“You’re a natural, you know that?”
“Naturally,” I mumbled, still largely incoherent, my nostrils catching the pungent aroma of kerosene, my eyes still seeing nothing but mostly darkness. It seemed my subconscious mind already knew the answer to the question; a question I had first heard that mid-afternoon day in the woods.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It really all started with the ants.
When Toby moved in next door with his family, from somewhere out West, I was told, he seemed like a pretty normal kid. Tall for his age, with lanky blonde hair and wide blue eyes. I was eager for somebody to play with; there hadn’t been any new kid in the neighborhood ever since John Marker had moved away eight months before. I immediately introduced myself to his amiable parents, and then to him, hoping he would want to play.
I wasn’t disappointed.
The only problem was, Toby was not such a normal kid, and the games he wanted to play weren’t normal, either. You see, Toby had this...um, ability. Something he was smart enough, even in the youth of our ages, to wisely conceal from his parents, and anyone else in authority. However, he had no reservations when it came to showing it off for me. And, eventually, teaching me how to do it.
“Look at the ground,” he told me. We were standing on the north side of the park, in the abandoned baseball fields that wouldn’t see use until the start of the season, roughly three months away. The grass had grown long, the dirt of the base paths ruddy and littered with soggy leaves and dismembered twigs. Toby was pointing to a mound in the field, swarming with the little black figures of scurrying ants as they hustled back and forth and around their home.
I shrugged. “Yeah, they’re ants. So what?”
“You want to see something really cool?” he asked.
It was a question that didn’t really need an answer, nor did he really expect one. Toby closed those big blue eyes of his, touching a finger to his temple to heighten the effect of him concentrating, and breathed in slow, laborious gasps, expelling the air through his open mouth. I watched, a sneer on my lips, noticing how dark the sky was getting, my stomach rumbling for dinner. When he opened his eyes again, he smiled at me warmly.
“What the hell were you doing?” I said.
“Did you see the ants?”
I looked down. The frenzied activity of the ants was now utterly chaotic, with no rhyme or reason, some of them circling around the mound in an endless pattern, others venturing into the miniature forest of the surrounding blades of grass. They crawled over one another, bumped into one another, chased each other, devoured bits and pieces of one another. I looked back up at my friend.
The smile was still on his face. “I can show you how to do it, if you want.” I shook my head, too terrified at what I had seen, the image disturbing my mind in a way that violent movies or blood bath video games could never have achieved.
We started walking back home along the streets of our quiet neighborhood, listening to the stray barking of chained-up dogs in raked back yards, not talking about what he had done for a long while. “It’s no big deal,” he ventured softly. “I don’t want to scare you, or anything.”
I didn’t want to show him I was scared. “Can you do anything else?” I asked hesitantly.
He paused on the sidewalk, turning his head this way and that to make sure no one else was around. No one was. He stared at a fallen leaf on the pavement, its edges slightly curled, the surface a mottled brown and orange. Toby avoided the showmanship this time, and got right down to it. In a matter of two seconds, the leaf erupted into a small patch of flame, intoxicating the air with a charred smell. I jumped back and nearly hollered, my face panic stricken.
“Did you like that?” Toby asked me.
“I...I don’t like fire,” I stuttered.
“I’m sorry.” And I could tell he truly was.
But, scared or not, his ability intrigued me nonetheless, and I wanted to know how it was done. So, the lessons started, and you can say my graduation was that day in the woods.
We went there, nearly four months later, just to take a walk, throw rocks at anything that had the courage to move, play sword fighting with broken twigs and stumps of rotted log. When we came to the tall oak, its wavering branches all but smothered with the perched lumps of sparrows, looking down at us like gargoyles from their skyward vantage point, I decided to show off what I had learned. “Check this out,” I told Toby.
