Today, I thought I would share the first chapter of Summer on Fire. Summer is my first novel and I’m still extremely proud of this one. It was my first attempt at novel writing. I wanted to capture boys in awkward friendships amidst an impossible calamity…something in the way of Stand By Me. But also something in which the kids are actually embroiled in the action.
This was my nod to coming-of-age stories…which happen to be my absolute favourite! Set in the 80s, in a small town where everybody knows your name. Three boys do a stupid thing that results in an unused barn they’ve claimed as their hangout bursting into flames. And the action takes off from there.
Before I share chapter one, I wanted to point out the the novel is on sale for UNDER $1 on Amazon right now. Great time to get it, if you enjoy coming-of-age stories. (I’ll add that several of the reviews it has gotten over the years have compared Summer on Fire favorably to Stand By Me (the Stephen King movie based on his short The Body).
In the early summer of 1983, Jeff Barsell burned the Henderson barn to the ground. By the time that summer got underway, we had all been put through tests of one kind or another. I am still troubled by how poorly I fared. I am also humbled by how impossible a task it is to bury our own versions of the past. No matter how many times I try to reconstruct the facts of that summer in my mind, the truth keeps seeping to the surface like an inevitable vein of thick black crude.
I try not to think about it. Sometimes it’s just too unbearable to reflect on things we have done. Those deeds seem so distant from the people we’ve become. But I’ve recently been forced to revisit my carefully buried memories. The more they develop the Henderson land into a subdivision, the more those deeds haunt me.
I drove by the construction site the other night, and it was easy to imagine the emergency vehicles converging on the house that is now nothing more than a memory in the hearts of Nelson’s citizens. Remembering that phantom clapboard farmhouse, and its dilapidated barn, brought the whole summer back to the forefront of my thoughts. I had, for so many years, artfully avoided the scene of our crime. But after seeing it, like a ghost that won’t rest until you give it leave, that summer would not stop haunting me. So much so, I feel a pressing need to tell the story the way it really happened.
Old man Henderson hadn’t used the barn for ages. It was the only place where my friends and I could go to just sit back and be ourselves. Jeff’s older brother, Marty, had laid claim to all the good hangouts in town, from the Burger Buddy on Fairfax to the ravine behind the strip mall on Salem. And you didn’t mess with Marty Barsell. He was a walking loose cannon. So the abandoned barn became our haven, our secret refuge.
Jeff didn’t intentionally set the fire.
We were smoking in the barn’s hayloft and Jeff flicked his butt in emulation of the greasy cast of The Outsiders. We had spent most of that April’s weekends gawking at that movie in slack-jawed fascination down at The Hollywood, Nelson’s solitary theatre. Never aware of his own smoldering coolness, Jeff—with his dark brooding looks, black Ponyboy hair and soul-penetrating brown eyes—constantly mirrored the cool he saw in others.
I can’t imagine how the summer would have unfolded, had the fire not occurred. It was, however, merely the catalyst that ignited the ensuing chain reaction: the house, the murder and the investigation that would eventually test our bonds of loyalty. The whole drama sent a ripple of electricity through our small town, sparking a flurry of tongue-wagging gossip. But we were the only ones who knew the whole truth behind the barn fire; Jeff, Arnie Wilson and me.
* * *
Arnie and I were sprawled against the wall of the loft when the fire broke out. We watched intently as Jeff took aim at barn swallows with his brother’s borrowed slingshot. I was green from one too many cigarettes and temporarily avoiding movement (we were fairly new to smoking and I was already aware that it was not a pastime I would take to for long). Arnie, on the other hand, argued with Jeff after every shot, demanding his turn with the weapon. He grabbed at the air around the slingshot in heated frustration as Jeff managed to keep it just outside his reach.
It was probably Arnie’s fault Jeff forgot about his flicked cigarette as it careened out of his thoughts and into a nearby stack of hay bales. Arnie was usually to blame when things went awry. His restless personality was a magnet for chaos and commotion.
Three abandoned bales of hay sat in the back corner of the loft. They were older than Moses, slate grey with faded binding. We sometimes used them as chairs or tables when we played poker, or Parcheesi (Arn’s game of choice). On the day of the fire, though, they were forgotten. Jeff’s butt must have landed on one of them. We never did see it, but those bales suddenly lit like crepe paper in a bonfire.
One moment I was laughing at the turmoil Jeff was causing Arnie and the next we were scampering for the loft’s dilapidated ladder in our frantic panic to abandon ship.
