It’s all in his mind…

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I BLINK AND DOUBLECHECK that I’m actually seeing what I think I’m seeing because sometimes, I see things that aren’t real.

That can’t be real.

Slowly, I lift a pair of keys from a cotton-lined box my step-dad just slid across the massive dining room table we almost never use — one round, one square. Yep. They’re real. I’m not imagining this. 

Pontiac keys. 

My dad’s keys.

“Happy birthday, son,” Greg says softly. I look up and he snaps a picture of my stunned expression with the new cell phone Mom and I gave him for Father’s Day last week. 

Happy birthday

There are no cards on display, no balloons, no pointy hats. There aren’t even any guests at this particular party. The last time I had a truly happy birthday was the year I turned eleven. That was the birthday I helped Mom deliver my baby brother. A year later, we lost Tyler and Dad in a fire, so yeah. My birthday is a day Mom and I wish we could forget. But Greg won’t let us. He always, always makes sure I get a cake on my birthday, even on those birthdays when Mom couldn’t get out of bed. Okay, sure, it’s a grocery store cake and it never has candles on it because…fire. But still. Now that Greg and Mom are married, he does whatever he can to help us remember this day isn’t only about loss

I clutch the keys tightly in my hand just in case they are another figment of my imagination and it hits me. This is a happy-sad moment, a moment that sneaks in after you’re sure you’ll never remember what happy looks like or sounds like or even tastes like and then, when you do remember, you say, Whoa! Back off, happiness! I can’t feel like this ever again, remember? And you don’t. Instead, you actually feel sad for daring to feel a little happy.

I’ve gotten really good at faking it through these moments…pretending everything’s great while my insides are churning. When I saw that box, I pasted a cheesy smile on my face because I was positive the key inside would be to the beat-up old Sentra Greg bought to teach me to drive a stick shift.  

“Riley, say something,” Mom demands on a laugh. 

I swallow hard and check one more time that I’m not imagining this, dreaming this, hallucinating this because, holy crap, holy crap, holy crap—these keys…These are the keys to my dad’s classic muscle car. He bought that car before I was born and spent years restoring it. My earliest memories are riding in its backseat. I look him dead in the eye. “Is this for real, Uncle Greg? You’re not selling it?”

Greg exchanges a look with Mom. “No, kid. We couldn’t do that.”

“But I thought…I mean, you were cleaning it up. And all that talk about how expensive it is to run?”

“We got you good,” he says on a laugh. “No, Ry. That car’s for you. It’s always been for you. Your dad wanted you to have it.” 

My throat burns but I refuse to cry. Seventeen-year-old guys are too old for that shit. For the first time since we lost Dad and Tyler, I think I feel happy-happy. A breeze blows through the open windows, bringing the scent of someone’s burgers grilling and someone else’s cut grass into this room we rarely use. Outside, I hear kids shrieking and a dog barking. These are all the signs of life going by and damn, they usually piss me off. I want to run outside to shout at all the everyday people Hey! Don’t you know what we’ve lost? How can you laugh? How can you live?  

I never do, of course. No, Mom and I just keep pretending we’re fine. That’s part of the happy-sad dance we do. Laughing while part of you still cries. Living while part of you wants to die. Getting up every day, knowing your dad and brother never will…because of you. 

In the mirror on our dining room wall, I see the flames seething and quickly look away. Not now. Please, God, not now.

Mom doesn’t know about the…the things I see. 

I can’t tell her. 

I won’t tell her. 

She’ll panic that the illness that almost killed me when I was little is back to finish the job. It’s not, though. I know how sick feels and I’m not sick. Ty saved me…well, his umbilical cord blood did. 

I hadn’t been able to save him, though. If I hadn’t been so ticked off about our birthday plans changing because Tyler was teething, Mom and I wouldn’t have been at the movies when the fire started. If we’d been home, we would have noticed the smoke and gotten everyone out. Or–or maybe we’d have all died together. 

That would have been better than the half-living thing we’ve been doing ever since.

I swallow hard, willing those thoughts away, because right now, Mom’s doing her own happy-sad dance. Smiling and crying at the same time, holding Greg’s hand. And Greg…well, his version of happy-sad is to press his lips together in a tiny smile while staring at Mom. He really loves her…loves us both. He was Dad’s best friend, his partner on the force, and my god-father. Out of all of us, he’s got it the hardest. His happiness didn’t start until our sadness did and that’s gotta mess with your head. 

