top of page

"Pre-Teen Pyromaniac" by Chester Holden

My older brother and I were brought up in constant intoxication-fueled chaos. And as siblings with traumatic upbringings often do, we developed almost opposite strategies of coping with what we were powerless to change. He sought to befriend everyone and perform for no one, while I sought to befriend no one and perform for everyone. Deep down, however, what we both wanted was to be pleasing enough to others to avoid altercations of every kind.

A natural performer like myself quickly learns the value of risking his own well-being. Because frankly, if someone is otherwise indifferent to our existence, without an element of personal sacrifice or danger, they probably will not pay much attention to what we are doing to amuse them. Until my twelfth birthday, I mostly entertained others by exhibiting violent behavior in non-violent sports, following through on almost anything that anyone ever dared me to do, and performing dangerous stunts inspired by a movie I greatly admire called Jackass with my brother as the silent and disapproving cameraman.

Then, at my twelfth birthday party, my grandpa bestowed me with a privilege that would alter the course of my life, allowing me the honor of setting off an enormous box of illegal fireworks he had brought home from a recent business trip to North Carolina. That night, I set them off in the most entertaining and performative manner possible, proudly aware that much of my drunk and usually disinterested family was watching my every move.

The next day, I accepted my inability to drive out of state and began browsing the internet for step-by-step instructions on making exhilarating homemade explosives. The first promising example I found of this appeared only to require a little tape and a lot of sparklers to assemble. But after hastening to a nearby store and attempting to buy all the sparklers my birthday money could afford, the cashier informed me that I needed a parent or guardian present for her to sell me such a thing. And although this made me inordinately upset, I returned home and recommenced combing through the internet’s seemingly infinite search results until finally coming across another possible solution. So when my parents left for work the following morning, I returned to the same store and bought enough tinfoil and toilet bowl cleaner to supply even the most wasteful household for several decades.

I built and exploded a practice bomb before boasting about it to my brother and exploding another to prove I was no liar. And for a long time after that, scarcely a day of summer vacation passed without me building a bigger bomb and detonating it in front of a larger crowd. Eventually, however, I ran out of materials and money. Then I started fooling around with homemade flamethrowers until I had entirely depleted my dad’s supply of spray paint and my brother’s supply of body spray.

Then, as it was the only highly flammable material I could still get my hands on without stealing from someone outside my immediate family, I started experimenting with gasoline. And this, I swiftly discovered, is a particularly unsafe substance and thus advantageous for putting on public shows.

I invited every neighborhood kid somewhat near my age to watch what would be my most daring spectacle to date. The show was to consist of many carefully planned tricks. And for the grand finale, I built a bike ramp using three cinderblocks and a relatively sturdy piece of plywood. Maybe two feet in front of that, I positioned a bucket half full of gasoline. I planned to dip a small twig in the bucket before hurrying back to my bike and setting it on fire. Then, after pedaling down a slight hill and hitting the ramp at high speeds, I would- while in mid-air- drop the burning twig into the bucket and pass harmlessly through the massive resulting fireball.

My performance got off to a wildly successful start, inspiring an unprecedented turnout and earning applause breaks following each dramatic moment. Nevertheless, almost immediately after my bike’s back tire left the ramp for the grand finale, gravity brought it down on the far portion of the bucket’s rounded rim, which I had intended on clearing with ease, and sent me crashing unexpectedly to the ground. This drenched much of my left arm and chest in gasoline before the burning twig suddenly ignited everything and, for some time, rendered me a desperately screaming and difficult-to-extinguish individual.

After my first and most excruciatingly painful week of many bedridden months spent recovering from severe burns, my ever-thoughtful and deeply loving brother brought me what was perhaps his most prized possession: all thirteen books of A Series of Unfortunate Events. And forty days after apathetically opening the front cover of The Bad Beginning, I appreciatively closed the back cover of The End. These books afforded my young mind its first experiential evidence suggesting the lasting and inexplicable impact a writer’s story can have on a reader’s heart and soul. And it was this slight accumulation of this newfound knowledge, in fact, that prompted my immediate assumption of a new identity with another purpose to move my near-unchangeable self forward, hopefully away from the blistering flames that forged it.

Chester Holden is from Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in Door is a Jar, Across the Margin, The Bear Creek Gazette, The Helix, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Lit Camp, Primeval Monster, Alien Buddha, and others.

bottom of page