’s clothes sparking and lighting. I smell the scent of burning flesh. You never forget that smell.
“Yes,” I say. The word comes smooth and fast before I even realize I’ve made up my mind.
“Who are you—” But he can’t complete the question, as my daydream is suddenly real. The second I said yes, his clothes light up just as I imagined. I ignore his screams as easily as he once ignored my own and just savor the moment.
The fire has found me once more, and it is just as warm as I remember.