June 6th, 1967
The rock went wide of its target, and the girl with the singed eyebrows avoided it by inches. She stopped dead on the sidewalk as it smacked into a rusting street sign, and then the shouting started.
Shaking herself, she looked, and found two ragtag gangs of boys on either end of the narrow street. Both were closing in on the lot with the yellow grass—the very same she had been admiring from across the street. She had barely noticed them before. Instead she had been too focused on the grass itself, and how in the heat of summer it had gone so dry and brittle. It was such a shame it was in the middle of Boston instead of somewhere where she wouldn't get in trouble if she lit the whole thing on fire.
The shouting got louder. More rocks zinged by, none coming so close as the first, and they were answered with jeers and a discarded beer bottle flung from the other direction. It spun lazily through the air and shattered on the pavement: a signal.
The quiet of the street splintered apart as the packs slammed together like a thunderclap.
She scarcely had time to dive behind a collection of musty furniture sitting on the side of the street, some victims of an unpaid and unsympathetic landlord. The gangs converged on one another, eight against seven by her count. They swung hockey sticks or bats or fists, they came at each other as mad dogs would, all the air a frantic chorus of howls and yells. Insults were hurled like spears at anyone and everyone's mother, and the group of eight, apparently all sharing the same mother if looks were anything to go by, took grievous offense. She watched as one of these, gangly and wielding a bat, knocked down one of his opponents and darted a little ways back—he lobbed a ball in the air above him, caught up his bat—swung—
The baseball hit the crumbling wall about eight inches from her head. The kid cussed and started winding up for another, and the girl decided it was time to leave.
It looked like there was an opening in the direction she needed to go. It had definitely been there a moment ago. She bolted, cleared a fire hydrant, and was nearly there when one of the boys staggered into her path.
There was a soft whump, air leaving lungs. She threw out her hands to catch herself as the pavement rushed up to meet her, and white-hot pain seared through her palms as she made impact. Her arms gave way and she knocked her mouth against the ground with a sickening smack.
The riot died in almost the same moment, and when she slowly pushed herself up off the pavement she found herself surrounded by a silent crowd. She spat out blood.
Next to her, the boy she had collided with groaned, a hand coming to his head. Someone snorted. "Yo good friggin' job Toby, you beat girls up a lot?"
"Stuff it, dumbass, I—oh, crap, it really is a girl."
Their words barely registered. Her hands hurt. She looked at one, and found it a bloody mess; so was the other; the heels of her palms were thoroughly skinned. The bright red made her blistered and scarred hands even paler than usual.
Lifting her head, she found another hand outstretched toward her. Behind that was a sheepish-looking young man. It was one of the brothers, if the fact he had the same nose and ears as the other seven was anything to go by. He was all gangly limbs and bruises—he had a nice shiner brewing on his left eye, and his lip had been split open in two places. "Shoot, lady, wasn't lookin' where I was or nothin'—these wiseguys over here think it's their turn on the lot—"
"Cuz it is," said one.
The guy shot a glare over his shoulder as she ignored his hand and picked herself up. She brushed grime and gravel off her clothes, looked up at the pack. She'd bitten her tongue when she fell, and tested the sore place with her teeth.
Her hands felt like hell. They burned, and not even the clean, sharp kind of warning bite from a good fire. This was a pulsing, angry ache. Experimentally she flexed her fingers and winced at the pain. The one who had tried to help her up took notice. "Aw, hell, that looks like it hurts. There's uh, there's the corner store just ova' there, you want I should—?"
She shook her head, saying nothing. There was gravel embedded in her skin.
"Oh," the boy said, deflating. Someone else in the crowd chuckled. He hunched into himself, hands tucked up in his armpits. "All, uh, alright then."
She scarcely heard him; she was already walking down the street again.
Her hands still hurt. The ache had dulled, but touching anything with her palms sent an angry flare of pain up her arms. Even so, the girl with the singed eyebrows had all but torn the salvage yard apart over the course of the afternoon, and the only thing she had to show for it was half a red brick.
She threw herself down on a stack of forlorn mattresses and glared at the empty wooden crates, tucked behind a row of rusting bicycles and warped with age and rain. The crates were supposed to have bricks in them. They had had bricks in them for weeks, they hadn't been touched at all in the last half-dozen times she'd visited the salvage yard for parts and pieces. The very fact the bricks had been there so long was what had got her to thinking about them in the first place, certain she could put them to use. And now that she had finally figured out what to do, someone else had come along and swiped them. Whoever it was would probably do something stupid with them, too, like pave a garden or something.
Now how was she supposed to build her kiln?
She huffed aloud, and her breath ruffled the lock of neglected hair that had escaped her ponytail while she'd looked for bricks elsewhere in the yard. It fluttered sadly for an instant before hitting her in the face again. She tucked it behind one ear, brushed dirt from her thrift-store clothes, and then stood. The whole beautiful day had been a waste, and the sky was starting to dim.
She shoved her injured hands into her pockets, and went to wait for the last bus of the day, thinking about how using those bricks for anything but a kiln was probably a sin. They had been perfect, the ideal raw material to build what she had come to think of as a kind of altar.
