My father lit himself on fire as a side gig. When he wasn’t working as a mechanic, he was an amateur daredevil. He performed at local rodeos in Spring Grove and Lakemoore. The Greased Pig festival and at the start of the boat races at Blarney’s Island. Low-budget high schools hired him for homecoming football games. Those sorts of things.
Once, he performed for a minor league baseball game in Springfield. Seventh inning stretch. The grass in the outfield was blackened for the last two innings. When the outfielders dove for the ball, they stood up with ash streaked along their pants. But there was a pleasant smell of burnt leaves and cigars after. People seemed relieved watching Dad perform. Something about watching someone else go to hell and back inspired people to breathe better, deeper. I loved that. Seriously. I believed my father was a part of something that singed the soul. He was special. He was special to me.
* * *
I watched from the field’s end zone while he put on layers of protective clothing. Our overweight beagle Evel sat next to me on the grass, his face resting on my thigh. I’d had three people already tell me animals weren’t allowed on the field, but I kept saying Evel was a service animal for my father’s anxiety, which was true and false at the same time. While Evel snored on my leg, Dad sang a Cleo Brown song while suiting up. Take a look at me, tell me, can’t you see, I’m right in my cup, I’m not myself tonight. He was a loud singer with a reedy voice, but when he sang, it was catchy. You’d never pick him for a band as much as summer camp counselor.
“Do I look good, Annie?” he asked.
I gave him a thumbs up.
Harry Houdini wrote something along the lines that an old trick well done was much better than a new trick with no effect. My dad was all about perfecting his old trick.
He tugged the hood over his head and placed the mouthpiece from the small oxygen tank in his mouth. By now he looked like a marshmallow man. Faceless. A hood and a massive amount of flame-resistant cushioning to keep the heat at bay. I heard kids laugh.
“What an idiot.” A boy pointed from the super fan section on the home team’s side. He was painted blue and white. The Woodville Blue Streaks. The fans from the visiting team were chanting across the field.
“What the hell’s a Blue Streak?” (Clap clap clap-clap, clap.) “What the hell’s a Blue Streak?” (Clap clap clap-clap clap.)
What the hell was a blue streak, I thought. Woodville was the high school I was due to go to following year. I had always groaned over the mascot and envied the town’s rival, the Johnsburg Bull Dogs. A vicious-looking dog, the exact opposite of Evel, emblazoned with fire around its head and fire in its eyes. That was something to cheer for. Too bad the district lines butted both my parents’ houses into Woodville.
Dad’s friends sprayed him with the flammable gel. Now he looked like a jelly man. It was like a caterpillar turning into a cocoon and then a butterfly. Evolution. The Becoming. There were stages: Marshmallow Man àJelly Man à Man on Fire.
I dipped a stalk of celery in my peanut butter jar while I watched. I was sitting on an encyclopedia volume I brought from home. It was early October and cool enough in the evening to for dew drops to gather on the grass. I didn’t want to get my pants wet.
“Light ‘er up, Dad!” I yelled.
He lifted his padded hand and waved in the opposite direction of where I sat. I smiled with peanut butter in my teeth.
“Welcome to the half-time show for the Woodville Blue Streak Homecoming game. Tonight, local daredevil, Billy Corliss, will perform his amazing feat: Engulfed. In. Fire!”
My father waved, looking completely extraterrestrial. There were a couple hecklers and kids yelling stupid shit, but they didn’t see it yet. The glow. They didn’t know. I dipped another stalk of celery. The water from the celery sloshed against the thick and sticky peanut butter, allowing it to turn to goo in my mouth. Dad motioned for his friends to light him. Mark was the lighter. He lit my father on fire for years. He felt it was an art, and my father trusted him. His other three friends waited farther down the field with fire extinguishers and flame-retardant blankets.
