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                            Spontaneous Combustion

                                  © 2011 Jess Mowry



       Two boys sat on old wooden chairs facing each other across a small table that stood spider-legged on little clawed feet. The boys wore only white boxer shorts in stark contrast to their ebony bodies, and silver Ankhs around their necks. An ancient electric heater, its tin bowl glowing ruby-red, provided the only light in the room except for the yellow flare of matches. It was almost midnight and raining outside, a cat-footed patter across the roof and a whispering rush in the tossing trees, though the storm was only a little wild as if saving its strength to last all night. The only other sounds were the panting breaths of one of the boys and the scrape and gasp of matches igniting.

The boy lighting matches was twelve and fat, the soft and rolly kind of fat so he looked like a lesson in cute cartoons where an artist used nothing but ovals and spheres to draw an instinctively lovable thing. His cheeks engulfed a wide snubby nose beneath a halo of Afroish hair, and his large onyx eyes seemed to worship each match as he struck it on the table. His belly wobbled over his lap, where a chubby fist moved in a steady rhythm that jiggled the bobby balloons of his chest. Like the storm he was only a little wild, though his breaths were coming faster now as match after match flared up then died.

The other boy was thirteen and beautifully muscled without being massive. His face was gently triangular with high cheekbones and a V-shaped chin, though his lips were full and expressive beneath a wide but small-bridged nose. His hair was more untamed than wild, and his eyes regarded the younger boy's face in the flickering flare of the matches.

The little room was octagon-shaped at the top of a narrow corner tower of an ancient Victorian house. The house sat high on a forested cliff, and the tower's west windows, fingered by trees, overlooked the dim lights of a small town below. Beyond the lights was darkness where the ocean rolled as black as oil.

The younger boy's breaths grew faster as he lit the matches one by one. The box was almost empty. After each match died leaving red-tinted darkness, he dropped its shriveled skeleton into an empty soda can. The only other thing on the table was a little pile of Popsicle sticks on a tarnished silver tray.

Sweat now gleamed on younger boy’s body, crimson in the heater’s glow, as he took the last match and struck it. Again, the room flared into yellow brilliance. Then, as the match began to die, the boy touched its flame to the Popsicle sticks. The fire leaped high, a pillar of heat, licking toward the shadowy ceiling.

The older boy watched his brother's face in the sudden feral firelight. The younger boy's eyes were fixed on the flames, reflecting their dance like ebony mirrors. His body tensed for a shuddering moment, arching in helpless ecstasy; a tortured sound escaped his throat, and then he slumped gasping back in the chair. It took him another few moments to get enough breath to sigh. “Thanks for buildin’ the fire.”

The older boy shrugged. “I just built it, you lit it.” He got up to twist an old-fashioned switch, its tube-and-post wires exposed on the wall, and candle-shaped bulbs in ornate little brackets came dimly to life around the room.

"That’s what I do.” The younger boy panted, dripping bright sweat on the floor while gazing at the smoking ashes. “Artemus?”

"Yeah?" said the other, who now stood looking out one of the windows... maybe down at the lights of the town, or maybe beyond to the unseen ocean.

"What do you think about?”

"Think about when?" asked Artemus, turning from the rain-licked window.

The younger boy held up a glistening palm. “Or duh.”

Artemus tossed his brother a towel. "Stuff from TV or books an’ movies. Or what I make up in my head.”

The younger boy applied the towel to various gleaming parts of himself. “Like girls an’ tits?" he puffed.

Artemus smiled. “Guess that’s normal for me anyway. What do you think about, Luca?”

"I don't think at all, I'm just fire.”

"Guess I'll never understand that.”

Luca smiled, still panting hard. “You’d have to... be there.”

Artemus glanced at the DVD clock atop an enormous flat-screen TV. "Time for bed, flamethrower... after you change those shorts.”

“Don’t need no stinkin’ shorts,” said Luca, standing up and stripping bare.

Luca’s belly hung over his shaft, and Artemus knelt at his brother’s feet and toweled what Luca had carelessly missed. Luca’s navel was a funnel-shaped cave that tunneled away into darkness, and sweat dribbled out to spatter the floor as if he was leaking something.

“Careful, man,” puffed Luca. “You gonna light my fire again.”

“Oh, shut up,” said Artemus, tossing the towel across the room where others lay on the floor.

Luca went to a big brass bed that creaked a little under his weight as he wiggled under the covers. There was a game controller on an antique bedside table, along with a pack of Twinkies, a match box and a candle. Snagging the controller and putting on the headset, Luca lit up the big TV, switched on a fire-breathing dragon game, then opened the pack of Twinkies and stuffed one into his mouth. "Where you goin'?" he asked through cream filling as Artemus lighted a candle and started for the door.

