Willy isn’t your average little boy. He has a horrific past that won’t leave him alone. When he was six, there was a huge fire. A fire that involved his childhood friend, piles of dry leaves and a box of wooden matches.
Secrets that should have burned away have haunted him for years and ruined his childhood. Demons want him dead. Voices beckon to him in the night.
At the brink of insanity, Willy heads back to confront the ghosts of his past. Every step of the way something evil is trying to stop him.
His journey reveals a truth more horrifying than the huge fire he lived through as a child. A truth that threatens many lives.
Read on if you dare:
Fall Leaves and the Black Dragon
By Erik Gustafson
Like light from the stars, forever
Like cocoons clinging to a dream
Suspended in sweetly spun silk,
Memories waiting for their wings
I often wished I could remember more of my childhood. Most of my memories fade away and get stored in massive containers of time on shelves high-up in the closets of my mind. You know what type of containers I am referring too. A container of memories labeled “fourth grade” or “middle school” and maybe a box marked “Yellowstone vacation.” I imagine as I get older, my mind will clean up those containers and throw them all in a small carton called “childhood”.
It makes me sad that I can’t remember all those exciting, magical things I did as a child.
I know it was decades ago when I was last an energetic, free-spirited child playing with Matchbox cars, little green plastic Army soldiers and making machine guns out of sticks. I was a constant daydreamer; I could climb walls like Spiderman and fly like Superman in my mind. I flew everywhere I went. I never had many friends and the idea of peer pressure was the silliest notion a boy like me could contemplate. I always fancied myself as one of the smart fish living at the bottom of a muddy lake, one that was never tempted to nibble at the delicious shiny objects that occasionally dangled in the water.
I was safe but lonely on the bottom.
I was born during the last few days of the space race: I was on my way home from the hospital when Apollo 11 was on its way to the moon. Maybe that’s why I turned out to be a lifelong dreamer. I was more comfortable in my thoughts and fantasies than interacting with actual humans. My mom and dad named me William Donald Randolf but they just called me Willy. Everybody called me Willy when I was a little boy and I hated it. I hated my name because kids at school seemed to tease me about it nearly every day. Some of the main taunts I endured were Silly Willy or Little Willy. Even worse, when they called me Little Willy they were referring to one specific part of my anatomy. Willy the Hillbilly was another hurtful sneer kids labeled me with because I hardly ever wore shoes during the summer. Hearing those kids laughing at me while they heckled their perversions of my name made me so angry and so embarrassed.
Thankfully people stopped calling me Willy when I was seven or eight after I campaigned relentlessly to be called Bill or Billy. Billy wasn’t that great of a name either but I survived on Billy for the rest of my childhood. I was always paranoid that someone would figure out my middle name and start calling me Donald Duck, but no one ever did.
I had a lot of distress around my name growing up.
I go by Liam now but my dad still calls me Bill most of the time.
My first home was small, as young families homes usually are I would think. I don’t remember the house itself much. My mom told me our first home happened to be painted a dull yellow and had a nice little white fence that bordered the front yard while tall, wild bushes and pine trees formed a barrier around the backyard. What I do remember is that our home sat across the street from a giant blue water tower bearing our city name: Des Moines.
I was fascinated and intrigued by that old tower. I used to stare up at it through my bedroom window while I was lying in bed. I would imagine that I was one of the city workers who needed to go all the way to the top to make some vital repair and save the city’s water supply. The tower had me mesmerized! I wished that someday I would sneak over and climb up those steel baby-blue painted rungs that clung to the side of the high tower.
I would close my eyes and imagine how powerful the wind would be from way up there, even when the wind was calm back down on the ground. I knew it was windy up there because my dad told me higher places are always windier.
I dreamed about how magnificent the view would be from on top of that blue bulb. That tower called out to me night and day. Of course, I never did climb up that water tower nor did I even try before we moved away. I’ve found that is how most things turned out for me: I want to do something but instead of acting, I fantasized about it.
