My dad was fifteen when he burnt up the empty field behind the house he and my aunt grew up in. At one point, I think it was a pasture for the horses, but the last of them had died a few years prior. (Another story I’ve been told since childhood: when Snowball died, and my aunt cried and cried, and they buried him in the pasture where he’d grazed all his life, but they didn’t go deep enough, how the dogs dug him back up two days later, and my poor grandmother stepped out on the porch early that morning to find Snowball’s left leg splayed across the steps). So the field was overgrown. It was a hot, dry summer day. My dad, a poor kid in the middle of nowhere, too young to drive a car and too old to play with toys, was bored. He had a friend over.
The friend was named Billy, I think, or Bobby. The only thing I know about him is that he lived in a trailer with his grandma just a little ways down the road, and he had a lisp. When my dad tells this story, he always makes at least one pass at doing an impression; it’s always too exaggerated to be anything but over-the-top. Maybe even a little mean.
The game was chicken. Light a match, drop it into the yellowing grass, and see how long you can let it burn before you stomp it out. They made it a couple rounds before the wind picked up.
This is usually the point in the story where my granddad takes over. He happened to be pulling into the driveway just as things were getting out of control, and he and the two boys managed to contain it with the tin sheets from the top of the old barn until the fire department came. My dad and Billy were grounded for the rest of the summer and most of fall. The field was charred ash.
I don’t know what happened to Billy, but my dad grew up alright. He shocked everyone and went to college. He met my mom (Another story: they got married in that same field long after the grass grew back, pitched three big white tents into the ground, set up the cheapest folding chairs they could find, and seventy-five people showed up to celebrate their new life. The only time I’ve seen my mother’s wedding gown, there were still chunks of South Carolina clay and yellowed grass clinging to the hemline). My dad got a job, and they had me. Had a family that never had to drive home on a dirt road.
When I was a kid, I loved the story of the fire. I used to beg my dad to tell it to me; most times, he would, always ending it with a stern warning never to play with matches, and it scared me straight enough that I’ve never used anything but a lighter for cigarettes and candles. My mom smiled every time I requested that story. She was from poor as dirt people, just like him, and loved stories from their youth that reminded her of where they came from. She never lost touch with her cousins like my dad did.
But the thing I love most about that story is the moment in it when the fire got too big. My dad never lingers too long on it—he’s a smart guy, but he’s not a storyteller. He doesn’t know when to draw out the suspense. He dropped the match; the wind blew. Suddenly, he and Billy just couldn’t stomp it out anymore.
But I can picture it. My father, face still full with baby fat, the wild adrenaline of danger thumping in his pulse points, dropping that last match. Billy laughing. A heartbeat. The fire licking at their heels. A heartbeat. The wind ruffling Billy’s hair and my dad’s loose t-shirt. A heartbeat. Trying to smother it with old sneakers, failing, Billy bolting for the garden hose while my dad stood frozen, the fire crackling orange and gold, not knowing my grandad’s truck was already pulling in, not knowing the fire would be put out and he’d grow up better than anyone expected, not knowing anything. My dad, terrified and young. Staring into the billowing flame as it stared back.
Delaney Phelps is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill who enjoys overpriced lattes and long walks through the woods. She can be found riding the bus, frantically writing her next short story, making a competitive sport out of grocery shopping, and smiling at strangers.