Johnny America


The Chil­dren Smell of Gaso­line and Smoke


Our chil­dren were gone. When they would­n’t an­swer our calls from the bot­tom of the stairs, we crept up to their rooms, snuck in, and ripped the cov­ers from their beds. But there were on­ly lumps of old stuffed an­i­mals from dif­fer­ent times of their lives. These were kept in the at­tic with all the oth­er things from ear­ly child­hood. I was re­mind­ed of the times I bought them, and the looks on my kids’ faces when I hand­ed their gifts to them. I felt nos­tal­gic, but my wife got all fired up.

“Those kids! Al­ways in­to some­thing id­i­ot­ic. Don’t they have brains? Don’t they re­al­ize there are sex fiends and mur­der­ers run­ning around this country?”

“I’m sure they’re fine,” I said, though I knew she would­n’t hear it. She liked to blow things out of pro­por­tion. When we were first dat­ing, I thought her lit­tle fits and fren­zies were cute. Like the time she re­fused to eat her bagel be­cause the guy for­got to toast it. At home, she threw it against the wall, and act­ed dev­as­tat­ed for an hour, as though she’d lost her job. Or the way she’d re­fused to speak to those who showed up late to her par­ties. But it was get­ting to be a tired thing. “They’re prob­a­bly just over at Ian’s.”

“It’s a school night.”

“I’ll call over there and make sure they’re on their way to school,” I said, even though I knew she’d keep steam­ing till the boys got home and she got to lec­ture them. “I’m sure they’re al­ready on their way.””

Ian’s par­ents were al­ready call­ing us when I went for the phone. They want­ed to know if Ian was over here. Then call wait­ing clicked on. Jim­my’s par­ents were look­ing for him. I told them the sit­u­a­tion, then switched back to Ian’s dad. He told me that some kid named Mar­cus was gone too.

“Did your kids make stuffed an­i­mals look like their bod­ies?” he asked.


“When I opened the door, I could tell it was­n’t Ian. I was more dis­ap­point­ed in his ex­e­cu­tion of the whole thing, rather than him sneak­ing out.”

We had a laugh at this, and promised to call each oth­er if we heard anything.

“I’m dri­ving up to school,” I said. “I’ll let you know what I find out.”

When I got there teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors were stand­ing out at the drop off. The bus­es start­ed lin­ing up, and the dri­vers got out, say­ing that no one was at the bus stops. I called Ian’s dad and told him to call who­ev­er, to get up here, that all the kids had skipped school.

One of the teach­ers, ob­vi­ous­ly the one with­out kids, said, “Maybe there’s a re­volt against school.”

Every­one glared at him, and went back to worrying.

One par­ent, the one who al­ways want­ed to fig­ure out “what was re­al­ly go­ing on” when kids got in­to trou­ble, the one at the PTA meet­ings ask­ing the ques­tions that make au­di­to­ri­ums groan, said, “Do you think they’re try­ing to tell us some­thing? Are they un­hap­py? Is some­thing go­ing on we’re fail­ing to see?”

Some­one’s moth­er, the one who al­ways had some­thing awe­some to say, said, “Geez la­dy, this is­n’t Catch­er in the Rye. Our kids want­ed to sneak out for some­thing. They took things from stor­age ar­eas so were would­n’t no­tice all our couch cush­ions or turkeys missing.”

Some­one’s dad said, “Hey, let’s be rea­son­able here.”

Then the up­roar revved and my wife showed up, walked right in­to the cen­ter of the crowd and whis­tled. “Would every­one please shut the fuck up!”

She told every­one to stop act­ing like mo­rons and to fig­ure where our kids went. “They ob­vi­ous­ly did­n’t come to school… so…” She was at­tempt­ing to get peo­ple in­volved, but every­one wait­ed for her to keep go­ing. “So we should all split up, take our cars to places they hang out. Or talked about. Or we saw kids at.” She clapped her hands to to­geth­er, and said, “Now would be a good time to go.”