Scaling the water tower was just another one of those wild wishes of childhood.
For me, if someone asks what my earliest memory from childhood is I would shutter as discretely as possible; but I would say something about sitting on mats in kindergarten or racing Matchbox cars up the sidewalk. Some stock memory that was safe and pleasant. In other words, I would lie.
I still lie, at least to most people.
My earliest childhood memory is something much worse. My earliest childhood memory happened to be the worst day of my life and occurred when I was six years old.
That’s the day I met the black dragon for the first time.
When you are six and you see a dragon you don’t doubt what you see. Believe me a six year old is in no way prepared to go up against a real fire-breathing dragon. Back in 1975, I was still Willy, a skinny blond-haired, blue-eyed boy who liked running through backyards playing Army.
I had no awareness of being alive before the tragedy that unfolded that terrible night. I can still recount the events as if they had just happened. A therapist once told me that type of memory is what is known as a flashbulb memory. She went on to explain that flashbulb memories are usually very vivid but not always accurate in every detail.
This is my well-hidden, rarely discussed flashbulb memory.
That evening, I remember the sun was sleeping somewhere out of sight, draining the sky into the dark purples of dusk; just before most of the stars reveal themselves. I was in my room but I don’t remember what I was doing. I must have gotten bored. Out in the living room, I could hear my parents laughing and singing along to a Rolling Stones album. Mostly my dad sang and my mom laughed. I was drawn by the laughter and started roaming the house. I think I stood in the doorway at the end hallway watching them sing for a few minutes. I couldn’t linger long or my mom would start singing my name and make me dance with her. I wasn’t that bored.
“Mom I’m going out to play!” I shouted above the music.
My mom raised her hand in acknowledgment but never looked away from my dad who was making a fool of himself singing like he was Mick Jagger.
My dad, singing like a mad man along to the album, pointed at me and shouted “You can’t always get what you want…”
His screaming impression of Mick Jagger continued as I laughed and fled through the kitchen.
I could still smell the hamburgers we ate that night for dinner. There was a white-painted wooden door out the back with a large knob that was painted to match the door. I turned that knob and opened the door then I shoved the flimsy screen door and it rattled open.
“…ya get what ya need!!!” I heard my dad howl as I stepped outside. I remember not being able to hear the old door close behind me that night. Instead I heard crickets singing in front of me and my dad singing behind me.
The inside of my home fell off behind me and the expanse of the backyard unfolded before me.
I paused on the wooden deck and stood next to a green metal lawn chair while I scanned the yard. When I did that, I always noticed two things pretty fast. The first was that our backyard was always disappointingly empty. We didn’t have a cool shed that some of my friends had; sheds that could double as a cowboy fort or a space ship or a secret hideout. We didn’t own a swing set or a sandbox. We didn’t even have a doghouse or a sleepy hound to look up at me as he napped in said doghouse for that matter. Our backyard usually only had a black Weber grill and a dusty, faded-red lawnmower in it. The other thing I always noticed was that, despite the yards’ emptiness, this backyard was always somehow an amazing place to play.
To my creative little mind, my unfilled yard was a fortress surrounded by walls of evergreens pointing skyward, thick trunks of maple trees and spindly bushes hunched around the boundaries on all three sides. The closely spaced trunks, hanging branches and undergrowth all snuggled together to form hidden pathways that I crawled through and hid in. The rows of woody stemmed shrubs made small spaces and cubbyholes to play in and around.
These green walls were always there protecting our yard from any number of invaders- medieval, Native Americans, Confederate soldiers, World War Two Germans, the Vietcong, or even aliens.
I remember there were two mulberry trees way in the back that we loved to munch from all summer. I also remember the purple stains on the bottoms of my feet for most of the summer from squishing those delicious treats.
But tonight there was something more.
