by Stanton Yeakley
Danny Forester needed a distraction. In a cluttered drawer by the refrigerator, his father kept two turquoise lighters and a pack of American Spirit Yellows. Later that evening, Danny was supposed to bring those lighters to the baseball field behind his middle school, where he would meet Tim Henderson and Chandler Wilson. Danny’s mother, however, was cooking dinner in their kitchen, and it was impossible to reach the drawer without her noticing.
He was pretending to read a book while devising his strategy when he saw his sister, Kaitlyn, walking toward her bedroom. He followed and quietly shut the door behind him.
“I need a favor.”
She picked up a glossy magazine and flipped through the pages, ignoring him.
“I’m serious, Kate. I need you to do something for me.”
“What?” she asked, frowning.
“I need you to distract Mom,” he said.
“The stuff drawer,” he said. “I need her out of the kitchen for a minute.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because. I need to get something.”
“Hmm,” she said. “Sounds like a personal problem.”
Danny glared at his little sister. He knew she was playing dumb. She had walked home with him from school and heard Tim Henderson cry after finding out he didn’t make the baseball team. There had been three teams—three fucking teams—and he hadn’t made one. She must have heard him idly threaten to punch the coach’s son or shatter the windows of his car. Hell, he was at least better than Adam McGill, and he made B-Team. And even after Danny made her walk three paces behind them, he was confident Tim had wondered a little too loudly whether he shouldn’t just set the baseball field on fire and end the season for everyone.
“You know why,” Danny said.
“Because you need some twisty ties for your long hair?” she taunted, casually twirling her own strands like miniature propellers.
“No, you asshole,” he shot back. “It’s for a special project. You wouldn’t understand.”,
She nodded sagely. “I do understand,” she said, putting her magazine down. “You need something from me, and I don’t have any reason to give it to you. But I’ll make you a deal.” She drummed the tips of her fingers like Dr. Evil. “I’ll distract Mom, but only if I can come with you.”
“Nope,” Danny said immediately, walking to the door. He had resolved not to negotiate with terrorists. Or sisters.
Kaitlyn casually picked her magazine back up. Danny stopped at the door.
“Fine, you can come,” he said. “But if you get burned, you’re walking home.”
Kaitlyn stuck out her tongue and crossed her eyes. Danny couldn’t help but laugh.
As Danny walked toward the kitchen, he heard Kaitlyn shriek.
“Mom! Mom! Mommy!” she shouted. “Dustin found a rat in the air vent! He found another rat.” Each syllable shot out like a bullet. Danny listened as his mother ran to the bedroom, abandoning dinner on the stove. He stole into the kitchen.
Once he had what he needed, Danny stealthily walked back to the bedroom where Kaitlyn stood by the air vent in the floor and pointed to their mother’s English bulldog, Dustin. Her hands were shaking. Confused, Dustin looked at Kaitlyn, then the air vent, then Danny’s mother.
“It . . . was . . . a . . . rat,” Kaitlyn heaved. Hearing the word rat, Dustin growled softly. Their mother bent over to see if there were any signs of intrusion.
“I don’t see anything,” she said.
“It was there. I swear,” Kaitlyn replied.
Danny’s mother looked at her daughter and then at Dustin. His eyes peeked up at her, but she seemed annoyed, so he waddled to the vent and plopped down.
“It was there,” Kaitlyn repeated.
Danny’s mother shook her head and walked back to the kitchen. Danny smiled at his sister and patted the two lighters in his pocket.
After dinner, Danny lied and said Chandler Wilson invited him over to play video games and had asked if Kaitlyn would come too. Chandler’s sister was in Kaitlyn’s grade, so the story was mostly believable.
His mother stared at Danny warily.
“Are Chandler’s parents going to be there?” she asked.
“I think one of them is,” Danny replied.
“Are the games going to be violent?”
“No,” Danny said. “Just Mario Kart.” Danny knew his mother hated Mario Kart. When they played at home, she always made them turn down the volume because of her migraines.
“Fine,” his mother sighed. “Just be back by ten.”
