In which playing with fire will melt down their world!
Oso didn’t have a plan for how he was going to get his bicycle back from Agnes. All he knew was that he wanted it back because it spelled freedom to him. He wanted the freedom to be anywhere but his home. He could go to Gilly’s without needing transportation. But that wasn’t the point. It was also a matter of principle. His muscles tensed up from frustration.
The next morning, as he stirred a big pot of oatmeal for his siblings, he felt a now familiar tingle of memory that threatened to override his tense, frustrated muscles. The tingling sensation moved up his arms as though he’d been bitten by a spider, and the venom was spreading itself at a fast clip throughout his circulatory system. His arms grew warmer and warmer, until he howled and threw down the oatmeal spoon.
Then his mind perceived a place: it was burning—a dark, small, even space, and there was a woman howling in pain. Hearing the howls, his breath quickened, his mouth went dry, his heart beat with dangerous rapidity. His eyes dilated to take in the dim light. He had to gather the woman in his arms, he had to listen to her, gather her, rescue her; there was something important she was trying to tell him, and he couldn’t hear her. He had to move in closer…
The back door slammed. The youngest and fattest child, Barnaby, slammed into Oso, causing him to knock into a pan of boiling coffee grounds and eggshells, which sloshed all over his arm and down his pants. This burn was real, and his memory faded. There was no such thing as memory in a home filled with chaos.
As he ran his scalded arm under the tap water, his eyes smarted. He wanted to ride away from this place, maybe all the way to the river, where he and Gilly could swim in the muddy rivulets left from the drought, and cool off. He had to get his bike back, no ifs, ands, or buts.
Later that day, he consulted Gilly, which turned out to be a bad idea. Even at twelve-going-on-thirteen, Oso’s ideal for justice was storming the castle. Gilly, on the contrary, didn’t understand what storming a castle meant. Long about sunset, Gilly’s planning started bugging Oso, and he recklessly trespassed on Agnes’ property just as she had done to his. Gilly tried to stop him, but to no avail. The Oldsmobile wasn’t in the yard, which meant the man was gone. It was a good time for a heist.
Unfortunately, the bicycle was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t in the front or the backyard, not in the unlocked shed behind the trailer, which was a storage center for all manner of unused yard tools. The yard was a patch of dirt covered in weeds. The old man she lived with obviously wasn’t into doing yard work.
Oso walked up the porch steps and balanced on the rickety porch railing so he could peer through the blinds. The blinds were closed, and this was unsurprising, but as usually happened with plastic slats in New Mexico, these had warped in the sun and left a yawning gap big enough for him to spot his bicycle in the middle of the living room. A small TV flashed to a clean and tidy space sans visible inhabitants. How could her home be clean with the crazy people who lived inside it? It was cleaner than Oso’s home, though that was no great feat. Most people didn’t have as many toddlers running around their homes.
Out of nowhere, a girl’s voice demanded, “What are you doing?”
Oso about jumped out of his skin, but managed to immediately hide his fear. When he turned around, there stood Bernadette.
“We’re doing a B and E to get my bike back,” Oso whispered. “It’s right there in the living room.”
Gilly tugged on Oso’s sleeve to pull him back from the window. Oso didn’t oblige him.
Bernadette put her hands on her hips and cocked them out in that way girls did when they were mocking others. “You can’t just break in. She may be stupid, but she’s not stupid enough not to call the cops on us.”
“Oh, yeah, like I’d get caught. Or if I did, I’d make sure she didn’t tell. It’s not a crime to steal my own bike she stole from me. I’d get her put in jail. And for real, there is no ‘us’. You weren’t invited to this party, Bernadette.”
“Yeah, right. Who’d believe you?” she said. “And what is this, a real-men-do-crime party?”
Oso decided to ignore her until she went away. So far, that method had worked. “The only problem is I don’t know where she is. The TV’s on, but nobody’s watching it. What do you think that means?”
“That she’s making herself a frozen pizza?” Gilly said. “How should I know? Get down from there and we can plan this a little more. You’re going to walk in and get us in trouble like the dumbshit you are. Bernadette’s right.”
Oso reached back and smacked Gilly on the forehead. “Shut up. Your plans are always stupid. The best way is to just walk in there like we belong and take my bike back. What right does she have to keep my bike in her living room?”
