A ray of sunlight blazes through my eyelids and wakes me up. I’m in a basement, lying on a musty plaid couch, still wearing my t-shirt and jean shorts from last night. My hair is longer than ever, and I sweep the bangs off my forehead. I squint in the sun and its intense glare reminds me of the fire.
Pulsing light poured upward, into the darkness that night, as millions of glittery orange sparks flew miles into the sky. Amongst a crowd of neighbors lined up behind yellow tape, Dad and I stood there, our jaws dropped, frozen in shock, and watched our house burn.
The house fire sounded like a waterfall. Or like a bathtub faucet cranked to full blast. The heat hit like an oven. Beads of sweat rolled off Dad’s face and I saw the flame’s reflection on his skin. Fire burst into rooms and splashed around like a stormy orange sea with breathtaking power.
The next day Dad and I sifted through the debris. Baseball cards, comic books, and my Chicago Bulls 3-Peat pennant were ashes. My bike was charred black and the tires completely melted off. The Nintendo looked like a pile of burnt marshmallows and reeked of chemical death.
Somewhere in the ruins, Dilly was cremated. He was a stuffed animal (and I am 15) but that little duck was always there for me. His fuzzy yellow body was shaped like a teddy bear, and his orange beak looked like two plump lips. I stopped snuggling him years ago but still stared at him sometimes, especially on the bad days.
I’d always been a fat boy. I had a flabby neck roll like a baby. It trapped sweat and stunk. I had to look up and scrub every time I showered. Black sweat residue collected everywhere, just awful.
Most kids loved picking on fatties. Dumb kids, smart kids, pretty girls, even friends I thought were nice, could insult me at any moment. They waited for me to mess up, with “fattie” ready in their back pocket. Some kids felt compelled to prod me. Their pointer finger slowly approached my gut and no matter how much I flexed, stretched, or sucked it in, they found mushiness, and it killed me.
Last month school let out, thank god. Summer was my chance to escape and maybe fix myself. I played basketball every day like MJ. Free throws, rebounds, and layups for hours until sweat soaked through my shirt and shorts. I didn’t eat ice cream, chips, or french fries. I felt lighter on my feet, and not so out of breath. Maybe the girls would notice me now. Maybe the guys would throw me a pass. Then the fire destroyed my momentum. Dad and I have lived off fast food, cable TV, and I haven’t shot a basket in weeks.
At first, Dad thought he could find a local job. He rented the cheapest hotel room in town and rifled through the classifieds. As money ran out he called every friend he ever met. Then last night we hopped in his pickup truck, left Iowa, and drove here.
The Garcia House. Manny, Patti, and Nate. Freeport, Illinois. They offered us a room and gave Dad some work. He left early, and I’m still lying here on the couch like a turd.
“Eric Daniels! It’s way past noon. Are you sleeping, still?”
That’s Nate, I think. His voice sounds deep.
“Yeah, I’m up!” I yell.
“Be right down!” he replies.
I raise the blinds and open the basement window. Hot air and light flood the room. Now I recognize these old couches, this room. Nate and I had sleepovers here. Several. We ate caramel corn, drank pop, and watched movies on this ancient TV. We were so little back then that we both fit on one couch. Behind the couches, there’s a pool table and the Garcia bar. I remember when Manny and Dad built it. The marble countertop still looks shiny and smooth.
I imagine Mom, Dad, Manny, and Patti, sucking down beers and laughing so loud. Manny sat behind the bar, Dad stood at the side, and the girls chatted at the corner. Mom leaned forward, cigarette dangling off her fingers, its smoke floating past her permed hair and tinted prescription glasses. Was Mom still around back then? Of course, she was.
Nate’s footsteps clamor down the stairs. The basement door swings open and a tall, lanky kid stands beside the pool table. It’s shocking to see Nate all grown up. His bony shoulders look way too wide for his thin frame. Nate has bushy eyebrows and thick chin stubble for a 15-year-old. He barely has a forehead. His thick brown hair is buzzed short except for one odd-looking half-inch-wide bang that dangles past his chin. Nate catches my eye, tucks the bang behind his ear, and nervously scratches his brow. His yellow t-shirt reads ‘Bite Me’ in bold black letters. His orange plaid shorts clash with his green Nikes. His legs are covered with gobs of even more hair.
“How you been, buddy?” Nate asks, “You’re not as fat as I remember.”
Okay. Um. I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess.
Nate pulls the bang from behind his ear and sucks on it. He realizes what he’s doing, and tucks the bang away. Then he turns and runs upstairs.
“I can tell you like donuts,” Nate yells, “Come on up!”
Nate leads me to the kitchen, where the sun reflects off the linoleum floor. Glossy black cupboards contrast with the white Formica countertops, and the wooden kitchen table rests on wobbly chrome legs.
Nate hands me a white cardboard box stamped with ‘Donuts Plus’ in purple ink. Two chocolate long johns are left, and I stuff one in my mouth. It’s super sweet and the cream filling tastes like banana. I lick the icing off my fingers and follow Nate outside onto the back porch.
The wooden deck stands five feet above the ground and the far edge of the floorboards forms a crescent. I remember an above-ground swimming pool stood here once. We played Marco Polo, I got an ear infection and nearly drowned. I hate swimming. Anything that involves taking off my shirt is not good.
A lawnmower fires up somewhere nearby. Nate’s yard could use a good mow. The grass is long and wet and the blades bend nearly in half. A giant puddle rests between a crabapple tree and a rundown shed in the back of his yard. Good sized lawn though, as big as a basketball court.
I smack a fly off my leg and notice Nate staring at me. He squints and nods slightly like he’s thinking of what to say. I try to imagine him as a child. He’s always had those heavy eyebrows, and his light brown eyes feel familiar. For a moment his eyes swell with an idea. Then his lips purse and he lets out a dramatic sigh.
“Fire sucks, huh dude?” Nate says.
I nod. Duh. Stupid question. But I guess he’s just trying to start a conversation. I wonder how much he knows. Does he want to know? I'm not sure what to tell him.
“How long are you staying for, bud?” he asks, changing the subject, and twirling his bang around his pinky finger. “All summer, or what?”
I shrug. How should I know? I just got here.
“Well,” Nate winks at me, “I know something that’s sure to cheer up your sorry ass. Come on.”
Nate leads me around the house to the front yard. We follow the sidewalk up to the top of Greenfield Street and then go down the hill on the other side. The street ends in a cul-de-sac with larger homes and manicured landscaping. I’m not used to all these beautiful lawns. My neighborhood in Iowa was downtown, all cement, and alleyways.
Nate gestures with his chin towards a light blue house with a shiny black BMW in the driveway. The home is colossal, with two floors, a dormered attic, copper downspouts, and a brick entryway. Big money here. Even the mailbox on the curb looks expensive.
“Shh,” Nate whispers, “Listen.”
A crow caws and a dog barks in the distance. A truck engine barrels down a freeway somewhere nearby. Sweat rolls down my back. I smell hot, dirty water evaporating off the asphalt.
“Hear that?” Nate grins and it’s a genuine smile this time. His eyes sparkle and a wide gap shows between his two front teeth. His thick eyebrows bob up and down. “Oh boy!” he nods, “It’s them.”
I hear them. Of course, I do. It’s an unmistakable sound, and it makes me more nervous than anything in the world.