"I've got a book of matches
I've got a can of kerosene
I've got some bad ideas
Involving you and me."
—This Could Be Love, Alkaline Trio
The texts came later than usual. First: Get out here. Followed a moment afterward by: In my stepmom's stupid purple truck. Henrietta didn't show.
It wasn't unlike Michael to text him at three in the morning, and Pete never thought anything of matters like that, anyway, considering he was a kid who always seemed to lack plans. Now, especially, on his last summer vacation before senior year of high school, he was wont to stay up doing nothing but smoking on the rusted, hunk-of-junk swing set in his backyard, wishing he had something better to do. Sometimes better came around, six-foot-one in a black trench coat, despite the summer heat. Today, he never showed.
Then, suddenly, he did—at five-twenty-three in the morning. It was bound to be light outside in a couple of hours, Pete thought, reading the texts from his current boredom-induced position of being smushed back into his father's favorite recliner. The moment the typed words registered, he stubbed his cigarette out on the arm of the chair and leapt up to grab his winklepickers, discarding the spent tobacco on his way out the door.
Michael must have noticed his haste, because he blew air through his nose in some semblance of a laugh. "You'd better be excited."
Pete opened his mouth, only to end with the knowledge that he had nothing to say. I'm not excited for anything. Not that I'm not excited to see you. I am, actually.
No, that was dumb. Luckily, Michael interrupted his thoughts before his own stupid words could. "You didn't bring the drinks."
Dark eyes blinked slowly, deliberately, practicing the tone of indifference that his mouth would convey. "You didn't say anything about drinks."
"Yeah, I kind of did."
"I never got the message."
"Now you have it."
The shorter boy trudged back inside, all the while mumbling about stupid phones and unreceived texts. It made him think about how many messages he could've missed in the past. For all he knew, those theoretical ghost texts may've saved him from a long night of friendlessness at some point. He sat through hell knows how many monster movie marathons waiting for Michael or Henrietta to text him—every so often he even got desperate enough to hope for Firkle or Raven. He was pathetic, but his phone was even more pathetic. In a weird way, that knowledge contented him while he rifled through the refrigerator in an attempt to find his mother's cheap wine, or anything aside from the stupid store-brand juice boxes she'd bought in hopes Pete would drink something other than coffee and filthy, lukewarm tap water. No bottle turned up in the end. Pete sighed.
By the time he'd gotten comfortable in the passenger seat of Michael's mom's car, the curly-haired teen had already been furrowing his eyebrows at the unopened box of juice for a good few seconds, concluding his staring with a flat, "What the hell is that?"
Michael rolled his eyes before he started the car back up. "Why?"
"Because my mom hates me."
"Sucks." In the space allotted for a conclusion, the older of the two simply put the truck in drive and started their impromptu trip.
Minutes later, Pete squinted into the darkness through the window in hopes of seeing any semblance of a recognizable building. "Where are we going?" It took a full twenty seconds of Michael's silence for the other boy to realize he wasn't getting an answer, but it only took another five for him to figure it out on his own.
As the car sped by, the number of buildings slowly began to diminish, the air started looking a little dustier, and only cracked remnants of concrete were left to pose as plausible sidewalks. "Is this the fucking reconstruction yard?" Pete hated the way his voiced pitched upward. "I've always wanted to come here, but my idiot parents sold their car and Henrietta refused to let me take her mom's."
As he haphazardly parked the truck on the side of the road, Michael answered with a concise, "I know."
"I never told you—"
"You didn't have to. You're like an open book, Pete."
The curly-haired teen waited for his friend to take off his seat belt, which served to make the latter feel a little stupid in the way he was fumbling with it. He muttered a silent curse to whatever was going on in that chest cavity of his the moment he got the belt off. "Fuck this car," he said aloud, as an afterthought; Michael's agreement came in the form of a snort.
The two of them got out of the lavender-colored monstrosity to circle around to the back, where the taller of them pulled the tailgate down and dragged a rolled-up blanket and a picnic basket toward himself. "Here," he said as he grabbed the basket and plopped it down on top of the box of drinks Pete carried. "You can set that down when I put the blanket out."
"Is this a wicker basket?"
"You do have eyes, you know."
"Thanks, Captain Obvious. I just meant that it's a little weird. I don't think anyone uses real picnic baskets anymore."
"That's because everyone else is a conformist."
"Oh, yeah." Pete looked sidelong at Michael while he unrolled the blanket—a ratty, blue-and-white checkered fluff of a thing—and snapped it into a suitable state for laying out.
The shorter Goth almost spoke, then decided there really wasn't any reason to. He passed the time staring at the other, waiting for any semblance of emotion to cross his face. There was something odd here, he thought, clutching the boxes to his chest in a sudden surge of doubt. Michael didn't do shit like this. It was almost as if he was reciprocating those disgusting, bubbly emotions that Pete had harbored for him since fifth grade—but that couldn't happen, or else they may have a fleeting chance of being happy, if only in bursts. Pete didn't know what it was like to be happy. He wasn't sure he was someone suited for the feeling.
