His Fire | Teen Ink

His Fire

February 2, 2020
By EveNev, Wyckoff, New Jersey
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EveNev, Wyckoff, New Jersey
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Author's note:

Our emotions control us more than we think. It takes so much to hold our heads above the sand.

He loves the lights. They emerge from the darkness of the forest and zip around. He watches from the window seat, holding his blue blanket, crotched  by his mom for his fifth birthday. The little fiery torches flicker on and off in the depths of Elderegg forest, making a glint on his glasses, calling the little boy’s name. It’s the soft blinking of lightbulbs in the distance that keeps him happy. Those lanterns bring light even on the nights without stars or the moon. They bring the light out of the dark of the woods. 

“Richie, get your muddy boots off the pillows, please! The dirt won’t wash out of the red velvet. Your father chose them and they’re new, for pete’s sake! I would’ve thought you’d have a little more respect. You wouldn’t want to upset your father, would you?” He hears the distant call of his step-mom but hardly begins to register it, instead thinking his own thoughts. 

“Richie!” That’s when she comes around the corner, into the living room. He turns to face her as she rips my blanket out of my hands. Her eyes have something missing in them. Something, but he can’t quite figure out what and-- She interrupts him.

“Richie!” Thud. His feet hit the maple wood floor with force as she pulls them down, reaching for the shoelaces. 

“Why can’t you just get out of your own head sometimes, I mean, come on Richie. You’re eight years old now.” She looks at his lips in search of an answer he’s not going to give. He turns back to the window. Their flares begin to die out, fewer and fewer lights flicker on. 

“For pete’s sake, Richie. Do I really have to do everything for you?” She gets down on one knee and begins to untie his Converse. Her head turns down to face the floor as she begins to unknot the shoes. Her tight bun looks up at Richie.

“You need new shoes.” She tugs on each shoelace, in the center of the shoe instead of towards the outside, near the eyelets. His mom would have disapproved and rocked her head back and forth, sighing if she were still here. 

“Richie, what are you doing now? Stop shaking your head at me. Grow up.” He stops himself. He looks up at her to see a blank stare pouring from her gray eyes. She straightens her spine and rises up from the dark floor. Keys jangle in the lock of the back screen door. His step-mom turns away from him, her sharp blue skirt brisky brushing against his knee, to face the door and walks swiftly away, heels clicking. 

He turns back to the forest but the fires are no longer there, so he sits and watches the sky as the clouds grow darker and darker and the trees grow taller and taller. “Hey bud.” His dad puts his big hand on his small head and messes up his hair. Richie keeps looking for the lights. Maybe the trees are covering them. “Tough day, huh?” The residue from the soap on the window could be hiding the lights. “Cathy’s not too happy about you having your shoes on the pillows.” Richie stands up and walk to the kitchen. “Buddy, can you do me a favor and open your ears up to her a bit?” He follows him.  “She’d sure appreciate it.” Richie’s knees slap the cold floor in front of the kitchen sink and pull open the cabinet beneath it. He scans the cupboard of different chemicals. “You gotta listen, you know.” He pulls out Rustoleum first, but no, that’s for wood. He takes a few more bottles out. 

“Bud, you’re making a mess out of that cupboard, let me help you.” He bends down onto one knee like his wife did before scolding Richie. “What are you looking for?” Richie points to the window. “Ah, you’re going to want Windex.” He takes the red-capped blue bottle and stands up again. He walks back to the window seat. “You want a cloth?” He turns around again and nods. “Okay, I’ll get you one.” 

The exit sign pointing to the small town of Berlin, New Jersey looks like it hasn’t been updated since the 1960s, 40 years ago now, and yet it’s still the sign that Walter Roth is searching for. He leans over the wheel, squinting, finally seeing the sign and takes a sharp right off the quiet highway and onto bumpy roads. The boxes in the back of his car jump after each pothole the car hits. The 24-hour pharmacy sign illuminates Walter’s tired eyes, bringing out the evidence of a long night’s drive. He turns the corner, onto Wentworth Ave, and pulls into the gas station. A weary, pale man stands up in his little metal office, sliding the door open. He shuffles over to Mr. Roth’s silver Toyota, his arms outstretched in a straining pose as he wakes himself up from his nightshift. As Walter rolled his window down, the faint tune of Take On Me poured out of the station’s speakers and into his car.