We went to the places we knew our kids would go, and even the places we did­n’t want to know they went — state parks, base­ball fields, make-out points, the mall, the al­ley be­hind the Chi­nese place that had a stoop no one could see from the street.

But there were no kids where kids usu­al­ly are. Just old peo­ple walk­ing around, talk­ing about in­fla­tion, be­ing old.

We asked them if they’ve seen any kids around.

One old man looked an­noyed when we asked, and the oth­ers seemed oblivious.

One said, “Kids, what kids?”

It was like talk­ing to old rocks.

We were all back at the mid­dle school.

“The kids still haven’t shown up,” the prin­ci­pal said.

I think every­one rolled their eyes at him.

“Where the hell are our kids?” some­one said, even though all of us were think­ing the same thing.

Then some­one spot­ted a fire to the north. It came from the for­est. At first, we just saw skin­ny plumes of smoke ris­ing from the tree line; then a blaze rose. Be­cause it was our best lead, we scram­bled to our cars.

My wife left her car at the school and rode with me. She was hope­ful, say­ing, “I bet this has some­thing to do with them.” She said this, not like some­one ready to stomp their kid in­to a life­long sen­tence, but some­one who was wor­ried. I want­ed to say, “I hope they have noth­ing to do with this,” but I kept my mouth shut, even though I kept flash­ing to im­ages of our chil­dren burn­ing in the fire.

The mo­tor­cade of mini­vans and SU­Vs crest­ed the hill, and we could see the fire rip­ping the for­est down. And out in front of the fire, watch­ing it burn, the chil­dren were sit­ting or stand­ing, talk­ing, as though noth­ing was hap­pen­ing. There must’ve been a thou­sand kids down there. They did­n’t even turn to ac­knowl­edge that we were com­ing. We parked in the park­ing lot, and the rest of the cars stretched up the hill.

We ex­it­ed and start­ed run­ning to find our kids. I looked back. There was a sea of ve­hi­cles, par­ents tum­bling from them, rush­ing down.

We found our chil­dren in the mid­dle of the crowd. They were stand­ing next to Ian, who was­n’t watch­ing the fire, but dig­ging a hole in the grass with his shoe.

“Oh,” our old­est said. “Hey guys.”

“That’s all you have to say,” I said. “Are you fuck­ing kid­ding me right now?”

He shrugged. All around me, the chat­ter peaked. Par­ents scold­ed, or smoth­ered, or cried. And all these kids, they bare­ly re­act­ed. They told us all to chill, or they shrugged, or they did­n’t say anything.

They reeked of smoke and gaso­line. Their hands were greasy and black. Their faces were cov­ered in ash.

My wife, prac­ti­cal­ly bawl­ing, just trem­bling and bare­ly able to stay com­posed, grabbed the kids and pulled them to her. She mum­bled things, but they were incoherent.

In front of us, for­est black­ened be­fore our eyes, disappearing.

At home, our kids are back to nor­mal. Ian’s over every night, and the one time we tried to talk about what hap­pened, they of­fered no re­al answers.

“What were you do­ing?” my wife asked, un­usu­al­ly calm. “The whole town was look­ing for you.”

“We had some things to do,” the old­est said. Our youngest did­n’t speak.

“Like what?” I said.

“We had to start fires,” he said, like he was say­ing he had to pick up a bag of coffee.

“Why?” I asked.

“Be­cause we had to. All of us. We had to burn that for­est down.” He turned and looked at the for­est, just a speck of gray on the far end of town. “It had to go. It just had to.”

They act as though noth­ing hap­pened. As though they had played a ball­game and it was over now. They had won. They don’t re­fer to it, though. But we can still smell the traces of gaso­line and smoke in every room of the house. And some­times, when is Ian leav­ing, or when our kids are on the street with oth­ers, I see them whis­per­ing to each oth­er, look­ing over to­ward where the for­est used to be, and smiling.

Filed under Fiction on April 22nd, 2011

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