When I was eight the house across the street from ours burned down. My parents shook us children from our dreams, whispering in the dark to come see. We stood in the living room and watched through the bay window as the flames did their work. Mr Edson on his knees in the slushy street, housecoat hanging from his old bones. Kimberly’s gasp; my mother’s fingernails digging into my shoulder; a blooming in my chest of the wrongness of something: Mrs Edson, with her cumbersome walker, was not in the street.
Silhouettes of neighbours converging. My mother, seeing others beating her to the punch, flung on my father’s boots and made for the scene, lumbering in her nightshirt through the thigh-deep drifts to shoo away lesser comforters and lift poor Mr Edson to his feet. Afterwards she would relish in begging friends and neighbours to not make this catastrophe about her. To my mother every breath was a chance to broadcast the burdens she bore on account of others. In this conflagration she would shine.
Kimberly, sixteen and already an Olympian empath, wept on my father’s shoulder. Eight years between us but strangers would guess us much closer, if they guessed us siblings at all. She grinned out from family portraits all teeth and elbows, as if in compensation for her brother’s pudgy seriousness.
“See how the snow keeps the flames from spreading,” my father said by way of comfort.
Me, I watched the flames unfurl out the windows, as if straining at their bonds. Too young to grasp the grisly truth of it, I pictured Mrs Edson inside, patiently awaiting rescue. Later my father would explain—explanation being my father’s stock in trade. In the days to come my father would explain to Kimberly and I the mechanics of a house fire, the physical processes of combustion. At breakfast the next morning, the reek of charred timber tickling our nostrils: “Do you know what happens to a body when it burns?” Kimberly erupting into sobs and sprinting from the room. My father shaking his head, wondering which was more volatile, thermal energy or his teenage daughter?
Sirens, faint and then not-so-faint. The trucks lumbered up the street with a careful urgency, running the gauntlet of snow-laden cars, blaring horns and scattering onlookers. Red-blue-red-blue lights bursting across our faces like fireworks. A low moan from Kimberly at the horror of it all.
The trucks blocked our view. As the firemen scurried about their work, my father clicked his tongue and dropped his hand from Kimberly’s shoulder. In the kitchen the coffeemaker gurgled. My father went to pour himself a cup. He could see the futility of the firemen’s work. The damage, he knew, was already done.
My mother kept us updated.
Mr Edson had second-degree burns on his chest, face, and arms.
The insurance company was being belligerent, a lawyer had been retained.
Mr Edson had been released from hospital, was staying with his sister somewhere down on Lake Erie, she forgot where.
Good news: the insurance company had relented.
Mrs Edson would be interred in the spring.
In April my parents were summoned to the school for a meeting with my teacher. We arrived to find a circle of five chairs arranged at the front of the classroom. My father, already put out to be missing the opening day of the baseball season, was made even more grouchy by these chairs, clearly designed to hold children. “Look at this ridiculous thing,” he said. He slouched, spreading his legs as if to emphasize with his bigness the absurdity of what was being asked of him.
I sat between my parents, uneasy in the space without the frantic energy of my classmates. My father whisked his cuff up his wrist to stare daggers at his watch, leg vibrating with impatience, car keys tinkling faintly in his pocket. My mother glared ahead at the blackboard, wiped clean of the day’s lessons. The unfamiliar scent of bleach wafted from the freshly mopped floor.
Footsteps echoed in the hall. I felt more than saw the look that passed between my parents. A moment later Mr Brathewaite arrived with the principal, the scarecrow-ish Mrs Haskins, in tow.
“Thank you for coming in,” said Mr Brathewaite, famous around the halls for the whiteness of his teeth. They glinted now in greeting. Mrs Haskins sat stiffly next to him, as if she too lamented the choice of chairs. As always, she reeked of stale cigarettes.
After some pleasantries, Mr Brathewaite cleared his throat. “We are concerned with some of Jonathan’s art work of late.”
Mr B went to his desk and returned with a folder. He set his face in a mask of gentle worry before passing the folder to my parents.
“As you can see,” said Mr B, “they’re a little on the graphic side.”
My mother put the tips of her fingers to her lips and made a sound to indicate she understood Mr B’s concerns. My father leaned over me to get a better look. I caught a waft of his aftershave – cloying, metallic, and in a losing battle with his body odour. He grunted the same grunt he deployed while watching the news, or taking in a neighbour’s inferior lawn: Typical.
