The Children Smell of Gasoline and Smoke

by Joshua YOUNG
 

Our children were gone. When they wouldn’t answer our calls from the bottom of the stairs, we crept up to their rooms, snuck in, and ripped the covers from their beds. But there were only lumps of old stuffed animals from different times of their lives. These were kept in the attic with all the other things from early childhood. I was reminded of the times I bought them, and the looks on my kids’ faces when I handed their gifts to them. I felt nostalgic, but my wife got all fired up.

“Those kids! Always into something idiotic. Don’t they have brains? Don’t they realize there are sex fiends and murderers running around this country?”

“I’m sure they’re fine,” I said, though I knew she wouldn’t hear it. She liked to blow things out of proportion. When we were first dating, I thought her little fits and frenzies were cute. Like the time she refused to eat her bagel because the guy forgot to toast it. At home, she threw it against the wall, and acted devastated for an hour, as though she’d lost her job. Or the way she’d refused to speak to those who showed up late to her parties. But it was getting to be a tired thing. “They’re probably just over at Ian’s.”

“It’s a school night.”

“I’ll call over there and make sure they’re on their way to school,” I said, even though I knew she’d keep steaming till the boys got home and she got to lecture them. “I’m sure they’re already on their way.”“

*       *       *

Ian’s parents were already calling us when I went for the phone. They wanted to know if Ian was over here. Then call waiting clicked on. Jimmy’s parents were looking for him. I told them the situation, then switched back to Ian’s dad. He told me that some kid named Marcus was gone too.

“Did your kids make stuffed animals look like their bodies?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“When I opened the door, I could tell it wasn’t Ian. I was more disappointed in his execution of the whole thing, rather than him sneaking out.”

We had a laugh at this, and promised to call each other if we heard anything.

“I’m driving up to school,” I said. “I’ll let you know what I find out.”

*       *       *

When I got there teachers and administrators were standing out at the drop off. The buses started lining up, and the drivers got out, saying that no one was at the bus stops. I called Ian’s dad and told him to call whoever, to get up here, that all the kids had skipped school.

*       *       *

One of the teachers, obviously the one without kids, said, “Maybe there’s a revolt against school.”

Everyone glared at him, and went back to worrying.

One parent, the one who always wanted to figure out “what was really going on” when kids got into trouble, the one at the PTA meetings asking the questions that make auditoriums groan, said, “Do you think they’re trying to tell us something? Are they unhappy? Is something going on we’re failing to see?”

Someone’s mother, the one who always had something awesome to say, said, “Geez lady, this isn’t Catcher in the Rye. Our kids wanted to sneak out for something. They took things from storage areas so were wouldn’t notice all our couch cushions or turkeys missing.”

Someone’s dad said, “Hey, let’s be reasonable here.”

Then the uproar revved and my wife showed up, walked right into the center of the crowd and whistled. “Would everyone please shut the fuck up!”

She told everyone to stop acting like morons and to figure where our kids went. “They obviously didn’t come to school…so…” She was attempting to get people involved, but everyone waited for her to keep going. “So we should all split up, take our cars to places they hang out. Or talked about. Or we saw kids at.” She clapped her hands to together, and said, “Now would be a good time to go.”

*       *       *

We went to the places we knew our kids would go, and even the places we didn’t want to know they went—state parks, baseball fields, make-out points, the mall, the alley behind the Chinese place that had a stoop no one could see from the street.

But there were no kids where kids usually are. Just old people walking around, talking about inflation, being old.

We asked them if they’ve seen any kids around.

One old man looked annoyed when we asked, and the others seemed oblivious.

One said, “Kids, what kids?”

It was like talking to old rocks.

*       *       *

We were all back at the middle school.

“The kids still haven’t shown up,” the principal said.

I think everyone rolled their eyes at him.

“Where the hell are our kids?” someone said, even though all of us were thinking the same thing.

Then someone spotted a fire to the north. It came from the forest. At first, we just saw skinny plumes of smoke rising from the tree line; then a blaze rose. Because it was our best lead, we scrambled to our cars.

My wife left her car at the school and rode with me. She was hopeful, saying, “I bet this has something to do with them.” She said this, not like someone ready to stomp their kid into a lifelong sentence, but someone who was worried. I wanted to say, “I hope they have nothing to do with this,” but I kept my mouth shut, even though I kept flashing to images of our children burning in the fire.

*       *       *

The motorcade of minivans and SUVs crested the hill, and we could see the fire ripping the forest down. And out in front of the fire, watching it burn, the children were sitting or standing, talking, as though nothing was happening. There must’ve been a thousand kids down there. They didn’t even turn to acknowledge that we were coming. We parked in the parking lot, and the rest of the cars stretched up the hill.

We exited and started running to find our kids. I looked back. There was a sea of vehicles, parents tumbling from them, rushing down.

We found our children in the middle of the crowd. They were standing next to Ian, who wasn’t watching the fire, but digging a hole in the grass with his shoe.

“Oh,” our oldest said. “Hey guys.”

“That’s all you have to say,” I said. “Are you fucking kidding me right now?”

He shrugged. All around me, the chatter peaked. Parents scolded, or smothered, or cried. And all these kids, they barely reacted. They told us all to chill, or they shrugged, or they didn’t say anything.

They reeked of smoke and gasoline. Their hands were greasy and black. Their faces were covered in ash.

My wife, practically bawling, just trembling and barely able to stay composed, grabbed the kids and pulled them to her. She mumbled things, but they were incoherent.

In front of us, forest blackened before our eyes, disappearing.

*       *       *

At home, our kids are back to normal. Ian’s over every night, and the one time we tried to talk about what happened, they offered no real answers.

“What were you doing?” my wife asked, unusually calm. “The whole town was looking for you.”

“We had some things to do,” the oldest said. Our youngest didn’t speak.

“Like what?” I said.

“We had to start fires,” he said, like he was saying he had to pick up a bag of coffee.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because we had to. All of us. We had to burn that forest down.” He turned and looked at the forest, just a speck of gray on the far end of town. “It had to go. It just had to.”

They act as though nothing happened. As though they had played a ballgame and it was over now. They had won. They don’t refer to it, though. But we can still smell the traces of gasoline and smoke in every room of the house. And sometimes, when is Ian leaving, or when our kids are on the street with others, I see them whispering to each other, looking over toward where the forest used to be, and smiling.

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