He jumped down from the railing and grimaced as the porch boards creaked under his weight. There was one board split in half by the front door, he noted, and he wondered if it was a kind of trap door for mice or desert rats. The screen door hung slightly open, as the latch was broken. The screen itself fell forward in a lazy arc. Oso tried the door. It was locked, but locks like this were easy. At least traditional handle locks were. The deadbolt wouldn’t be as simple.
He jumped from the porch, not bothering to pretend this was a hush-hush mission. What did he care? In this case, he was in the right. Maybe he hadn’t been in the past. Maybe he’d shot BBs at her and thrown apples at her, but that was all teasing and/or redirection. Teasing didn’t make him a bad person. It was too easy to tease people weaker than he was. Now he knew she wasn’t as weak as he’d assumed. I mean, what kind of weak adult female marches directly in his yard in midday, steals his bicycle, and gets away with it?
“We should see if there’s a back door,” Oso said.
The three disappeared around to the back of the house. There was a back door, but it, too, was secured with a door lock. Oso could have jimmied this one, but he wasn’t sure he liked the idea of sneaking in through the back when the most direct route to his bicycle was entering through the front.
“I should just go and knock on the door and tell her I’m taking my bike back.”
“That’s your plan?” Gilly said.
“That’s a good plan,” said Bernadette. “I like it.”
“I told you, I don’t need to waste time on plans. I just need to walk in and get my bike.”
Gilly chewed on his fingernails, bit off an end, and spit it out. “I think we should wait until she goes to sleep. Then you can jimmy this back door and not scare the wits out of her. Then it’s just gone and she’ll think it was spirited away. Heck, she might not even remember she took it.”
Oso knew what he meant. The woman walked around the neighborhood as though she existed in a dream world. The weakness in Gilly’s plan was the old man. Surely, he would return soon, as it was now dusk. Not that Oso was afraid of him. Still, he might have weapons.
“She might not remember me if I walk in and wheel the bike out when she’s there watching.”
“Yeah, but she might remember your face. Her stepdad, husband, or whatever might come after you.”
“That’s exactly why we should take it now, before he comes back.”
“It’s her stepdad, not her husband,” Bernadette corrected, and then she grabbed at Oso’s arm. “Quick, duck, he’s coming.”
All three ducked down in the weeds at the end of the trailer.
“I don’t hear a car,” Oso whispered.
Bernadette pointed toward the alleyway. “Not her stepdad, my cousin,” she whispered back. “He’s been staying at my house. He’s gross. He’s like twenty-six and makes passes at all us girl cousins. That’s why I came over here when I saw you. I was tired of him rubbing my thighs at the dinner table.”
A curious rage settled in Oso’s stomach. “Do you want me to kill him for you?”
“Yeah, I don’t think that would be helpful.”
The shadowy figure of a tall thin man slowly walked their way and then stopped about five feet from them. They stooped down lower in the weeds. They could smell cigarette smoke. The man moved on, and then walked back. He was pacing up and down the alley, smoking. Then, finally, he tossed the cigarette their direction and wandered back to Bernadette’s house.
“What a dumbass. Do you want to stay at my place tonight?” Oso asked Bernadette. “Or maybe we could all sleep in Gilly’s robot shop. We have sleeping bags there.”
“We won’t rub your thighs, I promise,” Gilly said, and chortled.
Bernadette reached over and squeezed Oso’s hand. Maybe she wanted him to rub her thighs. Maybe not. Hand-holding was in a different class. “Thanks, but I’ll be all right. I think he’s harmless. He just likes to cop feels.”
“This whole situation makes me want a cigarette.” Gilly pulled a lighter from his pants pocket and fiddled with it. “You want one while we’re waiting? I stole a pack from my mom earlier.”
“Did you deeply plan that out, too, or did you just take it?”
“Who needs to plan when it comes to my mom? She buys them by the case. She’ll never know if one pack is gone.”
He lit a cigarette, breathed in, and coughed a little. “Ooh, tingles,” he said.
“Seriously? If you want tingles, go raid my dad’s shed. He has the real devil’s lettuce.”
“Later, dude. Here, try one. It’s not that bad. Berna?”
Bernadette shook her head. “No, the smell reminds me of my creepy cousin.”
Oso did try one, and wasn’t impressed. He puffed it a few times before crushing it with the old, scrappy tennis shoe he saved for dirty jobs.
“What a waste.”
Gilly, clearly bored by the cigarette and the conversation, turned his sights on plucking the dry weeds around the trailer and burning them.
“Mmm,” he said. “Smells weedy.”