It was a simple routine: My father burned. He’d wave and kick. He’d run a couple of yards. Fall on his face. Then his friends would snuff out the fire. Cue applause. I knew Dad was humming the rest of the song to himself underneath all those layers. He played old vinyl records on repeat at home, especially after a good burning. On bad days, Dad turned to Elvis.
Mark held the blow torch out and clicked it on. He held up it. The crowd fell into a quiet that reminded me of sermons back in Sunday School.
Then my dad went up in flames.
The brightness always surprised me, and I shielded my eyes. He did a couple shuffling moves. Mimed the YMCA, which produced laughter. He waved. He bowed, then ran to the marked zone and fell on his face. The guys doused him with the extinguishers and threw blankets over him. The whole field was a haze of smoke. I waved at the grey wisps in front of my face. The smell was thick and bitter.
The crowd applauded, a polite clapping that grew to a lively cheer when my father got to his feet. Dad looked like a burnt marshmallow now. He pried off the hood and I saw his face. He was smiling and sweating. His eyes looked red, and his cheeks were flushed. The smoke orbited around him, and Mark and the others stepped aside, giving Dad the spotlight. I stood, holding the jar in the crook of my elbow, to clap along with them.
* * *
“I should have done more,” Dad said. We were in the car on the way home. “Do you think I could’ve done more?”
“Your eyes are still red,” I said.
“The smoke stung more than usual. Must be dry. Or tired.” Dad pulled into the driveway. “Should I have tried a handstand?”
I slapped him on the knee. The car smelled like smoke and the pungent, sour mushroom smell of my father’s sweat.
“You were great,” I said. “Like always.”
“You’re biased,” he said, turning off the engine. “Maybe next time we’ll put you in the padding and you can have a go.”
It was a routine response. Some way to pass the torch. The idea excited me, but I was never interested in fire. I preferred water. I was fascinated by magicians and daredevils dumping themselves over waterfalls. I wanted to take the leap, too. I wanted to free fall into churning white foam. I wanted to dive under and have people pray for me to surface. There’s something magical about jumping into water and hoping it will catch you. I read about Houdini’s stunts in water and how men went through Grand Canyon rapids in wooden crates and canoes. How many girls can say they’ve done the same?
The problem was there were no grand rapids nearby in my Midwestern town. At most, there was the dam down the Fox River, where the water lowered and head south. It’d have to do. Had to start somewhere, right? It’d be enough for now. The local paper. Hearing my name over the loudspeaker at school. “Annie did something really astonishing today.”
Cheering. Autographing agendas and hall passes. You name it.
I wanted to perfect an old trick and make it my own; I wanted my own barrel over a waterfall.
* * *
Every other weekend, I stayed at my mom’s house. If Dad wasn’t doing any stunts, he’d work double shifts at the Woodville Tire and Auto repair off 31.
My mom was married to Randy, who was a banking and finance lawyer. I didn’t like math, but Randy and I got along well enough.
“How is that father of yours?” Mom asked at Saturday dinner. It was her usual way of asking how Dad was. She didn’t want to come off as too interested, even though I knew she felt bad for him. She liked that I was around to keep an eye on him most of the time.
“He did a show last night, ” I said. “Could you pass me the salt, Rand?”
“Be curious to see what deductions he lists for his performances,” Randy muttered, handing me the salt. He was reading the newspaper at the dinner table. A strict no-no at Dad’s house. No reading during meals.
“Make sure you’re safe—and he’s safe—especially when he’s experimenting in the garage.” Mom patted my knee. “I used to call it his Mad Scientist Lab.”
“You still call it that,” I said.
“Hmmm,” Mom said, cutting her chicken.
Mom really wanted to hate Dad. She thought she was supposed to. Isn’t that how it was on TV after a divorce? It was how it was with her friend Tammy, who’d call her every Friday night over the lengthy and grueling back-and-forth between lawyers. My parents weren’t like that. They didn’t fight over me, or at least I never heard about it. It all boiled down to the fact that they never understood one another. I believed Mom said those things at the dinner table to make Randy feel loved, but I’m not sure Randy cared. In fact, I’d argue he was intrigued by my father. I think Randy really wanted to know how Dad filled out his tax form.
