Clothed in Flames
by Ellen Mulholland
Publication permission granted from the author, Ellen Plotkin Mulholland
What if you could change a moment in your past before the future catches up with it? Kathryn Clark believes anything is possible. The voices in her head tell her so. After a mysterious letter inside an old “Back to the Future” lunchbox links Michael J. Fox to her birth father, she begins a secret hunt for the actor and a time-travelling car. When the actor comes to town for a fundraiser, Kathryn learns the real message in the letter.
When Jenna returned to her family home fourteen years ago, just a few weeks before she’d shift from being a single gal to a single mom, she asked for one thing. She wanted to live in the downstairs basement so that they’d all have some privacy. She didn’t want to feel like she never left home. Didn’t want to be seen as some teenage failure, the girl who slept her way through high school only to end up a single mom before she turned 19. Her parents never saw it that way. Fred didn’t. Hard to say what Irene really thought. Still, Fred and Irene respected their daughter’s wishes. They agreed that physical boundaries would help them all get along. During the next two weeks (13 days to be exact), Fred and two fellas he hired from the local hardware store set to work sanding, painting walls, laying carpet, and finishing bits of plumbing.
It’d be two months before the bathroom was completed with a shower and proper sink. In the meantime, Jenna would fill a bowl with water and leave it on the table for small wash-ups for herself and baby Kathryn.
It wasn’t until fall that Fred and the boys finalized everything for the small kitchenette and hooked up gas for the heater. By Christmas, Jenna and her little girl had everything they needed to live. “I’ve got the basics, Pop,” she told her dad the Saturday he showed her how to operate the thermostat. “I’ve got my shelter, warmth, food, a way to stay clean, and most importantly, I’ve got my family, my love. What would I do without you and Mom?” She wiped a tear.
Fred pulled her close, nestling her small frame into the crook of his underarm. Brushing back her soft ginger strands with his other hand, he told her in so many words that there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his family. He paused and added one condition.
“You know, baby girl, now that you’re a momma, you need to pay attention to that Watson family bug.”
Jenna pulled away. “The what bug?”
“You know. Momma. She’s been battling those demons upstairs for years. It started with her mom, and, well, it doesn’t seem to want to skip any generations.” He pushed his hands into his front pockets.
Jenna watched as the sun’s invading rays painted jagged stripes across the low-pile carpet, poking its warmth over baby Kathryn who lay dreamily in her white wicker bassinette. “You mean her depression? You think I’m gonna get that, too?”
Fred smiled. “Baby girl, you already got it. You know that, right? Why do you think you ran off right after graduation and came home a few months later with this little doll.” He motioned over toward the tiny baby. Her belly rising and falling. The sun and shade playing games across her face and blanket as a quiet fall breeze pushed through the raised window and rustled the lace curtain.
Jenna turned from her father to adjust the baby’s blanket, protecting her delicate skin from the afternoon sun. “Well, hmm, I mean, I guess, maybe. I mean, well, sometimes, yeah, sometimes I kinda feel, I dunno, blue. Course now with this little gal, I feel so blessed, Pop. Really. She’s just the best thing.” Jenna raised her hands toward her chest and clasped them together as if taking hold of the girl’s own precious little heart and placing it next to her own.
That was 14 years ago, and in that time, Jenna has wallowed in the blueness, never fully lingering for too long. Until recently.
She’s never forgotten her father’s warning that day in the basement apartment while the sun finger-painted her floors. She considered her mother. Yes, Irene carried the family curse, the Watson family gene of sadness, sorrow, a sort of angst, an existential shoestring that winds its way around your soul, gripping the interior of your heart, puffing and whooshing a gray fog inside your mind.
Jenna watched her baby girl grow bigger, crawl, walk, run; talk, yell, cry. But she never saw her smile. Never. Not until that summer morning at the yard sale when Kathryn was 10. She’s seen a few more smiles since, and she can recall the day and time of day of each. She can count them on her fingers.
So as Kathryn grew, Jenna couldn’t help but feel the tug at her heart, the yearn, the pull for that infant warmth, that baby smell, that needful gaze. Kathryn’s father has never been in the picture (not since he created it). Jenna never expected anything from him after that night. Never asked, pleaded or begged. She didn’t want money, didn’t want help. It was a moment of passion. When the yearn for another baby bubbled like indigestion in the deep hollow of her gut, Jenna found a new man to plant a seed. She and these babies were all the family she needed. The babies and her Pops.
Finding another dad wasn’t going to be a problem. This has never been a problem for Jenna Clark. Men are drawn to her like bees to a flower. And like a bee that gathers what it needs, it moves on to the next flower, never lingering beyond the time necessary. This doesn’t bother Jenna. So she says. She only craves the warmth, the temporary distraction, the energetic release. The buzz.
Alex arrived in their lives just a few years later. Again, the father unknown to the family, only to Jenna. Gone. Unaware of his creation.
Jenna does not desire a long-term relationship. She realizes that it’s struggle enough to maintain her own life. To find the courage each day to rise from bed, tend to her family, smile at work, eat, bathe and manage good health before the sun sets deep beyond the sea, so she can climb back inside the comfort of her soft, springy bed, beneath the warming cotton layers.
Once back within this cocoon, Jenna prays. She prays nightly that her own little girl will skip that matrilineal gene, will make it through this life without the dark ooze that can encase one’s being like jelly, keeping the joy at bay, placing one’s whole self in a sort of static state, unfeeling, uncaring, neutral to all that happens around, apathetic to all that is to come.
The pills help Jenna, but she wants more than a pill to deaden what is already numb. Her. Jenna wants a life normal. She wants what she has pushed away. She wants love, a whole family, a future, a purpose. As night grips her, and the darkness encases her, Jenna observes the internal movie of anger, fear, and self-loathing rise up along the interior workings of her body, adhering to the mucousy membranes, tissues, and cell walls. She waits, anticipates that crossing, that bridge that connects the bad to the good, the conscious to the unconscious. Ether fills her awareness like a rich fog bank creeping up along the Thames.
Then it comes. That moment. That instant before sleep overtakes her. Before she forgets what could be. There it is. Static. Lightness. Detachment. Untethered to all that weighs her down, Jenna Lee Clark floats in the lightness of her being, in the possibilities that are yet realized. She rests within the weightlessness and waits. The fog dissipates as Jenna rises, carried on the wings of her own gentle thoughts, lifting higher up and away, not on the ground, not in the heavens, attached to nothing, a balloon without a string granted permission to be free and float on its own path, directed by nothing and no one, adrift, untethered, light and carefree, lifted without being held. Then the darkness moves in, silent, no landscape. And she is asleep.
Ellen Plotkin Mulholland grew up in San Bernardino, California. After earning her degree in Journalism and English Literature at the University of Southern California, she moved to London and wrote her first novel. Today, she parents, writes and teaches in Northern California. She is the author of two YA novels: “Birds on a Wire” and “This Girl Climbs Trees.”