Authors: Kevin Henkes
For Laura and Susan,
with thanks to Gretchen, Tom, Jen, K.T., and Altie
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About the Author
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Books by Kevin Henkes
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About the Publisher
alze Werla buried Ortman before breakfast. It was the fifth of July, and already the day was white hot. Blaze peeled off his T-shirt and tossed it on the hard ground. He shoveled quickly and furtively, making a small, neat hole the size of a basketball. When the digging was through, Blaze knelt, and using both arms and cupped hands, filled the hole back up, covering Ortman forever. There was something fierce about the manner in which Blaze workedâthe determined line of his mouth, the tension that rippled across his back. Dirt stuck to Blaze's sweaty body like bread crumbs; his damp red hair clung to his forehead in ringlets. Blaze slapped the ground flat with the palms of his hands, making a thudding sound and remembering all the other burials, glancing at the nearby stones that marked them.
Burials. There had been four others before Ortman. (Not counting his mother's.) The small graves formed a partial ring around the huge black locust tree on the hill near the highway behind Blaze's house. First there had been Benny. Then Ajax. Next Ken. Then Harold. And now Ortman. Blaze wondered what he would do once the circle was complete. Where would he bury then? He was ten years old. Would he still need to do this when he was twelve? Fifteen? He hoped not. He was tired of being afraid.
Blaze stood and stamped the dirt over Ortman one last time. He picked up the stone he had chosen earlier that morning and held it for a few seconds, as if it were a large egg containing precious life. He had chosen the stone because of its markings: pale mossy blotches that looked like bull's-eyes. Blaze set the stone down firmly in place. “Goodbye, Ortman,” he whispered. Blaze backed up, scratched the scars on his ankles with either foot, ran his dirty hand through his hair, and stared at the grave site until the crescent of stones blurred before him, becoming a broken pearl bracelet around the arm of a tree it bound.
On the way down the hill toward home, Blaze was already creating someone new in his mind to take Ortman's place. Someone who would be big. Someone who would be tall. Someone who would be fearless. Someone who would be everything Blaze was not.
Blaze was slight, with small feet and hands. He thought his fingers resembled birthday candles, especially compared to his father's ample, knuckly ones. At school, Blaze was the shortest student in his class. His identity with many kids from other grades hinged solely upon his size and his red hair. His hair was so distinctive, in fact, that passersby often turned their heads to take notice. His clear blue eyes had a similar effect on people. Freckles peppered Blaze's cheeks and the bridge of his nose. His eyelashes were full and as transparent as fishing line. Andâhe was fearful.
Blaze swatted at the leafy, waist-high weeds that surrounded him and thought, I am a contradictionâmy name is Blaze and I'm afraid of fire. And fire was only the beginning of a long list of things that made Blaze's head prickle just thinking of them.
Fire. Large dogs. Wasps. The dark.
And then there were the other things. The more important things. The really frightening ones. Nightmares. The Ferris wheel at the fairgrounds. The Fourth of July.
Blaze fixed his attention on the drooping slate roof of his house in the near distance. “Come on .Â .Â .
,” he said over his shoulder into the warm breeze. “Let's go eat.”
“Morning, Blaze,” Nova called pleasantly when she heard the screen door open and gently close.
“Morning, Grandma,” Blaze said, entering the
kitchen. He walked to the sink and began washing his hands methodically with liquid dish soap, making a thick lather that worked its way up his arms. Ortman's dead, he said matter-of-factly in his head, watching a tiny pinkish blue bubble rise from his hands. Now I've got Simon.
Blaze didn't believe in imaginary friends the way he truly had when he was younger. He didn't set places for them at the table or make himself as small as possible in bed to leave room for them. He didn't talk to them out loud when anyone might hear. But every July he formed a new one. It was habit as much as anything else.
In a way, he compared it to Nova's practice of saying “Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit” for good luck on the first day of each month. It had to be her first words spoken or else it didn't work. Nova was far from superstitious, and yet, if she forgot to say it, she seemed annoyed with herself all morning.
Blaze also compared it to the relationship his father had with God. Although he had told Blaze many times that he didn't really know what he believed, Glenn said that he prayed every now and then. He talked to God when no one else was around.
Glenn had his version of God. Nova had “Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.” And Blaze had Simon.
“Well, what can I get you for breakfast?” Nova asked mildly.
Blaze had been looking out the window toward the hill. He turned and faced his grandmother. “Scrambled eggs, please,” he said. And Nova hummed while she
made them. At the stove, with her back to Blaze, Nova's wispy moth-colored hair looked just like a dandelion right before you make a wish and blow it. But nothing else about Nova was wispy. She was generous in both size and spirit.