Mom asked about my birthday. It was coming up soon. The big twelve. I had been anticipating this, practicing what I wanted to say. Thinking about all the ways they could respond, or not respond. Plans B, C, D nestled in the back of my head in case I couldn’t get through.
“It’s a list of things,” I said, my face growing hot. “I’d like to try an experiment.”
“An experiment,” Mom said and I knew she thought of Dad’s garage in that moment. “Is it dangerous?”
“Has this something to do with your father needing money again?”
“No,” I said. Too quickly, because Mom’s eyes narrowed, and Randy peeked from behind the wall of newspaper.
“It’s supplies. It might sound weird but—it’s kind of like—it’s an invention.”
I should’ve asked for CD player, jewelry, or new clothes. A gift card to Circuit City.
“Oh come on, Annie. Out with it,” Mom said.
“I want to create my own—workbench,” I said. “Like Dad’s. Where I can make stuff.”
“Make. Stuff.” Mom repeated each word, wiping her mouth with a napkin.
“Yeah, like other daredevils…and inventors,” I said, splaying my hands across the table, one hand toward each of them in an acute angle. “It might sound stupid to you, but all the greats had a place to work.”
I try to emphasize the words. Special. Dream. My mother loved the idea of following and accomplishing dreams. She was still trying to follow her own, exploring South America. She loved the idea of Machu Pichu. The dream of it. An ancient city on a mountaintop, stretching into the clouds. Teller said a good magicians fool their audiences, but only for a little while. I needed to fool my mom for long enough to get what I need.
“Is there anything else?” Mom asked. “What type of things are we talking about here? How do I know you’re not going cook up drugs or something?”
“Oh my god, I’m not an idiot,” I said, looking down at my plate.
“I don’t mind the mad-scientist gig,” Randy said. “I tried to build my own calculator in high school.” He smiled and looked at both of us. I tried not to laugh, but it rose in me like fizzy Coca-Cola and Mentos.
“That’s… cool, Rand,” I said.
“Bring me the list of supplies you’re talking about,” Mom said quickly, squeezing Randy’s hand. “We’ll figure something out.”
“Can’t I just ask for money?”
“What’s the point of a present if it’s just money?” Mom asked.
“She can invest it,” Randy said.
“Shut up, honey,” Mom said. “Send me of list of these supplies, and I’ll approve it.”
I chewed the inside of my cheek and smiled at Mom. It wasn’t ideal, but it was good enough. The list was a compilation of harmless things anyhow. A plastic trash bin, milk crates, Styrofoam, and whatnot. Nothing dangerous at all. I look at Mom and willed the thought to her, flashing my teeth. She narrowed her eyes. I kept smiling. Upturned cheeks and glowing eyes, burning bright with need.
Nothing dangerous at all.
* * *
In 1829, an entire schooner went over Niagara Falls. The whole kit and caboodle. Dad found it in the N volume of our World Book set. He always enjoyed a good, random perusal of the encyclopedia. It was an older set, but Dad always said it was good for cleaning the mind, sweeping the dusty corners. He had dog-eared the page for me when I was at school.
“I knew people went over the falls, but a whole boat?” He seemed sheepish to admit there was a fact like this he didn’t know. “Let me tell you something I know for sure.” That was his favorite thing to say. When he could say something undisputed. Unchallenged. And who else in his house—meaning me—could challenge someone who wanted so badly to be correct? I was a sap.
“At least 5,000 bodies were found at the bottom of the falls in a fifty-year span,” he said over my shoulder while I read. The schooner was called Superior. It didn’t break when it hit the water below, which was deemed a miracle by eyewitnesses. It snagged on a couple of rocks in shallow waters, and the article said it would stay there until “a fishnet carried it away.”
“Wow,” I breathed.
“You hear what I said about the bodies?” Dad asked.