"Midnight snack. Want something?”

"More Twinkies an’ a glass of milk... just bring the carton, I’m thirsty.”

"Aight.”

“We need a mini-fridge up here."

“Make a wish to Lucifer.”

“Too funny.”

Shielding the candle flame with a hand, Artemus descended a narrow staircase that spiraled around the tower walls, each tread squeaking underfoot with its own distinctive cry. The house was spooky with high vaulted ceilings and dark creepy corners never well lit by its old-fashioned lights. It was a huge house, four stories tall counting the tower, and most of its rooms had seldom seen light in over fifty years. The whole third floor was deserted, an empty echoing labyrinth of long  hallways and small silent rooms where swirling drafts from winter storms caused doors to creak open or suddenly shut.

The kitchen was on the ground floor way at the back of the house, and it took five minutes to get there, descending other creaky stairs and switching on a few feeble lights in mostly empty rooms. Rainwater dripped and trickled outside, tree branches scratched at the windows, and sometimes there was a scuttling rat. Whispering drafts made icy spots as if he was passing through ghosts. There were nets of spiderwebs, and most of the lurking furniture was covered by dusty sheets. The house had belonged to the town’s richest family, but they had died out many years before and their skeletons lay in a vine-covered crypt beneath the trees in the house’s back yard.

       Artemus finally reached the kitchen where branches tapped the window glass like something wanting in. An ancient stove stood on spider legs, and there was a huge refrigerator with tarnished brass handles and wooden doors that looked like something out of a morgue. He got a twelve-pack of Twinkies out of a shadowy cupboard and a quart of milk from the spooky old fridge.

Luca was making the old bed creak, the game paused on the screen, one hand buried beneath his belly, the other holding a burning match.

"Hey!" said Artemus. "You know the rules. No fire in bed.”

Luca was sweating and panting again, and gave his brother a desperate look. “Just another minute!” he gasped.

But Artemus snuffed the match with his fingers. “You gotta learn to control it, man.”

"Damn!” puffed Luca, sinking back into the pillows. "Light another candle, aight?”

"Aight," said Atemus, handing Luca the Twinkies and milk.

There were thousands of matches all over the room. Some were wooden strike-anywhere matches, others were smaller strike-on-the box, and there were hundreds of paper match books, plus waterproof and windproof types. Artemus lit the candle on the beside table, and Luca gazed at its golden flame as he opened a pack of Twinkies and gulped from the carton of milk.



                                             Two



       Huge as it was, the house only had a few bathrooms. Artemus and Luca's was on the deserted third floor. This floor had been for servants, and the bathroom was small with greenish brass fixtures, a high-tank toilet with a rusty pull-chain, and a yellowed enamel shower stall. There was only one tiny window, and a single small bulb above the sink. Another old-fashioned electric heater glowed ruddy-red in a corner, and the room was fogged with swirling steam.

Luca stood in the shower. He was lighting waterproof matches while doing his usual thing. Artemus was at the sink, naked and washing his face. He wiped the murky mirror and glanced at Luca's gleaming reflection.

"Use plenty of soap when you’re done. You been smelling like it at school.”

“I leak a lot,” puffed Luca, eyes fixed on the match.

“That doesn’t smell. At least not as much. ...You doing it in the boy’s room?”

"...Yeah. Don’t don’t bother me now.”

"You shouldn’t," said Artemus. "Somebody might catch you.”

"Lots of dudes do it in there, you can tell.”

“Yeah, but they don’t need matches.”

“Dammit, I can't go all day!”

"You better try," said Artemus. "If you get caught you're toast.”

"We can go out in the woods at lunch.”

"Aight," said Artemus. "But you gotta start being more careful. It wasn’t as risky before you got older.”

“...Wait, man!” Finally, panting, Luca asked, “You mean ‘cause then it was only matches?”

“Or duh.”

Octavia Brown was a willowy woman with hair like an ebony dandelion puff. She was clad in jeans and a black T-shirt, standing at the hissing stove with its circles of blue and yellow flame. There were scrambled eggs and sausage links sputtering in a black iron pan, while hash-browns sizzled beside them. The kitchen windows were gunmetal gray, the trees outside still testing the glass as rainwater trickled down the panes.

"I have to drive to Portland today," Octavia said while tending the pans. "I need more paint and supplies. I should be back around midnight. There’s pizza in the freezer.”

