Burn

Burn

Hi Brian.

I know I should come see you more often but I never remember the visiting hours of this place. Sigh.  It’s no excuse, I know. I guess if I was honest I’d admit that this place depresses me. I’m sorry, that’s a rude thing to say.

Well, anyway, my year was great. My son had his 2nd child, my 4th granddaughter. Her name is Emma. I’ve been pretty lonely since Lily left me so I got a dog in May. I named him BJ after you, Brian. He likes to go with me on walks around the lake. Let’s see, what else…

My daughter got me cable and I spent a good, solid 5 days watching TV. You wouldn’t believe what kind of shows they have now! I think a whole new genre is invented every year. It’s a wonder I leave the house! But I do leave because, well…I have some news.

I met a woman over the summer. Her name is Holly. I asked her to marry me last month and wouldn’t you know it, she said yes! I know what you’re going to say: “that’s too fast”. But I think I love her and at my age there’s no time to waste. Anyway, she is the reason I wanted to see you this year.

I knew it was only a matter of time before she asked about the burns. And shortly after I proposed to her, she did. I never told Lily the truth but I think I’m going to give honesty a try this go around. But before I tell her what really happened all those years ago I think I owe it to you to tell you the truth of the incident first. After all, you were there. I don’t know how much you remember so I’ll start at the beginning.

Do you remember how we met? My mother, a scandalous single woman in the 50’s, was living with her mother in Chris River when I was born. That’s where I met you, remember? You were trying to catch fish with a stick and one of your mother’s earrings. I helped you dig for worms. We never caught anything but we quickly became the best of friends.

We were together every day, summer or school, Adam and Brian, always up to mischief. Our parents became friends. I loved living out in Chris River, all that farm land, all the wildlife. But then my mother met Richard and we moved far away to the city. I guess, looking back, it wasn’t that far but as a kid I remember feeling like it was the other side of the planet.

I missed you a lot at first but I soon made friends and, I’m so sorry to admit this, Brian, but I started to forget about you a little bit. Things were getting better for me until my mother sat me down one day to tell me about your illness. I did pity you, Brian. When she offered to take me trick-or-treating in Chris River a few days later for Halloween I jumped at the chance. Brian and Adam, together again!

She tried to warn me about your condition but it didn’t prepare me to see you like that. You were asleep when I walked in to your room and when I tried to wake you your mother stopped me. I remember being shocked when they told me you weren’t allowed to trick-or-treat. I was so angry because no one told me I would be going alone. I had worked so hard on my vampire costume and now you wouldn’t get to see it. And then my mother told me she wasn’t going to drive me to the suburbs. I would be stuck going farm house to farm house collecting small handfuls of candy every other mile.

As I left I promised you that I would give you half my candy. I would trick-or-treat harder than I’d ever trick-or-treated before.

My mother gave me a pillowcase and told me to be back by 8PM. She then released me into the wild as the sun sunk into the horizon. Mom stayed in Nana’s kitchen to chat and they both waved at me out the window as I set off down the dirt driveway.

First, I went to the MacArthur’s, the Jackson’s and the Whitten’s. Those three houses took me over an hour and in the end I was frustrated to look in my bag and see that all I had to show for it was about a handful of tootsie rolls and dum-dums. Not enough to share, not at our age.

I then I went to the Nanfelt’s and the McBride’s. I started towards the Tilford’s but I saw their porch light was off so I turned around before I’d gotten too far down their road.

I checked my Bugs Bunny watch and bit back tears when I saw I only had enough time for one more house. I looked down into my pillow case to take inventory again and said my first real swear word ever. Still not enough to share. I knew this next decision was crucial. After thinking about it for a few precious minutes I decided that my last house would be the Young’s. I remembered that they were fairly well off and had a new baby so they were sure to be home and giving out candy.

I walked down Waddich Road for half a mile until I saw their giant, white house.  I could see decorations in their yard and the porch lights blaring brightly to welcome hungry trick-or-treaters. I knew I’d made the right decision. I covered the rest of the half mile in record time, passing by only one other trick-or-treating family on the way, their bags heavy and their mouths smeared with chocolate. I hoped they’d found their fortunes at the Young house. I ran the rest of the way and took the porch steps two at a time.

I rang the doorbell and hopped from foot to foot, hardly containing my excitement. I heard footsteps inside and waited for the door to open. 10 seconds…15 seconds…20…but no one opened the door. I rung the bell again and this time saw someone peak out from the living room at me. I waved at them and smiled because this time I knew they had seen me. Another 30 seconds went by and my smile began to falter. I knocked on the door but heard and saw nothing more from within the house.

And then the porch lights went out.

I remember standing in shock for several long minutes. Had they given the rest of their candy to the family I’d passed on Waddich? Did they truly have nothing left for me? I was crestfallen. I didn’t have time to go to another house. You are not supposed to have your porch lights on if you’re not giving out candy, everybody knows that! I became irrational and angry and in my frenzied state I did something that has haunted me these last 60 years. This was the incident.

I picked up one of the Young’s jack-o-lanterns and I flung it as far as I could into their corn field. With my weak little 8-year-old arms it didn’t get very far and I saw it smash into the ground, a mess of orange pulp and seeds as the tea light rolled out onto the densely covered floor of dry corn husks and leaves.

