by Stefan Kiesbye


short fiction

She remembered running up to her room, her mother’s voice a whip. What would she take? Taylor’s eyes ran over the bed, the messy desk, the clothes bursting from the closet, her schoolbag. She listened to her dad opening the garage door, honking his truck’s horn to wake the neighbors. Finally she took her phone off the bed and left.

Half of her mother Beth’s curly hair burned off during her attempt to put out the fire that had started consuming weeds and tall bushes in the front yard. Two days later she shore it off completely, only leaving a half-inch. By then, they were staying with other evacuees in a hotel, and Taylor saw Beth glance at her from time to time with something like fear. As though she were daydreaming and happening upon a thought so ugly, she had no time to screw up her face or scowl. Taylor hadn’t saved the jewelry box, nor any of her quilts. She knew that if she had touched her mother during one of her sidelong glances, Beth would have screamed. Her dad Tony drank, and in the coming weeks his face started to droop and slide off.

Nothing of the old house was left, and after two months the federal crews had even erased the outline of the foundation. Their neighborhood had lost all shape. Street signs had survived, the only markers that there had been a neighborhood. In the first few weeks after the National Guard had opened the burnt area again, they often returned, just like the rest of the neighbors. Maybe if they visited at the right time, turned onto their old street the right way, and could find the right words for their silent prayers, they would rediscover what they knew was gone.

They bought a new house in March. It was a structure from the 70s, similar to the one that had burned. It was just as shabbily built, yet well-maintained, and the owner hadn’t jacked up the price to squeeze extra money from the tightening market. Even so, they barely afforded it, because they’d been underinsured. Their new mortgage would be slightly higher, Taylor’s dad said, but he still had his job at the tire place; they’d be fine.

Neither of them, however, felt like filling this new place in a neighborhood not unlike their old one, but on the eastside of the 101, close to the fairgrounds. They sat on the leather sofa they had purchased and felt defeated by all this empty space around them. They couldn’t just go out and re-buy a full life. Tony drank in the backyard; Taylor watched him from her new room. She could hear the traffic from the 12, the tires bellowing over the grooves of the concrete bridge.

A month after the fires, her mother gave her a check for $5,000 and said, “That’s your share of the content money. Save it, spend it, whatever.” It was more money than Taylor had ever seen, giving her a power over things on Amazon and in downtown stores that felt entirely new. She spent some at Old Navy, just to have some clothes for school. She replaced the sheets, the shoes, the shirts. She replaced the makeup. It was a radical makeover, and she received compliments on her outfits, her new style, which consisted entirely of black and white items. Then she stopped spending her money. The money seemed more real than any shirt or backpack she could have bought. It was a weapon, an escape hatch, it was insurance. She took a piece of paper, wrote the dollar amount in her checking account on it and put it under her pillow.

Her mom stopped buying furniture after the new leather sofa. She took naps on that sofa. Some nights, she slept on it as well. Tony spent all evening in the backyard, then snored on the bare mattress of the master bedroom. There was no coffee table in the living room to go with the sofa, no chairs. Instead, Beth returned home one day with a large stack of craft paper and another stack of cardboard. She bought sketch pads and oils and crayons. Then she began to draw from memory and the few photographs that were still on her phone. She started with the things that had decorated their walls. First was the painting of a sleeping cat she’d bought it at an art opening some years ago. Beth’s drawing wasn’t as perfect, as elegant, the colors weren’t quite right, but the size was more or less correct. She framed the drawing, then hung it on the bare wall. She made drawings of the rooms they’d lived in and hung them in the new rooms. The old kitchen hung next to the new refrigerator, the old bathroom above the new toilet. More and more paintings and drawings appeared every week.

“I don’t want to forget a thing,” her mom said. Taylor hadn’t asked what she was doing.

Then Beth started to construct furniture from cardboard and craft paper. The two green and gold comfy chairs, the old blue sofa, the green coffee table they had bought second-hand and which she had loved above all else. You couldn’t sit in the cardboard chairs, and the table only supported a few glasses and a plate or two. After finishing the furniture, Beth crafted paper rugs and taped them to the bare bamboo floors.

