When I was seven years old I held my finger over an open flame for a minute and a half just to see how long I could manage. When I finally pulled my finger away it was raw and red and I felt invincible. In eighth grade my class took a hiking field trip through the woods in New Hampshire and at night we built a great bonfire and told ghost stories in circles until none of us were scared anymore. I remember the flames reaching up and up as high as they could go, challenging the trees to see who was taller. In the end the smoke won. It rose up past the flames and the trees and into the sky where it curled and twisted and eventually dissipated into a night sprinkled with tiny stars. Shannon Bial, who had red hair and drove all the boys mad, leaned over and whispered to me that the stars were made of fire too. And I cried because I knew I would never see their majesty for myself.
A few months after that my dog died and we had him cremated and put into a shiny metal urn that Mom placed in our living room. Sometimes I got jealous that Spot came closer to the flames than me, but then I remembered that Spot was dead. When I was twenty-two I had my heart broken for the first time by a woman named Carla who drank whiskey sours and worked at a convenience store off of I-95. We went to a cheap Italian restaurant where she told me she had met someone else, a dark-haired man who owned a Toyota car dealership, and that I shouldn’t feel bad and it was her not me. She drove off in her blue Toyota Camry and I stared down at the plastic tea light on the table and wanted to smash it for pretending to be fire when it wasn’t.
I fell in love for the last time with Gracie, an accountant with slender hips and beautiful fingers that she liked to drum on the surface of my dashboard. She had a kind heart and a photographic memory that let her to make coq a vin without ever needing a recipe book and I loved her for it. She didn’t have red hair like Shannon Bial but she had fire in her eyes and on her tongue, and like a moth I was drawn to the light. Our children have that same fire too but I saw it more when they were younger and slamming doors in our faces or complaining about curfew.
Years later, when the stony-faced doctors came to see me in the hospital, it was like all the fire inside me was suddenly doused. They pointed at charts with unapologetic black lines and tapped on monitors with blinking yellow numbers and I nodded and smiled even though I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. After they left, my daughter, who has wrinkles and a mortgage of her own now, leaned over and whispered “it’s alright, it’s alright.” I wasn’t so sure. I still felt cold.
Now I spend my days in white rooms with white walls and have nurses who feed me
green jello two times a day. It’s winter now so one of the television sets in the rec room plays a continuously looping video of logs crackling in a fireplace. Sometimes I sit on the couch for a few hours and watch it. Over time the flames slowly creep up through the crevices of the wood and break down the logs completely so that new ones have to be added to keep the fire going. The video reminds me of the real days I used to spend curled up by the fireplace with my wife and my cat and my newspaper and an endless future spilling out before me.
I hope I go the same way as Spot. That after I’m gone they’ll lay me amongst the flames and let my body and soul heat up and burn away. My personal belongings too. Ceramic bowls, socks, drapes, pictures, all of it. All remaining traces of me will become ashes blown away in the wind and smoke that will reach up even further than the smoke from my eighth grade bonfire. I like to imagine that the smoke will whoosh through the air and travel through the atmosphere and into space where the particles will break apart and make their way to nearby suns. And when Shannon Bial points at the sky and whispers to her grandkids about great balls of fire in the heavens she won’t know that I’ll be there too, miles above my old rocky home.
I’m not perfect. Sometimes I drink too much and forget to water my plants, and one time I punched Bill Brady so hard in the face that he lost one of his two front teeth. But I’m proud of the way I’ve lived my life. Raised two kids who come to visit when they can. Always held the door open for others and fixed my neighbors dishwasher for free. Loved my wife with a fire that still burns even now that she’s gone. Read two chapters from a book every night before bed and gave to local charities and picked up spare pennies on the ground. Maybe I never did as much as I could, but I’ve done enough good in my life to say I’ve had a good life. So here’s hoping that they’ll burn my stuff and maybe say a nice word or two in my name. I know I’ll hear it from way up by the sun.
Lily Dolin is a New York University graduate who currently works in publishing. Her work has been featured in Chaleur Magazine, Brio Literary Journal, and Spires Intercollegiate Literary Magazine.