Authors: Brent Runyon
For Christina Egloff,
the kindest heart of all.
She said I should write everything I could remember and call it
The Burn Journals
. We spent four years working together on this book. She helped develop the structure. She shaped the tone, rhythm, and
pacing. She pursued perfection in all the details. This book wouldn't exist without her.
February 4, 1991
Falls Church, Virginia
I'm awake, listening to the radio, and Mom is yelling at me to get out of bed. I don't want to get out of bed. I don't want to go to school. Maybe I should play sick, but I've done that too many times this year already.
The bathroom is right next to my bed, so I don't have to put on a robe or anything. I go in and lock the door behind me, and then the door that leads to the hallway, and then the one that separates the shower and toilet from the sink. It's weird that this bathroom has three locking doors, but I like it. If I ever have to hide from anyone, like a burglar or something, or just really want to be by myself, I can come in here and lock all the doors.
The shower is warm when I get in and I suck a little water into my mouth and spit it out again. I'm going to be in such trouble. It's like a black cloud hanging over my head, like in cartoons when it's only raining on the one guy and it follows him around wherever he goes, even indoors. That guy is me.
I run the whole thing back in my head. I did so many things wrong, I can't even believe it. I shouldn't have taken the matches from Adam. I shouldn't have lit that match. I shouldn't have set the whole pack on fire. I shouldn't have thrown them into that locker. And I really shouldn't have put that lock on the locker.
“I'm so stupid,” I say out loud, and turn off the shower. I reach out and grab my big black bathrobe, like the ones boxers wear but without a hood, put it on, and step out into the cold air.
I'm going to wear all black today. I always do. I like my black button-down shirt the best, the cotton one, not the silk one. The black sweater my mom bought for me last week is kind of cheesy, but I like the black dress pants they gave me for Christmas. I've only worn the really hip baggy black pants once. I wore them when my parents took me into D.C. to see the Vincent van Gogh exhibit. I had to read a book in French class about a famous person, and I chose
Lust for Life,
all about van Gogh and how fucked up his life was. I got so obsessed with him when I was reading it. That story about how he cut off his ear and sent it to his girlfriend. God, that's so great. After that, I had my parents take me into D.C. to see that movie
Vincent and Theo,
about how screwed up his relationship was with his brother. I thought it was awesome, but my parents didn't understand it.
I finish getting dressed and go downstairs. My dad would be drinking coffee, staring at the paper, but he's on a business trip in Arizona or Arkansas or something, so there's a big hole at the breakfast table. My mother is moving around the kitchen, cleaning things up, putting my sandwich in a brown paper bag, along with fifty cents for a carton of milk.
She says, “How'd you do on that science test?”
“I don't know.” I do know. I failed it.
“How about that algebra test?”
“I don't know.” Got a C minus.
She walks over and looks at the calendar on the wall with the picture of the volcano exploding and lava flowing like red water down the side. She says, “You have basketball practice after school today.”
“It's at four-thirty.”
I hate it when she talks about schedules. She lives her whole life by that calendar on the wall.
My brother is still in his room, getting ready for high school, but he can leave late because his friend Schmed picks him up. If I wait any longer, I'll be late for the bus. I grab my black book bag and head out the door. The three Jennifers are already there when I walk up. I nod at them and stand on the other side of the bus stop. I shove my hands way down in my pockets and wait. It's cold and raining.
The bus comes. I get on and walk all the way to the back. There's still a seat next to Abby, a girl from down the street. I sit down and turn my body just enough so I can slide my right hand under Abby's sweater. At first she doesn't move, but when my hand touches her belly, she exhales really loud and whispers, “It's too cold.”
I take my hand back, rub it, and blow on it until it's warm, and then I slide it back under her sweater and rub my thumb against the fabric of her bra and the top of her breast. Once I asked her how it came undone and she said, “It's a latch in the front,” and I spent the rest of the ride trying to figure out what that meant. And one time I noticed a hole in the crotch of her pants and tried to put my finger in it, but she said it tickled too much. Today I'm happy just to feel the warmth of her skin.
