by James J. Hatfield
Mrs. Sasser stood behind me with her arm over my chest. The back of my head at her belly button. The woods behind our house looked like it was at the bottom of some ocean full of fire.
In the haze of the smoke and the orange and yellow backlight, I saw a dark shape come out. It looked like one of them stories from the Bible, I don’t know which.
It was Douglas, without the rock, dad, or daddy.
No amount of public school algebra or chemistry could have made sense of dad’s proposition: “We gotta burn down the forest.”, he said.
Dad’s paranoid about the metal tubes he said he found sheathed in the trunk of a long leaf pine he cut a few days ago.
Said that it skittered sparks out of the cut wires inside. Said there’s probably more all in the woods. Said we ain’t safe till they’re gone. Said they’re the reason for all the damned beeping.
“What beepin’?” Douglas, my older brother, said.
I didn’t say nothing. I ain’t never seen no metal poles in trees except in them fake ones at Christmas.
“You hear that?” Dad sounded like he was ordering us more than asking questions. “There’s no way we can find ’em one by one. So we just gotta git ’em all.”
Douglas looked at me from across the dinner table and mouthed, “Crazy party.”
Dad didn’t want to go into to town since the sonars or radios or airwaves or radars in the trees would know what he was doing. He mumbled about satellites. We had to use what was already in the house, he said. It felt like there wasn’t a time when his hands weren’t shivering.
It was about a half an hour of ripping the kitchen apart when dad realized everything’s electric. We don’t have a garage. We don’t own one thing that makes fire happen. Not even a book-a-matches. Last I remember the truck’s cigarette lighter was busted, too.
Unless he plans on rubbing two sticks together, we’re saved from another one of dad’s crazy parties. That’s what we call them.
Eyes glazed pink and vibrating, Dad says, “I know wunna you two got somethin’.” His skin looked like chapped leather up close when he leaned in to interrogate us. He pushed off the table, the silverware jingled. He went into our rooms.
Douglas and I stayed at the dinner table and listened to the grunts of our dad pulling out drawers and throwing clothes into the window blinds. Douglas popped his knuckles and said, “I hate that psycho bastard.” Then he said, “Don’t you?”
I hate what Douglas hates because I love Douglas more than anyone. I say, “Yeah.” Then to prove it I added, “Bastard.”
If Douglas cusses in front of me, it means I’m allowed to cuss too.
The grunting stopped and instead came a cry of joy that sounded evil as hell. Dad came holding his bounty; two black cat fire crackers in one hand, and a BIC lighter in the other.
He made us carry body-sized black trash bags filled with the leaves we raked two days ago. We marched the back yard to the tree line. I’ve heard of other kids who go camping with their dads to celebrate Father’s Day. I guess this is kind of the same thing. At least we’re outside.
Our neighbor, Mrs. Sasser, looked in at her kitchen clock and then back at us. She hollered from her screened in porch, “Where you takin those boys Horace? It’s ten on a school night.”
Dad didn’t say nothing to her. He was whispering to himself and slapping the side of his own head. “Got. Damn. Beepin’!”
Douglas yelled out, “Don’t worry Mrs. Sasser. We’re just doin’ some father-son burnin’—I mean bondin’.” Then winked at me. Douglas made dad’s crazy parties less scary.
Then Douglas turns his head over his shoulder and says, “Don’t worry bro. You can’t light a fire with firecrackers. They’re only hot as long as they’re loud. And even if somethin’ does catch, it’ll go out.”
Once we got into the thick of the woods dad looked around. Shuffled in circles back and forth with his knees bent a little, like he was playing defense against an invisible basketball team, five-on-one.
He stopped and hissed, looking over our heads, “Boys…Boys!”
The wind slapped the leaves against each other like water in a wave.
Douglas shook his bags to signal our location and said, “We’re right here dad.”.
He looked everywhere like he was blind, pointed to the ground and said, “Oh, oh, oh okay. Dump them leaves out. Damned antenna trees. Fuckin’ government motherfuckers.” He went in circles looking over his shoulders.
We untied the bags and grabbed them by their bottoms, dad was cussing about something behind us. When my bag was empty, I stepped a few paces away, then Douglas grabbed my arms and took me a few paces further.
Dad held the firecrackers as far away from himself as he could. He flicked the BIC with one eye closed. He stepped back and forth a few times, leaned slow one way then shot his body weight opposite like a new born calf wobbling.
One firecracker caught, then the other. And he tossed them at the pile as he fell flat on his back. They disappeared. I couldn’t see it, but I still heard the fuses sizzle.
The sizzle died down and they fired back to back. Dad shot up, sitting still. Listening.
After the loud pops stopped ringing, I could hear Mrs. Sasser screaming at us all the way from where we were. Then her sliding door slammed shut and it was silent.
There wasn’t nothing but some hissing from the pile into the blue forest’s sky. It looked like a silver snake made of gas in the nighttime. A ghost that haunts the trees, that’s what smoke is.
Douglas didn’t look relieved or victorious. Not even angry, kind of confused. Then I saw why. The small hiss grew until it sounded like Douglas popping his knuckles again. Then there was orange all on the top of the leaves.
Dad tilted his neck back like he had conjured it. He looked so happy. I had no idea what was happening.
Dad stood up and pulled what looked like a bottle of Elmer’s glue with a red cap out of the back pocket of his dingy Wrangler’s. The glue shot like water and the leaves ignited. He sprayed it all on the forest floor and up the trunks of the pines. He sang while he did it, too.
I asked Douglas if I should run for help. He said, “Not yet.”
Douglas looked around the ground for something. I asked him when. He said, “Not. Yet.”
The wind was carrying the bright orange outlined leaves and landing on the dead yellow grass. Douglas told me once that summer grass burns the worst.
Dad stumbled around more.
Douglas picked up a rock the size of a filled in cinderblock and waddled, almost like how dad was, over to me.
“Now.” Douglas said, struggling with the rock. “Tell Mrs. Sasser to call the fire department, and that I stayed to help daddy.”
I pivoted to bolt, and Douglas said, “Hey! Make sure you say ‘daddy’ not ‘dad’. Alright?”
I still don’t know why he said that.
James J. Hatfield is a Durham-based, displaced engineer who loves science and art, writes fiction and poetry, and other contradictions. He is a Weymouth Fellow, a Sterling Room For Writer’s Fellow, and was a featured poet at the 2018 West End Poetry Festival. His work has appeared or is upcoming in Barely South Review, Chaleur Magazine, Cathexis Northwest Press, Havik, and others. He is a founding member of the Peebles Writing Collective. Insta: @jamesjhatfield