"Aight, mom," said Artemus. He and Luca sat at a table with stacks of golden pancakes smothered in butter and maple syrup. There was a birthday candle on Luca's, and he gazed at its flame while eating. The boys wore jeans, black T-shirts, and almost cartoonishly oversized sneaks, plus spiked fighting cuffs on their wrists. Beside their plates were glasses of milk and mugs of steaming coffee.

Octavia served the rest of the food, then gently kissed Luca's cheek. "Be sure to wear your new coat, honey. It's going to rain all day.”

"It always rains here," said Luca, still gazing at the candle flame, his chipmunk cheeks full of pancake.

"Scared you'll go out?" asked Artemus.

"Dork," said Luca, shoveling sausages onto his plate, then adding a mountain of hash-browns and another of scrambled eggs.

Octavia joined her sons at the table. "I heard you're getting report cards today.”

"Mine should be okay," said Artemus. "Probably A's and B's... this school is pretty retarded. But I'll get a D in P.E. 'cause I won't go out for basketball." He nudged Luca's leg with his knee.

"Huh?" said Luca, looking up from the flame. "Oh. Mine should be about the same. An’ I’ll get a D in P.E. ‘cause I’m fat. All the fat kids do. Even the ones who can play stuff good.”

“Play stuff well,” said Octavia.

“Whatever.”

Artemus stabbed a link with his fork. "I wish we could home-school again. It’s like we’re being cheated by going to that suckhole.”

"That school rots brains," added Luca. "Which is probably why the town is dyin’.”

"I’m sorry," said Octavia. "But they can’t kill your minds in just one semester. I'm almost finished with the new picture, and the gallery said they might have a buyer. Then we'll get back to home-schooling, and maybe I’ll get you a tutor.”

"Like Mary Poppins?” asked Luca, his mouth full of scrambled eggs.

"More like Morticia Addams." Artemus glanced at Luca’s candle. “You think that would be safe, mom?”

Octavia smiled. "Not everyone hates what they don’t understand.”

Artemus picked up his coffee and frowned. "He’s doing it at school.”

"DORK!" yelled Luca.

"Shut up, flame-boy.”

Octavia ruffled Luca's hair. "He's a just a little different.”

"Dad hated me," said Luca. "He said I was sick and perverted, an’ I shoulda been drowned. That’s why he got a divorce.”

"That was his problem, not yours.”

"I love you, little sparky," said Artemus, punching Luca's shoulder. "I just don't wanna see you get hung.”

“Nah, they’d burn me on a stake."



                                            Three



       "Why did you tell on me, dork?" Luca demanded as they left the house, closing the massive mahogany door which made a horror movie sound. Descending from the wide front porch with its rotting corpses of wicker chairs, they trudged along a weedy walk that tunneled through overgrown trees and hedges across the glistening waist-high jungle of what remained of a lawn. Stone griffins lurked under bushes and vines, watching the boys with moss-blinded eyes.

"'Cause you're a sick little pervert who shoulda been drowned the day you were born.”

"No really?”

The boys were clad in black leather coats that almost reached their ankles, though Luca’s couldn’t be buttoned because of his wobbly belly, which hung out from under his T-shirt and jiggled like Jello-O with every step. Their hair was tamed by black knit beanies that sparkled with waterdrop jewels, and their breaths smoked pale in the gray morning light as rain pattered down all around.

"Mom isn’t stupid," said Artemus. "You think she’d never guess?”

“But it’s totally normal for me,” puffed Luca. “Mom explained it an’ so did you.”

“But, most dudes don’t need fire.”

"I don’t need fire, it needs me.” Luca paused to snag a chunk of brick and skim it across a murky pond that lay beneath the trees.

"Careful, man," said Artemus. "You'll wake up the water monster, and water's stronger than fire.”

"No it’s not," said Luca, tugging up his slipping jeans. "The world’s gonna end in fire. The sun will go nova and burn it all up.”

"I’m sure you’d like to be there.”

“I like a happy finish.”

“Remember that when they burn you on a stake.”

The walk opened onto a weed-choked drive that curved under trees to wrought-iron gates in a stone wall smothered with ivy. Beyond was a crumbling asphalt road that snaked away through dripping trees. The boys emerged through the sagging gates which were rusted forever half-open. GRIFFIN was spelled on the archway above, the letters thickly entwined with ivy. Artemus reached into his coat and pulled out a pack of American Spirits. "Got a match?”

"Too funny," said Luca and dug in a pocket, pulling out several packs of Twinkies and finally a little match box. "These are waterproof an' windproof.”

Artemus shook up two cigarettes, gave one to Luca, then leaned close to take Luca’s flame. "What if you got shipwrecked on a desert island?”

