What We Burned And Why
by Steven Lohse
You knew Mom was tired because she burned the fishsticks at dinner and then nobody did the dishes up afterward, and you knew that our Dad was ticked off because he was sitting all alone watching TV in the living room deep in his chair and scratching the label off of a beer bottle with his big meaty thumbnail.
I hung around because Mom had said I could watch All Dogs Go To Heaven. But Dad didn’t budge. I stood there with the video in my hand.
“Time for bed, Patrick,” said Mom. “I’ll take you, come on.” And then she was sighing deeply as she went up the stairs, pushing me along. She sniffed at me. “You’re a stinky turd, you know that?” When we got to the bedroom she kissed me on the nose and her breath was sweet like syrup. My brother was already in bed. Mom didn’t say goodnight to him. She just hit the lights out and shut the door. I didn’t say good-night to him either, but that’s because I knew we weren’t going to sleep.
We just lay there for a while in the dark. It was so hot in our bedroom. I could hear crickets out in the field and I could hear big trucks whooshing down the highway. Every so often Harlan would suddenly snore loudly like he was trying to swallow his nose.
Made me laugh.
We could hear our parents arguing about something downstairs and then, after a while, we didn’t.
“Hey! Come on!” Harlan whispered from across the room, “Let’s go up top!”
I rolled off the mattress and landed barefoot on the warm wood floor. I shuffled in the dark, kicking toys.
I could see Harlan’s shape standing on his bed, his fingers already low and laced, ready to lift me. I stepped in his hands and pushed on his shoulders and up I went until I could move the ceiling panel above his bed. Then I put my arms up and grabbed on. Harlan pushed as I lifted my legs. I kicked him square in the ear.
“Sorry Harlan!” I whispered. Right quick Harlan leapt off the bed and pulled himself up into the attic with his arms. He had strong arms because he was four years bigger.
“Move,” he said, so I moved. I crawled away.
The attic above our house was low and wide with square windows at each end. The ceiling was beams and insulation. Harlan propped the windows open with wooden sticks and then a little breeze blew in. I gulped cool fresh air like it was water. Right then everything was better, right when that breeze hit. For a while we just sat there in our underwear. Our bodies were dry sponges of dirt and sweat. We thought maybe our parents didn’t even know the attic existed. That’s why it was a good place. It was ours.
You had to be careful how you moved—not too suddenly, or else you got splinters. My brother had a pack of matches and he fired one up. He scouted the corners. One time there was a dead bat on the ground and since then my brother had always done a double check for anything that might come out sucking for blood. There were nails that stuck out of the framework and you had to watch for that. We could hear our parents' voices downstairs, starting up again. I thought they were done for the night. We heard a thump, like something falling down, and the thump rattled the frame of the house. We waited for the sound of someone coming up the stairs. It didn’t happen. Then we breathed again.
“You want to see something?” my brother asked.
Sure I did.
He tore a piece of brown paper from the insulation and laid it flat on the floorboards. Downstairs there was the sound of a door slamming, then more yelling. I held my breath again. The yelling stopped. We kept on with what we were doing. My brother smoothed the insulation paper with his hands. He made a square and then folded it lengthwise. He creased triangles at the front. Then triangles over the triangles. He bent the wings back nice and flat.
“It’s a paper plane,” he said.
I said I knew what a paper plane was.
“What are you going to do with that?” I asked.
“I’m gonna burn it. Like a kamikaze.” He picked up the matches again, struck one. The match-head hissed. He rested the burning flame gently beneath the folded tail and the tail caught fire. Harlan’s face was calm, like a cat. The fire crept up and widened and began blackening the wings. Looked like it was about to hurt him.
“Jesus, be careful!” I said. That’s when he threw.
I rushed to look. Out there in the dark, the paper plane burned like gold. It flew over the gravel, then suddenly stalled, tip up. Rather than crashing down, the burning paper rose like a ghost, unfolding. It became weightless, sizzling into ash. We shoved our torsos far out the window, far enough we could have pushed each other and fallen, watching the bright light die off in the dark above. Now the smell of smoke drifted in the air along with the dried dirt and ragweed. We scooted back inside the attic.
“That wasn’t a good one,” I said. “Let me.”
“Nah, you’ll mess it up.”
“But yours didn’t fly."
My brother ripped more insulation paper down. This time he folded the nose tighter and tipped the wings in more.
“I just need to alter the design a little,” he said. When he was done, he struck a match.
This time his plane flew straight—fast like an arrow, burning from the tail. It flew over the driveway. Then it dropped straight down like a dead bird and crashed on the gravel, where the orange light vanished.
I tore a piece of insulation, a larger one, and said it was my turn.
“Fine,” he said. “See if you can make one fly.”
So I did. First I double-folded the paper. Then I spit on the tips of the wings and rubbed the spit in with my fingers until the paper was moist but still stiff. Then I ripped up a splinter of wood from the floor and broke it to fit the length of the plane and set it in there. I bent the tips of the wings upward and the back of the wings downward.
“Look at you,” my brother said, “a regular rocket scientist.”
I explained to him why I’d done the things I did.
“I suppose you’re gonna be some kind of genius,” Harlan said. “Someday.”
