Some Say Fire

The maze of yellow tape: Caution. Caution. Keep out. Posted on the door: Unsafe. Underneath, the paint blistered, rough to touch.

He should be in a field pitching rocks, kicking butterflies, tormenting the neighbor girl.

Instead, he slips inside. The walls scorched and split, alligator skin. He reaches out with healing hands. Each time expecting a burn. Supposing a hotspot survived. That it relit in the night. Ready to gobble him up, too.

But no, it’s cool. And the coolness leaves his fingers blackened.

He moves from room to ruined room. The floorboards give, still wet, hose soaked.

They could give way—swallow him, snap his leg, sever the skin. The air burdened with his mother’s calls. Hot at first. Worried, then, growing dark. Not knowing the whereabouts of her boy—the only one left.

If. If she called. If she’d made dinner. If life beat on as before.

But no. Grief holds his mother bedbound, ghost-ridden.

Either way his life’s wrecked. Just like the furniture black beyond memory.

No one knows what to do with him. The school stuffs his backpack so there’s hardly room for guilt. All day, he draws. Everything flame-licked. The playground ablaze. The cemetery, red and furious. Bouquets of ash and cinder.

At every lunch table but his, the sound of laughter. Deafening. He sits alone, a pile of extra cookies and brownies before him.

But here, in Paul’s room, where the floor is softest, the windows melted, where Queen Anne’s lace pushes up like night stars against burnt boards, the roof gone, the sky whispers of loss. He leaves a brownie. His hand itches and aches. And he picks at the new skin. There, in the wreckage of brother’s bedroom, the panicdies. He curls up, waits for something to spark. Some way to belong to what has burned.

Marsha McSpadden lives in Tuscaloosa, AL, where she teaches English composition and creative writing at the University of Alabama. In between football seasons, she writes small fictions. Work has appeared in Shenandoah, SmokeLong, and matchbook, among others.