Keep the baby away from that, Mom always says, and there’s always a baby to snatch back from the kerosene heaters. I’m the oldest. I’m the most afraid of what will happen if He forgets to turn the smaller heater off when He fills it again. Or if one gets knocked over when He stumbles through the dark yelling for Mom while she’s at work.
There are two electric heaters—one for each bathroom. My brother and I sometimes hide by one with quilts trapping the dry heat around our ankles. The downstairs bathroom has finished walls instead of blankets, so we get kicked out of that one fastest. You idiots will start a fire like that, He says.
After Mom uses the oven at night to make herself breakfast, she opens it wide to let the heat out onto the kitchen’s bare chipboard floors. She stands on a rug right in front of it while she irons her nurse’s uniform. All seven of us kids are sleeping on the living room floor the night He smells the gas, still flowing even though the oven is off. I saved you all, and this is how you repay me, He says now, every day.
He’s not supposed to be here at the house, but I can see his breath hanging in the air. It is always coldest upstairs where our walls are fabric that breathes and sways, where the heat never seems to travel up through the vents like it’s supposed to—it doesn’t rise, and neither do we. I don’t know why He stands in my doorway for so long. I’m already banished from the communal heat, arms and cheek all black and blue. It’s my fault He’s not allowed here. At night I stay awake, sitting up alone, half-dreaming about summer with my dad. Full-dreaming about being warm.
On my birthday the candles on my dresser catch on the blankets and travel so quickly. All is not lost: He can’t live with us at my grandmother’s house. She hates Him even more than she hates my dad, maybe even more than I do, and even losing every cassette, every photo, every thing we ever owned, is worth a few weeks of sleeping all the way through the night until we find a new place.
Ani King loves flash fiction and short stories. She can be found at thebittenlip.com.