Terrible Am I, Child

by Nicholas Burns

The stakes were zero now. Douglas stood in the street with his arms stretched out wide and just looked up as people passed around him, up at the cloudy Chicago sky narrowed to a strip by the skyscrapers. The wind felt so good on his face. The first real wind in ten years. His debt, in the letter of the law, was paid. It wouldn't get any lighter on him, but it was breathable, bearable, and in that he was almost free.

He stayed in the city only long enough to get his driver's license and fill out all the paperwork, and then he drove east through the suburbs and out into the fall forest. He took the smaller roads when he had the choice, in the car they gave him at the rental car agency, the little silver Chevy with the hand-crank windows. It was almost funny to see that these days it was the American cars that were the crappiest, the cheapest, the ones they'd rent to you for the lowest rate.

"That's it. You're out," his probation officer had said. Dave the probation officer was an ex-Army type, a vet probably, and still had the short haircut that didn't quite cover up the fact that his hair was thinning. He might have been a funny guy if he hadn't seen whatever it was he had seen out there. But as things went, he was working at a prison and looking not quite at Douglas with eyes with the gleam beaten out of them, and he said, "You know what they say. That this isn't the real prison." A slight sideways nod of the head, gesturing toward the city outside. He stamped the document. Douglas signed his name, and Dave signed his. He put a hand on the paper to take it with him, but Dave held onto it for a moment and said, "It wasn't like out there for me, and it won't be like in here for you." Then he let go, and slid another set of papers. Douglas took them, the divorce papers, and felt guilty for not feeling anything. "Came in a couple months back," Dave said. Douglas said his goodbyes and walked out into the parking lot where a shuttle was waiting.

Now, in the view from the car, evening paled the tips of the trees and the sideways amber light made the leaves burn. He had almost forgotten what autumn looked like. Everything he remembered had lost its color over the long grey years and now it almost hurt his eyes to look at the saturated world outside the windshield.

He turned the radio on and listened to a college rock station for a few minutes. In prison, the radio had meant what it must have meant in a more innocent era. They would all gather around it, quieting down to hear the indistinct voices, learning how and in which direction to turn the rusty antenna to get the best sound. When whatever they had been listening to ended and after everyone else slunk back into their alcoves, Douglas would tune the radio to an empty channel and just lie with his head next to the speaker. The static reminded him of the ocean. It was like sandpaper, smoothing down all the rough edges in him, preserving him for a little longer. Sometimes he'd fall asleep listening to it, and the static would bloom in the dream into landscapes of black and white, worlds where he could shape things out of the vacuum, give them form, breath, life. Most of the time, the things he made turned against him. They would turn away from him and go wild, and as they gathered to destroy him, he'd make for himself a boat, and he'd jump onto it and sail off into the flat expanse of untouched static. He would awake then on the cold concrete prison floor, and wish for a way back to the dream. Because even a world in which the things you make rise against you is better than a world where you cannot make at all.

He fiddled with the tuning on the car radio, but it would not play static, only jump between broadcasting frequencies. A cry sounded somewhere deep inside him, and the anger was estranged, almost foreign, the voice of an old friend become an enemy and then a stranger. It sounded first against the engineers who had built the car and their calculating eyes, always looking to simplify. Television static and those empty channels had already died by their hands, and that death had been dealt with. But the sign of a slow death for radio static, invisible brother, was almost too much to bear. Analog had a spirit, a vital energy that digital lacked, and maybe the death of that meant the death of some spark in Douglas he had kept safe all these years.


Douglas drove on into the dark, and with the radio off. He pulled over at a Travelodge just outside of Akron, Ohio. The little room was the whore sister of a million other whores just like it in this motel, in motels across America, across the world. There was a smell in the air like dead empty things, like burnt plastic. He knew it pretty well. It was meth. He tried to sleep while touching as little of the bed and sheets as possible, and felt like he was drowning in the invisible grime of ten million others like himself who had passed through this room before and, drowning in their hollowed-out lives, had somehow imprinted themselves on the space forever, damned it. Maybe one of them had died in here, and maybe the maid had found the body and called the coroner and the police and not washed the sheets afterward. When the eastern sky turned ugly blue a couple hours later, Douglas was not sure if he had slept at all or if his thoughts had simply grown diseased and feral in the motel night.