“Thousands of them.” I grabbed the S volume, hoping there’d be an entry on the schooner. There wasn’t.
We had never been to Niagara Falls. Never been east of Indiana, actually. Niagara was teeming with adrenaline junkie stories. It was a wealth of information and our book of fairy tales. It was the stories Dad told me before bedtime when I was seven years old. I wanted so badly to be among them, these stories and heroes. This longing came from my dad. His excitement had bled into mine, and we were giddy with it.
“Dad,” I said. “Do you think we could go someday?”
Dad laughed, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. Then he placed his hand on my head, as if he was holding myself steady. For a moment, I felt the weight of his entire arm, and then he patted me and pulled away.
“Wouldn’t that be a trick,” he said.
In 1901, the first woman went over Niagara Falls in a large wooden barrel. She was the first person to go over Niagara and survive. She was in her sixties. Poor. Her husband had died shortly after the Civil War. Her name was Annie, like me.
“Except for a large gash on her forehead and some bruises, she survived,” I read aloud.
“Brave woman,” my father said, bowing his head.
“She was desperate,” I said, putting weight on the last word.
“Well,” Dad said. “We are not desperate. I have another show next Saturday at the craft fair in Peterson Park. Want to come? We can browse the vendors beforehand.”
“Sure,” I said, then decided to add in quickly, “I gave a list of supplies to Mom for my birthday.”
Dad walked into the kitchen, to the mail piled on the counter. He found his favorite magazine, a weekly publication he subscribed to on stuntmen and daredevils. It was called Unchained. Dad liked to check the magazine in case someone posted an article of him at one of his shows. It was his not-so-secret wish to be the “Shock of the Week” feature.
“If I gave you a small list, can you pick up the rest?” I asked.
“When do you plan to pull off this stunt?” my father asked. He knew immediately what I was trying to do. The “work bench” excuse went right through him.
I stared at the text on the page of the encyclopedia volume, trying not to let the heat envelop my face.
“You have to work your way up to something like Niagara Falls, Annie,” Dad said. “I’m not going to let you launch yourself on the first try.” Dad flipped through the pages of the magazine until he reached the end. He stared at the back cover.
“I’m not going to start with Niagara,” I said. “I’ll try something smaller first. Like a mini waterfall, or flow down one of the rivers on the Chain. The Chain o’ Lakes are boring. There are no waterfalls.”
“You’re a bit young for this,” he said. “And it’s still dangerous.”
“You started at my age,” I muttered. “Houdini was apprenticed to a mechanic at nine years old.”
“That was an entirely different time, kiddo,” Dad said. “And I started at eighteen because we need the extra money since you were going to show up.” He paused. “You know we love you, right? Your mother and I?”
I nodded. He seemed relieved, smiling and chewing on celery, alternating between crunch and grin. Crunch and grin. Crunch and grin.
* * *
They were hiding my supplies at Mom’s house. Dad couldn’t whisper for the life of him, despite trying to hide in the bathroom while on the phone with Mom. I sat outside the door, Evel snoring again on my knee, browsing through the latest “Shock of the Week.”
They argued on the phone. Both wanted to be the one to unveil it, everything I had asked for. Mere minutes before that, they’d argued over whether I should actually have the supplies.
“She can’t take it that seriously,” Dad said. “Of course I won’t let anything happen to her. Are you kidding me? She’s my daughter too.”
It didn’t matter how I got it, only that I got it in the end. They counted on the creative whims of a preteen. Thought it would capture my imagination, prove that I’m “gifted” like those secret classes they offered during lunchtime at school. Whatever. I had my “trinkets and tricks,” as my Dad called all his daredevil equipment.
* * *
At the craft fair, before the burning, Dad and I explored the vendors. Everything was supposedly handmade. There was a stall where a man was selling birdhouses made from broken coffee mugs. A woman sold rock magnets a few stalls down.
“Anything interest you? We’re still looking for your birthday present,” Dad winked at me.