Luca fired his own cigarette and puffed out a pale ghost of smoke, watching the match until it died. "I'd rub two sticks together, like in Castaway.”

"What if you were in Waterworld?”

"Someday I won't need matches.”

"Like spontaneous combustion?”

"Everything's combustible if you get it hot enough.”

"Mom says fire is your art.”

"Mom says art lights the world,” said Luca, flipping the dead match away. “When you gonna get some?”

"Maybe when I see a light.”

The boys smoked in silence awhile, puffing pale clouds in the gray-greenish gloom. Luca pulled out his matchbox again.

"Not now," said Artemus. "The bus is coming.”

Luca giggled. “The bingety-bangety school bus.”

"Huh?”

"Like in that Little Golden Book. The one that belonged to the dead kid.”

“Aren’t you scared he might want it back?”

“All he gots to do is ask.”

The bus was old and rickety, sickly yellow like a slug. Its engine rattled, its brakes squealed, and it farted clouds of oily blue smoke. A sad plastic Jesus adorned the dashboard, and the fat woman driver had bulging blue eyes that never seemed to blink. There was only a handful of kids in front, seeking warmth from the moaning heater and bundled like mummies in puff-coats and hoodies that seemed to smell of seaweed. All the kids were fish-belly white, and they stared at Artemus and Luca as though they'd never seen them before, turning to watch as the brothers took seats all the way in back. Both boys ignored the fish-eyed stares, and Luca opened a pack of Twinkies.

The town of Griffin's Landing had once been a busy fishing port, but now more than half of its buildings were empty, their windows like skull eyes regarding each other across crumbling streets where weeds grew tall. Lamp posts leaned at drunken angles, and many traffic lights were dead, replaced by rusty stop signs. The stone school building had vine-shrouded walls, and boards on its third floor windows. Its yard was a shimmering swamp of mud that smelled like rotting fish. Pale pre-teens were packed in the doorway, some playing obsolete Game-Boys and puffing out steam as their fingers twitched. Despite the specter of slow starvation that seemed to hover over the town, some of the kids were buried in fat and bursting out of their clothes. A few groups of teens under trees out front smoked cigarettes or cheap local weed. Some had headphones plugging their ears.

Artemus ignored their eye-corner looks as he shepherded Luca though rusty gates and up the buckled sidewalk. A small body hung by its neck in a tree, masked like an outlaw with a bushy striped tail; but there was usually one every week and neither boy gave it a glance.

"Hi.”

Artemus saw a slender girl who was standing alone near the steps. She wore high leather boots and a dripping black cloak, her long raven hair all lank with rain. Her pale face was made up like a corpse's, but was pretty in death with large dark eyes and a pert little nose above black rosebud lips.

"Hi," said Artemus carefully.

"Can I bum a smoke?”

Artemus dug in his coat, and Luca eagerly pulled out his matches.

"I saw you in gym yesterday," said the girl, drawing a cigarette out of the pack while spreading her cloak like a night-colored wing. She hesitated, then added, "Through the window. ...With no shirt on. You're kind of a statement.”

Artemus cocked his head. "Of what?”

“Dorkyness,” said Luca.

“Shut up,” said Artemus.

The girl took a breath, as if determined to stab herself. "Black is beautiful.”

Artemus shrugged. "Black dudes are either muscular or fat. I got a few muscles I never asked for." He poked Luca’s belly, making it wobble. "He's fat, so we’re covered both ways.”

The girl sheltered Luca's flame. "I’d call him cute.”

“But kind of evil,” said Artemus.

“The teachers call me obese,” said Luca.

The girl shrugged. “These teachers just teach what they’re told to teach, which means they're zombie teachers.”

Luca was gazing at the still-burning match. "Zombies are flammable.”

Artemus swatted the match away, hissing into a puddle. "I’ve noticed that... about teachers.”

The girl's eyes avoided the body in the tree. "I’ve lived here all my life.”

Artemus looked at the dead raccoon. "That must be like a preamble to dying.”

"You're very gothic," said the girl. "All alone up there on the cliff.”

"I'm not alone. There's Luca and mom.”

"I've seen her at the market. She's beautiful, too. I heard she's a painter and famous.”

"Thanks. Yeah. And a little.”

A rusty bell jangled, muffled by moss.

"See you in math?" asked the girl. "My name is Bree.”

"I know," said Artemus. "You're in four of my classes.”

"I never thought you noticed.”

Artemus glanced at the small dead thing as it slowly swung in a fish-scented breeze. "I notice a lot but I don’t say much.”

Bree smiled. “I noticed that."