Leaving the remainder of their dinner untouched, Danny and Kaitlyn marched out of the house and grabbed their bikes.
Tim Henderson waited for them at the corner of McNeal and Amherst, wearing a white t-shirt and black athletic shorts. The sunlight was fading by the time they pulled up beside him, and an orange glow had settled over the horizon-line of houses and trees.
“Hey,” Danny said to Tim.
“Hey,” Tim replied. He nodded to Kaitlyn. She saluted in return.
Tim was a morose kid. Chandler sometimes called him Eeyore. For some reason, he constantly seemed uncomfortable. As if someone had given him a pair of glasses one prescription off, forcing him to walk through the world tilted.
Danny never saw too much of Tim at home anymore. Once, when Danny and Chandler were at his house playing video games, he’d spent the whole time ping-ponging back and forth from the couch to the front door with a jingle of pills in his pocket, greeting his parent’s “friends” and coming back with wads of cash in his cargos. When Danny later told his mother about how boring it was having to pause the game for this every ten minutes, she had gone white and said he was never to go to Tim’s house again. Danny wasn’t sure why.
“Where’s Chandler?” Danny asked. He peered out into the street to see if he could spot a chubby kid hustling and sweating on an enormous Schwinn bicycle.
“He’s always late,” Tim said. “You bring the lighters?”
“Sure,” Danny said. “You bring the gas?”
“Yup.” Tim pointed at a red can beside him.
“How come you couldn’t get a lighter if you could get gas?” Kaitlyn asked. She was sitting on the curb, picking dandelions.
Tim frowned. “Because my Daddy keeps his lighters in his pockets. And he’d cut my hand off if I stole one.” Kaitlyn laughed. Tim didn’t.
Danny looked back out at the road and saw Chandler waving at the three of them and flashing a Maglite. He wore velcro sandals, white socks, and a floral print tee. Before he could reach the stop sign, Kaitlyn and Tim were peddling away.
“Shit. Guys, wait up. I had to ride all the way from my house,” Chandler said, smiling and bobbing his head. He was visibly sweating through his shirt.
“You live three blocks away,” Danny said as he mounted his bike.
“Yeah,” Chandler said, still smiling, “but you know.”
“Yup,” Danny said. “I know you’re slow.”
When they reached the baseball field, a light wash of cicadas hissed in the trees surrounding the fence. None of the spotlights were on. The diamond was a plane of shadows and hard-packed ground. The September grass was yellow and old. They could see lights on in the middle school but knew it was only a janitor or a lonely teacher.
Danny had noticed a sea of cars parked at Thomas Edison High on his way and was worried the middle school might be similarly crowded. A banner hung on the gymnasium’s outer wall, and music blasted through the doors. The warm, close-body brightness of the event made the neighborhoods he traversed seem desolate and undiscovered. There must have been an assembly or PTA meeting at the high school though because when Danny and Chandler passed the middle school’s parking lot, it was empty.
“I don’t know if it’s dry enough,” Tim announced as Danny climbed the fence and landed in the outfield. Tim was bent over, rubbing a piece of grass.
“Put more gas on it,” Kaitlyn suggested. “You did bring a whole can.”
Danny plucked a few blades. He pushed the head of the lighter down and held the grass above it to see if it would catch. It turned black and shriveled but didn’t take the flame. Kaitlyn motioned for the lighter, and Danny tossed it to her, hoping she’d have more luck.
“So,” Chandler asked, “are you going to write your name in the grass or something? Like, burn into it, Tim Was Here?” He gestured dramatically as if he was writing his name on a wall with spray paint. “I think that would be cool. You’d get caught, though. But I doubt they’d suspend you.”
“Why the hell would I write my name in the grass?” Tim asked, laughing. “How would I even do that?”
Chandler danced around the outfield, kicking up dirt with his sandals. “You’ve never seen someone do that? Like, on TV or something? They’ll be on an island so they want planes to see them. They make fire letters.” He made the sound of an explosion and threw his hands in the air, mimicking the flames. “You’d just have to pour gas in the shape of a word or whatever.”
