Ed Jenson sets himself on fire in the back yard at 2:23 in the morning. He uses a 
match—pushes it into the hair he has left, then the tails of his shirt and his pant legs, which 
are soaked in bourbon. If he screams the neighbors won’t hear. He kneels before fainting, and 
the grass that is singed around him forms a perfect, protective circle. 

His wife watches from their bedroom window. There are fireflies and the moon and a 
fire, and that fire is a man Meredith Jenson is not interested in saving or loving. Loving or 
saving. To her they are the same. She thinks about what her mother has told her about rape 
and how it’s the same even if you’re married, even if it happens all the time. She thinks about 
what the priest has told her about forgiveness;  about Ed tonight drinking too much vodka 
and realizing that he has ruined their marriage and their child—that he is a ruined man. Ed 
crying. Ed saying tell me I don’t deserve to die, but Meredith is not a liar, so she told him 
nothing. He said he was sorry and miserable, whimpered it, squirmed with his guilt; and he 
looked it—cheeks already ashen and collapsed, already erased. Watching out her bedroom 
window, Meredith Jenson is sorry that life has cheated her. 

Next door, Jacob Wallace is sitting in a frayed cloth-folding chair next to the dying 
embers of his own makeshift bonfire. He rests a hand on the mound of his bare belly and tugs 
on the string of the bathing suit trunks he’s been wearing since noon. When the man across 
the yard ignites, Jacob thinks that it is a couch because he’s been drinking beer for about the 
same amount of time that he’s been wearing that bathing suit. The blaze reminds the neighbor 
of the time he was fourteen and Franky Danvers made him light on fire the pile of abandoned 
furniture in the woods behind his house. On the way to that pile of broken furniture, 
Franky Danvers told Jacob that he had put his fingers (he said practically his whole hand) in 
Hillary Vale’s twat after school. Because he was pretty sure he loved Hillary Vale, Jacob
held his jealousy, thick and urgent, at the very bottom of his stomach. Franky poured so 
many gallons of gasoline on the furniture pile that there was barely a beat between the 
lighting of the match and the onslaught of what to both Jacob and Franky was an inferno. 
Jacob, in a flailing panic, pushed Franky Danvers right into the edge of the burning couch, 
and when the fire spat him back out, Franky Danvers held the left side of his face that was 
literally, actually, melting. For a second, just one, Jacob felt like he had won something, and 
he was not sorry. 

          In the cloth folding chair the neighbor closes his eyes against that second.

          Franky Danvers is not dead or even that badly scarred.

          Jacob is still not sorry.

Soon, the fire-truck sirens cut through flesh-smelling smoke, and it isn’t long before 
Jacob Wallace and all the other neighbors are standing, groggy, on their front porches. 
Mothers have their hands on their sons’ and daughters’ shoulders, and are on their cell 
phones. Some go back inside to make coffee. The men touch the smalls of their womens’ 

In the yard, Christopher Howell wears thick rubber gloves to lift Mr. Jenson’s charred 
trunk into an unzipped body bag. When his arm falls off, Christopher has to run to vomit in 
the sewer. There is already another firefighter doing the same. When there is a body-bag full 
of pieces of Mr. Jenson in the back of the police car, Christopher talks to Mr. Jenson’s wife. 
She does not cry, and she keeps her fingers in the hair of her saucer-eyed son with the blonde 
bowl cut. The neighbors have all migrated to each other’s lawns and are hugging and talking 
with wild arm gestures and crying because they are sorry for each other and for themselves 
but not quite so sorry for Mr. Jenson.

They are a little sorry for Mrs. Jenson’s son.

At home that evening Christopher takes a shower with his wife. He tells her about the 
way Mr. Jenson’s burnt torso felt even beneath his rubber gloves. She is pregnant and he is 
kneeling, bruising his knees on the floor of the bathtub, and pressing his face into her belly 
button. She is washing his hair.

In bathrobes they sit on the front stoop and drink tea while watching their daughter, 
Molly, play with the girls across the street. They are catching fireflies with beach towels, and 
have four mason jars lined along the curb in front of their house with holes poked through the 
lids. There are gangly, lecherous shadows of maple tree branches and the steeples of the 
church on the horizon that spread across the lawn—spread across the girls like the oversized 
chalk drawings they sometimes do in the drive-way. Molly holds her towel, and she is 
uncertain. She feels the mosquitoes eating her knees, her arms, and while the fireflies swirl in 
front of her like something preternatural and sacred, she believes she is fighting for the wrong 
team—feeding demons and squashing God. Watching her friends dump their catches into 
their jars, she casts her towel with a seamless, fierce motion; dragging just one firefly down 
into the grass. When Molly kneels in front of it, she scoops up the slow-blinking body and 
lets it fall into her Mason jar with the mournful motion of her right hand. She is sure she has 
done the wrong thing. 

In the yard, where the fireflies do the job of the stars in the thick summer air, where 
her childhood friends are careless with their beach towels; Molly is on her knees and she is 

Kate's a twenty-nine year old writer from Massachusetts who writes flash and short fiction; she has never been published before.

When I was nine I had a neighbor who set herself on fire in her backyard. She and her husband were Polish immigrants and used to scream at each other in Polish almost everyday, and my childhood friends and would catch fireflies in their backyard and try to make guesses at what they were saying. I've tried to incorporate this in many stories, usually from the angle of my traumatized, young self, and it's taken me two years to find a good fit for my childhood neighbor's catastrophe. Maybe I just needed to realize that this isn't a catastrophe that I got to own, but that it touched on a certain sense of remorse and surrender that pervades all of us. A symbolic and universal apology, perhaps.



Copyright 2009