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Playing with Fire

A Short Story

Hush, hush,” she whispered to her sleeping brother. Wyatt, who was normally a peaceful sleeper, tossed and turned, his sandy blonde hair unkempt and just about covering his furrowed brow. Normally she’d pull him close in the small bed they shared and cocoon him in the dirty sheets, but tonight he would have to make do in his car seat. Their father had passed out again, meaning that tomorrow morning would be brutal. His hangovers were always fierce and controllable, usually ending with either her or Wyatt bruised and bloody. She needed to keep her young brother safe at all costs, and she couldn’t do that with an uncontrollable parent figure.

As she leaned against the car door watching him, Wyatt’s unease grew and he began to whimper. She began to rack her brain for ways to calm him. She could give him apple slices which were his favorite snack, but that would mean waking him up. It would be best to keep him asleep for this. Leo! She immediately felt stupid as she remembered Wyatt’s stuffed lion, which in her hurry to leave, had left on their nightstand.

“Be right back, kiddo,” she rustled the sea of curls atop the child’s head before making her way back to the house. Her father was hadn’t moved from the couch. As she stepped into the living room, her right shoe disgustingly squelched into the wet carpet, an all too familiar experience. Instead of beer, this time it was all part of the plan. Oh god, the plan. She leaned against the wall, attempting to steady herself before the inevitable retching she knew would ensue. Normally, she had a tough stomach, but she couldn’t help but to be eaten by her guilt. She had been planning this out for months, but it still took her by surprise how cold her heart had grown. After tossing up her dinner, she wiped her lips clean and stood. On the wall was a

photo of the day Wyatt was born. Her eyes travelled across the way she clutched to Wyatt, afraid to let him go, and landed on her father’s cold eyes as he clamped her shoulder in his sweaty palm. In the picture, everybody was smiling, but it was by no means a happy day.

A small fourteen year old, she was coerced into coming with her father to the midwife’s house. She didn’t even know Brenda, whom her father had gotten pregnant after a drunken request for sex, and now she’d have to take care of her kid. As Wyatt cried in her arms, she touched his pink toes. She remembered thinking how insane it was that the universe, as big as it was, could create something as small and vulnerable as Wyatt’s toes. I thought I told you to abort it, her father hissed to the prostitute. Sensing a fight, she decided to wait for her father at the house. Luckily the house wasn’t far; her father’s driver’s license had been revoked. When he got home that night, he reeked and his appearance was unkempt. She shivered as she remembered the way his clammy lips felt against her ear. I’m sick of all you bastard kids, he whispered. All you bastard kids and your whorey mothers.

She snorted at the memory of that night. Fuck her father and his addiction to prostitutes. And fuck him for blaming her and Wyatt for his own irresponsibilities. In a sudden burst of anger, she reached up and cried out in pain as she smashed the glass picture frame. Her guilt was gone, replaced by rage, and she immediately knew that she had to do this for Wyatt. She needed to save him from this abusive prick who had never even wanted him in the first place. Just running wouldn’t be enough. He would find them, just as he had done time after time before. She grimaced as she tore off a section of her baggy t-shirt to use as a bandage.

Tearing up a bit, she entered her room for what would be the last time. Her eyes travelled across the empty walls, the dirty carpet, the plain beige bedspread. She wouldn’t miss this place. Grabbing Leo, she slammed the door shut behind her as she left. As she passed the living room again, she avoided looking at her father, unconscious on the couch. All at once, she was hit with a montage of memories. Her father sharing cotton candy with her at her third grade school carnival. Him braiding her hair after she threw a tantrum about it getting in her eyes. She shook the memories out of her mind. She needed to do this and couldn’t let guilt get to her. Wyatt needed her.

He was still tossing and turning when she returned, but his angst was quickly released with Leo in his arms. She never understood the appeal of the stuffed felt lion. She had sewn it in her freshman home ec class. Leo, as soft as he was, looked more zombie than lion. She had forgotten to give him eyes, so there were two Sharpie-ed in circles on his scraggly face, not to mention that her stitching made him look like Frankenstein’s monster. But for some reason, him and Wyatt were inseparable.

She gazed at Wyatt, willing herself to find the courage to do this. She raked her fingers through his hair, blinking the tears from her eyes before turning back to the house. This is it, she thought. She dug into the inside pocket of her jacket and pulled out a book of matches. Lighting one, she tossed it through the front door into the living room. Luckily, it landed on the carpet that she had previously soaked with gasoline. For good measure, she threw the whole book of matches into the flames. For some reason, she felt nothing. No relief, no guilt, no sadness, no remorse. Why the fuck didn’t she feel anything? She picked up a stone, and threw it at her previous prison. She bent down and picked up another, and then a few more. She sure as hell wouldn’t be free after committing this crime, but at least she’d be freed of the memories. And Leo would be safe with Nana. In a way, watching the house burn was therapeutic. She stumbled to back to her brother. The smell of the smoke was making him stir, meaning that she needed to get him out of there.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I just wanted to protect you.” He’d understand, right? He had to.

And then she drove. For miles she couldn’t get the picture of the burning house out of her mind. But this time, she felt different, as if she could feel the memories associated with the house burning away as well. Pulling to the side of the road, she pulled out her cell phone.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“My name is Rebecca Peters, and I’d like to report a fire on West 8th Street.”

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