The drive-thru line was stalled like there’d been a collision at its end. Five teenagers packed into an Accord packed into a backwoods town with more feed stores than gas stations. Driving past the Target and toward the chicken ranch you’d never know you were an hour’s ride from Los Angeles. Norco: Northern Corona.
For hours we’d been singing along with bands comprised of twenty-somethings. Our headlights bounced about the woods, lights dipping and careening about the trunks of trees uncoiling along the backroads. A house with a lit-up porch in the distance every mile or so. Confederate flags painted on garage doors. The odor of meth confusing what we thought nature should smell like.
Teenagers breathe in terror and exhale confidence. We sucked it in like carbon monoxide and the car was full of who we were. Who we certainly were. Who we’d always be. We were soft, pimpled mountains of indifference and passion. We lived by an unspoken code of thievery, misplaced respect, well-placed respect, and infatuation. An infatuation with dissonance.
We’d grown hungry.
Back on the main roads we passed Californian cowboys taking their horses out for curious midnight strolls. We didn’t talk to the natives. They didn’t talk to us.
I watched them stop when they heard the racket the car produced. They’d bring their horses to a standstill and turn their vision down the road, hickish eyes following the Accord as if it were a tennis ball rotating in slow motion, drowning the dusty street with noise and fumes.
We could see the queue of cars from the road but pulled into the parking lot and got in just the same.
They’d run out of fries. Or, maybe a local had a gun to the cashier’s head. Maybe the cashier had a gun to his own head. It was just as possible he’d had a heart attack and none of the would-be patrons were getting out of their vehicles to check.
Twelve cars with people sitting still for what was coming up on an hour.
Without a word A— got out of the Accord and walked over to the brick wall to our right. He pulled himself up to look over the eight-foot wall. He hung there while we watched him watch something. He dropped, turned slightly, and waved for us to join him.
J—, the trusted pilot of our getaway vehicle, the car that could always get us away from one place to find another place to get away from until we had nothing left and would return to the place whose consideration we’d kept at bay night after night until necessary, home, got out but left the motor running.
A— yelled something and J— leaned in searching the air for what’d been said. A— turned off the car and spun the key ring around his index finger.
I could smell something burning when I got out. Not like the meth fires of the woods. This was the deep, almost sullen smell of an oversized campfire.
None of us spoke. A— pointed at the brick wall like we could see through it.
The wall reflected the green neon of the fast food joint. The rest of us did as A— had done, pulled ourselves up to see what was on the other side.
Thirty yards back and surrounded by darkness, a house blazed bright, a burning secret kept hidden from the rest of the city.
A— climbed the wall again, and with an agility only he possessed, hopped over.
None of us moved to stop him.
He dropped to the dark ground and moved toward the inferno.
J— called out to A—.
“See that?” he asked. “Something’s moving inside.”
Devoid of hesitation, A— took off his shirt and crossed into the pitch-black yard.
Something ran out of the house and raced around before vanishing into the dark. A cat.
J— and I struggled over the wall and fell with our backs against it. I could feel the heat. A— had reached the fire and was tying his shirt around his face like a bandit.
I remember thinking this was a bad idea, that maybe A— would die. The rest of us had stayed behind, and the hum and the crack of the burning wood kept our distracted laughter on the near side of some great precipice. We were still in the land of drive-thrus and punk bands and teenage conceptions of independence and individuality.
A— halted feet from the porch of the swollen orange house.
Was there anyone inside? Why did it remind me so of a dying, caving jack-o’-lantern? Who was the last person in the house and what was his name? Why were we the few who knew, who really knew how to exist? How did no one notice this thing, this place, this house, shifting toward disintegration over the wall, oddly silent and out of sight? No one else had noticed. This fed our feeling of specialness. That we were destined to find deeper truths and real magics and we would do so forever and with ease. Any job we’d have we’d quit. Any attention we’d receive we’d earn through sneering at the notion of receiving attention.
Four honorable, genuine necromancers watching a righteous bandit prepare to chase life through a burning house.
Then sirens. Then firetrucks. Then firefighters. Then yelling. Then we were back over the wall and into the Accord. A— pulled the shirt from his face and held it in his hand as he leaned over J— and ordered tacos.
Patrick Benjamin is a writer living near Los Angeles. He lives with his sister and grandmother.