“A Candle in a Forest Fire”
Anthony woke due to the sunlight pushing into his room. Without lifting his head, he glanced partly around. He saw a note taped to the doorknob. He had a good idea what it was about. It was where his dad always left a note. He fell back asleep because that is what 13 year old boys do on Saturday mornings.
He woke again a few hours later. He wanted to stay in bed, but his stomach and bladder demanded otherwise, each with opposite needs. He stumbled out of bed with less grace than a calf at sea. Yet in one motion he opened the door and grabbed the note with the same hand. Yawning, staggering, he took the folded note with him down the short hall to the bathroom. He could hear his Granma breathing from her bedroom, and he wondered if she was awake or asleep. Lately her loud rattled breathing sounded the same day or night. He read the note with one hand as he answered nature’s first call.
I didn’t want to wake you. my team has been called. Another forest fire. northern Alabama. over 6 hours away so will spend nights there. I know what today is, very sorry I can’t be there. I love you, son.
He carried the note to the kitchen. He glanced at the wall calendar. It was September 26th. On this day three years before his mom died. He looked at the thermometer next to it. Inside it was 82; outside it was 105. Anthony was glad to see the temperatures were finally starting to come down. It would mean he could start running again, and perhaps the rolling blackouts would end soon. He looked back at his dad’s note. He smiled at how his dad originally started the note with “Tony”, but squeezed in three more letters. Anthony’s dad stumbled on the name change frequently, but he appreciated his dad’s effort.
Anthony was called “Tony” before his mom died. After, in the deep quiet of the night, he thought he could hear her calling for him. The memory of her voice saying his name remained painfully vivid. He thought the pain of the grief would diminish over time, but instead the grief rode upon slow but powerful waves. At times he felt normal, though with guilt for feeling so. When it dominated his consciousness, he could hardly breathe. At the New Year’s following her passing, he asked everyone around him to call him Anthony. No one questioned it. He hoped it would help him cope. Yet another wave crashed upon him the next day,... and later on again, and on through the Spring... and Summer.
He looked about the messy but not dirty kitchen as he repeatedly dug his hand into the cereal box. He suddenly felt very vulnerable standing there in just his white briefs and barefeet. Granma was calling for him. “Anthony!”, though it sounded closer to Ant-knee, “Da pharmacy said my ‘scription is ready now. Can you get ‘em, dear?”
“Sure, Granma. Anything else we need?”
“Nope, jus dat. Yer a sweet boy. R’member, be ex’ra nice to folks out dere. Dis heat makes people crazy angry…. or jus plain crazy.”
“I know, Granma.”
Anthony grabbed the first t-shirt and shorts he could find, stepped into his flip-flops at the door, and dove into the furnace that maps labelled as Woodruff, South Carolina. The heat and humidity were paralyzing and life-force draining. It reminded him of a friend’s description of a Black Widow spider bite. When he stepped off the porch into the sunlight, he thought how pasty white boys like him shouldn’t be in this, but then he remembered when he said the same to his girlfriend. She lightly admonished him and said “Hey, I get sunburned just as bad as you do.”
He was glad the drugstore was only a ten minute walk away. His Granma was always giving him that advice, be nice to everyone. It was almost wasted on him. He was known as the kindest boy in town. However, her advice was a warning in disguise. The heat induced anger among these polite southern people. It peaked in the Spring, when the temperatures are dog-days-hot. The summers were slightly better as no one has the energy to fight and argue with the increased heat. It even brought folks together the way a common foe always does. Though not often enough, because it was during the peak of the heat when he found that hateful note stuffed in his school locker.
He plodded back home, irritated and drenched in sweat. He could not wait for winter so he could go running again. He did not mind being sweaty when he felt he worked for it. The sky was cloudless with a dingy haze. All the yards were a mosaic of browns and greyish-greens. Those greens were the weeds. He thought it was funny how folks hated them, but those things were the ones that survived the worst times. What did they hate them for, anyway? Everything was covered in dust. A corpse stirred more than the air. Their proud front-yard American flag hung heavy like it was soaked in oil.
Something about his house caught his eye this time. He stopped at the corner of the yard. His house looked the same, but felt different. It looked haunted. He pulled his face in with a hard blink to clear this unsettling feeling. When he saw it again, it still looked haunted. Anthony told himself that his bedroom was in this house, and his books. His dad’s room was in this house, he felt safe in this house, so it couldn’t be haunted. His Granma was in there napping right now. He dug into the past to find a happy memory of his home, to reset his vision of home.
He was little, excited, happy. His mom was sitting on the porch steps, smiling, watching him. She loved him so much, and he knew it. Little Tony was running through a sprinkler in the front yard wearing only his Superman underwear. He looked at the house through his young eyes, but the purity of that happy memory was gone now. The house appeared haunted then too.
Anthony stomped up the steps and into the house. He was angry now, and he felt guilty. His happy memory was now tainted by this new image. He worried that he disappointed the proprietor of his memories, and angry that this monkish curator failed to protect the archives from today’s evils.
“My sweet boy. Wha’s da matter?”
“I know ya miss yer mom. I miss her too. She were like a daughter to me.”
“I know, Granma, I know.”
Between each syllable her voice rattled with phlegm. It bothered Anthony that she never cleared her throat. He would clear his own throat as encouragement, often subconsciously.
“Ya know yer Dad will be ok, and will be back soon.”
“I know, Granma.”
“Yer jus like him. I can tell, sumpin botherin ya, but ya ain’t gonna talk ‘bout it, huh?”
Anthony had no desire to describe how he now sees the outside of the house as a haunted house. Would it be haunted by his mom? He worried that he could not decide if this made him happy or terrified. Besides, he would not have been able to even put together the sentences to give his feelings substance.
