(This is a repost of a page I wrote for HH2B, which is being transitioned to a comic-only site).
When I was a kid, we lived all over the place. From birth to the day I got married (at age 22), I lived in two or three houses in Virginia; two houses in Kennewick, Washington; a house in Keshena, Wisconsin; another place in Green Bay, Wisconsin; and a third place in Shawano, Wisconsin; Boise, Idaho (we lived in Boise for 3 months), then to Fresno, California and San Joaquin Valley, with four houses in Fresno, a house in Clovis, and a house in Orange Cove. I moved out of my parents’ house and lived briefly in Eagle Rock, CA, Sunland, CA, another house in Sunland, and Las Vegas (also briefly). So that’s what? Eighteen to twenty homes in a 20-22-year period. Not too shabby. Sometimes, when I moved to a new school district, I’d tell folks it was because my father was a fugitive from the law, and we were in the witness protection plan, but not as very important witnesses, because we got to keep our names.
I told my family that I appreciated them moving around a lot, because I believed I was a fugitive of a war-like race from deep in space, and I had only my faithful protector to keep me safe of this planet while I slummed in exile in a fragile human body designed to throw my assassins off the trail (yes… when I was 5 years old, I fully believed I was living a life nearly identical to what the book I Am Number Four ended up being like. How weird, right?) But the secret truth that I knew was the real reason we moved had to be with me. I was wrong in ways that couldn’t be explained by being an alien refugee. I was distorted in ways people don’t normally distort without becoming serial killers or talk show hosts.
When I was five years old, I burned down my best friend’s house.
I expected to end up like this. I think a lot of other people expected this too.
Let me explain. No, that would take too long. Let me sum up.
We lived in a two story home in Kennewick. At least, I think it was two story. Either that, or I lived in a finished attic. It’s possible. I was five, and my memory’s pretty fuzzy. I know that I was upstairs, though, and my room had a serious draft in it that would cause a rush of wind to fly into the house whenever you opened the window.
It was cool. Like, seriously cool. Total dead air, out there in the deserts of eastern Washington, with nothing for miles in any direction except ominous Mt. Ranier glowering down at us mortals moving across the world like ants. But when I opened my window, WOOSH! Air would suck into the house like it was pushed in a blacksmith’s bellows. I had never seen anything more awesome.
Except fire. Dang I liked fire. My parents smoked. Their friends smoked. It was the early 70s: EVERYONE smoked. To smoke, you had to make fire. So through the course of however many 3 packs of cigarettes is (Does anyone still smoke? How many smokes in a pack?) my parents would show me something mind blowing every time they lit up. Fire. Fire! My dad could tear off a little piece of paper with a funny head from a small square of similar papers, smack that paper — a match, they called it — and FAROOM! Fire! You could use that match to light anything. The hibatchi, the fire place, a camp fire, even that cigarette dangling from his lips.
My best friend was Pat Owens. I don’t think he went to Fruitland Elementary with me, but he might have. I remember my best friend at Fruitland being the ignobly named Frank Baloney. No, I think Pat Owens was my best friend because my parents and his were best friends. They did Amway together, or some such. They were all going to be rich. Pat was diabetic. His dad was gruff. Pat never had fun at his house. But we had great fun at mine. Remind me to tell you about the time I left a poop-filled pair of underwear in the framework of a new house being built with Pat once. If you live in Kennewick, near Fruitland Elementary, and your house smells funny in the summertime, I’m sorry about that.
One day I told Pat he had to see something so awesome, he wouldn’t be able to believe it. I had found a pack of my dad’s matches. I had figured out how to light them. I had discovered that my window could create a blast of wind so strong, it would blow out the match I had just lit. Pat and I climbed the stairs to my room, and I showed him, like a master magician. With all the showmanship a five-year-old can muster, I lit the match, let it burn just a second, then threw the window open and FROOSH! It went out.
Pat wanted to try. He had trouble lighting the match — noob! — but once he had it lit, I threw open the window again, and out the match went, unable to withstand the sudden onrush of air. We went through that whole pack of matches before the day was over, but by the end of it, we were old hands at lighting them. We were possessors of forbidden knowledge, wielders of the secret fire of Udun. We were Prometheus.
A few weeks later, my mom told me that Pat’s house had burned to the ground. He had been playing with matches. He’d tried to light the match, open the window and… his house didn’t have the same draft. No rush of wind came to blow out the match, and when the flame reached his fingers, he panicked and lost it in the carpet. It smouldered, and eventually the carpet caught fire. By the time the fire department came, it was too late. Pat and his family escaped unharmed, but they lost everything.
My mom asked me if I ever played with matches. I told her the only thing I could tell her. “Of course not!” I imagine Pat had already told his parents where he had learned to play with matches. I imagine he had broken under the indescribable power of having your home destroyed in front of your face. I don’t remember ever seeing Pat again. We moved to a new location — this might have even been when we moved clear from Washington to Shawano, Wisconsin. No one ever said why we moved. Maybe it was for a better job, like Dad said. I think it was because I had destroyed my friend’s house, destroyed his entire family’s life. Maybe it wasn’t my dad who was a fugitive from the law. Maybe it was me.
If you’re reading this, and you know Pat Owens, please tell him I’m sorry. I have done so very many things in my life that I am ashamed of that if I’m ever going absolve myself into a position where I feel like I can die without regret, I need to start making amends today. I’m sorry I burned your house down, Pat. I hope that day hasn’t haunted you as often as it has haunted me.
And kids? Don’t play with matches. I mean, seriously. Adults tell you this stuff not because they don’t want you to have fun. They say it because sometimes they’ve seen shit you would not believe — and they’d like to spare you from having to ever see that shit yourself.