Morning was a stupor. He took a shower with his eyes closed, and he turned up the heat so far his nose started to bleed. He didn't realize it until he tasted the iron. It felt almost like a nightmare when he moved his lips and felt the thick wetness and looked down to see the red curling around and down the drain. Getting back into the car, he thought about how no matter how much you bleed in the shower, you always come out looking new.


He found the place around three o'clock. Heaters stagnated the air. It was worse than the hotel room. Here, he was almost sure they didn't wash the sheets when they found someone dead in a cot. There was never anything as corrosive to the soul as the interwoven smells of death and disinfectant.

He thought she was dead when he found her. Then when he saw her feeble ribcage still fighting, rising, sinking, he begged the nurse to let him get her up one last time, let him walk her through the city.

"She loved the trees in the fall. Let me show her. Please. I think she is dying."

The nurse was five and a quarter inches shorter than he was, but with her nametag that said Heidi and her sunken eyes like an addict's or a corpse's, she felt larger, swelling like an underpaid angel of death. She looked at him sidelong, as if deciding that he wasn't one to take bullshit.

"Do you know what this place has done to me?" she said. "People like you come in, and they want me to make exceptions. Like they can beat the system. And it's not new. I used to work at a long-term parking lot, graveyard shift. And people would come in with their tickets lost and tell me the car's been there for seven days, so can't I put that in my machine and print out a receipt for that, can't I call my manager, or something. Like they don't even understand how the ticket works. But you know what the easiest way to get rid of these people was?"

She looked at Douglas like she actually expected him to answer. He stared.

"It wasn't to tell them why I couldn't do what they wanted. If I told them why I couldn't make exceptions, they wouldn't believe me. They thought that because the customer is always right they deserved to get an exception even if an exception wasn't possible. So you know what I did? I faked conversations with my manager. I didn't even have a manager. I just had this phone that wasn't connected to anything, and I pretended to call, and then I told them sorry, it wouldn't work out, they'd have to pay the standard rate for people who have lost their tickets. And they always listened. People will defer to authority, even if that authority doesn't exist. So, you want me to pretend to talk to the head nurse now, so I can tell you that sorry, it's against protocol? Or do you want me to make an exception?"

He didn't say anything, and after some time, met her eyes for a second.

"Well, I didn't expect different." She paused for a moment. "You know, I've started to guess how much longer the patients will last. I don't know anymore whether I am happy when they last longer than I predict or when they don't."

"Do this thing. For me. And I will forgive you," Douglas said. He thought he might have something she needed.

"All right," Heidi the nurse said, and smiled a little soul-sick smile, and his heart sank. "But here's the catch. You show me someone here who is not dead or dying first."

He spent hours walking up and down the hallways and looking for the living. He found none. As night started to fall again, he came back empty-handed and touched his mother's grey hair and told her he was sorry for this and sorry for all that. As he left, the nurse who had given him his impossible task stood at the desk and grinned wide like death, and said, "Have a good day."


On the Turnpike in the night, he wished for someone to drive him. This absent yearning was the closest thing to loneliness he ever remembered feeling. He had the innate human desire for company, of course, but it was always subconscious, and he felt no emotional discomfort if it was not fulfilled. It had not been until years into his marriage that he discovered this void inside him. She had told him that he was such a substance-less chameleon that she felt more lonely with him than she did alone, and trying to make sense of that, he realized he had never felt lonely, that he couldn't even imagine the shape or the feel of it.

That divide between them had started there and it had grown like a disease in the wood that united them, a cancer that thrived in the shadows cast by the drugs and the pretending that followed them like a parasitic triplet to California, to Iceland, to Texas, and then finally to that house like death, the old plantation near Tallahassee where no one could hear them scream, with its Confederate dead and its smiling decay, the house that had encouraged them to take another pill, take another step, hit a little harder, until July thirteenth, crash night, when some cosmic being had finally put its foot through both of them for good, just like Douglas had put his own foot through the rotten wood of the porch in the thick summer night as he ran with the Civil War musket from the attic in one hand, the musket that of wouldn't fire after two and a half hundred years, and the kitchen knife in the other.

He had tried to kill her.

