Remnants of a passing storm formed the lazy fog drifting over the lake. East Hampton, Connecticut waited in silence, but for Arson Gable, this silence was louder than a gunshot. Like it or not, this place was the only thing he could call home. Pathetic, he reasoned day in and day out. After all, the streets and corners knew his name better than even he did, and faceless as they were, they reminded him there was no going back.
Arson looked up to find a bright light high in the sky. Somewhere far enough to notice him, but close enough to burn still, fighting its way through patches of rimless clouds and wandering fog. He blinked, welcoming the dark rush of black behind his eyelids. As Arson approached the dock, his mind returned to thoughts of Danny, the only childhood friend he ever had. Dim mornings somehow made each memory more real. Hard to let go, even harder to erase. Was he always here, always watching? Odd how seven years can come and go without a warning, as if the world blinks and somehow forgets to open its eyes again.
It was never his grandparents’ intention to stay anywhere for too long, but it seemed East Hampton had a part of them now, a part of him. “One day we’ll be like the rest of them,” he recalled Grandpa saying. A man of ideals, empty dreams and hopes Arson could never freely call his own. Eventually, his grandparents grew tired of running. This dull corner of the world seemed quiet enough for them to believe starting over again as normal folks was possible. “Forget what happened all those years ago in Cambridge,” Grandma urged so many times Arson imagined her screaming it to him while he slept. But it was always there, the memory, a splinter in the back of his mind. No going back. Ever.
Arson staggered across the dock, images of child-play and stupid laughter pouring in all at once. Danny’s face stuck out the most, and behind that, he glimpsed their old home in Cambridge, and flashes of his first birthday. His mother wasn’t there, though, nor dear old dad, but that day was recounted to him only once by his grandfather and it stuck. Nevertheless, with every joyous recollection, distilled regret always followed. He sometimes imagined what it might be like to wake up and find strong hands choking the life out of him, or to get thrown in jail by an angry agent and be forgotten.
Arson was an unusual boy. He knew it. And he hated it. The ancients might have even gone so far as to call him cursed. Whatever lingered inside his bones left as quickly as it came, finding him in short moments of fear or rage. Over the years, he’d asked to be examined, to locate the source of his imperfection, and if possible, terminate it. After all, why did he sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in a fever? How come his sweat burned when it hit the ground? What was he? But Grandma argued there wasn’t much of a point in talking to no-good doctors or even finding out answers to questions he was better off not asking in the first place. Some people were just born with demons, right?
Arson swallowed hard and threw a stone into the water, watching its slow ripples spread, soon losing his own reflection. He wondered why he was the way he was, wondered why those little girl’s parent’s quit looking all of a sudden, why the investigation against two stupid boys evaporated. Perhaps they didn’t care about retribution, or maybe they were just sick of chasing shadows. Would he ever see Danny again, or was his friend resolved to visit only as a figment of his imagination?
I want to be free, Arson thought out loud, as nausea crept up his belly. While boats raced along the surface of the lake, he stared in awe. He noticed each vanishing vessel, and thought of how easily they traversed across the water and then were gone. There was a man, once, he’d heard, who walked upon water and didn’t sink. Maybe he could, too. Maybe, one day, there would be those who believed in him.
Arson’s gaze moved over the lake, across to the other side where Mandy Kimball lived, and her neighbor, his science teacher from the ninth grade. Then his eyes drew back to the ripples spread out before him, to the dying cabin behind him, as he spit into the current. Beads of sweat streamed down his bony frame, his ash-brown hair trapped inside the gritty creases of his forehead. Arson listened for the lake’s soothing melody but couldn’t hear it. He focused instead on the sound his feet made atop the floorboards of the splintering dock. Kind of like the way swings sound in cheap horror flicks—empty, rocking back and forth to no melody at all. Closer to the edge he came, lingering.
With shut eyes, he stepped out onto the water and began to sink. In seconds, peace abandoned him to the lake’s shallow world. In a blink, he was inside a memory, looking through the eyes of a ten year old boy.
“I don’t like fire,” he heard the boy say, so frightened, so naive. “It’s dangerous.”
