Dad inspects the doorjamb’s freshly flaked paint and eyes me suspiciously.
“If this gets any worse, you’re grounded. And I’m going to confiscate your cars. I mean it.”
Channeling the biggest doe eyes I can, I insist I have no idea what in the world he’s talking about. Shaking his head, Dad turns and walks back into the TV room. Once I hear the TV’s football commentary growing louder, I slowly close my bedroom door, tiptoe to my closet, and uncover my stash of meticulously mangled Matchbox cars.
As of late, I’d become obsessed with apocalyptic dioramas—the after-effects of anything cataclysmic. And there, across the floor, was my own little Hollywood-style set: a Lincoln Log village crushed asunder by the hooves of a possessed unicorn plush toy. The closest scene that rivaled this one was one I’d arrayed after watching Waterworld: The polar ice caps had melted and flooded Laura’s Barbie camper and the nearby Lincoln Log resort. At least Ken and Blaine had been able to cling to a passing seal and sea lion, and made it to safety. Barbie wasn’t so lucky. She drowned. As did Stacy; but that goes without saying.
Whether it was from repeatedly watching Red Dawn, or the time I snuck downstairs and peeked around at the TV at the worst possible moment of Schindler’s List, I’d never been able to shake my odd, albeit macabre, fascination with these people-things that populate the world around me. Why they do the things they do, inflict what they do onto others, and react in the most bizarre fashions when the world falls apart. No, I wasn’t becoming a sociopath: I was becoming an anthropologist.
But with this transfixion with the breakdown of society and its ensuing chaos came a profound interest in destruction. And that’s when my disappearances into the basement became more frequent, and my hammer-wielding competency peaked.
Each trip involved a fairly repetitious process with the same result: calculated destruction. Of course, these trips could never last long, since the basement wasn’t so much a playground as it was a place Laura and I never spent a great deal of time. The parents would become suspicious, especially if there were repeated hammer bangs. One bang was easily shrugged off with an “I knocked a hammer off the tool bench” coupled with the aforementioned doe eyes. Two or three bangs, not so much. So I had to be stealthy and poised: two things I’d never mastered.
So I’d select a cherished car, stuff it into a pocket, sneak downstairs, turn the historic key in the basement door, and shuffle down the basement’s narrow concrete staircase. With only a few moments to spare, I’d grab a hammer, position myself just-so, and bring it down with problematically-ferocious force atop the small metal bodies. A crunch later, and I’d scurry back upstairs and dodge Scooby’s accusatory, beady-eyed stares from his cage top perch near the basement door.
Demolishing things segued to pyrotechnics, with a little help from Captain Planet. Mostly because the Wheeler action-figure’s arm activated a lighter-like contraption that fired sparks from his open midsection. All irony aside, the power, and fire, was mine!
Unfortunately, this more socially-problematic behavior couldn’t be as easily hidden. But that’s when having parents who perform seasonal prescribe burns on isolated forest land came in handy. I won!
Still, toting along a shoe box house with interior cardboard dioramas to my first prescribe burn took some creative, on-the-spot explaining. How I squeaked my way through is anyone’s guess, but there I was, watching the tiny house be consumed by the inferno writhing around its soft edges.
But I could only hide my quirky behavior so long before I got complacent. Or cocky. Or both.
At some point the time comes for parents to trust their children to stay home alone and not burn the place down. Thankfully for my parents, I’d pilfered everyone’s shoe boxes and had plenty of ready-made cardboard houses to take the fiery hit.
One afternoon, I realize I have a sliver of time to offer up a house to Hades. So I hustle my sacrificial house outside, and use a found bent match to light it up. About fifteen-seconds in, a neighbor pops outside–just on the other side of a low privacy fence. To avoid detection, I hastily stamp out the burning half.
At this point, more discerning kids, or at least the sociopaths, would realize they’d better dispose of the evidence, go back inside, and act like nothing happened. But again, I don’t catch on, and I’m not unlocking sociopathic tendencies.
Not only do I run back inside with the extinguished cardboard house, but I don’t even think to cover up the smell. So ten minutes later when Mom and Dad return, I realize two things: One, never do this again; and two, never underestimate the fears historic homeowners have of faulty wiring. Within a few seconds of walking in, Mom and Dad stop, drop their hardware store purchases, and inhale deeply. Oh. Crap.
“Do you smell that?”
“Yeah, it smells like something’s burning.”
Instinctively, they start feeling the walls for hot spots and sniff along the kitchen’s periphery. I begin sweating profusely. Then force my exaggerated, toothy smile to a painful extreme.
“What…wha…what smell? I don’t smell anything!” Big smile.
“Oh. God. I think there’s a fire inside the walls,” Mom spouts, the timbre of her voice growing increasingly higher. “I think we should call the fire department!”
I feel faint. Dad begins lumbering to the phone, and I try desperately to convince them that they don’t smell a thing. But then, I do smell something. Something burning. Outside.
Standing on my tiptoes, I look through the window over the kitchen sink, and see flames. Contained flames. Grill flames.
“No, no, no! Look, look, look!”
Either the emphatic shriek of my prepubescent voice is so startling that it breaks Dad’s train of thought just enough, or saying things in triplicate conveys some unspoken truth to adults. But it’s probably the gust of air that wafts through the open back door and fills the kitchen with the smells of hamburger. Dad stops.
“It’s the grill. See!” I bellow, simultaneously pointing out the back door and to the kitchen window like a Police Academy officer directing traffic.
After convincing themselves that their oddly poised son is right, Mom and Dad shrug it off, venture into the plastic-covered downstairs bathroom, and begin their work again. I race upstairs, grab the remnant cardboard house, douse the entire thing in water, spray horrifically potent bathroom freshener all over the bag, and scamper back downstairs, out the open door, and to the big garbage can. Tucking my foible beneath the overflowing can’s garbage bags is almost too easy.
Victorious, I saunter back inside to where Mom and Dad stand prepping their supplies.
“Here, can you handle this?” Dad asks, handing me a hammer and motioning to some protruding nails from the molding.
“I think I can manage.”