Centralia, Town on Fire

by Maggi McGettigan
I come from a town on fire. My grandmother is still there, even though they say it will burn for 250 more years. I was moved out when I still believed in Santa but not the Tooth Fairy, so I would believe what they told me, if they told it well. My foster mother tells me it is Hell on Earth, the town I come from, sent by God to warn us of where we might all end up. I told her that if my Grandma is happy in Hell, I guess I would be too. I didn’t know what Hell was then.

My foster home isn’t bad. There’s a creek behind the house, and when no one is paying attention I walk barefoot upstream to find its beginning. I never do. The woods around it get thicker and thicker, blocking out the sun and making the fake night seem thick as pudding. I walk until I get scared of the whispers and howls of my imagination, and then I go back. As long as we are all inside by prayers, washed and dressed, they don’t care what we do during the day.

The fire is underground, from a mine fire in the 1960s. In the 1960s, my mother was in grade school, my grandmother still had her memories, and I wasn’t even a thought in either of their minds. By the time my mother had me, the fire had been going for over ten years. She was just a baby herself, that’s what my grandma says, and when there’s a fire under your feet it makes you do crazy things, I guess. The mine caught on fire, long after it had been abandoned, by some firefighters in charge of lighting up the landfill to burn away the trash. They were getting the town ready for the big Memorial Day Parade. The town still has the parade every year, but it’s gotten smaller and smaller. The last year I went with my grandmother, there was only about thirty people there, and that was just about all the people in town. We all walked down Center Street together, just waving at the trees and houses as if they were our spectators. It didn’t seem odd though. It’s just the kind of thing that those of us who stayed had to do. It’s too bad, really, that they tried to burn all the trash and that’s what started the fire. They should have just piled it all in the dump, like we do now.

My foster mother said that trash isn’t that easy to get rid of. She gave me all new clothes and taught me to use dental floss between my teeth and how to say my prayers every night, even if I don’t believe anyone is listening. She says it’s better to say the words in case someone is. I wash my hands all the time, and my face almost as much, because she always sees something on it. Still, when she looks at me it feels like there’s a layer of soot that no amount of washing can get off. I have a foster sister named Mary who barely looks at me, but when she does I wipe my face with my shirt sleeve because I just know there is something on it. Then I try to sneak out to the creek, because sometimes Mary gets mean, and it’s best to stay out of her way.

Some people say that the fire has been burning underground since the 1930s. That doesn’t seem likely to me—I don’t remember the ground being hot or the quarry being warm. We swam in the quarry after church on Sundays in the summer, and my grandmother would praise God that he finally let the preacher stop preaching. She would always drink something minty and only for adults out of the same thin thermos I took my milk in during the week while I swam in the murky water. After, we would sun ourselves with no clothes on, because nobody went down to the quarry anymore so who would be looking? Grandma would let me have a little sip from the thermos to warm me up. Sometimes at lunch my milk tasted minty and green, but I just smiled. It made me think of my grandmother on Sundays, which was nice when I was alone at that school. I was always alone at that school, on account of not speaking up that much, which kids find weird. I was lonely sometimes, but thinking about my grandmother made me feel better.

I am halfway between my foster mother’s house and the old stone house that no one lives in anymore but ghosts. The sky is pink and holds rain. I remember my grandmother saying something about the sailors needing warning when the sky was red in the morning. I thought that was odd, since I don’t think my grandmother knew any sailors. Where we lived, the sea was a lifetime away. The creek runs to the sea though, and I imagine the cold water on my feet is from waves in the ocean instead of mud from the creek. I close my eyes. I think of what sand might feel like. When I open my eyes, she is there.

“Mother?” I have to ask because she doesn’t look the same as she did when she left. She is much prettier now, I think. Her teeth are so white and clean, I almost have to look away, and she is wearing the prettiest long white dress I’ve ever seen.

“Yes Tara, it’s me. I’ve come to take you home. You don’t belong in this place, you belong in your home.”

“But it’s on fire, Mama. They’ve made everyone leave. It’s only Grandma and a few others that won’t leave. They won’t let me go back.”

“Do you want to go back? Do you want to go home?”

“Well, it doesn’t seem safe to go back to a town on fire. This isn’t my home, but at least it’s not on fire.”

