Brad sits in his backyard and opens the matchbook. He admires how he stole it from a gas station on the way home from school.
He pulls the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head. Steam flows out of his nostrils into the cold air. He rips out all 30 matches and sets them on his lap.
Fog hovers over the lawn, and the last winter snow drains into small rivers that trickle into the street.
Brad looks over his shoulders feeling paranoid. It feels like someone’s watching him. He scans the backyard, trying to catch whoever it is. He knows he’s not crazy. Someone is out there.
Pine trees stand in motionless rows along the property. The branches are so tangled together that the backyard feels like it’s surrounded by forest walls. He can’t get the thought out of his mind that he’s being watched.
He presses a match against the striker strip, and begins counting backwards from ten. He smirks. Ten. Nine. The thrill is coming. Eight. He prepares to light the match.
Fresh blood flows into his brain. Seven. Colors pop out of the scenery. Six. He scrapes the match on the striker strip and feels the explosion coming. Five. A spark flashes. Four. Cold air sucks into his lungs and his excitement peaks. Three. His vision magnifies onto the match. Two. The spark ignites the match. One. Smoke hisses up into his face, and a flame finally lights.
Brad closes his eyes and feels a warm glow on his face. The flame rises like an angel of light in his hands. It’s like he’s being transported into a different dimension. In the blackness, he sees another world coming toward him, where a giant, flaming sun rises on the horizon and all the colors of fire − the reds, yellows, and oranges − all mix together into the brightest light he’s ever seen. He flies deeper into this consuming blaze of color where he stands face to face with the purest form of light. A white light. The source of all light. It’s almost like he’s seeing God.
Brad feels the match burning his fingers. His eyes open. He flicks the burning match away. He reaches for another match and scrambles to light it. He wants the fire to come back. But the match doesn’t light fast enough. He wants to get back to that awesome place. He reaches for a can full of gasoline, and splashes it on the concrete patio in front of him. He strikes more matches, and throws each one at the outside edge of the gas puddle. His muscles twitch – he can’t wait for what’s going to happen next. He knows the puddle could explode at any moment. He’s never had sex before, but he imagines that this has to be what it’s like.
He reaches for the last match in the pack. He holds it up in the air and pauses. Without fire, the backyard looks dull and empty. It’s like he’s stranded in a desert of nothingness. Bad nerves of anxiety and depression crawl around inside of him.
The sun glows like a red ball through the pine-trees as it sets. Most people would find the colors amazing, but to Brad, life is nothing without fire. What a nightmare his life has become, he thinks.
The next sound he hears is like an explosion going off. It sends shock waves through his brain. The garage door in the front of the house opens. Brad jumps out of his chair. Someone is here.
He throws the last match under the deck, and kicks leaves over the gasoline puddle. His heart races as he runs inside and leaps across the kitchen floor. He thrusts his hands into the sink and scrubs his hands with soapy water to hide the smell of smoke. Already this year, he’s gotten in trouble three times playing with fire. Once with matches. Once with gasoline. And the last time he was arrested for the big fire.
His mother yells from the garage. “Brad − help me carry these groceries in.”
Brad shoves his hands into his pockets, and tries to look as normal as he can as he approaches the door. He tries to balance his mind between fantasy and reality as he looks out at his mother. The SUV’s tailgate opens. His mother peers around the corner of the car, and Brad becomes aware that his movements are now being hyper-analyzed by someone who is even crazier than he is.
Brenda studies her son like she’s a mountain lion, and a rabbit just entered the room. Her black coat hangs on her shoulders. Her blue eyes focus on his. A silver necklace hangs on her neck. She pushes her hair back, and her purple sweater stands out as the boldest color in the dark garage. Brad doesn’t trust her.
His mother doesn’t trust him. This deep distrust is why every one of their conversations turns into a fight.
Brenda hands him a grocery bag. They face each other in silence; anger bursting in their eyes. They survey their environment, and plan their attack against the other’s next move.
“How was school today?” His mother asks.
Brad contemplates his response.
“How was it Brad?” She pushes him.
“Fine,” he snaps back.
Brenda follows him inside and turns on every light, so there’s nowhere for him to hide. “How did your meeting with the psychologist go today?”