I was first to the ladder. Arnie scrambled after me, kicking my head in his haste. Jeff, ever the hero-wanna-be, stayed behind and tried to extinguish the flames with his jean jacket. I could see from my new vantage point on the floor of the barn, though, that he only fanned the fire and quickened its speed. I watched as it jumped to the wooden beams above the bales.
As Jeff connected with the ladder, I heard the distinctive peal of cracking wood. Arnie, as slow as he was obese, was only halfway down the ladder when it snapped apart, toppling both boys to the ground at my feet.
The second crack to echo throughout the barn was more profound and sickening. It was followed by an ear-splitting wail that was hardly recognizable as being human.
As Jeff scurried to his feet, I found the source of the screaming. Arnie lay in a crumpled mass, his leg jutting unnaturally beneath his rotund trunk. He was hysterical, clutching at his leg with a crazed unfocused look in his usually intent blue eyes.
“Holy Jesus, Zach!” Jeff yelled, looking to me to authenticate what he was seeing. “Oh Arnie. What did you do?”
Arnie just screamed. He was elsewhere at the moment, unreachable by reason.
“We have to pick him up,” I said. I looked up. The fire licked out over the loft, reaching for the higher beams in the middle of the barn’s ceiling. The roof would soon be engulfed in flames. The acrid sting of burning hay and ancient wood filled my nostrils as thick smoke swelled and roiled above us. “We have to get him out of here.”
“Arnie!” Jeff hollered, slapping him across the face.
Arnie stopped his wailing and looked to Jeff in disbelief. “What’d you do that for?” he asked indignantly. “Jesus! It hurts, Zach. It hurts. My leg!” He looked at me and prepared to go into another series of unrelenting screams.
“Arnie,” I said. “Shut up! Henderson’ll hear you. Look at me.” I pointed my peace-sign fingers at his eyes, and then dragged them slowly through the air to my own and back again. “Look at me. We have to move you. You have to help us and it’s gonna hurt like hell.”
“No. I wanna stay right here. Don’t. I’m okay here.”
“Arnie. The barn’s gonna burn down. We’ve gotta get out of here. This place is kindling.” I spoke loud to be heard above his sobbing and the escalating music of the fire. Jeff scoured around looking for something, anything. He ran into a nearby stall and came out seconds later with an old wheelbarrow.
“I’m not gettin’ in that thing. Ooh, it hurts. Don’t make me get in there, Zach.”
“You have to, Arn,” Jeff yelled, less diplomatically than I had been. “Get your fat ass inside!”
The fire above us was nearing a crescendo, and the racket of crackling wood and hay was now deafening. Arnie looked up at me, his eyes pleading. I understood then that his current state of shock would only respond to threats and abuse.
“Come on, bubble butt. Help us get your fat ass into this thing! Now!” I said, following Jeff’s lead. “It’s now or never, Arn. I’m getting out of here and if you don’t come now, you’re not coming.”
He looked above us and resignation washed over him. I looked at his leg. It was twisted unnaturally and a bruise was already spreading across the surface of the dimpled flesh where a bone seemed to be pushing against the skin. It looked bad and I didn’t want to touch him. I had broken my arm the previous summer and I could only imagine how much more pain he was in.
“Come on, Arn,” I cajoled. “I know you can do it, bud.” He put out his hand and I took it. But he didn’t budge. He held firm to the ground in defiance. “Arnie, I promise. I will never make fun of your weight again,” I said.
“Oh Christ, Zach. It hurts real bad.”
“I know. We have to get out though. We’ll take you down the road and say you fell out of Halverton’s apple tree. But first we have to get you there. We’re dead if we’re caught here. You know that, don’t you?”
“Come on, guys,” Jeff screamed, rattling the wheelbarrow. “There’s no time.” He looked up and I followed his gaze. Fire formed a hot umbrella of flames above us, swallowing the place.
Jeff dropped the wheelbarrow and grabbed Arnie under his arms. He heaved. Arnie moaned as his leg was jostled. I yanked on his arm with both hands as he began to work with us. It felt like we were raising the Titanic with a fishing rod. If it were me or Jeff on the ground, we would have done whatever it took to get up. But Arnie was a crybaby at the best of times.
“Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus,” Arnie screamed. He was halfway up; his broken leg jarring painfully. What little colour he still had, raced from his cheeks.
“Shut up and get up,” Jeff said. “Christ, Arnie. You have one good leg. Use it, dammit.”
