The hottest, hungriest summer of my life was spent in an unremarkable semi-desert town. I was fourteen and I lived with my unemployed father. Dad used to make his living as a manager at a small company downtown. After the recession began, his business was one of many that were forced to shut down.
It was mid-June, already 9PM, the sun just beginning to descend. I heard his car pull up in the driveway, and I waited for a few moments for the front door to open. It didn't, so I ventured from my room and went outside to meet him.
Our backyard was grassy and uneven. On the patio, we had a fire pit, an old glass table, and a few colored canvas chairs. My father sat on a blue chair, chain-smoking and pretending to look at a newspaper. A brown drink sat beside him on the table and I could see where the ice had melted into the whiskey.
"Hey kid," he said. He didn't look up from his newspaper.
"Hi, Dad." I sat next to him.
"How was school?" he asked.
"It was good."
"Good." He breathed out cigarette smoke. "Have a plum." He gestured toward the bowl of purple fruits on the table. My dad loved his plum tree; every summer its leaves grew bigger, its trunk grew thicker, and its fruit tasted sweeter.
I grabbed a plum but didn't eat it.
"So, I don't have a job anymore," he finally said.
"Really," I said.
"Yeah, really." He looked up from the newspaper, his eyes traveling just to the right of me. "Things will be tight for awhile, kiddo." My father took a drink from his glass. "Do you think you can do me a favor, Rena?" he asked.
"Keep getting those good grades," he said. "You are my worst kid."
I rolled my eyes. "I'm your only kid." My dad dropped his newspaper on the table. He looked at me sideways and he grabbed my foot, took off my shoe and tickled my feet. I shrieked with laughter and his deep, low laugh reverberated in the warm air.
Eventually, the sun fell asleep and the warm night grew dark. After an hour or two, I went inside. For a moment, I waited for him to follow, but he stayed on the porch most of the night, drinking his brown and smoking his cigarettes into ashes.
Time dragged, money dwindled, and the summer became hot, blazing, and dry. I spent most of these summer days with Dani.
Despite the heat, Dani wore studded leather jackets and denim vests. She smoked when she could and swore when she couldn't. She wore heavy eyeliner and dyed her hair with stolen dye. Dani always had a scowl on her face – to see her smile usually meant trouble.
We met in art class the previous May. The air conditioning was broken and we were all sweating puddles onto our papers. The teacher decided to torture us with a partnered project, and she tried to pair Dani with one of the jock boys.
"Gross," the boy said. "The dyke smells weird."
Dani's scowl deepened. "At least I'm not a moron."
The teacher blinked her tired eyes and partnered Dani and me together. The teacher fanned herself with her thick cardstock papers, muttering about how one day the heat would burn this town into a fine, black dust.
Dani was the only girl in our grade who might have been poorer than me. She and her mom lived in the Avery Apartments. The rent is cheap but you don't go outside after dark. Dani's mom had two jobs. She was a cashier at the art supply store and she was a nanny for the Evans family, who had the biggest house in the rich part of town.
After school ended, we smoked cigarettes and, sometimes, we drank. We played video games at Dani's house and complained about our stupid little town and our stupid little lives. We listened to Paramore, The Misfits, and Nirvana and ate whatever snacks and sodas we could get our hands on.
We also spent a lot of time at the edge of town in a field near our houses. Mansions and big homes sat on the east side of the field; dingy apartments and mobile homes spotted the west. Only one road at the south edge of town connected the two sides. The road was by the shopping center, the biggest hub of the town. In the center of our field, there was nothing but weeds, bugs, and rusted train tracks. We sat on the abandoned tracks, getting sunburned, drinking stolen sodas, and wishing we could leave.
From the tracks, we could see Evans's mansion. It looked like it'd been there first, like the rest of town was added on as an afterthought. The mansion must have been four stories tall and just as wide.
"I wonder how he got all that money," Dani said.
"Blackjack and hookers," I joked.
"I bet that's how he spends it!" she said.
"I bet he spends it all on his stupid bird," I said, referring to Evans's giant white cockatoo.
"Ba-kaaak!" Dani flapped her arms around and crossed her eyes. "Cracker!"
We laughed for a moment, and then the scowl returned to her face. "My mom says she thinks he caught the thing in the wild as a trophy or something."
"That's messed up."
"Yeah. Evans is a dick."
Evans was a constant subject of our teenage angst. Why was he so rich? Where did all the money go? What was it like out there, on the east side of the field?
"Dude, it's hot," Dani said one day. "Why don't we ever go to your house?"
"Well, my dad can't cook unless you like peanut butter and cheese sandwiches," I said. "And," I rolled my eyes, "he's an asshole."
He hid the bottles behind cleaning supplies and old clothes, thinking I wouldn't find them. He said he was still looking for another job; there just weren't any. He told me he'd only had a glass of wine but he stumbled and slurred. His swollen face told me his liver was popping out of his abdomen.
He started sleeping all day and couldn't sleep at night. He couldn't eat anymore; he was throwing up and his clothes were getting loose. He just has the flu, he said. He'd be better soon.
But he wouldn't be. And I knew that there was nothing I could do to save him because I was fourteen, broke and hungry, and I was every bit as fucked up as he was.
At the end of July, Evans fired Dani's mom. I told my father he looked sick and yellow. He said he was fine.
The sun burned our skins to a red crisp but Dani and I went to the field anyway. She glared at Evans's mansion like a feral cat. I watched my torn-up shoes.
We listened to the sun crack the yellow weeds and the bugs jump around our heads. She smoked, I watched. She was angrier than usual and would stop smoking for a second just to spit into the grass and say, "I hate him."
"Me too," I said halfheartedly for the tenth time.