He had finally gone where no one could bring him back. Chasing her across the lawn with the crickets and the cicadas sounding in that shattered night, across Tallahassee with her in the Lexus and him in the hybrid until the red and blue lights in his rearview had shaken him from it and he had stopped the car in the middle of the road and stumbled off towards the creek, and with the crickets chirping he had fallen to his knees and had seen a peacock showing its feathers in a meadow on the other side of the creek as the harsh voices sounded behind him. And there was nothing left in her for him now.

He saw her just once during the trial, and she did the worst thing she could have done to him. She gave him her sad smile. It was that smile that had encompassed everything for a time when he had first loved her in the years before the crash. And it was that smile that really sliced him up for good then, when he knew he'd never see it again, that no one would ever see it again, and that it was his fault.

Douglas thought that maybe you did always kill the one you love. Except sometimes she doesn't die, and you die instead, and yet you keep on breathing, as punishment.


Almost by reflex from the countless times he'd driven up to see her before they were married, he took a detour through the city. When he passed the street where the old brownstone had been, he saw it filled with buildings of glass and steel, and so he didn't even slow, didn't get out of the car and check. He drove on, to the only place left.

It stood on the top of a hill, the old school. He could see it from below, a cluster of white specks in the trees. The road was both familiar and foreign. He'd been driven down it hundreds of times, on a bus to town to buy snacks or grab a coffee or to eat dinner, or to or from the school on breaks, but he had never driven it himself until now. And it had been years.

He parked in the lot by the gym and got out of the car. His eyes saw everything. The roofs of the dorms that sloped at just such an angle. Or the ancient doors made of thick green wood that always stuck in slightly warped frames. That last detail snagged in his mind, and he wondered if there was a day when the frame became warped so badly the door could not move again.

He walked the paths he had walked before, and he could almost see a young and unbroken image of himself taking the same shortcuts so long ago. Leaves crunched: saffron, vermilion, golden-orange, all fading to brown underfoot. It had all gone so fast.

Kids walked around, in school uniform. The shadows were growing long. They walked in twos and threes to the dining hall, and Douglas saw new faces and faces he thought he almost recognized. He saw a girl walking who looked almost nothing at all like her, but with just one detail, her eyes, that seemed an exact replica of hers, and it fooled his mind for a moment. This occurrence would happen again and again over the coming years, once in Barcelona, another time in Reykjavik, a flash of hair in Sofia, a hand gripping a subway pole in Paris. It was as if she had been torn apart and pieces of her had been given to strangers across the world, and he was directed to collect them all. The image of her that hung in his mind like an afterimage whenever it happened was the only way he could ever see her face in his mind.

He knew at once that in that moment, in this school of past and present, he walked on the borderline of familiar and foreign. And existing in neither, existing above, he saw it all so clearly.

He thought of how we are intimidated by a new place when we first experience, by its alien qualities. How we try to see as much as we can, but we cannot take it all in just in one moment, one first impression. Yet, he realized, that is the closest most of us come. As we become familiar, we see less and less. Routine kills all feeling of place, and routine is unavoidable. Before, this place had slowly ceased to be a place and become a habit. And so it was only in returning when the place had changed and he had changed, that he saw the true nature of place. Genius loci, spirit of place, existed for the first time in the present and not past. It filled the air, singular and specific and yet also universal. Memory and fact blended together into truth.

Douglas stood like a prophet, eyes closed. He waited until the night had fallen and the old School grew quiet, and then he left. Ithaca faded like a dream in rearview mirrors in the dark. But its spirit had taken up residence in him once more and forever. He drove with real freedom now, through the wild beating heart of the forest, towards the city again, towards the airport. He would see all the world for the first time and stay only long enough so that he was familiar, and then once he had seen it all he would go see the world again, and know every place like a father knows his prodigal son. He would be terrible earth-father, knower of the cities and the spaces between; cursed, blessed, white-bearded wanderer, ephemeral and eternal lord of place. And on his dying day he would come home again, and she would be looking out from every window, and he would be forgiven.

BIO: Nicholas J Burns is a writer and outdoorsman. He has been writing ever since fourth grade, when he wrote a full-length fantasy novel with a premise with an uncanny resemblance to the popular show Avatar: The Last Airbender. Not counting this book, he has written two novels as well as assorted short stories and poetry. He enjoys mountain-climbing, kayaking, and backpacking around Ventura, California, where he lives. His work often incorporates themes of familiarity of place, memory, and implications of creation. Scraps from his writing pad can be found at book-ended.tumblr.com.