When she remembers visiting Dad in his high-rise building each holidays, she thinks about how walking down Adelaide Terrace felt like walking through a canyon; how she was small anyway, but felt ... [+]
Growing up, we'd played lots of games in the hot, mosquito-infested summers. Sometimes with the neighborhood kids, sometimes by ourselves. By ourselves, we could stay entertained for hours, just doing the simple things like catching frogs or fireflies or working on a constantly decrepit fort in the woods. With the neighborhood kids, our favorite game was consistently Wildfire. It wasn't a game that our parents had grown up with; rather, it was our own somewhat morbid creation after the days of quiet and mourning following an extensive wildfire several towns over. It was a simple game, only requiring someone's parents being willing to let us use the backyard hose in order for the game to start. Half of the participants were the fire, half were the civilians, with one person pulled aside from either team at random to be the firefighter. "Wildfire, wildfire!" the firefighter would cry, and the game would begin. The backyard would explode into a flurry of running, screaming, slapping children. The game was fairly simple. The "fire" tried to tag out the civilians; if they were touched, they burned up and they had to sit and watch. If the firefighter tagged the fire, that person was put out and had to sit out, too. It was a fun game, but all our parents wished we would at least change the name to something else.
It was the middle of August when Jack's house caught on fire. By the time any of us had noticed the smell in the air, sirens were already approaching. His family lived at the very beginning of the street, on the opposite side from our house. Thick billows of smoke filled the air, and Dad went around the house closing the windows as it started to waft in. We weren't allowed to leave the house to look, so I went upstairs and lifted my already world-weary guinea pig to the window to stare out with me, straining to see as if it would change something. Bugsy waved his paws and squealed shrilly, like he knew how terrible the smoke filling the air was. There were whispers from downstairs, but most of what I could catch was Jack's name. "Stop it," I could hear my mom say by pressing my ear to the floorboards. "We don't know anything." My dad had been right. It was Jack's fault, but it didn't mean he should have said it.
Jack didn't come to school for a couple of days after the fire. Everyone was okay, but the house wasn't. Ashy black streaks smeared most of the exterior, and some parts were gone altogether. "It's not too bad," my Dad had said. "They'll be able to rebuild it."
Those parts stayed covered with tarps until early October. After that, the house looked patchwork. Jack's parents didn't sit out on the front porch after dinner anymore.
Then the teasing started. Wildfire, wildfire, kids whispered in the hallways when Jack walked past. If they said it too loud, the teachers would step in, but Jack never ratted anyone out for it. Mostly, he just put his head down and took it.
Outside of school, it was worse. With no teachers to step in, there was no one to stop the taunts. It started to happen on the walk home from school. "Wildfire, wildfire," they'd shout in his face. The kids I walked home with would stop in front of his house and say it—as long as Jack's parents weren't outside. If they were, we all just kept walking, nobody even sparing a wave.
At first, I was quiet. I didn't tell anyone to stop, but I didn't join in, either. It was a muggy Friday when I finally started to chant along with the others. Wildfire, wildfire. Their words died off almost right away, but I didn't realize why until I'd already spoken them.
I looked up and saw Jack standing on the porch, partially obscured by one of the overgrown bushes in front of the house. My eyes locked with his and I stood there, mouth agape, before I took off running toward my own house. I didn't look back. After that day, I took the long way home, cutting through the trees behind my neighbor's house. Jack didn't make eye contact with me in the hallways anymore.
I bumped into his dad at the grocery store once. "Sal," he said warmly, like nothing was any different. "Why don't you come over for dinner again sometime?" I nodded my head yes, but I ducked out of his gaze as fast as I could.
Jack and I didn't say much of anything to each other, just a nod as I set my soda and bag of chips on the counter. I stared to the side, like the lottery tickets were just that interesting. "Is that everything?" he said after a pause. "Yeah, that's it. Thanks," I said, studying the chipped edge of the counter. "Five-oh-seven," Jack said, bagging my stuff as I rifled in my pockets. I was forced to make eye contact with him again when I took the change from his hand. "It's good to see you, Sal," he said, something genuine and hopeful in his eyes. "You should come over sometime." I nodded, swallowing hard and mumbling about how I definitely would, how happy I was that he was doing well.
I didn't come over, but we're Facebook friends now.