Michael called his name just seconds later, which effectively snapped him out of his reverie. Suddenly he was sure he'd been over-thinking the whole thing, spurring an uncommon sense of relief to take some of the stress off his lungs. He was okay. This was okay.
He exhaled softly. "I need a cigarette."
The taller boy hummed, and Pete mumbled his previous words again.
"What, are you asking me? Don't you have yours?"
Dark bangs shook with the movement of his head; Michael sighed, pulled a pack of his own smokes from his jacket pocket, and wiggled them in the air to show he had them. "Put that shit down, then."
Pete, unwilling to put the knees of his black jeans into the red dirt, bent over and set the boxes onto the blanket, only to have his ears perk up at the sound of liquid sloshing from within the basket. "Uh, Michael, why'd I have to get drinks if you already—"
The words caught in his throat when he felt his friend slide something into his back pocket and bend over beside him to open the basket. "I didn't bring drinks because all we had was cheap wine."
Pete refrained from rolling his eyes, which was surprisingly easy, only because he was still a little wrapped up in the fact that Michael's hand was basically just on his ass. "What's wrong with cheap wine?"
"Didn't think you drank."
"Only on special occasions." These words garnered an amused glance on Michael's part, marked by his mouth, slightly ajar, quirking up just the slightest bit at one corner, as though he may laugh. He didn't, of course, but Pete figured it wasn't the worst thing he'd ever hoped would happen.
Seconds later, he was dwarfed by his friend again, who had straightened up long enough to crack his back and wiggle a small can of kerosene just as he had done with the pack of cigarettes. It struck Pete, then, that that was what he'd felt in his back pocket.
Michael crouched down, immediately set on tearing into the plastic covering the juice boxes.
The shorter teen blinked. "…Was that the only thing in the box?"
"Can I have it?"
"It was for you, anyway."
Pete felt a little prickle in his chest again. "Thanks."
Michael nodded once in response, then, apparently successful in his carton-opening endeavors, sat back and pointed to the graying building across the street from them. It was a short, one story building with both of the visible windows just as broken as the front door was. The gray roof was sinking dangerously low, too. It was clearly a house on the fast track to being demolished.
"You're going to burn it down?" Pete asked.
"Only if you don't want to."
He couldn't help the small smile that crossed his face. "You expect me to bring criminal charges on myself for your amusement?"
"Your amusement too, jerk." There was a vaguely identifiable pinch of humor in his tone. "Here." Presently, he took a pack of matches from the box and tossed it up to the other before withdrawing a juice box from the edge of the cardboard foundation that held them.
"Are these light-anywhere matches?" Pete asked incredulously. "I didn't think they made these anymore."
"I don't know if they do. Maybe you just have to know the right people. They're my dad's, so I'm not sure where they came from."
"Are you sure they're not fakes?"
Michael shook his head. "No, I firecrotched the first one I tried."
"Lit it on my zipper."
"No way. Show me."
Michael propped himself up on his knees and waited for Pete to pluck a match from the box and hand it to him. "You have to be careful, though. They light easier than regular matches."
Before Pete could even think of replying, Michael's hand was on the front of his jeans, moving the cloth obstruction from in front of the actual zipper with the thumb of his right hand.
"I thought you were going to do it on your zipper," the shorter boy said, perhaps a little frantically.
Again, he got little more than a shake of the head in answer. With one clumsy, upward movement of his left hand, Michael had struck the match, holding up the burning proof. "Told you."
"There are crazier things. Now go light the damn house before the sun comes up."
Pete didn't waste a moment. After grumbling at the awkward stumble his legs betrayed him with, he grabbed a match, picked up the gas can, and took his time ambling across the street.
The house was creepier up close, he discovered. It seemed to loom forward, ready to crush him at any given moment with its decaying wood, bent nails, and dusty smell. He thought only houses in horror movies looked like this, but apparently they were filmed in good faith.
Pressing his lips together in concentration, he began drizzling the kerosene around the crumbling building's perimeter. Once he'd reached the front of the house again, he set the can a few feet away and, with a hum, lit the match on his zipper. It wasn't quite as satisfying this time, but he still deemed it a rather interesting technique, with or without his friend's hand on his crotch.
The match was tossed into the gleaming line of gas just before the door, and the instant it lit, Pete grabbed the kerosene can and headed back toward the checkered blanket. By the time he sat down, Michael already had a straw in his juice box and an unfaltering stare fixed on him. "You walked away from that shit like you didn't even care."
"I guess so."
"You looked good."
"Did I?" He may've choked on his words a bit, but he couldn't hear himself well enough to be sure.
Michael, however, seemed to hear him just fine. "Yeah. Kind of like one of those guys in the cheesy action movies, but better."
After a painful moment of silence, the younger of the two managed to grate out, "Hand me a juice box."
