Chapter 4: Power Man and Iron Fist
Summer faded into the typical West Texas autumn. This meant a new school year, with brisk early mornings and glorious sunsets. The kids fell into their routine, the two older boys walking to their nearby schools, and Creedence taking a bus. Meatloaf had yet to start school, so she stayed with a neighbor during the day.
A dark column of smoke towered into the sky during Fleetwood’s early recess. It was accompanied by the wail of a fire truck, blending with the yells and chatter of the children around him. He looked in the direction of home, just a few blocks away, and felt uneasy. An eternal pessimist, he thought vaguely, “That sure looks like it could be my house.”
He had just got settled into his desk after recess when an office aid stepped into the room. She spoke quietly with his teacher, who came to his desk. She smiled and said, too calmly, “Wood, I need you to gather your things, and go with Ms. Shannon.”
“Why? What’s happening?” He felt panicked, was it his house, his sister, his father, one of his brothers, every worst case scenario overwhelmed him.
“I’m sure everything is just fine,” she responded, but Wood knew everything was certainly not “just fine.”
Fleetwood gathered his belongings in autopilot, lost to the moment, and followed the young lady. As he neared the office he saw a police officer through the window. Trembling, sweating, short of breath, the terrified boy stepped through the door, but couldn’t bring himself to fully enter the room.
He simply stood there, willing himself to not cry. The officer, who had turned around when he heard the door, recognized the look of terror on the child’s face. He smiled reassuringly, while extending his large hand. “Everybody’s going to be ok, Fleetwood.”
Large tears rolled down Wood’s face, though he remained stoically silent. The officer still held his small hand, gripping firmly, he said, “There’s been a fire, Son, and we can’t get ahold of your father.”
His father was out working an oilfield job. He was was miles away, out on some remote West Texas drilling rig. No, Fleetwood didn’t know who he worked for or how to reach him. He usually arrived home around 6:30 or 7:00. The officer told him he would escort him to the hospital and wait there with him. Creedence was being picked up at the moment, and Santana was already there.
“The hospital? Why is Santana there already,” he asked, puzzled as to why his brother, whose school was further from the hospital, would be there before him.
“Well, Son, it seems that your brother was skipping school today. He was hiding out in Palito Joe’s treehouse, when he caught the whole dang thing on fire. Your brother isn’t “at the hospital,” he’s “in the hospital. You understand, Son?”
Dang it. He had made sure Creedence got on his bus and Meatloaf was at the sitter’s before running ahead this morning to have time to play soccer with some of the boys at school. He normally walked part of the way with Santana, but hadn’t given him a second thought beyond getting him out of the house. Gonzo had left just thirty minutes before the kids, and leaned on him to make sure they all got where they were supposed to be for the day. All these thoughts swirled in his mind, only the officer’s grip on his hand kept him from falling to the ground.
Santana watched his brother run off as he stood on the sidewalk, holding his sack lunch in one hand. The morning was cool, the bright early morning sun peeking in and out of the clouds. The wind gusted, lifting his light windbreaker up around him. Leaves skittered across the street and life bustled all around him.
That’s all he said as he pivoted on his left heel, and headed toward his backyard. He hurried across it to the hole in the fence separating their yard from Joe’s. He stood motionless, watching the back windows of his friend’s house. He wasn’t sure if Palito would make him go to school, or let him hang around so he wasn’t taking any chances. He saw the elderly man walk through the kitchen toward the front of the house and bolted across the yard, scrambling up the makeshift ladder.
Fleetwood had a collection of comic books in a plastic bag tucked away in the center of an old wire spool that their father had converted into a bench. They also had quite a stash of candy, chewing gum, and snacks hidden in a hole in the wall. These they had stolen from the Gibson’s down the street. Their dad would have tanned their hides if he knew about that, he thought, smiling mischeviously.
The treehouse didn’t have proper windows, just openings covered with old curtains. The breeze was cool and clouds had moved in causing a dim overcast. Santana lit a couple of candles and settled in to his favorite “Power Man and Iron Fist” comic. It was a perfect morning, a perfect day, in fact.
A sudden gust of wind woke him from a deep sleep. Candy wrappers and comic books were strewn around him. One of the candles had blown out, the other had fallen behind the little stool he had set them on. In a shocking moment, the old dry fabric of the curtain erupted into flames. The treehouse itself was so old, and all of the wood used to refurbish it were equally dry, saved from scrap piles in neighbor’s yards, and before Santana had completely woken up, the little room in the tree had turned into an inferno. He screamed, backing away from the flames, which were blocking the entrance.
A scream? He had heard a scream in his own backyard. Palito Joe bolted upright in his lounge chair, dumbfounded. He knew the voice to be Santana, but his sleep fogged brain couldn’t reconcile the sound to the time of day. Again, the scream, frantic, terrified, desperate.
He sprang to his feet, slipping on his winos, and shufffled to the back door.
Nothing could have prepared him for the sight of his childhood treehouse, nestled into the oldest and largest tree on the block, ablaze, like some grotesque torch standing in his yard. Thick black smoke rose angrily, tattered curtains flapped from the openings. He stood in the doorway, mouth agape, hands gripping the door frame so violently that they were bruised for a week. Only the scream brought him back to reality.
“Santana, Santana, where, where,” he looked around the yard frantically, not thinking that the boy could be in the treehouse. He saw him, his face blistered and soot covered, hair singed almost completely, through the flames. No! No! No! He couldn’t climb that old ladder, he couldn’t save this boy.
He stumbled through the door and tripped, falling headlong off of the back porch into the dirt path this little boy and his siblings had worn over the last few years. He struggled to his feet, his pants torn, his hands covered with stickers. “Santana! SANTANA!”
Santana heard Joe screaming his name. He cowered against the back wall of the small room. His face felt swollen and he struggled to catch his breath. He saw Joe standing as close as he could get to the tree. “Run and jump! Jump, Santana! Jump!”
Joe put his hands out, showing Santana that he would catch him. There was no choice, he tried to run and jump, but merely staggered toward the door, tripping as he fell into the flames, his forward momentum carried him, head first and only semicouncious, through the opening. He fell the six feet, landing in a heap on the ground. The impact knocked him out completely.
Joe darted forward and grabbed the boy’s ankle. He desperately wanted to pick him up, but was unable, so he dragged him a safe distance and fell to his knees next to the little ragged child, not sure if he was dead or alive. He could hear the sirens in the distance, even over the roar of the flames in the tree. He would wake in horror to that sound many nights after.