I always cared about the explosions, but mostly I liked the whistlers, singers, and shriekers: the ones that screamed. Billy Acres and I bought a backpack-full from a fold-up table beneath the overpass. The old hippie had smuggled them up from South Carolina beneath a load of tie-dyed shirts. He said we had to buy a shirt to get the rockets and that there wasn’t a holiday that wasn’t improved with fire. I picked out one with a peace sign and he handed me a free box of snappers.
Billy and I ran straight to Old Man Binder’s farm. It butted right into Billy’s backyard. We had to leap over two rows of barbed wire to get in.
Sacred Sky Screamers, these were the big guns. The hippie would only sell one per customer. I shot mine into the open sky. It had that perfect round explosion and a report like a hungry eagle. Billy took his out and fired it right into a tree filled with birds. They scattered like dandelion seeds, blue sparks singeing their tail feathers.
Binder kept a pellet gun by the backdoor. He must have loved those birds. His trees were decorated with hanging wooden huts. “My babies,” he would cry, pulling the trigger without even aiming. I took a pellet in the soft part of the knee and it never came out. I still feel it when I sit down on the toilet.
That’s not the bad part of the story.
The next day, Cricket came over with a backpack of his own. We dragged Billy’s brother away from the TV. Grey shapes flapped towards the dark branches as we approached. Everyone held a finger to their lip. We were children who watched too many cartoons. We thought if we strapped enough on our bodies, we could fly into the trees and kick the birds ourselves. Two of us, Cricket and I, held Billy Acres’s little brother down. Billy held the match.
Billy’s brother’s shirt was made of polyester. There is no way to sugar coat this. It melted right into his back like plastic. It seemed impossible how much noise Billy’s little brother held inside his lungs. We darted away in different directions. I leapt into a bush covered with honeysuckles. It did nothing to dull the smell.
I thought Old Man Binder would burst forth and give us what we deserved. But Binder was gone that day. We learned later that he was marrying off his granddaughter with a smile on his face.
The three of us wandered back and carried Billy’s brother home. We held him backside-up so he wouldn’t see our faces.
The burns never fully healed. You can’t tell with his face, but if he takes off his shirt it’s like a relief map made of wax. What is his name? Either Timmy or Tommy. I see him sometimes. He goes around town with a bottle of salve. One palm-full eases the pain for six hours. He never forgave his brother. There is an alternative life of brotherhood they will never know. Now Billy has moved across the country and his brother works down at the scrap yard, manning the car cubing machine. He punches the crush button with his fist.
Do you want me to tell you that everyone has to do one thing they will regret for the rest of their lives? That this is what makes us human?
I’ll leave that to the psychologists on TV. All I know is that I never made it out of this town. Everything from back then is here staring me in the face. I operate a taco truck down by the train tracks. The other things I’ve had have all broken down, even my little brown dog. But the taco truck still works.
Sometimes Billy’s brother comes over and buys a chorizo taco and a Corona.
“How’s it going, man?” he says. He doesn’t recognize me. Or maybe that’s part of his revenge.
“Hot as hell,” I say.
“Damn hot,” he says. “Hot enough to burn the clothes right off your back.”
“I don’t remember it being this hot in the old days,” I say.
Billy’s brother looks me in the eye and takes a swig.
“Fuck the old days,” he says, then walks on back to the scrap yard.
It gets late. The sun’s red rays fizzle out above the hills. I drive my taco truck past the river to my little brick house. The days go on just like that.