A short story
BY JOHN S. OSLER III
The first day of summer after ninth grade, Blaine Cohen burnt all of his journals.
It’s a fairly common practice, burning notebooks at the end of the school year. At least, it is at my school, where everyone has a ranch house out in the middle of Texan nowhere where there’s no one to notice a massive column of smoke coming from blazing math homework and english papers as you vent your pent up anger and anti-intellectualism that’s as much a part of Farrand blood as iron.
Blaine, though, he’s not from one of the old families with a ranch house. He’s not from Farrand, not a Texan, not even a southerner. He hails from Meadville, Pennsylvania, and his only home is a townhouse on the border between the good part of Farrand and the bad part, built into the side of an old riverbed where the train tracks run.
Blaine didn’t light up his schoolwork either, he burnt his personal writing. Every page filled to the margin. Fantasy novels were the most common in his oeuvre, but he had poetry too, and slice-of-life short stories and highly inaccurate nonfiction and page long who-done-it mysteries with no solutions and choose-your-own-adventure stories that always ended in your death and flash fiction and dervish essays and dozens of other kinds of writing I’d never even heard of.
I wasn’t there to see the setup, but I can imagine it, piles tattered of notebooks rising like mountains on his dehydrated brown lawn. Maybe he sprayed some lighter fluid or insect repellent on it before dropping one of his stepfather’s collectable cigarette lighters.
What I did see was Blaine five minutes after the act. He rung my doorbell, and when I came out to see him his face was bright red, his hands on his knees, panting hard, like an excited dog. Blaine was fit, but the Texan summer heat was crushing.
“Hi Blaine,” I said.
“Hi,” he said, his word just another exhausted breath.
“Um, do you want to come in?” I asked.
“Actually,” he said, standing up straight and beginning to speak normally, “I was thinking you could come over to my house.”
“Question: do you have a fire extinguisher?”
“Yeah,” I grabbed it from the closet next to the front door. Blaine could be so weird, so I’d given up trying to understand him years ago. I assumed we’d use the fire extinguisher to propel ourselves in some abandoned shopping cart he found in the woods or to use it for a game of spin the fire extinguisher with his cousins from Waco or something even less orthodox.
We started making our way to his house. After maybe a block of walking he looked up, surveyed the rising plume of smoke, and said, “You know, we should probably run.”
I realized we were going to use the fire extinguisher for its intended and sprinted to his house.
By the time we got there, the notebook pile was ash, the flames had begun rising on his little brother’s rotten wooden playhouse, and tendrils were spreading to the car port.
I unloaded every bit of foam from the fire extinguisher and only made a small wet patch in the growing blaze. So I grabbed my cell phone and made a quick, panicked call to the fire department.
“What is this?” I asked when I was done.
“I burnt all my notebooks,” he said.
I wasn’t sure what was more shocking, the growing inferno melting his brother’s yellow plastic swings or the idea that he would burn his dragon’s horde of notebooks. He’d punched me in the gut and stopped talking to me for a month when I’d spilled water on one by accident. To burn them? All of them? That wasn’t like Blaine as all.
On second thought, it was totally like Blaine. Consistently inconsistent.
“I wanted a clean start,” he continued. “No matter what I did, it always felt like I was repeating myself. I wanted to be reborn as a writer, rising from the ashes of my slaughtered past like a glorious phoenix.”
On a rational level, it was nonsense. On a literary level, it was a cliched metaphor. Either way I was unsatisfied.
The fire was starting to climb up the wooden siding of his house. If the fire department didn’t come soon, there wouldn’t be much of a house left.
“You know, we could have burnt them at my ranch house. I’m going there this weekend, you could come along and-”
Blaine shoved his palm into my sternum and for a moment I couldn’t breath. I stumbled backwards, tripped myself up, and collapsed to the pavement. As I looked up from my low angle on the ground, vision blurry from the pain, I saw Blaine surrounded by flames below and smoke above. His face was red again, this time from fury. He looked positively satanic.
The landlord evicted Blaine’s family, of course. It was the only rational thing to do, when your tenants burn down the carport, swing set, living room, and most of the master bedroom. When the poor guy came to break the news, Blaine’s stepdad punched a few of his teeth out.
To escape his stepdad’s wrath, he stayed with my family all summer and two months of the school year. It was fun, at first, like having a sleepover that didn’t end the next morning. But before long it became more like having an irritable brother with random mood swings who didn’t get along with my actual brothers.
I was almost happy to see him move back to Meadville with his ex-stepmom, because I was finally rid of that shifty mix of envy and pity I always get with him. He’s lived through a lot, and if he keeps going the way he’s been going he’ll suffer a lot more than I will in my lifetime.
But, if life experience is what feeds a writer, then he’ll be the best damn novelist of the century, provided he lives to adulthood and ever has something besides ashes to send to the publishers.
JOHN S. OSLER III is a freshman at Grinnell College in Iowa majoring in English and Psychology. He has written over two hundred satirical articles for his underground newspaper The Southern View, and a few for his high school’s legitimate newspaper,Zephyrus, on the side. He has published short stories in Sprout Magazine, The Phosphene Journal, and Random Sample Review.