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BOOKS & THE CULTURE I BY LEE MERRILL BYRD Riley’s Fire 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, imaginationand humorthat 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 permission. All rights reserved. Byrd has also written the Afterword of this issue on writing and lifeand the fire that inspired her remarkable novel. 0 ne 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 facethe 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 housewhich was up in the mountains in Nevadaand 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 grandmotherthe one who always sent twenty-five dollars for his birthday and twenty-five dollars for Christmasand 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 headjust 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 wayand it all made perfect sense: A boy who’d spent his whole life being too big for his agea boy named Riley Martinwas suddenly and without warning sent out on a journey. His adventures were the sort of thing that happened to Wonder Woman \(every 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 rooma life that lacked nothing. Except, possibly, adventureor 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 thingand at that signal, the big boythe one whose size everyone always seemed to have something to say aboutas if he took up more than his share of spaceRiley Martinwithout intending to go anywhere \(though being prepared \(he hadn’t, for instance, This same thing had happened before, he pointed out to the nighttime audience of his imagination. Take, for instance, the spinning wheel of Sleeping 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MAY 19, 2006