Small Orange Circles

It was Anthony who first told me the Sun would explode. He said he’d seen it in a magazine. (Or a book, he couldn’t remember. Didn’t I read?) He was kicking a pebble, or a soda can — or maybe he wasn’t kicking anything at all — it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Anthony had the air of someone who would be kicking a pebble or a soda can or stepping on every line in the sidewalk as he tossed aside this remark, accompanied by a smug glance and the crack of a smirk that would inevitably fissure up to his remarkably small ears.

I said uuf-did you hear the Sun’s g-onna explode?

Anthony paused, waiting for a reaction he knew would never come, as he kicked or stomped and I walked down Laurelwood on the way to the house. I couldn’t call him a liar because if he was telling the truth I would look stupid; and if I said I had heard this before he would question me until I looked like a stupid liar. Anthony let the silence collect before he continued, breathily stressing the syllables that fell with the irregular rhythm of his sneakered feet.

It’s tr-ue I even —heard Mr. Sand-er-son say so in the t-eacher’s lounge.

Mr. Sanderson spent a majority of his day in the teacher’s lounge, so this I found easier to believe. I used to watch him nibble the leftover danishes on the conference table as Anthony took soda from the faculty drink machine. Mr. Sanderson had shiny eyes and kept a checkered handkerchief in his back pocket, and nine-year-old Anthony knew he wouldn’t look up from his paper except to move on to the coffee cake or mop his infinite forehead. Anthony would stroll by as easily as one could with bulging pockets and sagging shorts and return to our cafeteria table to hand out his spoils — slowly, deliberately — ensuring we never forgot who was giving them. We didn’t. Danny, Harrison, and I — none of us had the balls to be Anthony, so we gratefully accepted our gifts and passed them around, holding them nervously and checking for someone watching until Anthony brought his to his lips, rolled his eyes and said,

Haven’t you seen a cigarette before? Put it in your mouth.

He lit his quickly, cupping the flame and bringing it to the end until a tiny orange circle hissed into life. I was sure he’d been practicing. He leaned back against the tree, exhaling with a sigh as if to suggest he’d been smoking all of his fifteen-year-old life. The cigarette was wedged uncomfortably between his index and middle fingers. He exhaled and moved his arm with spindly bravado, smoke curling out of his thin smile and up past his miniature ears into the autumn air. Anthony stood up and extended the flame to Danny and Harrison. They craned their necks forward and up, cigarettes poking out from the center of their clamped lips. I hesitated — a quiet and unnoticed rebellion — before taking the lighter and doing it myself.

Anthony sat back down and began thumbing the lighter, the flame blinking on his brown eyes as they darted from face to face to see who was watching. But then the orange spark seemed to recede into his pupils and he went silent, going someplace we weren’t welcome. The rest of us were quiet too, busy contorting our mouths to exhale like the guy in the flannel jacket who sat behind the football field at lunch. Danny asked Anthony where he’d gotten them.

My nana.

He paused and stared skeptically at the end of his cigarette, like he was expecting something different. He continued the scrape and snap of the lighter.

I’m doing her a favor. She’s old. Shouldn’t be smoking anyway.

Harrison chuckled, the dark scab on his chin stretching and shaking, and Danny began talking about how his cousin used to smoke, or something, I don’t know. Danny talked a lot. He was small and eager, with a flop of blonde hair that flipped up and back down when he blew it out of his eyes. Harrison was quieter, taller — rarely speaking unless Anthony was being especially cruel to Danny. Anthony, still puffing away at his grandmother’s Virginia Slim, peered over at Harrison, looking decidedly pleased that he seemed to be forgiven.

We could’ve used my ID, I said suddenly, remembering.

I pulled out my brother’s old license from my jeans pocket. It was a gift he had given me before leaving for college a year before. In eleven months I would be twenty-one. I carried it with me everywhere, just in case we were ever in sudden need of porn or a million-to-one chance at ten million dollars. It had become a secret source of pride, and I had told Anthony the week before we should go to the Pik‘n’Pak and try it on something. It looked more like him anyway. He snatched it up and laughed.

