“I have rights, y'know!” Henry protested.
“Tell it to the judge,” the jailor replied.
“It’s not fair. You can’t put a man in jail for writing a story. It’s just not right. We have laws against that sort of thing.”
“It ain’t gonna do ya any good to complain to me––”
“It’s just not right. They’re barkin’ up the wrong tree if they think––”
“Look … if you got so much to say, why didn’t you say it to the lieutenant?”
Lieutenant? Henry thought. Bully, is more like it. He could still hear his accusing voice ringing in his head:
“Why'd you do it? Huh? Why did you burn that building?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Henry insisted.
“D’ya get some sorta thrill outta lightin’ fires? Is that it?” the lieutenant continued, prodding Henry, trying to browbeat him into giving him the answer he wanted. “Are you one of those sickos that gets a kick outta watchin’ stuff burn? You’re a sick bastard. Didn’t your mom ever tell you not to play with matches?”
“Look … I didn’t do anything. I wrote a story … that’s all. I’m a school teacher for Christ’s sake. Do I look like an arsonist to you?”
“I dunno, what’s an arsonist supposed to look like?”
“I don’t have to answer these questions––”
“Look, Henry … you can make this a whole lot easier on all of us if ya just come clean.”
“I’m not gonna answer any more questions until I see a lawyer.”
He thought there might be a risk in publishing the story, but for a very different reason. He never expected this. Not in a million years.
The story was so real, so alive. Whoever read it would feel like they were right there lighting the match, almost able to feel the warmth of the flames caressing their skin. That’s what Henry loved about the story. It was the kind of story he used to write. The kind of story he used to be lauded for.
“Make your characters real,” Henry always preached to his students. “If your characters aren’t real, the reader won’t believe in them. If the reader doesn’t believe in them, then they won’t join you in your journey. If the reader isn’t right there with you, then they can’t hear the things you hear, they can’t see the things you see, and they certainly won’t feel the things you feel. If you want your characters to come alive, they need to be real.”
The man in the story was quite real. He was a real man with real problems and real emotions. He was a troubled young man with a thirst for lighting fires. “Heroes have shortcomings,” Henry always insisted. “Villains have redeeming qualities. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be real. Nobody is all good or all bad.”
Henry always got a kick out of the different reactions his students would have; the looks on their faces when he would preach to them.
The spoiled rich girl who thought she would be the next Emily Dickinson; she thought it was all a bunch of crap, naturally.
The brooding girl in the third row who always dressed in black, the one who thought an artist needed to suffer in order to be a true artist; she thought the idea seemed rather intriguing.
The troubled young man who always sat by himself in the back of the room; he thought it seemed like an awful lot of work. Henry always tried to impress upon the young man that if you just let it happen, it’s not really all that hard. “It shouldn’t be difficult,” he’d tell him. “If it’s difficult, that means your forcing it. You need to dig down and find that truth somewhere inside yourself. Once you do that, the rest is easy. Then all you need to do is get out of the way and let the story happen.”
Henry considered not publishing the story, but it was so much like the stories he used to write. It was going to be the story to catapult him back into a career that he sorely missed.
He liked teaching, but it was always a compromise. What he really wanted to do was write. He wanted to write and he wanted people to like his work again. He missed rubbing elbows with all the important people. He missed New York. He missed the respect and adulation of his peers. The adoration was like a drug to Henry. There were times when he didn’t think he could live without it. But there was no twelve-step program for this particular drug.
It wasn’t as though the past eight years had been without opportunity. He’d had offers to write for newspapers, he even had an offer to ghost-write a book. But Henry was a proud man; too proud, some would say.
He thought long and hard before sending the story to an old friend, someone he knew from his successful writing days. His friend was now chief editor for a well-regarded literary magazine, the sort of publication Henry’s stories used to appear in on a regular basis.
No one could have foreseen a retired fire marshal from Dover reading the story while waiting for a root canal, but it just so happened to be his dentist’s favorite magazine. The details of the case were etched in that marshal’s memory forever. When he read the story in the magazine, he felt a pit in his stomach. He was certain he was reading a confession.
It happened years ago, back when he was driving a hook-and-ladder in Newark … but in many ways it was like it had happened yesterday. It would have been long forgotten by now if not for those four children who had been playing in that abandoned warehouse.
The fire in the magazine wasn’t at a warehouse in New Jersey, it was an apartment building in Ohio. But he knew it was the same man. Most of the particulars were actually quite different, except for one thing: there was something written on one of the walls inside that warehouse back in Jersey. He was certain the arsonist had written it. It was five little words, spray-painted on one of the brick walls inside the building, right near where the fire had been started:
The flame burns inside me.
Five little words. He had seen it himself. There was a lot of soot, but you could still make it out. He was quite certain he had never said anything about it to any newspaper or television reporters. It seemed immaterial.
In the story in the magazine, a young man obsessed with fire stands outside a burning building and mutters those exact words to himself as he watches the blaze.
The retired marshal thought it was too coincidental. The district attorney agreed. Now, Henry was sitting in a county jail, wondering how all of this could be happening.
He’d given up trying to plead his case to the jailor; that effort was futile. He let his mind wander ... back to his time as a teacher. He thought about that troubled young man from his class, the one for whom everything was such hard work. He never thought the young man showed much promise. But there was something that made Henry want to try; his own ego, perhaps. He wanted to think he could save every student.
The boy’s stories were always very shallow. The good guys were very, very good and the bad guys were very, very bad. In all of his stories, the bad guy won all the battles. “Try to find a way to make your characters more real,” Henry pleaded with him. “Give them real thoughts and real emotions. Think of people you’ve known in your life … people you’ve loved … people you’ve hated. Think of your own thoughts and feelings … what makes you happy, what makes you sad, what makes you angry, what makes you cry. Those are the things that make you who you are. Give those things to the people in your stories and they will become real.”
Henry figured he must have gotten through. The boy wrote a wonderful story with characters so full of life that they jumped right off the page. His story was about a young man with genuine struggles and believable emotions; a desperate man who finally finds solace in his dark obsession with fire. His lust for the destructive power of the flames was symbolic of his own self-destruction. Henry was impressed. It reminded him of the way he used to write.
He praised the boy’s story, but the young man remained withdrawn. He seemed glad that his teacher liked his work, but it didn’t seem to cure the young man of his troubles. Somehow, Henry knew it wouldn’t.
“Hey, Shakespeare,” the jailor said, interrupting Henry’s journey down memory lane. “Your lawyer’s here to see you.”
Henry sat up and straightened his clothes a bit, trying to iron them out with his hands. He knew he could end all of this right now if he just swallowed his pride and told the truth. But he didn’t think he could do that. He just didn’t think he could admit to what he had done. He knew if he did, he’d never work again. He knew if anyone found out what he did, he’d never be able to sell another story as long as he lived.
He thought he would try instead to fight the charges. It was only one little sentence written on a wall in some warehouse; not much for a district attorney to hang his hat on. He could have heard that sentence anywhere. He could have heard it from some firefighter for all anybody knew. But he didn’t.
He knew they couldn’t prove anything. How could they? He wasn’t there and he didn’t light that fire. A good lawyer could get it thrown out.
No matter how much Henry thought about the charges he faced, he couldn’t stop thinking about that boy from his class. He wondered how the young man was doing these days. That was some time ago; he would be almost thirty years old by now. He wondered if he was still troubled. He wondered if he’d gotten any better at his writing. More than anything, though, he wondered if he was still lighting fires.
© 2003 John Ethier, all rights reserved.