“Shit,” Tim said. “If I did that, I’d definitely get suspended.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Chandler said. “My brother Mark got caught putting sugar into the gas tank of Mr. Sayer’s car, and they didn’t suspend him. He just had to go to detention for two days. My dad talked to the principal.”
“Well,” Tim replied, “my step-brother Dakota got suspended for a whole month cause they caught him smoking cigarettes in the parking lot. I bet I’d get suspended for this.”
“Did your Dad talk to Mr. What’s-His-Name at Edison?” Chandler asked.
“No,” Tim said.
“Should have had your daddy talk to him.”
As they spoke, Danny looked to his sister. She was crouched over, focused on something in the grass. It looked like a large black spot. Then the spot grew orange eyes, and a small orange head rose up in slight, stuttered movements.
“Look, guys,” Kaitlyn shouted. “I made a fire.”
“That’s not a fire,” Danny said.
“It’s the start of one.” Kaitlyn pulled dead grass from around the burning circle and tossed it in.
“No, no, that’s good,” Tim said, rushing over. He sprinkled gas on the softly burning eye.
“Watch out,” he said, gently nudging Kaitlyn away. He made wide circles with the can, letting the gas seep out in a growing spiral. As Tim poured, Danny watched his sister take the lighter and bend down to inspect the drenched grass. She managed to get a few pieces smoking, but nothing more. Frustrated, she stood up and walked away. With only a few embers glowing at the center, Tim moved to the outer reaches of the field, down the foul-ball line and fence. Kaitlyn followed. After a few minutes, she must have found a patch untouched by sprinklers because when she placed the lighter on the spiky tufts, they lit up like a birthday cake.
“Guys, it’s catching!” she yelled. Tongues of flame flickered up from the grass and began moving slowly across the outfield.
“Nice work, Kate,” Tim said, smiling at her. Danny and Chandler stared as the fire spread like water filling its container. There was no limit to where it could go. Chandler turned on his flashlight and began swinging it frantically—grass in every direction, broken only by the fence-line and the infield dirt. He turned his light to the parking lot behind the field: empty and still in the evening darkness.
And then it wasn’t. Before Chandler moved the beam away, a lone car pulled into the lot. Danny jumped at the tire-on-gravel sound of arrival. The fire in front of them would be clearly noticeable from the parking lot. It roared steadily, like an engine, churning the grass beneath it and rising orange and yellow into the air.
“Shit,” Chandler whispered. “Somebody’s here. We have to put this out.”
“How are we supposed to do that?” Danny asked. He tried stamping at the flames, but when he got close, he could feel the heat bite the rubber soles of his shoes and creep up his ankle. Chandler rocked back in his sandals and watched Tim, Kaitlyn, and Danny tap dance around the edges of the fire.
“You guys better hurry,” Chandler warned, “there are people getting out.”
“Goddamnit,” Tim said as he tried to force his feet to stomp faster and be more heat resistant. In the parking lot, three figures stepped out of the car and milled around. Danny couldn’t make out who they were. Smoke curled around him, distorting the images behind the backstop.
“That looks like my dad’s car,” Chandler whispered.
“You think somebody saw us and called him?” Danny asked.
“Maybe,” Chandler said, “but if that were him, he would be over here whipping my ass by now. Hurry up, boys.”
To Danny’s surprise, after a minute or two of kicking and stomping, they had almost managed to extinguish the last spark. As the fire smoldered, they hunched over, out of breath. Tim coughed sharply.
Then, suddenly they heard a hiss as new flames burst from the ground like lava bubbling between shifting plates.
“Shit!” Tim shouted. He and the others sprinted to the fire, but the flames were growing exponentially. Danny pulled Kaitlyn back from the expanding heat. They watched it race across the outfield as if tracking a fly ball. Kaitlyn started crying and grabbed Danny’s hand.
“I’m sorry I wanted to come,” she said. “I’m sorry I started the fire. I just wanted to see it.”
“It’s not your fault,” Danny said. “You’re going to be okay.” He squeezed her hand tighter and closed his eyes. “You’re going to be fine.” Tim glanced at Kaitlyn then at the fire. Chandler, for once, was silent.
