BY DAVID WATTS
This story was previously published in the author’s chapbook, Butter and Eggs. Copyright is held by the author.
WORD WAS folks as far away as the city could see the glow. All that dried barn wood, all that hay.
What had stood for more than a century was gone in a flash.
Ashley, just turned five, picked up the matches sitting next to her father’s cigarettes. Her brother, nine-year-old Cole, watched as she slipped them into her pocket. She had no idea what she would do with them, but that didn’t matter. They didn’t stay there long.
“Gimme those.” Cole held her with a demanding stare. She knew he shouldn’t play with matches but she passed them over without a word, then forgot about them and went for a walk around the house with the cat. If he got in trouble, that was his fault. With treasure in hand, Cole ran out to join his friends, Eddie and Tom, in the early summer evening.
“Hey guys. Look what I’ve got,” Cole said. “Let’s go burn some grass.”
“We shouldn’t do that,” Eddie said. “My mother told me if you play near a grass fire, you’ll pee the bed.”
“Time for you to grow up and hang out with the big boys,” Cole scolded Eddie. “C’mon.”
Tom was a kid always thinking one step ahead of the pack. He ran home and brought back a broom, just in case, and caught up with the boys as they reached the dry-as-tinder grassy plain that ran behind their houses at the edge of town all the way to the farm where a huge hay barn stood as a monument to history.
The allure of playing in the field was too strong to keep them away. Once during the spring it was in that pasture Cole got in trouble for chasing the farmer’s cows and ruining their milk. It was a scary sight to see the police car pull into the driveway and the constable speaking with his father.
The daytime breeze had carried into the evening as his friends gathered around him. Cole tore a match from the sleeve and scratched it against the igniting strip. Its blaze mesmerized him. He held on too long, and its heat made him drop it into the dried grass. Flames shot straight up. Soon the neighbouring tufts were ablaze.
“Good thing you brought that broom,” Cole told Tom. “We can use that to control the fire if we need to.”
“Like now you mean.” Eddie took hold of the broom and slammed the ground to extinguish a hot spot. The fire stopped in its tracks but took hold of the straw. He waved the broom over his head, a torch glowing trails of sparks in the dusk.
“Good fire, eh guys?” Cole said, but he was beginning to get a little scared that things were getting out of control. “I should go get a broom too,” he said and ran towards his father’s tool shed. Wailing of sirens filled the air as he reached the lawn. A fire truck drove down Tom’s driveway and straight across their backyard to the field beyond.
One lone pumper can do little against a force of nature like a grass fire that has taken hold of a hay barn. Once captured, the barn was doomed. A huge crowd had gathered at the edge of the field, saying little, murmuring about the loss. The boys stood transfixed by the overwhelming blaze, forgetting about the black soot at their feet.
“You boys better go back inside right now.” Cole’s mother had run from the house and began shouting at the clutch of kids. Tom and Eddie needed no further warning and hightailed it for home. “And you come with me.” She tugged Cole by his arm away from the burning field all the way to their back door.
In her pyjamas, Ashley sat on the top step and grinned at him as his mother marched him up the stairs.
“What are you staring at?” he grumbled at his sister. She stuck out her tongue at him and ran to her bedroom.
“You get undressed for your bath now,” his mother told him, and peppered him with questions.
“How did it start?”
“I don’t know. It was going when I got there.”
“I hope I don’t pee the bed.”