It was summer, so I was in my bathing suit, sprawled on the grass on a hill that ran along a creek near my house. I watched the clouds roll by pushed along on a lazy breeze. My older brother Michael appeared over me. He had a hand full of firecrackers and a silver lighter initialed with the letters MS.
“I wanna show you something.” He pushed my shoulder with his bare foot.
I followed him silently down the hill to the cloudy water. He reached into a bucket and pulled out a frog and handed it to me.
I took the slimy frog into my little hands. Michael lit the fuse of the firecrackers. It cracked and spat sparks. He shoved the lighter in his pocket and yanked the frog from my hands. With his finger, he pried open its big frog mouth and crammed the firecrackers down its throat. He tossed the frog up into the air high over our heads. The firecrackers burst into a hundred little explosions as the ruptured frog rained down on us. Michael looked up into the frog-rain, his eyes lost somewhere else. I began to sob, heavy shoulder shaking sobs. Michael awoke from his trance. Startled, he looked over at me. I was covered in frog guts.
“Shh, don’t cry, shh.” He wiped the tear soaked frog guts from my face. “Aww let’s get you rinsed off.”
Michael waded into the algae-choked creek with me in tow. I cried harder with every splash of the slimy water. Michael pleaded with me to stop crying. “Please stop! I’m sorry.” He took me by the hand and led me back up to the grassy shore. My sobs had subsided into fragile whimpers. “Are you okay?” I nodded yes with pouty lips and puffy eyes. “Let’s go home and get cleaned off.”
Michael slowly pulled open the sliding screen door at the back of the house. The scrape of the metal rollers against the doorframe made it impossible to sneak past unnoticed. Our three older sisters were sitting at the kitchen table. They were all in high school and seemed to think of Michael and me more like pests than siblings, barely noticing when we entered a room.
Michael? Stacey? Is that you?” My mother called as she came into the kitchen. “Would you like me to make you some peanut butter–” She stopped short when she saw us. “Why is she all wet? Did you two go in that dirty creek?” We stood dumbfounded.
“Would one of you girls take Stacey upstairs and get her cleaned up?” My sisters took no notice as they talked on phones, and painted nails. “Girls! I’m talking to you!”
“My nails are still wet.”
“I’ll do it.” My oldest sister, Sarah got up from the table, walked over and took my hand.
Michael sat down. He pulled the silver lighter from his pocket and began bouncing it on the table.
“What is that?” My mother snatched the lighter from Michael’s hand. “Where did you get this?” He stared at her blankly. “You shouldn’t take things that don’t belong to you. Where did you get this?” He shrugged his shoulders. “Are you playing with firecrackers again?” She grabbed his face in her hand. “You better not be starting any fires! Do you hear me?” Michael nodded. She let his face go with an angry jerk. “Honestly Michael I don’t know what’s gotten into you this summer.”
After my bath, I went searching for Michael in the back yard. The sun had nearly set, and the moths swarmed the porch light. I found Michael in the tool shed at the corner of the yard. He was rifling through drawers and cupboards.
“Watcha lookin’ for?” I asked, peering into the entrance.
“Get out of here!” He yanked the shed doors closed and yelled at me from inside, “I don’t want to play with any babies!”
I choked back some tears and ran inside. My sisters let me watch TV with them until it was time for bed.
The screeching smoke detector woke me from my sleep. A cloud of gray smoke hung over my bed like a looming storm cloud. Sarah yanked me out of bed by the arm. My mother ushered everyone down the stairs. Sarah and I went first. I looked back to see my other two sisters stampeding down. My parents yelled at us from the top. I could hear nothing but the screeching. Sarah tugged at my arm, snapping my body forward. She pulled me out the front door to the end of the front lawn. The rest of the family soon followed. The screeching became a ringing in my ears. Everything sounded distant. Voices muffled. Finally, I could hear my mother call out,
“Where’s Michael? Where’s Michael!”
Michael stood barefoot on the sidewalk facing the heat of the fire. The flames danced, reflected in his distant glassy eyes. His face was blackened with soot. He didn’t react to us standing around him. He didn’t stir when my mother screamed his name. He stood there rooted like a tree, dead and hollow.
The fire trucks screamed up the street. The flashing lights cast a blue and red glow onto the neighborhood. The firefighters doused the flames with what seemed like oceans of water. When the sky turned pink with the light of the morning sun, the flames had finally been reduced to smoldering timbers and ash. Everything we owned was destroyed.
One of the firefighters came around from the back of the house holding a melted red plastic gas jug and a silver lighter initialed with the letters MS. The firefighter ushered my parents away. They spoke in hushed whispers. The firefighter gave the lighter to my mother. She looked over her shoulder at Michael with disdain. He wasn’t her son anymore, just a stranger who had set her house on fire while her family slept.