“Alright sir, what can I get for you?”

“Full tank of regular.” The man nods and puts the nozzle in the car. 

“You ain’t from around here, are ya?” He leans on the car.

“No. I’m moving in, just down the road.”

“Ah, that’d explain the full trunk.” Walter nods. 

“Small town then?”

“Yeah, everyone knows everyone ‘round here. With a population of three hundred, how could you not, you know?”


The gas pump makes a little popping noise, so the gas man goes to finish the transaction. He hands Mr. Roth back his credit card.

“Thank you Mr. ...?”

“Walter Roth. And you?”

“John Cumberton. Hope your early morning start with the unpacking goes well.” Walter nods in response.

Ms. Collins comes to the Greens’ house every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to fill Richie’s mind with stories of soldiers and ancient cities. Richie watches out the window as she journeys up the path towards his house. Today she has a big red binder that holds the world. Unkempt papers stick out the corners of it. Her hair matches her binder. The sun catches her hair with curls that poke out of her bun. She sees Richie watching her and waves with her free hand, continuing towards the front door. Cathy comes running down stairs, one greasy hand in her hair, desperately pushing bobby pins and hair gel into the nest, the other reaching for the door knob. Her hands slip from the door knob as she furiously twists the golden handle. Unlike most doors with a golden handle, this door does not lead to a chocolate wonderland or to a land far far away, but to a porch that was long ago a sweet shade of yellow. 

“Russ! Could you help me with the door, please?” Loafers thunk down the hall. His nose twitches. His hand grips the newspaper tightly in one hand. His eye catches Richie’s. He grins and nods at him before sternly turning towards the door.

“Good morning, Russ,” a shrill voice emerges out of the door frame. “Honey, why don’t you sit on your window seat, I’ll meet you there in a second.” Richie nods back in response. The carpet is static today, probably from his dad moving the sofas last night, so Richie pads lightly on the carpet, doing his best not to get an unwelcome zap. He sits on the red cushions and traces the grain of the wooden window frame. He hears whispers being exchanged in the hallway, to then turn back around to continue tracing the wood.

A hammer slips out from the box Walter is carrying out of the car and he watches it fall to his foot in slow motion. 

“Holy mother of Mary!” His left foot skids backward on the gravel driveway. The box he’s holding drops to the ground with a sharp thud, the picture frames and photos spreading across the grit. The work boots he’s wearing don’t seem to protect his toes very well. His knees give out so he reaches for the car trunk and sits back. He looks into the rear window, to see that there’s just one more box. Scrawled across its label is a name. Grace. Walter’s late love. His bottom lip turns in and he bites down. With his jaw still locked, he turns away and looks at the neighbor’s house. It’s much the same as his own. Two stories, old faded paint coating the outside, colonial porch, strawed grass. Walter pats his front pockets for his glasses and pulls them out. He sees a young boy focused on the window. His father comes to the window to kiss the boy goodbye before he heads off to work. Walter recognizes the face, he’s familiar with it but can’t figure out where he saw the man. The man is young, yet to hit his midlife crisis, with a head of brown hair and soft eyes. He shakes his head and returns back to picking up the pictures of his wedding and college graduation, now shattered memories.

The sun starts to set, so Richie finds his place at the window, picking up his blue blanket. Normally Mr. Green is home by this time, but Ms. Collins sits opposite to Richie and watches him as he studies the grove.  

“What are you looking at, Richie?” He glances at her and points as the lights begin to flicker on and off. She looks out the window and watches the lanterns fill up the forest’s canvas. “Fireflies?” He looks at her quizzically before twisting back to see them. He didn’t know that the fire had a name. 

