I started my first fire when I was nine. My brother made me do it. I know every nine-year-old says that, but it really was true. He gave me the matches, the gasoline, the motive. I wasn’t an arsonist. I was just a kid trying to impress.
And impress I did.
“That’s the biggest fuckin’ fire I’ve ever seen,” my brother said as we stood back and watched the flames leap to the sky.
He was twelve. He said ‘fuckin” every chance he could. I had no idea what it meant, but I knew it wasn’t something you were supposed to say around Mom or Dad. I found that out the hard way.
“What’s for fuckin’ dinner?” I asked one day, a few months before the fire.
I had fuckin’ soap for dinner that night.
Anyway, back to the flames. I get on these tangents ever since my parents put me on medication. I don’t take it anymore, but I still feel the effects. Apparently, one act of arson makes you psychologically deformed.
So, the flames. They rose and swirled like spires on a castle. “Fuckin’ epic. Good job man.” My brother slapped me on the back so hard I dropped the gas can. A few drops trickled out. I hadn’t left much to waste.
I didn’t say a word. I picked up the gas can, never taking my eyes off the fire.
“Who knew cardboard burnt so well? Must’ve been that fuckin’ stench.” He slapped me again. It was the first time I ever remembered him being proud of me.
It was a cardboard shanty, built under the viaduct about two blocks from our house, on the other side of the train tracks. When my brother told me he had matches and a gas can, I didn’t know what we were doing, what I was going to do. If he’d told me my mission was to burn down a bum’s house, I’m not sure I would’ve gone.
My hand quivered as we walked to the viaduct. I imagined every driver passing by was staring at me, convinced I was just some hooligan. If cell phones had been around, they all would’ve reported me to the cops right away. I wish someone would have reported me.
“There it is,” my brother said, pointing at the impressively constructed cardboard home. It looked sturdy. Not just something thrown together for a temporary shelter. This was a permanent home, the work of months of careful and selective dumpster diving for quality materials.
He slapped the matchbox against my stomach. “Burn it. Burn it to the fuckin’ ground.”
I wanted to say no, but I didn’t have any guts. Not around my brother. I approached on tiptoe, not wanting to disturb the sanctity of the bum’s home while secretly hoping he would emerge from the boxes and scare us away. I imagined a grey-bearded man, covered in dirt, with unwashed hair, waving his arms and screaming at us while waving some sort of junky antique sword or cane he’d found in the garbage.
No crazy man appeared. I poured the gasoline on the box, just as I’d seen my brother do the time we burned our sister’s doll collection. I just watched that time. Now I was the perpetrator. But the rush and guilt felt the same. The gnawing pit in my stomach was no larger. I knew we wouldn’t get caught. My brother never got caught. Not even the time he broke the basement windows on every house on the block behind us. Not even the time he cut off the neighbor’s guinea pig’s head and stuffed it in the mailbox with a handwritten note, written in his own hand. He was a criminal mastermind. If you wanted to get away with something, you did it with my brother.
As I poured the gas, I thought about knocking. What if the man was in there, sleeping away? I was okay with arson, but I didn’t want the homicide charge on my record.
“That’s good,” my brother called. “Now light the fuckin’ thing.”
I tossed the gas can to the ground and opened the box of matches. The strike anywhere kind. I wanted to strike it on my shoe, or on my arm, and then toss a match right in the center of that makeshift building as I strutted away, the imaginary sounds of some badass rap song in the background. My brother loved badass rap. And he loved badass movies where guys did badass things and then walked away like badasses. It would be in slow motion.
I ran the match head along my arm. It scraped my skin but didn’t ignite. A little embarrassed, I struck it on the side of the box and flung it onto the heap of cardboard. Then I turned and ran, not expecting the flames to launch so quickly. My brother laughed as I ran away from the flames. “Grab the fuckin’ gas can,” he shouted.
I scurried back, grabbed the can, then joined him in the distance. The flames rose, as I imagined they did in hell.
“Look at it fuckin’ burn,” I said, staring at him, trying to see his eyes through the sunglasses.
He didn’t respond. He never responded, unless it was to criticize something. But I could see the smile curling his lips up. He thought I’d done good. I burnt that bum’s house like a pro.
We headed home. My hand didn’t quiver this time. I didn’t care what the cars driving by thought. I was okay in my brother’s book, and that was enough for me.
I didn’t even care when the cops showed up later that day, or when my parents said we were grounded forever.
But when my brother pinned it all on me the next day, then I cared. The next chance I got, I took his whole baseball card collection outside and burned it all. Those flames went really fuckin’ high.
Nathaniel Tower writes fiction, teaches English, and manages the online literary magazine Bartleby Snopes. His fiction has appeared in almost 200 online and print journals, and he has a novel and novella out through MuseItUp Publishing. His short fiction collective Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands is due out later this year through Martian Lit. When he isn’t writing or doing any of the other standard things writers do, he can be found joggling (running while juggling) through the streets. Visit him at nathanieltower.wordpress.com.
Lead image: “_DSC6525” (via Flickr user Arseni Mourzenko)