No one’s gonna believe you’re twenty. Looks more like me anyway.

I tried to grab it back, but Anthony pulled away, howling, and turned around to look closer at it. Every muscle in my body contracted as the fingernails I’d chewed into flaky ridges dug into my palm. This is when I hated Anthony, when my eyes would close and his sneering voice would become increasingly shrill, his face growing lines beside his mouth saying looks more like me anywaylooksmorelikmanywayloksmorlkmenyway until the edges would blur and he’d start chugging out smoke and why were we forgetting that he shoved Harrison last weekend and made him bleed and just when I was sure that yes I really did hate him he would grab me around the neck in a headlocked hug and whisper excitedly.

Let’s go get the beer from the house. Just you and me.

He reeked of his cigarette and I realized I probably did too. I reminded myself to air off or rub a dryer sheet on my clothes before I got back home. My knees cracked as I stood up, pushing Anthony’s arms off before walking up the hill.

The house was two stories of rotten wood and memories. It had probably been standing since the 1800s and looked like it couldn’t have been abandoned much later. We found it in third grade in the patch of trees behind Mechum’s Creek, back when it still had most its windows and all of its staircase, which crumbled the first time Anthony tried to race up to the second floor. There was no door, so I walked right in as carelessly as I would my own home.

I could barely see anything, but the floor felt dusty and I knew it hadn’t been swept since that day we decided to fix it up and sell it for money, before property and trespass were on our vocabulary lists. We didn’t really spend much time here after middle school, but we still practiced the same finders-keepers ethos we had in the beginning; it was where we invariably went when we had nowhere to go and where, on the second floor next to the hole that used to connect to the staircase, we kept the beer Danny’s cousin would sometimes buy us. Anthony climbed up and grabbed the ten remaining cans, loading them one by one into the hammock of his shirt. I held the stepladder.

Anthony hopped back down and sat on the stoop outside, expecting me to do the same, and slowly rolled the cans into the dirt with a metallic thud. He grabbed two and opened one, passing the other to me, and then lit two cigarettes. I sat down on the step next to him, took a sip and grimaced. They didn’t taste like they had three weeks ago.

Suck it up. There are orphans in Africa who don’t even have beer.

Anthony grinned and cocked his head towards the sky, black dotted with orange, the harvest moon still rising. He was looking nowhere in particular but sank back into the same faraway look he’d had by the tree. Three billion years, he’d said. Three billion years until the sun would no longer illuminate the moon. Three billion years, Mr. Sanderson had repeated, eyes wide, clearly underwhelmed by the lack of reaction he’d gotten from his nine-year-old audience. The class was silent. I could see the white spot of fluorescent light slide over Mr. Sanderson’s polished forehead from my seat in the back row, behind Anthony. The sun wouldn’t explode like Anthony had told me the day before, but it would burn out more than a billion years earlier than predicted. Scientists had announced it. I imagined men in white coats squinting through telescopes and jotting things down on clipboards with low mutterings and solemn nods as the class went still, except for Anthony, who turned to me and smirked, proven right. A billion seconds is thirty-one years, Mr. Sanderson said, trying to help us process a change of information we never had in the first place. A billion was a lot, but there were still three of them between now and then and it was hard to think of the end of the world when the house was about to catch fire.

