Melody burned down her stepfather’s camper because she didn’t feel like going to Sunday school anymore.
In Melody’s mind, it was as simple as that. Things were black and white and not difficult. Everything had a simple explanation. Nothing was as complicated as people made them out to be. After all, she was fourteen now, and was therefore much more intelligent than most other folks. At least, that’s how Melody saw it.
No one asked her why she set fire to the camper, because no one knew she had done it. Her parents stood in the driveway, gawking at the charred, blackened skeleton of the thing. They exchanged theories about who and how and why, but never once considered their daughter, who stood next to them, bored and wondering how long they’d all have to stand around looking at the smoldering debris before it was okay to go back inside the house.
Melody’s stepfather, Eugene, took the blame. After all, he was always so careless about leaving the thing unlocked and parked out in the open space next to the garage. Her parents assumed some neighborhood kids had discovered the unlocked door, stepped inside and used it as a place to hang out, smoke cigarettes and hide from the cold, which wasn’t far from the truth.
The first spark had ignited on the Sunday before, which had been like all the previous Sundays. Melody woke up early, showered, did her hair and put on a pink blouse that she hated, along with a pink flowery skirt, which she also hated, and some brown imitation leather shoes that she didn’t mind so much. She passed by the door to her parents’ bedroom. Reassured by the noisy snoring, she knocked harder than was necessary.
“You sure you don’t want to come with me?” she always asked, and the answer was always the same.
“No. Get your ass to church.”
If anyone had asked Melody why she wanted her parents to come to church with her, when she didn’t like them and didn’t even want to go herself, she’d say, “I feel weird walking down the street all dressed up and alone on Sunday morning.”
In Melody’s mind, it was as simple as that. But no one had asked Melody anything. Ever.
She walked the six blocks to church, trying to ignore the passing cars. A few of them contained the staring faces of her classmates, who were going to church with their families. Not all parents had hangovers to sleep off.
When she arrived at church, she scanned the bustling crowd of people. They wore suits with ties and ugly dresses splashed with pastel floral prints that looked like her grandmother’s curtains. Her eyes lit on Jacob. Jacob’s mother and grandmother always watched the two of them go upstairs to the Sunday school class, but once upstairs, they passed the classroom, and went down the back stairs to the garbage cans behind the church.
Sometimes they’d smoke a cigarette, if either one of them managed to steal one from their parents. Other times, they’d kiss, which Melody didn’t mind, except for the feeling that neither one of them knew what they were doing. Smacking your teeth together and getting slobber on your face might be considered good kissing, but she didn’t think so. She appreciated the opportunity to practice though, thinking it would likely make both of them better kissers.
Last Sunday was like most other Sundays, except this time, neither one of them had a cigarette to smoke and Melody didn’t feel like kissing and getting slobber on her face on such a cold day. The usual sneaky routine of hanging around the trash cans in her thin, flowery skirt in the middle of winter no longer appealed to her, but sitting in the Sunday school classroom was not an acceptable option either. She explained this to Jacob and then announced that she wouldn’t be coming next Sunday.
“How’re you gonna get out of it?” Jacob sniffed. His nose and cheeks had turned pink from cold, making most of his freckles disappear.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged.
When the hour was up, they snuck back up the way they came. Jacob went off to breakfast with his mother and grandmother, and Melody sulked back home. She came in through the front door and found her mother sitting at the kitchen table, smoking one of her weird, thin, brown cigarettes.
“Go change into your play clothes. Eugene’s already waiting outside.” The hair on one side of her head was still sticking up from sleep. The gray plaid flannel shirt she wore over her pajamas had little black splatter stains around the shoulders and collar. Drips from all those messy home dye jobs.
Melody didn’t bother to explain that at fourteen, she was too old for play clothes. She had ugly church clothes, embarrassing school clothes, and worn out versions of both that she wore to work in the backyard on Sunday mornings.
The grass in the backyard was almost all dead. What used to be a lawn had turned to a frozen expanse of mud, weeds and dog shit. Every Sunday after church, it was Melody’s job to pick up the dogshit. If anyone had asked Melody, she’d say she wouldn’t mind the task much, even with the four big dogs bothering her while she worked, if her parents would buy her the right tools for the job.