Something in Arnie finally relented. He was on his one foot in seconds, hopping slowly to the wheelbarrow while we clumsily held him. He swayed in our arms like a wind-bent tree. One more step and, with a thud, he keeled into the wheelbarrow. He landed face first with a loud moan.
“Arnie,” Jeff yelled. “Hey Arnie. You need to roll over.”
He didn’t move. I leaned in and was not surprised to see that he had mercifully passed out. “He’s gone, Jeff.”
“Holy crap, Zach,” Jeff said as he swatted his bangs away from his face. “I’ve never seen anybody actually out cold before. How are we gonna do this?”
We looked up. The roof beams, resembling the ribcage of a mammoth beast, were now engulfed. The flames would reach us in seconds, in the form of falling debris.
“Take an end. We can do this.” I said.
“Damn. I wish it were you in there, Twiggy.”
“Ha ha.” I took a handle in one hand and the shin of Arnie’s broken leg in the other. “Let’s just go before it’s too late.”
“My jacket,” Jeff said, picking it up off the dirt floor where it landed when he fell. He threw it over Arnie. “Oh man. It’s all scorched. My dad’s gonna kill me twice.”
“If this fire doesn’t get us first,” I said.
The first few movements were hard. The wheel moved like it was deep in mud. Once it started, though, it went by its own momentum. We were out of the barn in no time, but it would only get harder from there.
I was so busy keeping Arnie’s leg as motionless as possible that Jeff was left with the bulk of his weight. We grunted our way toward the road in an awkward dance that left us sweating and breathless. Even out cold, Arnie was moaning nonstop. He grumbled with each bump in the gravel driveway.
“Stop. Stop,” Jeff said. “I need a break, Zach.” His face was beet red and sweat ran into his eyes.
As we dropped the wheelbarrow onto its legs, Jeff heaved a sigh of relief. Together we turned back toward the barn. Flames shot out the hayloft doors and through rifts in the roof, while thick tunnels of grey-white smoke billowed out the barn doors below.
“Holy crap,” Jeff said. I just stood there shaking my head.
“Jesus,” said a squeak from behind us. I turned to see Arnie looking up at the burning building with a dazed, listless expression on his face. “Nice one, Jeff.”
“Thanks Arn. I call it ‘Flaming Barn’.”
“Enough with the trying to be funny,” I said. “Henderson’s gonna be out here in a second. I wouldn’t be surprised if he brings his shotgun. Arnie here will be an easy target once we make a run for it.”
“Thanks a lot, Carson,” he said. “Leave the fat guy behind.” He attempted humour, despite his obvious agony, but he looked seconds away from passing out again. His pallor now looked a sickening mottled grey.
“Let’s not give the old crank a chance,” I said, getting back to the wheelbarrow and grabbing a handle. Jeff took the other end as he wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, and we made for the road.
“Easy, guys,” Arnie said. “This is hurting like crazy.” Tears streamed down his face.
We struggled over the driveway’s rugged terrain and finally made it to the slightly more level paved road. I looked over at Jeff and realized, with shock, that he was actually crying. Not a lot, but enough for me to notice. Jeff never cried. Arnie was the crybaby of the group, I was the one who cried under pressure and he was the tough guy who never shed a tear. I followed his worried gaze and noticed it led directly to the scorched jean jacket.
“Jeff?” I asked. “What—”
“My dad’s gonna kill me,” he said. “You know it and I know it.”
The scorch marks had nothing to do with the panic in his eyes. I knew the jacket would find its final resting place in a matter of minutes. It wouldn’t do to show up on the day of a fire with scorch marks on your clothes.
The problem was how Jeff was going to explain away the missing jacket to his father. There was only one person in town meaner than Jeff’s brother Marty, and that was Jeff’s father. The man was a worthless slob. He was walking, talking misery. If his son mentioned he needed a new jacket, he was sure to beat the crap out of him first and ask questions later.
“I’ll give you mine,” I said. “My parents won’t even notice. They wouldn’t care anyway.” My father owned the more prosperous of the town’s two service stations.
“He’ll notice, though,” Jeff said. “Crap. What am I gonna do?”
We pushed on in the direction of Ms. Halverton’s place. “You really think he’ll notice? I mean, it’s only a jean jacket, right?”
“My old man looks for reasons to get ugly. If he notices I’ve lost it, he’ll flip his lid.”
