A short story by Grant MacAllister.
We set our first fire as a prank. It was just after my twelfth birthday, and my friend Alex and I decided to have some fun with one of our neighbors. His name was Mr. Ortiz, and to this day I think he was the most intimidating man I’ve ever met. He lived alone in this big house on the corner of my street, right on the corner of Yucca and Calle Primavera. Whenever Alex and I would be riding our bikes or skateboards down the street he would always be there watching us with eyes like bullets. Small and beady, naturally sharp, and even though I never came within fifty feet of the man, he always looked so disillusioned. Like the rest of us weren’t living in the same world he was, like he deserved something because he knew something we didn’t, but never took the time to try to find out. He’d never let me.
If we so much as set foot on his property he would let us have it. Mr. Ortiz had one of those deep, naturally aggressive voices that most children think could only come from the mouth of some sort of beast, and that’s exactly what Alex and I saw him as. He was built like an ape with long, greasy, hairy arms that shimmered in the hot summer sun, a bald head that was rarely seen without a Dallas Cowboys baseball cap on top of it and gigantic muscular legs that were always exposed. I swear the man must not have owned a pair of jeans. Whenever he emerged from his door to loaf on his porch in an old dirty white lawn chair, he’d be wearing either a pair of flannel boxers or the slightly better pair of blue shorts. He wore the cotton ones with the huge elastic band and the shorts only stop at mid-thigh. I lived across the street from him and each day I would see him walk out to check his mail. Too many times I’d have to endure the sight of him bending over to get his mail out of his rusty tin box. I swear to God, I have never seen a sight anywhere as disgusting as that man’s butt crack.
I’ll never forget the time Alex dared me to walk over to Mr. Ortiz’s yard and pick a dandelion in his lawn. I was terrified, but in the game of truth-or-dare, you really don’t have a choice but to follow through. The old man was in his house, and I could see the flickering glow of the TV screen against his front window, so I went for it. Panting as I ran across to the far part of his yard where the biggest dandelion was growing, I heard the most terrifying sound to ever land in my ears; the slow screech of his screen door opening. I stopped dead in my tracks, bending down to try to pick up the prized dandelion. The next thing I heard was his yelling. I couldn’t understand it; he slurred between English and Spanish in such a way that sounded like he was speaking in tongues. As if I had committed a horrible atrocity and he had channeled the power of the Holy Spirit to condemn me for the evil that was burning inside me. He was the first to look at me this way, but he wouldn’t be the last. Without thinking, I grabbed the dandelion and ran as fast as I could, Mr. Ortiz’s holy speech still echoing behind me until he got bored and returned to what was surely a Dallas game. It was football season after all. For my bold feat, I had Alex’s eternal respect and love, and he supported me in the only way he could think of. We started plotting a plan for revenge.
Our scheme was simple. You know that trick where you get a bag of dog poop and light it on fire and leave it on someone’s doorstep? The point being Mr. Ortiz would try to stomp out the fire and then end up with an awful smelling little piece of karma. That was the plan; simple, funny and hopefully effective. Actually, it turned out to be much more effective than we’d hoped. It was just meant to be a simple prank; I swear, we really didn’t mean for it to lead us where it did.
It all went according to plan in the beginning. We collected enough dog doo from Alex’s back yard to fill our paper sack to the very brim. The disgusting contents inside were nearly ripping a hole in the white paper bag. Then I got the idea of soaking the bag with gasoline before we lit it. That way it would be a much more effective burn. Alex ate this idea up. It was convenient that my father kept a gallon container of gas next to the house for his lawnmower. We waited until late that warm summer night to set our scheme into motion. Alex was staying over at my house to make it easy. Around nine o’clock, we proceeded to climb out of my window, and then retrieving the bag of poop and the gasoline we’d hidden by the side of the house. With a bag of matches in Alex’s pocket, we ran across the street into the bushes in front of Mr. Ortiz’s house.
Our nervousness was hidden by our laughter as we prepared to do the deed. We planned out every second, deciding it would take no more than thirty seconds for us to run up to his doorstep, put down the bag, pour the gasoline, light it and run. We were so distracted by our planning that neither of us realized that the ape’s yellow Toyota was missing from his driveway.
We sprinted up the sidewalk and were on the man’s porch in seconds. Alex nervously threw the nasty package on the frayed welcome mat that lay in his doorway. I threw the matches to Alex and quickly saturated the bag with gas, spilling it all over the ape’s mat and even a little on his screen. The gas must have leaked under his hard wood door. That’s the only way I can explain the outcome. The wind was at our backs, and after a few strikes Alex had a flame. He tossed the match as we started to run. I realized that I had forgotten to ring the doorbell. I quickly turned around to see the entire straw welcome mat set ablaze. It was the kind of fire I had seen in the past while roasting marshmallows on family camping trips. It was a deadly fire, and at the sight of it, I turned around and started running as fast as my pumping legs would allow. I ran, with Alex at my side, all the way back into my house and leaped into my open window in a way that made me feel like an Olympian. Alex wasn’t far behind me, and we closed the window shut as fast as we could to try to distance ourselves from the fire.
We watched, and the wind soon blew the flames to the gas that must’ve splashed onto his door. The flames grew higher and knocked on his front door as if waiting to be let in. The winds shifted, and the yard of dry, dead grass and weeds where I had grabbed the dandelion started to burn. Slowly but surely, Alex and I watched the flames dance across his yard, swaying with each gust of wind that blew them to a new place. The flames followed the melody of the wind through Mr. Ortiz’s front door and had soon flooded each one of his rooms. The roar must have woken my parents, because I could hear quick footsteps upstairs and hurried the sound of my dad scrambling for the phone, calling the fire department, no doubt.
I heard the fire truck arrive. Everyone ran outside to see what was going on. I would later learn that Mr. Ortiz had gone out that night to be with his dying brother and was fine. Well, as fine as a man with a dead brother and a torched house could be. Alex and I watched, dumbstruck. Sitting silently until he mumbled the words I will never forget as they spilled out of his twelve year old mouth.
I felt my heart skip in agreement with him. We had destroyed a man’s home and most of his possessions, but I was filled with satisfaction the likes of which I would never feel again; nothing could compare to that moment. There was something about watching the inferno burn and knowing that it was our creation. Knowing we had made this beautiful destructive force that could incinerate a thing we hated more than we had realized. You have no idea how rewarding it feels to just let loose and destroy.
I looked over at Alex nervously and nodded my head in agreement.
“It did…didn’t it?”
That was all we said to each other before falling asleep, and we didn’t speak of that first moment of flames for years to come. But something had changed in Alex, and in me, and when I looked into his eyes after that day all I could see was a longing, like he was just patiently waiting for his next chance to burn.