I said, “Well if I am, then you’re gonna be one, too.”
He hocked a loogie out the window. “No way,” he said.
“What are you gonna be, then?” I asked.
Harlan shook his head. “You don't want to know."
He said, “If I tell you, I'll have to kill you.”
I just smiled. “You can’t kill me ’cause I’m your brother.”
Harlan burned a match in his fingers. Just one. The small fire lit his face for a moment. His face didn’t look like mine. We didn’t really look like brothers. That was something I didn’t understand. He said, "Fine. But you swear you'll keep your mouth shut?"
“I’m gonna be a thief.” He said.
I said, “For real?”
Harlan focused on the match. He said, “Yep. I already got it all planned.”
“What are you gonna steal?”
“Appliances,” he said.
“Washers and dryers and shit.”
I said, “Who steals washers and dryers?”
“Nobody. That’s why I’m gonna get in on it.” He smiled with himself. With his plan. “Imagine some old lady with a jewelry box where she keeps her valuables locked up. That’s something she expects to lose, so she keeps it out of sight. What I’m going to do is wait until maybe some family goes on vacation, then go up to their house with a truck.”
I said, “You haven’t got a truck. And you can't drive."
He snapped right back, “I can drive, alright? I drive Dad's truck to the mailbox all the time. You don't need a license to know how to drive. But just listen to the plan, alright? You go up to their house with a truck and you just walk in and load up the washers and dryers and refrigerators and ovens and all that shit. None of it is ever locked down and it’s always in plain sight. You just take it. Then you cover it up good and drive to Spokane. They’ve got these Pond Shops there that buy all that stuff and sell it back to people. You make a ton of money doing that. Shit-tons. Nobody thinks about stealing appliances. But there's money there. I bet.”
“What’s a pond shop?” I said.
“It’s a place where they sell fish and stuff. Like for aquariums. But they also buy appliances. Like for cash.”
“I didn’t think you were a bad person like that,” I said.
“I can’t help who I am,” he said. “I’m bad. Pretending that I wasn’t would be just the same as lying. I wish they never had me.”
Sounds rose up through the floor. There would be yelling. Or a door slamming. Sometimes the whole place shook. Our dad was really loud when he was angry. He yelled a lot. He called our mother things like: Bitch! Fucking Bitch! Then she’d be like: Loser! Asshole! Don’t lie to me! I know you’re lying! Or: I wish you were dead! But you couldn’t really make out anything our mom said because her yelling voice was so furious, like a human teakettle. Sometimes one of them was yelling and then the other started yelling and the voices didn’t make any sense through the walls and from the floor below, but then suddenly the two different voices collided head on and smashed like trains. That was the worst of it. The thunderclap.
“But if they didn’t have you then they wouldn’t have had me,” I said.
“Listen,” he said, “If it weren’t for you I would have took off a long time ago.”
He said it like a joke and snorted. I snorted too. Just like him.
We didn’t say anything for a minute. Then he gave me a look like I was too scared to really light my plane and throw it. I said, “Maybe you could use a partner, you know? Someone to help steal all the heavy stuff?"
Outside we heard the sound of our father’s truck firing up and then a bottle that broke on pavement. The driveway was on the other side of the house, but we could hear it. We heard our mother’s voice: “Get out of the goddamn truck! Get out of the goddamn truck!”
My brother put his hand on my shoulder. He pinched. “Are you saying like, that I take you with me?”
Dad gassed on the engine, drowning out everything. He held the engine down screaming like that, like he wanted to wake the neighbors. The engine screamed into the night.
“I’d do it,” I said, not-whispering because of the truck engine and the sound of it that made me angry and embarrassed for us all because of the neighbors. But ignoring it too, at least as well as I could, because that was what my big brother did.
“No way," said Harlan. "You can't come."
I kind of gaped at him. “Why the shit-hole not?”
“I told you who I am. That’s not who you are.”
“I’m bad too. I am.”
My brother just frowned. “You’re not bad,” my brother said. “That’s not who you are.”
“I am so!”
Dad quit with the truck. He let go, turned it off. Everything was silent. There were bootsteps in the gravel. The front door opened and shut.
I said, “Who am I, then?”
“How should I know?” Harlan said, like it was a joke now. “You have to figure that out for yourself, and unless you do, you’re always gonna be a turdburglar. Tell you what—you’re gonna be a rocket scientist for Jesus. Now light your stupid plane.”
And so I did.
I struck the match and held the flame beneath the wooden stick until the tiny splinters curled upward and caught the paper. I balanced the plane by its middle with the tips of my thumb and finger. I held it still and admired the flame. Then I threw.
The plane must have caught a draft because it sailed upward. It flew fast and high and clear yellow flames trailed from the wings. My plane flew evenly like a paper plane should, nose slightly up, carried by air, well past the house and then over the backyard grass.
“Oh shit,” my brother whispered.
“Beaut,” I said, watching it go. "Mine's a beaut!"
It sailed high, burning, over the junkyard tractor and finally came softly down in the field of dried-up ragweed. Even then a speck of orange light remained. The orange light disappeared, then suddenly came back. Then it started growing.
Look at what I did Harlan! Look at what I did!
I remember how I turned to my brother for validation, but he was already gone.