“Come on. Maybe he’ll notice eventually. But don’t tell me he examines your clothes every time you come in the house? You can have mine. Ten to one he doesn’t even clue in.”
“Yeah right,” came an annoying verbal jab from Arnie, who had been quietly addressing his pain until that moment.
“Shut up, Arnie,” Jeff said.
“Zach, you have a Levi jacket. Jeff’s old man may be stupid, but even he knows he can’t afford Levi. He’ll notice all right.”
“I said shut up,” Jeff said between clenched teeth. The veins in his arms were now bulging with the efforts of his labours. He looked ready to strike Arnie. He might have too, if he hadn’t been struggling to keep the wheelbarrow in motion.
“You can have mine. We’ll stop off at my house after we dump off this fat-ass payload under Halverton’s tree.”
“Hey,” Arnie screamed indignantly. “You said no more fat names.”
“That was before I realized you couldn’t help being an arsehole, Arn. I take it back.”
“Ha,” Jeff smirked. “You’re on, Zach. If he notices, he notices. Screw it. Everybody’ll be so busy talking about the fire anyway.”
“Good point,” I said. “Wouldn’t it be wild if he found out who started it?”
The thought made him smile at first, but the smile quickly faded. His father finding out would be the worst thing that could ever happen, and we all knew it.
We kept moving, silent except for our laboured breathing and Arnie’s groaning. Not a car was in sight. Unusual for a Saturday afternoon, but I was thankful just the same.
“Stop,” Jeff commanded, dropping his end of the wheelbarrow so that Arnie was met with a new jolt of pain.
“Jesus,” Arnie moaned. “What’d you do that for?”
“I have to get rid of this, Arn.” He took the jacket off Arnie. “This is evidence,” he said, smiling and shaking it in his clenched fist. He left the road and started off in the direction of the woods. I followed him.
“Hey. You guys can’t just leave me here. What if somebody drives by and sees me? Hey. You guys!” We ignored him and hurried into the woods.
Jeff hid the jacket in some dense brush. I had imagined us burying it in a shallow grave, or something more dramatic, but he simply dumped it and turned to walk out.
“Do you think that’s good enough?” I asked.
“You’d have to be in here looking for it to find it, Zach. Don’t worry about it.” He had calmed down about the whole thing.
“Guys,” Arnie shrieked from the road. “Guys? Come on. Where are you?”
“We better get back to that Nancy boy,” Jeff said, turning to walkout. I tramped the jacket deeper into the brush and kicked some loose dirt and pine needles onto it before following him out.
Jeff stopped midway back, palming his pockets in desperation. He panicked. “Oh crap, man!”
“What? What’s wrong now?” I asked, wanting to keep moving as far away from the jacket as we could.
“The slingshot! I put it in my back pocket. It’s gone. I’ll have to go back for it, Zach.”
“Jesus Christ. You stupid bastard,” I yelled. For a guy who never made mistakes, they were suddenly coming fast and furious. “It’s too late.”
“No, Zach, come on. Think about it.”
“We don’t have time to think about it, Jeff. You probably lost it in the barn. It’s toast.”
“What if I didn’t?”
“Guys. This really hurts. You have to get me to the hospital,” Arnie shrieked as he saw that we had stopped in the clearing. Tears streamed down his smoke-dirty face, leaving a trail of clean in his chubby cheeks.
“Okay Arnie,” Jeff said, pulling at his hair in frustration. He appeared completely insane standing there, conflicted between so many different decisions. He ran back to Arnie, and grabbed his end of the wheelbarrow. “Hold on. You’re in for a bumpy ride.” He winked at me. I caught up, grabbed the other end and we were off as fast as we could go with an overweight fifteen-year-old on board.
“Christ. Ouch. Slow down,” Arnie cried out like a girl. “You’re killing me. Stop. Stop.”
We ran all the way to the Halverton place and came to a screeching halt at the field with the apple tree.
It was a good idea to pretend Arnie had fallen from the tree. We were always climbing it, so it wouldn’t be a shock to anyone if one of us were to fall out of it. The problem was with the hill leading down to it. You don’t realize things like that until it really matters. I had run down that hill a thousand times and never fully realized, until we showed up with Arnie in a wheelbarrow, just how steep it really was.
“How are we gonna pull this off?” Jeff asked, eyeing the slope with the same incredulousness that I was experiencing.
Arnie was too busy crying to notice our predicament.
“We’re gonna have to dump him out and carry him to the tree on our shoulders. There’s no other way.” Arnie heard that and stopped crying.
