He hadn't expected to hear the whoosh, hadn't expected the sudden surge of energy in his body's response: skin tingling, fingers twitching, breath gasping in short pants. Orgasmic, as he'd think of it later, grasping for the right word and knowing he hadn't found it. Couldn't and wouldn't ever be able to describe, even to himself, the total sensuality of that moment when the sound, a gigantic expellant, filled his body to such a degree that his eyes closed, hands clenched, toes curled, as if trying to hold it within himself, keep it fast to indulge the feeling, pure feeling—make time stand still.
How long he hovered at the edge of the yard, inhaling smoke and sirens, crackling sparks and flames brilliant against the spring night, he never knew, although he would try long weeks to reconstruct that time, wanting to understand his total surrender to a sensation unlike any he'd experienced in his fourteen years, as glass shattered in discordant peals, curtains wafted in billows of orange and red, roof and walls collapsed into a seething pyre, and all that was left of his early childhood was a charred rocking horse with a painted smile his mother could not bring herself to part with, and a long forgotten Tonka toy whose tires had melted with the heat.
Later he would wonder how much of the scene he actually saw that night, how much was false memory acquired from TV and newspapers, national magazines even, so brilliant was the blaze.
He remembers feeling cold, doesn't know how or when the shivering began, but it did. Remembers the first impulse to run up to his room and grab a sweater; remembers a body, arms, hands, blocking his way, pulling him back as he headed across the lawn, running to speed his circulation, teeth chattering despite the heat from the flames. Remembers the voice, deep, authoritative, "Keep back, keep away." And then another body, another set of arms and a woman's voice, young, he thinks, "He's in shock."
And then he's sitting in an ambulance he hasn't seen arrive, a foil blanket like the ones he's seen in mountain rescues on TV, draped around his scrawny frame; a mug of something steaming in his hands. And he realizes he's lost the moment, knows it will not return, although he closes his eyes to make sure, just for a second. That is all he needs to feel the lurch of disappointment.
Through the open ambulance doors he sees the house breathe its last, lingering breaths that will be gone tomorrow; watches the blaze, enormous, funereal; the onlookers—neighbors, police, firefighters, passing strangers—watchers as at a deathbed, accompanying a loved one to the threshold of departure, and no further. Tomorrow they will carry on with their lives, talk of this for a day or two, across breakfast tables, in coffee shops, gyms maybe. And then they will forget.
But not he. Tomorrow he will think about his parents, wonder what he could have done, should have done. Tomorrow his fingers will skim along the surface of the matchbox in his pocket, linger on its perfect corners, feel the coarseness of its striking edge. And he will wonder.
Claire Day was born and grew up in England, but has spent over half of her life in the United States. She now lives in Massachusetts, where she is inspired by the creative life around her. Her work has appeared in New Verse News, Silkworm, Peregrine, and American Writing. She was the recipient of a fellowship to the Connecticut Writing Project's Summer institute, and has led writing workshops using the Amherst Writers and Artists method. She is a quadruple Pushcart Prize nominee.
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