When we get to school, I pull my hand from under her sweater and get off the bus as fast as I can.
My best friend, Stephen, and I are in homeroom together because both of our last names begin with R, and that makes it the most fun class of the day, which sucks because it's also the first. The homeroom teacher is Mrs. Clagg, the drama teacher, and because she likes us and knows we're the funniest kids in school, she lets us entertain the class occasionally. Last week, we did Abbott and Costello's “Who's on First?” which I screwed up royally because I couldn't remember which one I was supposed to be.
Stephen is Australian and I do an impression of him that is very good. I like to joke him about the time he asked Mrs. Parker, our science teacher, for a rubber, which is what they call an eraser in Australia.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Parker, may I borrow a rubber?” Everyone always laughs at that.
Today Stephen and I don't perform. We sit in the back row, holding copies of
The Catcher in the Rye,
which I haven't read, but I might read because I like books about baseball, and whisper about Megan, the girl we both like.
I say, “Did you call her?”
“Did you ask her out?”
“What did she say?”
“She said maybe.”
“She said she kind of likes someone else.”
This is bad. This is bad because I know how much Stephen likes her. Why do I have to screw this up for him? I hate myself.
Mike and I sit in the back row of Mr. Wolf's civics class, figuring out how to spin a pencil between our fingers like Iceman does in
. I know it's something to do with putting the pencil between your middle finger and ring finger and then you somehow flick it and it winds up between your index and middle fingers.
Mr. Wolf never pays attention to us or asks us any questions because he knows we're smart enough to figure out the answer even if we haven't paid attention for the whole period. Leah sits in front of us and pays attention the whole time. She used to write notes to me, asking who I liked, and drop them onto my desk. I would write back asking her if she wanted to join my religion, the Ace of Spades.
Last year, in seventh grade, I had a lot of time on my hands and I'd come up with crazy ideas just to freak people out. I came up with this idea about a religion based around a god called the Ace of Spades, and we'd all worship the Ace and make sacrifices to him and stuff, and he'd be the one true creator and always wear black. But I never really figured out how to make people believe that he was the one true creator, so I sort of gave up the whole thing. Although, sometimes I still draw the Ace on my papers and tell people about it if I don't have anything else to do.
Leah always thought I was a freak for talking about things like that, but at least she used to pay attention. Now she just ignores me. Maybe because of the time she got a B plus on her report card and started crying because it was the first time she'd gotten anything lower than an A and I called her a stupid bitch for crying about something so stupid.
I used to get all A's too. When we moved here, I was in second grade, and the first thing they did was take me out of class and start testing me. They gave me IQ tests and all sorts of other things to see how smart I was.
I hated that because I'd just moved, and I didn't even have time to make any friends before they took me out of the class and made me feel different. They talked about taking me out of normal school and putting me in a school for smart kids, but I talked them out of it. They put me in this program for smart kids called GT, which stands for Gifted and Talented.
I thought it was okay. I got to learn a lot of different things. We learned about suspension bridges and did all these cool puzzles. I even got to meet an actor that was on
After that, though, I really started to hate GT. I started calling it Goobers and Twerps because all of the kids that were in it were real dorks. None of the cool kids were in it. None. Well, one, if you count me.
I started begging my parents to let me out of the program because it was so stupid, but they didn't want to let me out because it was such a great opportunity. I kept begging and begging, and then, finally, this year, they let me out of GT, and for some reason this is the year I started doing really badly. Now I'm getting F's in a couple of classes.
I meet up with my friend Adam halfway down the main hall and we walk to gym together.
He says, “I swear, man, did you see Catherine's tits in that sweater? She's so stacked, especially for a seventh grader.”