Bernadette looked horrified. “Stop it, Gilly. Didn’t your mom ever tell you not to play with fire?”
“Yeah, right. My mom plays with fire all the time. She smokes herself to sleep. She lights all these candles to saints and shit and burns them all night. She has one for winning the lottery.”
Oso snorted. “The only one winning that lottery is the candle maker.”
Gilly rolled his eyes. “God, Oso, that was the stupidest comeback ever. Just not as stupid as people who burn candles to saints.”
“You’d be surprised at what happens when you have faith,” Bernadette said. “I don’t think you two know anything about religious beliefs because you don’t go to church.”
“My mom watches televangelists. And Oso’s mom burns incense to the goddesses. Trust me. We know.”
“Your mom’s not Catholic,” Bernadette said. “She doesn’t even go to church, and she burns things to saints. If she truly believed, it would work.”
“Bullshit,” Oso said.
Bernadette sat with her legs outstretched, her toes pointed like a dancer’s. “How would you know?”
“Actually,” Gilly said, as he pushed up his glasses. “It’s up to you to prove it. You’re the one who says it’s true without any evidence.”
She smiled knowingly, smugly. “My family has been Catholic forever. One time, my cousin drove out to the Chimayo church and got some of the dirt and he left it in his car for like a year. Once, when he was on his way back from Chimayo the same time next year, he got in a car accident. His car rolled, Gilly, and he was fine because of the dirt.”
“Yeah, I doubt it was the dirt that saved him.”
Oso snorted again. “Maybe it padded his fall.”
Gilly picked up a piece of trash, lit it, and watched it burn into nothing, or at least what looked like little black birds floating away on the breeze. “How much dirt was this? Did it weigh down his car, too? Because dirt weighs a lot.”
“It was in a sandwich bag. You don’t know the whole story. His mom had a bad heart, that’s why he was getting her some dirt. It was Easter. If he hadn’t been delayed by the accident, he wouldn’t have gotten to the home at exactly the same time as his mom had a heart attack. And then his mom was fine.”
Oso unhooked his hand from hers and shoved her lightly on the shoulder. “You don’t believe that, do you? You aren’t that gullible?”
“Berna’s not gullible.” Gilly laughed. “Nope. Why shouldn’t she believe that someone’s mom survived a heart attack because her son got in a car accident?”
“No,” she said, her voice rising with indignation, “he had brought back a second bag of dirt for his mom, and he found her exactly at the right moment and gave it to her. I’m not making it up. That’s what happened. At least I’m open to something outside my small, stupid mind.”
Gilly glowered. Even in the dark, his glower was obvious.
“Some people need superstitions,” Oso said, as though his words were somehow soothing. “That’s okay. My dad doesn’t. I don’t either. Superstitions don’t make the vegetables grow.”
“Not having them doesn’t keep your mom home, either, does it?” Bernadette paused for effect. “Maybe if your dad had a few more, she wouldn’t run off all the time and leave you guys.”
“Shut the hell up, Bernadette. You don’t know anything. Don’t talk about my family like that.”
Bernadette smiled. “I’m telling you, these things work. I’ll light a candle for your mom to stop running off like a whore, and she’ll stay. I promise.”
“Ha! I’ll tell my mom to do it, too,” Gilly said. “She’s always very concerned when she’s sees your mom’s pregnant again. Not that it will work, but sometimes it’s the thought that counts.”
Oso felt the heat rise to his cheeks and his fists clench. He didn’t need to fight. Fighting was the way of cowards. But he sorely wanted to pound Gilly’s head into the dirt and smash in his nose. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do to Bernadette. She was pretty. And she had a mean side. He’d known that for a long time. He really just wanted her to go away, but not back to a place where a twenty-six-year-old would feel her up.
“Any of those candles keep your dad from abandoning you, Gilly?” he said instead.
“No because my dad is a scientist and doesn’t believe in that garbage.”
“Hmm. That’s good to know.” He looked pointedly at Bernadette.
Bernadette looked pointedly back. “Yeah, it’s good to know that a lack of faith has prevented miracles from happening.”
“Are you saying that your God is forced to do things if you have faith?”
“No, it’s not like that, it’s…”
Oso snorted one last time, as her protestation trailed off. She clearly didn’t know how to conclude.
Gilly lay back in the dirt and stared up at the summer night sky. “Smells like cat shit down here. I’ll bet there’s cats living under the trailer.”
“Or it could just be you.”