I had drawn pictures of burning houses. Rudimentary and two-dimensional, but I’d given attention to the flames, bursting from the windows in layers of red, orange, and yellow. In each I’d included, on the ground floor, a blackened skeleton.
My mother handed back the pictures.
My father said, “Well, a house on our block burned down six weeks ago.” He crossed his arms, disappointed at how easily his son’s behaviour could be explained.
“Yes, we understand that,” said Mr B.
“It’s more the skeletons we’re worried about,” wheezed Mrs Haskins, her voice like a rake through wet leaves.
“Well,” said my father. “A woman died.”
“Yes,” said Mrs Haskins. “But you understand our concern.”
“We do,” said my mother, eager to find her place under this new burden.
“And there is one,” Mrs Haskins added, taking the folder, “of particular concern.” She leafed through the pages until she found the offending work. A stick-figure child in the corner taking in the scene, eyes wide, mouth a grinning quarter-circle, arm extended toward the blaze.
For the first time someone addressed me directly. “Is this you, Jonathan?” Mrs Haskins tapped the stick-figure twice with her finger.
Her flat eyes flicked back to my parents. “So you see,” she concluded.
“Well,” said my father. “We did watch the fire.”
“Harold,” my mother said.
“I mean, we didn’t know anyone was inside.”
“The pictures,” said Mrs Haskins, “caused several of Jonathan’s classmates to become upset.”
“There were tears,” confirmed Mr B, “from some of the more sensitive children.”
My mother pried her mouth into a smile. “We’ll be sure to speak to him.”
“Not that we aren’t in favour of artistic expression,” said Mr B.
“It’s just when there is an expression of this nature…” Mr B shrugged.
In the car my father flicked the tuner, searching for the ball game. Fat raindrops splattered on the windshield. My mother turned around to look at me, her eyes pleading: You would tell me if you were traumatized, wouldn’t you?
My father’s bushy eyebrows arched towards me in the rear-view mirror.
“So,” he said. “Care to explain yourself?”
“Maybe it’s my fault,” said my mother.
“Quiet, Pauline. What’s with the fire drawings, huh sport? What’s with those skeletons? Those supposed to be Mrs Edson?”
What was I to say to this? That the image of the fire eating up the Edson house had hardly left me? That when I closed my eyes at night I saw it, brighter and more ferocious than ever it was in life? That in the flickering I had gleaned a comfort, a message, the tongues of flame like semaphores, dashes, dots?
I said nothing.
“It was your telling him about Mrs Edson that got him on this stuff,” my mother said.
My father raised his hand to dismiss this nonsense, lowered it again to the tuner. Flicking through the static in search of voices.
We never saw Mr Edson again. My father explained to Kimberly and I why someone may not wish to return to the scene of personal trauma.
“Ultimately, I’d have sold too,” he said in rueful agreement. “Get myself a fresh start.” His face took on a distant look, and we left him to fantasize how his life might unfold if his family burned in a fire.
Eventually my mother stopped providing updates and moved on to newer, heavier martyrdoms. Kimberly, for example. She’d quit cheerleading, the yearbook club, the debate team, and junior concert band. (Mr Keane called our house in near hysterics over losing his star euphonium player.) She painted her nails black and cut her hair short and stopped crying at sentimental commercials. It became routine for evenings to devolve into shouting matches between her and my mother—over the scruffiness of her clothes, over her choice of new friends, over her diminished presence in the home.
I would listen to these rows from the seclusion of my bedroom and know a skirmish had been completed by the sound of Kimberly’s footsteps pounding up the stairs, the ensuing slam of her door. My mother would then pick up the argument with my father, demanding why he hadn’t seen fit to rouse himself from the baseball game to provide reinforcements. When they became quiet I knew my mother had broken down and begun her nightly laments. My father’s eyes on the television screen, an absent-minded pat on the shoulder as my mother listed off the injustices laid by life at her feet.
On a quiet June morning a small convoy rolled up our street and set up shop in front of the Edson lot. We dragged ourselves from the breakfast table to the bay window in the living room. Men in hard-hats spilled from pick-up trucks and buckled tool belts around their waists. Within a week the timber skeleton of a new house had been erected. We awoke in the mornings to the din of hammers and saws and the voices of the men at work.
