Feathers from the Fire

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Feathers from the Fire (Contemporary Fiction, Book Award 2023)
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Feathers from the Fire is the soul-stirring tale of one family’s daring attempt to transcend the fear, stigma associated with mental illness, and generational pain by following the signs, leaning on allies, digging for the truth, and holding onto hope that there is more than meets the eye.
First 10 Pages

Since the beginning of time, we have searched for clues to illuminate the sometimes-shadowed path of meaning and, therefore, purpose.

Each quest is full of confusing twists and unexpected turns as we gather up and sort through the pieces of our lives until everything locks into place to reveal a bigger story waiting to be told.

It is a serendipitous gift to discover that our journeys are and always have been divinely intertwined with others’, as if by the delicate hands of a universal intercessor.

Chapter 1

Please tell me this is nothing to be concerned about, Klare silently implored the doctor she had yet to meet. She still hadn’t worked out how to tell her husband, Nic, about the incident from last night or how she’d come to make this appointment. Maybe I won’t have to. If the doctor says it’s nothing, just normal teenage behavior, problem solved. Move on. If it’s something more… well, I can’t think about that right now…

A wisp of a woman introduced herself as Peggy and guided Klare and her son, Finn, to a small waiting room. Peggy’s scrubs, the color of weak tea, and her brown wedge orthotics reminded Klare of being in a dental office. The space smelled sterile, and Klare half expected to hear torturesome drilling off in the distance. Are we in the right place? Looking around, she was about to ask when she noticed the groupings of diplomas and licenses hung haphazardly on the wall, listing Charles M. Myles, MD, as the lone recipient.

With a sigh, Klare took one of the four plastic office chairs, and Finn chose the one furthest away from her. What’s happened to my son? she wondered as she watched him drop his unanimated body into his seat. Finn hadn’t asked any questions on the way, but it was obvious they weren’t going to his pediatrician’s office. He had ignored her attempts to make small talk, and uncomfortable with the awkward silence, she stopped trying.

Generic office art of sepia-toned nature scenes dotted the stark white walls. Klare guessed the images of trees and sunsets were meant to be soothing and peaceful for those needing to frequent a psychiatrist’s office, but the brown hues came off as lifeless and drab. Depressing. Beige and tan throw pillows that had long lost their fluff leaned sloppily against the plastic chair backs. An ordinary commercial wall clock ticked loudly, and Klare felt the acidic rise of doubt and anxiety. A withered, neglected plant sat lonely on a corner shelf. How hard is it to water a plant? She shook a few antacids into her palm, ironically noticing how the chalky pastel tablets were the only spots of color in this dreary room. A couple of old Ohio magazines from 2014 lay next to a dented tissue box, their once glossy covers marred with the sticky fingerprints of other hands just as sweaty as hers. With nothing else available to offer decent distraction, Klare trained her eyes on the single piece of silvery tinsel that wiggled lazily from the wall vent, indicating that the flat air in the room was indeed circulating.

You can’t leave now, Klare warned herself. She closed her eyes, the hazy memory of running down the hall toward the scent of danger reminding her why this appointment was so important.


After gathering up the battered comforter along with its malodorous wreckage, Klare rushed to the trash bin on the side of the house to dispose of what oddly felt like tainted evidence. Once rid of its terrible weight, she warily went back inside.

For a split second, she thought about returning to Finn’s room, but she found herself unable to take those steps, flooded by some inexplicable jumble of shame, fear, anger, and confusion that seemed to command she seek asylum in her bedroom. She left the door open a crack.

Just in case.

Her phone revealed a text from Nic that he would be even later than expected due to an emergency at the clinic. She was relieved. Somehow, she already knew she wouldn’t be telling him about what had happened, at least not tonight.

Veins still racing with adrenalin, Klare paced back and forth, confined within the cage she had chosen, suddenly uncertain how to escape.

Nobody. There is literally nobody I can call right now.

“Well, there’s…” whispered a voice that sounded like her own but not quite.

I am not calling her again! Klare indignantly rejected the suggestion her mind offered up. I can hear it now: “I told you this would happen! If you’d done what I said, you wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with!” Then the lecture on the dangers of quacks, charlatans, and nosy neighbors would begin, and how the only safe bet is to not tell a soul. “Keep it in the family,” her mother had always said. “It’s no one’s business but ours.”

“Okay, okay. Pull it together,” Klare instructed herself and took a deep breath.

Okay, so I don’t have anyone to talk to right now—maybe after I get some answers. Looking at her laptop, Klare settled slightly at the possibility of a way out of a conversation she didn’t really want to have.

Browser open, she stared at the screen, her mind suddenly void of what she could possibly search for. It was as though her brain had gone dark, keeping her from seeing the words she couldn’t bear acknowledging. Squeezing her eyes shut, she drew a long, slow breath and then another, until a few scattered ideas emerged.

Smoke? Smoking? No. Well, with smoke comes fire, but I didn’t see an actual fire… I don’t think. But there was smoke. And there wouldn’t be any without fire.

