The Firecatcher's Sister

We've got it down to a whole routine. Jackson comes outside and starts to run. Our houses are close together so I know it's started when I hear his back door bang open. Then I wait.

When the fire catches I open my sliding glass door, creaking and sticking all the way and pretending to be irritated by all the noise I yell, "Jackson, really man. Could you knock it off?"

"Sure. Just spray me down with the hose." As soon as he says that line, I start the timer on my Casio and go.

I run over to Jackson's house and grab the hose from the garage where his dad keeps it neatly rolled up between the work bench and the rusty ten-speed. It's a long hose, green and new and I unroll it to the back spigot, attach it and spray him down.

Speed is really important in the beginning because it's not like he's going to be able to help himself. When you're running around naked in your back yard until you catch on fire, someone else's help is what you need.

Because the hose is so long it usually takes a little while before the water starts to shoot out but Jackson is a good sport about it. I can tell, though, as he watches the hose pressure up and stiffen, far away in its rolls and wraps, that he gets nervous.

We make conversation and that seems to pass the time all right.

"Jackson," I'll say, "how's your sister?"

Then he'll say, "Shut-up, man, that's my sister." He's not very quick with comebacks.

"No really, Jackson. I mean it. How is she?"

This is when he looks at me both suspicious and nervous because the hose is still going to take another second to power up and the fire is creeping up his leg or maybe walking slowly down the fuzzy line of hair that grows down from his belly button and he'll say, "She's OK. Why? You like her?"

I get defensive at this part because, yeah, it's true, I do like her. In fact, I think I probably love her, but you don't want Jackson to know that. I mean, he's the guy who runs around in his backyard naked faster and faster until he catches on fire. There's a certain stigma attached to that kind of thing. And being the guy who is in love with the Firecatcher's sister has some stigma, too. Definitely not as much as it does when you're the Firecatcher himself, but still, stigma is stigma.

So I say, "Jackson, are you serious? I'm just asking."

This is usually when the hose stiffens up and the water comes spurting out, pausing our conversation. Then I spray him down and I spray longer than necessary.

Jackson's always been able to catch on fire and we've been timing ourselves for as long. He says it's all about how fast he runs. It feels the same as falling asleep, he tells me, like moving towards something nice that you can't stop.

It's never very serious and he never gets burned too badly. Mostly it's just small sections of his arms or occasionally the little tufts of hair on the tops of his toes. There was one time, two summers ago, when I got the hose pinched in the garage door and the flames licked up Jackson's face a little too far before I could get there to put them out. It took a full month for his eyebrows to grow back, but it's almost never that serious.

So far our best time is just under three and a half minutes.

When I'm not in the mood to try and break a record I make it seem like it's serious though. The whole time I have the hose turned on him I yell for him to stop, drop and roll. "Watch out, Jackson," I'll shout. "There's a flame jetting up towards your knee. Careful, Jackson, you don't want a burn there of all places."

I would say this is where I start to enjoy going over there. That's the thing about me. Normally I don't like to do most things but after a while I'll be able to find a moment inside of whatever I'm doing where I really start to love it. Something clicks for me and I need that. No matter what it is I always need the pressure of knowing that soon it's going to end.

I'll spray him in the face or the crotch or something just to see if I can get a rise out of him and he'll run in circles trying to escape the water.

He says things like, "Stop it, asshole. Knock it off, Aaron. Jerk."

I just let him call me names although normally this would bother me. If we were on the street somewhere riding our bikes or chasing Jake Francini's retarded brother or something, I wouldn't let Jackson call me names. But here, while we're spinning around in circles together, me the hub, Jackson the wheel and the stream of water the spokes, I do.

Mostly because I'll catch glimpses of Stacy standing there. I'd put up with all kinds of abuse for a chance to see Stacy. I've never really done more than that in fact. I put her brother's fires out and I don't think that makes me a person she wants to talk to.

She'll be in the window, looking out at us or maybe I'll see her shoulders when she is hunched over the sink doing the dishes or whatever and I'll feel a kind of hollow full feeling like I've let my head go too far down between my knees while fake sleeping in church.

I keep all the times written down in a notebook. Mostly the notebook stays at my house but sometimes I let Jackson take it home for a few days. He is, after all, the one who sets himself on fire for our time trials.

Jackson never really tells me what he does with the notebook when he has it. But I have this fantasy where Stacy will catch him looking at it one afternoon in the family room or on the back deck and ask him what it is.

"Our times," he'll say.

"Does Aaron have anything to do with this?" she'll ask.

This is where the whole fantasy gets blurry. If I could pick what happened next I guess I'd want to be there, sitting next to him when she comes up to us and asks. I'd ask her to sit down with me. I'd put my arm around her and walk her through the highlights of all our attempts showing her how we got faster and faster. She'd be so impressed with our speed and my control.

She'd have this great voice like the women in the videotape we found under Jackson's dad's bed and say, "You know, Aaron, I watch you guys out here timing yourselves while you put Jackson's fires out. I'm really impressed."

But not even fantasies are perfect. It would take a lot more than Jackson's and my notebook for Stacy to pay any attention to me.

The only thing that will really impress her is if we beat our time. From my house, unroll the hose; screw it on, spray; the fire is out in three minutes or less. How could you not be won over with three minutes or less?

"Jackson," I say, "we're going to set a new record."

He says he's up for it.

"It's got to look good, too. The fire has to be huge."

"I don't know if I can make any more."

"Come on. Everyone has got to see. We need flames that reach above the house and can be seen from traffic helicopters and airplanes. We'll make the news, Jackson."

He looks at me suspiciously, knowing that everyone means Stacy.

"You'll just have to run faster," I say.

I watch through my sliding glass door and here comes Jackson, naked and running. His door bangs open and he's running faster than I've ever seen.

"Jackson, really man. Could you knock it off?" I shout as loud as possible, the window shakes with my voice.

"Sure. Just spray me down with the hose."

I push the little button on the side of my watch with my fingernail and go. I get the hose from the garage. I'm seamless and perfect, moving as fast as Jackson is, on track to beat our time. The hose stretches and pulls behind me around Jackson's house and soon I have it connected to the spigot out back.

One minute and a half.

The flames are dancing high on Jackson's head. They're bending over past his shoulders tailing off him with the speed. I watch him for a second because it is really a sight. It's amazing. My watch tells me we're more than half way there. The fire is jumping like crazy and some of it falls off Jackson's back catching the dry, summer grass. I aim the hose and wait for the water.

We have our conversation about his sister and every time I say her name I yell it loud like I've hurt myself or won some kind of prize.

Stacy, look.

She's inside the house leaning up against the door talking on the telephone. She doesn't notice that Jackson is burning and I'm standing with the hose at two minutes, forty-five seconds waiting for her to look before I put the water on him.

Jackson is covered in fire now and not talking. It's in his mouth, he's breathing it. The grass has totally caught and it's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. Just for a moment I'm happy that Stacy doesn't come out back, impressed and ready to be mine.

Jackson is fire running inside fire.

About the author:

Jensen Whelan's writing has appeared at Eyeshot, Identity Theory, The Fictionwarehouse, Perfectland, Surgery of Modern Warfare and other places. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden mostly for the fine weather.