My mother looks sad, and I feel sorry for her. She lived in the town on fire her whole life. When I think of her, I think of her hair that looked like burnt hay, and her lighter she flicked on and off without thinking about it, and the cigarettes that lined her face with smoke. They say when her car hit the tree, it burst into flames right away. She lived and died in fire.

I know I am not really talking to my mother, but I feel sad for her anyway. “If you want me to go back, I will. I’ll go tonight.” I don’t want to because tonight is meat loaf night, and that’s about the only thing my foster mother cooks that I like, but if it would make my mother happy than I would go.

“You do whatever you want to do, sweet Tara. Just don’t get swallowed by the fire like I did.”

“I won’t, Mama. I’ll be okay.” She walks upstream until the darkness is all I can see, and I wonder if I am late for prayers. I hurry back.

I thought they moved me because of the fire. That’s what my grandma said, and of course I believed her. Why wouldn’t I? You don’t know things unless someone tells you, especially when you’re a little kid like me. I’ll be ten next week, and I feel like it might be time to stop believing what people tell me and start finding things out on my own. So, after dinner when we’re supposed to be reading the bible but really we’re just letting our eyes move back and forth and flipping the pages, I find Mary in the room we share. I summon up all the courage a nine-year-old can possibly summon up.

“Mary,” I say very sternly and matter-of-fact, “I would like to know what you meant when you said my grandmother did me wrong and that’s why they brought me here.”

“What are you talking about, asshole?” She calls me things like this all the time, so it doesn’t shake my confidence.

“I told you they brought me here to get me away from the fire and you laughed at me and said it was because my pervy granny did me wrong. Why did you say that?”

Mary looks at me straight in the eyes, and my belly feels like the meat loaf is trying to get out. I swallow hard to keep it down and stare right back at her. The wind comes through the window and it smells like wet pavement from the rain and I forget to be strong for a second. For a second, I forget why I am here. I think of the sprinkler at my grandmother’s house, and the way it made the street dark and cool when she let me play in it. There was some grass in the front of our house, but it was mostly dirt and made a muddy mess if I did the sprinkler there, so I pulled it as far as I could and set it in the street. Cars never passed anyway, since most people had already gone, so I didn’t have to worry about that. When the water hit the street and pooled at my feet I felt like I could live in it forever. When it got too dark and cold my grandma would call me inside, and we would lay together in the small bed we shared and she would warm me up.

“It’s not my job to tell you how you’ve been fucked up. You should really figure it out on your own like the rest of us.” She slams the door on her way out and I am alone in our room.

There is a feeling in my chest like I had remembered something and then forgot it just as quick, like I had it in my hand and lost it, and it was a very important thing. I put on my nightclothes and say some more prayers. I know that no one is listening, but I try to say them seriously just in case. Tonight I pray for the people still living in the town on fire, including my grandma, so that the fire doesn’t swallow them up. I pray for my mother’s soul, and I tell God-if-there-is-a-god that I believe my mother would like to be swimming, if possible. I don’t think she did a lot of swimming while she was alive, and I bet she would really love it. I pray for all the orphans in the world, because now that I’m an orphan I feel like we should really be speaking up for ourselves. Finally I pray for myself, which I’m not sure is allowed but I do anyway. I pray that the fire never swallows me like it did my mother, and I pray that I will understand why I am not living in the town on fire anymore.

I am in the creek again, and it is real night, not fake night when the trees block out the sun. I am walking up to the ghost house again because I would like to see my mother and get a few things straightened out. She does not seem to be up for company though, because I walk and walk and she is not here. I am getting nervous about other ghosts that visit the creek, as they might not be as friendly or pretty as my mom, so I turn around to go back. For a second I smell hairspray and cigarettes, and I stop and close my eyes and inhale deeply, trying to make her appear. Sure enough, when I open my eyes, she is here.

“Should we really be making a habit out of this? It doesn’t seem very healthy.” She is smiling so I know she isn’t mad, only joking around to put me at ease. When she was alive she never really smiled, so it makes me happy that she’s found her smile.

“I’ll leave you alone soon, I just have some questions that you might have answers to, being on the other side and being able to see everything.”

“Well, it doesn’t really work that way, but you can give it a shot.”

I suck in my breath, because I’m not really sure where to start and I need a minute to get my thoughts together. “Were you sad when you died?”

“There are no emotions in death. But when I hit the tree, I don’t remember feeling sad. I remember feeling free.”