Fall was smothering the lust from summer, so by then dry leaves of all colors covered the ground. Only a few solitary leaves clung to the branches and bushes, making them look like thin, spiked hair. The wind had blown the leaves around the yard but the majority had clumped up against the trees making deep, crunchy drifts. The backyard itself had a few un-raked patches of leaves that looked like small brown islands in a sea of green grass. I always wished my dad would rake those leaves into a pile for me to jump in but the truth is I don’t remember playing in the leaves. My therapist has told me that not being able to remember something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Maybe I jumped and rolled in the raked leaves with my dad maybe I didn’t.
Just about a minute after I went outside, a small boy ducked out from between two bushes along the side yard. It was Rich Cooper. Rich was a real good friend and my next-door neighbor. He had messy black hair and was always grinning. He was holding an orange bucket I knew was stuffed full of little plastic army men.
“Hey, Willy!” his voice was eager with adventure.
I was happy to see him and charged out to greet him.
We walked the short length of the yard and started playing back in one of the corners. Our cove was a shadowy setting beneath the dark purple sky surrounded by trees that looked like dangling skeletons in a dark closet. That sounds frightening, but I didn’t pay any attention to that fact- it was too much fun! We snuggled back into a recess among the bushes and trees then squatted down on the dry leaves. They crunched under us.
Rich dumped the Army soldiers out of the bucket and we started setting troops up all around us, poised in the leaves and behind the sticks.
“The bad guys are coming, Willy! I need back up!”
“I’m coming Rich!” I shouted and started making my little soldiers advance in the leaves. War was declared in our nest as soldiers were running about ambushing each other and radioing in for backup.
We were busy making little machine gun noises and explosions.
It was getting dark fast and hard to see. I looked back toward our house and saw the kitchen was now lit up and the porch light above the deck was on casting off a white circle of light.
The color was draining from the leaves around us until they blended with the shadows and the evening sky. Rich stood up, pulled a red box out from under his shirt, and dropped it in the leaves.
It was a box of wooden matches.
I remember looking down at the small rectangular box and marveling. “Cool!” I quipped with excitement. My superego didn’t start screaming warnings that matches were dangerous or that I should flee; nothing like that at all happened. I was six after all.
We both plopped down in the leaves again around the box like we had just unearthed a treasure chest that we were about to open.
“Let’s try one!” Rich whispered.
Rich slid open the box and pulled out a match. He struck it across the flint. The alcove we were playing in exploded with light and the smell of sulfur was strong. My eyes squinted and when I looked again my friend was holding a wooden match with a brilliant orange ballerina dancing atop the stick.
He was giggling and waving it around.
“Incoming!” he yelled and pretended the match was a missile. He made a huge arc with his arm. It looked like a rocket ship blasting off into the sky, the way he made it soar up.
“You will never get me!” I started making a few of my soldiers retreat. Then he swung his arm back down and the flame was a falling star, bearing down on one of my plastic army guys but it went out.
I started making my machine guns noises again; spit was flying everywhere.
Rich pulled out another match and lit it.
He held the new match against the barrel of a machine gun until it twisted and shriveled into a stinky black stump. It reminded me of the way the wicked witch’s legs curled up when Dorothy’s house fell on her in the Wizard of Oz.
I was smiling in awe. Then the flame went out and it was dark again.
“Lemme do one!” I grabbed the box of matches out of the pile of leaves and yanked the small stick across the side of the box.
“Ahhh” Rich cried as I burned the barrel of a bazooka that one of his soldiers was carrying.
It was so much fun.
Not to be outdone, Rich slid open the little Matchbox and pulled out two of the wooden sticks and he smiled. Rich held the bundle of matches between his thumb and forefinger then grinded the matches across the flint. It was a huge burst of light and it startled us both!
Rich dropped the box.
The small redheaded sticks fell all over our legs and the leaves around us. Many of the matches seemed to vanish right away into the leaves. There must have been hundreds of matches in one of those little red boxes. The scene reminded me of a game we loved called pick-up sticks.
This was no game and those matches looked like a logjam in a leafy river.
We were in that river.
Matches were everywhere.