None of them noticed the veiled figures approaching.
“Do you remember when we almost burned down the baseball field?” Danny asked, pointing to Tim with his beer. Tim nodded and took a sip of his drink.
The room was filled with cocktail tables and groups of men and women laughing awkwardly with the girl they used to have a crush on or having a beer with their math teacher. It was all so strange, Danny thought.
Tim looked at his watch.
“Shit, man, where’s Chandler?” Danny asked, glancing over Tim’s shoulder. “I thought I saw in the Facebook group that he was coming.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know,” Tim said. “Don’t have Facebook.”
“How’d you hear about the reunion then?” Danny asked. He took another long drink. Tim was the only person in the room wearing a suit and tie.
“I got a letter,” Tim replied. “Alumni donors get all kinds of information through the mail. This just happened to be my year.”
“Huh,” Danny said. “Well, Karen Navaro made a Facebook group, and she invited a bunch of us. That’s the only way I heard about it.” He tried to make eye contact with Tim, who was checking his phone. “Ten years sure is a long time,” he said
Tim didn’t reply. He glanced around the room like he was trying to find someone who wasn’t there. Eeyore was anxious.
“Yup,” Tim finally said. “Real long.”
“What is it you do again?” Danny asked.
“I’m an attorney,” Tim said. He tugged on his tie and sipped his drink, still dangerously full. “You?”
“Software engineer,” Danny said. “I live about an hour away.” He paused. “I can’t believe I don’t know this, but are you around here, or did you get out?”
“I made it out, I guess,” Tim replied. “I’m in St. Louis now.”
Danny nodded. “That’s kind of a drive, isn’t it? Or did you fly?”
“I drove,” Tim said and fell silent again.
Suddenly, they heard a rumbling voice and saw Chandler Wilson coming from the bar beneath the “Welcome Back Edison High, Class of 2006!” sign. He was holding three shots. When he reached them, he set the shots on the table and wrapped Danny in a bear hug. “It’s been years, brother! How the hell’ve you been?” Chandler had a thick beard, but his auburn hair still puffed out like a cotton ball. Danny patted him on the back.
“Sigma Kappa Psi, never fuck a Pi,” Chandler mock yelled, pumping his fists in the air. He and Danny had rushed the same fraternity in college. After graduation, Chandler came home to work at his father’s paint shop.
“Tim,” Chandler said, shaking his hand firmly. “What’s with the suit?”
“He’s an attorney,” Danny offered.
“Do attorneys have to wear suits all the time?” Chandler asked.
“No,” Tim said quietly. “What have you been up to these days, man?”
“Oh, not much, not much,” Chandler said. “I’m a color swatch extraordinaire at my dad’s store and am the proud owner of not one, but two WaveRunners. As you can tell, I’ve made wise choices.”
Tim smiled. Danny laughed and gulped down the last of his beer.
“And what the hell are you guys drinking?” Chandler yelled. “I knew I was going to have to bring over shots to loosen Timmy up. Here, here, drink.” He passed a shot each to Danny and Tim. Tim put his on the table and shook his head.
“No, I’m fine,” he said.
“What?” Chandler said. “Did you give up the sauce or something? I respect that, you know, but damn, man.”
“No,” Tim said. “Well, not really. I just haven’t drunk much in a while. I dabbled in quitting a few years ago. Didn’t want to end up like my parents.”
Chandler smiled and handed the shot back to him.
“Well, you’re going to have to un-quit tonight. We have catching up to do.”
At this, Chandler downed his shot. Danny followed. After a moment, as the muddle of people buzzed around them in a monotone of nostalgia and regret, Tim shot back the liquor and smiled.
Danny sat in the backseat of Chandler’s 1999 Honda CRV and scratched the fabric underneath his fingernails. He slyly took a drink. A half-empty twelve-pack lay ripped open on the floorboard behind the passenger seat. He leaned sideways, staring up at the passing lights and signs overhead. Through the window, he could only see their top halves as they glided by, cut off from their base, removed from any beginning. He felt like a child.
