There were fireworks over the lake last summer like every summer I could remember before that. It seemed like our whole town had come out, with their plastic lawn chairs crowded along the muddy shore, the water lapping up steadily in the darkness. I had seen better firework shows, but for our rural town on the Fourth of July it was spectacular.
That particular summer the fireworks seemed to drag on. The light of the explosions seemed dull. The feeling of wonder was long gone. I instinctively pulled out my phone from my jacket pocket, my eyes slowly adjusted to the brightness of the screen. I scanned my social media feeds mindlessly. How did my friends always seem to have perfect hair at the beach I would never know, and how did they seem so happy, so together, lounging in their stars-and-stripes bikinis? With each resounding boom of the fireworks my longing to be anywhere but where I was increased.
From my peripheral I could see my Dad gazing upwards, the explosions illuminated his face in the chair next to me. I scrolled. I closed my phone. I fidgeted, the woven plastic chair pinching my thigh. I turned it back on. I scrolled. It is not hard for me to imagine looking over at my Dad and seeing one of his big goofy childlike smiles, the type that was contagious, the look of pure joy in his eyes. But I would never know for sure. Maybe he watched somberly. Maybe somehow he knew it would be his last holiday with his daughter.
My Dad was cremated before I had flown home. Apparently those were his wishes, unbeknownst to me. I arrived to find a small box on my childhood dining room table next to a vase of drugstore flowers that had left a watery ring on the table. What had been my childhood home, my Dad’s house I visited on holidays, my safe space, was now overrun by distant relatives, family friends I had long lost contact with, and people that were complete strangers to me but apparently were not to my Dad. They must have seen my eyes widen as I saw the box; their murmurs hushed. As if my Dad’s death wasn’t enough of a shock, now the box.
It felt fake. At that moment everything in my life felt fake. All that was real, that was good and true in my life had been overshadowed by what was truly the fake reality. A social media driven reality that I had allowed to manipulate me. It coerced me to constantly embrace it and give it my continuous attention. I accepted it’s indoctrination. I believed in it. I gave power to the meaninglessness. I let it measure success, my worth, the quality of my connections. I let it consume me.
If all was purged what would be left would be the undeniable. The fire was real. The cold was real. I burned the city to feel singed, to know that I was alive, to know what was real.
At the bottom of the staircase was a sea of flames, I would have to find another way out. As I turned to go back up, the staircase gave way. The fire had weakened the structure. I jumped forward as it started to collapse landing hard on my knees. Surrounded with flames I wrapped my blazer around my head and rushed forward. I reached a pocket of space not yet burned. It was the entrance of the building. I quickly pulled off my blazer as the flames spread over it and my pants that were also burning and threw them into the fire behind me. My skin burned, the soles of feet blackened and oozing. The pain was all encompassing and yet felt distant I could feel my heart pounding.
I pressed my hands against the hot glass doors at the entrance of the building, it didn’t move. Then I saw the metal door that was used to lock the building overnight were pulled in front of them. Someone had closed it, the oversized lock glared back at me through the glass. With all the force I could muster I slammed my body hard against the door, my hands smearing blood on the glass. I struggled to breath. The door did not move.
A deafening crack of the fire behind me, the heat grew more intense on the back of my neck. I dropped to my knees and gasped for air. On the sidewalk outside was the cocker spaniel curled up in the shelter of the building asleep, a mix of ash and snow on his thick coat. I breathed in the hot ash and tried not to cough but to breathe slowly. In the reflection of the glass I looked into my own eyes framed with flickering flames. For the first time I thought they looked like my Dad’s, strong and calm.