As soon as Phillip lit the match, igniting the flame, I could have sworn I was in a dream. I could hear the match slide, almost in slow motion, because the only other sound was Rick snoring softly on the couch my mother kept around even though it smelled like feet and rancid Cheetos. The living room was dark except for the flickering light of the TV until the curtains caught, and the fire leapt across the length of the window like the wingspan of a large bird. I was stoned. Kept thinking I’d wake up in my bunk bed, hearing Phillip snoring above me. I wanted to hear the mattress creaking as he rolled from one side to the other, sighing loudly in between breaths. But I’d been sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, digging my fingernail into my forearm. If the half-moon-shaped impressions on my skin weren’t enough to wake me, nothing would.
Phillip looked at me and he said, “Danny, get up. Come on.” He actually said my name instead of “sissy boy,” “Danielle,” or his favorite, “faggot.” Bathed in this weird Poltergeist glow, he moved towards the garage door in his socks. I don’t think he was even wearing a shirt. He turned away from what he had done like it was the end of a school assembly. I couldn’t believe it. I sat there for a second, blinking and watching the fire spread, I guess. Then, I jumped up, understanding the curtains’ closeness to the front door. If I stayed any longer, I wouldn’t be able to get out. I would have to break the kitchen window.
I looked at Rick. He was still snoring somehow. Those few seconds of heat were more intense than anything I’ve ever experienced. I shook him until he woke up and helped him out of the house. He collapsed on the lawn, wailing because some sparks had landed on him and the nylon of his shirt was sticking to his skin. With his hands on my shoulders, he kept asking me what happened, the smell of bourbon on his breath like always.
Outside, I couldn’t see Phillip. I knew he’d run off, either to his friend Willy’s or to some unfortunate girl’s house. Plus, I was still high from the joint and Oxycodon Phillip had shared with me earlier that night, so I was more than disoriented. We smoked in the garage, which excited me because Phillip hadn’t hung out with me by choice since I was ten, and he never offered me marijuana. It was only the second or third time I’d smoked, but I tried not to cough in front of him. He handed me a grape soda and two pills, passed me the joint, and that was it. He never said anything to me about Rick while we were out there, but I remember him lighting matches, burning the cellophane on Rick’s empty cigarette packs, and placing the burnt sticks in the ceramic mug my mother was using as an ashtray. All these years later, I wonder if it was Oxycodon after all. My brother used to get all kinds of over-the-counter shit and lie about what it was just to fuck people over. It was probably just Coricidin and mid-grade weed. That was enough to put me on my ass back then.
So I was bent over on the lawn, breathing into my belly, my head pounding, my knees weak, thinking I was going to puke. Then, I heard the window shatter, which took me out of the panic attack. Smoke billowed from the roof. I stumbled over to Angelo Sanchez’ house across the street to call the police.
The older brother, the hot one, answered the door. He was understandably guarded. The last time I’d knocked on his door, I was in my mother’s negligee fleeing Phillip’s baseball bat.
“My house is on fire. Can I use your phone?”
“Your house is on fire?” Federico’s grip on the door tightened. He looked across the street, saw the smoke, waved me inside.
After that, my mother showed up with my sister Tammy, a bottle of NyQuil for her cold, and a carton of cigarettes. Everyone in the neighborhood watched the house burn until the firefighters got it under control. It was the shithouse gone up in flames. Mrs. Sanchez offered us some food, but my mother said no. We were living paycheck to paycheck, grieving over my father’s death; we had just lost everything in a goddamned house fire and would be dependent on the Red Cross, and my mother was too bigoted to eat some Cuban pastries. A real Mother Teresa she was.
After the fire, we stayed with my mother’s friend Marsha. She lived next door and Phillip was fucking her, too. If you ask me, he did it because he wanted to make up for what Rick had done to him. I think Phillip was afraid it would make him like me.
Phillip was also pissed at Rick for being in my father’s bed the night Dad came home from prison, out early on good behavior. Dad didn’t call ahead of time because he wanted to “surprise us.” He told me that after I followed him out of the house, as he threw one leg over his newly purchased Kawasaki, revving the engine to show my mother he was leaving. It was the last time we saw my father. I can still remember the freckles on his hands.
Phillip blamed Rick for everything he didn’t blame me for. He hadn’t come into our lives all those years ago; he had invaded them. And Marsha, she had quite the thing for growing boys. She even came on to me a couple times after I’d mowed her lawn. I was around thirteen. She’d invite me in for a drink, feed me a cookie, lick her fingers with those cheap, press-on nails, and try to lead me into the shower. She wasn’t so bad, though. She let Tammy and I finish up half a chicken a la king casserole that night. It was a little stale, but it was better than anything my mother would have found.
