The Ash’s Echo

She materialized from the neon’s shadows like she’d always been there, below. Charlotte. Holy shit, she nearly turned me to the corner-eye glimpse of a falling star. I was changing the marquee, standing atop our ladder whose creaking diatribes promise to one day escort an employee to an ice pack or ambulance. And most likely me, because I’m the one who proudly spars with it every Thursday night, amongst co-workers who fail to notice that when the sun sets, our marquee becomes the illuminated enamel to our movie theater’s smile. I’ve seen misspelled words for one, but more importantly, these cohorts never bother to create an artful dance of the marquee’s verbiage, each word with its nestled flow to the next. To them, all that seems to matter is the information, a discernable title to each of the week’s features. And so I take it on for the sake of our theater’s last gasp of respect in modern culture, to polish its grin and try to avoid the constant progression of a bucktoothed market.

This was why Charlotte had seemed to appear from the theater’s audible static, like a cloud that forms while you watch. I hadn’t seen her in close to five years and of all the people I would have dared to imagine stepping from the shadows that night, she was among the last. As she jarred me from my personal comparisons, I almost became the first tick on our piece of shit ladder’s log of bloodletting. But I stabled myself, looked down and there she was, her huge eyes pointed at me. I felt like I’d traded perspectives with an angel.

“Hi there, Mitten,” she said, her words dipping me into the past’s fog. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“That’s all right. I’m not used to it. You took me by surprise.”

“Was that an echo? Talk about delay,” she said with a smile, and I remembered that had been the last thing I said to her when she was set to move back home to Michigan. Actually, back then it had been “you fucking surprised me,” but close enough.

I started to quakily step down but she stopped me. “No no. Go ahead and finish. I wouldn’t want to ruin your flow.” I thought back to when I had put a message up for her on this marquee. She continued: “But I’d like to hang out tonight, if you’re not busy. When you’re done with work, obviously.”

“Oh, of course. I mean, I had plans. Kinda. But I wouldn’t mind the company. Your company.”


“The last movie is in right now. It’ll be done at about 11:45.”

“I’ll see you then,” she said, and before I could respond, she had dissolved into the night. I felt like I had just watched a juggling act or car accident. All I could focus on was how unsettling it all felt, like I had seen that life can strike from beyond your periphery. Yet it was held aloft by vibrations of ecstasy that coursed through my chest, an electric dissipation fingering my scalp.

After the last movie let out, I went upstairs and flipped the lights at the breaker. I then bobbed my way through the dark halls and to the breaker downstairs, where I killed the lights of the marquee. When I went outside, Charlotte was standing beneath it, still looking up.

“You’ve done a nice job there,” she said, motioning to next week’s features. “I see you still take pride in your work.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Yup, my Sistine requires its weekly touch-up.”

She offered a breath of laughter and I walked us to my car.

It felt nice driving with her beside me again. I wasn’t sure if it was because of my own amorous dry spell, but I could feel the waves pulsing from her, and it made it hard to work the clutch. She never asked where we were going, which made sense as she had always shined an air of knowledge. She just watched the streets go by. Finally, as we drove deeper into the town’s nethers, I told her, “I never showed you my dad’s place, did I?”

“Your dad’s place?”

“Yeah. Where I grew up?”

“You did once. We drove by the driveway one night but you said he was probably asleep so we didn’t go in.”

“Oh yeah. I forgot about that.”

“Is that where we’re going?” she asked with a tone of rhetoric, buffing the stature of her persona.


We wove through the darkened streets before finding the driveway. As I pulled in, she asked if there used to be a fence. I told her yes, and she repeated what I must have told her when I brought her here in the past, like someone repeating lines from a movie: “Your step-mom had it put up when they first married?” Her question mark a mise en scene.


“Is she gone?”

“Yeah. And so is he,” I told her.

She was quiet for a moment as we prodded down the gravel driveway in the dark. Then she said, “I heard.” I wasn’t sure what to say so I let it drift.

We finally pulled up to the house and I embraced the hidden history. It felt nice being somewhere that was this far from the road, this far from town, where no one had any business or desire to go anymore. That had been the only perk to my dad’s death: I finally had the house to my own, even though I still didn’t live there. I looked at it now, the headlights constructing a new demeanor, like my marquee being illuminated with unwanted memories; I thought of how it must look to Charlotte. It wasn’t a beacon of urban legend yet, but it withered every day, further toward the brink of a nightmare. “I’ve been coming out here,” I told her.

“Every year on May 27th?”

“No. I come here every so often. I can only stand it for so long, but I had a lot of stuff here still, when my stepmom moved out. And she had left a lot of my dad’s stuff.”

“Who’s house is it now? Is it yours?”

“It might be someday, I guess. She owns it now, but she’s crazy. I think she lost touch with reality when my dad died. I don’t know. She just kind of left it out here. Like a raft floating on a lake.”

“And you don’t want to make it look like your marquee?” she asked.