Twenty minutes later, when the bus rumbled haltingly to a stop, she was thinking of all the ways she could have made better use of those bricks. She barely acknowledged the driver, who always had something friendly to say, or the smile from middle-aged businessman with the blue tie she often found herself on the same routes with. When she automatically stood up and followed the gaggle of other riders getting off the bus, she was thinking about alternatives to bricks and systematically dismissing them. (Rocks? Too irregular. Metal? Too dangerous, and where would she get the right shapes?) As the crowd dispersed, she stopped, and looked around.
Around her stood gaunt, dull buildings and stout little shops, papered in billboards and tattooed with graffiti. Cars trundled down the wide pavement like fat, sleepy beetles. The lines of telephone wires above cast blurry shadows over her, which formed themselves in strange crosshatches over whatever they touched. A rusting newspaper rack kept a lonely vigil to her left. It was noisy and claustrophobic, and she had gotten off at the wrong stop. Home was a good forty-five minute walk away.
The girl chewed her lip. Then she clenched her fists, winced, and mumbled something unladylike under her breath. She jaywalked through traffic and turned the first corner she came to.
There was a terrific, crackling bang at her feet, and she jerked backwards, her eyes wide and body rigid. The sound was exactly like the BB guns she remembered firing at clay pigeons (and live ones) as a kid; it couldn't be anything else; who was shooting at her?
Before she could get behind cover—her choices were either the dented trash can or the chartreuse VW Beetle parked on the curb—someone said something, sharp and low. She stopped looking for snipers and instead looked at what was in front of her.
A positive stork of a boy was staring back at her with moon-eyes. He couldn't have been more than a few years into his twenties, not much younger than herself. His limbs looked too long for him, and he even held himself like he was permanently walking on stilts. He clutched a small plastic bag in one hand, and it was filled with countless tiny white things. "Sorry 'bout that," he said. "Didn't think nobody'd be comin' that … oh." His eyebrows jumped, and the girl realized he had a hell of a shiner on his left eye, and his lip was split in two places. "You're the one from the lot!"
She stared back. Shrugged.
Silence ensued. They looked at each other until the guy cleared his throat and straightened up some. "I uh, sorry, 'bout before. Don't think I said that." His knuckles were bruised.
She shrugged again. He fidgeted, then snapped his fingers. "Hey, okay, I know. Lemme make it up to ya, how's free samples sound?" He threw a thumb back over his shoulder as he said it.
Behind him stood a white booth as lanky and crazed as he was, set halfway into an alley. Bright bursts of color were painted on its sides, and a red-white-blue striped cloth covered the top. The inside of the booth, behind the dingy-looking counter, was dark and shadowy; faintly, she could make out stacks of something on shelving inside.
"I said ya ever lit a sparkler, lady?" the guy asked, and she snapped back to reality. After a long, awkward pause, she jerkily shook her head. He gave her a hockey-player-gapped grin, and he gestured her over to the booth. "Geez, ferreal? Heck, c'mon back, we'll set you right up. Fourth'a July comin' up, never had a sparkler, damn!"
Baffled, the girl followed. She watched silently as the boy disappeared into the booth itself. He fumbled around in the half-dark for a moment, then turned and dropped a thin cardboard box onto the counter. It looked cheaply made, and the front was covered in bright, stylized explosions. The words BLAZING GLORY were printed on the front. "Here we go," he said, sliding it open with a practiced sort of motion. He produced a long, thin stick, more than half of it coated in something blue and powdery-looking. "Watch this."
She barely heard him: he had pulled out a lighter from his pocket at the same time. It was a Zippo, brassy with age, scratched and dented. A 1951 model, maybe, or the 1966 reissue from last year. She owned several of that model; it was a good one, though most Zippos were. Was it engraved?—it was too dark to tell.
He flicked it open, smooth as anything, and a light blazed into life in the cavernous booth.
If he said anything more, she missed it. With a flourish of his bruised hands he had presented both firework and lighter, like a magician about to perform a trick, and then carefully put the flame to the blue tip.
She heard it before she saw it, a fizzling staccato not-rhythm mixing with soft tseeers and crackling flares. The Zippo was pulled away and the Fire had bloomed into something new, bright and beautiful threads of sparks cascading into nothing.
She was transfixed.
"We there yet?" the boy panted. Over the two-by-two-foot crate of newly purchased fireworks cradled in her arms, the girl shook her head. She hadn't been able to dislodge her smile since the sparkler was lit. The bricks, the incident at the avenue, and her scraped hands were all forgotten.
The boy, who was named Tobias and apparently worked part-time at the fireworks stand ("I got seven brothas an' one ma, okay, gotta pull my weight, I ain't no deadbeat."), was almost-but-not-quite lagging a pace or two behind. He made a drawn-out, wispy sort of noise she couldn't properly parse. "Awright, we close to there yet?"
"Almost," the girl said.
