A light in the dark
(on reaching into flames)
The fire is a living thing. It bites the dead wood and you watch the ghosts rise up against the sky.
There are children somewhere in the dark, fueled by sugar and shrieking in terrified delight. Closer to the flames, the lower mutter of adults and occasional cracks of laughter. You lean into the burn and inhale the smell of cinders.
A burst of static; someone has found batteries for your dad’s old radio. A quick flurry of half-heard talkback and white noise before the needle finds a station playing music for the holiday.
Hallowe’en carols, you think with a mental smirk. The spooky B-side to Jingle Bells and I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus. If any dead were indeed crossing between planes tonight you might almost see them blush; scarlet wisps against the background of smoke and stars.
Then a song starts and you think, well. Maybe not.
Rob Zombie knows his zombies, after all. And his spree killers, and his cannibals, and he hacks out lyrics like he’s coughing up a bellyful of grave dirt.
Some of the more beer-adjacent adults start having flashbacks to adolescence and get up to charge head banging around the fire. You watch them with genuine affection and hope nobody trips into the flames. Their partners laugh and catcall, jokes interspersed with pleas to be careful Dave, Jesus that was close.
The song ends and your brother stumbles against you on the way back to his chair, more due to fire-blindness than alcohol you think. You steady him with a hand on one wiry bicep; he’s a man, now. CEO of a company and father of two little boys. His wife welcomes him back to his chair with an empty wine glass outstretched and a wicked smile.
The next song starts just as you finish your drink and toss the empty bottle into the fire. Bold choice, you think, and turn your back on the flames to fumble in the esky.
Then again. Morbid little tune. Maybe more appropriate than you thought.
The lyrics spin into lies and war injuries and death and you think, well. Real life scary things aren’t as fun as ghosts and ghouls but the melody’s a chipper one and the singer sounds like he’s having fun so really. All in the spirit of things. And maybe back in the day songs about vampires and lumbering spirits were as real to listeners then as the prospect of an amputated limb.
The smell of marijuana smoke layers over the top of bonfire scent, subtly enough that your parents, half-nodding together by the picnic table, won’t notice and scold. Nevertheless you twist your head to aim a warning look at your sister. The glow of her joint flares once, briefly, in acknowledgement before she passes it to her husband. The two are sprawled together on a giant beanbag, legs entwined. She is wearing his furry parka.
There are more songs, you don’t pay much attention. The fire burns brighter, then into a softer glow as the bigger wood burns down into embers. The children are corralled and put to bed.
The grownups aren’t far behind; everyone is tired, full of alcohol and BBQ and sore from tossing logs onto the pyre. One by one couples drift away into tents and caravans and your parents’ house at the top of the hill. You know there is a bed there waiting for you, as well. But the radio is still playing and the fire is still radiating heat, and you sit on an overturned milk crate to watch the flight of sparks into the sky.
There’s a song playing you vaguely recognise, lyrics a confused mix of childhood nostalgia for old playmates and threats to hunt them through a cemetery. Twenty years ago that might have been you, warm with whatever you’d been drinking and flushed with running, hiding behind gravestones only to spring out, catching whatever warm body passed in the dark and laughing with them, rolling on wet grass. You had friends, once, you think. Or a decent imitation.
People are hard, though. There are rules that nobody talks about and when you break them people get angry, or mocking, or hurt. Much better to sit alone and be warmed by the fire than in a cluster of couples, letting other warm bodies keep away the cold night air. Simpler, less likely to lead to sharp words or - worse - contempt.
But it’s been so long, you think dully, since you felt the weight of another person’s lean against your side or the brush of fingers against your own.
One more song, and you toss your head back at the sound of it, hooting laughter into the sky.
Unfair, you tell the radio. The radio glistens wetly back at you with no signs of judgement; dew has formed on the metal surfaces. Monstrous lovers, you think with a grin at your own self pity. There’s the solution. Frankenstein’s monster wouldn’t mind if you just wanted to hold hands. Gods might not listen but devils always have a hand outstretched.
You switch off the radio and turn to head up the hill. The thought stays with you all the way to the house, through the quick rituals of shower and toothpaste, pyjamas, phone charger, glass of water by the bed.
If any of the dead are crossing between planes tonight, you think again. They’re welcome to drop in and say hello, take a break on the way to wherever they’re going. Monsters can haul their hairy snaggletoothed hides in and pile into this big cold bed to tell stories and keep you warm.
You press your face against cold pillows and let one arm hang down over the side of the mattress, fingertips just kissing the floor, and hope that in the darkness something will reach out and take you by the hand.