Breakfast was Blaze's favorite meal of the day, and the kitchen was his favorite room in the house. Towels, pots, pans, and various other cooking utensils hung on hooks from the walls and ceiling, reminding Blaze of the buy-and-sell shop in town. Four wide windows let in enough sunlight to balance the clutter. In the early morning, the dramatic shadows of the suspended spatulas and ladles spilled down the flowered wallpaper like stalactites. Or were they stalagmites? Blaze could never keep them straight. He had confused them on his final science test of the school year only last month.
During the summer, Blaze always ate breakfast with Nova, just the two of them at the thick, round oak table. Nova unerringly sensed Blaze's moods; she knew when he wanted to talk and when quiet seemed to be what was needed. If Nova wasn't asking Blaze questions or maintaining a peaceful, necessary silence, she was humming (as she was now); that meant she was deep in thought. Blaze was certain that Nova's low murmuring that morning was due to the cucumber beetles she had been battling in her squash patch. Books and magazines on organic gardening were stacked on the counter by the sink like dirty dishes.
Humming. Then silence. Then only the sound of silverware playing against china.
“I don't know how you do itâgetting up at this hour when you don't have to,” Glenn said, suddenly appearing in the kitchen doorway.
“Hi, Dad,” Blaze said with a start, surprised by Glenn's unusually early jump on the day. His eyes skated up to meet his father's. Ordinarily breakfast was long finished by the time Glenn made it out of bed.
“Morning, Glenn. Eggs today?” Nova asked.
“Just coffee.” He padded barefooted across the cracking linoleum and reached for a mug from the cupboard. Glenn was tall and big-boned. His straight blond hair fell into his eyes and barely grazed his shoulders, hiding the ringed birthmark on the back of his neck. It was purple and looked like Saturn. When Blaze was mad at his father, he pretended that the birthmark meant that Glenn was really an alien from outer space. “So what's on the agenda for you two today?” Glenn asked, filling his mug. He sat at the table precisely halfway between Blaze and Nova.
“Cucumber beetles,” Nova said. “I'm going to try to lick them with a mixture of vanilla and water. It's a trick I read about in one of my magazines,” she added, working her fingers as if she held a spray bottle.
“And you?” Glenn said, looking at Blaze.
Blaze shrugged. “Nothing really.”
Glenn rubbed his steel gray eyes and yawned, his wide
unshaven jaw opening and closing like a machine. “Want a ride into town? You could call someone from school.”
“Nah,” Blaze replied, wrinkling his nose and shaking his head.
“I'll take you to the lake or the park. Anywhere you want to go.”
“The moon?” Blaze joked.
Glenn yawned and chuckled at the same time.
“I think I'll just mess around here,” Blaze told him.
After rubbing his eyes again, Glenn massaged the space between his eyebrows. “Just don't think too much,” he said slowly, turning his mug on the table and winking. “It's not good for you.” He rose with his coffee and headed toward the back door. He stopped at the sink and leaned against it momentarily. “Oh, by the way .Â .Â .” he said. He thrust his hand deep into his pocket and pulled out something small. He flung it gently across the tabletop. It was an old rusty skeleton key. It stopped right beside Blaze's plate, kissing his fork. “I found it yesterday,” Glenn said. “For your collection.”
“Thanks,” Blaze answered. He watched Glenn disappear down the hallway, the key floating on the fringe of his vision. His ankles itched. Blaze knew that Glenn wouldn't give him keys if he knew why he saved them.
But here was a new one. Right before him. An ancient thing. It might be my best one yet, Blaze thought. The key's sharp metallic scent tickled Blaze's nostrils. He scooped it up and fingered it, and it seemed to burn in
his hand. Blaze wondered who it had once belonged to, what lock it would release, whose door it might open.
It would be a typical July day. Glenn would spend it in the sagging garage that he had converted into a studio, emerging at dinnertime flecked with paint of all colors. Then he'd return and work again until very late, maybe until dawn. Unlike most fathers, Glenn was home all day in the summer. He was a high-school art teacher who devoted his entire vacation to painting large canvases that Blaze liked, but didn't quite understand. Nova would bustle about the kitchen and her gardenâconcocting, canning, weeding, pruning, and trying to exterminate cucumber beetles for all time. And Blaze would wander throughout the house and around the hill, occasionally talking to someone that no one else could see.
And it would be a typical July night for Blaze. In bed, he would will himself not to dream. Or, at least, not to remember his dreams when he awoke. He would take the library book from his nightstand, open it halfway, and place it beside him to look as if he had been reading. His mason jar filled with his lost key collection would be on the floor within reach. Then, his lamp still on, Blaze would settle in among his nest of four pillows, wishing and waiting for morning light.
hen Blaze woke up the next morning his chest ached with strangeness. He had been dreaming. It was a dream he had had before. In it a maze of black snakes burst into flames at his feet while he struggled to open a door. The door was held tightly closed by a series of locks. His mother's voice came from behind the door. Sometimes in the dream he would have a key. But even when he did, it would never work.