The Firebug
Mary Beth Hines

The wrought-iron fence separating the woods from the cemetery appeared forbidding, but its sturdy rungs provided good foot and handholds. I swung over first. Fitz followed. As usual, the place was deserted—and eerie—with its ancient trees casting shadows, blocking the sun.

Moving stealthily among the headstones, we gathered arrangements of baby’s breath and lilies, periodically stopping to toss them over the fence to our friends, Chuy and Billy. We concentrated our efforts in the Armenian section where the tall, marble markers were newer and more likely to have fresh flowers. We were collecting them, as we oftentimes did on long summer days, to decorate our fort in the woods.

One of the large bouquets contained those plastic, rubber-capped tubes of water that looked like grenades. When I tossed it to Billy, he pulled them out and expertly hurled two, then a rock, at some crows that glared at us from the fence. Billy was tall for thirteen, and he had a good arm. Even my Dad said so.

“Viet Cong!” he shouted. “Fuck off!” The crows shrieked and thrashed away.

“Is your father really in Vietnam?” I asked from my side of the fence.

“Who said he was?”

“I don’t remember. Someone from school.”

“It’s none of your god-damned business.”


Billy was a foster kid from the Catholic orphanage Nazareth in Jamaica Plain. Aside from the fact that he had a good arm and was fun to hang out with, we didn’t know much about him. He’d been living with our neighbors, the Martins, for a year. Some people said there were eight other kids in his family but no parents. Others said his father was fighting in Vietnam and his mother drank—so maybe he wasn’t really an orphan at all. To add to the mystery, when Billy first came, his last name had been Harrington. But after a few months it became Kane. The Martins never said a word about Billy to anyone—not even to my parents who were their good friends.


When Fitz and I finished our rounds we climbed back over the fence, and all of us walked to the fort to smoke the Marlboros Chuy had stolen for us from his Dad—a thin, gray-faced postal worker who looked nothing like the Marlboro Man. Chuy pulled the crumpled red and white package from his back pocket, swearing when he saw a few had broken. They were also stale—crackling and spitting when lit—but we weren’t fussy and took what we could get. The four of us sat on a boulder outside the fort, basking in the sun, blowing smoke rings for what seemed like hours, until Billy leapt up and turned to Chuy, demanding: “Did you get the magazine?”

Chuy squirmed, stood up. “Yes.” Reaching under his shirt, he pulled a bent, curled up magazine he’d stuck inside his shorts’ waistband—a Playboy. He’d clipped that from his Dad too. Billy had dared him. A little slow, Chuy would do almost anything for a friend. Despite his odd mannerisms—he rocked from side-to-side, opened and shut his mouth without speaking, randomly yelled nonsensical words—we liked him, and no one teased him when we were around.

Chuy practically lived alone in an old, cluttered house. Only his big brother, Al, a carpenter’s apprentice, and his Dad lived there with him—his Mom having died when Chuy was a baby. And since his Dad and Al worked most days, the house was pretty much ours whenever we wanted to hang out there.

Stamping out our cigarettes, the four of us huddled over the centerfold Billy had spread out on the ground. I didn’t mind. I grew up with Chuy and Fitz and still thought of myself as one of the boys. And I still pretty much looked like one of them except for my ponytail. So I was as interested as they were in seeing the women in the magazine. They looked nothing like any of the real women we knew. Billy turned the pages slowly and we stared, silent, until Fitz spoke.

“My cousin told me Playgirl’s coming out soon. I mean, for girls… a magazine for girls.”

He stuttered and blushed. Slender, with red hair and what seemed like a million freckles, Fitz was a great guitar player as well as my best friend. Our backyards abutted, so we’d known each other since we were babies. We also both had Moms who were fragile and Dads who were, perhaps, not fragile enough, and we helped each other deal with the fallout from that.

“What? Are you some kind of faggot?”

Billy lunged at Fitz. Chuy followed. They were both bigger than he was. I stepped back, smirking, and that set Fitz off. He swung wildly, grabbed a fistful of Billy’s hair, and knocked Chuy’s glasses off. They all hollered and swore, and then it was over as fast as it had started. And everyone was laughing. This was exactly why I preferred hanging around with boys. But when Billy grabbed the magazine to look at it again, I hissed “no”, snatched it back, and sat on it. We glared at each other for a few moments while the world went quiet except for the tree frogs that sang and sizzled in the sun.

“Fine,” Billy said, jumping up. “Let’s go to the swamp.”


