One August night my sister, Julie, saved my life by mistake. It was a summer of troubles—our mother was about to run off with a still-life painter and our father, who never got over it, was about to play right field for a sanitarium softball team. But we didn’t know any of that yet. My sister and I weren’t speaking, hadn’t said a word to each other since the second week of June. Granted, I’d scorched the hem of her junior prom dress after setting a small fire in the closet we shared, but the stain almost came out with bleach and anyway, she’d borrowed the dress from somebody else.
I set twenty-two fires that summer, mostly in the woods back of the house, a couple in the new housing development they were building down the street, though I only got caught for the closet one. The day Julie saved my life I set a beauty of a blaze in the front seat of an abandoned car on Mr. Gaultney’s farm. “Got damn it,” I yelled, jigging like a savage in the next field, “Got damn it!” At home in bed I wondered whether the furnace in our basement would explode like that in contact with a lit match, whether a timer would work so that you could be playing basketball at the park when it all happened. I sucked on a big marble, daring myself to swallow it, wondering about the furnace.
Julie and I shared a bedroom and hated it. Four years and seven months separated our birthdays. She thought I was a dirty tomboy, a loser, a little shit. I thought she was a girly girl halfwit, trying all the time to be like everybody else, only cooler. All of her sentences started with, “One of these days…”and ended with “leave this place forever” or “be somebody famous” or “kill you.” Still, for weeks she hadn’t said a word to me, even when our parents went at it in hammer-and-tong fights across the hall. In bed that night I sucked on my marble and pondered high explosives. I could hear Julie breathe, the sound like twigs clicking together. Things needed to be shaken up.
I eased out of bed, crouched on the floor of the bedroom with my nightgown hiked up around my waist. I wasn’t sure what my game plan was, but I kept so motionless even the marble didn’t move against my tongue. After a while I moved a few inches forward on all fours. Grit from the floorboards pricked my palms. Something, maybe my own heart at work, made the air pulse and flicker around me. I moved another few inches. Straight ahead I could see Julie’s profile against the white of her pillow, her nose and chin exactly like mine, which was weird. I tongued the marble onto the back of my throat, crawled a little closer to Julie’s bed. Maybe it was all that business about her prom dress. Maybe it was the thought of the furnace exploding right under her bed. That nose and chin like mine disintegrating into little pricking pieces. Whatever: six inches from her pillow I decided to swallow the marble.
It was a fat marble, a cat’s eye, and it caught halfway down my throat. I couldn’t breathe, I scrabbled at the air around my face with one hand, I tried to speak but couldn’t. Suddenly she sat up in her bed, her eyes wild with rage, and gave me a sharp thwack on the back. It dislodged the marble, which I spit on the floor.
“One of these days,” she sputtered, “one of these days somebody’s gonna kill you, you little shit.”
She stared at me with those raging eyes and I stared back, frozen in astonishment. After what seemed a lifetime, she lay down on the bed and I crawled backwards to my own bed. Soon after that our parents started it up across the hall, smacking each other in the middle of the night, a drawn-out shameful brawl. I knew Julie was awake. She knew I was awake. We didn’t say anything. But everything was going to be different between us, that much was certain. I knew I’d not set another fire or swallow another marble or say another dangerous, mean-spirited word to my sister.
When the building is burning, people have to take their lives into their own hands.