“Yes, they’re insects. The light happens when a chemical reaction called bioluminescence occurs.” Richie smiles, an unusual expression of emotion. Ms. Collins reaches into her bag of wonders and places a jar in Richie’s hands and grins warmly. “Try to catch them,” she says, taking a pen out and poking small holes in the lid. “There, so the little things can breathe.” Richie looks up at her wide-eyed. Her eyes hold a sparkle as she rises from the velvet cushions and practically floats through the kitchen, towards the backdoor. 

Richie steps carefully down the stairs, pine needles crunching at his feet. He looks back at Ms. Collins, who smiles at him, filling him with the little confidence he needs to take his first step into the world of the flying fires. 

He looks up and sees the zips of little bugs holding the power to light up his pink cheeks, unveiling a smile that nobody had ever seen emerge from him before. The trees no longer seem so ominous, but instead lifting him up out of his body, high above the trees, holding him up to the moon. 

Walter Roth flicks the coffee pot on despite it being almost dinner time. He maneuvers around the boxes, looking for one labelled “drinks and glasses”. Before he reached for a knife to cut open the box, his eye catches his neighbor pulling into his driveway. He steps out of his car, his keys swinging around on his finger. Walter suddenly remembers who this man is. He stumbles backward, falling onto boxes. He hits his head on his kitchen table and his foot gets caught on the bottom of the sink cabinet, sending him to the floor with a thud. 


He knows that man. He remembers him. 

He pulls the chair up close to her bed. Her blue gown covers all her curves and edges. Dr. Green had put a cap on her even though her hair had been lost years ago. He clutches her hand, running his thumb over the back of her hand. Her eyes grow lines on the sides of them and her cheeks raise.

“It will be okay, my love.”

“I’m scared.”

“You’ll be back out of the operating room in thirty minutes. That’s all. You’ll see me soon. I promise.”

He pulls her hand up and kisses it. The doctor let Grace keep her wedding ring on during the surgery. Walter looks down at her neck, covered with pen markings for Dr. Green to follow. 

“You look beautiful in every outfit, you know.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

The door to the room opens and a man in a head-to-toe mint green suit stepped in and stood before the pair.

“Mrs. Roth, are you ready?” 

“Yes. I’m ready.”

“I’ll see you soon, honey.”

Dr. Green’s eyes peered through the visor at Walter, giving him a reassuring nod. Walter nodded back. He sunk back down in his chair as Grace got wheeled out, fiddling with the sleeve of his sweater, taking deep breaths of aseptic, stuffy air. 

A few short minutes later, the doctor jaunts into the room, distraught but all too familiar with what he was about to do. Walter looks up at him, his eyes widening. 

“I’m sorry-”

He shoots up out of his chair.

Walter runs out of the room, twisting around the corners of the building, pushing through heavy metal doors ladened with “STAFF ONLY” signs, and looks at his wife on the table, dead, covered in blue cloth. He cries out. Nurses rush to pull him up from his knees and out of the room. He resists their grip, but doesn’t try to escape them. His sobs fill the building.

He must feel the pain of losing his beloved. He’ll feel pain in love’s absence and he’ll feel nothing but empty for a very, very long time. He’ll wish he could’ve saved him, wish he could’ve done something. He’ll go to bed knowing that his son will never live a full life and he’ll stay up at night recalling the sequence of events leading up to it. He’ll regret every time he yelled at the boy, every time he scolded him.

Still high on the adrenaline from his fall and his hatred for this man, Walter rambles his way over to his study. He sits in his leather chair with a soft kerplunk, and opens the top right drawer of the dark oak desk. His hand rises from his lap and falls gently on the smooth metal. As he pulls out the revolver, a wave of energy surges through him. Walter bends down to reach the bottom drawer of the desk, shoving handkerchiefs and old lighters out of the way. He pulls out a musty box of cards and turns the box upside down and in his hand, sleek, metallic bullets appear. Walter puts in the shots, one by one, concentrated. He spins the chair around and opens the cabinet door, grabbing a black knitted hat. He reaches for the scissors on his desk and hastily cuts two diamond shaped holes. The chair slams the wall behind him as he pushes his chair out from underneath himself. Walter’s pupils narrow. The floor squeaks beneath him. He pulls on the makeshift mask and takes in a deep breath.