“Those techy quilts were pretty cool.” They’d work well for a post-barrel excursion.
“Something about thermal and quilt together makes me uncomfortable,” Dad said. “I mean, you put together a quilt, and then you add technology? Gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
I stared a stall where an elderly couple was selling drink coasters and wine bags made out of men’s underwear and lingerie.
“Let’s keep moving,” Dad put his arm around my shoulder and led me along.
* * *
Dad’s fire stunt went off without a hitch. Mark lit him on fire, and Dad’s other friends put the fire out. They’re good friends. Pure volunteers. Mark was a day trader and had no family. Was well enough on his own. Dad’s other two friends, Patrick and Thomas, worked together at a biotechnology startup in Chicago. No idea what that meant, but they wore big brand pea coats and trench coats to Dad’s performances during the winter.
And where did Dad fit in with them? He didn’t. Not technically. They were fascinated by him. They all met at a Kiwanis dinner at the VFW ten years ago, when Dad was still married to Mom. They were all assigned to the same table since neither of them came with a group for the raffles. Dad told them about what he did, doing stunts on the side, while Mom cracked her knuckles, and it happened. I think for them, Dad was their little escape from normalcy. Mark was Dad’s best friend because they were in similar family situations. But they never really hung out outside of these performances. They were loyal friends but distant. Supportive from afar.
While Dad burned, I sketched my route with a legal pad and pencil on a blanket nearby. I wafted smoke from my face, drawing my diagrams and measurements. Every magician, escape artist, daredevil, or what have you, are very precise. Dad timed his burnings to the second, and even while I sketched, I counted along in the back of my head.
* * *
“The last ‘Shock of the Week’ was about a guy who failed to stop a bullet with his bare hands,” Dad said on the way home, shaking his head. “He failed! And yet he gets the press. I should’ve done more today.”
I patted his knee.
“You were great, Dad. As always.”
“Something about it didn’t feel right. It was about to go wrong except it didn’t. That’s why I didn’t do the boogie-woogie or shuffle this time. As soon as it was lit, something was up.” Dad talked conversationally. He waved his hand and looked both ways at stop signs. The casual nature of explaining when he felt in danger was unnerving.
“I could feel the fire clawing at me. Thinks it can outsmart me. But I know it too well. I know the way its mind works. One day it might swallow me whole, but not today. Today I saw it coming.”
“You know one time, Houdini got stuck?” He’d already told me this story, but he kept on. “True story. He asked for a volunteer to cuff him, and the volunteer was out for blood. Shackled him so tight and roundabout that Harry took hours to free himself. He was bloody and near-unconscious by the end. Hey, are you hungry? Should we stop somewhere and pick up something to eat? The couple that made those underwear things gave me $20.”
I hated that story. It used to give me nightmares as a child, and Dad knew that, but he’d forgotten. Now I was going to dream about being chained up and laughed at, bleeding at the joints.
“I’m not hungry,” I said. “Let’s go home.”
* * *
I woke up smelling smoke the night before my birthday. It wasn’t cigar smoke. It was more pungent. There wasn’t a gray haze around the room, though, and I didn’t see a glow from downstairs; the house wasn’t burning down.
I walked downstairs and heard gurgling noise and a loud hiss.
“Dad?” I didn’t speak loud enough. I whispered it. I wanted to call out, but I didn’t want him to hear. Suddenly, I wanted to be at Mom’s house. There was this urgency to be in my bedroom that smelled like new paint rather than soft smoke. I wished for the clean sheets of the bed Mom constantly made and re-made, that always smelled barely used. No more smoke. I didn’t want to smell smoke tonight.
I walked through the kitchen. The noises continued. It sounded like duct tape unraveling, and there was the gurgling and hiss again. Sometimes I heard Dad’s voice, low and focused.
“Let’s try this,” he said. “Or maybe something else will work better.”
