The Scrap Boys scurry among the young trees of Dead Man’s Woods, maples no thicker than baseball bats, naked and skeletal in the late fall haze.
Scrap Boy 1, Scrap Boy 2, and Scrap Boy 3, one follows another sure as night follows day. They jog the narrow trails, keep their heads down, bend at the waist as if lunging toward an invisible finish line. Crisp yellowing leaves crunch under their too-big hand-me-down sneakers. Three pairs of prepubescent jug ears, three sets of crooked teeth too broke for braces, three matching wounds in the palm of their hands, three bloods mingled, neighbors by chance, brothers by choice.
Scrap Boy 1 leads the cadence: Rangers!
Scrap Boy 2 and Scrap Boy 3 call back: Rangers!
All the way.
All the way.
Here we go.
Here we go.
It’s all they know, all they have to sing, seven words, but it’s enough. They sing them over and over and over again, fill the greying air of Dead Man’s woods with their song, their voices rising, mingling like smoke until it’s impossible to tell who is calling and who is repeating, until there is just one great Scrap Boy voice rumbling like thunder in Dead Man’s Woods.
Lengthening shadows of branches reach for the Scrap Boys, tiger stripe their skin as they run and sing to the rhythm of the lighters rattling in their pockets. So many lighters. Each Scrap Boy carries a couple. There’s a green one and a red one, two blue and a yellow. There’s one with a Metallica logo. That one is special. That one’s the best. All of them are plastic, none paid for, filched from gas station counters, relatives’ purses, and strangers’ coat pockets. The Scrap Boys know fire is free if you know where to look, if you’ve got the heart to grab it.
When the Scrap Boy commandoes reach their bunker sides ache and their throats are raw. Their song tastes like iron, like blood, but a lightness enters the Scrap Boys. Their lungs become helium balloons caged in their chests.
They throw themselves down the short hill, Scrap Boy 1, Scrap Boy 2, Scrap Boy 3, awkward somersaults, ass over tea kettle, sky giving way to dirt giving way to sky again, until they come to rest on flat earth, sweat damp and mud stained and home. Their pit is still there, a circle of stones pulled from the creek a hundred yards away, a circle of stones it took the Scrap Boys a whole afternoon to assemble at the start of summer.
They gather fuel without speaking. It’s all around them, there for the taking. Fistfuls of dry leaves, twigs that snap like matchsticks, sticks that break over Scrap Boys’ thighs and crack like a gunshot. The build looks chaotic, but it’s not. The Scrap Boys know the science. It lives in their heart.
Start small. Leaves and twigs. Lighters out. Every Scrap Boy put a flame to the kindling. Hit it together. Hit it from every angle. Use hands, use bodies, use hoodies and coats, use whatever you’ve got, whatever it takes, to block gusts of wind, to block anything that threatens to those first flames. Use mouths, use breath to feed the young flames. More leaves, more twigs. Then bigger. Sticks thick as fingers and toes. Bigger. Sticks thick as arms and legs.
The Scrap Boys sit in the dirt and watch the flames. Watch the flames flash and destroy, watch the flames dance and create. And in the pop and hiss of the flames the Scrap Boys hear the voice of the fire, hear a song. Rangers! All the way. Here we go.
The earth underneath the Scrap Boys is cold and damp, but in the heat of the flames they Scrap Boys feel their skin tightening, hardening, clay in a kiln. Like recognizes like. Each Scrap Boy, 1, 2, and 3, feels the wound in his palm tingling as the fire grows and grows.
Tom Weller is a former factory worker, Peace Corps volunteer,and Planned Parenthood sexuality educator. He currently teaches writing at Pennsylvania College of Technology and lives in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. His fiction has appeared most recently in Pidgeonholes, Synaesthesia, The Molotov Cocktail, and Booth. He has work forthcoming in Barrelhouse.