It wasn’t right away, of course. No, it was long after…after that night and Mom wasn’t dealing with things. I went to see Greg at the precinct. He had a fit that I was there by myself. When I asked him to come over, when I told him how Mom wasn’t even getting out of bed some days, he promised he’d help. 

It took time. 

A long time. 

Years, actually. And finally, Mom started to smile and laugh again. Greg did that for her. For us. 

When I was fifteen, I walked her down the aisle at their wedding and life is close to normal — except for the seeing things part.

I leap from my chair and tackle him in a hug I really mean. “Can I…I mean, right now? Is it okay?” 

He laughs and thumps my back. “Yeah, yeah. Of course. Go pick up Davis and cruise around town.” 

I run upstairs to my room and grab my phone and my wallet, where my freshly minted driver’s license is safely tucked. I tap out a quick message to Davis, my best friend, tell him to be outside waiting for me in ten minutes, shove the phone into my pocket and run back downstairs.

In the garage, I flip on the light and just stare. I run my hand over the hood, up one steel curve, down another. 

The car gleams like it’s showroom-new again but it’s not. It’s a 1969 GTO in a bright shade of blue that Pontiac called Crystal Turquoise. And it’s a convertible with a black rag top, a hood-mounted tachometer, and a four-speed manual transmission. It was my dad’s favorite thing on this planet. My heart speeds up when I insert the round key into the lock and open the door, smelling old vinyl mixed with oil and…red lollipops.

It’s Dad.

Red lollipops were his crutch. Dad gave up smoking when I was born…and had trouble sticking to it. I’ve heard this story a dozen times. Every time he wanted to smoke, he sucked on a lollipop instead. Only red ones. He said it helped occupy his hands and his mouth. Mom would shake her head and laugh. She used to worry he’d piss red but I always knew she was happy he tried so hard to be healthy so he’d live longer. 

But smoke killed him anyway. 

I friggin’ hate irony. 

The cherry candy scent fades and I smell IT

It’s ash and rot and decay and mold. 

It’s a beast, a monster. Death. 


“Yeah?” My voice is gravel. Quickly, I blink tears away and turn my head. There’s Mom, sneaking toward me, holding two envelopes.

“Honey, shh! This is from Jason. For your first tank of gas. Let’s just keep it from Greg, okay? You know how he is about Jason.”

Please leave, Mom. Just go! “Yeah. Sure.”

She bites her lip and hands me both envelopes. “The other one is something from Dad. I’ve been saving it.” 

Mom manages a quick smile and disappears back inside. 

As soon as she shuts the door, I let my head drop back against the seat, breathing hard to clear those foul odors from my nose. “It’s all in your head, man. You don’t smell anything. It’s just your imagination.” A few more deep breaths and I almost believe it.


I rip open the first envelope and find a birthday card from Jason Strauss, one of my dad’s old pals from the detective squad. He’s a lawyer now. Greg hates Jason with all the fury of a volcanic eruption. He blames Jason for my dad’s death — says Jason was the last person to see my Dad alive. But Jason denies being at the house that night. Whatever happened between Jason and Greg goes deeper than that night, but neither one will tell me about it, so I just don’t even ask anymore. 

Happy Birthday, Ry-Ry! Here’s something for your first tank of gas. Your mom told me Greg was fixing up the GTO for you. Go fill ‘er up and take the car out for a road trip. When you pass by my office, honk twice so I can pretend I’m riding shotgun! Be safe

I laugh. I haven’t been called Ry-Ry since I was like, four. I tuck the gift card into my wallet. The first thing I’ll do is drive by Jason’s Main Street law office, maybe rev the beast under this hood a bit. 

I carefully open the second envelope. It’s old, kind of worn. Inside, there’s a folded-up sheet of copy paper. I unfold it and discover it’s a whole explanation about the meaning of our last name, Carter, printed out from some genealogy website. At the top, in Dad’s scrawl, is a note.

Been saving this for your first solo drive, Riley! Drive smart. Remember, the GTO is a powerful car. Don’t abuse the privilege of getting to drive something that’s older than both of us and will probably outlive us both. I’ll know if you do. 

