Volume 18
An Online Literary Magazine
April 14, 2024


The Gifts That I Carry


James Callan


Filled up on Fruit Loops, I was ready to face the day, face the road. I crumpled the note, grabbed the car keys, and tried my best to do what the old man had advised. I endeavored to find my way.



argesse had never been his way, yet on the verge of death, my dad decided to get generous. No longer capable of driving, he gifted me his one-time prized possession, his Pontiac Firebird. Manufactured in 1984, the searing hot rod shared the same birth year as me— together, we rode hard into this world. My father always joked about which baby had been his favorite, the squealing, flesh-and-blood boy who crawled across the carpet or the rising phoenix, garlanded in flame, that rocketed down the suburban lane. He'd often return to that worn-out wisecrack, pointing out that one child left streaks in his underpants, the other, tallies of rubber across the pavement.


I found the keys to the car on the kitchen table with a short and simple note, a line of chicken scratch in red Sharpie that imparted what probably had been intended as wisdom, fatherly advice: Find your way. The scrawled-out letters formed words like wiggling worms, almost indecipherable, as if hieroglyphics—ancient, like the old man who had written them. I almost missed what lay inconspicuous at the bottom of the page. Extra small, residing at the far corner as if he wasn't sure he wanted it to be seen, I read his second message: Drive safe. Then something else, even smaller. I love you? I'll miss you? Whatever Dad had meant to convey was lost forever in my spilled cereal milk. Much like his health, the condition of his mind, whatever sentiment he had intended had faded into nothing. Like a ghost, it spread, an ethereal smear. Like a spirit, it fanned outward, invisible on the page.


Filled up on Fruit Loops, I was ready to face the day, face the road. I crumpled the note, grabbed the car keys, and tried my best to do what the old man had advised. I endeavored to find my way.


I found out quickly that an old, dying car is about as reliable and useful as an old, dying father-not much at all. Less than thirty miles out, the Firebird dwindled to a soft smolder, afflicted with a thirst that cost $3.92 per gallon. Her apathy was lifted with a good portion of my weekly paycheck, then once again, I sought to find my way.




My mother smiled when she saw that it was I who had come knocking at her door. She smiled even wider when she looked over my shoulder, past her son, across her unshorn lawn to the cherry-hued automobile that gleamed like arson on the curbside. In a heartbeat, all those memories came back to life. Reborn, a phoenix rises from the ashes.


She asked me how he was doing, assuming that Dad had to be near the end if he had parted with his other child. She made the same tired joke her ex-husband had when I was a kid-two babies, boy and machine, me and the Firebird, unlikely siblings in a once-happy family. She asked if Dad was getting worse. I shrugged, telling her how it was. That it wouldn't be long. Her good cheer faded at the exact moment a cloud crawled across the sun. The hood of the Firebird lost its sheen, like a dying furnace, embers going cold. Mother invited me in, but I wasn't here for that. I had only stopped by to tell her farewell.


She leaned in to give me a kiss, so I offered her a cheek to receive her silent blessing. It stamped to the side of my face, devil red, the exact tone of the Firebird. Mother smiled once more—bigger, brighter—yet I wasn't sure what I had read in her far-off eyes. Fathomless and blue, they harbored an indeterminate emotion, an undecipherable expression. I couldn't say for certain, but I swear from beneath the veneer of that warm cheer, I could feel her cold, hard grieving.


As I watched my mother waving, growing smaller in the rear view mirror, I wiped the lipstick free from my face. It wasn't my intention, but I felt as if I had removed the kiss itself, rubbed away my mother's blessing. My white sleeve became soiled, an unsightly, pink smear tallied across the wrist. Like a child's dirty underwear, or pavement after a race, the fabric was marred, defaced with harsh and flagrant streaks.




The Firebird ate up the pavement from coast to coast. She drank greedily and I gave in to her addiction, coddled her every need. She took me far away, which was part of the bargain, part of what made her nagging needs worth my while. Gray hills flattened out to golden plains before the earth suddenly belched out white mountains that made even the gods feel small, and then, when those monstrous peaks faded in the mirror above the dashboard, still, I drove on. Still, she carried me, black smoke in her angry wake. Out west, a wall of water spread like a horizontal sky, a cold road where no wheels may carry her rider, no flame allowed to go on unextinguished. There, I met my love, who showed me more reasons I knew there could ever be to live a good, long life. No matter how the wind blew chilled off the sea, together, we remained warm. No matter how bleak the rock and sky, how uninhabitable the salt and foam, we burned hot, a driftwood fire on the edge of the world.


Perhaps I edged too near to the flame. Perhaps I fell forward into the crimson fire. In trying to avoid the chill, it just may be that I had become scathed in what I thought would save me. Flinching from the radiant blaze, I held fast to the ring that had been meant to be hers. I kept it hidden in the crypt of my pocket, locked away beside my heart. In the end, I let it fall into the skyward flame. Come morning, it was lost among the cold ashes, buried in the windswept sand.




My father is dead. My mother has fallen ill. My lover no longer cares to keep me informed, but I have recently found out she is newly wed, happy, and pregnant. From coast to coast, I drift between an expanse as wide as an ocean. I sift through memories, near and far. I drive. If west was an escape to east, then surely east will avail the west. North and south, yin and yang, far and wide. Somewhere, surely, there is a place to rest, a place to call home, to let go, to be free-probably. For every painted dash across the asphalt, a penny-if only: I'd be the richest man on earth. Then what? As it is, I remain bereft of treasures. But I do still carry my gifts. I have a 1984 Pontiac Firebird, her red-hot rage and her affinity for rebirth, for starting anew. I have my mother's blessing, which is defiled on the shirt that fails to keep me warm. I have the phantom weight of a gold ring, a halo that never found its angel. I have the will to run. The hope that it fades out, like all other things in this world. I have the belief that this feeling will one day end.


I have my gifts, and the many regrets I will now and always carry.


James Callan is the author of the novel A Transcendental Habit (Queer Space, 2023). His fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Barzakh Magazine, Carte Blanche, Hawaii Pacific Review, Mystery Tribune, and elsewhere. He lives on the Kāpiti Coast, Aotearoa New Zealand. Find him at jamescallanauthor.com.







Home | Search | About Us | Submissions | Mailing List | Links | The Writer's Workshop