The boy lay in the hospital for nearly a month. The beginning of his stay a daze and then a realization. Nurses replaced his gauze from red to pink to white and scars set across his neck and face like mongrel hieroglyphics. Pieces of flesh relocated and curdled in rejection. He watched their pupils dilate at the sight of him, broadcasting his condition. He had been the only one burned. The other boys far enough away to miss the flames after they emptied nearly five gallons of gasoline upon the vehicle. They had found the green F-Series parked in a small clearing by the road. It sat there abandoned and camouflaged amongst the spruce and brush. The next day the troupe of young incendiaries rode back upon it. They circled it, crying out for it to burn. Holding metal cans high and upturned, flooding it with hell-water like some senseless protest. Vigor born in boredom and laughter echoing against the trees. But he was the one who got up close. He set a match to it.
An IV was fastened above his head and it dripped a poison-dew into his veins. The glass bottle upturned upon a metal stand, sweating. He lay, numb from the drugs, wondering where everyone had gone when the sirens crept into his ears. The boy remembered lying prostrate upon the dirt, his lungs heavy like someone had stood on his chest. Would they have put his bicycle in the ambulance or did they just leave it in the woods? He tried to lean forward to look around for someone but couldn’t and he fell back asleep. There he dreamt of riding the bike down the back roads. The spruce as tar covered spears quilling from the earth, straining to stand. He pedaled for miles on dirt and rock, back to where he and the other boys had brought metal gas cans and a matchbook. He smelled old smoke from the flames that had once clung to the trees, the ashen wretches amidst brittle grass that had sprung fire upon them like a pestilence. Among them he couldn’t find the other boys and he saw nothing but the frame of the truck in a slow smolder. The flames had taken him in a hiss and pop, giving no time to scream. He stared at the truck and tried to remember what happened but couldn’t. The spruce began to lean forward, as if ready to fall, and smoke rose from the tree line and consumed him and the bicycle; he tried not to swallow but the smoke filled his chest and even his bones, scratching and clawing at his lungs until he woke to see the glass bottle that set above him.
As the doctor explained his injuries, the boy nodded and drifted into his mind. He thought about how it didn’t explode like in a movie. How it didn’t even really explode. The fire had spread in an instant, biting into the tires. Flames and devil’s spit spraying upon him as they burst. It felt like when he’d dripped hot solder on his foot but this time it burned everywhere. A heat tried to bore straight through him and then he woke upon the ground. The doctor was talking about salves and the boy interrupted him,
“Did they find my bike?”
“Did anybody find my bicycle.”
“I don’t know.”
Eventually, the other boys visited him. One at a time. Nudged in by parents. They scratched their heads and dug into their pockets aimlessly, not knowing what to say,
“It just blew up as soon as you lit it.”
“Does it hurt?”
“I got on my bike to try and find somebody.”
“My dad said we could’ve burned down two hundred acres.”
“We didn’t know what to do.”
Later, another doctor said,
“It looks as though he’ll only be able to use the left eye.” His father nodded and the doctor shook his head. They advised him to avoid the sun and to stay indoors as he healed. A nurse asked if he liked to read books and he said,
“I like comics.”
“Well, you stay inside and read them.”
He healed within reason and they wheeled him out of the hospital, the dark of early morning and taut bandages keeping him hidden. As they drove home his mother and father told him they had bought him a present. That he could see it when he got home. They sat before him, watching him pick it up and study it in his hands. He recognized the model immediately, the transistor radio he’d asked for. The boy turned the dials and pulled the antenna up and down.
“You bought it at Mr. Spivey’s Shop?”
“Last week. When the doctor told us you’d be ready to come home. Mr. Spivey set us up for a payment plan.”
