When I was twelve, my mom and I visited some family in the country during a week-long break from school that led up to Thanksgiving weekend. They lived in a small, serene town with lots of open spaces and friendly people. A little too friendly for my liking, to be honest, but I prefer friendly to hostile. They smile at you, ask how you do and do all the niceties that are all but forgotten in the city. One of those places where everyone knows everyone, and even more precise, everyone knows everybody’s business. But then again, would you expect anything less?
My older cousin Joel was in the eleventh grade at the time and was always looking for trouble. You can’t blame him, though. Firstly, it is a pretty boring town to live in, so you have to find an outlet for all the energy. He just found the wrong ways to do so. And boy did he have energy. Secondly, he suited the profile perfectly. He wasn’t overly sized but he had a well-built body, and when he talked trash, he could back it up. On a number of occasions, with much pride, he would show me the bruised knuckles he would get when someone said a little too much. “That’s how you do it, cuz. Never let anyone disrespect you and don’t ever take crap from nobody.” I never told him that I avoid fights completely and the thought of bashing in someone’s teeth with my own knuckles gave me shivers, lest he tried to make a man out of me and fast track me to a fight of my own.
Once again, I was happy being pretty and I didn’t want to put my face in any fist’s way.
Four days away from Thanksgiving, he woke me up around midnight and said, “Let’s do this, little man. This is the time to strike.” I had no idea what ‘this’ was, neither did I know who, or even what we were striking for that matter, but I got out of bed and followed him religiously through the kitchen door that led to the garage. There, he picked up a can of bug spray and a butane lighter. I didn’t like the look on his face. He looked like he was watching his plan unfold on a screen in his mind, and it brought a hint of malevolence in his eyes. He then let me in on the plot.
“We gone torch the place.”
I couldn’t believe it. At first, I thought he was joking, but after ten seconds he was still smiling, nodding his head and looking into nowhere, and I knew he was as serious as cardiac arrest.
“Hold up. We’re gonna do what?”
“Shhhhhhh!!!!! Not too loud! You’ll wake up the parents. We gone torch the place, aight? Now I need you to keep a low profile. And loose the bunny slippers; they’ll blow our cover. Oh yeah, keep a sharp eye and look out for any trouble too.”
My Bugs Bunny sleep shoes. He just had to go there.
If had known what he was up to when he woke me up, I probably wouldn’t have got out of bed. This was a ton of bricks we were burying ourselves under, and I was scared out of my mind. But, as much as it terrified me, it also gave me a pleasant rush of adrenalin doing something so illegal, so wrong. I told my conscience it would just be this once. It wasn’t going to be a gateway to a streak of misdemeanors that led to me becoming a thug or anything like that. Just a one-time thing. My Jiminy Cricket didn’t wholly agree, but he went along with it. What’s the worst that could happen?
We had to go across the yard to the corner where the trash cans were because that was the best place to hop over the fence. But going across the yard would mean going past the windows to his parents’ room, and we had to avoid being seen at all costs. So we went along the wall of the house, then he crouched down and went underneath the window with his body as close to the ground as possible without his knees grazing the clay bricks that went around the circumference of the house. Once he was on the other side, he did a small victory dance and then gave a signal for me to do the same. Not the victory dance, the crossing under the window. Right, sorry. Only, when I crouched over to replicate his routine, the Captain America tag that I was wearing under my shirt slipped out and made a clinking sound when it hit the floor. We froze dead still where we were and hoped no one heard anything. After a minute there was no movement so I figured the coast was clear, but just when I moved my leg to try and get up, the lights went on.
We had been made.
I had already begun calculating how far I could go before we were completely compromised when my uncle made a small opening in the curtains and looked around. Joel was well hidden by some gardening supplies so I wasn’t worried about him beeing seen. The large window sill overhang made a good covering for me, but my tag had bounced a little away from me so it was exposed. Joel’s dad looked around, opened the window and then stuck his head out slightly. I was holding my breath for dear life. After about a minute (my record is a minute and ten seconds), he closed the window and turned off his bedroom light. Thank goodness he didn’t look down. I hadn’t been spotted, and after a short while, the plan could commence.
