Death by Burning

He’s wearing his cousin’s firefighting gear: helmet, turnout pants and jacket, gloves, boots, a flame-resistant ski mask for extra precaution. Still, I can’t keep my hands from shaking.

“Baby, everything’s gonna be fine,” he says. “God has a plan for us, and I promise you, it ain’t death by burning.”

Petey (from the Greek Petros, meaning stone) assures me that shooting him with a flamethrower will be our absolute final stunt. This will be the one to go viral, score us millions of viewers. We’ll be famous. Our growing bun won’t have to worry about nothing.

I wriggle my arms free from the pack, place it and its adjoining gun and hose on the soft, safe grass in front of my swollen feet. It isn’t all that heavy, but my relief is great. I’ve only practiced shooting at invasive weeds on Petey’s uncle’s farm. Not even once at a single living thing. Never ever at another human soul.

“Remember, Mandy,” Petey says, “spontaneity is everything.”

Reluctantly, I lift the gear. Spontaneity (aka a quickie in the barn rafters) is what got us pregnant. The first we miscarried, but the second time, full speed ahead. Around three months to this very day, our precious baby girl will come screaming into this messed up beautiful world. We’re only seventeen—well, I’m seventeen and three quarters—but I just know we’ll be terrific parents, no matter what everybody thinks or says right to our faces.

Petey dotes on his five-year-old brother, teaching him the finer points of wrestling, deer hunting and burping after Taco Bell. His affection goes beyond your typical bro stuff, too. Petey’s mom’s on meth, and his dad works day and night at the paper mill to keep them afloat. More often than not, Petey’s called to be the man of the house, bathing and reading Jack-Jack his bedtime stories. They have these fancy make-believe tea parties with trolls, Transformers, army men, and yes, they allow the occasional Barbie to sit at the table, as long as she’s in camo. No aprons or pink tiaras for her. Jack-Jack’s Barbie isn’t afraid to wade through the mud or swing from the maple trees.

Me? I’ve wanted to be somebody’s mom for as long as I can remember. Maybe it’s the abandonment card. Before I had teeth, Mama dropped me with Nana and fled to sunny Florida with a couple of so-called entrepreneurs who weren’t my daddy. But it’s more than the loneliness or trying to do better by my kid firing me. Beyond the butterfly kisses or the smell of a baby’s head, all warm biscuits and milky sweetness, motherhood will give me purpose, something that takes a hell of a lot more guts and glory than making these stupid YouTube videos.

It’ll all be over soon.

That’s what I keep telling myself. One last stunt and I’ll put everything I got into raising our baby girl, and Petey will finish high school, maybe get a job at the mill with his dad and find us our own place to live. My nana will understand, wish our little family the best, and Petey’ll take damn good care of us.

“Mandy?” he says. “You sure you’re up for this?” I don’t want to let him down, but fear covers me like warrior paint. Petey says  Potawatomi’s used to live in our corner of Michigan, before white people did what they always do: kick them and their kind the hell out. Petey’s not Indian, but he’s a big fan of their endurance, their belief that all things unfold in time. He’s kept the same blue and black dream catcher hanging over his bed since he was a boy.

Ready.

Aim.

Fire.

My head knows the only man who’s ever loved me is protected. My heart? It isn’t quite as convinced. I can feel drops of sweat running down my aching back.

I’ve got to be strong though, for Petey and for our Phoenix—that’s what I’m calling our baby girl. She’s gonna rise up like me and Petey, prove everybody dead wrong.