She puffed her cigarette. "I just want to take something that he loved and break it. He fired my mom and he sits there in his goddamn mansion, swimming in cash – he doesn't even know what it's like to be down here."
"He doesn't," I said. "The only thing he cares about is that stupid bird, right?"
"The bird…" Dani flicked her cigarette a few times. "That's it, nerd." She looked up at me, expecting me to read her mind.
I looked at her. "What?"
She was frustrated – the answer was obvious and like everyone else, I was too stupid to see it.
"We kill it," she threw her cigarette butt on the ground and stomped on it. "We kill the stupid bird. Then he'll have a taste of what it feels like –" she stomped the butt again – "to be down here."
I paused. "I don't know, Dani, that sounds, uh…"
She scowled. "Sounds what?"
"You don't have to come, nerd. But I'm doing it, tonight. You can meet me here if you want. But if you're a minute late, I'm doing it myself."
Dad passed out that night into a heap under the table. I moved his limbs into what I hoped was a comfortable position and covered him with a thin blanket.
I planned to humor Dani, who was, as I knew by now, all bark and no bite. I figured that I would just talk her out of it and we would laugh and smoke and brood about being teenagers like we always did.
I snuck out of my house, where the darkness was warm and the crickets were loud. I made it to the tracks and caught sight of her walking toward me, her hood pulled down, bent and walking with purpose. I saw her face was bruised and I took a step back.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"My mom found out I've been smoking her cigarettes and stealing her booze. She also found out that I'm failing some classes and she kicked me out."
"She kicked you out? Do you need to stay somewhere?" I felt dread at the thought of her seeing my father passed out underneath the table.
"Maybe, Rena, I don't know. Let's just get this over with, alright? I just need a smoke first. Do you want one?"
Although I normally decline, I felt my head nod. After a few minutes, our cigarettes burnt out and our palms nervous with sweat, we began the trek toward Evans's mansion.
"Shit. He still has lights on," she said.
"I guess we'll have to wait then. Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Of course I'm sure. I've got nothing to lose now, nerd."
"Do you smell that?" Dani asked after a few minutes.
I turned around.
"Oh my God."
"What?" Dani asked.
The field was in flames. The fire ran across the yellow weeds, feasting on it, eating it up.
"Shit, what do we do now?" I said, my voice verging on a shout.
"Shut up, nerd! You didn't stamp out your smoke all the way!"
"How do you know it wasn't you?"
"Shut up and run!"
We ran the only way we could – forward. To Evans's house. We jumped the fence and ran through his backyard. "We need to call the police –"
"And tell them what, that we started it?"
We jumped the other side of the fence and ran silently to my house. I told Dani to wait outside, just for a minute.
I went inside. "Dad?" I knelt down next to him on the floor and watched him breathe. He didn't stir.
My heart was beating and my arms were full of jelly. I took my dad's clunky cell phone and went back outside.
"We have to call." I looked at the field. The fire was spreading. Evans's house would be hit at any moment.
She looked at the ground. "Just hide the last of my cigarettes."
I nodded. "The story is that you were kicked out of your mom's house for failing classes. You came over here and saw the fire. Then we decided to call. Right?"
I went back inside and found a hiding place for Dani's smokes. I took a breath and dialed.
Dani and I sat outside for a long time and watched the field burn. The fire was a strange, hungry thing. It devoured the field in starved swallows, sending up flumes of smoke into the sky. I wondered then if the fire was a living thing; hungry and eating and multiplying, transforming the landscape into blackened ground where weeds would one day grow again.
From where we stood on my porch, we could see Evans's mansion begin to burn, and the flashing lights and pumping water began to assault the burning field. The shadows of the night flickered in the fire and I witnessed something strange. It was the shape of a bird in a shadowed fiery sky, soaring up, out and away with the ashes, chasing a better sky, a better life.
In the coming weeks, the damage of the fire was repaired. Fortunately, the fire was contained quickly enough to minimize the damage. Few houses were touched and no one was hurt. Some said that was a miracle. The true miracle was that the authorities did not suspect arson – many suspected the fire was inevitable; that it was only a matter of time until that dry, hot field grabbed a spark. The only apparent loss was Evans's bird. The bird's empty cage remained a topic of debate. Some swore the bird died in the fire, its ashes scattered across the landscape. Others said the bird had escaped and reclaimed its wild nature.
Dani went back to her mom’s the next day. I like to think they didn’t fight too much when she returned home. Though the fire had spared us, the dust in the atmosphere lingered for days, and I think it made us remember that one day very soon, we would join the dust and the ashes and settle down into the earth.
My dad was beside himself, ignorant that I may be guilty. “My worst kid,” he said.
My dad never could stop drinking, not completely. Like many things in life, Dad’s bottles came in phases. But at least for awhile, he was a little more alive. He finally found a management job at the shopping center’s gas station. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best we could do. We could eat peanut butter sandwiches again, and the plums were sweeter than ever.
Dani and I talked about the fire for years afterward in hushed giggles on late nights. We felt a certain heaviness and guilt at having started it, paired with the elation at having gotten away with something huge. On one of those nights, I asked her if she’d seen the bird.
“I don’t know. I thought I’d imagined it,” she said hesitantly.
“I thought I saw it, too,” I whispered.
“I thought it was a phoenix,” she said, and her wide eyes looked up at the ceiling as if it were happening at that moment in the dark. “It rose with the flames and spiraled up with the ashes. Then it soared away, like it had been reborn, like it had some kind of purpose…”
She sucked in a breath. “Later, you know, I felt that maybe if he could do that, maybe I could too. Fly up with him.”
“Yeah,” I whispered. “Maybe we could.”
She looked at me and smiled. “Maybe we could, Rena.”