“What do you mean? No. There’s no lighting. Or any… I’m not sure. What you mean.”

“Oh no, it’s just that we came from your theater and you had so much pride in the beauty that your marquee displayed. And now we’re here, where you seem to have purposefully let this place—your home—wither into ugliness.”

“Right,” I said, thinking about it. “The theater is a living thing, that I’m desperately trying to keep alive. This place died with my dad. And I don’t think I really want it to live. There was so much ugliness when he died, with my stepmom. And the whole side of my dad’s family, really. And it was all over this house. This property. It brought out an ugliness in everyone that no marquee could ever cover up. Nor is that anything I would want to illuminate.”

She looked at the house for a few moments, then she said, “And so on May 27th you come here and make sure it’s still a place of horror?”

I let out a small laugh. “No. I feel that the less of this place that exists, the better. All the memories inside. And so I have a fire every now and again, when I’m ready.”

“Mm,” she said, and I remembered that she had a thing for fire.

“I was moving things out of here piece by piece, right after my stepmom moved out. One night I was here and I found that my dad still had a bunch of old bullshit of mine. My report cards and a lot of random stuff. I’m not sure why, but I wanted to burn it all. So I threw it in the fireplace and lit this pile of old forgotten memories. It’s hard to explain but I felt a release, watching it burn. I took a chair and broke off one of the back supports and threw it in the fire. It felt like a knot had been loosened. So I started coming back here every so often and burning things. But it still wasn’t easy, coming here. So I make it out whenever I feel ready, and I burn things one at a time. It’s almost all gone.”

I thought of how funny it was that she had come back on this night, a night when I had been thinking, maybe an hour before she showed up, that I was ready to get out here again. It almost felt rehearsed. Charlotte had always been full of mystery, and she would probably return to a specter in my dirty dreams after tonight was over. But now, there was a fire to build. We got out of the car and went up to the house, again blanketed by the night. “No one cares that you come here?” she asked beside the echoes.

“When my dad died, and then my stepmom moved out, no one bothered to care anymore. No one even remembers that this place exists. It has been completely forgotten. It feels like no one really even remembers that I exist in this town. My dad was a legend here and I’m just not enough like him for anyone to notice me anymore.” I looked at the house. “I’m sure any day, some asshole kids will come out here and party and break all the windows. That’s partly why I do it too, so that in case anyone comes out here, they’ll hopefully see me and not get any weird plans.”

“Mm. Looks like you were a few panes late to the game.” She nodded at the broken windows by the front door.

“No,” I said. “That was me.” I left it at that.

I clicked on my phone’s flashlight as we stepped inside and could vaguely hear her breath shorten. I had expected her to be startled. A lot of my dad’s things remained, but it felt so unintentional. Visions of a neglected past, scattered throughout the house by my stepmom and aging without grace. It looked like a stage set where ghosts perform without an audience. She had all these horrible vases that she had collected like it was her religion, but when she moved, she left almost all of them. There had been framed pictures up, but I burned those long ago, as they were mostly of her. The pieces of furniture that she left behind was decrepit and moldy. They were too big to fit in the fireplace, and so old that they smelled toxic when they burned, so most of it remained.

An ottoman sat in front of where our couch used to be, facing the standing veins of our long-gone television. I could almost feel my dad sitting there, a gust of himself placed on the memory of a sofa and staring, waiting for the TV to turn on. Here we had only made it to the living room and I could see that she was overcome with the house’s hum. She just stood, looking at the ottoman like she was trying to answer a riddle.

“How about that for our little fire?” I asked. She turned her head slowly like someone out of an action movie and I knew the decision had been made.

We nudged it out with our feet like it was a rotting corpse. It made it to the front of the house and there it sat, the guard of a history that faded with each day’s passing. I went to the trunk and got my gas can, the sight of which gave her a just visible vibrato. I poured more gas than I probably should have, and looked up. Charlotte was staring at the ottoman, a smirk etched into her face.

“Do you mind lighting it?” I offered. “I got a little bit of gas on my hand.”

She stepped forward and I handed her the book. She struck a match, eyes never leaving the mound of leather and memories. Her fire fell and the ottoman erupted. We stepped back and watched like it was the climax of a movie. That scraggly plot of furniture blazed and spoke and seemed suddenly full of personality. It was like watching a corpse reanimated, stepping to the light with an electricity that had never been realized until now, finding new breath and new beauty as it began its final mutation. I had a quick thought that I tried to dispel, but its fragrance remained: my dad being cremated. I gave a tiny start as I realized that her arm was around my back and it moved, gliding around my love handle. It found my flesh and dove in, swimming around. My pants began to feel uncomfortable again and I made my shift strive for casual. In doing so, I found myself putting an arm around her. I tried to exchange a look but she was transfixed on the fire, its voice and shifting colors, the rotted material creating a creature that I couldn’t remember seeing. But that had been the case every time I came here to dissolve my memories. Nothing burns the same, but especially when they get old; they’re like fingerprints or varieties of sadness.

