Mark slumps in the dark corner with his legs pulled up to his chest, flicking a lighter. The flame stands for nearly a minute, brightening his face, then he presses the hot metal tip into his palm. His skin sizzles. He holds his eyes closed and hums a song.
I stretch out on the splintering pieces of plywood covering the floor. The walls are shredded Sheetrock, faded floral wallpaper, exposed two-by-fours. Splintered wood, glass, and ash litter the space from wall to wall. Birds had come in through the destroyed windows and dropped their shit and feathers all around. The smell of the honeysuckle vines growing over the trees in the backyard blows through the house, blending with the sweat and smoke coming from Mark’s clothes.
I gather wood splinters and set my lighter to them. Mark looks at the water stain constellations on the ceiling. I blow on the flame, but it fades into a smoldering, flameless pile.
Mark was born in this house, lived here until he was seven years old. After Mark’s dad died, Uncle Bibby moved in and helped raise Mark. He taught Mark to be polite to people, how to sew, play guitar; also taught him how to throw a punch, fix an engine, load a gun, which Mark has in turn taught me over the years. Without Uncle Bibby, Mark might have run away or starved by now. It’s been three weeks since Uncle Bibby disappeared and Mark is already skinnier. His torn jeans and Dead Kennedys T-shirt hang off him like raggedy drapes.
Earlier in the year Mark got suspended for selling his Ritalin to Matt Harding. Mr. Werner, the principal, saw Mark hand the pill to Matt on the sidewalk behind the gym. Mr. Werner told Mark’s mom he would reduce the length of the suspension if Mark attended drug education classes at the Family Center, but she couldn’t take off work from Bernie’s BBQ to get him there. Uncle Bibby, who lived in the next county over, drove Mark to the classes so he’d only miss ten days of school. And even though Uncle Bibby smokes weed—Mark and I found a shoe box sized plastic container filled with joint roaches under his bed once—he told Mark not to do that dumb shit at school again and Mark said he wouldn’t.
The house has been empty since Mark and his mom moved all those years ago and is now a strange temple for anyone who wants to slip between the cracks. It’s mostly the tattered and stained kids with lip and eye brow piercings, and the scarred, gang initiated guys from our school who come here to smoke stolen cigarettes, drink warm liquor from plastic bottles, and fuck on discarded scraps of carpet found behind the Big Lots. Witnessing the house’s decomposition is like watching a swarm of bugs slowly devour a piece of meat. Small holes become big holes, major pieces shift, break apart, and melt into the earth.
Mark rolls his thumb over his lighter’s wheel, making the sound of grinding teeth. “Let’s go to my old room,” he says. I follow him down the hall. The flooring sags and groans beneath our slow steps. A square of sunlight coming through the window shines on a wooden chair in the corner. The chair has no seat and the legs lean at a slight angle. On two of the walls, from floor to ceiling, words have been written in pencil. The lines dip and rise, the letters are different sizes, some are lower case, others randomly capitalized.
“What is this?” I ask. Mark rubs his face and eyes. The dirt packed under his nails spreads up his fingers like he’s filled with soot.
“It’s a prayer. I found it in a notebook somebody left here.”
“It said the prayer is like a magnet. To bring people back.”
I step toward the wall and touch the gray scribble.
“Can you help me finish? I’ve been here for two days and I don’t think I can do it by myself.”
Mark stares into my eyes. For all the time we spend together, we are normally side-by-side, walking through the neighborhood, sitting next to each other in the cafeteria, riding in the same seat on the bus. Mark’s small mouth is closed and turned down at the corners. I glance to the floor. I almost say it’s a waste of time, that prayers are bullshit, that it won’t bring Uncle Bibby back, but there’s nothing else we can do right now. We’ve called Uncle Bibby’s friends, gone to the bar where he works, searched through his trailer, and his truck. Found nothing. The police say they are searching for him, but still nothing. I’m afraid Uncle Bibby is dead, but I won’t say that. As Mark’s friend, the only thing I can do is follow his lead. And maybe I am wrong. Maybe Unlce Bibby is out there lost, waiting to be lifted from his feet and carried through the moon lit night, over rivers and concrete, through forests, between buildings, back to us.
I look into Mark’s eyes. “Do you have another pencil?” I ask. Mark pivots and the sun light forces his eyes closed.
“No, but we can take turns.” The pencil is pocked with teeth marks and worn to half its original size. The point is dull and the eraser has been rubbed off.
Mark drags the chair across the room and holds the pencil out.
“Are you sure? I don’t want to mess it up.” He thrusts the pencil at me. I try to see the burn on his palm.
“Just copy what I wrote on the other wall.”
I take the pencil and he sits on the floor, blowing on his hand. I place my left foot on the edge of the chair’s frame and try to stand quickly. The chair topples and bangs against my ankle. Mark stands and picks it up.
“Go slow,” he says. “Use the wall to give you balance.” He holds the chair while I place both my feet on it. I press the tips of my fingers against the wall. The chair legs, barely nailed into place, pop and lean sharply, but I balance at just the right angle and it feels stable enough.
The day Mark came back from his suspension he got in a fight with Ricky Tatton, knocking a chunk out of Ricky’s eye brow, because he called Mark a faggot. Mark got so mad because Uncle Bibby is gay and Mark didn’t want anybody saying anything that would offend his uncle. The year before, Jason Trendall called me a faggot and I said, “So what if I am?” then ran in a classroom when he came after me. Mark had called me a wuss when I told him about it, but my dad left when I was a baby, and I didn’t have a tough uncle to teach me how to fight. One night, after we drank a couple of his mom’s beers, Mark taught me how to make a fist and told me to try to bust the other guy’s eyebrow open.
“That way,” he said, “even if you lose you’ll put a scar on him that will last forever.”