Eyes open again, her quivering fingers hovered above the keyboard, some part of her strangely fearful that the keys would singe and scorch her fingertips upon their touch.

Oh, stop it. Squaring her shoulders, she risked the burn and began.

“Son possibly playing with fire” didn’t quite cut it, yielding links for home fire-safety tips and articles about the dangers of children using lighters and matches unsupervised. Adding “teenage” to the search, Finn having just turned thirteen, produced very different results: teenage fire-starters… juveniles who damage property… professional help for behavioral problems. Her stomach gripped and twisted, and she heard her mother’s voice of reprimand: “What do you think you are doing? Are you trying to ruin his life? All our lives?” She closed her eyes and internally turned her back on this familiar persecutor.

Klare could not bring herself to click on any of the links that suggested delinquency. That just simply wasn’t her son. Painfully shy, overly cautious, yes. But delinquent, not a chance.


She wasn’t sure exactly what was in the pile she squashed, having ripped the comforter from Finn’s bed in a flash of panic. But the smoke was real; the memory of it still lingered bitterly in her nose.

I need answers.

Opting for the seemingly softer “behavior problems” link, Klare shook her head at many of the “signs” listed—harming animals, stealing, drug use, hostility. None of these fit. She kept reading and came across a few that possibly could: isolation, secretiveness, trouble at school, property destruction. Well, Finn didn’t technically destroy any property, but that’s only because I got there in time. Klare shuddered at an image of what could have happened if she hadn’t smelled the smoke or been home at the time. A painful cramp twisted in her belly, and Klare fought against the urge to abandon this agonizing search.

Then one sentence caught her eye: “If you are unsure but wondering if you or a loved one needs help, talking to a specialist could help put your mind at ease.” She kept reading. A link for a “juvenile fire setting” program on the sidebar stole her attention. Oh my God, is that actually a thing? Her fatigued brain hurled an image of her brother, Scott, onto the screen of her mind’s eye, and she recoiled, instinctively squeezing her eyes against this random and quite unwelcome vision.

“Ugh!” Klare grumbled. How irritating.

She opened her eyes to continue her research. More clicks revealed a pdf on youth fire setting, an advertisement for a juvenile fire safety program, yet another about arson awareness. Arson? Ridiculous. She sighed and pressed her hand against her complaining stomach.

“An assessment is important to determine the underlying reason your child may be displaying behavioral problems,” one article stated.

Klare stopped and affirmed the path before her. The underlying reason. That’s it. She scanned the list of possibilities, divided by “nonpathological causes,” such as curiosity or a cry for help, and “pathological causes,” like delinquency and psychosis. Gritting through another nauseating spasm, she homed in on “curiosity” as the least disagreeable suggestion. Maybe that’s it… maybe he was just being curious? About what though? What do they mean by “a cry for help”? Help for what? The face of her brother materialized once more.

Stop it! Klare shook the image away and straightened her spine. This isn’t about him; this is about Finn.

Following the “for more information” link, Klare finally landed on a list of juvenile behavioral specialists, sorted by location. Dizzying vertigo mottled her vision as she sifted through the list, the shockingly frequent “psychiatric hospital” references disintegrating in the blur. She took some sips of her flat, stale tea and willed herself not to slam her laptop closed while she waited for her vision to clear.

The closest was nearly four hours away. That would take all day, and how would she explain that to Nic, to Finn? While there were no immediate local experts, a cursory search revealed several psychiatrists who advertised working with children and adolescents, and Klare decided that would have to do. This can’t wait. Moving down the list, one doctor in nearby Akron listed a 24-hour emergency number to call. Ten minutes later, she had an appointment set for first thing in the morning.


“Mrs. Driscoll? Finneas? Dr. Myles is ready to see you now. Please, follow me.”

The pair followed the soft-soled Peggy down a barren hallway. Finn was ushered into a small room while Klare was motioned into an adjoining one. She felt uneasy at the separation but assumed it was because the doctor would want to talk to her without Finn present. She stood alone in the quiet space, looking through a thick-paned tinted window that divided the two offices. Klare could see Finn and hear the quiet shuffles as he settled into one of the flimsy plastic chairs. He ignored the magazines and half-assembled puzzle on the narrow coffee table and instead closed his eyes and folded his arms over his middle. The bulky sweatshirt he’d taken to wearing, even in this balmy weather, made him look even smaller than he already was.

“We can see and hear him, but he can’t see or hear us.” She startled at the sound of his voice and glanced up; she hadn’t heard the doctor come in. “This is a two-way mirror. A discreet way to observe without being so obvious. Most parents like to keep an eye on their child during meetings.”

Dr. Chuck Myles looked nothing like his picture on the website. That doctor looked poised and distinguished. This one, all gray and puffy, had to turn sideways to squeeze his fleshy form between the wall and his desk and scoot the distance to the worn leather chair that groaned under the weight of his bulk, the effort clearly winding him. Of the two small chairs opposite the doctor’s desk, Klare chose the one closest to the mirror, and Finn. She waited while the doctor caught his breath and flipped through the forms she had filled out online. Time had not been kind to Dr. Myles.

