General Fiction posted August 5, 2021

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The teenage brain

Tossing Matches

by Dortmunder

The author has placed a warning on this post for language.
If fatherhood and life has taught me anything, it's that teenagers act purely on impulse. Instant gratification is their motto; forethought before action pays no rent in a teenage boy's mind. Thinking before doing? Consequences? All foreign concepts.

Jay and I were fifteen at the time and broke into houses for fun, and the pursuit of liquor. Irrational to the nth degree, neither of us were poor nor did we consider ourselves antisocial. We just wanted to get drunk one day, and stealing it from strangers seemed safer than incurring the wrath of a father who's booze has been boosted by his underage kid. My teenage brain rationalized a criminal record was preferable over a weekend grounding. Figure that out.

Summer nights, no school, I'd sit in my parents' living room -- the rest of the house long since asleep -- eyes on the fence line outside, watching for Jay's gel-spiked hair bobbing down the sidewalk. Cell phones didn't exist back then. When you made plans with a friend, you stuck to it. If Jay didn't show up by 1AM, I'd go to bed. There was no plan B. We weren't a crime syndicate. We didn't hurt people. We didn't trash houses. We would gently break into homes we knew were empty and simply raid the liquor cabinet. That was it. We'd always bring a thermos. Just a couple fingers of this and that.

I slid closed the patio door and padded across the yard and through the gate to where Jay was waiting.

"Hey man, the Millers are out of town," Jay said. "I heard my mom on the phone about it."

I eased the gate closed and turned to Jay. "Nice. Let's go."

We aimed at the Miller house and started walking. Residential subdivisions are eerily silent after midnight, but before long we arrived at the Miller house.

"Dude, close the window." Jay's voice came from the darkness in the middle of the Millers' kitchen.

Window closed, we then found the back door, unlocked it, and made sure it was clear. Then we set about looking for the liquor. What I did happen to find that night creeping through the Miller house was a box of all-weather, red & blue tipped wooden matches. They were cool, and I found fire fascinating as a kid. I had a magnifying glass I would use to torch things in the sun, and I remember thinking these matches will help me step-up my game. I pocketed them. I know I said we only stole liquor, and I still stand by those words, but for this one time.

Though I soon wished I'd never seen those matches.

I'd be lying if I said I knew what liquor we scored that night, but the liquor is immaterial to the story. I don't ever remember being drunk. In fact, I don't recall ever even craving liquor, it was more like something to do. Risky business in the dead of night was fun...and what's the worst that could happen?

Thirty minutes later we were walking down the highway away from our subdivision, passing the thermos of liquor between us. I held the box of matches open in one hand, and between tiny boy-sized swigs of hard liquor from a thermos - blah! - I'd strike a match and toss it in one fluid motion, like a tennis player swings a backhand, and the igniting match would look like a miniature shooting star as it flared brightest mid-arc on its way to the ground.

And then it happened. Not noticing what was directly ahead of me, my addled teenage brain in full control, I struck-tossed a match and followed its trajectory until it vanished into a parked car.



"The car," I pointed at the car.

"What about it?"

"I just tossed a lit match into it."

"What!? Why?"

I shook my head, "I don't know."

We stepped closer to the car and found the rear window on the driver's side was open a crack no wider than my pinkie finger. We mashed our foreheads against both driver's side windows. We couldn't see the match, there didn't appear to be anything alit, nor was there any smoke.

We pushed off and kept walking.

"That was weird," I muttered and pocketed the matches.

Our usual routine after half-filling a thermos of liquor, was to make the twenty minute trek down the highway to the 24-hour 7/11 convenience store. They had a couple video game machines by the door, a respectable magazine rack opposite the games, cheap slushies (to mix with the liquor), and a counter clerk who didn't care about anything.

As we stood by the magazine rack, thumbing through pages of who the hell knows what, sipping on spiked slushies, a car squealed into the 7/11's driveway. Jay and I looked at each other.

The driver's door flew open, and out popped a man neither of us recognized. A moment later the man tore into the store and yelled at no one in particular, "Call the Fire Department! There's a car on fire down the road!"

Jay and I gently closed our magazines.

"On the highway?" the clerk asked, rubbing sleep out of an eye.

"Yea man, the highway, between here and Railway. Call nine-one-one. Tell dispatch off-duty officer Conway is on scene. No injuries. We just need a hose."

Jay and I casually moved toward the door. We left our slushies behind. Officer Conway met us at the door as we all exited together.

"You fellas know anything?" He said, nodding toward the highway.

The box of matches felt like a dumbbell in my pocket, "Nope. Nothing."

"We been in there playing video games, like an hour," Jay said. The guy was quick on his toes. I loved him for it.

"Go home," Conway ordered as he climbed back into his car and peeled out of there, heading toward the fire I'd lit.

As soon as Conway was out of sight, we bolted across the street and slipped into the tree line parallel to the highway, well out of view. We made our way through open backyards, insulated from view of the highway by cedar hedges, until we came to the spot directly across from the burning car. We belly crawled under the hedges until we had a clear view of the car across the highway, and Conway parked about 30 yards behind it. Watching. Waiting.

A patrol car rolled up moments later and a properly uniformed officer stepped out. He met Conway at the back of his car and they appeared to be chatting. We watched them closely. The uniform kept swivelling his head toward the 7/11 down the highway.

I whispered to Jay, "You think he told him about us."


"Conway -- the guy from the 7/11 -- I think he told that cop about us. He keeps looking down the road."

"Maybe, but he could just be looking out for traffic," Jay reasoned.

We turned our attention back to the raging sedan across the street.

"You think it'll blow?"

"Fuck ya, bro. Look at it!" I couldn't tell if Jay was alarmed or excited.

"We should get outta here."

"I can't believe you did that," Jay said as he rolled onto his side to face me. He punched me in the shoulder, "You're a maniac, bro."

The car was truly on fire. Flames shot out the open window while smoke seemed to seep out of every pore the car had. Shame smacked me in the face in that moment. Sneaking out in the middle of the night I can explain to my folks, but how do I explain this?

"We have to go, Jay."

"Ya, ya, of course." He sensed my panic.

We backed out of our ground-level perch until we could stand and decide which direction to take. Jay could see I was itching to get outta there, and fast.

"We walk," he said.

I wasn't so much into the fight part of surviving danger, I was more into fleeing the scene.
We walked until we parted ways toward our separate homes. Not sure we ever broke into another house after that night, but I can tell you for sure, Jay and I never spoke about that night. Not ever. There was way too much danger attached to that incident. No one ever needed to know it was us.

I think about that night all the time. More than half my life ago, and still that day is as clear and present in my mind as the day it happened. What I can tell you is my fascination with fire ended that day, but more importantly the empathy I had for whoever owned that car was strong. I ruined this person's day, their week even. Did I destroy someone's mementos, family heirlooms, any number of personal items? I destroyed things that weren't mine and to this day live with that guilt. I wonder if there's written record of it in my old hometown newspaper archives? If such a thing exists.

The car never did explode, and the next time I walked by that spot all traces of the incident were gone.

Danger writing prompt entry
Writing Prompt
Write a true, short story about a dangerous situation you put yourself in. There is no
word count, just make it interesting.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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