They’re Afraid of Fire: Part One

ONE

Outside, it was darker than ole Mitzie’s back-side. She was our only cow, but we got a lot of milk from her. Inside, both fireplaces were full and lit, and we were sitting around the table for supper, which was always one of the most entertaining times of the day for our family.

Pa just told one of his jokes (the one about a man trying to milk a bull) when he sneezed. I felt the blood drain from my face. Our eyes locked, then he began to rub his nose and eyes. I was mere seconds from running to the gun cabinet when he pulled his hands away from his face and yelled “Boo!” Both me and Timmy laughed. Ma wasn’t amused, though. She yelled at Pa and slapped his shoulder.

“That was an awful thing to do, Pa,” she said, grabbing his plate and getting up from the table. “You nearly gave me a heart attack!” She reached across the table, picked up mine and Timmy’s plates, stacked them on hers and Pa’s. Then she turned to Pa, hands on her hips. “I should make you watch me, and the boys eat all of that delicious pie by ourselves. That’ll teach you some manners, you old goat.” Pa burst out laughing, tried to grab Ma by her hips. When she turned away from him, he snatched her by her apron, pulled her to him.

“Oh, come on, Martha,” Pa said. “You know I was only playing around.

“Yeah, Ma,” Timmy whined. “It was only a joke. “Please let Pa have some pie.”

Ma looked at Timmy, then at me, then at Pa, who was staring up at her with his bottom lip sticking out.

“Oh okay” She said. But just this once.” Then she pointed her finger right in Pa’s face. “And as for you, mister – this is the only pie you’ll be getting tonight! Then she carried the stack of plates towards the kitchen. Before she got two steps away though, Pa reached out, pinched her right on her behind.  She jumped like a snake bit her, gave him a disapproving glance over her shoulder.

“We’ll just see about that,” Pa said.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have done that, huh?” Pa said, after Ma stormed into the kitchen. Then he crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. Timmy and I burst into another fit of giggles, which stopped immediately when Ma returned with the pie in one hand, a stack of small plates in the other. She passed right by Pa, nudging him with her hip as she went.

“You better watch it, mister – or you’ll find an empty plate in front of you,” she said, placing the pie at the center of the table. Pa started laughing again, which, of course, set me and Timmy to laughing again. Ma picked up her large carving knife from the table showed it to Pa, who stopped laughing immediately. “Maybe I’ll be carving up something else later,” she said. Pa’s widened. Timmy and I fell abruptly silent. Then, Ma started giggling herself. “You Boys,” she said – leaning to make the first cut into the still steaming pie. Then she sneezed.

It was a terrible sneeze.  Red spots spattered the top of the tablecloth, even the pie. We all froze then, Not saying a word, just staring at Ma’s horrified face. She dropped the knife to the table. It bounced off and clattered to the floor.  Then she turned to Pa, her face whiter than I’d ever seen.

“Pa?” she said. Then she fainted.

Pa caught her before she hit the floor. He lifted her head to him – kept calling out her name. She sneezed again – more violently than before, then Pa’s face and shirt speckled red. Both Timmy and I were crying. We knew what the bleeding sneezes meant. I wanted to run to Ma, to comfort her, but we were taught to never go near anyone once the Bloody Sneezes started. “If you do,” Pa told us, “You’ll get the Bloody Sneezes yourself. Then what will you do? Be one of them?

It wasn’t until after Pa carried Ma to their bedroom that I finally looked down at Timmy. There was a couple drops of blood on his cheek. I grabbed the towel Ma carried the pies in with off the table and wiped it off.  

We used to have two Cows. One of them (the larger one), Tilda, I think her name was, got the Bloody Sneezes a week before. Pa got a little of its blood on his shirt when he pulled her into the field for burning. Ma washed Pa’s shirt and he was okay after that. But I knew he wouldn’t be okay, not after all the blood Ma sneezed on his face. I started to cry. I wasn’t supposed to, but I couldn’t help it.  That’s when Pa opened his bedroom door. He cleaned up his face well – and changed his shirt. But the expression on his face was all I needed to see. The blood was inside him. He didn’t come near us – just leaned out his bedroom door.

“Billy!” He called out.

“Yes, Pa?”

“Go to the rack, get the shotgun, all the shells, and take Timmy to the shed.”

“Pa?”

“Do it now! Before it’s too late.”

When I still hesitated, he shouted, “Now, Billy! Do it now!”

Holding Timmy’s hand, I went to the gun cabinet, pulled down the shotgun, grabbed the shells. Then I pulled my little brother out of the house, to the shed – which is where we were always told to go. The shed had a small latch on the inside of the door. Once me and Timmy were inside, I slid the bolt home. Then I pulled Timmy to a far corner of the shed, hunched down close to the floor.  Mere seconds later, bright beams of light slashed through the darkness of the shed. Pa was outside with his lantern.

“You load that shotgun, Billy?” He asked.

“Yes Pa!” I lied.

“Good boy,” he said. “That’s my good boy.  “Listen, you keep your brother safe. You hear me, Billy?  Don’t come out this shed til morning. Then you know what you have to do, right?”

“Yes Pa,” I said. I was in full tears by then, but I didn’t want Pa to know. I wanted him to know he had raised a strong son.

“That’s good,” Pa said. “That’s a good boy.” His breath sounded odd, like there were pellets rattling around inside his chest. “Promise me you’ll take care of each other. It’s time to be men now.”

“I…I…promise, Pa,” I said.

“Timmy!” Pa shouted. “Timmy, you promise too!”

Timmy shook his head, pressed his face against my chest. I could feel the wet of his tears soaking through my shirt.

“Come ‘on Timmy,” I said, shaking him. “Promise!”

“Timmy!” Pa called. “Promise me, son. Do it right now!”

I pulled Timmy’s face up to mine.

“Please,” I said. “Promise him.”

“I…I…promise, “little Timmy muttered.

“What’s that?” Pa Asked.

I shouted, “He said he promises, Pa!”

Good boys,” Pa said – seemingly convinced. The he said, “When you’re done with your chores tomorrow, head to Lincoln – just like we planned. “I love you, boys.”

“We love you too, Pa,” I said.

“Good – good,” he said from behind the glow of the lamp. “bye, boys,” Then the light began to fade. I knew he was heading back into the house.

The night’s cold fingers were beginning to touch everything at that hour.  I found the blankets Pa kept in the shed (for emergencies), pulled them over us. I covered both me, and my little brother, pulled him close to me in the dark.

“We’re going to be alright,” I whispered.

“How do you know?” He asked.

“I just do,” I said. “I love you, Timmy.”

“I love you too, Billy,” he said.

We stayed that way, just two brothers, wrapped in each other’s arms, and pretending not to hear the screams and other horrible sounds that came from the house. It’s just the wind, I told myself. And even when the sounds of Timmy’s sneezes began to break the still silence in the shed, that’s what I told myself – it’s just the wind.

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