- The Fires
The first fire broke out in early June, before school had even ended for the year. It happened in the evening, right after dinner, and was announced by the sirens racing up my street. I heard at least two engines turn the corner and into the neighborhood, an oasis of suburbia stuffed between a money-losing turf farm and an aging country club. I told my parents I wanted to go check it out. My father gave me a look over what was left of his spaghetti but said nothing. The storm door rattled behind me.
I ran up Juniper, skinny legs not yet gangly, not yet gross, and cut left down Palmer. I caught sight of metallic red and curled right on Greensbow as if that had been my intention all along, as if my radar for trouble was more precise than it was—a Spider-sense, or Batman’s disciplined genius. The street curved a bit, and at first I really could only see the crowd that had gathered, not what they were gathered for. Eventually, I smelled a campfire that wasn’t; I tried to catch my breath but held it instead.
The burning house stood at the top of the hill, off from the street and backed up against the golf course. Its flames were like a flickering addition, another story, and gave the house the impression of being a castle, a fortress, a doomed last stand. It was beautiful and terrible. Hardly anyone moved.
A man, woman, and two little girls huddled in the yard, shepherded away by a fireman. The man was yelling, but you could see he was really just trying to be helpful. When he realized he was more of a distraction, he went silent, looking all around, not seeing any of us. He attended to his young family.
The little girls in the yard were crying, and one screamed something about a baby. I could feel my hands start to shake, my face go cold. A bearded man beside me said, “She’s just talking about a doll, son.”
And then, more to himself than to me, “I’m sure she’s just talking about a doll.” [End Page 55]
I nodded and slowly backed away, carving out a small space in the street just for me. Farther down, I noticed a group of boys about my age on their bicycles, handlebars tilted to the side, taking in the scene. In the reflection of the flames, the metal of their two-wheelers danced and popped, and they looked like something fiercer, more holy, than little boys. A few looked me over blankly and turned back to the house on fire.
Firefighters attacked it from all angles with their water cannons. Twilight was starting to take hold and an expletive-laden debate began on whether lights were needed. The fire chief arrived in an old white Ford and pulled his gut out from under the steering wheel. He shuffled quickly over to the family, bent over and staring down intently at a spot only he could see, a yard in front of each flabby step. He talked to them for a moment. My eyes wandered back to the blaze; more than half the house was now under its spell.
“Jesus Christ!” The fat pretzel of a fire chief jumped back from the family on the lawn, and started huffing over to the closest engine, his short arms waving furiously, hilariously. “You fucking idiots,” he barked, and I couldn’t tell if he was yelling at his men, the family, or all of us watching. He had words with one of the firefighters, who couldn’t hear him. The fire chief screamed something into his ear. Both men immediately started motioning for us to back up. The ems guys, who had been waiting for something to do, jumped in.
“Everyone move back!” they hollered, one over another. “Everybody back!” Everybody did, except me. I lingered for some reason, staring into the shifting beast and its yellow-blue teeth, feeling its hot breath, its truth. It wasn’t defiance, really, but a disbelief that this was happening, that this...