In ten seconds it would be done. Soon, for better or for worse, the fire would be lit.

And now, Mary thought, as she splashed the tiniest bit of fluid on the wood, what does this make me?

An idiot, that's what. You're his mother. you could stop him. Do you really want him to hurt himself, to prove you right?

"Of course not," she muttered.

"What was that?" Alex asked.

Put an end to this.

"Nothing. Just light the fire."

"Okay." Alex picked up the match box.

No one thinks about what can happen in ten seconds, Mary said, realizing this herself. It’s a lot of time.

Like the poem, Mary thought, watching Alex. That guy who took the path less traveled by. Well for him, it must have been a great choice. The way was beautiful, with birds and waterfalls he normally wouldn’t see because a crowd isn’t there. Perhaps he feel cool breezes on his skin, the smells of jasmine. And then he wrote a poem.

Alex took a match out of the box.

But sometimes there’s a reason no one travels that path, which that Robert guy never mentioned. It leads to swamp land during alligator mating season, with the smell of waterlogged algae and beer gone bad.

No one ever knows. And ten seconds is all it takes.

She should have realized sooner. Like that decision in college, Mary thought, as a firework went off overhead. Mary and her best friend had lit a joint while driving a car through the middle of town. Fortunately, nothing had happened, but it could have. They could have gotten pulled over by a cop just because of a bad tail-light. But they didn't. They got to wherever they were going and squeezed Visine into their eyes, with no one the wiser. All Mary had was a great story to tell, a story of her stupid youth. But it could have gone a different way. And next thing she’d know, Mary would be trying to get her voting rights back after a felony.

Apparently, she realized, ten seconds can mean you’re a calculated risk taker or a damned fool explaining your stupidity to the paramedics.

I hope this will too boring for Tales of the ER.

Right, said a voice in Mary’s head. You’re an idiot. Plus, you’re letting your son do this. Not you.

Alex lit a match but the wind blew it out.

It was New Year’s Eve and all she had wanted was to get a fire going, sit outside and watch people burn their money. Well it was what they were doing, given the price of fireworks. Buy one get one for 99 cents is a scam no matter what they say. When the first one is half your mortgage payment ninety-nine cents doesn’t matter much. But for free Mary figured she’d watch her neighbors’ displays. She had told her boss as much.

“And,” he said, “you don’t want to burn your hand.”

Mary smiled. "Of course not."

Two years ago a coworker burned herself badly with fireworks. Mary figured her boss would never let her forget if it happened to her. To him most bad things happened because someone did something stupid. They smoked, they drank or breathed wrong one day.

Hell, he’d probably haunt her after his death or find her in the afterlife, shaking his head.

“You saw what the firework did to her,” he’d say, like some sort of ritualistic chant. “And you did it too.”

No, some risks Mary just couldn't take.

"Stupid wind," Alex said. "I wish it'd die down a second."

Mary sat at the fire pit, waiting, the can of fuel far from her, wondering what kind of idiot couldn’t even get a fire going.

I used a starter log and I couldn't even get that lit, she thought. This is pathetic.

"Well," she said aloud, "in my defense, he can't either."

"I'll get the fire going," Alex said. "Have patience." And for God's sake stop acting like a child. Have some trust in me.

 Earlier, Mary had stomped into the living room, shouting. As usual.

 “I’m an idiot,” she said. “And would die if I was lost in the woods!”

Oh for fuck sakes, Alex remembered thinking.

“We’re not in the wilderness,” he had pointed out, as he continued to play his video game. He shouldn't have said that much, he knew. The less said the better. And he didn't offer to help this time. For some reason his mother would take that as a personal offense. So he sat and played, waiting until she calmed down or went away.

“You’re going for Eagle scout,” Mary said. “You get it started.”

“I’m going for Eagle, not Survivorman,” Alex had answered.

"Please," Mary said. "Show me how it's done."