“You don’t get the way these candles work. That’s your problem,” she finally said. “It’s how much faith you have in them. God wants to see people be faithful, so he gives rewards for faith. My uncle abandoned my aunt, just like Gilly’s dad did. But now that my aunt has more faith and has been lighting candles, he’s been paying child support.”
“That’s nice,” Gilly said, with a sneer. “It hasn’t helped my mom get child support. Maybe it’s the state that went after your uncle and made him pay. My dad left New Mexico, and nobody knows where he’s at. The candles are meaningless.”
“You know—you’re right. The candles are meaningless. I already said that. It’s faith.” She pointed up at the night sky. “See? Oso’s constellation is shining tonight. That means it’s his night.”
“The big dipper. That’s the big bear. Unless you consider yourself the little bear. Does your mom call you that, Osito?”
“She wouldn’t dare.”
“You know what this is?” Gilly asked as he plucked a handful of weeds and began braiding them together into the shape of a Teddy bear. “This is going to be your lucky effigy.”
The weeds were obviously not dry enough and the flame kept snuffing out. Gilly added a few pieces of dried circulars that had blown and caught in the weeds at the base of the trailer. He wound them around, crafting them into what appeared to be a strange doll. Then he lit it on fire. It caught fire so quickly it whooshed up to his hand, and he dropped it in the weeds with a yelp. The dry weeds went up in flames faster than any of them could respond. They jumped up and backed away.
But Oso stopped. He knew he couldn’t back away. This was what he’d remembered, and his mouth went dry at the thought. What if Agnes was in that back bedroom? What if she was the woman who was trying to speak to him? He had to help her. He tried to stomp the fire out, but it had grown too big.
He shoved Bernadette. “Go to your house and call 911. Gilly, you’re such an asshole. I can’t believe you did this.”
“What’re you going to do?” Bernadette asked, her voice shaking. “Keep stomping on it?”
“No, get Agnes out,” he shouted as he ran around to the front of the house. “Gilly, go find a hose!”
Oso smashed out the window near the front porch and crawled in with the help of the rickety railing.
“Agnes!” he shouted.
Then he saw her, asleep in an armchair that faced the TV. It had not been visible from the vantage point of the window, and Oso experienced a sudden rage. He could have broken in the back door, after all, and walked out with his bike. It was clear not even smashing the window could wake this woman.
He shook her, and her eyes rolled open and shut again.
“We have to get out of here,” he shouted at her. “Your trailer is going to be toast in like ten minutes.”
She murmured like a young child, but didn’t respond as he expected a normal human being might. So he dragged her upright, and pulled her to a standing position with one of her arms around his shoulder. She didn’t have her leg on—he didn’t know where it was. But he didn’t have time to look for it. He dragged her toward the front door while she jumped along with one leg, trying to keep up.
“Where, where are we going?” she whimpered.
“Your trailer’s going to be toast. It’s on fire.”
“The c-c-candle Papa lit so he could see?”
“Or whatever.” He’d had enough of candle talk for one day.
He snapped the deadbolt free and dragged her outside, though she resisted and gestured with her hand to the back of the house. Gilly was waiting on the porch, his face blanched.
“I couldn’t find a hose,” he choked out, his voice hoarse.
“Papa,” she whimpered.
“He’s not here.” And then Oso stopped cold. The man could be home. What if the car was in the shop? What if she’d bought a secondhand bicycle because the car was a piece of crap?
She whimpered like an animal and tried to tear herself from Oso’s grip. He held on tighter and dragged her to the dirt. She clawed at his neck, and he yelped and let her go.
Without bothering to think it through, he ran back inside the trailer to check for “Papa.”
“Oso,” Gilly screamed. “What are you doing, you stupid idiot?”
The heat was so intense he thought he would die. And then his foot fell through the floor. He’d seen the videos at school, what to do and what not to do in case of fire. He’d done exactly what he shouldn’t have. The smoke would kill him if the fire didn’t first.
Then he saw Gilly crawling on his hands and knees toward him. He pulled Oso out, and both boys crawled back out and collapsed in the dirt near Agnes, who was convulsing and sobbing. Their parents were there, as they’d seen the flames. Gilly swatted away his mom as she tried to hug him; he was convulsing and sobbing just like Agnes.
“Son?” Oso’s dad said, stooping down in the dirt by his side. “What happened here?”