He nodded, standing aside while I closed my eyes and faced the oak. I knew what I was trying to do, and I knew what would happen. I just took it...overboard, I guess. When the birds started squawking, their wings beating the air maddeningly with feathered wing, creating an artificial wind with their turmoil, I continued on, undaunted by the effects of my churning mind, protected from the carnage by my lack of sight. My eyes still tightly clenched, I pushed further...and further. I heard a loud creaking sound, something I didn’t expect, something I wasn’t quite sure of what it was.
“Whoa...” Toby exclaimed, an unusual titter of nervousness in his voice. “Billy...”
I paid little mind. The creaking continued, followed by loud pops that reverberated the ground I was standing on, each one of them an ear-piercing sound akin to the heavenly spear of a lightning bolt. I wouldn’t have stopped if Toby hadn’t screamed, “Billy!!! Stop!! Stop it!!!”
I fluttered open my eyelids, and gasped. The ground was literally covered with the dark shrouds of fallen birds, their wings at awkward angles, their heads stumpy masses of gnarled flesh, some of the beaks having been shoved inward or ripped off altogether with their repeated collisions with the tree, themselves. But it was the tree that surprised me the most, the source of the popping sounds that I had heard. It was split, nearly down the middle, and tilted at a severe angle. Straggly roots from where it had been uprooted from the hard earth hung down from the bottom like a wispy brown curtain.
Toby clapped me on the back, hard. “You’re a natural, you know that?”
“Naturally,” I answered, still in shock, a little proud of what I had accomplished.
It wasn’t until tonight, nearly two years later, that I did it again. And you can’t really blame me, it wasn’t really my fault. It was my Dad’s.
He came home drunk, like usual. It was something that happened a lot since he had lost his job trucking gravel in Smithton, since the company thought it could save some overhead by laying off some of the veteran workers, my Dad included. He had a pension, of course, but that was about dried up now, the bills having chipped away at the generous sum until what remained was a pitiful amount that he dove into for pints of Jack Daniel’s Black and the occasional shot of Hennessy from the all-night pub a few blocks over. Apparently, no amount of liquor can really drown out all the sorrow of being unable to find another job, to properly take care of your struggling family. Still, that was no excuse for him to come home and start beating on my mother.
He staggered through the front door, not bothering to close it behind him, his shaggy hair hanging down over his creased forehead, his head lolling to the side as he plotted a waving trek to the easy chair in front of our television. He fell into it with a loud groan, the springs protesting his gaining weight fiercely. “What’s for dinner?” he mumbled.
My mother closed the open door, looking at him with daggers in her eyes. “Dinner was five hours ago, Nathan,” she answered him tersely. “Maybe if you didn’t hang around at that bar all the time, you would have known that.”
I was in the next room, playing with my Playstation, blowing away rogue soldiers, turning up the volume so I wouldn’t have to listen to yet another predictable fight. The chair creaked again as my father clumsily lifted himself up off of it.
“Don’t talk to me that way, you hear me, bitch?”
Although I wasn’t looking at them, I already knew there would be tears in my mother’s eyes. “Nathan, don’t call me that. I’m tired of this...of the way you...you...”
“You what?” my father said.
“You just gave up on yourself, on your family. This is not what a man does, you hear me? It’s not what he does!”
The loud smack of the back of his hand striking my mother’s cheek startled me so much that at first I thought I had imagined it. They fought, you see, but he had never resorted to hitting her. I leapt up from my crouched position on the floor to see what had happened.
My mother cowered on the living room carpet at his feet, rubbing her already swollen and purple cheek. She was whimpering softly, pathetically, almost like a wounded animal. I could feel nothing but hate surging through every particle of my being.
My father looked over at me, the hand he had used to hit my mother trembling, a disconcerted expression on his face. “Son, I didn’t mean to...Billy, you have to believe me, I would never...I mean...”
“You motherfucker,” I hissed.
His face twisted into incomprehensible rage, his whole frame shuddering with an inner fire he wouldn’t be able to quell without immediate action. My mother screamed, knowing what was going to happen (or so she thought), tugging weakly at his pants leg while he lunged toward me, his withered and cracked hands resembling claws that wanted to tear me apart.
