House Warming

05/15/23

Frank leaned against the back of the house and inhaled the August heat, taking it deep to the bone, like the first burn of a good tequila going down slow. This was a crisp, dry quality they didn’t get back home, and he took his time absorbing it with the dedication of a junkie.

The back door slammed, and he slid around the corner of the house, but not soon enough.

“So, it’s like that, huh, Frank?” his uncle said. He came down the back stairs with a couple of cold beers. Frank came back and took the bottle. “How long’s it been, Frank? Eight years? Ten?”

“Yeah, way past time to catch up, Uncle Dennis,” Frank said with a nervous hitch. His uncle gave him that, I wasn’t born yesterday, look and popped his beer.

“So, who you running from, Frank?” He held up a hand before Frank could answer. “Never mind, I don’t want to know. All I need to know is did they follow you?”

“No. They remember you by reputation, but no one would think to come here.” Frank grinned thinking about the stories. His uncles were still legends for the stuff they’d gotten away with back in the day. Frank remembered getting pulled over once, and when the cop ID’d him, he’d dropped his head and asked, “You aren’t related to Dan and Dennis, are you?”

“Like you said, ten years is a long time.” Frank drained most of the bottle and started peeling at the edge of the label, anxious to change the subject. He didn’t enjoy looking like a screw-up.

His uncle pulled out a pack of cigarettes and checked his pocket for a lighter. Frank reached in his jeans and handed over his vintage Zippo. Dennis lit the cigarette and gave the lighter a closer look.

“Nice,” he said. “Dad used to have one of these. The hinge on the outside is pretty rare.” He admired it for a minute, flicked it open and closed, and then handed it back. They stood in silence as the darkness deepened. Frank waited for his uncle to give him some reassurance he wasn’t going to send him on down the road, but it didn’t come.

“Listen, if you’re worried about the expense, don’t. I’ll pull my weight while I’m here,” Frank said, determined to make a good impression.

“That’s the least of my worries, kid. You’re family—stay as long as you need.” He gestured to the abandoned house across the alley and Frank saw a dim light moving from room to room. “That, on the other hand…”

“What’s the story?” Frank watched his uncle lower the glowing tip of his cigarette to avoid attention, knowing whoever was inside the house could see them, too. Frank mimicked him, hating that he didn’t think of it first—hating that it made him feel like a little kid again, always shadowing his uncles, and trying to be like them.

“At first there were a couple of homeless guys staying there. The neighbors were a little worried, but hey, it’s hard times, right?” He turned his back and took a drag. “But these guys…” he turned back and defiantly pointed with the cigarette this time, his anger increasing by the second, “… these guys are different. They’re setting up a meth lab in the basement.”

They watched as the light disappeared down the stairs and the house went dark.

“The house was recently condemned, so, police have better things to do. But I don’t want that shit around my kids.”

Frank watched him. The legend stood before him, gears turning, calculating his next move, until he dropped his cigarette into the bottle and set it down on the patio table.

“I’ll deal with them tomorrow,” his uncle said before calling it a night.

Two hours later Frank was back, leaning against the house, silent. Watching. He flipped the Zippo and lit a cigarette just as his uncle stepped out pulling on his robe, and grinning.

Fire engulfed the house across the alley.

“Thanks for letting me stay, Uncle Dennis.” His lighter made a metallic ring as he snapped it closed. “But it sure gets hot out here.”

~ fin ~

Ursula Jeans Jacket 23

Ella Ahrens writes from the Piedmont Region of the Southern Appalachians. She grew up on stories of hard times and harder decisions, including her grandparents “running shine” through the coal mines of Southern Kansas. She is a trained court reporter turned professional copywriter, teaches GED Prep, and writes stories about average people and deadly decisions. You can watch the progress of her first novel and follow her on Twitter @EllaKAhrens and read more at EllaAhrens.com