Glory Fischer lay atop a mattress on the floor with her brown eyes wide open, smearing the mosquitoes that landed on her face and listening to the moths beat their wings madly against the screen. Her skin was filmy with sweat. Her nightgown clung to her scrawny legs in the dampness. She waited, chewing her fingernails, until the house was dead still. At one in the morning, she finally decided it was safe to sneak away, the way she had done for the past five nights.
No one would hear her leave. No one would hear her come back.
Her mother slept alone in a bedroom across the hall, with an electric fan grinding beside her pillow that drowned out her snores. Her sister Tresa, and Tresa's best friend Jen, were finally sleeping, too. The two girls had stayed up late, acting out stories from a vampire fanzine in loud voices. It was a Tuesday in mid-July, and bedtimes and school nights were a long way away. Usually, Glory didn't like Jen sleeping over, because the ruckus of the girls on the other side of the wall kept her awake. Tonight she didn't care, because she needed to stay awake anyway.
Jen lived in the house across the road, but Glory didn't think that her sister's friend knew what was hidden in the loft of their garage. Nobody did. Not Jen's mother Nettie, who was in a wheelchair now and rarely left the house. Not her father Harris, who was on the road most days, traveling around Wisconsin for his job. Not Jen's two older brothers either. Especially not them. If they'd known, they would have done something cruel, because that was who they were. Cruel boys.
Glory sat up cross-legged, with her pink nightgown bunching above her knees. The hot wind gusted under the curtain and made the room smell of cherries, which were squashed all over the county roads like dots of red paint at this time of year. Leaning over, Glory slid open the bottom drawer of her dresser and dug beneath her underwear for the stash she had deposited there after dinner: a warm, unopened carton of milk and a paper bag stuffed with crumbled potato chips, sunflower seeds, mushed banana, and hardboiled egg.
The ten-year-old girl stood up and stuffed her bare feet into sneakers. It was time to go. She bent back the broken screen from her window until she could fit one leg outside the house, then the other. She held the paper bag between her teeth and squeezed the milk carton under her arm. She jumped awkwardly, landing in the dirt five feet below. Her mouth opened with a loud oof, and the bag fell and spilled. She picked it up and checked inside. There was still plenty of food.
Glory bit her lip and peered at the messy weeds in the yard and the nearby woods. The world felt big, and she felt small. The moonless sky glistened with stars. The pines swayed like giants and whispered to each other. Swallowing down her fear, she sprinted through the tall grass. She figured if she went fast enough, the ticks and the box elder bugs clinging to the green shoots wouldn't land on her. Her arms pumped, and her long hair flew behind her. She reached the dirt road, which was rippled with tractor ruts, and she stopped, breathing hard in the stifling air.
The rural lane looked lonely. There were no cars and no street lights, just a crooked row of telephone poles beside her, holding the bowed wires like jump ropes. The two-story house loomed across the way, sheltered by oak trees down a long driveway. Glory ran again but slowed to a nervous walk when she got close. The chipped paint and hanging shutters gave her a creepy feeling, and when the wind blew, the house sighed. She'd asked her mother once if the Bone house was haunted. Her mother had gotten a strange look on her face and said there were no such things as ghosts or monsters, just unhappy people.
Glory crept to the garage, which was in the midst of a grassy field. A rusted padlock held the side door closed. She knew where Mr. Bone kept the key, on a hook hidden underneath the window ledge. She undid the padlock, replaced the key on the hook, and opened the door. She always got a lump in her throat creeping inside. She reached for a heavy flashlight on the shelves next to the door, and when she turned it on and rattled the batteries, it struggled to make a tiny orange glow across the floor. She could see mouse droppings littered at her feet. Parked in front of her was a pickup truck with a dirty tarpaulin stretched over its bed. At the rear of the garage was a wooden ladder leading to the loft.
"It's me," she called softly. "I'm here."
Glory tiptoed to the ladder. The rotten steps sagged as she climbed, and splinters poked her fingers. Ten feet over the floor, she crawled onto the bed of the loft, which was strewn with paint cans and moldy blankets. She saw nails jutting down through the roof shingles and a huge papery growth under the eave that was really a hornet's nest.
"Hey," she said. "Where are you?"
She heard the scrape of claws and a wispy squeal. When she turned her flashlight toward the sound, she saw the wide, curious eyes of the kitten squeezing out of its hiding place. She gathered the little animal up into her arms and was rewarded with a rumbling purr that was loud in her ears. The kitten's spiky fur was mottled with tan and black, striped like a tiger.
"Look what I have," Glory said. She poured milk into the lid of a dirty glass jar, then dumped the food from the paper bag onto the floor and let the kitten attack it hungrily. She stroked its back as it ate noisily and then picked it up with one hand and deposited it near the milk, where it drank until its mouth was damp and white. When it was done, the kitten climbed up her bare legs with wobbly steps, and she put it back down on the floor of the loft. As Glory watched happily, it hopped in and out of the flashlight glow, slapping at a black beetle with its tiny front paws.
Glory was so caught up in the antics of the kitten, so much in love with it, that she didn't realize immediately that she wasn't alone anymore.
Then her heart galloped in her chest. She heard footsteps treading on the gravel outside the garage.
Glory sucked in her breath, covered the light, and shrank back from the edge of the loft. Don't come inside, don't come inside, don't come inside, she prayed in her head, but she heard the bang of the metal plate on the door lock as the side door opened below her. Someone stole into the garage. Someone was with her, moving about in the darkness, the way a ghost would, the way a monster would.