It all went wrong so fast. I ran into the corn and tried to put the small fire out with my cape. I succeeded but burned my wrist badly. Then suddenly the dying embers ignited a nearby pile of dried leaves and began to creep up the corn stalks. I am ashamed to say I panicked and I ran. I remember grabbing my candy off the porch as I ran.

I fled from the Young house nursing my raw, red wrist and crying from the stinging pain of the burn. I looked back several times to see if there was smoke but it was difficult to tell in the quickly darkening night sky. And the further away I got the more I better I became at convincing myself I’d overreacted. The fire had been so small. Surely Mr. Young had already noticed and extinguished it. If it still burned I would hear firetrucks wouldn’t I? The air would be warmer, wouldn’t it? But the night was quiet and cold.

I did not share my candy with you that night. When I reached Nana’s house I begged my mother to leave. I said I didn’t feel good and that I thought I may have caught your illness. She felt my forehead and then kissed my grandmother goodbye as I pulled her out to her old, blue Datsun. I cried loudly and theatrically as we drove away, hoping to impress upon my mother our desperate need to get home. As she sped down State Road and onto the highway I chanced one look out of the rear window.

All along the horizon, just above the trees, the darkness of the night had taken on an almost imperceptible orange hue. I knew what it was and I was frightened. Just as I began to doubt myself I thought I saw a single flame lick up into sky and disappear as quickly as it had come leaving behind a sick, sinking feeling in my stomach. I fell back down into my seat and curled into a ball, moaning as hot tears stole down my face.

My mother was so worried she took me straight to the hospital. Richard met us there and he too became concerned at my panicked, hysterical state. I was shaking and crying uncontrollably, unable to utter ever one comprehendible word. The doctor was so concerned about my hysteria that he kept me overnight for observation. It was when I awoke in the morning that I first heard about the extent of the blaze. My mother and Richard were sleeping in the uncomfortable chairs by my cold, white bed and I could hear the nurses speaking right outside my door.

“It’s so awful.”

“We were ready to take on the rescued victims but there are so few.”

“Yes, such a shame. What is the number at now?”

“18 dead. And there are still quite a few missing.”

“How awful.”

“Just dreadful, and the firemen are still fighting to get control of it, it’s spread out of Chris River. It’s been such a dry season.”

“Do they know how it started?”

“I haven’t heard. I do know they know where it started. Such a young family.”

“Did all of them perish?”

“Yes, and so many more.”

“Oh, stop Robin, I think I might cry.”

I buried my head back under the covers and cried to myself. Soon my mother would wake up and she would hear what had happened in Chris River. Was Nana alright? Were you? Mother would know I had done it. She had seen the burns on my wrist, I know she had. I hadn’t let the doctor see, but my mother had.

At some point I fell asleep again and I was shaken awake by Richard who bore a solemn expression. Mother was gone and he wouldn’t tell me where, just shook his head sadly. He called a doctor to check on me and she looked me over, then discharged me. On the way home Richard told me that there had been a fire in Chris River and my illness, whatever it had been, may have saved I and my mother’s life. He hugged me then.

Mother was sitting at the kitchen table when we arrived home. She felt my forehead, spoke quietly with Richard and then sat me down at the table and quietly told me that my grandmother had been taken by a quick spreading lethal wildfire that had consumed Chris River overnight. I asked about you. I think I loved you more than my grandmother.

I remember waiting for them to come take me away from my mother. I was so afraid of jail! But no one ever came. Adults whispered that a teenager in a witch costume was to blame for the fire. A witness had seen someone running from the Young’s house at around 8 o’clock. But I wasn’t a witch – I was a vampire without a cape.

As you can guess, they never found the witch. My mother stopped mentioning my grandmother around me and my wrist healed poorly. I never forgave myself though I did try to forget about the Chris River fire and my part in it.

So you see, Brian, it was me that killed 22 people that night. It feels good to tell you after so many years. Thank you for being patient, 6 decades is a long time to wait for the truth. Mother has been dead for 15 years, as you know. She took my secret to her grave.

I’ve also brought this for you, the candy I promised you that night in 1963. These skittles will have to do as I have long since lost the candy from that Halloween. I’m sorry you can’t eat them but I hope you will accept the gesture. I’ve also, of course, brought you this jack-o-lantern as I have done every year I’ve visited. I hope you don’t find it in poor taste now, but it’s our tradition and I couldn’t bring myself to break it. I couldn’t find a battery operated tealight this year so I’m lighting a real candle. I would be wary of all this grass but luckily it rained this morning. And it won’t burn for long.

Sigh. Dammit, Brian, I wish things had been different. I wish you hadn’t had the chicken pox that Halloween. I wish I hadn’t gone to the Young house. I wish I got to see you every year on your birthday instead of the anniversary of your death.

I’m sorry, I have to go now. I’m going to a candlelit vigil with Holly in Chris River for the victims of the fire. Her father died fighting it, sadly. I go almost every year, after I visit you. I hope that you can forgive me someday. Now that I’ve told you the truth I probably won’t visit anymore. I’m so sorry, Brian, I loved you like a brother. I hope to see you again, someday, if you’ll have me. And wherever you are, Brian, Happy Halloween.

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