It’s that moment of the fire’s spreading, the sheer speed of it that I remember most clearly, watching from the crest of a hill that stretched up from the drive where the fire struck, and I was able to do nothing. It moved so eerily along a straight line, not just along the ground but forming a plane upward, a sheet of it raging through the air, dwarfing the boys in its path as they leaned over the engine of a battered mustang, the car resting on the dirt gravel drive of an old country farmhouse, the sheet of fire rushing toward them in its perfectly straight path like some divine judgment on their having stolen those sheets from the clothesline of a neighbor to rip up and use as rags for cleaning the engine, an old wreck that someone had given them to fix up, if they could. The boys were cleaning blackened grease baked onto the car’s ancient engine, dipping the rags first into a can of gasoline they’d found somewhere on this abandoned farm, its fields sprouting masses of golden-flowered dandelions, the grass of its yard grown knee-deep and seeded at the tips, the yard sloping up the knob of earth to the place where I sat, watching. I wasn’t there for a reason, just nothing to do on a hot summer day but tag along with these boys I knew, sit outside in the scorching heat of a place different from my own oppressive back yard, reading a book or, tiring of that as I had, just watching the boys as they scrubbed down the engine, watching as from time to time they carried handfuls of the blackened rags across the field below to add them to an already smoldering pile.

The fire moved in the manner of its following a long fuse toward a detonator like I’d seen on TV, but faster, taller, the wall of it beginning at the edge of the field where the boys had lit the used rags on fire so that they wouldn’t be caught for having stolen the sheets they’d torn up. It wasn’t like an explosion altogether but an event that happened within a moment, slowed down just enough to see where it began and ended, from the burning rags, across the otherwise verdant open field, toward the car where the boys worked, their heads lowered over the engine beneath the rusted upraised hood. It was a wall of orange flame slicing through the air in its perfect plane toward the car, and there was a sound it made, a low whooshing, like a quick exhalation, as though it were the voice of something trying to speak.

I screamed when I saw it happening, but the scream, too, must have taken time to reach them, some portion of a second from where I was. I saw them jerk backward away from the engine, which must not have been from the scream but from the force of the fire erupting before them. That explosion must have made a sound, something loud and horrible, but I can’t remember, can see only the boys’ heads flaming, hear them screaming as they ran, flinging their arms and their hands at the torches of their heads to beat out the flames, but of course their limbs were coated in gasoline atop the thick greasy sludge of the car’s engine and they too ignited, and then the boys dove into the grass, rolling.

By the time I could run to them, they’d extinguished their own flames, and the three of them lay on the ground, forming pockets in the overgrown grass, two of them moaning, the other silent. Squatting beside the motionless one, I placed my palms down onto sheaves of the tall grass, leaning forward as I shook all over, listening for the sound of his breathing, which was hard to hear over the sound of my own heart, huge and violent inside me, pounding as though it were trying to get out of me.

I remember the smell of seared flesh and hair, running for help and then returning, sitting amid their bodies in the grass, hugging my arms around my knees and talking to them without knowing if they could hear me.

I shivered within my sweat-dampened clothing despite the waning heat of the afternoon. Watching the final weak flames lapping at the blackened carcass of the old car, looking back and forth from the car to the place where the boys had lit the rags on fire, the grass barely singed in the space between them, I pictured again that sheet of flames surging through the air, thinking how much more formidable it must have seemed from below.

But the worst part of all is in the way I remember those boys from the fire. In the end they recovered quickly—the scarring minimal and their hair grown back by the next time I saw them—and when we spoke, it seemed that the boys had nearly forgotten the event. It was only me who didn’t, me who still remembers the way I found them, blackened and sounding barely alive, me remembering the fire with horror and fascination.

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Editor's Note


SNR's Writers


Suzanne Juergensen received her B.A. Degree from San Francisco State University in 1995 and an M.F.A. from the University of Washington in
2005. Her work has appeared in The Henfield Prize Stories, Redbook and  Room of One's Own. She's currently completing a collection of short
fiction and working on a novel. She lives in Seattle.

Copyright 2005, Suzanne Juergensen. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.