She hugged the kitten to her chest and flattened herself against a blanket on the floor. In her arms, the kitten squirmed and mewed. She tried to bury the sound by keeping its little body against her chest, but whoever was below her heard something in the rafters and stopped. There was a moment of horrible quiet, then a flashlight beam speared through the dark space. It swept like a searchlight around the corners of the garage and traced the wall of the loft just above her head. Hunting for her among the spider webs.
She thought about calling out. Whoever it was would be surprised, but they'd laugh to find her here. There was no reason to be afraid. Even so, she kept her lips tightly shut. She didn't even want to breathe. It was the middle of the night and no one should be here now.
Somehow Glory knew in the hollow of her stomach: something bad was happening.
The light went black. Below her, she heard labored breathing as the stranger dragged something heavy off the metal shelves. She heard an odd burp of plastic and a hiss of air. Something bounced on the floor like a bottle cap and rolled, and the intruder didn't bother to retrieve it. As Glory listened, stiff with fear, she heard the outside door open. The lock rattled, and the garage fell into a deep quiet again. It was over. She was alone.
She waited with no sense of time ticking away. She didn't know how long she lay in the loft, not moving, wondering if it was safe to escape. Finally, when she felt bugs crawling over her bare legs, she grabbed the kitten with one hand and navigated backwards down the wobbly ladder. She jumped the last few feet to the floor and took blind, tentative steps toward the window so she could stare outside. She spied the dark square of glass, which looked out toward the west wall of the Bone house. The height of the window frame was almost taller than she was. She had to stand on her toes to look out.
The glass was punched with b-b holes shot by the Bone boys. Air whipped in through the starbursts. Before she pushed her head above the ledge, she smelled an odor that was both sickly sweet and overpowering.
A drowning, drenching wave of gasoline.
Glory didn't understand, but the foul smell made her want to run. Run fast, with the kitten sheltered in her arms. Run home to her bed. Get away.She poked her eyes above the window frame. When she did, she had to clap her hand over her mouth not to scream. A black silhouette stood immediately on the other side of the glass, not even a foot away. She couldn't see the person's face, but she squeezed her own eyes shut and stood shock still, as if becoming a statue would make her invisible. Fumes of gasoline crept into her nose, and she swallowed back a cough. When no one came running, she peeked through her eyelids and dared to look again. The person didn't move. She heard loud breathing, the way an animal would pant. Before her brain could process what was happening, she saw the smallest flick of a hand, saw bare skin, and saw the tiny eruption of a flame.
The hand cupped it and dropped it. The flame descended to the ground in a flash of light like a falling star. It was a simple thing, someone lighting a cigarette and then stamping out the match with their foot.
But there was no cigarette.
Glory's world blew into pieces. The flame struck the earth, and a cannon of fire erupted, filling the window and blowing her backward like a punch to her chest. She shielded her eyes with her hand, and through her slitted fingers, she watched the fire leap like a circus acrobat toward the Bone house. The flames sped along scorched, intersecting paths, greedily licking at the walls and climbing for the sky. In seconds, fire was everywhere, consuming the frame of the house as if it were nothing but a few branches of kindling stuffed under the grate. She smelled wood blackening and heard knots pop like knuckles cracking. Through the house windows, she saw the yellow glow of flame blooming inside, and soon, she couldn't see the house at all; it disappeared behind a tower of smoke and fire. The heat was so ferocious and so close that her hands and face began to sear. She backed up and gagged as poison billowed through the window and filled the garage.
Crying, coughing, Glory bolted for the door, but it was locked. Locked on the outside. The rattling hinges refused to give way. When she touched the door knob, she burned her fingers on the hot metal and screamed.
It was now bright as day inside the garage, but the white haze gathering in the air was as impenetrable as the darkness. Glory ran from the fire toward the wide automobile door, but she pulled and tugged on the handle and couldn't move it at all. She could hardly breathe now. The smoke infiltrated her eyes and lungs. She crumbled to her knees and wept as an orange dragon crackled through the wall and began to devour the garage itself. The sound was loud and terrifying, a roar, a hiss, worse than any monster she'd imagined living here.
Glory backed up, scraping her knees on the floor until they bled. She retreated into the farthest corner of the garage, and when she could go no farther, she curled up into a ball. She clutched the kitten to her cheek, kissed its face over and over, and whispered in its ear, "Baby, baby, baby, baby." She closed her eyes as the fire ballooned over her and poked at her with its evil tongue like a spitting devil.
She prayed the way her father had taught her to pray before he died.
She prayed that God would lift her up in His arms and take her back home, where she would awaken on her mattress on the floor of her bedroom. The humid night would be still again, the mosquitoes would be buzzing in her ears, and the kitten would be purring in her arms.
Even when part of the wall collapsed around her body in a cascading spray of sparks and debris, and left a gaping hole where she could escape, Glory prayed. Even when she crawled away over a trail of burning embers into the safety of the grass, with the kitten nestled in her chest, she prayed.
She lay with her hands covering her ears, but she couldn't shelter herself from the awful noise. Over the howl of the fire, she heard the agonized wails of the people dying inside the Bone house, and in her desperation, she prayed that God would make this night unreal. Make it go away forever. Wipe her memory clean until she forgot everything, even in her worst dreams.
Please, God, let me forget everything, Glory prayed.