“Don’t be such a wimp,” came his older friend’s taunts. “Just light it already.” With each shove and curse, the memory turned alive; it was as if it knew he was watching and didn’t like it. The pain stung still, images wilting and tossed against the shores of chaos. Lightless. Breathless. A thick blanket of fear and horror.
I. Hate. Fire.
Arson could feel the cold, even remember the way everything sounded, or how there was no sound at all. Until the night shattered. The weight of remembering dragged him further down, while he sucked in a filthy gulp of water, his coffined body jerking. The veins on his head began to swell. He was choking. Time to return to the real world, to release the nightmare once more into the dark of the lake. The struggle eventually pulled him to the surface. Slinging his head back and forth, Arson dragged himself against the tide, falling upon dead grass. He tasted the grit of sandy dirt in his teeth. Panting, Arson stood up slowly and staggered toward the cabin, where Grandma Kay’s shadow guided him in.
It was her way of showing him mercy, or so she said. A dive into the lake at dawn usually resulted in a more painful punishment than fixing a leaky roof, which Arson would’ve had to eventually do anyway.
Grandma’s reasons for why she did things, why she treated him a certain way, seemed to get worse with time. It was no secret that she loathed the idea of him diving into the lake, especially if fully clothed. She even claimed there were toxins in the water from pollution that supposedly killed a bunch of fish years back. But maybe it was a fair trade. He’d returned to the lake all the toxins he’d soaked up with every vile thought. And when he contemplated a bit, Grandma’s logic didn’t seem all that twisted. She probably just didn’t want him bringing any of that evil back with him, infected or not. Arson made a promise he knew he couldn’t keep, said it wouldn’t happen again. She replied by handing him a hammer and a bucket of tools.
The muggy June morning caused his palms to sweat. Arson almost lost his grip on the bucket during the climb to the top, but regained his balance before losing any supplies. Spiderman would have been proud. Reading comic books all his life came in handy now and then.
Being a good man of limited means, Arson’s grandfather took care of the cabin to the best of his ability, even showed Arson how to repair the roof years back. “If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself,” he recalled. But in spite of his grandfather’s hard work, it was clear that time eventually wears away all things, even hope.
Arson worked for about an hour, when carelessness got the best of him. A loose, jagged shingle sliced through the palm of his hand. Blood gushed from the wound onto his leg. He swore, as the sting began to overwhelm him, tossing the hammer and trying to keep pressure on the cut.
“What happened?” Grandma’s voice echoed from below. “I heard you cussin’ all the way in the kitchen. You know how I feel about that.”
“Sorry, Grandma.” Arson was glad she left it at that. Sitting on the roof, he turned slightly toward the sun. It’s a gusher, he thought to himself. But then, as he stared in amazement, he watched the wound cauterize itself in seconds. It burned.
“Arson, are you all right up there?”
He looked down at the remaining scar, struggling to make sense of it, neglecting the mess on his clothes. “Just fine, Grandma,” he called down.
“That roof isn’t going to fix itself. If I have to spend another night with drops of water hitting my face, I promise you’ll regret it.”
“All right,” Arson said. “I’ll get back to work.”
By evening, the task was complete. He braced himself and watched the sunset from the rooftop, as it melted against a fluorescent sky. Arson listened, as Grandma concluded her tea conversation with the man she loved. Moments later, their time together ended with laughter, and he knew it was safe to come down. Arson caught her while she was clearing away the silverware and china.
“Did you finish the roof, love?” she asked in a pleasant voice.
“Yes, Grandma, it’s healed…I mean, fixed.”
“Marvelous. Say, whatcha mean healed?”
Arson grabbed the ladder, “I’m really tired. I’m not thinking straight right now. Maybe I just need some rest.”
“I think you’re right. You’re not making any sense at all. Say, do you want a piece of cake before I put it away? Grandpa didn’t eat much tonight. He’s never been much for carrot cake.”
“No thanks. Not hungry,” he said.
“Suit yourself. Put your tools away and get on up to bed then. A growing boy like you needs his rest. I hope you learned your lesson, though. I don’t like you spending so much time in that miserable lake. The whole notion just doesn’t sit well with my soul.”
Arson nodded with reluctant eyes and put away the ladder and the tools. Then he rushed inside the cabin and up to his room to read a comic book before dozing off. Maybe tonight, his dreams would be different.