Brad looks out the window into the backyard and sees the puddle of gasoline covered by a few leaves. His heart sinks. If he gets caught with the gas, he’s busted and could be going back to jail.
Brenda watches her son closer than a normal mother would. She positions herself in the doorway so he can’t run away. She’s determined to get answers out of him. He’s fifteen years old, and growing into a man. She’s never been afraid of him before, but they’re on a collision course and there’s going to be a physical fight eventually.
“Today was your first meeting with the psychologist; I want to know how it went.”
“It was confidential; I don’t want to talk about it.”
“That’s not a good enough answer. These psychologists and courts are part of our lives now, and I want to know what’s happening.”
“Don’t keep pushing me, or you might not like what you find.”
Brenda crosses her arms. She stands in front of the door. “Don’t threaten me in my house, Brad.”
“Then stop pushing me! Or I might give you an answer you don’t want to hear!”
“What is your relationship with the psychologist like? Did you like him?”
Brad’s muscles twitch and he leans against the counter facing her. “Do you want me to lie and say we’re friends?”
Brenda yells at him. “I want the truth. Don’t make fun of me!”
“Fine, but I’m not a stupid dog he’s going to train. I hated him.”
Brenda’s voice explodes. “I’m not your enemy here! I just want to talk with you. You’ll never be happy if you’re at war with everyone in your life!”
“I don’t need happiness to survive.”
“But I do.” Brenda yells back, “All the trouble you’re causing is destroying our family. I can’t let this happen to us.”
Brad scoffs at her, “Then go buy a dog. You’ll have better luck training it than me.”
Brenda tries to calm herself down. “One session isn’t enough, Brad. You have to give him a chance.”
“I gave him an hour of my time and what he did with it was a joke. He didn’t change me; it was a waste of my time.”
She wants to slap him – call him a spoiled brat. “Don’t you get it? You’ve lost your freedom. One more broken rule and you’re going to a juvenile prison for a year. Aren’t you afraid of what could happen?”
Brad grins, “You might be afraid, but I’m not.”
Brenda raises her voice, taunting him back, “Of course you’re not! Nobody’s afraid when they’re full of hate like you are. But your hate won’t last forever. When it’s gone, and you find yourself in a prison cell, I promise you’ll regret all of this.”
Brad re-positions his feet like a football player, preparing to run over his mother if she won’t move.
“This isn’t a game, Brad. This is real life. Why can’t you just get along with the psychologist? No one will ever know who you are unless you let them in.”
“Then find somebody worth talking to.”
“We’re trying, but if you’re waiting for the perfect situation, or the perfect person, it will never happen.”
“Don’t you get it? I don’t care about you!”
Brenda slaps the table. “We’re trying to help you, Brad! The courts, the psychologist… everyone wants to help fix this nightmare, except you. You just keep whining and crying, and that’s not going to get us anywhere.”
“People don’t want to help me. Everyone thinks I’m a freak.”
“You created this mess. Grow up and take ownership of it.” His mother yells.
“Do you think I did it?” Brad asks.
“I don’t trust you, Brad. You lie more than you tell the truth.” She starts crying, “The police who investigated the big fire showed us the evidence, and it all points to you.”
“But I didn’t do it! There’s a real criminal getting away with this while you’re all trying to blame me!”
“But you’re the one who got arrested for it! You should be grateful that you have us on your side. Without our lawyer, you’d probably still be in jail.”
“Sometimes nightmares get worse before they get better.”
The words feel like a punch in Brenda’s gut directly from God. She wonders if every mother is tortured by her child like this.
“Why are you so determined to hit rock bottom, Brad? Do you remember the day in court when you cried and begged the judge and us for another chance? We believed you that day, but now I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
“You couldn’t handle what I believe.”
“Maybe not, but I’m willing to try. I realize I have lost you, but you don’t have to hurt me as I try to find you again.”
Brad feels pity for his mother and smirks at her. “You look so weak standing there crying.”
Brenda screams back at him, “Are you even my son anymore? Who are you?”
Brad yells back, “If you don’t know now, you’ll never know! No stupid psychologist is going to be able to find out either!”
Brad pushes his mother out of the way and jumps downstairs. He slams the bedroom door to block out the sound of his mother screaming.
The only way he can feel good about himself anymore, is by taking pride in the fact that no one has been able to unlock his secrets and figure him out yet.