Riley Martin, the protagonist of Lee Merrill Byrd’s debut novel, is an oversized, 7-year-old boy—”adventurous, inquisitive, talkative”—with third-degree burns over 63 percent of his body, the result of an experiment with gasoline and a match. Set in the original Shriners Burns Institute in Galveston, Riley’s Fire is a beautifully written story of pain, grace, imagination—and humor—that took decades for the El Paso author and publisher to write. The Observer is pleased to present the following excerpt from Riley’s Fire by Lee Merrill Byrd copyright 2006 (Algonquin Books), reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Byrd has also written the Afterword of this issue (“Waiting,” on page 31), a meditation on writing and life—and the fire that inspired her remarkable novel.
One afternoon between visiting hours, when Carnell Hughes was asleep and Melvin Pitts was down in the playroom and Parker MacGwyn was off somewhere with the physical therapist exercising his ankle, a lady named Marilyn Hooper came to visit Riley.
Marilyn Hooper told Riley that she was the hospital’s psychiatrist and that she had already met his mother and father and she had heard a lot about Riley and had wanted to come meet him and had even stopped by to see him on many different occasions but that he’d often been asleep or the room had been full of company and so she had waited. She was glad he was by himself.
Marilyn Hooper told Riley that she knew all there was to know about fire because she and her whole family had been in one. Riley could see that was true because there was something about her arms and part of her face—the skin was ripply and many different colors—that made his stomach a little shaky.
Marilyn Hooper told Riley about looking out of the window of her house—which was up in the mountains in Nevada—and seeing the forest fire coming toward them in such a way that there was no escape. I felt real scared, Marilyn Hooper said. I felt like I was going to die, except that my husband found a way for us to get out, one of us at a time. When our two sons got out, there was fire on their clothes and that made me really scared. There must have been fire on my clothes, too, but I didn’t pay attention, I didn’t care, because I was only worried about the boys. And then there was a neighbor driving by in his truck and he saw us and came and got us—
Marilyn Hooper said that the easiest part of the whole fire to go through was getting out. Everything else was really hard: the hospital, the doctors, the nurses, the tubs, the physical therapy, going back home. I cried whenever I saw the tub men coming, Marilyn Hooper said.
Marilyn Hooper asked Riley how he felt about the tubs and he said they were okay and told her the joke about God’s first name, though she didn’t seem to get it either and said she’d have to get Jackson and Johnson to explain it to her and then she asked him if she could show him how to breathe when he saw the tub men coming. She made him shut his eyes and think about being in a place that made him really happy and right away without hardly thinking, he thought about being on the beach in Lavallette sitting next to his New Jersey grandmother—the one who always sent twenty-five dollars for his birthday and twenty-five dollars for Christmas—and his mother, with the water lapping up around his feet and the warm sun and sand all around him. And then Marilyn Hooper told him to get himself very comfortable in that happy spot and to keep it carefully in his mind and then to breathe very slowly, back and forth, back and forth.
Riley must have fallen asleep because the next thing he remembered was Marilyn Hooper saying, So what about your fire, Riley? Do you want to talk about that?
He shook his head—just a little. He was resting there on the beach in Lavallette with his mother and grandmother and wasn’t ready yet to go anywhere else.
But that night, just before he fell asleep, Riley explained things to himself this way—and it all made perfect sense: A boy who’d spent his whole life being too big for his age—a boy named Riley Martin—was suddenly and without warning sent out on a journey. His adventures were the sort of thing that happened to Wonder Woman (every afternoon at five) or the Six Million Dollar Man (reruns at six).
He hadn’t really intended to go anywhere. He was just fine where he was in his house on Louisville Street in El Paso: okay mother, okay father, his own wonderful dog, a grandma off in Memphis who sent twenty dollars on his birthday, that second grandma in New Jersey who sent twenty-five, his best friend Greg up the block, a TV in the living room—a life that lacked nothing. Except, possibly, adventure—or otherwise, obviously, there would have been no need for him to go anywhere.
The signal for him to get up and start moving was a match. He lit it himself—he’d thought about it before, he just wanted to see what would happen, just a test, that sort of thing—and at that signal, the big boy—the one whose size everyone always seemed to have something to say about—as if he took up more than his share of space—Riley Martin—without intending to go anywhere (though maybe he really did), without really being prepared (he hadn’t, for instance, told Greg)—set out on his journey.