I don’t know for sure if Phillip ever came back to the neighborhood. He had plenty of friends in Eaton Park—other macho, white trash derelicts. We stayed with Marsha for a week until my mother got us a one-bedroom apartment by Lake Morton and we had to change schools. I lived there on a pull-out couch from Second Chance Thrift until I graduated high school and moved to Orlando.
I saw Willy’s Camaro outside Lakeland High School a few weeks after the fire, which was weird because he’d graduated three years prior. He was leaning against the car, so I stopped in front of a live oak, hoping he hadn't seen me. When he waved, I had no choice but to talk to him. It was one of those cool, central Florida days in between winter and spring: it’s breezy and sunny, but also dry and cloudless. I remember it was cold because I noticed Willy was wearing my black Hanes sweatshirt, the one with the zipper. I thought it was lost in the fire.
“Hey, what’s up?” I nodded at him, averting my eyes. I didn't know if he knew that I knew Phillip had committed arson. The whole thing terrified me—bearing witness, I guess.
“Nothing, man. I didn’t realize you went here. I’m picking up my cousin.”
“Just started.” I shifted my backpack from one shoulder to the other.
“How are you and Tammy doing?”
I watched some classmates walk out into the parking lot. “We’re fine,” I said. Though Willy and I had slept together a few times by then, I wanted to act as nonchalant as possible. Neither one of us was out, and he had a girlfriend. Plus, he was my brother’s best friend and Phillip was pretty much the opposite of tolerant.
“Are you sure?”
I could feel his eyes on me, so I looked down at my feet. “Yeah. Hey, have you seen Phillip?”
“Not since Monday.” It was later in the week, Thursday.
“Any idea where he went?”
“You don’t know?”
“Know what?” I raised my chin to meet his eyes, squinting from the sun that was low in the sky.
“They arrested him on Tuesday. His picture was in the blotter yesterday; I’m surprised your mom didn't tell you.”
My stomach dropped to the concrete. This wasn’t the first time my mother had given me partial truths. She “forgot" to tell Tammy, Phillip, and me about our father’s being incarcerated until almost a year later. When he didn’t show for my eighth birthday party, we thought he’d abandoned us. “For what?”
“They caught him trying to break into PC Bike.” He took a step forward, lifting his weight from the hood of the car.
“He try to run?”
Willy shook his head. “They got an anonymous call about the fire.”
I could hear my heart in my head. “What?” I backed away, afraid Willy was trying to gauge whether I’d snitched.
“I told them.”
“What?” I moved closer to him suddenly, lowering my voice. “You snitched?”
“You’re mad?” He laughed. “I can’t believe this.”
“You can’t believe it?” I pushed him.
He pushed me back. “Look, he told me about it, got all sketched out and thought they were coming for him, and then left. What was I supposed to do?”
“Uh, not tell? I thought he was your best friend.”
“I did it for you.” He put his hands in the front pockets of the sweater, my sweater.
“Great.” I felt sick, so I started to walk away. “Now when he’s out, he’ll kill me for sure,” I said over my shoulder. “Thanks for nothing.”
I never got that sweatshirt back, but I did find one just like it in the lost and found bin one day at school. That made up for it—after a few washes.
Phillip also never killed me, obviously. He’s been in and out of institutions for most of his life, though I heard he’s up for parole soon.
And as for Willy? I steered clear of him, as I’m sure he did of me. We were both more than a little ashamed. Although looking back, I think he was more willing to be with me—at least in that moment—than I was willing to be with him. With Phillip gone, my father in the ground, and my mother working two bartending jobs because Rick left her—who the fuck wouldn’t? —I did as I pleased. I had a couple lovers in Lakeland, some playing straight in high school and others in marriages, before leaving at seventeen.
Willy was my first. The first time I ever got goose bumps from a boy was when Willy did a handstand in my front yard. I remember the tightness pulling at me as soon as his shirt fell over his face, showing his stomach and chest, his muscles tense. I did Facebook-stalk Willy a couple months ago after too many glasses of Chardonnay: he now goes by Will, and he owns a gay bar in Vegas, if you can imagine that.
About the Author: Emily Hoover is a fiction writer and book reviewer based in Las Vegas. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Bird’s Thumb and BULL. Emily’s book reviews have been published by The Los Angeles Review, Necessary Fiction, Ploughshares blog and others.