For a couple of weeks I wrestled with the guilt, certain I had helped burn the building down.
And why wouldn’t I think that? My still forming eight-year-old mind equated the facts: we had been playing with matches right alongside the building; the building did burn down.
It did not matter that the incidents were several weeks apart. WE had burned that building down. How could it not be us? What were the odds?
Now new questions swirled around in my mind: Who was I supposed to tell? Should I even say anything?
I whispered with my sister, one of my fellow arsons.
“Do you think we did that? I mean, we were playing with those matches!”
“Yeah, but they were wet. We couldn’t even get them to light, remember? It wasn’t us.”
“But what if we didn’t notice? Maybe one DID start, and we threw it down without knowing that it was on fire!”
“Don’t be dumb.”
Thanks, sis. That really helped soothe my guilt.
I thought about talking to the pastor of our church. I really looked up to him. But I also wanted him to like me—and who likes arsonists? Scratch his name off the list.
Of course I told my dog, a border collie named Boots. It felt good to confess to someone and he always accepted me. While it eased the burden somewhat to verbalize my suspicions that I was partially responsible for a felony, my conscience still made my stomach ache with guilt.
I lay in bed for several nights, too upset to really sleep. In black and white I kept watching our friend Tim strike match after match. Did one of them spark? Then I had struck a few. “Oh, God, please don’t let it be one of mine that did it,” I prayed. Even with my prayer offered I didn’t find much rest.
“What do you think caused that fire?” dad asked mom one morning while I ate breakfast. My mom worked at David’s, the little café in town. The building—a mostly empty old shed that we often played in and around when mom was working—stood directly behind David’s. We had used it as a fort, a factory, a hideout.
And a prison to lock up criminals!!! CRIMINALS LIKE US!!!
I pretended to read the back of the cereal box at the table.
“Oh, there was all those tall dry weeds and grass next to it. I kept telling Dave to clean that up. Once they caught fire, that building just went right up. He’s lucky it didn’t spread to the café.”
I knocked the box of Kix over, spilling crunchy lightly sweetened puffs of goodness all over the kitchen table.
“We did it! We were playing with matches! We didn’t think any of them started because they were all wet, but we just dropped them on the ground and maybe one caught on fire! It was Tim and Nikki and Janelle and me!” (It’s always best to throw your own name on the end of the list when you’re in trouble, right?)
Mom and dad looked at each other and then at me. My mom laughed.
“First, you shouldn’t be playing with matches, even wet ones. Where’d you even get them?”
“We found them on the ground by the shed.”
“Second, you didn’t burn the building down. We haven’t been down there for days. It happened at night. They think it was lightning.”
“Are you sure? It’s possible it was us! We just dropped the matches right there. What if one was going and we didn’t even notice it?”
“I’m pretty sure you would have noticed at some point if a fire started. It wasn’t you. And don’t EVER play with matches again, or next time you MIGHT start something on fire.”
Mentally, I was convinced. It made sense. But it took a few weeks for my heart to be settled.
It was Billy Joel that convinced me. No lie. His video for “We Didn’t Start the Fire” seemed like a message directly from God to an eight year old boy. And released basically the same time?
I mean, come on, what were the odds?
Cody is both a writer and a pastor, and the only Flying M-Inkling Emeritus. He’s an idea generator, partly borne out of his eclectic reading style; he’s willing to discuss any of those ideas with anyone who wants to listen.