Flames lapped and rolled across the ground, and burning tongues drooled embers up the barn walls toward the hay loft. I gasped and the adrenaline surge bounced me off the ladder. I clawed madly at the rungs, managing only to pull the ladder down with me to ground, stranding Tommy in the thickening smoke. Until about twenty minutes before, this summer day in 1972 wasn’t all that different from the ones before it: hot, but not too hot. My little brother, Tommy, had just that morning emerged from the bathroom with a gap in his grin, holding a baby tooth in his hand. I was starting junior high school in a few weeks, but the stern matter of zits, girls, and arms that were suddenly one inch too long sat dormant in the shadow of peanut butter sandwiches, bikes, and the old barn creaking arthritically in the bare field behind the house.
The barn had been there for a long time. My father said once that his grandfather raised the barn. His grandfather told him how the neighbors arrived in carts and on horses, working into late evening then wiping sweat from brows as the women brought out pies and young men fetched fiddles and concertinas to celebrate. It sounded pretty grand, but even my young mind, full of make-believe, could only imagine so much grandeur into the barn that was drunkenly falling in very slow motion toward the dirt of the field.
True, it wasn’t much to see from the outside, but Tommy and I had spent many of our summer days in the barn. We weren’t supposed to go in there, but most days the lure of pirates, cowboys, and dark caves glittering with Spanish gold was too much. Even as our mother kissed us each on the cheek that morning, saying “You boys stay out of trouble” our imaginations had already taken the reins, steering us toward those great big doors that concealed our newest adventure.
Outside, we half-heartedly threw a baseball around until the sound of soap operas drifting out the kitchen window told us the coast was clear. I glanced at Tommy, who grinned.
“Race you!” he whistled through the gap in his teeth.
I dropped the baseball and took off like a shot toward the barn. I’d always been a little bigger and a little faster than my brother and was almost there when my legs, made as gangly as my arms by puberty, became tangled and I tumbled into the dirt. The pitter-patter of Tommy’s tiny frame skipped past me and I looked up just in time to see the gap in his mouth as he grinned at me and disappeared into the barn.
I didn’t know very well how to curse at the time, but I mustered up the bluest streak I could manage and made my way to the barn, beating dust from my shirt and ignoring the sting of a skinned knee. As my eyes adjusted to the light inside, I could see Tommy climbing the stack of hay bales, well-preserved leftovers long forgotten about since Dale, the rancher up the road, had asked my father if he could store them in the barn a few years back.
Beaten at the race, I resolved to even the score. I snuck as quietly as I could around the stack. Tommy had shown me his newest book yesterday, a late birthday gift from our father. It was about a ghost pirate and after reading it, Tommy had insisted on sleeping with a nightlight. I crept slowly; he hadn’t seen me come around the back of the hay. We would see who was smiling once the dread pirate showed up. I stayed low and just as I was about to pounce on him, something caught my eye. I stood up, startling Tommy who cried out.
“Hey, what’re you doing back there?”
“Come and look at this,” I said. He must have seen the look in my eye as I bent toward the shelf because he jumped down to stand beside me and peer at the glinting object peeking out from dust and cobwebs. I gingerly retrieved the object, an old kerosene lantern. I blew hard on the glass, then spat and rubbed it with my sleeve. A ray of sunlight falling across the shelf hit the lantern, breaking across the wall into little rainbow whorls. We stared in awe at this new treasure, then Tommy turned to me, his eyes wide.
“Let me hold it!” he said excitedly.
“No way, you’ll break it!”
“No I won’t! You’ll fall down again and break it yourself!”
He reached for it but I held him away. Those awkwardly long arms were good for some things. After a brief struggle, we agreed that he would hold it, but only after completing a dare. Tommy would have to climb the rickety ladder to the hay loft, and he could only hold the lantern while he was up there so I would have to come, too. But he had to go first.
“Fine!” he said and stomped to the ladder. Like the barn, the ladder was probably something to see in its time. By the time Tommy and I came along with our lantern dare, though, the ladder had lost rungs, replaced slapdash with odd pieces of wood and bent nails. He climbed it faster than I thought he could and turned around at the top.
“There, I’m in the stupid loft! Now you have to come up, too!”
