The house burned down. One person died.
Don’t ask me about that person, his name or how old he was. I’m telling you right now, I won’t talk about it. I fucking can’t. I cannot think about it.
At first, everyone treated the fire like it was a sad accident, just one of those things, faulty wiring, a frayed cord. It wasn’t until two days later that we—my friends and I—read arson in the paper, heard people murmur, crime. I don’t know how our names got put alongside those words or who said what, because fucking A, there is a big difference between shoplifting mascara and burning a house to the ground.
It wasn’t like we went around hurting people. It wasn’t like we had a thing for fire.
The cops got the school involved. After Principal Tilling had the five of us called out of our classes, in the middle of second period, and down to the office, we told her and the sheriff it wasn’t us and we didn’t know who started it. Swear to God, we didn’t. Honest. No clue.
I tucked my shaking hands into my armpits, slid a glance at my friends, and thought, Well, I don’t, anyway.
What we didn’t tell the principal or police officer is where they could check for who they were looking for. Partly, we kept our mouths shut because of the rule, the no-old-people rule, which is also the only rule at Shay’s lot. Seriously, the whole point of Shay’s lot, where kids blow coke, screw, fight, and fuck around with things, like knives and guns and, yeah, sometimes, even fire, is not putting up with rules.
Still. There used to be two rules.
Eight years ago, when my friends and I first crossed the drive that backed up to Tina’s apartment building, climbed the chain-link fence, ran across the dirt road with the broken sign, Shay’s Lane, skidded down that hill of gravel, and found the scrubby field—a surprise of space, circled by a straggle of trees—we’d agreed: one, no old people, and two, no boys.
I liked it better when there were two rules. When we were only kids. When it was just us, the five of us, scabs on our knees, My Little Pony tattoos on our shoulders, dirty dolls pressed against our chests. No one else.
The other reason we didn’t mention Shay’s lot? Anyone questioned there could tell the police plenty—give them an earful about us.
Plus, first chance those kids got, they’d kick our asses. So, yeah, I guess there were three reasons.
Bottom line: Shay’s lot isn’t just a secret place. It’s a place for secrets.
I wish I’d stopped going there a long time ago. I wish that more than anything.
It was better when the only blaze in that spot was the sun in the fall leaves, a fire of orange, yellow, red. When the only poison was the milkweed, the strange pods we’d tear into and shred to threads, whole piles of wet silk. When the only ones who ended up dead were our dolls, sickened by the juice of broken stems, then buried, prayed over, dug up, lugged home.
Day after day, in those late afternoons, we’d meet at Tina’s and carry our dolls into Shay’s lot, holding them tenderly because, in our minds, our eight-year-old heads, they were our babies, our real babies, delivered in our buzzing meadow, born to our dappled secret. There for more poisonings and burials. For tears and prayers. For repeated resurrections. For another chance. Just one more chance.
Melissa Ostrom is the author of The Beloved Wild (Feiwel & Friends, 2018), a Junior Library Guild book and an Amelia Bloomer Award selection, and Unleaving (Feiwel & Friends, 2019). Her short stories have appeared in The Florida Review, Fourteen Hills, Passages North, and Ruminate, among other journals, and been selected for The Best Small Fictions 2019 and The Best Microfiction 2020. She teaches English at Genesee Community College and lives with her husband and children in Holley, New York.