From what I remember, I watched Rich holding a match that was burning down toward his fingers. The black burnt part twisted like a witch’s finger. We were both still laughing as his tiny fingers that were pinching the flaming torch just stopped squeezing. Maybe it started to burn his fingers, maybe his eyes shifted to marvel at the match mess before us, or maybe he just forgot the match was in his hand. No way of knowing what happened, but time seemed to freeze when that match fell.
Most times a dropped match extinguishes itself on the way to the ground, but not that night.
At first, a single leaf next to his bare foot curled and turned black; smoke rolled out from under it. Then there was a sharp hiss as a new match ignited.
Then orange flames danced through several leaves.
After that, flames spread very quickly. Fire seemed at once to explode all around us as if the scene were a coordinate performance on a stage. The only thing I could think was that an angry dragon, swooping down from the sky, was spraying its fiery breath down on us. Huge balls of fire ignited in the piles of leaves and in the trees.
We were screaming.
I tried to stand but I put my knee on a half melted radioman and it burned so bad I fell over. The plastic soldier was stuck to my knee. It stuck to my hand too when I tried to brush it off, leaving sinews of green plastic going between my hand and knee.
I looked over at Rich through the smoke and growing blaze. For an instant I wasn’t sure what I was seeing: I watched Rich’s bare foot turn orange and seem to dance.
It was like an optical illusion.
The area around us became so hot and so bright I could no longer see Rich but I could still hear him screaming. Screaming seemed to be coming from everywhere. I could hear the terrifying roar of what I was certain was a dragon high above us. I started screaming, I could feel my skin getting hot, and I was sweating all over.
I couldn’t tell which direction I could escape to, I could only see fire.
I craned my neck back and looked up through the bony tree branches into the sky. The night was black. I was trying to see if a dragon was really flying through the sky but I couldn’t find it. I heard it roar several times and saw the arcs of fire so I knew the dragon was still there.
Then through my burning eyes, I saw it for the first time. A huge black dragon with giant pointy wings spread wide, flying overhead. I glimpsed the beast between billows of smoke.
Everything screamed at once: the fire, the trees, the bushes. Everything was bellowing out in protest and pain. I don’t know how many times the dragon attacked us and breathed its horrible fire down on us that night.
I don’t know why the dragon attacked us.
I didn’t know what to do. I was coughing and choking. I could smell leaves and other horrible things burning. I don’t know how long I thrashed in the fire but I was yanked out of the flame-ridden cave and my mom on top of me.
She rolled over me and began slapping me all over my body. It was hard to breathe.
I was screaming and crying. She was screaming and crying too.
I lay in the grass coughing next to my mom. The rest of the world seemed so dark next to the burning corner of our backyard. I looked up at cords of flames curling and climbing up the leafless branches.
I searched the sky for the dragon as I lay on my back but all I saw were the stars and the half moon.
I heard sirens and they were getting louder.
My dad was there as well. He seized my little arm with one of his huge hands, grabbed my mom’s ankle with his other hand, and heaved us free from the hot flames.
People were running everywhere.
That ended the horrible evening of October sixth.
That was my earliest childhood memory.
Somehow I managed to escape any serious burns or injury. Mom said I lost most of my hair. I always pictured my hair looking like one of those horrible, patchy self-haircuts some little kid gave himself while experimenting with scissors for the first time. My mom said she had to give me a buzz.
Rich wasn’t so lucky. He vanished after that night and the Cooper family moved away within the month. My mom explained that Rich was very sick and that they had to move to be closer to the hospital where he was staying since they needed to be there so much. During the first several months, I often asked about what happened to my mischievous little friend that fiery night. My mom just kept saying he was trying to get better.
Our happy little home across from the big blue water tower became a sad little home. We ended up moving just before the Fourth of July that following summer because my dad found a job in Delaware. After we moved, my parents lost touch with the Coopers and I spent the rest of my childhood not knowing what happened to my friend.
Seeing shapes melt,
Watching the earth bleed
Fires in the wild hills,
Children in the tall trees
out of leaves