“Liar, liar pants on fire hanging by a telephone wire, while you’re there, cut your hair and stick it down your underwear.”
A dozen children surrounded Lyle, relentless shouting out their accusation.
By the time the recess bell sounded, the circle had tightened, and the chant, repeated endlessly, had taken on distinctly vicious overtones.
Lyle sat huddled in the centre of the circle, head stuck between his knees, arms crossed over to protect himself from the onslaught.
As the bell continued to ring, a teacher approached the chanting children, admonishing them to “break it up” and get into their classrooms.
The pack of tormentors broke ranks, scattering towards the school doors on their way back into the tombs that would encase them til the final bell of the day would once again release them to freedom.
Lyle remained in the schoolyard. He was almost comatose as he rocked himself back and forth.
The teacher that came to his rescue was a gentle soul, a young woman who yearned for the day when she’d have children of her own. For the moment, her career, teaching K-gr.3, satisfied that cherished dream.
Miss Cuthbert knew she really wasn’t supposed to touch the children, yet somehow she realized that was exactly what Lyle needed in the moment.
She carefully gathered him into her arms, soothed his sweaty brow, brushed back his damp hair and wiped away the tears from his face.
Lyle sighed, nestled into her ample bosom and began to draw in air once again. While at the centre of the circling pack, he’d almost stopped breathing. His short ragged gasps had left him oxygen starved and his fear had been so overwhelming that his body still ached from the adrenaline that had pumped through his wee system. It took several minutes of being held gently, lovingly by a kind being for his body to relax and begin to trust that he was safe.
The young teacher sensed the peace which had begun to loosen the boy’s tense body and as he relaxed, she gently let him go from her embrace.
Lyle stood before her, looked into her eyes and quietly said, “Thank you.”
Miss Cuthbert simply smiled, patted him on the back and replied, “All’s good Lyle, off to your class now and we’ll talk later.”
The teacher followed him into the school, continuing on with her busy day.
It was during lunch while visiting with other staff that she remembered the playground incident.
She sat beside Lyle’s grade one teacher and quietly asked how the boy was doing.
“Not well”, was the reply.
The teacher next over had heard the question and chimed in, “That poor child, I can’t even imagine surviving the tragedy in his family.”
All other conversations stopped. Pretty much everyone had an opinion on the topic, each one vying to outdo the other.
“I heard he’s seeing a child psychiatrist, so far he’s not admitted that he started the fire.”
“That poor family, losing two children and the mother, I can’t even imagine how they are coping.”
" I heard that Lyle’s mother might have been pregnant, no one is really sure. The girls were only eight and nine.”
“Apparently the grandmother took Lyle in for a few months, but she just couldn’t handle the situation. Try as she might, everytime she looked at her grandson, all she could see was the arsonist who had killed her daughter and two granddaughters.”
A pregnant pause,“ Can’t say I don’t sympathize with her, I’m a bit nervous with him in the school myself.”
More teachers began babbling, weighing in with their thoughts and tidbits of gossip they’d heard over the past year.
Lyle was only five when the tragedy had occurred.
He vaguely remembered sneaking downstairs to the kitchen, finding a box of wooden matches and trying to light a candle he’d found earlier in the day.
His mother and sisters were upstairs napping and he knew if he was really quiet, he’d get to watch the match ignite, burst into flames and light the forbidden pillar of wax.
Just as he was about to strike the stick, he heard a light tapping on the door window.
He turned and was surprised to see his father, George.
George and Beth had separated recently and it was not an amicable arrangement.
George had a bad temper and often beat his children. If Beth tried to intervene, he’d turn and vent any unspent rage on her.
The children all lived in terror and as difficult as life was without George’s income, everyone was relieved that he no longer lived with them in the house.
George was not exactly quiet about what he thought.
“That fucking bitch, got my house, got my kids, got half of my investments and then expects me to pay child support.” At this point, his anger would have escalated to a spitting declaration, “As far as I’m concerned the little bastards can starve, I’m not giving her one red cent more than I have to.”
He was beyond furious and often sat sullenly in the bar, knocking back draft after draft, plotting ways to get out of his obligations.
He did his best to make life for Beth as miserable as possible, and he succeeded.
She and the children lived a rather hand to mouth existence and the only compensation was that they no longer suffered George’s daily harassment. He had little to do with his children and only showed up to throw a cheque in Beth’s face, complaining about her and the kids being ‘leeches’ that were sucking him dry.