I shut my eyes but a few tears leak out anyway. 

I read a few paragraphs of the genealogy print-out. My parents used to love tracing our ancestry and could spend hours on those websites. Carter means one who drives carts; a traveler or sojourner. Cool. 

I swipe a knuckle under both eyes, wipe away the tears, and slide behind the wheel. Just as I’m about to put the key in the ignition, it happens again. 

I’m sucked away from reality. 

It always starts with a wave of—of something I can’t name, washing over me, taking me over. I tell myself not to look, but I have to

In the rearview mirror. 

The flames. My God, they’re back. They’re the one thing I wish I could stop seeing. They’re in my dreams, in my waking moments, always fucking with me.

Fire. Red, vicious flames raging higher. Higher. HIGHER. 

It’s the night we lost Dad and Tyler all over again. 

And again. 

And again. 

My lungs clog with smoke that isn’t really here. My eyes burn as my vision fades to white and I’m gone. A hundred more thoughts I can’t seem to finish race through my mind like scenery from the passenger window of a car speeding down a highway and it’s too much. My head pounds and I’m about to short-circuit. I clap my hands over my mouth, trying not to puke. I struggle to hear the words, just one word, under a heavy layer of white noise that’s almost deafening. It’s too much, it’s too much, it’s crushing my head. I can’t breathe. Make it stop. Jesus, make it stop

Only it doesn’t stop. 

It’s here.

Wherever here is, I am not alone. Whatever’s here with me — it’s pure evil. It’s a beast, a monster that guards this hellscape. I can smell it. In the bright whiteness broken up only by random dark blobs, I can barely make out the dark shape moving toward me. 

Hunting me. 

I gasp and try to claw my way out but I can’t move. 

My muscles tense and my heart pounds and every hair on my body stands at alert. Fear is swallowing me alive. 

The swirling shape stalks me — closer. 


Closer still, yet its shape is indistinct. In this colorless place, it glows red — but I still can’t tell what it is. It’s immense, a huge snarling monster. It opens its mouth and I squeeze my eyes shut because I know if I stare down that maw, I’ll be consumed alive.

It knows I’m here but it can’t find me in the void. When it roars its frustration, my breath gets sucked from my body. It’s a wave—a flood — a concussive shockwave of emotion I can’t stop and it rolls over me, tossing me around like a leaf in a storm. I feel its putrid breath blasting over me, through me, leaving behind the smell of metal and ash and desiccated, decaying things. 

There’s one sound I can hear in all this chaos. A baby is crying, and even though I know it’s impossible, I know it can’t be real, every instinct I have tells me it’s Tyler and I have to protect him. 

The beast swings its enormous head around, ears twitching. And then, it hunts him

“No!” I scream but I make no sound. 

I’m cold. I’m boiling. I’m scared. I’m paralyzed. I’m going to die of fright. My hands clench into fists and I want to scream my frustration into the sky but my voice is off-line. I brace for the pain I know will be so hot, so vicious, it’ll take me to my knees but it’s okay, it’ll all be worth it, if I can just hang on a few more seconds, because what comes after this agony is heaven. 




Dad. Oh, God, Dad!

I can see him! He’s behind the veil, but I know it’s him because I can smell him, too. This place swallows sounds but can’t stop the odors. 

If I have to put up with the other stuff forever…I will, because he’s here with me — or I’m there with him — wherever there is.

Abruptly, the baby’s cries end and I know the monster got him. Fury, disgust, and grief — a bottomless well of grief — swamp me. 

And then, it’s all turned off. The avalanche, the tsunami of fear — it all goes away. Like my dad stopped it for me.

Dad! I’m here, I’m right here! 

Somehow, he can always find me in the void. But I can’t hear him. I can’t reach him. He’s screaming, but I don’t know what he’s saying. 

And then, he starts to pull back.

No! Not yet. The unfairness of it makes me want to die. I feel him fading away so I strain with all of my strength because even though I know this is impossible, I can’t stop hoping I can keep him with me just a little longer. 

But it doesn’t work. 

It never does. 

The blare of the car’s horn I accidentally pressed zaps me back to here, to now. I suck in great big breaths of clean air that smells normal again. When my brain comes back online with the mother of all headaches, all I can think is…how much longer can I keep hiding this from Mom?