The boy was lying half on the huge rug, half on the dark wood floor, on a pillow propped against a thick wooden bed leg. The floorboards would creak at night when he got up to relieve himself. He had taken it upon himself to learn where all the creaky spots were so he might avoid them. It was quiet here, and he was determined to do all he could to keep it that way.
He supposed he missed his father; he loved the man, but what he desired most in the world was harmony. When they were together, it was never that. It was arguments, threats, and swearing. He never understood why, but the swearing always made him laugh. He would crouch beneath the open kitchen window and listen to the shouting and laugh with his palm pressed against his mouth.
Here, things would be different. Here quiet would be king. He would have harmony.
He gazed up at the bedroom window. The curtain and shade were drawn, but the drape was open, which surprised the boy. The shade was a faded thing, which glowed a muted yellow with the morning sun. It didn’t quite reach all the way to the sill, and this pleased the boy.
At the place they had left, his mother had kept the drapes and curtains closed. But in this place, she had softened. Maybe because the drapes were so thick, they blocked out all the light. In the morning, she would open them and let the muted light do what it could to get in through the shade and curtain. It wasn’t sunlight, but it was better than nothing.
Through the gap between the shade and the sill, he could see the bushes outside their only bedroom. The sun was out, he could tell. He enjoyed perceiving it indirectly in this fashion.
He was never big on “going outdoors.” Whenever his father suggested he go outside to play, he would make some excuse and hide in his bedroom.
But that was then. This is now.
His mother was in the front room of the cozy duplex, talking on the phone. His aunt Shirley must have been talking a lot because mom was saying, “Uh huh,” and “Yeah” a lot. More than usual. Her soft words conspired with the sunlight to make the boy feel heavy and content. He floated in and out of sleep. He dreamt he was sinking into the floor, melting into the wood.
He liked the way the wooden planks of the floor felt against his back and the impression the edge of the rug left under his soft thighs.
He had worn glasses since the second grade. But he would take them off and put them under the bed. He was the man of this house, after all. It would be wonderful here for them. There would be no chaos, no bickering, no shouting, no swearing, and (best of all) no fighting.
He seldom thought about his father. Alone in the place they had left. He couldn’t be bothered to think such thoughts. What he had wanted, what he had always wanted, was harmony. This place, as tiny and dark and dimly lit as it was, was a palace of unlimited promise.
This could work.
This would work.
He squints up at the window.
A shaft of sunlight slips in between the shade and the window frame, and slants down to the rug, warming his legs. He liked squinting at the sunlight.
He would marvel at the dust particles, fibers, and hairs that floated across the surface of his eyes. If he were sitting upright, the particles would rise a little with each blink. Then they would surrender to gravity and sink to the bottom edge of his eyes.
If he moved his eyes, the junk on his eye would follow his gaze. Then float again to the bottom.
He prays the phone call between his mom and aunt lasts for hours. His siblings are both asleep. They nap all the time in this new place.
He wakes up. He listens and sighs when his mom says, “Uh huh,” from the next room.
The light is still there; he hadn’t wasted the day. Something his father had often chastised him against, wasting the day. The boy never understood what his father was on about with such warnings. He loved his idle time, loved nothing more than to stare at the sky or a sun ray for hours and let his imagination go where it would.
He squints up and surrenders to it. He sees something crazy.
Had he said that aloud, he worries. His breath catches and waits for some signal from the next room that his mother had heard him. He wants this. This configuration of no shouting, his mother happily conversing with her favorite person, and no father going on and on about wasting time, was a balm for his soul.
Whew. She was still holding up her end of the conversation with her periodic signals of agreement.
He squints again. It’s still there.
It is impossible. In the center of his squinting eye, he sees a smiling face.
He likes science and intuits that this was probability or randomness. That the particles floating on his eye might make some meaningful pattern on his eye was only a coincidence. Right?
His mom was fiercely Catholic until the day she was fiercely Baptist. Then she was fiercely Baptist until the day she was fiercely something else.
“She’s looking for something,” he realized a few years earlier.
Searching for meaning in a world where it seemed rare. Maybe a bit like a boy who had craved harmony and finding meaning in a smiley face floating on his eyeball? Had he just created his own religion? He thinks he might have.
He carefully squints to see if Smiley will persist. It does. It rises a bit with his blinks naturally. And the little squinting modulation he gives only serves to animate the face.
He shuts his eyes tightly while wondering why; he doesn’t want Smiley to go away. The boy wants Smiley to stay. He wants that very much.
