BY HARRISON KIM
Copyright is held by the author.
“How was Sunday School?” asked Eric’s mother, as her son bicycled up to the front steps.
“It was good.” Nine year old Eric turned and began pedalling towards the back door. His mother stopped him.
“What did you learn?”
Eric looked at the side of the house. “We learned about Jesus, and the disciples, and things like that. Stories and stuff.”
“Did you have to remember any verses?”
“A couple I guess.” Eric shrugged.
His mother sighed. “Do you believe in the Bible?”
“I guess so.” Eric thought a moment. “That must have been a very big boat the animals went on after the flood.”
Mom’s phone rang. Eric could hear the nasally tone of Mrs. Wright, the fat, thinly moustached lady who lived across the road. When she hung up, Mom said sharply to her son, “Mrs. Wright tells me you were out playing with sticks under the bridge all morning.”
“I didn’t see her,” said Eric.
“She said she walked over the bridge a few times and you were down there walking in the water playing with sticks.”
“You said Mrs. Wright was a crazy lady. Maybe she made it up.”
Mom shook her head. “Lying about putting your clothes away or washing the dishes is one thing, but lying about going to Sunday School is quite another. You should be ashamed!”
“I thought about going to learn about Jesus.” Eric said. “I stood outside the church on my bicycle. The sun felt warm.”
“What was so important to play down by the river?”
“I pretended that sticks were boats and raced them in the water.”
“Why did you want to do that instead of Sunday School?”
“I stood outside the church thinking about that for a long time,” Eric said. “I didn’t feel like learning about the ark again.”
“So you knew it was wrong, yet you turned away. Then you lied to me about what you did. That’s very wicked. How can I trust you? Now say you’re sorry.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to get into any more trouble.”
“If you tell the truth, you won’t have problems. People will forgive you. They’ll know you’re honest. You always get caught telling a lie, because you have to make up other lies to explain the first one.” Mom shook her head. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
She made Eric scour the bathroom floor, and scrub out the shower stall. Then he had to stay in his room the rest of the day. The next morning she made him go down to the Pastor’s house and apologize.
“You don’t want to be known as a liar,” the Pastor said, handing Eric a slip of paper. “Now, memorize this Bible passage for next week. It’s about Peter, who denied God thrice.”
About a week later, Eric and his five year old brother Richard walked along the edge of the mountain, by the bulrush pond. “I can show you something,” Eric said to Richard. Eric took out a lighter he’d picked out of Mrs. Wright’s garbage can, and held it under the bark of a birch tree. The bark burst into flames. Eric quickly put the flames out by rubbing dirt into the sparking wood.
“See, I can put the fire out really fast,” he said. “Just like a fireman.” He lit the bark again. “This lighter still works good.”
Richard grabbed some dirt and rubbed it where the tiny flame rose.
“We are good firefighters,” he said.
“Don’t tell anyone we did this,” said Eric. “Do you promise?”
“Okay,” said Richard. “How come we can’t tell anybody?”
“Firemen aren’t supposed to light things.”
The two brothers lit the birch bark a couple more times and rubbed out the flames. Then they walked back to the house, and played in the front garden, until they saw Mrs. Wright jogging up the driveway as fast as she could. She banged on the front door. Eric’s Mom answered immediately. “Call emergency!” yelled Mrs. Wright. “There’s smoke coming from over by the mountain!”
Eric’s Mom stood on her tiptoes and looked in that direction, Eric turned his head too and indeed a thin grey thread appeared, rising into the still, dry summer air. Then Eric smelled burning wood. “I’m calling 9-11 right now,” said Mom, and in about three minutes sirens wailed in the distance.
“I wonder how that smoke started,” Mrs. Wright looked at Eric. “The bush is so dry now.”
Richard raised his head. “Eric found a lighter down by the bulrush pond,” he said.
“Sshhh,” warned his brother.
“What are you talking about, Richard?” said Mom. “What have you two done?”
“I’m not supposed to tell,” Richard said.
Eric looked at his Mom and Mrs. Wright. “If I tell the truth, I won’t get into trouble?” he said.
“Yes, a boy should always tell the truth.” Mrs. Wright looked at Eric from behind her green tinted sunglasses. “That’s right. You can never get into trouble for telling the truth.”
Eric began to talk. “I found a lighter and we set some birch bark on fire. But we always put it out!”
“Omigod,” Mom yelled. “How could you do such a stupid thing? Don’t you know the hazard is extreme right now?”
The smoke rose stronger in the near distance, spreading out at its top in a mushroom shape.