“Yeah, I guess.” I'm thinking about last Friday in gym, when me and a bunch of guys were changing, dropping our pants and pulling up our green gym shorts as fast as we could, and Adam pulled out a book of matches he'd gotten from the 7-Eleven and showed them to me. I don't know why, but I grabbed them and lit one of them on fire and then, because I thought it would be funny to see everybody's reaction, I set the whole pack on fire, and all of a sudden there was a big ball of fire in my hand and I didn't know what to do, so I opened one of the lockers and threw the burning thing in. Then I realized there was a shirt in the locker. I panicked when the shirt caught fire too and I grabbed a loose lock from the bench and put it on the
locker, thinking that it would put out the flames. All the other guys were just standing there staring at me. Then I ran over to the water fountain, cupped some water between my hands, and carried it back to the burning locker. I tried to throw it through the metal slats, but the shirt had just about burnt itself out and now my problem was the smoke. By that time all the other guys had gone out to the gym and I was the only one left in the locker room. So I just opened all the windows to get the smell of burning cotton out and then went out and played volleyball. When we came back in at the end of the period to change, you could still smell the smoke, but the gym teacher just thought somebody had been smoking.
But when I walk into gym today, I see that I didn't get away with it. Mr. Huff is standing in the back of the locker room, right next to the locker that was on fire. He's wearing shorts and a white T-shirt, just like he always does, but he's got his arms folded and he keeps moving his bottom lip over his mustache like he's trying to eat it.
He says, “Okay, boys, settle down. On Friday, there was an incident in the locker room, which I'm positive occurred during this period. Some arsonist among you purposefully set a shirt on fire and then opened the windows to cover his crime. We had the fire chief come over and investigate. He took some fingerprints and we expect the results later today. Boys, whoever did this is in an enormous amount of trouble. Charges will be pressed. He'll be expelled. But now, I'm prepared to give the guilty party a chance to confess. So whoever did it, or if you know who did it, come see me in my office before the end of the period.” His eyes lock with mine on the last word and I feel a cold sickness all over my body, but somehow I manage to keep my eyes from showing that I know he knows it's me.
“What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” I say over and over as we walk out into the gym and start stretching. We're playing dodgeball. Kevin picks up the purple ball and wings it, nailing me in the back, and I go sit on the sidelines for the rest of the game.
Nick beans Adam and he comes over and sits next to me. They were his matches. His fingerprints were on them too.
“What are you going to do?” he says.
“I don't know,” I say.
“Are you going to turn yourself in?”
“Then what are you going to do?”
“I'm going to kill myself.”
“But how will they know that it was you and not me?”
“I don't know. I guess I'll write a note saying I did it.”
“You will? Okay.”
He gets up and starts to walk away and then calls out, “Hey. Thanks.”
Brian and I sit in the back row during English. Sometimes we draw Mötley Crüe and Aerosmith symbols in our notebooks. Brian likes me because I tell him what the books are about when he doesn't read them. I like the Suicidal Tendencies patch on his denim jacket.
“The cops couldn't get fingerprints from a book of matches if it was all burnt up, could they?”
He thinks for a second. He knows this kind of thing. “Yeah, they could.”
“Yeah, because fire doesn't burn away fingerprints.”
“No, unless the person who lit the matches also poured lighter fluid or some other emollient, like gasoline or something, on the matches. Then they wouldn't be able to find anything.”
“But, like, the school doesn't have our fingerprints on file, does it?”
“Yeah, of course they do. They have everybody's fingerprints on file.”
“They do?” I slide a little lower in my seat.
“Yeah. Don't you know anything?”
I am so fucked.
These days in algebra, I sit up front with the fucking brains. I used to sit in the back with Nick and Kevin, two of the coolest kids in school. We'd open Mrs. Loftus's file cabinets when she wasn't looking and steal school supplies. We got Wite-Out, and pencils, and big yellow legal pads, and we'd take them back to Kevin's locker and store them there. We never used them or anything. We just liked stealing. I don't know how they figured out it was us. Kevin thinks they installed a security camera, but I'm not sure.