Playing with Fire
by Yvonne Harbison
They say criminals always return to the scene of the crime. Maybe it’s true. The only crime scene I’ve ever been to had a reappearing criminal. I’ll probably never forget that face because of it.
It was a clear and calm, lazy Sunday afternoon. My young self, then ten, decided that my lazy Sunday and hard-earned five dollars – hey, I starved for two days at lunch just to keep the money Mom told me to give the Cafeteria Lady – should be spent at the comic book store. This was a routine. It played out the same way every Saturday. Today was a Sunday, but I didn’t notice.
“Me and Ace are going to the comics shop,” I announced. My dad’s newspaper flipped down at one corner.
“Ace?” he asked.
He never seemed all there when he was reading his news. I just rolled my eyes; that was as good as permission to go in my book. I called down the hall for Ace on my way to the door. Behind me, I heard my mom call to my dad from the kitchen, “Ace, hon. That’s the dog.”
“I thought the dog was Charlie?” my dad said.
“No, Dad! Charlie’s the bird.” I had to tell him this all the time. It always made me so frustrated. I think, looking back, that he had to have done it on purpose. But who knows? It seemed like I was the only one who could see Ace and Charlie. Or the others. I was pretty sure that old people had no imaginations, whatsoever. I let the door snug closed behind Ace’s shaggy tail, confident that Dad was too far lost to notice that I was gone. He would babble to himself for awhile, expecting me to be standing there listening to it all, before Mom would show up from the kitchen to ask who he was talking to. Sometimes I just sat outside on the porch, giggling as he talked to himself inside, but today I had places I would rather be.
So, having dutifully informed the parental figures of my plan, I strong-armed the heavy garage door into letting me have my bike. Once I had saved the impounded vehicle, off I went. I did have a leash for Ace, but I never bothered with it because he never got lost. He barked after me, sometimes racing, sometimes stopping to smell the daffodils in the neighbors yard. He generally peed on Mr. Geoghan’s mail box post and that slowed him down, but he always caught up. Ace was the best dog in the world; I’ve never had another one like him.
As my feet pedaled, my mind wandered into the world of illustrated adventures that awaited me a few blocks away. Was I in the mood for DC or Marvel? Or was the order of the day to be a few packs of trading cards, to make the money go further? I didn’t often get to make this trip, after all, and I knew I should make it count. My mom liked to remind me that money didn’t grow on trees and I liked to pretend the oleanders behind our house were thick with cash.
The route to the comic book store was relatively short and familiar enough that I could have biked it blindfolded. With my mind already a mile away and looking at comics, I passed over the bridge and noted I was half way there already. I saw other kids playing on the dry creek bed and thought they were pitiable, playing with newspapers and sticks down there in the sand. Ace stopped to stick his head through the support beams and whuffed at the boys, but they didn’t bother looking up. I paid no attention to them; I would soon be bettering my imagination with pictures and stories galore, while they played in the dirt. I figured that was why, someday, us women would rule the earth: because comics were just that cool.
My little bubble of joy burst not long after that; the comic book store was closed when I got there. My lazy Sunday had turned in to a disappointing Sunday. I pulled at the door, just in case the sign lied, or they had forgotten to turn the lights on inside on such a sunny day, but it didn’t give. It clanked and rattled and threatened to call the cops on me. I stood up on tiptoe to see over the posters plastered in the windows, wanting to at least look at the covers that lined the walls. I couldn’t get much past the skyline of Gotham. With stubborn reluctance, I got back on my bike and pointed it back toward home, Ace leading the way. My daydreaming turned toward saving for a car. A Jeep Wrangler. A black one, like the one on TV that the guy who was always blowing stuff up drove. The car just wasn’t as entertaining as the comics had been though and didn’t hold my attention for long.