In the passenger seat, Tim drank his beer and frowned at the streets of his hometown.
“There’s so much old shit here,” he said. “Everything is the same as when I left it. How do you stand it?” He looked at Chandler, who was fumbling with a cigarette.
“I haven’t smoked in years,” he sheepishly admitted as he gave up trying to light it and reached to stuff it back in the glove box. “They were just in there, so I figured, what the hell?” He patted the steering wheel. “Thought I’d bring ol’ reliable to the reunion so we could go for a trip down memory lane.
“And I don’t stand it,” he continued. “Or, I can’t. How do you stand wherever you live now?”
“There’s more to do,” Tim said. “And I don’t think about it one way or another.”
“That’s your problem,” Chandler said. “I think about this shit every day.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?” Danny asked. He shot the last of his beer, his eyes drifting over the totems of his memory. The church where he had attended vacation bible school. The movie theater where he held a girl’s hand for the first time. The road that led to the lake where he and Chandler and Tim would smoke and throw stones in the water.
“I just mean I think about it,” Chandler said. “Living here. Sure, I can’t fucking stand it most days, but I’ve earned that right. I’ve grown up here. I stayed here. My blood and sweat and bones are here, you know.”
Tim nodded but kept his gaze trained on the passing buildings.
“And it’s not that I can’t stand it all the time,” Chandler continued. “Just most days. There are some days when I love it, and I feel the accumulation of everything I’ve ever done well up in my chest, and it’s like a kid you’re proud of. I look around, and I feel deeply at home here. I think that’s what you’re missing if you don’t think about it much.”
Tim frowned. “You’re not making any sense.”
“Yes, I am,” Chandler said. “You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been angsty all night, being back. It’s because you’ve got no roots, man. You come back here and feel this deep thing inside you and realize you ain’t got that in St. Louis.”
“Maybe,” Tim admitted.
Tim did look like he was brooding, Danny thought. His seat was tilted back, and his tie hung limp and sideways across his chest.
“Either way,” Tim said, “I needed to get out.”
“Why?” Danny asked.
“Yeah,” Chandler said. “I’m not knocking you. It’s just I know why Danny left. And it’s not like he went that far.”
For a moment, they were quiet, sailing through the warm street noise like a spoon parting cream.
“Your parents ever talk about it?” Tim asked. He looked at Danny. The passing lights cast orange-patterned shadows over his face. Chandler turned off the main road and into a colony of houses and dark, outline trees, their mosaic limbs sloping together like a game of London Bridge.
“No,” Danny finally said. “They don’t talk about it. It’s not like it’s unmentionable or anything, but it’s not generally brought up. I imagine they don’t want to think about the fact their sixteen-year-old daughter died of a brain tumor. Hell, they moved away a month after I left for college. It was too painful for them.”
Tim shifted in his seat and took a long drink.
“I don’t know if this is the time or not,” he said, “but, you know I kissed her? Kaitlyn. A few months before she died.” He paused. “I think it was in your backyard.”
He turned to Danny, his face contorted and pinched as if the memory was still raw. They sat with his confession for a moment.
Then Chandler laughed.
“What!?” he yelled, flinging an empty beer can at the dashboard. “You never fucking told us you kissed Kate!” He glanced at Danny for approval. Danny couldn’t help but laugh too. He doubled over, imagining his sister leaning in to kiss Tim under the shade of their pecan trees, eyes closed earnestly, struggling to synchronize the movement of their heads.
“I didn’t mean to,” Tim shouted. “It’s just, we were spending so much time together, and she was so beautiful and crazy and”—he started laughing too—“I figured you guys always knew I was in love with her.”
“We did,” Danny said. "We also knew she thought you were the ugliest motherfucker she’d ever seen until she hit high school.” He reached out and patted Tim on the shoulder. “It’s okay, man. I forgive you. I’m not going to beat you up, posthumously.”
Tim continued to laugh under his breath. The back windows were open, and the air rushing in was wet with sprinkler water—somehow the most earthy thing Danny had ever smelled.
