The house is on fire again. Flames feather across my bedroom wall, swallowing my baseball card collection and fusing the AM/FM radio to the top of my dresser. My parents are on fire. They're running wild, cutting figure eights down in the front yard, the backs of their pajamas blazing in the darkness. The warping surface of my window makes the whole scene like something viewed in a funhouse mirror. If it weren't my parents out there, sparking and screaming like little girls, I'd probably laugh.
The Snoopy sheets on my bed begin to smolder then bloom fully into orange flame. I don't seem to be burning. Every time the house starts on fire I remain untouched. Immune to consumption. And because of that, every time the house burns, my chest swells with the same aching guilt.
Out on the landing, I find that the fire has crawled up the carpeted stairs and licked away the floral wallpaper. I'm going to have to jump. Flames have consumed my room, so I run down the hall and shut the door to my parents' room and shove dirty socks and stray brassieres in the crack between it and the piled carpet. It's hot enough in there that the paint spontaneously blisters off the walls. The air tastes like an ashtray. I strip my parents' scorched bed and knot the sheets together then tie one end to the wrought iron frame. The rope reaches down to the front hedge and I'm about to climb out the open window when I stop. While I'm here, why not take the opportunity to rifle through my parents' drawers? In my father's bureau, I find the usual things: cuff links, a decade-old Hustler. But I'm surprised to happen upon a drawer full of used instant lottery tickets. There are hundreds of them, all of them losers; there is silvery scratch-off dust peppered everywhere. Why would he save them? I find a pack of Pall Malls in my mother's dressing table even though she's supposedly quit. And a cocktail napkin from the bar at the Newark Marriott with the name Robert and a phone number scrawled across the impression left behind by the bottom of a beer bottle.
I leave these things behind and slip awkwardly down my makeshift rope, seeing my parents in a new, depressing light. I always did poorly at the rope climb in gym class, and I've neglected to knot the sheets at intervals for better grip. So I end up falling the last nine feet into the prickly hedge. I just lie there, watching as fire rolls off the rooftop in gentle waves. The house is seething. Things inside pop and hiss and explode.
I crawl out of the hedge and across the lawn, where my parents are rolling in the cool grass, to the sidewalk. I would help them, but then I think about what I found and don't. Why bother? It's quiet. Except for the fire's low roar and my parents' moans, the neighborhood is still; everyone else is tucked away for the night. I stand and walk a little ways down the street and stop, then turn back to face the house. Fire is pulsing out the dormer windows, casting a seething orange light across the neighborhood. The gabled roof collapses. I try to look at the house as if I'm a stranger in this neighborhood, as if I'm seeing everything for the first time. It's a nice house. Not bigger than the other colonials around it. Not flashy. Not a dump. It's all right. As a stranger, I would not feel sorry for the people who had made a life inside that house, who had chosen that imitation birdhouse mailbox. I would feel quite glad for them, actually. I would say, They must be happy. I look at the other boxy homes set neatly along the street amongst the cottonwoods. I look at the glowing porch lights, the shadows of cars in driveways, darkened windows reflecting the fire. And I feel glad for the people that live inside those other homes. I think, They must be happy.
There is a terrible groan and rasp of wood and hardware and suddenly the house folds in on itself, sending a plume of flame up toward the stars. My parents have managed to put themselves out and are sitting Indian style by the front walk, backs and hair singed and smelling doggish. They stare contemplatively into the burning ruins as though this were a campfire. I stop pretending I'm a stranger, because I'm not a stranger. I walk back and sit beside the people who brought me into this world. The air is heavy with the smells of all our things incinerating, the heat almost unbearable. We don't touch, don't look at each other or speak, but sit quietly as a waning flare is carried off on the wind, raining sparks across the neighborhood where, sooner or later, every house will eventually burn.
About the author:
Jeb Gleason-Allured of Chicagoland is an editor for The2ndHand.com.