“Come o’er cheer and sit by my fan. Tell Granma yer troubles.”
Anthony dragged a footstool closer to her bed and right in the stream of a humming box fan. He gazed into the fan and soaked up its cool blessings. It steadily teetered back and forth. The spinning blades were ever so slightly out of balance. A wave of melancholy passed over her. This moment reminded her of when she was young and her family would sit together by the warm glow of a fire during the winter. She was sad for Anthony, for he has always known fire and heat as an enemy and never as a comforter.
Anthony really did not feel like talking about anything, but he felt such great comfort being around her. She reminded quiet, and he welcomed it. Her thought of fire as an enemy caused a bubble of fear to surface. She thought of her son, Anthony’s father, out battling another forest fire. She unwillingly remembered her repeating nightmare. She watched her son running through a smokey forest, a wall of flame chasing him. He would stumble, but quickly get back up. Only when he looked up again, it was Anthony. Then a gust of hot wind would splash flame all over him. She would reach for him, but could not move. Anthony’s face showed no fear of death, instead just plain confusion. She thought in her dream that poor sweet Anthony was so innocent that the possibility of death never would occur to him, even as it clawed his soul from his body.
Anthony, in seeing her far away stare, broke the silence and said, “I should ask you what’s wrong.”
“Oh nuttin ya need worry ‘bout. I’m jus an old woman heavy with time. So tell me whas botherin you.”
Anthony was not going to even think about his home being haunted much less discuss it openly, but he knew she wasn’t going to acquiesce. He remembered that awful note he found in his locker a few weeks ago, and he did want to tell someone about it.
“Well, see… I found this note in my locker at school recently.”
“I aint got it anymore. I was so mad I burned it.”
Anthony inhaled to say more, but the words didn’t come. She patted his shoulder.
He continued, “It just said that I shouldn’t be seein’ Lakisha.”
“Das what it really said?” she asked.
He timidly replied, “Well, no. It didn’t say ‘Lakisha’ exactly, but black girls in general.”
“Anthony, yer still sugar coatin’ it, arentcha?”
“Yes ma’am….” again he choked on his words.
She grabbed his shoulder this time. She wanted to see his face. When they made eye contact, the gravity of the note hit him. Tears welled up in his eyes, his throat tightened.
“They said the ‘n’ word. And they said… they said they would kill people like me!”
He dropped his head onto the edge of her bed. She wanted to hold him tight as he cried, but rubbed his back instead.
He stuttered, “I just don’t understand it.”
“Oh my sweet boy, I hope ya never do.”
The next morning he woke earlier than normal, but he felt good. He could already tell it was cooler outside. He checked the forecast first thing. The report said today would be unseasonably cool with a high of only 95 and the lows could reach the mid 80’s. He figured he would be able to go running after sundown. He missed running. It always gave him time to clear his mind. The world seemed more ordered and calm while he ran.
He also felt better because he and his Granma agreed that the awful note was probably fueled more by the heat than anything else. Anthony and Lakisha always knew racism was an issue, and so they made sure to suppress any outward displays of their love for each other. Besides, this was not the first message like this he had received.
She was at the kitchen table drinking coffee. He loved the smell but could not stand the taste of it. She spoke first.
“Got a message yer dad’s coming home earlier than ‘spected.”
“Cool.” This made Anthony happier than he showed.
“Yep. Late tonight sometime.”
He had his usual dry cereal for breakfast. Though with Granma in the room, he made sure to use a bowl. They sat in quiet contentment for a while.
“Do you think it will get better?” he asked.
“Racism. The hate.”
“Oh my sweet boy, don’t you be worrin ‘bout dat now.”
“Nah, Granma. I’m fine, honest. Just wondering what ya think is all.” He really did have a lift in his spirit, it showed in his voice as much as it did on his face.
“Well… yeah, I like to think so.” She paused. “I was about yer age now when we had our first black president.” She took another sip. “We thought how great it was, that we’d really come along way.” She cleared her throat, and her shoulders dropped. “But the racists only got louder. They were clearly not in power, but they weren’t gone.” She added, “They wanted to make sure they were heard.”
Anthony nodded. “I think it will get better.”
She smiled in reply, and hoped he could not tell it was forced.
Anthony eagerly tied his running shoes and slammed down a glass of water. “Granma, I’m gonna take my usual route. I’m only gonna run for 45.” She was asleep and never heard him. He did not want to wake her either. He quietly shut the front door.
He inhaled deep and started out at an easy pace. He glanced back at the house. This caused him to take a slight sideways stagger. He remembered his coach always telling him to keep his eyes up and in front. A few paces later it occurred to him that his house looked normal again. He fought the urge to burst into a sprint; a struggle between another coach advice and his giddiness. The weather was cooling off, his dad was coming home tonight, and he spent the day chatting with Lakisha.
The work that is running eventually tempered his enthusiasm. He settled into a groove which every distance runner seeks. He let his mind wander into a million directions. A truck’s headlights broke his meditative state. He slightly turned his head to glance back as it passed, but did not complete the action. He wanted to focus on moving forward.
Huffing and puffing but still feeling good, he reached the favorite part of his route, a slight downhill towards home. Just enough decline to feel gravity’s benefit, but not steep enough to upset his stride. He passed a parked truck on the side of the road. It looked ancient and was covered in stickers, they appeared to be flags and emblems. He thought this might be the same truck as before, but he thought that he should not have been able to determine that. He remembered that he kept himself from glancing back before. Perhaps he has seen it elsewhere. He loved how he could think about his own thinking during his runs. This always fascinated him.
Anthony collapsed smashing his face into the ground, arms limp at his sides. He never felt the bullet pass through his head. The gunshot’s echo outlived him. A pool of blood expanded from his head. It moved downhill, towards home, and at the same speed of his run, but only for a brief time.