Charlotte and my hands both explored each other as we stared at the fire, mesmerized by the arching story of its life. The fire had come alive, a raging puberty had made it weird and awkward for a bit, then it fell into the stride of normalcy, creating something that could never be recognized before fading to a pointless simmer. The flames would find pockets and erupt with small bursts of wind, and each felt like a new surprise ending. She looked over at me. “Let’s find some more stuff,” she said. And we went back inside the house.

I led her to my bedroom and it felt like I was reading the forgotten chapter of a childhood book. Although she’d never been there before, I knew she would realize as soon as we got to my room that it wasn’t even a crypt of anything recognizable. The room had been stripped before my dad even died, as soon as I had moved out. We stepped inside and she looked around casually. It reminded me of a child, alone at an intersection they had never visited in their hometown. She looked at me. “This was your room?”

I shrugged. “What used to remain, I already burned,” I offered. And as though awaiting a cue, a gust of wind blew outside, inspiring a symphony of groans from the home’s retired joints. I thought about the gasping flames of the ottoman. Like it was pure instinct, Charlotte looked at the corner where my bed used to be; it felt like her rebuttal to the wind, a punchline to my joke. Right then, we both heard a loud pop behind us, toward the living room.

We turned and saw the light creeping, growing, dancing against the living room wall. We couldn’t see the front door from where we stood, but the chorus of that moment sang a finale for my bone-dry photo album. In the dust and grit and hollowed-out foundation, my childhood was going up in flames, really fast. Charlotte let out a breath and I couldn’t tell if it was fear or joy or a little of both. Another escaped her as I put my arm around her waist and led her out the back door.

I went toward the trees that surrounded the backyard but Charlotte steered us back to the front of the house. It was a fast-growing façade of waltzing flames. At the orchestra pit, I could see what remained of that ottoman, withered and downtrodden and providing an epicenter of life like the fire’s maestro. Beside it, I could see where the curtain had drifted out of the broken window, as though it had been drawn to the flame, becoming a wick for this awkward adolescent.

The thoughts that seemed to circle my head, the yard, this town, wafted to dissipation as I felt her flesh on mine. Her hand had creeped up my back, to my shoulders, it explored my chest and my stomach, and it became the faring captain of a fevered recovery. Inspiring every pore of mine to taste every pore of hers. Charlotte’s eyes never leaving the fire, it felt like a dramatization of the buzz that raged in both of our heads and bodies. As the fire grew, we sank, until we were on the forest floor, every cell of my body screaming with glee, mourning, power, persuasion, and freedom. We watched it burn, the fire reflected in our eyes as I slid inside of her, the shadows seeming to dance to our celebration. We both sang at the fire’s music, and it felt like it had never begun and would never end. The fire had always been here; it was just finally reaching the summit of itself.

I again felt the wires rising from my body, evaporating into the air, and the night came together. I was suddenly aware of the trees that rested near my house. Looking up, I could see that they were beyond reach, but the drifting offspring of the fire was decorating my car, and it quickly became real that I didn’t want to be associated with this. I hopped up and backed my car far into the bushes, feeling the drip of me and her wandering down my thighs, gifting memory to my driver’s seat fabric. I turned off the car and sat there, feeling a part of the nothingness that had always rested just beyond my life’s wall of trees. I saw Charlotte sitting up on our pile of discarded clothes, watching my home burn and breathing to the rhythm. She looked like she had earlier, when she was staring up at my marquee, and I felt a sore and naked pride at this beauty of my ghosts going up in smoke. Then I could hear sirens.

I walked up to her. “So beautiful,” she said. “You should be proud. This is your best marquee yet.” Hearing that gave me a sense of pride that I had often searched for, and I looked back at the house. She was right, there was a kind of beauty in it, the flames devouring a place where so many of my good memories had already been swallowed whole by every footnote to my dad’s death. I felt like I could see spirits in the smoke being sent to the twilight ether that had blanketed my whole childhood.

“Thank you,” I said. “We should hide though. There’s a hill where we can still see the house.”

I made sure my car wouldn’t be seen by the firetrucks, and Charlotte and I powered through the pine and manzanita limbs that had overgrown my path until we were on the hill above the house, a place that had made me invisible through my weird years. We watched the flames grasping at the sky like the arms of children, until the trucks pulled in. I saw her face, staring at the episode like it was a piece of art, and she said it again, hardly audible as if she was talking to herself: “You should be proud.”

I’ve since wondered if she even existed that night. I took her back to town after the action finally ended at the house and I never saw her again. I guess she moved back to Michigan. I continued going out to my forgotten home every now and again, almost to assure myself that my night with Charlotte really happened. I would go up to the flat where we had hidden, above the strangled bones that remained, where I could look down at it, like a mirrored world of my marquees. And I felt like a father, looking proudly at his child before retiring to bed. There was finally nothing left to burn.