Tim sniffed softly and wiped his eyes. Chandler chuckled and reached behind him for another beer.
“Is she why you left?” he asked.
“No,” Tim said. “Well, not completely. I just had to get out of here. Kate, my dad getting locked up, Mom meeting Chuck—everything about this place seemed like it was sucking the life out of me.”
“How do you feel now?” Chandler asked.
“What do you mean?” Danny asked.
Tim didn’t answer at first. He fiddled with the tongue of his tie.
“It feels like when I was younger, I started out whole,” he finally said. “Like a math problem. I had a whole fucking pie, and this town was taking pieces out of it. How much pie does Tim have left, you know? I had to figure out a way to get out, or else there’d be no pieces left: sum total equals zero. But here, at least I had something. A wholeness to take from. Now, the pie’s gone. I don’t even have anything to chip away at anymore.”
“Fuck, man, you’re drunk,” Chandler said, trying to laugh. No one joined him.
“I’m not that drunk,” Tim replied. He stared at the floorboard.
“Hey, I have an idea,” Chandler said. “Maybe this’ll cheer you up. Let’s go see the baseball field. Revisit our almost greatest achievement.”
He looked at Tim and Danny for approval. Tim didn’t say anything. Danny tried to smile but could only nod.
Kate had been the architect of the fire and had held Danny’s hand as flames ate away at the dead grass. That night, she had cried with a fear he wouldn’t see again for years. Not until she lay in a hospital bed, half her head shaved and a line of staples in her scalp, would he see her like that again.
They drove the last few blocks to the middle school without speaking. Under the cover of darkness, they reached the baseball field and pulled into the parking lot. The field was just as they’d left it years earlier. They could vaguely distinguish the outlines of hard dirt and grass, though there were no bases or chalk yet. They parked the car and stepped out, finishing the beers they carried. Danny squinted at the outfield to see if he could somehow discern a trace of their fire. Maybe after all these years, some mark of them would remain. He saw nothing.
He turned to Chandler and Tim to suggest they leave, but then he noticed it:
An orange light danced up from the outfield and etched the silhouette of four figures onto the night.
Without thinking, Danny and Tim burst through the dugout and onto the field. A small fire burned in the grass, quickly making its way down the first baseline. Tim ripped his suit jacket off and spread it on the flames while Danny kicked at the infield dirt until it loosened and sprayed over the blaze. Chandler jogged behind them and pounded the border of the fire with his boots. None of them looked closely at the figures watching them.
After several minutes of frenzied fire-fighting, the flames died, and the wasted earth gave itself up in plumes of smoke. Danny, Tim, and Chandler heaved and gasped for air. Only then did Danny look for the figures he’d seen from the parking lot.
The watchers stood in the infield, their eyes bloodshot.
“Jesus,” Danny said under his breath. “They’re kids.”
Chandler grunted and stood up. He squinted as one of them traced his face with a flashlight beam.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Chandler said. Danny looked at a kid who couldn’t be more than twelve or thirteen. He seemed wary and on edge, and his plain white t-shirt was blackened with streaks of ash.
“It’s out now,” Chandler continued. “Everything’s fine. We’re not going to call your parents or anything.” He laughed softly. Tim got up and stood beside Chandler.
“Are you guys okay?” he asked. He was also red-eyed and wild-looking, his shirt lined with soot. “What were ya’ll doing out here?”
No one answered. Danny could see four bicycles strewn alongside the fence.
“Do you guys have any lighters?” Tim asked. “Give them to me, and we’ll call everything square. And any gas you have. I’ll need that too.”
“Tim, come on,” Chandler said. “Just let them go home.”
“No,” Tim replied. “I don’t want them getting hurt. Believe it or not, I know how these things go.” He crossed his arms. “I’ll wait.”
“Just give it to him,” Danny heard a girl whisper. She was standing in the middle of the group, holding the hand of a boy with long brown hair. The boy glared at her.
“Will you shut up?” he said, probably louder than he intended.
“I’m just saying,” she said, “we could go home if you just …”
“Can you tell your sister to be quiet?” another one of them barked. He had on sandals and white socks. His floral shirt reminded Danny of one Chandler’s dad used to wear.
