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Roman Candle

by David Dobbler

 

It was the first day of summer after our sixth-grade year. Frank, my twin brother, and I were lighting fireworks in the small forest behind our house. I watched as Frank lit the green wicked fuse of the roman candle and held it, outstretched, away from his body. Small fireballs of purple, blue, and orange quickly flared out of the long cardboard tube. Each colorful orb traveled through the light summer air with great speed and collided with the large watermelon that I had placed on an old tree stump as a target. One after another, the balls of fire battered hard and deep into the heart of the watermelon. The first, blue, flaming and mighty, hit dead center with much fury and split the melon partially open. The second, orange, followed shortly behind and cut deep into the red meat of the melon. The third and fourth missed entirely, whirring quickly past, and disappeared deep into the forest. The fifth ball of fire to leave the tube was purple and seemed far bigger than the rest. It danced elegantly through the air and hit the bleeding melon quick and with authority. The watermelon burst open, its red meat turned to grainy mush and splattered down to forest floor. Its dark green rind, once strong and confident, sat on the stump, mangled and defeated by this unfamiliar enemy. Frank dropped the empty roman candle and looked at me.

 

“Wow Jackie, you have to try this,” he said.

 

I looked regretfully at the mangled remnants of the once strong and beautiful watermelon and then turned to Frank.

 

“Maybe some other time,” I said, “Why don’t we head back up? Lucky will be here soon.”

 

“Okay.”

 

We climbed up the ladder that was built into the large oak tree in which our treehouse rested. Our father had helped us build it years ago, and it had become a second home to Frank and me. Inside, a wooden card table surrounded by three chairs stood in the middle. A pale blue beanbag chair that had a large hole with charred black edges burnt into the side, sat in the corner by the window. Frank and I sat silently at the table and flipped through old magazines and comic books as we waited for Lucky.

 

“Jackie, what d’you think is taking him so long?” Frank asked.

 

“I don’t know.” I replied, “Maybe he got caught.”

 

Lucky was my and Frank’s best friend. He lived in a rundown neighborhood down the street and it showed. His shoes were always splitting apart at the seams and his clothes seemed to consist of only tattered jeans and stained white t-shirts. Lucky’s mom had run out on him and his father the year before and it had taken its toll, not on Lucky but on his father. His father, who had always been a drinker, went over the edge when she left and now there wasn’t a night when he came home sober. Lucky would often come to school wearing the bruises left by his father’s belt from the night before.

 

“Hey you guys up there!” a voice called from the forest floor.

 

Frank stood up and looked out the window.

 

“Hey there Lucky!” Frank shouted, “Did you get ’em?”

 

“You bet your ass I did!” Lucky yelled as he began climbing up the ladder.

 

Seconds later, the trapdoor on the floor of the treehouse swung open and Lucky climbed through. His long black hair was messy and his eyes were wide. The whites gleamed bright against his deep, coffee-colored irises. He wore his usual dirty white t-shirt and ratty jeans.

 

“Oh boy do I have a treat for you guys,” Lucky said with a goofy smile as he reached into his pocket. He removed a small, rectangular, cardboard object and held it up for us to see.

 

“Marlboros!” Lucky proclaimed, “I swiped ’em from my Pa’s dresser this morning. The drunken bastard won’t even notice.”

 

Lucky sat down at the table with us and pulled out three cigarettes. He handed Frank and me one each and then removed a box of matches from his pocket. Frank and I looked at each other and then over to Lucky.

 

“Umm, which end do we light?” I asked.

 

“Hell if I know," Lucky said, “I think it’s this brown thingy here.”

 

“I think it’s the long white end,” Frank said hesitantly.

 

Lucky pulled a match from the box and struck it. He placed the cigarette in his mouth and held the match up to it. He puffed inward twice and the end of the Marlboro lit up orange. Smoke began billowing out from the cigarette and Lucky inhaled deeply. Immediately he began coughing uncontrollably, falling over onto his side. Frank and I looked at each other. We were both thinking the same thing. We threw our cigarettes out the window of the tree house. Lucky, who had finally stopped coughing, stood up and smiled down at Frank and me.

 

“Wow boys,” he said and chuckled, “That sure was smooth.”

 

* * *

Later that evening, Frank, Lucky, and I were walking downtown towards the arcade. The sun was just beginning to set and shades of orange and pink were streaked across the sky. Our parents had given Frank and me a dollar in coins each as an end of the school year treat. That was enough to last us all night.

 

“Christ!” Lucky yelled as he spat on the ground in disgust. “My mouth still tastes like shit. Who in their right mind smokes those things?” The three of us looked at each other and laughed.