I opened the garage door. Dad was sitting at his workbench. His hand was covered in the protective layers up to his elbow. Flammable gel was gooped up and dripping on his arm. He held it over a bucket of water. He had lit his hand on fire, watched the gel drip flammable drops into the water and hiss. The light illuminated his face. The only other light was the small lamp on the corner of the table.
He smiled and dunked his hand into the bucket. His face fell into shadow.
“Sorry, Annie.” He was sweating. How long had his hand been on fire? The water in the bucket gurgled and bubbled, and then it was silent. “Still bothered by last weekend. Can’t help myself. Decided to stay up trying different combinations. Been timing myself, too.”
Dad beckoned me with his unwrapped hand. I walked to him and he touched my cheek. He brought his other hand out of the bucket of water. It was blackened and gooey from the gel.
“You think one day, Mark might miss his mark? That I might burn too long?”
He looked like he wanted answers from me. I rubbed at my eyes, trying to push the blur of sleep away.
“I don’t know, Dad,” I said. “I wish I did.”
He kept talking. Sometimes he stared at me, although I didn’t feel like he was really looking. Other times he stared at his gooey arm, still wet and dripping.
“The gel works and the material lights well enough. Mark has an artist’s touch with giving the fire life.”
“You do a good job,” I said. “You do the best you can.”
“The best I can…” He took the gelled arm and flopped it on the workbench like a dead fish. He started picking at the material to unwrap it.
“You’re just like your mother,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
“We got the stuff you wanted. You know me,” he shrugged. “Can’t keep secrets. But we forgot the life jackets, so you can’t practice for real yet, okay?”
He probably decided it was too dangerous to encourage me. But he was wrong. He must have wanted to encourage me. Secretly. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have bothered with everything else. This rant the middle of the night had to mean something: Be passionate. Be bold.
“Happy birthday, Annie.” Dad pried the wrapping off his hand. He didn’t look at me. “Go to bed.”
* * *
The Annie who went over Niagara Falls took photos with her barrel for the rest of her life. She scrapped up money for each photo, autographs, small lectures about her fall. There were newspapers who called her selfish for insisting on payment for any little engagement, but she had mouths to feed, didn’t she? You had to do what you had to do.
I wondered how the other Annie felt free-falling. Did she scream? Did she pray? People get arrested for going over the falls these days. People will survive the fall and then go to jail. Freedom then imprisonment. Invincibility then accountability. Big words from the dictionary. Dad kept a giant one next to the World Book encyclopedias.
There wasn’t anything nearly as tall as Niagara Falls in the Midwest. Nothing large or daring enough for worldwide recognition. But remember, I said I wanted to start small. I wanted to work my way up. There was that one dam at the end of the Fox River. If I did it right, I could strap the barrel to my bike and ride there early on a weekday morning instead of going to school.
The Stratton Dam had a modest drop, but dangerous. There were signs everywhere, and there was always someone overlooking the dam in case any wayward or drunken boaters forgot about the warnings and buoys. I knew my chances. I also knew I still needed a life jacket. Even Houdini wasn’t stupid about safety if he could help it.
“It’d be like, my ultimate dream, Randy.” I sketched a diagram of my idea. “Just to have it and imagine I could do it. I’ll ask to present it to my history teacher.”
“But you won’t use it.” Randy rubbed his hands together, his nose turning red. Randy and I have tried to befriend each other since he married Mom. This was our moment.
“I won’t go to Niagara Falls.” I laughed slapping Randy on the knee. He laughed, which sounded like a raspy exhale.
“You just need one?” he asked.
* * *
When Dad was asleep, I went down into the garage to plan at his workbench. There was another bucket of water, murky and blackened from flammable gel. What did he set on fire this time before he went to bed? His foot? Both hands? Dad usually never stayed up too late, but he always liked to be the last to bed and the first to wake up.
“You must be up first. All the successful men and women in the world wake up before everybody else. They make lists. I have lists of stunts, lists of all the things I want to do with you before I die. Understand?” Dad explained this to me when I was young enough to sit on his lap while he drove to performances. He’d have me lie down if a police car drove by.