                                          Four



       There was only one boys room still in use, a moldy green cave on the school's second floor that reeked of tobacco, urine and weed. Cigarette butts littered the floor, and a garbage can overflowed paper towels. The walls were covered with boys room art, distorted drawings of dicks and tits, and poems about sex, pissing and shit. A few had been added recently -- "If black is beautiful I just shit a masterpiece" -- and KKK had been scrawled here and there in bloody Magic Marker. A beer-bellied Senior pointedly left as Artemus and Luca came in, flipping his Marlboro onto the floor. Luca glanced at one of the scrawls as he and Artemus stepped to the trough”

"You think there’s any around here?" asked Luca, lifting his belly with both hands to pee.

"They probably Googled for instructions.”

The cafeteria was dimly lit by sickly energy-saving bulbs that dangled from dangerous wires and tinted pale skin a corpse-like violet. The narrow windows were steamed and gray; several were patched with pieces of plywood where rain leaked in making puddles. The long bench tables were battered and scarred, carved with a million defiant initials by kids who had only grown old and died without defying anything, and the floor was the color of slow decay. A faded poster tacked to a wall showed a former President smiling and promising, "No Child Left Behind.”

The cook had once cooked on a fishing boat, a glowering Buddha in a greasy wife-beater who drowned everything in mud-colored gravy. The menu today was chicken-fried fish or chicken-fried something supposed to be meat. Most of the wealthier kids and teens went across the street to the Gas N Go for microwave burgers, burritos and pizza, leaving the poor and mostly fat kids to load up their trays with charity starch.

Artemus only took the creamed corn, which came out of gallon-size government cans, along with two slices of soggy white bread with pale yellow pats of government butter. He sniffed at the soup, which was brown but smelled fishy, glanced at a bowl of mashed potatoes that looked like leftover library paste, then checked all the dates on the milks -- nonfat to prevent obesity, and tasteless to discourage consumption -- before choosing one of the newest.

Luca loaded a mountain of meat on his tray, added a pile of pasty potatoes, smothered it all with mud-colored gravy, then snagged two milks and a cube of green Jell-O. Artemus examined the forks before choosing two of the cleanest and joined his brother at an empty table. He wiped the forks with a paper napkin and handed one to Luca.

"Remember?" said Luca, his mouth full of meat. "In the woods?”

"I'm sure you won't let me forget," said Artemus. “And you smell.”

“That’s ‘cause I’m leakin’ lighter fluid.”

"Don't you love animals?”

Artemus looked up at Bree, still in her slightly dripping cloak.

"Sure," said Luca. "But sometimes they're more lovable on plates.”

Artemus glanced at Bree's tray, seeing creamed-corn and bread like his own. "How much intelligence does it take to sneak up on a leaf?”

Bree smiled. “So, where's your meat?”

Luca giggled but Artemus shrugged. "I like cats, but not my plate.”

"It's random road-kill on Wednesday," said Bree, sitting down next to Artemus. "Cats are served on Fridays when the animal shelter puts ‘em to sleep.”

"When do they serve the raccoons?”

"I hate that," said Bree.

Artemus shrugged again. "Don't apologize for what you didn’t do.”

“But I’m white.”

“All cats are gray in the dark.”

"I still wish I could stop it.”

"If you don’t feed a fire it dies.”

"Thanks. Do you have a cat?”

"It died and the bats ate it.”

"Do bats eat cats?”

"That’s from Alice In Wonderland," said Artemus. "It's what she thought when she fell down the rabbit hole.”

"I know," said Bree, wiping her fork with a napkin. "'Do cats eat bats, or do bats eat cats?' The original title was Alice’s Adventures Underground.”

"I know, they shouldn't have changed it.”

"Yeah," agreed Bree. "It sounds more dark and disturbing. Some people think Alice was molested.”

“Only people who want to.”

Do you want another cat? Mine had kittens. They're all black.”

"That could be unlucky for them. How much?”

“Free. My dad’s gonna drown 'em.”

"That's sick an' perverted!" cried Luca, his mouth full of mashed potatoes.

"No it's not," said Bree. "If nobody wants 'em it's euthanasia.”

"What's that?" asked Luca.

"Killing in kindness," said Artemus.

“Still sounds pretty perverted.”

“You’re still here.”

“Too funny.”

"My dad's the undertaker," said Bree. "He doesn’t like to kill anything.”

Artemus smiled. “He doesn’t have to, he can just wait.”

Bree laughed. “I'm going to be a mortician, too. I'm already making up faces. I reverse-engineered this one.”

"Cool," said Luca.