“Whatever,” the girl said as she turned to walk away.
“Hey! Where are you going?” shouted the boy in the white t-shirt. He had been slouching before—as if he was trying to disappear in the loose blue night—but now he stood straight. “You need to wait for me before you go anywhere.”
The boy in white socks flashed his Maglite at the girl. She looked so familiar, Danny thought.
“Turn off the light!” The boy in the white t-shirt barked.
“No, keep it on,” Danny yelled. “Chandler, get that kid’s flashlight.”
“Give me the light for a minute, kid,” Chandler demanded, reaching for the flashlight.
“Hey, what the hell,” the kid whined. He tried to shuffle backward but stumbled as Chandler yanked the Maglite from his hands.
“It’s just gonna be for a minute,” Chandler said. He shined the light on the three boys.
As Chandler inspected their faces one by one, Danny and Tim fell silent. Chandler let the beam drop to the ground, then slowly raised it again, directing it at the girl.
“Chandler, stop,” Danny said. “Hold the light there.” Chandler held the light steady. The girl turned around.
“Hey, cut it out,” she shouted.
Danny let out a guttural sound and felt as if he might vomit.
“Hey, guys, I don’t know what’s going on, but can I have my light back?” the boy in socks and sandals asked. “We’re real sorry about all this, but I think we should go home.” He reached his hand out to Chandler. Chandler knocked it away and shined the light in the boy’s face.
Danny looked at the boy, and his breath became unsteady. Tim was silent. He stared at the group of children standing in limbo, ready to run, ready to flee to their bikes, caught in the eyes of these strange men.
“Who are you kids?” Tim asked.
“Uh, I don’t know if we should tell you guys,” the boy in socks said. “You know, stranger danger and everything.”
Tim seemed not to hear him. He pointed to the one in the white t-shirt. “You,” he said. “Tell me why you’re out here. What were you guys doing?”
The boy began, hesitantly: “I didn’t mean to. I wasn’t trying to start a big fire.”
“Fine. But why were you out here?” Tim asked again.
“I don’t know. It was my idea,” the kid said. “Don’t blame them.”
“I don’t care whose fault it was,” Tim said. “How did the field catch fire?”
The kid lowered his head. “I wanted to burn it down. It’s Adam’s fault.”
“Fuck,” Tim said softly.
“Who’s Adam?” Chandler asked.
Suddenly, Danny remembered a thirteen-year-old Tim walking home from school and ranting about Adam McGill at shortstop. He remembered biking through his neighborhood on a September night like this, and he remembered Kaitlyn, bent over the late-summer grass, starting a fire. He began to cry. He closed his eyes and felt Tim come to comfort him. It wasn’t what it looked like, Tim said. It wasn’t her.
“Then who the hell else is it?” he yelled.
“Look, there has to be an explanation,” Tim said. “I’ll prove it.” He walked over to the three boys.
“What are your names?” he asked. No one answered. He turned to the boy in the white t-shirt. “Fine, what’s your name?”
“Sorry, but my dad says to never tell anyone your name when you’re in trouble,” the boy said.
“What’s her name, then?” Tim asked, pointing at the girl.
“I’m not telling you her name.”
“Okay,” Tim said. “Can you tell me this? Do you have a chocolate lab at home, about five years old?”
“What’s your dog have to do with anything?” the one in the socks asked.
“Shut up,” the boy snapped. “And, yeah what does that have to do with anything?”
“Just answer the question,” Tim said. “Do you have a chocolate lab?”
The kid was quiet.
“Fine,” Tim went on. “How about this: When your parents fight, and you get scared, I mean real scared, not mom is drunk on a Tuesday scared—I mean real, you-can-feel-it-in-your-fingers scared—where do you go?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” whispered the boy in the white t-shirt.
“Which branch of the oak tree do you climb to?”
The boy backed away. “My mom doesn't get drunk,” he whispered. “She doesn’t do that anymore.”
“What did he say?” Danny shouted. “What did he say, Tim, was he right?”