His shadow follows him through the hallway, through the kitchen, and out the back door, grabbing gloves before he shuts the door behind him. His hefty boots sink into the mud. Walter looks up at the moon, the same moon that Grace would watch every night before bed. He walks towards the house, keeping in the woods, protected by the trees’ covering. Fireflies zip around him. The distant cheer of a woman encouraging the child beckons Walter. He follows it until he reaches a good distance.

He spies the boy and ducks behind a large rock for cover until he is ready. His stomach burned with passion.

The leaves below Richie’s maroon converse crunch louder and louder as his jumping picks up momentum. Richie’s mind fills with yellow and pink. He begins to feel feelings, not just see the world around him, but truly feel it. He hears the squeak of the back door and his father’s laugh. He can barely make out the toothy smile emerging from his dad’s stubble through the streaks in his vision. A loud snap in the not-so-far distance makes all heads look away. Richie looks around the forest but sees nothing except the flying fires. They start to envelope him, taking over his body. The lights become a parasite, swallowing any thought he could have. He stops seeing, stops feeling. He slips back into who he was. He hears the call of his father. And then a loud crack.

“RICHIE, WATCH OUT! DUCK!” calls Dr. Green as Walter’s head pops up above the rock, his hands poised steadily in front of him, holding the gun out before himself. The boy doesn’t listen to his father. Walter pulls the trigger. His brow winces at the sound of the powder cracking and his shoulder falls backwards with immense force, creating a blinding pain. Dr. Green cries out, running towards his boy and the lady perched on the back stairs springs forward and pulls her phone out. Walter pivots on his back heel and runs. He runs and runs until the cooling air stings the back of his throat, begging for water. He runs until he can no longer see the light of any house, but instead reaches a field of crops. His sprint breaks and his knees fall to the dirt and he leans his forehead forward against an apple tree. The rain starts coming in heavy drops. This was the kind of weather that Grace always loved. Walter’s tears seemed larger than any lake or ocean could ever hold. He still loves her dearly but she can never love him back, not anymore, because Dr. Green killed his wife. Dr. Green killed his love. And now that Dr. Green’s love is gone, he will feel the pain that he put on Walter.

Richie floats up, watching as his dad and his teacher gather around his body. He becomes a phantom, watching over the two.

“I told him,” his dad says between sobs, “I warned him.”

“It’s going to be okay, I called an ambulance.”

“He’s gone. He’s not coming back.” He feels for a pulse, but only bawls louder.

“He might,” Ms. Collins whispers through her teeth, “The medics are coming.”

“I failed Mary. Before she passed I promised her I’d keep him safe.”

“Oh, no honey, she would be so proud of you.” 

“He’s dead,” tears squeeze out the corner of his eyes, “he’s gone.”

Richie watched as the pair sat in silence, listening to the distant sirens grow closer. He floated over his dad and moved closer to the house, rising up onto the roof. He perches on the edge, his translucent feet hanging over the gutter. He watches the tears fall from his father’s cheeks and as his teacher rubs his back. 

Richie feels a hand’s shadow on his shoulder. He looks up to see his mother’s face, just as translucent as his own hands. She sits down next to him, her hand gathering him into a hug.

“You’re too young to be here with me.” He listens to her heart beating. “You’re far too young.” He burrows his face into her purple sweater, tears dropping from his nose, breathing in the rosemary perfume she always wore. They sat, hands interlocked, and watched as the red and blue lights flickered in the whites of Russ’ teary eyes. The men in white uniforms perform CPR on Richie’s lifeless body before stepping back, shaking their heads. Russ pulls Richie’s body into him, clutching Richie’s head to his chest. He slowly releases his son down to the pine needle cushion, wiping the blood off of Richie’s brow. He stands up and walks towards the house, shaking, wiping the still-warm blood onto his shirt. Richie watches over his mother’s arm as the paramedics take his body away. 