Might as well. I’m not getting out of this one, Alex had thought, getting up and going to the front yard where the iron, moveable pit was. At least the fireworks were cool this year, the colors lighting up everything. Blue, red and gold sparkled and crackled, flowers begetting more flowers in the sky. Lines shooting everywhere like ice on the verge of breaking.

"Those crackling ones are my favorite," he told his mother. He remembered her smiling as he held the match.

"Mine too."

But he couldn't get the fire going. Alex didn't know why either. They both tried twigs, palm fronds, even lint from the dryer. A tongue sized flame would appear and then it would go out. Finally, in some stubborn moment, he'd come up with a solution. He could smell it as he struck a match. But the wind blew it out again.

"I know what we need," he had said earlier. He had gotten up and went into the garage.

"What's that?" Mary said, going with him.

Alex lifted a can and showed it to Mary. It said Coleman Fuel on the side. "We need this," he said.

“I knew it," Mary said, "your father did drop you on your head while I wasn't around.”

“What?” he said, with that confidence only youth has. Because when it came to fire Alex had confidence. And skill. One needed both caution and skill. He was "dangerously cautious," as he told his mother once. Fire didn't bother him. It was when he has to talk to someone, ask a question, give a presentation that this assurance failed him. Then he has the confidence of a middle aged balding man that has had too much happen to him and none of it good. Someone who knew the cliche "we're laughing with you," to be absolute bullshit. But in this case he had only to argue with Mary. Therefore his arguments would be smooth, the words flowing freely. And he knew often she'd give in.

 He gave his mother one of his well thought out logical dissertations. “Nothing will happen."

“Surely you don't use this in scouting.”

“No.” Alex ran his hand through his hair, making it all stand up. “It’s considered cheating.”

“And dangerous.” Mary took the can from his hands. “We don’t need a fire that badly.”

“Isn’t it just lighter fuel?” Alex asked.

Mary didn't know. Normally she used propane for her camping stove, a twist-on canister. But a friend had given her a different type of stove and this fuel to go with it. She didn't know anything about the stuff. Could be lighter fluid, could be liquid propane. It was late and she was tired. The only reason Mary wasn't in bed was she really wanted to make sure 2020 left good and proper. Still, one shouldn't be stupid about this.

 “I don’t know,” she said. “We probably shouldn’t find out either.”

“Mom, you’re being paranoid. I know what I’m doing.”

Mary had rubbed her eyes and stared at her son standing there, with those wisps of hair growing from his chin. It grew long but not thick enough to be a proper goatee. And it annoyed her no end. Couldn't he shave it? All he needed was a Great Dane and a green shirt and he'd look like that ridiculous cartoon character. The one that could eat anything and still be thin. Like Alex and very much unlike Mary. She'd gain ten pounds walking past a bakery, she often complained.

“You once blew hair spray through a lighter," Mary had pointed out.

“And nothing happened.” Another completely logical argument. I'm king of fire, the lord of it, Alex thought. Couldn't she see I have experience in these things? That's the problem. She thinks I'm stupid.

"Do you think I'm stupid?" he asked Mary.

"Really, son?"

As she thought about words said and unsaid, Mary looked across the yard into the garage. The place looked like she was holding a rummage sale. It held a kayak, a broken oven she planned to sell cheap, a chair, and two outdoor tables that were still there although hurricane season was over. Symbolic of this year, she thought. Clean, organize and in the end more shit just gets piled in there.

A firework boomed overhead. Jesus, Mary thought, no wonder the soldiers have flashbacks on New Year's Eve.

One particular sentence haunted her the most.

 “I swear if one of us goes to the hospital,” she had said, her eyes dilated. “I will kill you. With my own bandaged hands if I have to.”

Alex had shrugged. “What do you use lighter fluid for then?”

“I don’t think this is the same,” she had said, through her gritted teeth. In fact she could feel the metal from her lower partial against her upper teeth.

“We have gasoline," Alex said.

“Oh fuck no. I’m not that stupid. The fumes could ignite.” 


He can't get the matches to light. Surely this is a sign from God. And why must he argue with me anyway?

Teenagers do. They're driven to do it. You know that, don't you?