He opens his eyes and blinks once to settle the eye dust again. Smiley is still there.
He sighs again. His relief is so complete that he vows to never close his eyes again. Closing his eyes or blinking might jeopardize Smiley’s existence.
Then he blinks. Smiley is still there and still smiling an innocuous look of serene stupidity.
Smiley signified harmony. That which he had craved for so long. In his alcoholic home, serenity and peace were rare.
He plays with the image of his newfound friend. He jostles Smiley’s visage with rhythmic squinting without surrendering to the need to blink.
The jostling Smiley appears to be speaking or trying to.
His father’s lectures notwithstanding, there was no flight of fancy he considered too frivolous.
He settles in and commits to it, feels the floorboards beneath the rug, and takes several slow, deep breaths. The boy situates his squinting in some safe place. It becomes automatic, and he forgets it so that he might focus on hearing.
Smiley is his new friend. One he’s searched for his whole life. One that will never steer him wrong, never betray him. He loves Smiley and can’t wait to hear what his new friend will say to him.
He fantasizes hard.
“What is it, my friend?” He says it too softly to arouse his mother or wake his siblings. Maybe he just thinks it, he couldn’t say for sure; his attention is focused on the smiling mouth.
He repeats the question several times. He recites much like a monk might say a prayer, with devotion, love, and the expectation that his savior will speak soon. His one true friend will wish to reward him with wisdom.
The prayer is no longer a series of words. It transcends language and evolves into a vibration of love, oscillating from his being outward into the room. The boy feels as if he will burst.
He feels great pride in this discovery. This is important, a transformative experience. Nothing will ever be the same from this day on. He has found peace and harmony. Smiley has delivered him from a world of chaos and anger to one filled with calm serenity.
His crescendo of attention has generated excessive rapture in his tiny frame. His body is vibrating at a fever pitch as he burns with love for Smiley.
The boy knows Smiley will speak, and he leans in to hear the first words his messiah will say.
“Burn it down.”
The boy is too overcome with love to react in any way other than deep gratitude. Quiet tears flow down his reddened cheeks.
On some level of his mind, some warning signals are actively suppressed. This is his voice of reason. He knows this is a dangerous message. “Burn it down?” He’s not sure what the word “anarchist” means, but he suspects it might apply here.
Burn it down?
Had his savior said that or was he only imagining it?
Questioning his savior would be an act of blasphemy. The boy dismisses the thought.
He’d doubted his messiah, and he must surely be punished. But there would be time for that later. For now, penitent once again, he returns his attention to Smiley.
“Burn it down. Burn it all down,” Smiley said in a voice that sounded a great deal like his own.
He doesn’t dare break the silence, so he thinks an emphatic yes to this first commandment from his best friend and god.
Smiley fills his head with images of fire. The flames are beautiful when seen from Smiley’s superior perspective. So utterly transcendent. Dancing fluid hearts that cleanse the world of all that is unworthy, all that is sinful.
“Burn it down,” Smiley says.
“Yes,” he whispers.
A call-and-response. The boy is familiar with these from Catholic masses.
“Burn it down.”
“Burn it all down.”
Smiley continues to speak to the boy.
The boy’s love for his friend triples then triples again.
It is surprising how much knowledge Smiley possesses. The boy believes Smiley is only an aspect of his psychology manifesting as a bit of play. But then Smiley teaches the boy all about accelerants and how they work.
His fascination swells. His love deepens. Now, it’s transcended love and has become awe.
For a few floating fibers on a film of fluid tears, the face knows a lot about accelerants.
He shows the boy a vision. It’s the alley behind their little house. Three doors down on the right side of the lane, there is a canister. Just sitting there, waiting for the trashman to pick up and haul away. Smiley would be displeased if that were to happen. Such a waste of life-purifying accelerant cannot happen. That must not happen.
He will make some excuses to his mom later. He will say something about playing outside. If the barrel is where Smiley showed him, he will bring it back to their house. There’s a tiny place in the bushes by the house where he can hide it, and no one would ever know it was there.
He should get up and check on his mom. The boy thinks she might’ve fallen asleep on the couch, and he’s getting hungry for breakfast. He worries about his siblings. They sleep too much.
That idea reminds him of his father. He lets the thought go.
He should get up and check on his mother.
He lets that thought go.
He will lie there a little longer.
I probably won’t burn anything.
He’s just listening to his friend. Where’s the harm in that?