This same thing had happened before, he pointed out to the nighttime audience of his imagination. Take, for instance, the spinning wheel of Sleeping Beauty. Sleeping Beauty, whose incredibly perfect story he had heard on his tape player at home many times, had also taken a journey. It was a clear-cut one, its course set at birth because her parents didn’t want to invite the Bad Fairy to Sleeping Beauty’s christening. Because they couldn’t put up with a little trouble and inconvenience—a weakness, he thought, similar to the one his own parents sometimes had—Sleeping Beauty had a destiny. That’s what the tape called it. A destiny: at the age of sixteen, she would fall into a deep sleep from the prick of a needle on a spinning wheel.
Now. Here was the deal (Riley put out his hand flat to ward off any comments from his imaginary audience): no matter what Sleeping Beauty’s parents did to prevent her from meeting her destiny, she was drawn to that needle like nobody’s business. There is no way to get around a destiny—Riley narrowed his almost sleeping eyes and whispered out loud, sounding just like the cackling Bad Fairy on the tape. The emphasis on that remark was for his parents who, Riley was sure, probably didn’t see things the way he did. He was sure they had tried to prevent his destiny just like Sleeping Beauty’s parents had tried to prevent hers: told him a hundred times not to play with matches, told him a hundred times that fire was dangerous, kept matches and gasoline hidden away in the garage. But it hadn’t done any good.
The fire had called him, just as sure a thing as the needle on Sleeping Beauty’s spinning wheel—the match was lit and the journey began. Out he went, no questions asked, coming to Galveston by plane, arriving at the hospital in an ambulance—swollen, wrapped in bandages, carried high on a stretcher into the Acute Ward by two black men he had never seen before in his lifetime, the same black men who turned out to be his friends, the tub men, Jackson and Johnson.
And the hospital was a new country, as dark and foreign as any Treasure Island Jim Hawkins had ever sailed to, full of noises and crying like nothing he’d dreamed of before—a secret harbor of pain where his ship had surely dropped anchor. And because he was now one of its citizens, Riley, when he began to get better, explored every inch of it.
He knew the Acute Ward intimately, its fifteen beds—some full, some not. He knew every person who was there—when they came, how they’d gotten burned, how long they were going to stay, and when they left. A baby had died in Room 315 just the week before—her mother had put her in a tub of scalding water. While she was dying all the kids had to go down to the playroom and stay until the doctors had done everything they could—it gave him the willies just thinking about it.
He knew what the doctor said about each kid and what their parents were like—the mother of the boy in Room 317 took drugs—Parker’s mother said so. That very day Mr. Loflin had told him about a new girl who they put right away in isolation. An airplane had crashed into her house and killed her best friend who was lying right next to her on the floor watching TV—the story was on the news all day. Her name was Rachel.
Riley didn’t know the Reconstruction Ward—with its fifteen more beds and horrifying inhabitants in various stages of repair—as well as he knew the Acute Ward. This was mostly because the Reconstruction Ward was on the other side of the hospital, and Riley—from the Acute Ward—was a stranger there, an intruder of sorts, not comfortable walking around visiting like he did on the Acute Ward. The Reconstruction kids were mostly older than Riley and harder to know because they only came into the hospital for a week or two at a time to get work on old grafts or to get ears or fingers or noses.
The tub men told him all about it. When you came in for reconstruction, they said, the first day was surgery, then the next few days you laid in bed recovering. But just as soon as they could, the Reconstruction kids went down and played pool in the playroom and/or ran up and down the halls. Ohhhhh, they full of energy! the tub men said—Riley saw their heads flying past the windows of Room 312.
Sometimes he took the back way down to the playroom, which went along one side of the Reconstruction Ward, trying to stare in and see what he could see. If one of the kids there caught Riley’s attention—and they always did—all he would have to do was ask the tub men or Mr. Loflin about them—mentioning the color of their skin or what body part was missing—and one or the other of those three men would cheerfully provide complete details.
Riley also knew all the rooms going down to the surgery room and then the surgery room itself—though he was usually half-asleep by the time he got there—and the playroom and the tub room on the first floor with its two joking—and sometimes frightening—attendants.