Oso’s mother didn’t bother questioning or attempting hugs. She put her hand on his shoulder and then quickly removed it. For once, Oso was grateful for her lack of nurturing spirit. He didn’t bother responding to his dad. Instead, he stared mutely at the trailer until a fire truck showed up, its sirens blaring.
Agnes had stopped convulsing by that time, but she wouldn’t stop whimpering and pointing back at the engulfed back end of the trailer, with her litany of Papa, Papa, which developed into an unnatural ghostly keening, punctuated by an incoherent rant about starting the fire and killing him.
“I didn’t mean to kill him!” she wailed. “I just wanted him to leave the little girl alone!”
What little girl was she talking about? He’d never seen any kids living there. But of greater significance, Agnes thought it was her fault. That was what she was screeching about. Oso knew he couldn’t let her believe that, but he also knew nobody could know about Gilly starting the fire. What would happen to Gilly? Would he end up in juvenile detention? Would Oso be partly responsible?
The local firemen entered the as-yet non-engulfed area of the trailer to try to rescue this “Papa.” But it was too late. That part of the trailer was toast, and they couldn’t rescue him. He was dead, burnt alive in his bed. Gilly vomited; Bernadette burst into tears in her mother’s arms. Oso stared straight ahead, his mouth open, his body trembling from head to toe. His breath came out in pants, as though he were asthmatic.
A while later, another fire engine, a cop car, and an ambulance showed up. A fireman put Oso on oxygen, and his breathing slowed. Agnes’ keening silenced as she, too, was put on oxygen. When it was clear there were no serious injuries, the police separated the kids to take their statements individually.
Oso’s heart hammered. He wasn’t a bad person. He hadn’t bullied her. He’d teased her. And he hadn’t burnt anything. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t his fault. And they hadn’t worked out a story. What could Oso say? He told the cop they were looking for his bike and smelled smoke.
“How do you lose a bike?” the cop asked him.
Oso swallowed and spoke the truth. He told the cop the entire story of distracting Agnes so that she crashed on her bike and how the woman had stolen his. He thought he could take it back from her, but couldn’t find it in the yard.
The cop didn’t give him an idea of what might happen. He talked to Oso’s parents, instead, informing him that Oso might be wanted for further questioning after the fire martial’s investigation. Oso’s stomach churned. He didn’t know much about how fires were investigated. Surely, they would see that the fire had started outside, not inside the trailer.
His dad didn’t grill him that night. Gilly didn’t have a dad, and his mom would believe anything her genius son told her. By comparison, Oso’s passive, peace-loving dad was a drill sergeant. Oso wasn’t sure about Bernadette and her happy, intact family. She might spill the truth to all of them, or to the cops. She might.
“You look like you’ve been through hell. Is it true you rescued the lady from her trailer?” his dad asked him.
It didn’t make much difference at that point, did it? Oso had let another person die, and he would never be okay with himself again. Therefore, he couldn’t bring himself to answer in the affirmative or the negative.
His dad handed him a watered down half shot of his homemade peach brandy. “Go to bed. We’ll speak more about it in the morning.”
But in the morning, the local paper, as well as the big-city paper from Albuquerque, had declared all three of them heroes. And Bernadette didn’t tell, or at least she hadn’t yet. She came to him in tears the next day and told him she didn’t want to be a hero. All she’d done was call 911.
“We killed a man,” she kept saying, over and over. “We have to tell.”
“You didn’t,” he said. “Gilly and I were responsible. Stop it. Just stop crying. There’s no point.”
“I can’t stop. I’m the one who made you hide there. It’s my fault. We should have followed your plan from the beginning.”
“So what? Just shut up about it, okay?”
“I won’t ever speak of it ever,” she solemnly said. “It will be our secret. I swear.”
He’d only meant for her to stop blubbering and blaming herself, but if she didn’t tell anyone Gilly had started the fire, so much the better.
When it came time for the fire martial to investigate, the job was shoddily done and the fire declared an accident. Well, of course it was an accident. An accident caused by stupidity. Somewhere inside Oso, he desperately wanted to be put away forever for what had happened. And it didn’t help that girls now looked at him adoringly. Older girls. High school girls. He turned thirteen and was as tall as a full-grown adult, but he felt small inside, like a kid hidden in a man, like a scared kid who didn’t know himself any more.
Yes, he felt very small, indeed. And because he so thoroughly blocked the image of a charred man from his mind, all he could think about—have nightmares about—was Bernadette’s missing leg that had melted down with the house. Maybe she would be without a leg forever.