Yeah but not like him. Alex had always argued, pretty much from the day he learned to talk. Even then, before, he’d throw himself down on the ground if he didn’t get his way. Her oldest boy had done that too. But Andrew would get up if Mary walked away, following after her.

This time the wind died for a minute. The match flamed while Mary watched.

Alex never would follow me. I think he’d have laid there until the foster care system had come for him. I don’t know. I always gave in and went back. I’d pick him up under my arm and take him away.

Alex held the match over the fire pit.

You're a moron and a bad excuse for a mother. Who tells their kid if they hurt themselves they'll kill them?

"Well," Mary muttered to herself, her thoughts coming faster than words, "it gets old. Maybe just once I don't want to Google or write a damned thesis on why using some unknown stupid fuel is a bad frigging idea. I just want him to damn well believe me for a change. Also, is there such a thing as liquid propane?"

We also don't want him to burn himself though, right?

"I really don't. And... I want to trust him. Because I admit his questions are good, his arguments are often sound and sometimes he is right."

Mary's spinning top thoughts were interrupted by Alex dropping the match into the fire pit. With a thump, the fire blazed, seeming to engulf his fingers. In that instance Mary jumped. Alex jerked his hand back. Mary reached for him across the fire pit ignoring her shirt sleeve. Then she drew her arm back.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, looking at his hand. “I’m fine.” Thinking, well, maybe this was a bad idea after all.

Never know until you try though, said another voice inside him.

Mary meanwhile, shook her head at herself. Some guardian angel looking over us again. Or the law of physics-you know, you're a complete imbecile. Did you see how that went up, Mary? Smart. Real smart.

"Oh shut the fuck up," she told herself. And sat there watching the fire burn itself out while fireworks went off. The end to a crappy year. Zoom instead of parties and a fire that won’t stay lit under any circumstances. Her son could've gotten burned. She could've ended up in jail or had killed someone that day. All the could haves weighing heavily on her. When would she ever learn? And why? Why was she spared from her own stupidity?

The next day Mary googled liquid propane. After that, she searched for Coleman fuel. And drew in her breath sharply, the pain rising.

 “Hey Alex,” she called.


“This shit has octane in it. It’s not lighter fluid. It’s like gasoline.”

“Oh,” he said, coming to the computer. “Yeah, not a good idea.”

“I'd say not. It's giving me a guilt trip."

Alex was already putting his headphones back on so he misheard her. In his mind all's well that ends well. “It’s not working,” he said.

“I'm guilty, not you", Mary said. "I let you light the fire. I should have done it instead.”

Alex looked at her and shrugged again. "Next time we'll just use something else," he said. Lesson learned. What's the big deal? He couldn't understand why his mother was sad.

“We shouldn’t have used that,” Mary said, softly. “Why don’t we just get some more starter logs?”

"Yes," Alex said. "And stop acting silly. It's all right, you know."

January 02, 2021 04:50

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Cathryn V
23:37 Jan 06, 2021

Hi Paula, I just wrote a long comment but my internet disconnected and lost it. So if you get this twice, that's why. This story is a good example of internal reflection and a mother's worry, her guilt; and a normal teenage boy's response. I especially liked these parts: "stared at her son standing there, with those wisps of hair growing from his chin. It grew long but not thick enough to be a proper goatee. And it annoyed her no end. Couldn't he shave it? All he needed was a Great Dane and a green shirt and he'd look like that ridiculou...


Michele Duess
02:34 Jan 07, 2021

I just read the Crystal Castle and liked it actually. I thought it was going to be a sweet mother daughter thing and next thing I realize the mother is abusive. It was one of the stories in my critique circle. Doing this over ten seconds isn't easy and like you I'm not sure how well I did. I was like there's no way someone thinks all of this in ten seconds. But I didn't think your story came off clunky at all.


Cathryn V
03:56 Jan 07, 2021

Thank you Paula! I really appreciate that you took the time to read and comment.


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RBE | We made a writing app for you (photo) | 2023-02

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