Bree's deathly face saddened a little. "I helped prepare my mom. Washed her hair, but she never used makeup.”

"Wasn't that kinda traumatic?" asked Artemus.

Bree smiled again. "No because I knew she liked it, wherever she really was. It wasn't her anymore on the table, just her earthly remains.”

"How do you stay alive here?”

"Mostly books and the internet.”

Artemus looked around at the kids. "They have books and the internet.”

Bree shrugged. "'In the abundance of water a fool is thirsty.’ That's Bob Marley.”

"I know," said Artemus.

       "My parents were hippies,” said Bree. “Love, peace, stop the war and teach your children well.”

"Too bad that didn't last," said Artemus. "Now it’s hate, make war and stupid kids. I'll ask mom about the kittens. She'll probably take 'em all.”

"Sounds like she really loves cats,” said Bree.

"She doesn’t love rats.”

"What about bats?”

"Back to square one," said Artemus.



                                            Five



       Artemus was the Visual Aid, mostly because he was the only one who could get the old VCR to work. It was close to the end of sixth period in Mr. Button’s history class, and the film was about Martin Luther King. Most of the kids looked blank or bewildered. A few kept glancing at Artemus as if trying to make a connection. Mr. Button had looked puzzled himself when Luca asked to go to the bathroom, as if he couldn't understand why Luca would want to miss anything. The man was kind and wanted to teach but wasn’t being allowed to, and Artemus felt sorry for him. Someone had keyed his rusty Honda with NIGGER LOVER the week before, and his yard was festooned with swinging raccoons.

"I want five-hundred words tomorrow," Mr. Button said. "About non-violent resistance.”

There were moans and groans in the room, and a few hate looks at Artemus as if it was all his fault. Mr. Button came over as Artemus coiled the power cord. "Could you suggest any other black history films? Maybe something a little more... er...”

"Stimulating?”

"Well... yes.”

“Mississippi Burning.”

Artemus wheeled the VCR cart into the second-floor hallway, which was filled with the tense expectant silence of minutes before the last bell. Then he stopped, sniffing the air. Smoke curled around the boys room door like evil ectoplasm. An instant later Luca burst out.

"Artemus! Help!”

"Damn!" hissed Artemus. "You finally did it!”

"I didn't do nothin'!”

The bathroom was seething with bitter gray smoke. Yellow flames licked from the garbage can, scorching the decades of paint on the wall. Artemus slammed Luca aside and dashed for the fire alarm in the hall. Grabbing the little hammer, he smashed the glass and yanked the lever.

Nothing happened.

"Fire!" yelled Artemus.

"FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!" yelled Luca.

Doors flew open like dominoes falling. Faces peered out, confused, curious.

"Walk, don't run! Walk don't run!" Mr. Button began to shout. He was soon joined by other teachers chanting the same incantation. Some kids were cheering, others laughing, younger ones wide-eyed and looking scared, pushed and herded by tense-faced teachers as smoke began to foul the air.

Artemus shoved Luca into the mass, then grabbed an extinguisher off the wall and battled back against the flow. A few teens cursed or tried to block him, but dodged away from his spiked leather cuff.

"Artemus! No!" yelled Mr. Button, but was trapped in the rippling river of kids, some panicked now as the air grew dark, and overloading the groaning staircase like a waterfall burst from a dam.

Artemus ran into the smoke-filled bathroom, his eyes streaming tears, lungs straining for breath. The paint was on fire in the corner above the red-hot garbage can and drooling liquid flame on the floor. He turned the extinguisher upside-down and sprayed the flames with its spurting hose.



                                           Six



       "I didn't do it," said Luca, around a mouthful of Twinkie. "I didn't even light a match!”

"Maybe you didn’t need to," said Artemus, watching the battered old slug of a bus as it rattled and smoked away through the trees. "Like, it was just your burning desire.”

"Oh, shut up, dork!”

Artemus shook rain from his face and patted Luca’s leather-clad shoulder. "I believe you, man. Most pyros aren't arsonists." He smiled. "Besides, you know too much about fire.”

Luca wiped cream from his chin. "Mr. Button said you're a hero. For savin’ the school.”

"Poor little raccoons." Artemus pulled out his cigarettes. "Got a match?”

"Too funny.”

"You gotta be really careful now. We can't go out in the woods anymore ‘cause they’ll be watching us closer. You're just gonna have to get though the day without igniting your flaming passions. That's part of growing up.”

Luca sighed. “Growin' up is like goin' out.”

"If you keep your flame low it'll burn a long time."