“We’ll have to go to the police,” said Mrs. Wright. “These boys are arsonists.”
“But the smoke isn’t coming from the bulrush pond,” Eric said. “It’s coming from under the cliffs. We didn’t light any birch bark there, did we Richard?”
“Maybe you went under the cliffs later,” said Richard.
“No, I didn’t,” Eric yelled.
“Stop that!” Mom had her binoculars out. She watched the fire trucks over by the towering red bluffs. “I don’t believe anything you say!”
“It’s the truth!” said Eric. “I didn’t light any birchbark under the cliffs.”
“Get to your room. We’ll deal with you later!”
“I’m going to phone the police,” said Mrs. Wright. “You should be watching your sons better, Mrs. Latoria.”
The firemen doused the fire for a few hours. They kept an observer on the scene to watch for any flare ups. Luckily, the flames only spread along the ground, and didn’t burn up into the trees.
Mrs. Wright called the fire department and told them the whole story of Eric lighting the birch bark. A few hours later, Mom opened the door to find the fire chief and a policewoman standing there with notebooks. “We want to talk to your son.”
Mom hesitated. Then she said “he’s just upstairs.”
They went to Eric’s room, where he hid with his head under the covers.
“Come on out, you pyromaniac!” Mom yelled. “Look at the trouble you’ve caused us.”
Eric showed his face. The fire chief pulled back the rest of the blankets. “You can’t hide forever. You’ve got to tell us the whole story.”
“I didn’t light any fires under the cliffs,” Eric began, staring at the man’s huge brown face and large chin bristles.
“Shut up and tell the truth!” said Mom. “I’m sick of your lies!”
“OK,” said the policewoman. “Everyone calm down. What exactly did you do, Eric?”
Eric sobbed and told about the birchbark and the lighter by the bulrush pond.
“He’s not telling everything,” said the fire chief. “That blaze didn’t light itself.”
The policewoman sat on the bed beside Eric and smiled. “Tell us the complete story, Eric. There’s no shame in telling the truth. We all make mistakes.”
Eric thought hard. He couldn’t remember being under the cliffs.
But the policewoman seemed to think so.
“Maybe I walked by,” Eric finally whispered.
“There’s no maybe about it,” Mom started to cry. “How could you do this to us?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Eric said. He began to cry too. “I was down by the bulrushes really I was.”
“OK, this is serious business.” The fire chief made a few notes. “You’re going to have to come down to the fire hall and tell how that bush got on fire.”
“I hope it’s not part of a pattern,” the policewoman said. “Once boys start on this path it’s hard to get them off it.”
“I feel so ashamed,” Eric’s Mom sobbed. “I never knew he was this out of control.”
“Houses could have burned down,” said the Chief. Now, tell us Eric. And be completely sure. Where did you light the fire?”
Eric thought and thought. Finally he said. “I think it was under the cliffs.”
“Good,” said the fire chief. “That’s a good boy for telling the truth.
Mrs. Latoria, let’s all go down to the station.”
At the detachment headquarters, Eric told the fire chief he’d deliberately tried to light the forest on fire “to see how high I could make the flames.”
He also said that he threw a can of lighter fluid onto the blaze. “That really made it big,” he continued.
The more he talked, the more things he had to cover. He tried to reveal all, to avoid problems, but more possible details kept cropping up. “I threw some sticks on the fire, too,” he said. “To see how they’d burn.”
The Fire Chief kept making his notes.
“You see how I’m telling you truthfully?” Eric finally mentioned.
“We haven’t found a lighter fluid can.” the chief said. “What did you do with it?”
“I threw it in the river,” Eric said, after a long pause.
“Where in the river?” asked the Chief.
“Somewhere by the swimming hole.”
“Wouldn’t that can be too hot to carry?” the Chief asked.
“I used gloves,” said Eric.
Later, back at his Mom’s house, Richard asked his brother “Did we really light a fire under the cliff?”
“They wanted the truth, so that’s what I told them,” Eric whispered. “Why did you have to spill the beans, you tattle tale?”
All Eric believed clearly now were the images he had of Mrs. Wright walking back and forth over the bridge, looking down at him after he skipped out from church. He tried to picture himself as Mrs. Wright did, playing in the river, pretending that floating sticks were small boats racing to the sea. They weren’t, of course. Just like Jesus wasn’t the son of God. Eric still couldn’t remember where he threw the lighter fluid can, but he knew he’d make up a location soon, as clearly as he imagined those tiny sticks becoming boats, and the way all the religious people imagined the animals went into the ark two by two.