Dad used to whisper to me, as if it was a secret that we only knew. “Houdini used to say that if you believe in your own miracles, you are bound to succeed. Or something like that.”
“We believe in our own miracles, Annie.”
“We’re winners, Annie.”
* * *
I woke up before the sun, even before Dad. Stashed my diagrams into my back pocket. I made a list, but it consisted of all the bad outcomes: juvenile jail, Mom and Dad grounding me. Dad crying. Dad yelling. Mom crying. Dad setting himself on fire more often at night. No more performances. No more helping Dad. Therapy. Possibly my death…
I wrote letters of apology, thinking that might ease up any punishments when I came back, once they saw I was safe. I put a handful of dog treats in Evel’s bowl, knowing he’d eat all of them and fall asleep in a happy stupor.
Dad still had the red wagon I used as a baby. He had it bundled it in bubble wrap when someone told him it was hard to find those little, red wagons. Someone told him it could go for some good money, so he wrapped it and put it under a tarp in the garage. I found it and unwrapped it. It was dusty, but it would have to do. It took some time to try and put the plastic trash barrel in the wagon without crashing. The dimensions of it were awkward and surprisingly smooth. I tapped the barrel once it was in the wagon, like it was a puppy.
“Good barrel,” I said.
It was still dark outside when I left. The horizon was a bluish pink. I pulled the wagon for half an hour before hearing the rumble of the dam. There was a small park next to the dam, near the concession stand where Mom, Dad and I used to picnic. I parked the wagon next to a tree. Since I didn’t need to worry about noise, with the dam and all, I decided to push the wagon on its side and dump the barrel. Then I rolled the barrel along the dewy grass. My heart never felt so big. The anticipation was so huge it hurt, like I might explode, and bits and pieces of me would float away like a dead dandelion.
With my life jacket, it was going to be hard to squeeze in. The barrel came up to my chest when I stood up straight. I put the lid down and scooted the barrel to the edge of the pier that jutted out from the park. It was mostly used for fishing.
I used the poles on the pier’s edge to steady myself while I climbed in, making sure not to tip it overboard. I shrugged off my sweatshirt, so I only wore my tank top. I brought the lid with me because it’d be too far to reach for it after I was inside. I bent my knees, squeezing myself to a reasonable sitting position in the trash bin. It smelled like Randy’s breath after he had a glass of red wine after dinner, sweet and sour. Crouching down so my knees were scrunched up next to my chest, I raised the lid over my head and let it come down. Darkness. I pulled on the knobs I glued to the underside of the lid, and it slid down until it was snug and the air stale. I was shaking. And hungry. And every other possible sensation.
* * *
It occurred to me I was still on the pier. Now what? Putting it in the water first would have been too complicated. The current would have swept it away, and I would’ve had nothing. If the lid was tight enough, and it had to be, I could just fall into the water.
So I jiggled a bit, trying to rock the barrel until it fell off the edge. I felt it hit the surface and saw the shadow of water rise to my shoulders outside the barrel. It was done. Inevitably the current would start pulling at me, and away we’d go.
At that moment, I imagined Evel snoring over his dog treat bowl. My Mom was asleep in her bed. Randy’s Freak in the (Excel) Sheets mug waited by the coffee maker. My Dad was probably up by then, finding my own bed empty, seeing all my supplies gone, the wagon gone, but it was too late.
I was already gone.
I imagined the sound the dam would make as I rode down its swooping arches of water. I imagined my whoops and screams of joy. It would sound like a spaceship. It would sound like an explosion. Like the flames on my father, hissing and roaring. Smiling at danger. Engulfed, but alive.
Lyndsie Manusos’s work has appeared in Barrelhouse, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other publications. She lives in Indianapolis with her family and writes for Book Riot and Publishers Weekly. Read more about her at lyndsiekay.wordpress.com.