This is an interesting answer, but I’m not surprised. Even a little kid knows when her mother is miserable. “Why were you so said when you were alive?”

“You know the answer to that, because you are sad too, just like me.”

Another interesting answer. The dead seem to like riddles and answering questions with thoughts that make more questions. “Will I always be sad?”

“I don’t know the future. But I do know the past. You and I have the same past, Tara. So maybe you will be sad. But now your path has changed, hasn’t it? Maybe this path is away from sadness, instead of towards it. Maybe the fire will let you breathe. Maybe this creek puts out the fire.”

I am getting tired of these riddles, and also I don’t want Mary to wake up and see my bed empty because she will most certainly tell my foster mother and I will be in trouble, which I do not like. I say thank you and goodbye to my mother. She looks sad again, but I remember she said there are no emotions where she is, so it must be my own sadness I am seeing. Maybe I will be sad like her. Or maybe she is trying to take my sad. That would be a nice gesture of her, since she wasn’t able to do it when she was alive. Either way, I feel a bit better when I slip back into bed, especially since Mary is snoring like an old man.

In my dream I am in the mine under the town on fire. I am walking toward the fire, but I can’t stop. I move slowly, and the heat becomes heavier on my skin as I move closer. I want to find the beginning of the fire. I think that finding the beginning of the fire is like finding the beginning of the creek—nothing will change when I see it, but I need to do it anyway. I walk through the fire, which is okay because it’s only a dream, but it still feels pretty hot. I see something in the fire ahead of me. It is a person. A woman. It is my grandmother. She is running towards me. I think she is trying to escape the fire, but then I see it. Each time her foot hits the dirt as she runs, the spot bursts up into flames. She runs toward me, leaving footsteps of fire that join together behind her in a huge trail of flame. First I turn to run, but I change my mind. Where would I go? Suddenly, I feel something cold and smooth in my hand. It is the hose from the old sprinkler. I put my thumb on the top to make the water shoot hard, and the clear, clean water bursts out. I aim it at the flames around my grandma, but of course her footsteps are making more and more marks of fire. I feel that weight on my chest again, like I had something important and lost it. I aim the stream of water at my grandmother’s feet, then legs, then all the way up her body and it lands on her face, which is not scared or surprised when the water hits it. It is a knowing look she wears.

I wake up late and have missed breakfast. When I go downstairs I am scared, I am sure I will be in trouble. Mary is in the kitchen. She hands me a plate of cold eggs. I take them, but I am suspicious.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“Your face was all sweaty and you were crying a little. I told Mommy dearest that I thought you were sick and she said to let you sleep.”

“So I’m not in trouble?”

“No, asshole, why would you be in trouble for being sick?”

I shrug and sit to eat the eggs. I think that this is a very nice thing for Mary, to save me some breakfast, but I wonder if she spit in them.

“Hey,” she says, “What are you always doing out at that creek?”

I think about how best to answer this question. It probably doesn’t matter what I say, as she will certainly make fun of anything, so I tell her the truth. “I’d like to find the beginning of it. I think it would be interesting, to see how something like that starts out. Like, does it just come out of the earth all full and gushing? Or does it start as a little trickle and pick up steam?” I stare at Mary and wait for her laughter, but she is quiet. She actually looks a bit thoughtful, which is a surprising look for her.

“I think I know where it starts. There’s a spring up behind the high school where some of the kids hang out. I think it makes sense if that was the beginning.”

It does make sense, because the high school is just a little bit past the ghost house through the woods. This makes me very excited, and I wolf down my spit-eggs so I can get out of there.

“Are you going now? It will take all day to get there walking.”

I look at Mary and wonder, for the first time, what she does all day. She doesn’t have a lot of friends on account of her meanness, so she probably just hangs around here by herself. “Well,” I say, as if it is the wisest thing anyone has ever said, “What else am I going to do all day?”

At that, Mary cracks a grin—well, at least one side of her mouth grins but I guess that’s a start—so I invite her to come along. It might be asking for trouble, and it might kind of ruin my trips, as I don’t think my mother will visit with old Mary hanging around, but, like I said, what else am I going to do today, right? Us orphans should probably start sticking together.
Maggi McGettigan is a high school English teacher in southeastern Pennsylvania. When not grading essays, she enjoys spending time with her daughters and dog and occasionally even her husband.

© 2017, Maggi McGettigan