Authors: Corina Vacco
He takes off his jeans and ties them around his face. A T-shirt isn’t a thick enough filter, not for where he’s going.
“Don’t go into the fire,” I say. “You’ll die.”
“Goddammit.” Even with jeans covering most of his face, Randy still looks worried. “Just do what I told you.”
I start crawling. My fingernails are full of dirt. I see a million worms, blink twice, and then the worms are gone. There’s a sharp pain on the right side of my head, a fierce headache in a specific spot, but at least I can breathe again, sort of. The fumes aren’t as bad down by the mud and weeds. Maybe I’ll make it back to the campsite alive.
Please, Charlie. Be alive
The sky is churning, a yellow gray with bits of stars peeking through heavy smoke. I have chemical blisters on the backs of my hands. I blink, hoping they’ll go away like the worms, but the blisters are real. My skin is bubbling.
Your skin is an organ
, Cornpup once said.
It can breathe. It can die
The campsite is already cleared out. Valerie and Jill have taken Viper and the campers back to Cardinal Drive. Cornpup went home to call 911 and get his gas mask for Molly, paper surgical masks for the rest of us. There are piles of vomit on some of the sleeping bags.
“It was so horrible. The kids all started puking.” Molly is hyperventilating. “Where’s Randy? Where’s Charlie?”
I close my eyes. I was hoping Charlie might be here.
they?” Molly screams at me.
“Randy’s looking for him.” I can’t even bring myself to say Charlie’s name out loud. I start searching for him in stupid places. Behind the cooler. Under a blanket. Inside bags of chips.
What was he thinking?
I wonder. Why would he set a chemical plant on fire with two cans of gasoline? Not smart. Not smart at all.
Molly puts out the campfire with ice water from the cooler. “I can’t leave without Randy.”
We sit on rocks in the darkness, coughing and not speaking. Cornpup returns with a jug of water, which seems so dumb, because
we’re too freaked out to be thirsty. When he sees me and Molly are the only ones here, he looks away. He knows what I know: Charlie wouldn’t mess with us for this long. Cornpup thinks it’s all over now. He thinks Charlie’s never coming back.
“Here,” he says. “Use this water to wash out your eyes.”
The Mareno Chem fire is raging, unstoppable. The sky is full of sirens and terrible colors. I have the most blisters, but Cornpup’s skin is swelling. Molly’s eyes are puffed up and orange, like dried apricots. We hear Randy before we see him.
“He sounds like he’s crying. Doesn’t he sound like he’s crying?” Molly clasps her hands together and starts to pray so hard, I can see ugly green veins bulging from her neck. “Help us,” she says over and over again. “Make Charlie be okay. Please.”
“Stop it,” Cornpup snaps. “Your God is a bully. Your God is sick.”
Randy appears, wearing only boxer shorts and combat boots. He’s holding Charlie, limp and gray, in his arms.
It’s the chemicals. Making me see things. Charlie’s skin isn’t really gray. Everything is fine
. Molly jumps up and pulls the denim mask from Randy’s face. She touches Charlie’s cheek and jerks her hand away real quick. Her face turns phosphorus white. “You told me not to pray!” she shouts at Cornpup. “Are you happy now?”
Cornpup shouts back at her, “You can’t blame me for this. I wasn’t even here when Charlie left the campsite with two cans of gasoline. Why didn’t you stop him?”
“Shut up,” I say to both of them. “Just
up. Charlie’s fine. He’s gonna be fine.”
Randy is on his knees. He tries giving Charlie mouth-to-mouth, tries pumping his chest, but nothing changes. Charlie’s body is like wax. Cornpup can’t find a pulse.
“I don’t understand,” I whisper. “He didn’t go into the fire. He didn’t get burnt. Why isn’t he okay?”
Randy says, “Where’s the ambulance? I thought I told you to call an ambulance.”
Cornpup says, “They’re coming, but … Randy … it might be too late. I think it’s too late.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Randy says, but his voice is shaky.
I vomit in the bushes, again and again, until the paramedics arrive, cup an oxygen mask over Randy’s mouth, and zip Charlie into a bag.
No. I didn’t see that. Charlie is okay. Charlie is invincible
I wish someone would tell Molly to stop screaming.
The paramedics, the police, they’re all talking at once:
“… arson … tragedy … biggest fire I’ve ever seen … lots of questions …”
“… he was standing too close to the fumes … fried his brain … Why are you kids out here?”
