Toby Hankins burned the books on Sunday. He started the fire behind Aunt Edna’s house on Cattledrive Road.
By the time all was ready the sky had turned red with dusk. Toby unpacked the wood from his truck and Edna watched him out the back window of her house. She wore the purple scarf embroidered in stars her sweetheart gave her before the war.
Toby did not look Edna in the eye. He stacked the salvage wood in a bonfire pyramid and put the books at the bottom.
The wind rifled their paperback covers.
His hands shook to strike the wood match. He tried and failed to light it many times. The red sunlight turned purpleblack and gave way to a sky unwholesome. Not a cloud, not a star above. The sky looked as though a hand had been cupped over the world and Toby thought sooner or later something would peek through the purpleblack fingers and he’d look up to see the glimmer of some strange, great eye.
The pages whispered.
Toby sprayed haphazard the lighter fluid and droplets soaked his jeans. The liquid like crystal settled into the fissures and cracks of his hands. He thought I’ll go up too. He flung the match and the wind almost stole it away. Not again would he look up.
The cover of the first paperback with its strange stars printed in purple and red began to burn against its wishes. Slowly slowly took the fire onto itself but did not crinkle or turn black. Orange ghosts of flame danced atop the covers with curled hips. Toby Hankins thought surely fire would not betray him. Surely fire was the thing, the last thing he had, the only weapon left among the remains of a ravaged arsenal with which he may betray the gods and by the way he would not look up again.
Aunt Edna called out and he did not turn around. He squirted lighter fluid and whispered old hymns, one he recalled from Edna’s funeral in ’82. When he sang it the wind stole the words.
The night was dark now and the sky open. Aunt Edna looked out from the window, eyes and mouth dark and open. The books refused to burn.