He’d passed the same attraction three days running. Down the leafy back road, just off the golf course and up around the bend, it waited patiently for him like an old friend ready for play. The monument of snapped limbs and discarded brush stacked high, a rambling golden pyre, bone-dry, quivering like an expectant lover. He had hoped running would alleviate the burning need, create another game with less to lose. He slowed to a trot as the mind game caught hold; a glowing ember of it circled - wanted to touch with one strike of a match, one finger-flick of a clean cigarette - lightly crackling “you’re it.” Later, from his spot on the hill, he watched it run and play, quietly glowing hot and bright, pleased with what it had started.
It was faint at first, like a distant train whistle calling from somewhere along the darkening horizon, but now the sound was louder. It was not a whistle but the blare of wailing sirens and he relaxed a bit. The sirens smothered his pounding heart with a blanket of relief like of cool rain and he licked his dry lips.
“It will be alright,” he whimpered, almost collapsing. He turned to leave and his eye caught a glimpse of something that did drop him to his knees: a surging wall of orange flame boiling through a row of trees that kissed along a ridge of large homes hugging the golf course. “What have you done?” it said.
The first engine arrived and a fireman heavy with gear stumbled from the side railing. He was shouting instruction to the other firemen as they scrambled from the vehicle, serpentine hoses uncoiling over the road like spilled guts from some reddened beast. On the hill he watched them play, mesmerized as flames took the first two houses. They flowered, a hushing sound like marshmallows to the flame. “It’s just a game,” he whispered, his face shiny, angelic. “We can stop anytime.”
When he was very young, it spoke to him, drew him like moth to flame. His mother had seen it in him too - this calling - had noticed how his eyes would light as they stared blankly into the blazing fireplace. In church she encouraged him to light a votive candle for lost souls and the dearly departed. She believed it was goodness he saw, some guiding light, the flame a source of warmth and comfort. She was wrong. His father, mean and drunk, saw it exactly as it was. “You’re it,” he said, flicking a flaming match toward him while playing on the floor with his older brother, Davey. “Oh you’re it alright,” he said and laughed between pulls of the bottle and drags on the hand-rolled smoke. It was a contemptuous laugh, malicious. But it was quickly silenced the first time the boy - quick as a viper - snatched the lit match as it bounced off his chest. His eyes widened as he felt the sting of the flame, then an overwhelming sadness as it quickly extinguished, the burn searing his palm. He didn’t mind; he liked it… this new game. “Fire’s a motherfucker… a beast,” his father said, holding the shaky cigarette up close to eyes. He lightly blew on the smoldering orange ember. “It’s like you. It’s tricky.” His eyes faltered, then drowsily dropped down upon him. “Unplanned,” he mumbled. “Unplanned and tricky. That’s it.” The boy didn’t understand all the things his father said but he trusted the man knew what he spoke of. He and Davey rolled and played about on the floor, dumping plastic soldiers and Tinker toys into their father’s stained fireman’s helmet. Crinkled matches lay scattered about the carpet, as black and as brittle as torched bodies.
He started setting fires when he was eleven. The attraction was a rough clearing out in the old dump near Rollins Swamp. It seemed a safe place to play, with so much ready to burn, so much smoldering there just beneath the surface of discarded trash. It was a game - “I’m it… you’re it” he’d say - and flick matches one by one from the long matchbox, each one tumbling, some flaming out, others burning bright as they landed in a scratch of bramble and oily boxes. They quickly caught on. He heard the voice in the crackle - his father’s voice - a soft whisper at first that would detonate into a terrifying roar. “YOU’RE IT!” it boomed.
He controlled the fires at first, kept them small but the day came when the winds seemed to shift out of nowhere, the world opened wide and he was confronted with the beast. It stood before him, alive, taunting and unstable. He was not afraid. He was terrified. It ran around him, leering, its fiery tongue lolling and whispering around his ears. It quickly turned and rolled toward the swamp, like some living creature eager for water to soothe it, to cool it. He followed and waited. Instead of water, it found fuel to feed. The dry bramble swamp exploded and it consumed everything, its gaping maw, red and hot.
He had run then, somehow escaped through the thicket, excited and horrified, sprawling flat in a ditch as the fire engines screamed past down the smoke-choked road. As the last truck flared by, he glanced up in time to see his father riding the top of the engine’s cab, saw the terrified look as their eyes locked. He never saw him again. Outmatched and trapped in the swamp, his father and three other firemen were consumed by the monster’s fury.
There was no other consequence; the origin of the fire blamed on conditions at the dump, on shifting weather, an unfortunate and horrible accident the papers said. After that, he ran in a futile attempt to outrun what had happened. Then in his mid-teens, he started running with the fire, hoping it might grow tired of the game and burn itself out on its own. But it circled… circled and chased him. Always.
The fireman stood frozen. The blaze towered above him, the heat an open oven wrinkling the air. It had taken hold everywhere, jumped the street to the left of the golf course, rolling like a wave toward the opposite curb. Smoke churned between the remaining houses, hugged the gravel in a low thick fog as orange spikes flickered and peeked through like demon eyes in the night. He felt his partner then - Conrad - at his side grabbing his arm; he was shouting, barely audible through his mask over the roar.
“We gotta go… go now!”
For a moment, he thought he might faint. His vision blurred and he felt disorientated as if falling down a funneling dark tunnel. He thought he heard Conrad again but the voice was different, familiar.
And he knew.
The voice was high above him, on the hill somewhere, his brother’s voice screaming, screaming. He turned to look but all he saw was Conrad’s face wet and pleading, the beast rising behind him.
“We gotta go Davey,” he shouted. “We gotta go… NOW!”