 

Downtown was buzzing that evening. Kids, relieved to have finally finished the school year, were milling about, moving from shop to shop in small packs. The arcade was especially popular on summer nights like these. The electronic ringing and singing of the arcade machines could be heard from blocks away.

 

Frank, Lucky, and I had finally arrived and were getting ready to walk through the door when I noticed two figures emerge from the dark alleyway next to the arcade entrance.

 

“Sheeit,” Lucky muttered under his breath, “Eighth graders.”

 

The two boys stepped out in front of us. One was tall and wore a backwards ball cap; I had never seen him before. The other was short, fat, and wore a menacing scowl on his round face. I knew this one, Johnny Moretti. Johnny lived down the street and had always been a punk. He had stolen Frank’s and my bikes last summer; we never saw them again.

 

“Well if it isn’t the two ugliest twins I have ever seen,” Johnny said with a sly grin. “Oh and look at this, they brought their white trash friend along. Say Lucky, I thought I saw your mother the other day.” The sly grin on Johnny’s face turned into a wide smile as he nudged his tall friend.

 

“Turned out it was just some homeless woman living in a garbage bin!” Johnny and the tall boy began laughing hysterically.

 

I looked over at Lucky. His eyes were red and puffy and his fists were clenched into balls.

 

“Now is not the time,” I whispered as I put my hand on Lucky’s arm, “Let it go.”

 

“Now listen fellas,” Johnny said in a more serious tone, “I thought I heard some of mommy and daddy’s change jangling around in those pockets of yours.”

 

Johnny reached out his hand and smiled innocently at us.

 

“Why don’t you all just hand it over, and my friend here and I will be on our merry way.”

 

The three of us looked at each other. Lucky had a wild look in his eyes and I could tell he was about to do something drastic.

 

“Fuck you fatty!” Lucky yelled and kicked Johnny in the groin with great force.

 

Johnny cried out in pain and bent over clutching his stomach. The three of us darted towards the door of the arcade. The tall boy grabbed at me as I ran past, but I kicked him in the shin and was able to narrowly slip through the door.

 

Inside the arcade, we were safe. We ordered Cokes and made our way toward the Galaga machine.

 

“I’ve got first game,” Frank exclaimed and put a nickel into the coin slot.

“Go for it,” Lucky said faintly. His usual goofy smile was gone, and his eyes were still red and puffy. I gave him a firm pat on the back.

 

“Come on man, forget about it. That Johnny kid is a jerk, always has been.”

 

“Yeah whatever,” Lucky replied staring aimlessly at the ground. He took a sip from his Coke and looked up at me.

 

“But what if he’s right. I mean look at me, Jackie. I’ve worn this same outfit three days in a row, my shoes are two sizes too small for me, and my dad.” Lucky hesitated as the word “dad” hung in the air and a single tear rolled down the side of his cheek.

 

“Not to mention my mother.” Lucky continued, “Probably tramping around the country with some random guy. I mean how did I get born into this shit?” Lucky buried his head into his hands.

 

Frank, who had been fixated on Galaga, turned around.

 

“Guys, I got a new high score!” He shouted.

 

I gave him a stern look and then glanced over at Lucky.

 

“What’s his problem?” Frank asked.

 

I slapped the back of Frank’s neck.

 

“Shut up, Frank.”

* * *

A couple of hours and many games of Galaga later we left the arcade and began to walk home.

 

“Sorry I was being such a baby in there,” Lucky said to Frank and me.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Frank replied, “We’ll get back at the punk Johnny at some point this summer. He’ll be sorry he messed with us.”

 

“Yeah he will.”

 

Downtown was empty now. All the shops had closed down for the night and the kids who had been milling about earlier in the day had long since made their way home. Lucky picked up a rock and threw it down the abandoned street.

 

“I can’t believe it’s already summer,” he said.

 

“I know,” Frank replied, “It’s going to be great. We are going to go swimming in the river every day, just like last summer.”

 

“Don’t forget about fishing,” I chimed in, “Oh, and catching frogs on the banks late at night.”

 

“And sleepovers in the tree house," Lucky said, “Remember last year, when the beanbag caught fire and the whole thing almost burned down?”

 

We all burst out laughing.

 

Suddenly I heard the sound of brakes squeaking and the low hum of a car engine. An old, rusted out Ford truck slowly pulled up alongside of us. The headlights were off and the man driving had his arm hanging out the window. An unlit cigarette was hanging from his lips.

 

“Where you been, boy?” The man asked in a harsh, gruff tone.

 

“Aww sheeit,” Lucky muttered under his breath. “That’s my Pa. I better get going. I’ll see you boys tomorrow.”