“There’s no way you’re dumpin’ me outta this thing.” He gripped the sides in defiance.
“Well, Arn,” Jeff said. “The alternative is calling up your fruitcake mother and asking her to pick up her lard-ass son at the Halverton place. I can picture it now: ‘Yes, Mrs. Wilson, he’ll be the one with the broken leg sitting in the stolen wheelbarrow. We got it from old man Henderson right after we burned his barn to the ground. Maybe you can return it after—”’
“Okay. I get the picture,” Arnie screamed, defeated. “Just be careful. This really, really hurts like hell!”
“Maybe we can wheel it down gently,” I said. “If we watch out for holes we might be able to do it.”
“On second thought, I’d rather take my chances being dumped out, Zach,” Arnie said, staring off down the expanse of the hill.
“Okay, let’s do this,” Jeff said. “It’s a miracle nobody’s seen us yet.” He looked off in the direction from which we had come. I followed his gaze and was surprised to see so much smoke billowing into the sky above the Henderson barn. It looked a lot worse than I thought it should.
“Holy crap. That’s a lot of smoke for such a little barn,” I said.
“That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
“Holy gees,” Arnie said, momentarily forgetting the pain of his broken leg.
Jeff dumped the wheelbarrow on its side, causing Arnie to slide halfway out onto his good leg. We leaned down and wrenched him up by the armpits.
“Hold it. Hold it. Careful,” Arnie yelled.
“Let’s go, McBlubber,” Jeff said. “We have to get this done before somebody sees us. That’s a huge fire.”
Arnie hoisted himself up, helping us get him to his feet. In no time we were standing side by side, Arnie leaning solidly on Jeff and shakily on me. He knew where the strength was. Even with the small amount of weight he put on my shoulder, though, I sank helplessly.
“On my count,” Jeff began as we swayed in the breezeless afternoon. “One. Two. Three.”
On three we started down the hill, wobbling two steps forward one step back, going from side to side all the way down. Arnie’s relentless yelps threatened to reach Ms. Halverton. Jeff screeched at him to shut his mouth so many times, I finally just put my free hand over it to try to stop the noise from escaping.
By the time we reached the tree, we were spent. Jeff fell in a heap, taking both of us with him. Arnie howled out a final torturous wail as he slumped into the ground. We lay on our backs for a moment, looking up at the blue sky, panting and gasping for breath.
I stared at the sky thinking, this isn’t how my summer was supposed to begin.
“Now you can cry, moron,” Jeff finally said, turning to Arnie. “Scream if you want. Maybe Ms. Halverton’ll come running down the hill.”
On Jeff’s cue, Arnie let loose the loudest wails he could muster. I was certain there was nothing artificial about them.
As an afterthought I sprang to my feet, ran up the hill and grabbed the wheelbarrow. There was no way we could have explained the wheelbarrow.
Running down the hill with it was even harder than helping Arnie down. I tore past them, speeding out of control with the barrow’s momentum. Their faces were blurs of laughter as I went by.
The wheelbarrow didn’t stop until it hit a tree a few hundred feet downhill from them. By then, I was running too fast to stop it. I landed head first into the barrow with a smack.
Jeff’s laughter met me as I crawled out of the brush and made my way back up the hill to the apple tree.
“Very funny,” I said, dusting myself off and rubbing my head.
“You’ve never run so fast, Zach,” Arnie said, “you should seriously think about joining the track team.”
“And you should seriously think about joining a fat farm, ass.”
“You don’t have to be so mean,” he replied, changing his tune, instantly sounding like a baby again.
“You two girls work it out,” Jeff said. “I’m going up to Ms. Halverton’s to ask for help. Oh, and that was really sweet, Zach,” he continued, “I only wish I had a camera.”
“Ha ha,” I said as Jeff walked away. Arnie lay back in the grass and waited for the shit to hit the fan. I sat down beside him and watched Jeff disappear up over the slope of the hill.
END OF CHAPTER ONE.
You can pick up Summer on Fire at the following places, for just under or just over a dollar…depending on where you live:
My new release THE CAMINO CLUB is also available wherever books are sold:
Amazon USA | Amazon Canada | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | Book Depository | BookShop | Indigo-Chapters | IndieBound | Kobo USA | Kobo Canada | Interlude Press/Duet Books | WalMart USA | Target | Blackwell’s (UK) | Booktopia (Aus) | APPLE Books