When Taylor came home from school, she walked as quickly through the house as possible, without looking at the new paintings that had appeared on the walls, the new knickknacks made from paper that replaced vases, mugs, and candle holders. Taylor didn’t stop until she had turned the key in her door. Her room was empty save for the mattress and a plastic-enclosed wardrobe. She changed into a T-shirt and shorts, and after eating a protein bar, she balanced on one leg. She was short-sighted and had terrible balance, but after two weeks she was able to remain standing for ten minutes. If she came home late and couldn’t balance long enough she counted the day with a razor blade into her thigh, calf, biceps. She took one picture every day of herself balancing and posted it on Instagram. She didn’t post pictures of the cuts and scars at first.

Taylor imagined God threading a wire through the top of her skull and gently pulling. This way she could keep her pose without wobbling. After four weeks, she could remain standing for nearly half an hour. Taylor held crayons she stole from her mother between her toes; one day she held a pen and wrote in her diary with the right foot while balancing on the left. Shortly after, she started to pull on socks, pull them off, and pull them on again. Knee-high socks, then compression socks she reluctantly bought with her money. She adjusted the amount on the piece of paper under her pillow. The compression socks were hard to pull on in any case, but after two days she could do it without breaking her stance. She practiced every day now until she was covered in sweat. She could hear her dad being silent outside.

Each morning, Taylor tore Beth’s drawing off the hall bathroom walls, the door, the mirror. She crumpled them at first, then tore them. But every afternoon, more had replaced the old ones, identical. The family didn’t eat dinner together anymore. They didn’t meet for breakfast. The bathroom was the only contested territory, and neither woman gave in, nor did either one talk about it. Beth never set foot in Taylor’s room. For her, it didn’t seem to exist.

In June, Taylor posted pictures of her scars with a different Instagram handle. More people flocked to see the cuts and left comments about how pretty she looked. Some suggested she connect cuts into patterns, others asked for full-figure shots. She received love letters. Taylor discovered that Beth had her own Instagram account for pictures of her paper furniture. Her mom had never told her, and she had more followers than Taylor’s balancing account. She hadn’t reached the popularity of the scar account yet.

Once the house was filled with her drawings, furnishings, and souvenirs, Beth’s work stopped for several days, before it broke out again in the backyard. She drove stakes into the ground, connected them with two-by-fours. She nailed sheets of plywood to her foundation. She’d bought a table saw and cut planks and plywood herself. She wore overalls, her bare arms covered in scrapes and paint. By then, Taylor hadn’t spoken to her in weeks.

Her dad chose to move his drinking to the front stoop. He didn’t bother to cover the bottles or hide the brown liquids in coffee mugs. He greeted passers-by, talked to them for a few moments. Mostly he stayed silent. Nobody thought to buy a radio or a TV set to fill the house with voices. They couldn’t stand the clutter of voices and stories. There were no books in the house.

Beth started building their old house on a 2/5 scale. The backyard proved too small for anything larger. The last rain had fallen in early April, and another drought kept the grounds dusty. Beth spent her days in the yard, cutting cardboard into the right-size chunks of wall, cutting out holes for windows, doors, then constructing those windows and doors, painting them, installing them. She used plexiglass for windows, everything else was painted cardboard. She left the roof for last, along with the front wall, because after she had framed and drywalled and painted the house, she again made furniture and furnishings from craft paper and poster board. Everything they’d owned—from garage shelves to TV to bookcases and books, she constructed for the new old house. “When I’m old, I will look at this, so I’m not all lost,” she said to neighbors when they asked from beyond the fence.

Somebody told the local paper—maybe an Instagram follower, maybe a neighbor—because one day a green sedan was parked outside their new home when Taylor arrived home from school, and a woman with a ponytail held her iPhone out to Beth so that she could talk about the project that stood nearly completed in the backyard. “I needed to get the colors right. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how my memory worked, what it responded to, but its colors. Unfortunately, I’ll never be able to recreate the smell of the furniture, the hardwood floors, the carpets. This house smells of cardboard and paint. A dog would never be able to recognize this as home. But I can’t forget.”

A few days later a TV truck stood parked in the driveway. Beth led a woman in a very red pantsuit and a small guy with a camera through her house and into the backyard. Tony sat in a plastic Adirondack chair out front, his eyes sparkly. When he was asked about his wife’s installation, he shrugged and said, “She didn’t get it from me.”