George was in a particularly foul mood the afternoon he arrived at the house to find Lyle sitting at the kitchen table, with a match ready to strike and light the candle in front of him.
He rapped on the window, beckoning his son to let him in.
Reluctantly, Lyle put down the unlit match, went to the door and let his father into the house.
George immediately grabbed his arm and hissed, “Where are your sisters and your mother?”
“Upstairs napping,” whispered Lyle.
“Yah, well you should be up there too. Give me those matches and get the hell up to your room before I whup your ass and don't you dare wake your mother.”
Lyle immediately complied, twisted out of his father’s grasp and ran quietly up the stairs. Just as he reached the landing he turned and watched as his father sat at the kitchen table, match in one hand, candle in the other.
What happened next was a blur for Lyle. He remembered tiptoeing past his mother’s room, his sister’s room and seeing them all sound asleep. He remembered going into his own room, quietly closing the door and getting out his toy cars.
His next memory was hearing screams and a strange crackling noise accompanied by the stench of smoke and soot.
He ran to his door, but couldn’t open it. The metal knob burned his hand when he tried to turn and open it and so he ran to his closet, closed the door and hid in the furthest corner.
After that he remembered absolutely nothing until the closet door was bashed open by a fireman’s axe.
The buryly, heavily shielded man grabbed the boy, slapped a wet towel over his face and ran for the door. He barely made it down the stairs as the floor above collapsed in a vortex of raging flames, engulfing the entire house along with Beth and her two girls.
It was a grim scene that followed and the story made headlines for several days.
Beth’s mother took Lyle, but when she learned the suspicions as to how the fire was started, began looking differently at her grandson.
Lyle rapidly deteriorated.
After several months, his father reluctantly agreed to take him in. By this time, George had moved his new girlfriend into his new house, paid for in cash by the insurance policy that covered the death of his ex and two children. He’d bought himself a fancy sportscar and begrudgingly allowed Lyle in as a passenger. Overall, he was not that thrilled to have the care of his son and Lyle declined even further. The child went from a relatively happy little boy to a deeply disturbed and troubled problem.
School became a nightmare and his home life even worse.
Lyle would look at George, wanting to ask the question, “Did you light my candle?”
He never quite worked up the courage and when he came close, George, somehow sensing what was to follow, would cuff his child across the head and mumble, “Just keep your mouth shut boy and mind your own p’s and q’s.”
Quite frankly, the boy was beyond terrified of his father and knew that what had happened to his mother and sisters was but a shadow of what the man was capable of instigating. Not for one instant did he trust George and so he kept his mouth shut.
Over the next year Lyle descended deeper and deeper into hell. The children’s taunts, egged on by conversations they’d heard whispered in their home, became more and more cruel. Lyle withdrew further and further. His psychiatrist grew frustrated and barely knew what to try next. He almost contemplated George’s suggestion, “The boy needs to be in an institution.”
It was Miss Cuthbert’s small act of kindness that ignited a spark of hope in Lyle.
He missed his mother dreadfully and the teacher’s arms around him had reminded him of what he had lost.
He quietly went looking for her after school and found her on the playground as she waved goodbye to children on their way home. She looked down and there was Lyle looking up into her face, an expression she’d never seen on a child, washing across his eyes.
“Miss Cuthbert, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Miss Cuthbert knelt down on one knee and gently queried Lyle.
“What do you want to tell me honey?”
“It's about the fire, teacher.”
“Yes,” she hesitantly answered.
“Well, I’d like to tell you about how it started.”
Miss Cuthbert hid her trembling response.
Was she willing to hear this story?
Was she capable of dealing with the situation properly?
She did her best to hide any hesitation and simply held the boy's hand, waiting for him to begin.
Lyle’s cracking voice began, “I know the name of the person who…”
At that moment, George roared up to the school gate, stopped his vehicle and began yelling for Lyle to get his butt in gear and into the car.
Lyle immediately let the teacher’s hand go, turned and ran to his father.
He only looked back once quietly mouthing, “I’ll tell you another time.”
As he got into the back seat, his father yelled at him to buckle up, keep his mouth shut and not bother him.
George slicked back his greasy hair and cranked up his car stereo.
The Talking Heads began blaring out their classical lines,
“Get them out. Ah, Watch out, you might get what you're after.
Cool babies, strange but not a stranger.
I'm an ordinary guy, burning down the house.”
Lyle sat in the back and knew the end had begun.
He was ready to talk.