The prayer is one sentence. Seventeen words long. Glancing over at what Mark wrote, I carefully shape each letter so I don’t make any mistakes. I repeat the prayer on the same line until I’m stretching so far the pencil is barely clasped between my fingers, the letters barely legible, then I drop down to a new line and write the words quickly, clear and bold. My teacher once told us that the flap of a butterfly wing can result in a storm in another country and I think good. I hope this small action has devastating effects. The world right now is being changed because of us. Then, instead of an m I write an n. I stare at the mistake. I’ve ruined everything before it even took hold.
“I fucked up,” I say, turning to Mark.
He walks over and examines it like a doctor looks at a bleeding wound. “It’s fine. Just write over it and keep going. Be more careful.”
I write even slower, trying to make each letter perfect, trying to keep my lines straight, but I misspell the words, the lines are crooked. With each letter the space to cover gets smaller and the prayer more powerful. The muscle between my thumb and first finger starts to cramp. I keep writing. I write faster and say the prayer to myself. At the bottom of the wall, I kneel down to fill in the space near the floor. It feels like a person is standing on my hand, but I finish the last line and drop the pencil. The muscles in my forearm shift back and forth as I knead them with my thumb. I roll my wrist around, bend my hand back and pinch the muscles until they loosen. Mark jumps on the chair, whispering the words to himself. The muscles in his arm flex as he presses into the wall. The chair does not budge underneath him, the words appear on the wall so quickly it’s as though he is not writing them, but revealing them from under a thin cover. I sit hypnotized by Mark’s motions. It’s as though Mark has been doing this since the beginning of time, directing the lives of those on the outside using the prayers and invocations from an ancient notebook.
Mark reaches the floor and I think he’s going to stop and tell me it’s my turn, but he climbs on the chair again and keeps writing. Even though I’m sitting, sweat collects on my chest and trickles down my stomach. Mark’s shirt sticks to his back. Outside, the tree tops move in the wind. The painted shut window overlooks the kudzu covered backyard. Bees and dragon flies zoom in and out of the shadows beneath the leaves. No buildings or roads are visible from this window and it feels like we’ve tripped into a dimension all our own.
When it’s my turn our hands touch, mixing the sweat trickling down our arms. A smudge of Mark’s blood is on the pencil. I don’t wipe it off. I hold the pencil tight and let it sink into my skin.
While I write, Mark paces between the door and the window, nodding his head, dripping his blood on the floor, murmuring the prayer. The scraping sound of the pencil against the wall is like a whisper, like the wall is reciting the prayer. I say the prayer. This is our quiet chant. Both of us glow in the heat of the room. We step in Mark’s blood and track it throughout the room with sticky steps. A blister on my index finger opens, puss leaks onto the pencil. If Mark is able to bleed for his uncle then I am too. It’s Mark’s turn, then my turn again. We shift our weight from foot to foot while standing on the chair to keep our legs from going numb. When I stop writing for a second the pain in my hand disappears only to return when I start again. It hurts so bad that for a second I expect my hand to just lock up and fall off, but I keep writing. We stretch, reach, crouch, bend. The words are repeated so many times they lose their meaning. It feels strange to say them. There is no point of reference anymore. My mouth is dry. It feels like I’ve run a hundred miles. At one point, I forget what I’m doing and I stand perched on the chair, frozen. The room begins to tilt like I’m on a boat in the middle of the ocean. I press my body against the wall so I don’t fall off the chair. I feel my ribs and the bones in my hand. I keep writing.
The square of sunlight moves around the room, turns orange, then fades. Eventually, we stand in the dark, the walls completely covered. Our bodies throb like bruises after a fight.
Mark lights a cigarette he stole from his mom. The cold menthol bites my throat. I take shallow drags, so I don’t get dizzy.
For days after, the rhythm of the prayer plays like a jingle in my head. I dream that I’m in a field, standing on the chair with burning grass all around me. I wake up hours before my alarm with the words pulsing through me. I hope they are moving through Uncle Bibby as well, bringing him back toward us. I imagine him walking through a silver moonlit field that extends forever in the darkness. I imagine him laughing at a joke he hears at a bar. I imagine him sitting in a trailer asking himself how he could have left Mark behind. I imagine him drowned in a muddy river.
One Friday afternoon, two weeks after we wrote the prayer, we go back to the house. All the shit and debris in the front has been cleared away. The broken pieces of glass are gone from the windows. The scraps of drywall have been pulled down. It looks like someone is trying to renovate the place.
“I’ve been coming here at night for the last few days,” Mark sa ys. “Getting everything ready.” He holds his breath, he grits his teeth, not letting the tears fall from his eyes.
The door to the room where we’d written the prayer can barely open because of all the moldy pieces of lumber, broken wooden furniture, smashed doors, stacks of ripped cardboard and yellowed newspapers. The ceiling is now covered with the prayer. I guess Mark climbed on the heap of crap and wrote it there. I feel left out, like somehow he thought I couldn’t help him do what he had to do.
“Why’d you bring all this shit in here?” I ask. It smells like the earth threw up a load of moldy bile.
“The books says if the prayer doesn’t work to make a large fire for the person, that it will draw them back.”
“What if that doesn’t work?” I ask.
“Then this is his funeral.”
He sparks his lighter on a brown wool blanket crammed between two pieces of a broken door. He flicks it and flicks it and flicks it, but the lighter just sparks.
I hand Mark a blue lighter I found in the gutter outside my house. The flame stands ready with the first flick. He presents it to the blanket. The fire climbs over the furniture, setting it ablaze. I back up into the hallway. Smoke fills the room. The fire spreads to the walls, scorching the prayer we’d written. The words ride the smoke through the house and out the broken windows, floating further and further out into the world.