Her wallet had been utterly skinned of its contents just seconds after the sparkler Tobias had pressed into her hand sputtered out. She had spent the last half-hour fantasizing about all the pyrotechnics she was now the proud owner of. Tobias, suddenly without capital and a little shell-shocked, had offered to help her take them home. It was only gentlemanly, he'd said, and he still felt he owed her the favor. The alternative would have been several trips on her own, so she accepted. It was efficient.
Behind her, Tobias stumbled. The teetering stack of fireworks he carried did a spectacular leap and he nearly toppled over entirely (she wasn't sure how he didn't) trying to hang onto them; he only regained his balance by ploughing hard into her shoulder. He squawked exactly like a chicken and reeled backwards, spine board-stiff. She'd stopped and locked her knees to stay upright, and swayed half a second before steadying herself. "Aw, dammit—crap, miss, sorry," Tobias said, sheepishly. "You alright?"
She said yes, and kept going.
The evening had turned damp. Overhead, clouds threatened, and the air tasted thick, but even the threat of water couldn't dull her mood for now. They had left behind the big buildings and cars, and now the world was quieting as evening drew on and drained everything of its color. Beneath them was weed-covered sidewalk, riddled with cracks like spidery hands. The remains of someone's long-forgotten chicken wire fence had run alongside them for the last fifty yards. Sad little trees drooped at shoulder-height here and there, crowded and choked by skeletal bushes. It was silent but for their footsteps, and the occasional breath of wind through the trees.
The girl had just stepped over the last cement slab onto mushy, green grass, the five-minute-mark from her house, when Tobias said, "What were ya doin' at the lot, anyway? Seems kinda outta your way."
She tilted her head to one side at the question. "Was going to the dump."
"Really? What for?"
"Bricks. There weren't any, though." Tobias had his own engraved Zippo, and sold the wonderful little fireworks—maybe he understood Fire, too. Maybe he would understand how she needed to make her alter, her monument, and what a travesty the bricks going to something undoubtably mundane was. "I'm building a kiln."
She sighed, and just gestured with a jerk of her head for him to follow.
They came around a bend in the scraggly trees and run-down fence, following what might have been, at some point in its life, a path. Here the immediate view was one with old wooden houses dotting the landscape, in various states of decay and neglect. An especially sagging, squat little home stood a little off to one side, red in color. It was surrounded by a high chain-link fence that seemed put together from scrap, chunks of salvaged pieces lashed together with twine and barbed wire. A robin's-egg-blue shed—in even worse disrepair than the rest, leaning crazily to one side and looking like it might collapse at any moment—lay just beyond the house itself.
Tobias had caught up with her. She glanced at him, and found him gawking at the sickly buildings and the chain-link monstrosity. "That," he said, "wow. Tell me nobody lives there."
"I do," she said. His head whipped around to stare at her, but she was already walking toward it. It was a perfectly good house; what a puzzling thing to say about it.
The wind picked up as Tobias trailed after her, bending the scrubs and the wild rosebushes that ruled the landscape as it went. The girl fumbled with the door's handle, then eased it open: the rusted lock on it had never worked as long as she'd lived there.
Tobias watched her disappear into the dark mouth of the doorway, and followed slowly. He hung back on the doorstep, watching her as she set the crate of fireworks on a spindly table. She did something with her hands, and suddenly, there was light. An old-fashioned candle she cradled gently threw her shadow past her and over the dark shapes in the room.
Humming gently, she flitted around the room, lighting more and more candles: wall-mounted ones, ones sitting on side-tables, a whole cluster of blue ones sitting in the bottom of what was probably once an aquarium. She ignored the light switch set into one wall; the wiring was shot, and besides, she had never owned a lightbulb.
Deep shadows ate the furthest corners of the room, while the dancing lights revealed a home that was at once both spartan and disorderly. There was not very much there, beyond the candles, and the small collection of tools, bowls, and corrugated-cardboard boxes scattered and stacked on every available surface. A calendar three years out of date hung on one wall. Everything smelled like a campfire.
Tobias might as well have not existed for all attention the girl gave him. She fell now upon the fireworks, all fast fingers and eager gestures. They were laid out one-by-one on the table, stacked and arranged by size and color, quick as anything. The crate clattered onto the floor, empty, and she turned back to Tobias, hands outstretched.
"I can take them now," she said.
Tobias gawped down at her, and in return she stared fixedly at his baffled face. When he did nothing else, she huffed softly, and simply took as many as she could carry right off the top of the stack.
They had already joined the others by the time Tobias came back to himself, and set the rest on the edge of the table for her. She grabbed and sorted them too, and then they were just both standing there, looking at the fireworks—or she was, at least. Tobias was staring at her through the haze of the candlelight and making no attempt to hide it. She had folded her arms across her chest, and was smiling a private smile.
"Well uh," Tobias said, after a while and with his hands shoved in his pockets, "guess I better get back, anyway. Boss'll wanna know where all his crap went. Uh, sorry about earlier."
The girl started, as if she had forgotten he was there. Then she looked at him, and after a sort of painful delay, extended her smile to him, too. It felt awkward, stretching her mouth for so long. "Yeah. It's fine."
And as Tobias walked home a few minutes later, their goodbyes exchanged, he realized he had forgotten to ask her name.