Soon, ahead of me lay the deep-edged river overflow that bisected town. To this day, the channel bed is drier than wet but it is somehow teaming with life, plants choking out whatever way water might someday find again. Tall trees provided a multi-layered canopy that reminded me of a rainforest because from the sandy bed, there was no visible blue even on the clearest days. Vines and wild berries climbed over the steep sides, growing unchecked and thick. If only the overflow knew how to do its job proper. Instead, it had dried up in the hot summer, leaving the flora crispy and bitter, biting whatever skinny legs ventured down to the few deep puddles that trickled through along the way.
As I got closer, I could smell smoke drifting out of the covered channel. I could see it hang on the air under the ancient trees. I stopped at a stop sign and stared across the street as I realized what it was. Fire. I had to cross over it to get home on the other side. I only stared, surprised and shocked that such a thing could happen in my corner of the world.
Further up the channel, three boys scrambled up the edge and spilled out on to the street. The boys were older than me by a lot, bigger too. They looked a lot different from street level than they had from up above when I had first crossed the bridge. They collected their abandoned bikes from the turn-out, stuffed their newspapers and bottles and cans into newspaper delivery bags draped in front of the handle-bars. They shoved away on off-road bikes in an awful hurry. I was far enough back that they didn’t notice me and pedaled hotly around the bend, as though the fire making all that smoke in the enclosed channel licked at their heels from the safety of the street.
Meanwhile, the smoke only got thicker. At that time, cell phones were still new ideas, novelties for rich people, bulky packages rarely seen and completely foreign to a little kid who had to sneak up the money for a comic book. That meant that calling 9-1-1 was out of the question; it was still two blocks to my home and by the time I convinced my parents that I hadn’t imagined the whole thing, the fire that caused the smoke could be a towering inferno that could eat the whole neighborhood.
So I did the next most logical thing my ten-year-old brain could offer up. I climbed down the steep channel side and went to find the fire. Ace didn’t like it and started having a fit up on the street. He refused to come down when I called him, so I just ignored him.
Two fires had been started along the north slope of the ravine, twenty feet apart on dry dirt, crawling through the undergrowth toward the top of the channel. They burned low, under the cover of the leaves, and I almost stepped in one. It wasn’t the big, wide flames I had imagined, nothing like the fireplace or BBQ fires I was used to seeing, but instead small tendrils that slowly blackened and crumbled the vines and berries. An apartment complex backed up to the plants at the top, directly in the path of the creeping fire and the wooden fence surrounding a patio was being reached for with every gust of wind. The largest fire had already spread too far and I was smart enough to recognize that I couldn’t do anything about it. It was hot near that fire, and I was small with only sand and dust and a puddle of water a very long five feet away.
The second hot spot was still small, a little further away from the vines that climbed over the unlucky fence. It was started on a pile of dead wood, wads of newsprint and matches still poking out in places to feed the fire toward the dried greenery that would take it up to the houses above. This one had real flames. I kicked dirt at the fire that slowly wove its way toward the wall. It wasn’t hot enough to blaze back at me, just crawled along the plants in funny shades of orange and the creeping black. I tore up vines to keep the fire small and tossed rocks and dirt and sand at the bigger flames on the wood pile.
I worked at it quietly, afraid I couldn’t help enough to bother calling attention to my efforts. I heard sirens in the distance and started to panic. Were they going to blame me for this? But I kept working, not wanting to let the second fire get as big as the first. It seemed like only seconds later that the sirens were right above me, crossing the narrow bridge twenty yards away. I heard Ace skitter away from the noises like someone had kicked him but I was still doing my childish best at corralling the fire, so I didn’t pay the firemen any attention until one showed up behind me and scooped me up away from my project.
I was wrapped in a blanket, shaking, wide eyed, shocky. My hands were burned in stripes from pulling up burning vines, bleeding from pokes and slices courtesy the angry thorns. For all my work, my little fire pit was out with a single blast from a hose. The other fire took more work. The house was damaged badly. The firemen seemed to believe my insistence that I hadn’t started any of it. They radioed for my parents to be called and someone sat with me as we waited.