Tim didn’t answer.
Suddenly Danny heard himself shout: “Hey! How long have you loved Kaitlyn Forester?”—but he was shouting at the boy’s back. The four kids sprinted across the outfield, and Danny struggled to get up from the ground as they hoisted themselves over the chain-link fence and mounted their bikes.
“Fuck,” Danny shouted. “Come on!” He raced after them and motioned for Tim and Chandler to follow. The kids had already reached the road. Danny hauled himself over the fence, but his legs buckled when he hit the ground, and he rolled sideways, flailing like a landed fish. Tim was ahead of him, running in the direction of the dark houses. Danny pushed his body up.
“Guys, stop it, this is ridiculous,” Chandler shouted from inside the fence. “We’re just drunk.”
Danny and Tim ignored him. They ran down the street where the bikes had turned. The soles of their shoes slammed against the asphalt, and the laces unraveled, bouncing against leather. Danny felt a sharp pain in his ribs, but he kept running. He caught up to Tim, and they ran together, sprinting disheveled through the neighborhoods. Danny just needed to see her—to know she was all right. If he could catch them, everything would be all right.
Then Danny lost sight of the bikes, and they were gone.
He waved at Tim to stop so they could get their bearings. He would cut them off, he thought. He looked at Tim, who was bent over, hands on his knees. His shirt was drenched in sweat and ash.
“We need to head them off—take a shortcut,” Danny said. “That’s the only way we can catch them.”
Tim nodded. “You know where we are?” Tim asked.
“No,”—Danny replied—“not really.” The neighborhood was unfamiliar. Alien. Danny looked around, wanting desperately to remember something, to recognize some landmark, but he couldn’t.
Tim gagged and spat out a string of vomit, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“I don’t know if we’re going to find them, man,” he said.
Danny nodded but could not accept it. He started jogging in a direction, any direction. He could have been running toward his old house, or he could have been headed in the exact opposite direction. He had no way of knowing.
After a block, he stumbled, and his knee skidded along the concrete. The familiar, sour sting of a scraped knee jolted him like a bucket of ice water. He sat on the ground and pulled his pant leg above the wound. The bloody skin was a quick brushstroke as if it had been in a hurry to be made. Danny stood and waited for Tim to catch up.
“It couldn’t have been what it looked like, right?” Tim said as he walked beside Danny. “I mean, that’s impossible.”
Danny shook his head. “Who knows,” he said.
They wandered for what felt like hours, but it couldn’t have been long because when they reached the baseball field, Chandler was still standing by the fence, playing on his phone. He glanced up when he heard them approaching. Danny imagined they looked like John McClane in the falling action, bloody and haggard, or beaten and tested pilgrims, coming to the end of the road.
“You find what you were looking for?” Chandler asked.
“No,” Tim said, shaking his head. “We never caught up to them.”
“Yeah,” Chandler said, peering at the labyrinth of houses, “Can’t say I’ve been back around here for years. I couldn’t tell you where they went.”
Tim slumped beside the fence and ran a hand through his hair.
“Can’t even catch a couple of kids,” he said. “Fuck.” He gazed at Chandler. “Seriously, man, how the hell do you stand it—staying here? How do you keep from going crazy?”
Chandler didn’t answer at first. He started walking across the field to the parking lot. Danny and Tim followed. Around second base, Chandler turned to Tim:
“Shit, man. I’m teflon. Nothing sticks to me.” Tim laughed and jogged to catch him, but Danny lagged behind.
With each step, he relished the sting in his knee. He felt as if he had just fallen off his bike or slid along loose gravel diving for a ball. He felt momentarily whole—even though he couldn’t find them, even though he would never see her, even though he did not recognize his home, and it, in turn, looked on him not as a native son, but a stranger. A passerby running directionless through the night.
But maybe that was the cost of becoming. The toll of leaving and growing.
All punitive and necessary. All excessive. All too much.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stanton Yeakley is an attorney who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and writes between cases. He has been previously published in Bandit Fiction, District Lit, Epilogue Magazine, and Poydras Review.
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