That was way too close. Fortunately, the rest of the plan went without any contingencies. We got over the fence and went to the strike point. It was a large, square, unkempt area of land which had our house to the south, the Rodgers’ house on the east side, and then two streets on the remaining sides. We went across the stretch to the side which was the furthest from our house and started our little bonfire. The dry grass was in the perfect condition to fuel the perfect blaze, and just when it began to get pretty, the skies opened up and it started pouring. That was everything ruined immediately. It literally rained on our parade. We had to retreat, but even though our plan hadn’t gone as well as we had hoped, I was rather glad that it failed miserably. I just didn’t show it. We could live to raise hell another day. Only, that day would come a little too soon.
Retrospectively, I must assume that something was wrong with Joel. He was a little too impulsive and lived in the moment without any hindsight or foresight. It must have been some kind of condition he had, I was sure of it. I was preparing for our thanksgiving dinner, looking forward to my Aunt Valerie’s famous turkey roast when Joel walked up to me and said, “This is it. The phoenix has risen from the ashes.” It took me a second to figure out what he was saying, but I finally got it. That was my call of duty. I must have been too eager to please, or perhaps too unwilling to disappoint my cousin, judging from the way I resolutely jumped into action. I was all in.
Till this day I’m clueless as to why we did it that early in the night, and I still ask myself what made him decide that that was the perfect time. Actually, looking at the way he did almost everything on a whim, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. While people were moving up and down the house, preparing for dinner, Joel and I were advancing through our drop route. Through the garage, under the window, across the lawn, on the garbage cans and over the fence. Take two.
I do admire the science of it, the way normal household objects can become mini flame throwers, despite the clear ‘keep away from an open flame’ sign. A lighter and a can of hairspray. That was literally all it took. All you have to do is make sure that the flame doesn’t go all the way back to the can, otherwise, you have some interesting artwork done all over your hands, arms and face. Okay. Three, two, one, fire.
It hadn’t rained for too long the night of our first attempt, neither had a single drop fallen since, so the weeds had dried out pretty well. The air was cool and crisp and the night sky was clear, stars as countless as grains of sand on a beach. There were no strong winds, only a gentle, invitingly calm breeze. Once the spray started flowing out of the can and made contact with the flame, it instantly grew into beautiful amber tongues of destruction. One minute was all we needed to set it off and make it self-sustainable. Only, it went much better than we planned. It was spreading like wildfire (duh!) and we had to disappear from the scene of the crime. The ill-ill-ill-timed crime. Five minutes after the blaze went off, we were seated around the table, saying grace with the whole family as normal. Except, my heart was racing faster than the speed of sound.
We’re gonna get caught. We’re gonna get caught. We’ll be so busted. My mom is gonna send me to boarding school. Even worse. Military school. Or even worse, Uncle Wilbur’s. I couldn’t help thinking it. Throughout the prayer, I pondered on what fate would befall me once Joel and I had been found out. But once my uncle said amen, well, the savory aroma of that turkey started permeating through every air channel in my body, entrancing me completely. Eventually, my mind went off the impending trouble to our roasted guest of honor. Simply exquisite. I dug in and I was totally distracted, right up until I saw the tops of the dancing flames on the other side of the fence.
I got a terrible sinking feeling and I felt a black hole opening in my stomach, swallowing all the food I had just eaten. I had a perfect view through the large, Victorian bay windows, but with all the parents seated opposite me with their backs toward the windows that overlooked the back yard, they couldn’t see our recreational project just yet. I glanced at Joel next to me. There he was, munching away at some celery like our world wasn’t about to fall apart. I tried to act as natural as I could. As natural as anyone could with beads of perspiration the size of golf balls forming all over their forehead.
“Flynn? Honey? Are you okay?”
“Sure mom. The gravy, it’s just a little spicy, that’s all.” Yeah. Like jalapeno sauce ever made anyone sweat like they had just run the hundred meter dash. My mom smelt blood and was slowly moving in for the kill. She knew me too well.
I liked spicy food.
“Are you sure? You look a little-“
Beckah, Joel’s little sister, interrupted my mom, but not to save my behind; as she wasn’t cast in our little act, she wasn’t about to play along. She pointed everyone straight at what I was trying to keep them from noticing.
The conflagration Joel and I started.
My life was officially over.