I huddled on the bench that was the fire-truck fender, too high off the ground to do anything but kick my legs. Ace lay under the truck, letting me kick his ear once in awhile, but he was strangely silent. I coughed from smoke and blinked dry, blurry eyes. The lady who sat with me bandaged my hands. I don’t remember what she said to me, but I know she asked questions. I had to figure out how to nod my head to answer despite my shivering.
My parents showed up then, calm and inspirational like always, and I stopped my jaw from chattering. There were more questions, this time from my parents. I think they were worried about me, but I had never seen that peculiar expression on their faces before to know for certain. I never got in to any real trouble before; I’d never even broken my arm, so I didn’t know what concern looked like then. All I knew was that the deep lines furrowed into the edges of their mouths made me want to be calm, so I put most of my effort into schooling my features into a look that matched theirs. Calm, cool, and collected. I completely forgot to answer the questions. The lady fireman did most of that for me.
My mom sat down beside me on the fire truck, tugging me into a sideways hug while she looked at my hands. I suddenly didn’t notice, too intent instead on staring at the pair of bicyclists riding down the opposite side of the street still some distance away. If she hadn’t moved, I wouldn’t have seen them, and I would have been a lot happier for it. Instead, I recognized two of the kids that had scrabbled out of the channel under all the smoke. They were returning to the scene of the crime, cruising by slowly with their necks craned to see between the fire trucks. I could see them clearly, knew the younger boy was a sixth grader at my school. I saw him every day when we traded classes for math and social studies. He was a red head, funny looking, but he was usually nice. Why would he set the creek bed on fire?
Noticing the kid behind him seemed to answer my own question for me. I didn’t know the other kid, had never seen him before that day when I had caught sight of his black and white striped shirt hunched over a bunch of newspaper airplanes in the middle of a dry creek. Now that he was riding his bike toward me, I saw how much older he was. He was ancient, probably in high school, and he was tall. He had dark hair; all the best villains are black-haired. He stared straight at me as the two of them rode by. I stared back.
I wanted to point him out to the lady fireman. In my head, I know I told my arm to lift my hand, told my finger to break one of my mom’s cardinal rules and point at the two riding their bikes away. They had just burned up somebody’s house. There was a cop car parked across the street, a bored looking guy in a uniform talking to one of the firemen. He would have wanted to know that the two kids who had set the fires had just waved and smiled at him. My arm stayed where it was, however, tucked in against my mom with my bandaged hands draped over my knees.
In my head, Monday at school played out in crystal clarity as I watched the boys ride toward me. It was only a few seconds, but I automatically knew what would happen.
If I told, the whole school would know. I would be a hero for fifteen minutes and then a rat for the rest of my life. More than that, I would be a dumpster rat because high school kids beat up on elementary kids all the time.
And what if the boys followed me home from school? They had already burned up the apartments that were at the top of the channel; they would burn down my house too if they thought it could keep them out of trouble. I wondered what the boys had done that they had already been caught at if they had tried to burn down an entire apartment building. The possible answers that unfolded in my imagination scared me and I started shaking my head, backing away from the thoughts like they weren’t being played out in my own mind. Under the truck, I tried to kick at Ace’s ear for reassurance, but my dog had disappeared.
Maybe the redheaded kid hadn’t seen me, I hoped. I started to squirm my way out of the heavy felt blanket. I even jumped down off of the fire truck fender. My mom looked at me and frowned, reached out to tug the blanket back up at my collar as I stood in front of her. She asked what was wrong, and this time I saw that she was very worried. I tried to imagine what kind of job my mom would get if we went in to the Witness Protection Program. My dad had graduated from the university so he could get a job anywhere, but my mom was just a secretary. Everyone who needed a secretary probably already had one. Mom worried about money too much to ever wake up in the morning and not go to work. No, witness protection was definitely out. I shook my head again.
“Nothing. I want to go home now.”