I waited until it was dark to leave the house. I listened carefully as I snuck past Mom’s bedroom to hear her breathing. She sounded like she was asleep, drawing deep, full breaths. I waited outside her door for a moment, poised to bolt back to my room if she stirred. She let out a little snore and I knew I was in the clear. I crept down the stairs and slid out the front door, being careful not to let the latch click into place too loudly.
I took a moment on my front porch to appreciate the night before me. It was a clear summer night, the kind that just begs teenagers to crawl out of the woodwork of the suburbs to get into trouble. I could barely see the stars past the fluorescent street lights, but the moon claimed the street for herself. I felt calm as I stepped out into the street, patiently awaiting whatever this June night had in store for me. My phone buzzed in my pocket. I checked my messages. Ellie wanted to know where I was. I texted her, “OMW” and set off down the street towards the woods.
I could see other teenagers emerging from the shadows of their backyards, or bedroom windows on the ground floor. Most people stayed close to the houses, where there were plenty of shadows to hide in, just in case. But I chose to walk on the sidewalk, approaching the woods at the end of the block. The sidewalk dropped off as the street curved away from our neat houses, away from the looming trees in front of me. I could smell the smoke from the bonfire, even from the street, and I knew something was very wrong.
I could smell the smoke from the bonfire, even from the street, and I knew something was very wrong.
We had all agreed to never let the fire get so large that someone could tell from the street that it was there, that we were there.
I began to run. I tore branches away from me as I followed the barely-there path that all of us had formed after weeks of traveling silently back into the trees. As I ran, smoke clouded my vision. It made its way into my lungs, choking me as I entered our secret clearing.
Ever since summer had started, since high school had released us from its jaws (most of us graduating, but having nothing to do all summer while we waited for dorms in far-away places to call us “home”), we had all gathered together to participate in the neighborhood tradition of going into the forest to get into trouble. This was something seniors looked forward to all year, a ritual that all of us heard about until we were finally the ones participating in it. There was no question, you went into the forest and the hazy summer nights would take hold of your slightly boozy adolescent minds.
On a normal night, the clearing was quiet. Covered in soft grass, the kind that is perfect for picnics and stargazing. In the middle, we built a fire-pit, which gradually (accidentally) grew until every night there was no longer a sweet little campfire- but a glorious bonfire. We transported ourselves back to when we played cowboys and Indians, whooping and running around and around the roaring flames. We lost ourselves in music and dancing, eating burnt hot dogs and dripping marshmallows. It was the perfect place to be.
But tonight, the clearing wasn’t covered in soft grass. There were no hot dogs, no marshmallows. No one had their ipod with the speakers for us to dance to. All I could see was fire. I saw Ellie emerge from the fire, sprinting toward me, her arms outstretched. For a moment, I considered how any number of local photographers or artists would work their whole lives, and never capture flames and fear in the way I was seeing them on my friend’s face.
All I could see was fire. I saw Ellie emerge from the fire, sprinting toward me, her arms outstretched. For a moment, I considered how any number of local photographers or artists would work their whole lives, and never capture flames and fear in the way I was seeing them on my friend’s face.
But the thought was forced out of my head as Ellie barreled into me.
“We have to go!” she cried, her voice hoarse. The wall of flames was terrifying. I could feel the heat singeing my hair, and the smoke continued to choke me.
“Is there anyone else in there?!” I asked Ellie as she tried to pull me away.
“There was some guy with gasoline, Allison!” Ellie screamed at me, “He just showed up to the bonfire and we all invited him over and he poured gas all over the fire! Anyone who was sitting right by it is a goner by now, we have to go!” Ellie was frantic.
Despite the heat from the fire behind us, her words chilled me to the bone. A guy with gasoline? Who would do that? We had all heard of some pretty fucked up things happening during these summer hangouts in years past. My older brother claimed that his year, they all got together and slaughtered a pig, trying to summon demons. My older sister said that one year, all the boys dressed up in realistic zombie costumes, and hid in the darkness until the perfect moment to strike, sending all the girls (Who had briefly wondered where all the guys were, then returned to business as usual) running back out of the woods. But no one has ever mentioned murder.
My head was reeling. Ellie didn’t stop pulling me until we were outside of the woods, and had sprinted a few blocks down the street. The people who had been behind me saw us emerge, Ellie screaming at everyone to “Get the hell out of here! There’s a murderer!” and they trotted back to their own houses, watching cautiously as the flames became visible from the street. Someone called the fire department. They came wailing into our neighborhood, brandishing hoses and bags of sand.
Ellie and I watched silently as the flames were conquered. The neighborhood came outside to see the whole ordeal, to ask questions, to worry about the wind blowing sparks towards our neat houses, lighting them ablaze. But when the fire died, the firefighters approached the parents watching, somber faced. There were a few moments of speaking that Ellie and I could not hear, and then the cries of those parents, hearing about the loss of their children.
We returned home.
Later on the news, they would report the deaths of three of us. Three teens who had just been trying to drink wine coolers, play cowboys and Indians, and eat burnt hotdogs on a warm night. They reported the death of a fourth person as well. It was identified that he had been an adult male, but they were never able to figure out who he was.
We stopped sneaking into the shadows at night. We stayed wrapped up tight in our bedrooms until college called us away. Ellie was never the same. She was haunted by the images of what had been a fun night, turned sinister and then tragic. None of us ever spoke about what had happened there.
I knew that someday the story of that night would dissolve and warp into an urban legend, perfect for scaring away teenagers for generations to come. But some of us were really there, and have real scars from the things we saw, and the loss of the people we knew. Our mothers and fathers are scarred from the loss of their children, or their neighbor’s children. In the end, the marks of what happened there will never go away, and we’ll forever ask ourselves,
“Who brought the gasoline?”
I will be transfering to CU Boulder in the fall of 2016, following my 4 interesting semesters here at Aims! I love to read, write, and fall into internet-black-holes in my spare time. My one eyed cat is my muse.