He looks down at his knees and back up at his mother. “I’m sorry baby. I’m so so sorry.” Her tears fall from her cheeks. “You’re stuck like this with me.” He climbs into his mother’s lap, his breathing uneven. She strokes his hair.

Walter picks up a stone, swirls it around in his hand, and throws it on the lake, bouncing three times. He leans his head back on the birch wood tree. It’s done. He’s gone. Walter sits, uncontent. He is in pain. He reaches for a twig. I did what he did to me. He starts to peel the bark. I’m just as bad as he is. Walter throws down the stick. I am just as bad as he is. His head shakes. He pulls his glasses off and polishes the lenses. I’m worse than him. I took his joy. Walter puts his glasses back on and looks out at the water ahead of him. The water reaches out to him and folds back in on itself, surging back into the abyss. Walter’s eyes follow the ripples on the surface. He exhales, his diaphragm shaking, causing a slight yelp to come out of his mouth. Instead of grabbing another stone to throw, he takes ahold of the pistol. He rotates it in his hand and pulls his arm back, pushing it forward again, launching the weapon into the peaceful water. The reservoir swallows the pain. 

Russ clears his throat before beginning. 

“You all have known Richie and how dear he is to me. Although he spoke no words and showed so little, his few smiles remain engraved in my heart. His final breath was spent seeing what he loved. He was dancing with the fireflies before collapsing into darkness.”

He looks out at the small crowd of people gathered from his town of Berlin around Richie’s coffin. They all have their heads bowed, a few patting their cheeks with handkerchiefs. Cathy reaches her hand around Russ’ waist, holding him, perching her chin on his suit jacket as he leans forward into the podium to continue speaking. 

“He was so young. Eight short years of life, taken by a man whom I’ll never know. A man none of you will ever know.”

He paused.

“Richie brought comfort to my life and gave me a routine. He made me the man I am today. I think Richie would’ve made Mary proud. I’ve lost my two angels, but I’ve gained so many of you. Thank you all for being here.”

Russ steps aside from the podium and the Reverend takes over. He speaks about the short time we all have and how we must cherish it as Russ and Cathy walk down the steps of the altar and into their seats. The Reverend waves his hand over Richie’s casket, blessing him with strength in the afterlife. 

Walter abides in the crowd amongst the rest of the town, watching the tears drop down the people’s faces. He was never a heartless man, but a man with a big heart and nothing to fill it with. And eventually, the emptiness swallowed him and he lost himself.

Richie and Mary’s spirits sit in a pew in the back of the old church, and though nobody could see them, Russ felt their presence. The pair stay, arm in arm, observing the service. Richie watches as his father and the other men of the town pick up the wooden box and carry it outside to be placed next to his mother’s grave.


Throughout the next few weeks, the small town of Berlin, New Jersey underwent an investigation of the century. They had news reporters from all over, yellow tape covering half the town, and blue and red colored lights illuminating the store fronts. The police turned up empty handed, largely because of how little evidence there was to be found in a forest with the floor constantly being recovered with more and more fallen brush. 

The town grieved. Their mournful faces walked around, wishing each other well skeptically. The people of Berlin decorated their lamp posts and mailboxes with firefly lights in memory of Richie. The town of Berlin would soon become known as the town of lights. 

And although the actions of Walter Roth will never be forgiven by anyone, nor himself, he does find happiness once again. He attends the town’s senior nights and finds himself some friends. He seeks forgiveness within himself, and contributes to other’s lives. 

As for Cathy, life takes a bit of a turn. Russ breaks up with Cathy shortly after Richie’s funeral. Russ reveals that he knows how Cathy had been treating Richie, or rather, mistreating him. Cathy feels resentful towards him, hitting him repeatedly, calling Russ a two faced liar. After being dealt a restraining order by the police, she moves out briskly and goes to live with her mother for a few weeks until she can find a house of her own. 

Russ continues to walk with the weight of a lost child. He feels the pain that Walter once felt, but unlike Walter, he has a community. Russ redecorates his house with firefly curtains, pillows with the anatomy of a firefly, and yellow themed furniture, even covering the garden with firefly lights. He never forgets Richie. 

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