It was small at first — a tiny, indistinct orange blur — and I kept peeing, thinking it was the butt of his cigarette through the trees. But it grew and then hissed and then I ran back hollering to find him just standing there while a small brush fire was eating away at the bank of leaves against the house. It was spreading quickly, a black hole of burnt brush spreading outwards from beneath the flames, but it hadn’t caught on the house yet even though it was licking the dry wooden base. I didn’t have time to consider Anthony as I ran and tried to stamp it out, leaning back so my face wasn’t over the fire, looking like an anxious swimmer obsessively toeing the water. The leaves gave and spread, compressing then rising back up before catching and floating and then disintegrating into the orange mass. It must’ve been the cigarettes but I was pretty sure I’d put mine out so it must’ve been his though it didn’t matter now because I’d put out the right side but the left had grown and crept another two feet up the wooden siding. I yelled at him and my voice was unusually clear and enunciated with panic but he just stood there, not looking sad or scared or even guilty but excited. His face was still and his eyes were dark except the bright flames that played across their surface, the flames that were now spitting as I tried to step on the left side, turning my foot into the pile to scoop out the leafy embers. The leaves spread out on the dirt next to the beer and died out but the others hadn’t and the right was burning again and he still wasn’t doing anything and was he smiling while I ran back over and toed and stamped and scooped. Harrison and Danny ran up from the creek and looked confused and startled and tried to help, poking the fire with their shoes. We should get water from the creek! But we had nothing to put it in except empty beer cans and by then it’d be too late and Harrison and Danny slowed down and backed up, seeing before I did that it already was.

I stopped finally, my face and clothes soaked with smoke and sweat. I wanted to throw up. What if the trees caught? What if it spread? (It’s not windy, dirt doesn’t burn, we’ll stay and watch, relax.) I couldn’t just do nothing but there was nothing to do so I ran around once, frantically and uselessly clearing away the leaves I could with my hands then my feet and hoping it stayed contained. The fire was now seeping into the second floor without the staircase or stepladder. It hadn’t spread everywhere yet but it was rising steadily over the right of the doorway and was about to turn the corner of the small house. I was panting. My voice warbled. We needed to call the firemen or police or something but we’d get caught and get in trouble, yes, but still, but fine, but he promised we would call if it got out of control. He held the same expression as before, indifference glazed with mirth, absorbing the momentary thrill. He caught me around the neck in the crook of his elbow and choked me a little as he pulled me in to watch.

We were getting too old for this anyway. If we’re not using it no one should.

Did you —

No.

Sirens echoed up by Laurelwood, about to turn

right on Grady and down to the fence and the field where the house was ablaze and we’d be arrested but we were already across Mechum’s, sprinting the other way. Anthony, the fastest, was in front, jacket flapping behind him with the rest of us. My ears were numb as the air cut across them and I could only focus on the sounds of my own breathing and the light crunch of wild grass beneath my feet which didn’t even stay long enough on the ground to make much sound. And then Anthony was laughing, bent over with his hands on his knees and catching his breath as my stomach dropped like I’d just missed a step. We all stopped and Danny and Harrison sat down, chuckling, and I — finally — did too, from relief then disbelief then exhaustion. And then I stopped and my grin died and I checked and, no, I didn’t, but did he? I looked up and he looked back and I knew and for the second time I was going to be sick and I sped through scenarios of what I’d say when they asked

Why was your brother’s license found by the fire?

They were holding the ID he’d taken from me and not given back. It seemed disproportionately small. I could lie but they’d seen the beer and they had the ID and they weren’t stupid; and if I told them everything Anthony would come in and I didn’t care if he got in trouble but he’d bring in Danny and Harrison and I would still be in trouble regardless. I was trapped. It didn’t matter what actually happened. It only mattered what I told them and what they believed. I would say it was an accident. They’d said only half of it burned — I imagined the right half black, charred and crumbling, the left perfectly preserved. They’d said it would probably be torn down.

If only it mattered that it looked more like him anyway. I looked out my kitchen window onto Knox, which met Laurelwood in another half mile. I didn’t know where Anthony was. I didn’t know if he did it on purpose, any of it, but I knew he’d again go free. I was silent, mentally preparing my admission of guilt, editing and omitting anything I could to minimize blame and simultaneously take it all. In a brief moment of perverse pleasure I imagined Anthony, somewhere close, sweating over what I’d say. But nothing had changed for him. There was no way he’d seen them come or knew what was happening — him and his tiny ears. The orphans in Africa didn’t even have beer. Millions of miles away the sun was burning at the same rate it always had.

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