The cardboard installation was featured in Architectural Digest. Beth was quoted, saying, “I’m forty-eight. I can’t be expected to start a new life. Who am I without memories to surround me? I’m not a celebrity, I only ever existed in that house. All I had and was had its place in there. Some days I wake up and can’t remember anything.” The Los Angeles Times sent a photographer; wildfires were still high in demand. Beth became the-woman-whose-house-burned-down and her Instagram account exploded. Psychologists and neuroscientists chimed in on the power of familiar surroundings to soothe the brain and comfort people afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Taylor read the articles while standing on one leg in her room, her body relaxed, her chubby foot red now, veins bulging. Her skin was slippery. There were thirty-four horizontal scars on her arms and legs, none vertical. She still only had a mattress and wardrobe in her room. Kids in school asked her about her mom. Teachers came up to her and asked if it would be too much to maybe have a look at her backyard. They didn’t want to impose.

Beth walked through her house every day, making sure she hadn’t forgotten, hadn’t left out a thing. She drew up a new marriage certificate, her old tax records, photos she’d kept from the days before digital. She drew what she remembered and stacked it in boxes that were replicas of the boxes she’d lost to the flames. Everything to scale. One set for the house they lived in and one for the house in the backyard.

To protect her installation, Beth paid to have a shed erected around the paper house. Rain threatened in September; she didn’t want to lose her memories. SFMOMA sent a representative to ask to have the project transferred to the city. The negotiations dragged on while the shed grew around the paper house. A wooden framework clad in plexiglass and weatherproofed.

In early October, a year after the wildfires, Taylor came home with a boy. He had very dark, lank hair and wore glasses. She had told him about her mom and the paper house and the furnishings made from cardboard, but even so his eyes grew restless, his brows arched; he seemed to sweat. Only in her room did he start breathing again.

They made out for a while until Taylor said, “I’ll show you something.” She wore only a shirt and underwear, and she got up on one leg and started pulling on a sock and then a hiking boot, lacing the boot while standing on one leg. Then she slowly untied the laces, removed the boot, the sock.

The boy looked scared, she thought. “Shall I do it again?” she asked.

He nodded, but halfway through, he said, “I think I need to go home. Dinner, you know?”

She said, “Okay,” but didn’t see him out. Instead she continued balancing until the light turned so orange she seemed to swim in a glass of her dad’s whiskey. Then she reached down and cut into the sole of her foot.

The man who contacted her via Instagram drove an Audi and didn’t look dangerous at all. She agreed to meet him at a coffee shop after school. He was older than her dad and suggested he take her to Los Angeles for the weekend. He offered to pay for any tattoos or piercings she might want to get. All he wanted, he said, was to take pictures. There would be no sex, he assured her again. Brad, that was his name, wore a suit and a Rolex and was very thin. It was hard to understand how he and her dad could share the same universe. “I’ll pay for whatever modifications you want to get. I know a great surgeon.”

“I’ll think about it,” Taylor said over sushi in a downtown restaurant. “How old do you think I am?”

He shrugged. “I’m not going to even touch you.”

“You don’t want to?” she asked.

He didn’t answer, but called for the check.

“How much money can you give me now?”

Beth’s deal with SFMOMA fell through after the next set of fires. People stopped driving along their street to catch a glimpse of the paper house. The neighbors complained about the illegal structure, and the city gave Beth a deadline for taking down the shed and paper house.

Tony disappeared, but on what day of the week, neither Beth nor Taylor could say. The tire place had no address for him; he’d quit in mid-November. Together, the women walked through the neighborhood parks. They didn’t talk, but the walks weren’t disagreeable. They asked homeless people if they had seen Tony, they showed his picture to people in 30-year-old vans and RVs. They filed a report with the police. They walked through Burbank Gardens, Sherwood Forest, the JC neighborhood. They walked through Railroad Square. Their walks took many hours, often started the minute Taylor came home. The cut on her foot was a belligerent red and refused to heal. Scabs came and disappeared.

“Do you miss him?” she asked one evening without looking at her mother. “Doesn’t he help you remember?” She didn’t receive an answer right away, so she continued, “Will you get a job?”

“You’re almost seventeen,” Beth finally said, and they didn’t speak again for several days.

The walks continued and grew longer still; they didn’t miss a day. On weekends they started early. Afterwards Beth rested on one end of the leather sofa, and Taylor on the other. Sometimes Beth made tea. Her hair was still as short as she had first cut it. She looked gaunt, overly defined, as though she too had been scissored from cardboard and paper. “Let me see your arms,” she asked one evening after she’d put down her empty mug on the wobbly cardboard coffee table.

Her fingers felt dry on Taylor’s skin, not entirely unpleasant. Different from Brad’s hands that were more supple and warm when he directed and arranged her for his camera. They pushed up her sleeves and traced the scars. “It’s all there,” Beth said. “You’ve captured it all.”