He never reached me.
I concentrated; just like Toby did with the ants, just like I did that day in the woods. Ants, birds, people...everything’s the same, when you think about it.
My father halted in mid-stride, his eyes bulging outward, his neck spasming in jerky movements, like he was impersonating a chicken. He gargled something incoherent, something I didn’t really care about hearing anyway. His face flushed a brilliant, glowing red, his outstretched hands shriveling inward toward his chest. I stood there, eyes open, watching.
With amazing speed, he rammed his pecking head into one of the walls, cracking through the drywall easily, sending a powdery cloud of plaster crumbs swirling into the air. His arms broke through the wall beneath his head, possibly breaking both his knuckles, possibly not. With huffing puffs of breath verging on the maniacal, he took those hands of his and began to work on his face, the horror shielded by what remained of our den’s wall, his knees buckling and eventually folding.
“Nathan?” my mother asked, frightened.
“Mom, don’t...” I tried to warn her, but she wouldn’t listen. She rushed toward my father, tearing him away from the wall. And screamed.
What was left of my father’s face looked like a dog had used it for a chew toy. Blood covered the sagging flesh of his cheeks and temples, his one eye gouged open, the other staring blindly into blank space. His mouth was savagely twisted, pulled downward to reveal red gums and yellowed, broken teeth. Clumps of the missing parts of his face were still bunched in between his wiggling fingers.
He fell to the ground, most likely thankful to be dead. I thought it was over, at that point. But I was wrong.
My mother ran into the kitchen, crying hysterically. I attempted to follow her, sidestepping past my father’s fallen body, until she sprung back into the den with a cleaver in her hands, an untamed, furial look on her face. “What did you do?” she whispered, weaving the knife in front of her, the rectangular blade glinting under the overhead light.
“Mom...” I was honestly confused. “He was hurting you, Mom. I...I needed to do something, he would have hurt me, too.”
“You’re a monster!!” she cried. And then she came for me with the knife. I would have let her; maybe I deserved to die for what I had done.
But then she, too, started to gargle, dropping the cleaver to the floor and bending downward, clenching her stomach. “Mom...” I said, going toward her. That’s when she vaulted upward, involuntarily knocking me backward with her wildly swinging arms. My head banged against the hard wood surface of the end table. There was a brief burst of pain, a sparkle of flooding white light, and then darkness.
Which brings me to where I started.
I adjusted my eyes to see Toby, standing over me, that warm smile on his lips. “What happened?” I asked dreamily.
He helped me up, purposefully steering me away from my mother’s body on the floor. “I heard the commotion through my bedroom window,” he said. “Came over just in time to save you, looks like.” He frowned at my mother, then looked at me sincerely. “I want you to know that I made it quick for her, no suffering, or anything like that. Stomach explosion, kills instantly.”
“My Mom...” I started, still in shock, unable to believe that both of my parents were now dead.
Toby guided me toward the open front door he had walked through only moments before. The smell of kerosene was undeniable, and, right away, I knew what he intended to do. “No, you can’t...you can’t!!!” I hollered.
“But I must,” Toby answered me soothingly, calmly. “Destroys all the evidence. You’re going to stay with me for a little while, bud. Me and you, just like brothers. Don’t worry about my parents...I’ve taken care of them already. You know it’s the only way.”
“Yes,” I nodded. I felt the welcoming pleasure of the cool night air on my sweat-moistened skin, the sparkling gems of the stars in the dark sky above. Submissively, almost in a willing trance, I walked out the door, turning around in time to see Toby take out a book of matches from his pants pocket.
“You go on,” he told me. “I’ll take care of this, and then we’ll plan our next move. Everything’s going to be just fine.”
“Naturally,” I stated, or groaned. I turned around, heading for the sidewalk, pretending not to hear the sizzling sound of the match head being set aflame. The only thing I knew for certain was that Toby was an honest, tried-and-true friend.
He knew how much I hated fires, you see.