Our arrival surprised a couple of stray dogs foraging in muck. They snarled at us. Billy grabbed a thick branch and raised it high over his shoulder with two hands, like a baseball bat. He whirled it threateningly then smashed it on the ground in front of them, shouting and jabbing at their snouts until they cowered and slunk off.

“Fire,” he said, “we need a fire to keep them away.”

“Yes,” the rest of us agreed. “Good idea!”

We piled up dead branches and leaves then Billy dropped a lit match on the heap. An impressive blaze ensued. Romping around it, we tossed in twigs, then cap gun paper that flared up and blasted sparks. Smaller fires erupted nearby—soon more than we could stomp out.

The scene was too much like my recurring nightmare. In it, I always smelled fire before I saw it. Neighbors streamed by my house pulling red wagons filled with babies, blankets, and canned food. Our street gleamed—asphalt turned to gold. And my friends darted about filling their pockets with stones. But as the air grew dense with smoke, we discovered that the gold roads would burst into flames after a time, so my family had to join the migration. Fires dogged us through a maze of half-familiar, first glittering, then burning streets. And I would choke and cry out—remembering things that might save us, then forgetting them.

“Hurry, we have to get out of here!”

Billy’s voice pulled me back to the all-too-real unfolding disaster. But I was dazed. Chuy and Fitz were too. The three of us drifted as if we were under water, while Billy seemed to fly, to hover overhead, to be everywhere at once. How did he move so easily? I could hardly breathe in the thickening smoke, and I felt tired, as though I might need to lie down and sleep. I cried out when Billy seized my arm to drag me away from the blaze. I fell and ripped my knee open on a rock, yelped and sobbed.

“Move, you idiot. Come on.”

He threaded an arm firmly around my back and under my arm, and half-carried me to safety. Then he went back for Fitz and Chuy. From there, he shepherded us back to the fort, and onto our bikes as sirens wailed.


Hearts pounding, we fled the scene. Billy led us down back roads to Chuy’s house where no one was home. We cleaned up there. I tended my wounds in the dirty bathroom, examining myself to see which injuries I would have to explain later so as not to upset Mom or incur Dad’s wrath—aware that both reactions would be justifiable in this particular circumstance.

We borrowed Chuy’s clothes and threw ours in the wash. We smoked and drank little bits of booze from a variety of bottles, ensuring no one would notice any one of them dropping too dramatically. Playing cards, we concocted an alibi while ignoring the smell of fire outside, and the sound of sirens.

When Chuy’s brother, Al, came home from work, he wasn’t surprised to see us—we often hung out there. We’d already washed out our highball glasses and changed back into our own clothes by the time he arrived.

“Big fire in the woods near Cedar Hill today. Did you hear about it?” He lit a cigarette and sat at the kitchen table with us.

“We smelled it,” Billy said, “and heard the sirens. Is it still going?”

“It’s out now. I’m surprised you guys didn’t ride over to check it out.”

“If we’d been around we would have. We rode to Cambridge today, down the Charles. We just got back a little while ago.” Billy, our spokesperson, relayed the story we’d agreed upon.

“I’m pretty sure no one was badly hurt—at least that’s what I heard on the way home from work. They’ve already started investigating. They think someone set it on purpose.”

“Really? I wonder how they tell that sort of thing.” Billy narrowed his eyes, appearing skeptical and curious at the same time.

“It’s part of their job. I guess they have their methods. Anyway, I hope they catch the firebug if that’s the case. Someone could have been killed.”

We all nodded in solemn agreement with Al.


When it was dinnertime, Billy walked home with me. He looked like an ordinary boy again. We sat on my back steps in silence while I gathered the courage to go inside. I was not yet an accomplished liar, and hoped I could pull off this important tale. He traced the gash on my knee with his finger. And then, with no warning, he took my face between his two palms and kissed me, first softly then hard, slipping his pink tongue into my mouth. At first, I thought to spit it out, then to bite it—but I did neither. The truth was, Fitz and I practiced this on each other sometimes. And I quickly realized that it had never, ever felt like this. So I chose to do it back.

We kissed like that for maybe two minutes, though it might have been longer. Time slowed and warped. The whole universe did. We slipped together, briefly, into another world—one where Billy had parents and lived in a house with them, where Chuy was brilliant and had a Mom, Fitz was a rich and famous rock star, my Mom was never sad, and I looked, just a little bit, like the women in that glossy, eye-opening, sex-sopped magazine.