by Chris Milam

The boy knew from watching too many cop shows that his dad was dead. Real dead, not passed out dead, not sad dead or bored to the bone dead. No snoring or slobbering. No anything. Abandonment forever.

They both had slept late, well, the boy had, since his dad was free-falling south. They were going to watch their favorite team, the Steelers, against the Rat Birds from Baltimore. It was Sunday, last day of the visit before going back to his perfect mom and the perfect house and Allan, the almost-perfect step-dad. And meals not served in cake batter bowls or from vending machines. Though, a weekend filled with sugarless wheat puffs, peanut butter cups, and violent collisions was fine by him.

His memories didn’t involve goodnight stories about dragons and boy king slayers, or help with his homework at the kitchen table as they sipped warm cocoa, but he could latch onto the fact that sometimes his dad flaunted a wad of cash. The boy was old and observant enough to know it didn’t come from a punching a clock, walking a beat, or wearing a slick suit, like Allan. But he didn’t care where it came from because on those rare flush weekends, they left the motel and walked together to El Mariachi’s and ordered their famous big-as-your-head burritos and two glasses of rice water. They both loved hot sauce, murdered their food with it, and the boy liked to believe that it was in the genes, this passion for the burn in the mouth and gut. James and Derek Ellis, eaters of fire.

He grabbed the half-empty bottle of pills with grandma’s name on the label, a few squashed cans, a blackened spoon, and tossed them in a plastic grocery bag, ran it out to the dumpster. A quick clean-up that would fool not a soul who knew the man and his cravings.

He was lucky to even be here. His dad would sling whatever wisp of charm he had left from his younger, cockier days, maybe a compliment about his mom’s timeless beauty, and tell her he was trying to change for real this time. Seriously, Brenda, for goddamn real. A tired con from a tired man, but Allan always took his side, told her that a boy needs his father like a donut needs glaze and coffee. Let them discover who they are and what they need from each other. She would return fire and say a motel isn’t a home, and shadows can’t be responsible parents. It was the only time they fought about anything. Step-dad won every now and then.

He sat on the bed next to his ruined dad, held his dead hand, and watched a couple of minutes of the game on the ancient box TV. It wasn’t as fancy as the HD flat-screen in his room at home, a Christmas gift from mom and almost-perfect Allan, but if it was good enough for his dad, it was good enough for him.

The Steelers scored on a sweep and the crowd went berserk, waving those Terrible Towels, a golden, twirling frenzy on the screen. A stadium rocking with delirious, aggressive joy. He wanted to cheer or cry or punch the world in the face, but too many absent months chewed through his capacity to feel and understand pleasure or pain the way a normal kid should. Life waiting on a degenerate to see the light was like sitting on a lonely teeter-totter with hope on one end, disappointment on the other.

The boy reached for the flip phone on the end table. Looking at the body, he wondered if the hot sauce addiction was the only thing he inherited from him, or if there was something far worse on the horizon, a dark star waiting for him when he became a man. When horror movies, brutal video games, and torched bugs will be replaced by chemicals, disappearances, and endless bottoms in what the peaceful corpse next to him called the art of sweet and sour distraction.

Derek shook the thought away, turned the game off, then called his mom.

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Chris Milam lives in solitude in Hamilton, Ohio. His stories have appeared in Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, Bartleby Snopes, The Airgonaut, (b)OINK and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @Blukris.