It crossed Melody’s mind that those kids who ride in cars with their families to church didn’t have to beg their parents for a poop scoop. She didn’t know which was worse, having to beg for a poop scoop, or not being allowed to have one.
Instead, every Sunday, Melody’s stepfather handed her a little garden fork and a trowel. She squatted and pushed dog shit onto the trowel with the fork. This was not only an inefficient means of cleaning up the yard, but often felt nigh impossible with four rambunctious dogs sticking their noses in her work, trying to play. Eugene followed close behind, chain smoking Marlboro reds, pointing out stray turd fragments, kicking them at Melody with the toe of his boot while growling, “Here’s some shit.”
Just like every other Sunday. Melody hated Sundays with every cell in her body. After he’d lost interest in kicking little pieces of poop at her, he disappeared into the garage, busying himself with making clanging noises and shouting profanities at inanimate objects.
She squatted down and set to work trying to coax some shit onto the trowel, considering her options. Eugene passed by, insulted her technique, and then stepped into his camper trailer. He’d been readying it for another one of his hunting trips, or so he said. Preparing it for his trip seemed to consist of sitting inside it while drinking beer, smoking Marlboros, and listening to old timey country music, and then hitching it to the back of his truck the night before the trip.
A few moments later, Melody watched him emerge from the camper. He closed the door. It bounced open again. He slammed it shut a few times before it finally latched, then he turned to her. “Get inside and wash your hands. It’s time to eat.”
This Sunday started like all the other Sundays. Melody woke early, showered and did her hair. She put on a pastel green blouse that she hated, along with a flowered skirt, which she also hated, and the brown imitation leather shoes that she didn’t mind so much. When this Sunday started to drift away from all the others was the moment Melody walked past her parent’s bedroom door without knocking. Instead, she passed by, careful not to make a sound. She crept to the kitchen, where she found a carton of Eugene’s cigarettes. She helped herself to a pack, knowing he was likely too drunk from the night before to remember how many packs were left. She took a book of matches from the basket on top of the fridge and strolled down the driveway to Eugene’s camper trailer.
Inside, she sat on the floor, avoiding the windows. She knew if Eugene woke early and found her, she would meet a worse fate than poking at dog shit with a trowel, but it felt worth the risk. When her real father was alive, Melody often overheard arguments between he and her mother. He’d found God after their divorce and, according to Melody’s mother, became a man she didn’t recognize. He’d morphed into a weak, arrogant, and judgmental person. A “church freak.” This confused Melody, because it seemed to her that if this was the case, her mother should be happy to be rid of him. Things were simple for Melody. The only thing that baffled her was the way that people always made out they were difficult.
The fact that Eugene insisted she go to church alone every week for the past four years in spite of all the time he passed making fun of her Jesus freak father perplexed her for a while, until a few years ago, when she learned the word “hypocrite,” which she was surprised to learn had nothing to do with hippos.
Melody felt good inside the camper. She smoked a cigarette, or at least thought she did. Melody hadn’t yet learned how to inhale the smoke without coughing and burning her throat, but she enjoyed going through the motions anyway. After she smoked, there wasn’t much else to do. She lit a match and watched it burn down, hypnotized by the thin cardboard glowing orange, then turning black. She had a look around the camper. A couple of magazines about hunting and guns. Some tools. A square, red can that said, “Fuel for stoves, lanterns, and catalytic heaters.”
Melody sat on the floor with the can, reading everything on the label. She unscrewed the dirty metal cap, wiped her hand on the blanket that covered the little bed, and proceeded to empty the can onto the floor. She lit another match, exited her stepfather’s trailer camper and went for a walk. She passed by the church, which had just opened its doors and was vomiting out the suited, pastel-colored people. She scanned the crowd for Jacob, but didn’t see him. She turned around and moped back to her house, just like every Sunday.
If anyone had asked Melody what she was thinking when she burned down her stepfather’s camper, she would have said that she wasn’t thinking anything, she’d only done what felt natural. Fire felt natural. It was that simple. But no one asked Melody anything. Ever.
Rasmenia Massoud asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.