                                           Seven



       "I want a big fire tonight!" said Luca. He stood on the house's high back porch munching a slice of pizza, his boxers and jeans at a dangerous level, his belly half bare in a skimpy wife-beater.

Artemus asked, "The boys room blaze get you hot?”

"I seen better.”

“Saw better.”

"Whatever.”

The yellowish glow of a small light bulb glistened on Artemus's half-naked shape as he swung a gleaming axe in the rain. His own jeans were low, his boxers transparent, and steam curled up from his body. The yard was a vine-tangled jungle; and barely seen under dripping trees was the moss-covered mound of the crypt. Artemus paused to wipe his face. "Write five-hundred words about Dr. King, then we'll light your fire.”

"Maaaaan!”

Somber chimes sounded somewhere in the house.

"The hell is that?" asked Luca.

"The doorbell, dork.”

"Oh, I didn’t know it worked. Are you gonna answer it?”

"Why not? You think it’s the water monster come to drown your sick little ass?”

"Maybe some other kind. Get the gun!”

"You get it," said Artemus, tugging up his sodden jeans. "Stay behind me.”

Luca pulled a double-barreled shotgun from out behind the creepy old fridge. It was almost as long as he was tall. Cocking its rusty hammers, he followed Artemus through shadowy rooms and past a huge stone fireplace in one of the ground floor parlors. Reaching the front door, Artemus switched on the porch light, a massive glass bowl on rusty chains, while Luca stayed in the shadows. The door made its horror movie sound as Artemus swung it open.

"Hi.”

"...Oh," said Artemus. "Hi, Bree.”

Bree was in her long black cloak, but her pale pretty face was no longer a corpse's. She held a wicker picnic basket, the cartoonish kind with double lids. "I brought you the kittens. Their eyes are open, and my dad wasn't going to wait till they saw what they were going to miss.”

"Cool!" said Luca, stepping forward and lifting a lid.

"What’s the gun for?" asked Bree.

"Rats," said Artemus. “It came with the house.” He peered through the shimmering curtain of rain. "How'd you get up here?”

"Tote Gote," said Bree. She pointed to something under a tree that looked like the world’s first mini-bike. "It's not road-legal, but who gives a shit.”

"Come in," said Artemus. "Mom went to Portland. ...Luca, go call her. Tell her to get some cat food.”

“Aight.”

"Then go do your homework.”

Luca made a kissy sound.

"Shut up," said Artemus.

"They'll eat anything," said Bree. "Including rats.”

"They're cute," said Artemus, checking the basket.

"Most young things are. Before they grow up and get ugly.”

“I’ve noticed that,” said Artemus.

Bree gazed around. "I've always wanted to see this house. Inside, I mean. I used to come up here a lot. I'd stand on the cliff and think about jumping.”

Artemus smiled. "That's very gothic but I’m glad you didn’t.”

"I used to be a cutter. But I figured out that hurting myself wasn't going to heal the world.”

"I think that’s part of growing up. ...Want some pizza?”

"Sure.”

"It's ground beef and sausage.”

Bree shrugged. "How much intelligence does it take to sneak up on a leaf.”

“We can put the kittens in the kitchen and give ‘em some pizza and milk.” 

A little while later, a candle in hand, Artemus was showing Bree around, switching on the feeble lights as they walked through echoing, spider-webbed rooms.

"It's beautiful," said Bree. "Are there any ghosts?”

"Sometimes you hear footsteps. I think it's a kid an' he's scared of us.”

"Why do you think it's a kid?”

"There’s a bunch of kid-stuff in the attic. Toys an' books from the 1950s. And one of the coffins in the crypt is small.”

"I always wanted to go in there, but it was locked.”

"Mom found the key in the library. I guess they're our skeletons now.”

"You could have them exhumed," said Bree. "And buried somewhere else. My dad could do that.”

"They probably wouldn't like it.”

"Why do you think he's scared of you? The little-kid ghost?”

"Maybe 'cause he thinks we’re the ghosts.”

“Oh, like in The Others.”

Artemus opened a door to a large, lofty room, its windows overlooking the cliff and the rainy darkness beyond. "This is mom's studio.”

Bree went to a wooden easel where a painting was draped with a sheet. "Work in progress?”

Artemus lifted the cloth. "Mom’s not superstitious.”

"She doesn’t believe in ghosts?”

"Some artists think it's bad luck to let people see unfinished work.”

"It's you and your brother," said Bree.

"And that's the crypt.”

Bree gazed for a time at the painting. "I love the light... the way Luca’s holding the candle, and how it shines in his eyes.”

"Cute, but kind of evil.”

"I'd buy it," said Bree. "Even if you were wearing clothes.”