I approached the ladder smugly, the lantern glittering in the dim light with the wire handle now in my grasp. The ladder creaked ominously and I started to climb. This turned out to be a bad idea. And not one of those bad ideas where you put salt in your little brother’s glass of milk while he isn’t looking and get sent to your room. No, this was one of those ideas that was so colossally bad that the screaming protests of the one part of your brain, the part that figured things out ahead of time, that those protests don’t even register until the lantern has slipped from your awkward arms as your awkward legs push them up an awkward ladder. In fact, the protests get pretty loud once the lantern flies to the ground, the heavy metal base striking an old mill stone and showering sparks onto the kerosene fuel that neither Tommy nor I noticed in the now ruptured glass bulb.
As the ladder fell with me, I looked up to see Tommy’s twist into shock and horror. I was up on my feet quickly, but the ladder had seen its last. The hasty repairs of the past couldn’t take the shock. Rusty nails popped out at odd angles and I struggled with the ladder just long enough to see that most of the original rungs, probably lathed by hand God-knows-how-long ago, had cracked and splintered. I dropped the useless ladder and cast my eyes about, searching desperately for anything in the barn that I could use to reach Tommy. The smoke inside the barn was getting thick: I looked up at the loft to see Tommy, down on all fours to escape the noxious cloud above his head. He looked terrified, his eyes locked on mine. Tears streamed down his cheeks, falling to the floor as the flames climbed up the wall on the other side of the barn.
The inferno kissed my cheeks with heat, just as my mother had kissed mine and Tommy’s cheeks that morning. I backed away instinctively, tripped over my damn legs, and fell on something soft. The hay bales! I had forgotten about the hay bales, whose ropes had long lost their tension, letting hay spill out the corners to create giant pillows to climb all over. I popped up and screamed at Tommy “Jump! Jump!” while gesturing madly at the bales. His eyes widened, colliding with his furrowed brow, but skepticism has a way of acquiescing when your hay loft is on fire. He jumped and landed square in the middle, and my big arms were all over him before his whole weight was even on the ground. We made for the door as fast as we could, bursting coughing into the sunlight.
If all we could think of that morning was getting into the barn, then at that moment the house had become the new object of our desires. I tripped again, but Tommy caught me and pulled me up from my genicular traffic jam. We dashed toward the house, yelling our panic at the kitchen window, pushing desperately against the soap opera sounds. Coughing and sputtering, we leaned against the side of the house and turned to look back. Jets of orange and white fire arched toward the sky from the top half of our drunkenly slouching barn, as if all that booze in its system had suddenly ignited.
Tommy and I stood there unable to move or speak, looking at the barn and at each other. Just then, we heard mother’s voice coming around the side of the house.
“What on earth is going on out here?” she said as she rounded the corner. Her concerned eyes rested briefly on our shaking bodies then settled, as big as goose eggs, on the raging flames that were once our barn. She put her hand to her mouth and, as if waiting for that queue, the roof of the barn collapsed.
The summer days that followed weren’t all that different from the ones before them: hot, but not too hot. Which was a good thing, because our punishment: no allowance for a very long time and being grounded for even longer, also included cleaning up the cremated remains of our poor old barn. It could have been much worse. As it turned out, our father had “always hated that damn thing, anyway.”
“I should’ve burned it down myself by now!” he cackled from behind the door of the bedroom.
“Wallace, don’t encourage that kind of behavior,” my mother hissed, as Tommy and I looked at each other, clamping hands against lips to contain the joy at knowing that we wouldn’t meet the same fate as the barn.
We faced our punishment gladly, and by the end of the summer when the days went from not-too-hot to not-too-cold, we had laid the charred bones of the barn my great-grandfather built to rest in the ground where it once stood. I still tripped a little bit, but wasn’t so awkward that I couldn’t place second in tryouts for the junior high track team. Tommy’s front tooth came in, his wide grin restored to its toothy glory. We kept events in the family for a while, but the story was just too good to keep secret. I eventually went to college on an athletic scholarship, nicknamed “The Barnburner” both for my win record and my actual barn-burning. Tommy tackled the experience head-on, leaving behind an engineering degree to become a firefighter. To this day, when we come to visit mother, we’ll walk across the field to visit the grave of the old barn. We’ve told the story a thousand times, but between brothers it doesn’t get old. We’ll sip root beer or martinis, laughing and talking until the mosquitoes become unbearable, then we’ll go back inside.