“… warehouse is gone … evacuation … lucky they all aren’t dead … blisters …”
“… Don’t these kids have parents? … chemicals … Is this the brother? … notify the family …”
“… don’t really know to what extent the fire is spreading … nerve damage …”
Randy says, “Get your hands off me.… What is wrong with you people? … doctors … Why didn’t you even try to help him?”
I have dirt in my mouth. I can feel grit in my teeth. My right thumb is twitching, and I can’t make it stop. Maybe this is my fault. I noticed the gas cans, but I didn’t empty them in the grass. I could’ve saved him.
Flashing red lights. I pass out for a second and think of the lockbox Charlie gave me, how I wasn’t supposed to open it, except I did open it, this morning, and there was nothing inside but a small horsehair paintbrush.
I am conscious again. I have an oxygen mask on my face. Someone puts me on a stretcher. I say, “I want to ride with Cornpup,” but they don’t know who Cornpup is.
I think of Charlie and his matches, Charlie and his fires, Charlie who hated safety gear, Charlie who hated weakness. I picture him standing close to those final flames, the furious heat, inhaling the fumes on purpose, deep breaths, feeling like a god. He went to sleep happy, invincible as far as he knew. And he left us the way he was meant to leave us, with sirens, a yellow sky, evacuations, and a punished, ruined chemical company smoldering on the horizon.
On the way to the hospital, I fall asleep in the ambulance. I dream that the industrial yards are lifting up, morphing into the shape of a giant monster. Factories bubble like warts on the monster’s skin; dead trees grow in patches, like goblin fur; Two Mile Creek is a twisted spinal cord; Chemical Mountain is a single, all-seeing eye. The industrial monster has powerful breath, fumes that kill. We feel like people, but we’re just little mites and fleas, living on the skin of a creature that is bigger than everything else we think we know.
the night Mareno Chem shuts its doors for good, temperatures reach ninety-eight degrees, and the box fans in our windows are just making it worse, blasting hot air at our faces. Cornpup was supposed to be here at midnight.
should be here by now. I sit in my driveway and lean against the garage door. With a piece of gravel, I draw uranium monster paw prints on the concrete. We have so much work to do. We have to get started real soon if we’re gonna be done by sunrise.
I hear Cornpup before I see him. He’s using a huge remote control to direct two of his robots. My favorite robot, the one we usually keep at the creek, has hidden compartments full of battle gear. The other, uglier robot needs to be oiled. It sounds all creaky and stiff. I laugh when both robots get stuck in the bushes and Cornpup has to pull them out. I hear him say, “Goddammit all to hell,” because
he has to put the newer robot’s arm back on, and he can’t get it to stay. When Cornpup and his lifelike hunks of junk finally roll up my driveway, he’s picking twigs out of their aluminum joints, and sweating off all his glow-in-the-dark face paint.
“You got any of that left?” I ask him.
We mess with the glow-in-the-dark paint for about ten minutes. I smear tribal lines on my face, warrior-style. Cornpup paints the robots’ faces to look all girly, with hilarious neon green eyeliner and lipstick.
“Paint something cool on my back,” Cornpup says to me. He has been walking around shirtless, wearing the same pair of cargo shorts, since his surgery almost two weeks ago. We never got our envelope of cash back after Dan Benecke stole it, but Cornpup’s parents finally gave in and bought him the detox tea and skin care products and whatever else Dr. Gupta said Cornpup needed. Now Cornpup’s skin is part smooth, part craters and scars, and he’s smiling so hard, I think his face might snap. When I look at his bony back, I remember exactly where the gray and purple rashes used to be. I remember how he used to have a mountain range of pus-filled monster cysts rising from his spine, all pale-white and chunky. Cornpup stands with his back to me, and I paint a glow-in-the-dark hawk on his skin. The hawk’s wingspan stretches all the way across Cornpup’s shoulder blades. It looks pretty cool.