 

Lucky ran around to the passenger side of the truck and climbed in. The man driving looked at Frank and me intently. He lit his cigarette, took a long drag, and gave us a menacing smile right before he revved the engine and sped away. The tires squealed as the old Ford hurtled down the empty street.

 

Frank and I looked at each other.

 

“Lucky’s dad is kind of scary,” Frank said.

 

I nodded in agreement. For as long as we had known Lucky, we had never met his father. He had talked about him and we had heard stories, but this was the first time we had actually seen him.

 

“I can see why his mom left.” Frank snickered.

 

I balled up my fist and hit him as hard I could in the shoulder.

 

“Ouch. What was that for?”

 

“Shut up, asshole.”

 

* * *

The next morning Frank and I woke up to a large breakfast that our mother had made. Eggs, fried potatoes, pancakes, and bacon were waiting for us on sparkling porcelain plates. We sat and ate while we watched cartoons on the kitchen television. We finished and set our dirty plates in the sink.

 

“Hey Jackie, do you want to go down to the tree house and light firecrackers?” Frank asked.

 

“Sure, why not?”

 

We walked out the back door and started down towards the woods behind our house. It was late morning and the sun had already risen near its apex in the sky. Frank and I tramped through the woods until we reached the clearing in which the lone oak tree stood proud. Nestled high in its branches was the tree house. Frank was first to climb up the ladder while I followed close behind. He soon reached the top of the ladder and made his way up through the trapdoor.

 

“What the hell?” Frank said.

 

“What is it?” I replied.

 

I scrambled up into the treehouse and looked urgently around the room. I quickly noticed a heap of a boy sprawled out onto the beanbag in the corner of the room. It was Lucky.

 

“Had he spent the night here?” I thought to myself.

 

I walked over to the beanbag and nudged him with my foot.

 

“Lucky, wake up,”

 

He didn’t move.

I felt my heart flutter and then drop down into my stomach. Bad thoughts started rushing into my head and my sense of urgency grew. I looked over to Frank and I could see that he too was now concerned.

 

I nudged Lucky once again with my foot, this time much harder.

 

“Lucky, wake up!” I shouted.

 

Lucky slowly rolled over onto his back. His face was bruised and swollen almost beyond recognition. Dried blood was caked all over his face and his white t-shirt.

 

“Holy shit, man,” I yelled, “What happened?”

 

His body began to tremble slightly, and a tear began rolling down from his left eye. His right was swollen shut.

 

“He fou-, he found out,” Lucky said weakly, his body and voice trembling uncontrollably all the while.

 

“Who? What did he find out?” I asked.

 

I was confused and frightened. I looked over at Frank, his face was pale and his bottom lip trembled. We had never seen Lucky like this. We had never seen anyone like this.

 

“The cigarettes,” Lucky said. He started laughing wildly through the tears and I could see that he was not in a right state of mind.

 

“The fucking cigarettes,” he cried out hysterically.

 

“Oh,” I replied. I did not know what to say.

 

The treehouse fell silent except for Lucky’s soft cries. The silence hung in the air until Lucky’s crying gradually stopped and he grew suddenly calm. He looked up at me from the pale blue beanbag with his one open, bloodshot and red, eye.

 

“But that ain’t all I took,” Lucky said and smiled.

 

He casually reached into his pocket, the same one that once had held the Marlboros, and removed a small, grey, metal object. It was a revolver.

I gasped in shock and took a large step back away from Lucky.

 

“I’m going to kill him,” he cried out as he began sobbing uncontrollably again. “Him and that punk, Johnny Moretti.”

 

Lucky began waving the revolver around hysterically and then pointed it towards his own head.

 

“No Lucky!” Frank screamed.

 

I looked over at Frank and then back over to Lucky, the smooth metal of the gun pressed tightly against his temple. A cold shudder rippled through my body and I suddenly felt like I was going to be sick. Smooth metallic clicks filled the air as Lucky’s grip on the trigger strengthened and I saw his face tighten into an expectant grimace.

 

My mouth dropped and I darted towards Lucky in a flash. I swung my arm around and knocked the gun from his hand. It sailed through the air and out the window of the tree house, landing on the forest floor with a thud. I threw my arms around him and buried his face into my shoulder.

 

“Fuck it all, Jackie,” Lucky cried out in agony.

 

I could feel the soft trembling of his broken body, and his warm tears, falling gently down onto my shoulder.

 

“Fuck it all.”

David Dobbler is an undergraduate student at the University of Missouri studying biology and creative writing. With ambitions in the field of science and medicine, he makes time to enjoy the passionate pursuit of writing and storytelling.

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