It was telling of my mother’s emotional state that she’d failed to unearth any intel on who had purchased the Edson lot. She gazed at the new structure in a kind of stupor, like a bruise she couldn’t remember sustaining. My father took to meandering over in the morning before work, to engage in repartee with the workers. From the living room we watched in their body language how they tolerated this.
A week before school let out, on a night she’d gone tooth and nail with my mother, Kimberly came to my room. She flopped onto the bed next to me, fingers retracted into the cuffs of her hoodie. I was sitting up, sketchpad on my lap. She glanced at the page.
“You were supposed to stop drawing those,” she said.
I shrugged. On the page the flames danced and the remains of Mrs Edson sprawled on the spacious ground floor. I bit the end of my yellow pencil crayon and held my sister’s gaze. She asked with her eyes and I passed her the sketchpad. She flipped through a few pages, paused, frowned.
Turning the sketchpad towards me: “Is this us?”
A burning house but no skeleton. Instead the four of us inside, whole: my mother’s eyes sad and wide, teeth bared in a grotesque grin; my father’s mouth flapping, hair and eyebrows wild; Kimberly in her hoodie holding my hand. The flames curling towards us, eager.
A long, appraising look. Then: “Come on.”
From the stairs we heard my mother unloading in the den. Blue light flickered through the door. The incongruous swell of a laugh track chortling at her grievances.
The night was damp. Streetlights diffused by mist, our shoes quickly wet with dew. Up and down the street, bay windows shone yellow. The Edson lot stood out like a gap in a smile. Kimberly’s hood bobbed in front of me. I scampered along in her shadow.
The site was strewn with sawhorses and cinder blocks and overturned buckets. We slalomed through these obstacles and at the wall I followed Kimberly through the timber. The overwhelming smell of cedar, the rustle and song of insects in the ravine beyond. Kimberly put her back to a stud and slid down.
In the stillness my heart raced, my skin tingling at the possibility that I hovered now near the spot Mrs Edson had died. I cast my gaze around and saw the flames leaping, ripping through furniture, swallowing books and photographs, consuming the artifacts of the Edsons’ lives. An old woman in a nightgown trapped on the couch, gasping, choking—
Kimberly tapped the plywood next to her. The flames faded. I sat. Our shoulders touched. She smelled faintly of lavender.
“They taught us in science class about these trees. Certain evergreens. They have seeds that are covered in a resin so thick the pods can never open. Unless the resin is burned away.” She turned to me, her face invisible in the dark. “It’s called pyriscence. The seeds can’t grow until they’re released by fire.”
A metallic flicking, a spark, a thumbnail of flame. She held the lighter in front of her, hovered her other hand over the flame. She lowered her palm until the fire brushed her skin. With a gasp she lifted her hand free.
The lighter sparked again. She held it towards me. The little flame seemed to me to contain all the world’s possibilities. My hand was steady as I lowered it. I let the fire bend against my palm, felt the slow eruption of agony across my skin. The urge was as natural as hunger, as sleep. Hold it there and eventually I’d find the blackened bones underneath. But then the pain spiked white and violent and I flinched my hand away.
We stood. My palm throbbed and I felt dizzy. I reached out for Kimberly and she put her arm around my shoulders. Together we gazed across the street at our darkened home. Kimberly offered me the lighter in her palm.
“Do it, if you want.”
She nodded towards our home. “Burn it down. Like in your drawing.”
I pictured my parents in the den, silhouetted by the nightly news, my mother contriving to make the calamities of the day her own, my father grunting in bewilderment at all the people in the world stupider than he, the flames licking at their clothes.
Pain seared up my arm. I bent over and vomited on the plywood. Kimberly put the lighter back in her pocket.
“Or you can stop drawing creepy shit and freaking everybody out.”
When I finished retching she helped me down through the studs.
In the kitchen she wrapped ice cubes in a paper towel and I held them in my palm. Down the hall a late-night host drawled through a monologue. My father’s barking laugh, his voice crowing, “these damned politicians, right?” My mother’s disinterested, inaudible reply. Kimberly kissed the top of my head goodnight and went upstairs. I sat for a while and watched the water drip-dripping on the tablecloth, my hand numb, the ice melting nonetheless from the unseen heat of me.