I think of the funeral, how horrible it was, the throbbing blisters on our arms, Cornpup ripping out hymnal pages; Mrs. Pellitero with snot dripping down her lips; Mr. Pellitero passed out, snoring; Valerie holding my hand like I was drowning; and Randy, who could not control his anger, putting his fist through a stained-glass window and getting blue slivers stuck in his knuckles. I got really teary-eyed when Mom showed up carrying a big piece of poster board with pictures of us as boys taped all over it. She was crying. I could tell she was sorry for how mean she’d been to Charlie, how judgmental,
except sorry is just a word, a feeling. When someone dies, sorry is kind of
You have to do something really meaningful for the dead. It was instinct, the way we all silently agreed to send Charlie off like an Egyptian king that dreary morning. We filled the casket with stuff we thought he might somehow need—his monster mask, a silver rattlesnake ring, a jar of green creek water, his football helmet, a jackknife, bags of candy, letters sealed in envelopes, and my book of landfill mythology. Even Cornpup, who thinks the afterlife is bullshit, brought one of our dragon skeletons in a duct-taped box.
No one even knows what to call him now. He was a criminal, a vandal, an
. When he destroyed Mareno Chem, he put good people out of work—machinists, systems operators, truckers, chemical technicians, assembly line workers—and it’s not like there are a bunch of replacement jobs out there. But here’s the thing: At the burial there were sick people;
people; lines of pale, skinny, chemo-bald strangers. They brought flowers to Charlie’s grave. They whispered, “Thank you.” To them, he was a hero, somebody who fought back, a brave kid who’d chased the poison makers away. Charlie took back our neighborhood, our creek, our
. It’s not like people were pounding down Mareno Chem’s door with a bunch of ridiculous demands. We just wanted them to stop messing with our lives.
In the cemetery, when a newspaper reporter asked me to comment, I wanted to say something about Dad, how Mareno Chem had stolen him from me, and how Charlie had carried out the sweetest revenge, but my throat was real dry. Cornpup spoke instead. He said, “Now the chemical companies have to listen to us. Now they can be afraid for once.”
Me and Cornpup sit on my front porch, waiting for the others. I smell asphalt and burning sulfur in the air. Cornpup is wheezing
lightly. I help him attach paint rollers to the robots’ hands with duct tape. He then uses plastic wrap to cover the robots’ exposed joints and gears, places where a stray drip of paint could do real damage.
I think about the evacuations, how scared everyone must’ve been, with the sky all yellow and green. I think about flashing lights, sirens. The night of the fire, emergency responders divided Poxton into three rings. The innermost ring was made up of all the homes closest to the industrial yard, our entire neighborhood. I was in the hospital when the evacuations were ordered, but Mom told me it happened in stages. Residents in the first ring had to put wet washcloths over their faces and leave immediately. Residents in the second ring could stay in their homes if they closed their chimney flues and sealed their windows with masking tape. Then, as the fire raged on and fumes blanketed every home in Poxton, even the mansions in the outer ring near Buffalo were contaminated. Mom said she was trying to get to the hospital to find out if I was okay. The streets were crowded with cars, everyone trying to leave town in a panic. She said the green smoke left a chalky soreness in the back of her throat. And Viper was drooling a lot, drinking tons of water. In the last couple of weeks, Mom has hugged me more than a thousand times. She is so glad I’m alive.
I hear music in the distance, probably a live band at Tavern on the Creek. Randy and Molly appear at the end of my driveway. They seem cheerful, which is saying a lot, considering what has happened to the Pellitero family in the past few weeks: Charlie’s death, divorce paperwork, home foreclosure. Molly has on coveralls. Randy is carrying four large cans of paint. “What the hell are those for?” he says, meaning the robots.
“To help out,” says Cornpup.
“They know how to paint?” Molly laughs.
Cornpup looks at her like she’s truly stupid. “I wouldn’t exactly say they
anything. They just do repetitive motions, basic stuff.”
Inside my garage, there are two ladders we lifted from a nearby construction site. Randy helps me carry them outside. Molly pulls a box of dusty paintbrushes and rollers out from under Dad’s workbench. None of us wants to carry my canvas bag of scrap metal, though. It’s like we’re now just remembering that we have to walk a really long way with all this stuff. Cornpup runs home to grab the shopping cart he found under a bridge at Two Mile Creek. It’s not big enough to carry everything, but it’ll help.
When I accidentally knock over my dirt bike, Randy flinches. I prop it up quickly, but he runs over to the bike and pushes me out of the way. He touches the shiny motor I just polished a few days ago. He touches the muddy tires. “When Charlie bought this for you, I thought he was nuts. Everything he did was always so … huge.”