He took it to his room and plugged it in and extended the antenna once again, this time in search of radio waves. The very idea of a radio had seemed beyond all dreams yet now the boy drew pity like a spigot and there it sat before him, humming then scratching then humming. He turned the dials and searched for breaks in the static, some kind of signal. He would listen each day and night for weeks, neglecting his nickel and dime comics as any reading strained his eye and seeped a dull ache deep into his skull. By the end of the first week he had memorized all the programs and stations he cared for and by the end of another he had memorized the ones he didn’t. At night the tubes glowed orange like coals and he stared back at them, wondering how hot they were to the touch. He listened and healed and what would have been bicycle rides and lawns mowed for pocket change became learning to navigate a world with only one eye. Bumping into furniture as if he were sneaking in the darkest pitch of night and his father beginning to yell and then trailing off as he remembered why the boy stumbled.
Months passed and still the boy brushed his teeth in the dark. Groping for brush and paste aimlessly to avoid his reflection. The mirror hung before him, shielded in darkness as he conjured the myriad faces set atop the one he once knew. In the morning his mother would find bulbs of blue and white paste hardened to the sink, mounds born in his dark fumbling. She would chip them off of the porcelain and drop them into the toilet and flush them. He knew she cleaned after him, yet he still messed about in the dark.
The boy asked about the bike and they told him it was probably burned,
“How do you know?”
“You know how fast it spread.”
“But you said they put it out fast too.”
“If it was anywhere near that truck then it’s been burned up.”
He nodded and went to his room and turned on the radio and set on the floor. Some radio man quipped about the upcoming school year and the boy remembered it to be August. The other boys would be in eighth grade soon; he imagined them playing basketball and attending dances. The boy wondered if he knew how to dance and then turned the dial until he found a waltz that rasped through the speaker. In his reverie the school gymnasium was laced in blue and yellow banners, boys and girls gliding across the floor. Most of them unsure of their couplings yet still in close embrace. He turned the dial until the music faded away into a static and then he lay onto his bed and listened. He was in trance until he heard them through the walls and then he rose to quiet the radio,
“He can’t go to school looking like that.”
“He should start work with me. He should learn a trade.”
He closed his door and turned on the radio and scanned through the stations, listening to each one for a moment then moving on.
That night the toothbrush dangled from his mouth and he stood before the sink, fingering the light switch softly, hesitating. When he finally lifted it the mirror became illuminate like some huge flash bulb and his mother found him staring at himself, stoic as some fawn upon a still pond, confronted with its own visage for the first time. She turned off the light and shepherded him into his bedroom.
“Don’t stand there and look at yourself like that.”
In dream he stood before the ashen remains of the trees and the Ford, everything looking hot to the touch as if heat grew in the rings of the spruce and birch. He pressed his hand onto one of the felled spruce and it stained his palm black so he rubbed it onto to his pant. Before him lay the frame of the truck, murdered and melded with the earth. He studied it until something shone in his eye. It was his bicycle leaning against its kick like some red and aluminum mirage: his Western Flyer. He ran to it and the soft angles of the crimson frame gleamed and revealed themselves unscathed and unsullied; he wondered how it could have been so close yet unburned and he stood before it and gripped the handles. The boy smiled then looked back at the mess of the truck. The windows once ashen and shattered had become rectified and crystalline and they held his reflection in frame with the blackened trees. He looked upon himself and froze. The boy swung his bike by its white handle grips, each swing shattering a window and spraying glass about him in a great mist. He closed his eyes until he woke and opened them again.
He lay awake, far from sleep. Across the room he would turn the dial and wait for the tubes to glow, the box humming low and steady and heat building in the glass until it shone bright. Auburn lanterns had trapped thin filaments inside them and the fibers curled to form swirling bridges. He sat and studied them and wondered how long they could burn and if he would go to school in the fall.
Forest Wilson is a writer and musician from Anchorage, Alaska. His work has been published in Understory, the University of Alaska Anchorage undergraduate literary journal; in 2014 he was awarded their Literary Award. Forest has also been published in the Stoneboat Literary Journal.