“So, how can I help you today?” the doctor asked, finally.

Klare’s right eye twitched as she wondered again if she was in the wrong place. I’m not here to check out a library book or order a coffee. Did he even read the forms? She pulled her shoulders down from her ears, took a breath to steady herself, and peeked over at her son to help her fight the urge to walk out.

When she didn’t respond promptly, Dr. Myles looked back at the contents in the folder on his desk and offered, “You listed ‘concerns about recent behavior’.” He chuckled. “I assume you mean about your son and not yourself?” More chuckling. “Can you give me some examples?”

Klare thought, That’s a bold assumption. And not funny.

Unclenching her teeth, Klare replied. “Sure. I wrote it on the form there. Finn, my son, had an episode of sorts a while back and, in my opinion, he hasn’t really been the same since.”

“An episode?”

Yeah, he definitely didn’t read it.

“Yes. In May. We were at lunch—Finn, myself, and my husband. Finn got up to use the restroom and after about five or so minutes, my husband went to check on him and he wasn’t there. We looked all over and ended up finding him a few blocks away. Apparently, he had become disoriented and wandered off. We took him to the ER to make sure he was okay. They ruled it dehydration.”

When Klare didn’t continue, the doctor asked, “Was he okay? Hurt?”

Klare shrugged and thought, No, he wasn’t okay. He’s still not okay. I’m not okay. Nothing is.

“No, he wasn’t hurt,” she offered instead of sharing her true thoughts.

Dr. Myles probed, slightly more gently this time. “Besides the dehydration, has anything else happened?”

Klare scoffed silently and tried to answer with what she thought the doctor needed to know. She felt herself teetering between two parts of herself—one part that wanted to concede to what her mother would be saying right now, “They’re all swindlers just looking to make a buck,” and running out of there, and the other part that wanted—needed—another opinion. “When we got there, we looked him over and didn’t see any signs of injury or anything like that, but we took him to the ER just to be sure. My husband said with severe dehydration, you can sometimes see confusion and disorientation.”

The doctor bobbed his head and looked like he was concentrating. “Do you have some other thoughts about what might have happened?”

Here it goes.

“When we found him, he seemed to have passed out. He came to, but was almost… incoherent. He was mumbling and looking around as if there were someone else there. We reassured him that it was just us. We thought that would help him settle down, but it actually seemed to upset him. He started crying and shaking his head, like he didn’t believe us. After that, he clammed up and didn’t say anything else about it.”

“Has he brought this up since or said anything more about that day?” Dr. Myles inquired.

“He says he doesn’t remember, but honestly, I don’t believe him. He wouldn’t share anything at the ER. He says the last thing he remembers is heading to the bathroom and then us shaking him awake when we found him.”

“Okay.” The doctor jotted a couple of notes, his bloated face pensive under his scraggly salt-and-pepper brows. “Why don’t you believe him?”

Defenses rising, Klare reminded herself again that she needed answers today. She was scared about exposing her son in a way that her mother warned would be ruinous, not just for him but for the entire family.

“Well, when he came around, he was really distraught. He looked… worried. It seemed to me like he wasn’t just looking, but like he was searching for someone or something that wasn’t there. We asked him about it later, but he denied it.” Klare looked through the window at Finn, who hadn’t moved. “Can dehydration cause hallucinations?”

Dr. Myles paused to give Klare a moment as she took some sips from her water bottle, hands trembling as she tried to replace the lid. “Mrs. Driscoll, this sounds like a very scary situation. It’s rare, but yes, sometimes one can experience hallucinations and delirium in cases of extreme dehydration. Have you noticed anything else with Finn that makes you wonder about hallucinations?”

Despite the care apparent in the doctor’s voice, Klare’s gut seized. A hot flash of fear rose in her chest, and the veins in her temples throbbed. She suddenly felt in trouble—a sickening shamefulness discordant with the doctor’s reasonable query. She flashed back to the ER doctor’s asking Finn a series of nonsensical questions, to which Klare had felt maliciously judged and wildly offended, interrogating the doctor right back. “Do you ask everyone these questions? What are you saying? That my child is mentally ill?” Nic’s reassurances that it was standard screening protocol for anyone presenting with Finn’s symptoms had done nothing to assuage her bitter umbrage.

Answers. Remember, you’re here for answers.

“He just hasn’t been the same since then. He’s always been quiet, sensitive, and tends to keep to himself, but since that episode, he’s been withdrawn and doesn’t engage much. He seems lost in thought, like he’s daydreaming but not aware of it. And then last night, I think, um, I think he might have been playing around with fire in his room. I smelled smoke and rushed in there, and he had a pile of things on the floor… I just stamped it out and got rid of it, so nothing really happened, but he’s pretty much shut down since then. Hasn’t said two words.” Glancing over to Finn, still lifeless and limp, Klare’s heart squeezed with dread. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

“A fire, hmmmm…” The doctor’s voice turned somber and trailed off into silence as if to confirm Klare’s worst fears.