But his favorite place was the clinic on the second floor that on Tuesdays and Thursdays was filled with the most fascinating kids—all shapes and sizes and colors, bandaged and pinned together, missing arms and legs and noses, with contorted lips or strange outcroppings of skin—wounded soldiers in a complex battle, coming in twice a week for the sole purpose of fueling and confounding Riley’s intense imagination. He wandered among them, staring at them as fully and unabashedly as if he were the doctor, and at night they fairly populated his dreams.
I am their hero!
Yes. In the daytime, Riley supposed it might appear—to the naked eye—that he was just a powerless ten-year-old—though he was really only seven—who wore a brown elastic hood over a white plastic mask that covered his face, who had his arms and legs wrapped in splints and ace bandages, who was totally under the control of his mother—who sat by his bed all day long—and at the mercy of his roommates.
But—night was another thing. At night his body knew no bounds. Parker and Melvin and Carnell had no idea where he went to—to their dim eyes and clouded minds it appeared that his too-big body just lay there in bed. But at night—ah!—at night his enemies were in peril of their lives.
For example: There were people in El Paso—sixth graders!—who always lounged around on the porch and steps of the house two doors down from his house, talking and laughing. They used to call out Baby Baby Baby when they saw Riley and laugh at him when he fell off his bike and cried and they used to make fun when he and Greg—his very best friend in all the world—skipped down the street holding hands.
But, at night, those same horrible boys came crawling up to Riley to bawl out their shame. Forgive us, they cried, putting their heads down on Riley’s tennies, grabbing his ankles, black tears of sorrow and remorse spilling down their faces, snot pouring out of their noses and running into their mouths, slobbering. Riley Riley Riley please forgive us, they begged, we didn’t know you and Greg were such wonderful boys. Such big boys yourselves—not babies at all. Won’t you play with us?
Call me Riley Martin, he told those horrible sixth-grade boys in the midnight hours and he didn’t give them an inch of compassion. Of course, he wouldn’t play with them! And then he and Greg—but not Greg’s cousin Jason—heaven forbid!—would single-handedly force those boys to sit down on the steps of their house and they would make them promise that they would never laugh at them ever again. Ever! And then they would make those horrible, lazy boys—sweep the sidewalk!—so that Greg and Riley could skip down it without ever falling on a rock and ride their bikes and it would all be smooth sailing.
At night Greg was there with Riley in his dreams, his loyal henchman—the Tonto to his Lone Ranger, the Robin to his Batman—and together they took over the universe.
One glorious night, in fact, Riley ripped off his clothes—just like Superman—to save everyone in the clinic and the hospital from a hurricane. The storm was coming in from the ocean, tearing off the tops of the palm trees, slamming against the plate-glass windows, howling and crying down through every room. It had been on the news all day. Greg held Riley’s ace bandages and rubber face mask and elastic hood while he, golden horns spouting from the top of his head, cape aflutter, shattered the eye of the storm with one blow of his blazing ax. The little kids on the Acute Ward and the older boys and girls in Reconstruction, sometimes haughty toward Riley in the day—not even paying attention to him when he asked to play pool—especially when he was with Melvin—they seemed to have something against him—and he knew they didn’t like Melvin—spoke of his deeds all up and down the nighttime halls.
Avast ye hearties, they whispered through their bandages, have you heard about our matey, Riley? And Parker MacGwyn ordered the doctors to have an ice-cream party in the playroom so everyone could clap and sing to Riley. They lined up to shake his hand AND they cheered like crazy when he walked in the room AND they laid down their pool sticks at his feet.
Another night, Riley banished Melvin Pitts to the outer limits beyond the world of Room 312. His very best friend Greg, who had never met Melvin Pitts in real life, held the door open so he, Riley, could boot Melvin out of the hospital forever. Parker MacGwyn called in the tub men and the nurses—sweeping his hand around the room to show them how Riley had cleaned out all its disturbing elements—and handed over control of the remote to Riley.
Lee Merrill Byrd lives in El Paso, where she and her husband run Cinco Puntos Press. Her most recent book is Riley’s Fire (Algonquin Press). She will be reading and signing books at BookPeople in Austin on June 7 at 7 p.m.