It was summer and hot, but cooler in the basement. Carl could hear the television upstairs. Janey was watching cartoons. Their parents worked. Carl was in charge. He couldn’t be with his friends, or even leave the house, without Janey tagging along.
A coffee can held a paint brush soaking in blue turpentine. Carl checked it. It seemed clean. He tested it on a wooden support beam. The beam was white, but now there were streaks of blue. Dad would be mad.
A box of matches stood atop the water heater. Carl lit one and touched it to the beam. It went “whoosh.” The flame was blue, but a different kind. It moved up into the underfloor. Dust and spider webs shot sparks. Carl went upstairs.
Janey was watching Mighty Mouse.
“You should go play outside now, Janey. Ride your bike around the block, or something.”
“When this is over.”
Carl turned off the TV. He looked at his watch.
“I’ll time you. Ready … go!”
Janey squealed and was out the door and off the porch. Her bike was on its side in the driveway. She righted it, climbed on, and was off, with streamers flying and her thumb working the bell.
Carl listened to the bell until he couldn’t hear it anymore. He went to the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator. He chose a can of grape soda and popped the top. He closed the door. A list of Emergency Numbers was attached with a magnet. Carl lifted the wall phone receiver and held it to his ear. He listened to the dial tone and drank soda. When it changed to a busy signal, Carl returned the phone to its holder.
It was two steps to the basement door. Carl touched it with the palm of his hand. He sniffed for smoke. He went downstairs. The fire had died out on its own, but the wooden support beam had a black scorch mark all up and down one side. Dad would be real mad.
Carl finished the soda. He placed the can on the cement floor and stomped it flat like he’d seen his father do a billion times with his Pabst Tallboys.
Carl went upstairs and turned on the TV. Janey slammed through the screen door and plopped beside him on the couch.
Carl checked his watch.
“New world record.”
“I am the fastest bike rider!”
Dan Nielsen drinks bourbon and plays ping pong. Old credits include Random House and University of Iowa Press anthologies. Recent work in: Jellyfish Review, Bird’s Thumb, Minor Literature[s], Storm Cellar, Spelk, and Pidgeonholes. Dan has a website: Preponderous and you can follow him @DanNielsenFIVES