"Thanks.”

"But, I guess it's expensive?”

"Her last one bought this house. And this one will let us home-school again.”

"It must be hard for you," said Bree. "Living here with all this hate.”

"Only a few people actually hate, the rest just follow their leader like lemmings.”

"I’ve noticed that,” said Bree, gazing out over the cliff. “So, where's your room?”

"Up in the tower.”

"I can see the windows at night. I always wondered who was up there and what they were doing.”

Artemus shrugged. "Homework, reading, playing games, listening to music, surfing the web, watching TV, the usual stuff.”

"Could I see it?”

"...Um, sure. But, let me check on Luca first. He might be in his underwear.”

Bree laughed. “I’ve seen all of him in the painting... Well not... you know... because he’s fat.”

“That’s just his beautiful soul. Mom can always see people’s souls, that’s why she doesn’t do many portraits.”

“I’m glad she did yours.”

“Thanks.” Artemus laughed. “Are you glad I’m not fat?”

“I could still see your soul.”

“I’m sure she’d wanna paint you.”

“Thanks. In the crypt with candles?”

“Probably standing out on the cliff.”

They climbed more stairs to the empty third floor.

"Listen!" whispered Bree, touching Artemus's shoulder. "Are those the footsteps?”

"Might be rats. Or maybe bats.”

Bree listened again. "I’m sure they’re footsteps... a kid's like you said.”

"Mom thinks he comes out of the crypt at night and goes up to the attic to play with his toys.”

"Did you ever try to meet him?”

"Luca did, but he ran away like he saw a ghost.”

They climbed the tower’s creaky stairs and Artemus knocked on the door. "Luca?”

"Yeah?”

"What you doin’?”

"Homework, duh.”

"Bree’s with me.”

"That’s so sweet.”

"Shut up, dork.”

The room was lit by its small pale bulbs and a candle on the table top where Luca was sitting barefoot and shirtless, his bottom half bare on the chair seat, bathed in the ruby glow of the heater. There were Twinkies beside his laptop, along with a quart of milk.

"How's it goin'?” asked Artemus.

"Just about done. Then we can light my fire.”

"In that fireplace downstairs?" asked Bree.

"Yeah!" said Luca. “You like fire?”

"Yeah," said Bree. "I'd like to sit by a fire at night, but we only have a wood stove."

“I like to interact,” said Luca.

“Shut up, dork,” said Artemus.

Bree gazed around. "This is cool! ...You sure have a lot of matches.”

"Luca collects 'em," said Artemus. “He’s got about every kind in the world.”

Bree went to one of the windows. "I can see my house from here. We could send each other signals. Like, Morse Code with our window shades.”

"Wouldn't IMs be easier?”

"Oh, yeah.”

"I'm done," said Luca, his mouth full of Twinkie.

"Go bring in the wood," said Artemus.

Luca lowered his voice below the patter of rain on the roof. "Is she gonna stay for the fire?”

"If she did could you keep your cool?”

"Yeah, but you'll owe me big.”

“We can make S’mores.”

“How warm an' fuzzy.”

“Shut up.”

Luca took the candle and padded out of the room, his footsteps squeaking down the stairs.

Bree turned from the window. "I guess he's not afraid of the dark.”

"He's got a light. ...I guess you're not, either?”

"I used to be, when I was little.”

"'Cause you had corpses in your house?”

"Probably," said Bree. "They make sounds you know? Moans and groans. Before they're embalmed. And sometimes they move. One even sat up, but it's only gas. The worst is when they've drowned. Then they're all bloated like coffin worms. But that doesn't happen much anymore. Not since most of the fishing died. People drink themselves to death. Kids OD or crash their cars, and there's been a lot of suicides.”

"They should learn to do something else," said Artemus, joining Bree at the window. "Tourist-traps and restaurants. Bed and breakfast joints. Whale watching and nature stuff." He glanced at a spider building a web. "This place is crawling with nature.”

Bree gazed down at the scatter of lights. "Maybe it’s evolution. That town is full of dinosaurs who can't learn how to adapt...”

There was a sudden scream of tires, and the roar of an old American V-8.

"Fire!" cried Bree, pointing down.

Beyond the stone wall, through the overgrown trees, a pillar of flame leaped up in the night. Artemus ran down the stairs with Bree following close behind.

Luca was already out in the road, his chubby face lighted in helpless desire by a burning cross in a garbage can that roared with a gasoline stench.

Artemus pulled his brother against him, feeling the heat in Luca's body, pressing Luca's face to his chest and hiding the ecstasy in his eyes.



                                           END