Fire Out

Lights off, we’d crashed hard onto his grandma’s sectional, still spinning after our longest night yet. Through the fog of comfortable darkness, Aleks mumbled on about his dreams. How none seemed exactly the same, but had a similar feeling. Like knowing for certain you were about to die, and praying for the end.

“And there’s this sound…” he’d managed to say through the alcohol I could smell on the both of us, “…like breaking. Like the sound of rocks breaking. Over and over again. A mountain cracking in half.”

I could have…should have listened closer, but exhaustion took me. We’d been too busy at Skip’s, this place we used to pass on our way down to the river. Took us until about 17 to realize that bringing beer to Skip’s door would get us all hours admission, and it wasn’t long after that he started getting us to burn his junk for him on nights when it got cold.

The place was an open-sky junkyard full up with broken inventions. Piles of crushed old cars would make shadowy faces down at us by the light of our fire as we drank whatever pool of booze we could put together, some of the still-whole cars–I remember this old mustang–becoming like hotel rooms, or latrines, depending.

And of course, looming down on us, always the crane.

We’d all taken more than one turn standing under the cement blocks endlessly weighted to one end, some nights drunk and hysterical, fearing it was our name carved in rock between the plates. Some of the braver of us, me and Aleks included, climbed all 45 feet of it one night just to hear the wind howl. Aleks had stayed up there long after the rest of us, leaving behind a torn piece of his favourite t-shirt dangling from the highest beam on his way down. Linds was the one who had suggested we start saluting it every night at fire-out, its redness bright against the foggy yellow-grey of the light-polluted sky. Aleks hadn’t done it with us at first, but had come around the last few times, his dark eyes shining against the light of the fire.

One end of summer, all of us–me, Aleks, Linds, Milo, and Doug–decided to start the new school year by ceremoniously burning the things we wanted to get rid of. I’d done the pictures of me puking all over my jersey after the Eskimos game the year before, and I think Aleks did some of his own journals, turning around and saluting the crane as the rest of us watched them burn.

Later that year, in October…that’s when it all went down. I think we all got there around 11:30, our calendars blaring the event’s signal into the cold winter evening.

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“Did you bring Skip’s beer?”

Doug raises his right hand, twelve cans hanging from his knuckles.

“Skip’s out,” he mumbles, piling our offering neatly on Skip’s dark stoop anyway. With almost no effort he catches his foot half-way up the chain-link fence and basically vaults over. One by one, each of us follow with much more struggle, trying to avoid the clipped barbed wire near the top.

From the looks of it, the pit hasn’t seen much use since we’d last been there, the remnants of Alek’s old journals still lying charred along the outer edges.

“Give me a beer before we start the heavy lifting, huh?” pants Lindsay, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her old man’s army jacket. Aleks, nursing a papercut from the brown paper bag, pops the tab before handing one over.

“Really? Guinness? Who the hell veto’d this?”

“Doug’s call this time,” Milo laughs, rubbing his hands together. “Either way, drink it fast, I’m freezing!” he says, fog rising from the heat of his breath.

Piling a few mattresses on top of an old dresser filled with clothes and dousing it in gas, we get the fire going. It’s quiet at first, everyone sipping and idly watching Lindsay fidget with her portable speaker.

“Can’t it go any louder?” asks Doug after she gets it going. Strangely, the night seems to swallow the sound no matter how high Linds pushes the volume.

“Didn’t this happen last time?”

Soon, no one even notices the faint music. Milo gets everyone to pitch for a game of Spit. Doug and Linds disappear for their usual and come back giggling. I notice Aleks is quiet, but it doesn’t strike me as strange. He has his favourite trench on–the one his Dad had given him the summer before he got killed overseas. He’d been on the quieter side ever since getting the news.

“Look,” says Milo, pointing up with his pocket knife at the first of the night’s fine snowflakes. Mesmerized, all of us fill with a similar sense of drunken wonder, Doug cursing the early snow as the rest of us trace their patterns through the air, watching them disappear into the flames.

CRACK

A sound. Like a gunshot. Or a compactor. The trance erased, everyone begins patting themselves down like they’d forgotten what they were supposed to remember.

“You hear that?” asks Doug of Linds, who shakes her head and takes his hand.

“Wait, where’s Aleks?” I ask. All of us look from one to the other, realizing his spot in the circle is empty. As if on purpose, a resounding creak sends shivers down our spines, a million goosebumps covering the napes of our necks.

“The Crane,” I whisper, running toward it. With every footfall, more and more of our exhausted conversation from weeks before returns, each word pounding worry further into my skull:

“They’re like murder,” he’d said, long after we’d stopped talking.

“Or about it. Like seeing it, and doing it, and being killed all at the same time. It could be a dead girl with her crying mother, or some man, shot and drowned and bloated, pushed to the bottom of the sea. I’ll wake up, only to be in another dream, one filled with guns, and burning flesh, and rotting eyeballs. No one can escape. Especially not me. Then the sound, the breaking sound. Crack! I’m out of it. That’s the only time….”

“What?” I’d asked after a too-long pause.

“The only time I know I’m really awake.”

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I’m the first to arrive.

Aleks is there standing below the cement blocks, their shadow cast in a tight square around him turning his usually sandy hair pitch black. With every passing second, his coat seems to get bigger on his frame, swaying back and forth, a stark contrast to the stillness in his limbs. The chains and screws holding the cement high above suddenly seem as thick as sewing thread, and about as strong. There, waving from high atop the crane is a long strip of red fabric.

“Aleks, what are you doing?” I yell, getting as close as I can without being enveloped by the shadow on the ground. Slowly – our eyes unblinking and fixed on each other’s – he lifts his right hand in salute.

“Did you hear it?” He says it in a soft voice, one that carries easily on the stillness in the air. And then again:

“Did you hear it?”

Doug and the rest arrive, blatantly pale in the light of the night’s half-moon, their feet pounding hard against the pavement, so loudly that I barely hear Aleks say:

“Time to wake up.”

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I remember the sound of the cables snapping, the creak of the crane after being relieved of it’s weight. I remember barely stepping away, thick shards of gravel hitting my arms after the initial crush, and Aleks…Aleks disappearing under the weight of the concrete that I was sure had moments before read a single name. As I stared, eyes coated in dust, I saw too…the red strip of t-shirt fall slowly down, coming to rest atop the pile of dirt and gravel that had erased him.

But most of all, I remember the sound. Like breaking. Like the sound of rocks breaking. Over and over again.

A mountain cracking in half.

Header image copyright Jessica Barratt
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