The requested drink found itself in his hands not too long after, straw already in place. This was explained—rather comically, in fact, due to the older boy's low, serious voice—with, "You got to burn down a goddamned building. I reserve the right to stab your juice."
The duo directed their attention to the building across the street, which now crackled brilliantly with licks of orange and red that soon engulfed the entirety of it. Michael held his juice out to Pete, only to get a blank stare in response. He rolled his eyes. "Let's pretend I did bring wine."
"Oh." Pete raised his box as well and tapped it against the other's, producing a faint clunking noise. Before he could take a drink, he was stopped by his friend's hand on his wrist. The first thought he had was: Jesus, for someone sitting just across the street from a massive fire, Michael's hands were fucking cold. The second thought was that his skin still seemed to warm at the touch, oddly enough. He entertained the thought that they were both cold-blooded creatures—things from somewhere in the distance. Space, maybe.
"I think we did that wrong," Michael said upon letting go of Pete's wrist.
"Oh…yeah." The latter cleared his throat and flipped his bangs out of his eyes. "We have to say some ridiculous shit and then toast, I think."
"Well we're breaking the rules and toasting first. You start."
"Uhh… To burning down buildings in the middle of fucking nowhere."
Michael bobbed his head in a nod, curls bouncing. "With you," he added, then downed the juice, concluding this feat with a grimace.
Pete hardly realized the soft, almost wheezing sound that arose in response was his laughter, but once he had, he pulled a face similar to the one Michael had. "Ew, God, was that me?"
"It was," the taller boy said.
"I think you're turning into kind of a conformist, Michael."
"I think you beat me to it."
The prickling in his chest was back, now. He sighed it off, and just when he'd opened his mouth, there was a loud crack from across the street that recaptured their attention. They watched as their burning building finally caved, the roof coming down easily and the rest following without fail, crumbling to dust and eventually fading away into nothing more than glimmers in ashes and heated nails in the dirt. The smoke surrounding it billowed out until it mingled seamlessly with the rest of the infected air.
Michael stood. With one dusty boot, he crushed his juice box, then prodded Pete's knee. "Let's get to Denny's before the sun comes up and someone realizes we just destroyed a house."
"You don't wanna get Henrietta and Firkle, first?"
Michael slid his hand into Pete's back pocket again, this time to take the Marlboros from earlier. As he took one and replaced the pack, he answered flippantly, "I'd rather not."
"I feel like playing favorites tonight."
The "Oh?" Pete gave in response felt a little too breathy to him.
"Plus, you're the only one who's never shotgunned a cigarette. I could teach you."
"Please do." He hadn't really meant to say that aloud, but he figured there was no harm done if Michael actually looked amused.
"Come on, asshole. Just grab the gas can, leave the rest."
"You sure you don't want the rest of this juice?"
"I'll pass." Michael got comfortable in the driver's seat and beckoned to the other, who held the sloppily-rolled-up blanket on one shoulder and looked a little irritated at having to carry it.
"Whatever it is, can't it wait until I put this—"
Whatever he'd intended to say was cut off by a chaste, almost unsure peck on the lips, which Michael dutifully delivered through the truck's open window. "Just toss it in the back," he said, placing his unlit cigarette back in its rightful spot. "It doesn't have to stay rolled."
"That was my…"
"What, your first?"
"It's fine. Better you than anyone else I can think of."
"Uh-huh." Pete flipped his bangs from his face once more, threw the dirt-smattered, checkered blanket into the truck bed, and returned to his spot in the passenger seat. He cleared his throat. "This isn't bad."
"I don't think so."
"Fine, yeah. Denny's?"
"Anywhere. I'm just here to play favorites, I guess."
Michael was laughing through his nose again. "Right."
They didn't say anything else. The sound of the truck's engine roaring to life did enough on its own, and the radio provided the filler for the rest of the static silence. Pete glanced through the back window at the smoldering ashes of the fallen house before turning back around again. "This was probably the coolest thing we've ever done."
"I think it was." The curly-haired boy fell back into his habitual nodding. "I already found another one for next week. You want to come?"
"I'll bring wine next time."
"This can be just our thing, if you want."
Pete considered this for a moment. It could be something good, he supposed; it might even cheer him up sometimes. Maybe.
"It won't always be the fire thing, though," Michael added. "But my house is empty on Fridays after five p.m."
The truck's engine went silent in the Denny's parking lot at six in the morning, and dead silence transitioned into the ding of an entry bell, the faint sound of grills sizzling and coffee pouring.
Pete was quiet for too long after they'd sat down, but Michael proved to be a patient person.
When he finally did speak, it wasn't much: merely, "It's a good idea," mumbled by an inherently soft voice into a mug of coffee. But that was all that was needed to form a plan—some way of escaping their everyday lives, if only for a little while. A life with more shotgunned cigarettes and burning ancient buildings didn't sound like too bad a deal, after all. Summer had to be wasted somehow, and Pete figured that it didn't get wasted better than that.