A CHIP ON THE SHOULDER PLANTS A SEED IN THE HEART
“In The Line of Fire”
Once upon a time, my mom and dad brought me to the beach where they were playing Volleyball with their thirty-something year old friends. I marched around the court telling all of the adults where to stand and how to play, passionately commanding they follow the rules and holding anyone accountable who didn’t. I was ten.
After ruining everyone’s time and embarrassing my parents by speaking to my elders as if I, myself, had been one to them, I got the sense my “bossiness” would put people off and make for a rather lonely childhood. That was because I was told my bossiness would put people off and make for a rather lonely childhood. Needless to say, I immediately adjusted my behavior by backing down, shutting up, and following everyone else’s lead.
It was never presented to me that bossiness could be a good thing, suggesting perhaps, I was a natural born leader with a certain skill set that, if embraced and nurtured properly, could contribute to one day being a boss period. Maybe that’s what’s to blame for holding myself back and yielding to such horrible leaders for as many years as I had ever since. Starting with the one in High School…
Tynslee Greene had been dancing since she lived in the womb. Hell, she probably made her way into this world by pirouetting out of her mother’s vagina. She was pretty, popular, a straight A student, and universally admired by her peers and adults. Her family lived in a beautiful estate in one of the most expensive neighborhoods that fed into our High School. Though I never knew what Mr. Greene did for a living, I knew he made enough money to where Mrs. Greene never had to earn one herself. Instead, she devoted most of her time to Day Spas and her family, constructing extravagant crafts, and cooking elaborate recipes that, to everyone else in the pre-Pinterest days, seemed unattainable outside of the pages of Martha Stewart Living. Theirs was the quintessential family everyone wanted to be a part of while simultaneously wanting to kill.
Although Tynslee was Captain of our school’s Dance Company our Junior and Senior year, she wasn’t the best dancer on campus. That title, arguably, belonged to a girl a year younger than us named Jemma Gerrards who, with the flexibility of Gumby and the talent of Maddie Ziegler, had been on Company since her Freshman year. Despite what usually makes one egotistical and stuck up, Jemma was considerably down to earth and approachable. She was liked by everyone - except Mrs. Greene and Tynslee who, I suspect, found Jemma threatening on account of her incredible attitude and aptitude.
This is not a picture of Jemma and me. Nor is it a picture of me in High School. It IS however, a picture of me and a friend after my very first dance recital.
Jemma and I were best friends and something of class clowns, often getting into trouble for pulling pranks and causing disruptions during rehearsals by making jokes and laughing at inopportune times. Unfortunately, this was something that would come to bite us in the ass my Junior year, when Tynslee and her mother hosted the Company’s annual sleepover.
There were almost forty of us crammed into the basement of their home, our sleeping bags littered around the floor between leather couches, a pool table, a big screen TV, and other expensive luxuries rich people often have. After an evening spent getting to know the newest additions to our team and acclimating to our new Captains’ dynamic, most of the girls grew tired and started passing out early. Never one to miss an opportunity, Jemma instantly began brainstorming the different kinds of pranks we could pull once everyone remaining had followed suit.
“We could do the feather and shaving cream trick!” I proposed. “I saw a can of it down here when I was going to the bathroom.”
“No! We should stick their fingers in warm water so they piss themselves in their sleep!” Jemma exclaimed. “AND! We should freeze their underwear so they have nothing to change into in the morning!” We giggled, fully intent on ransacking our fellow dancers overnight bags in search of their under garments.
By one thirty, all but thirteen of us had fallen asleep. While I was fighting my eyelids, Jemma was wrestling with her patience. “When the hell are they going to bed?” she whispered from the sleeping bag beside me. I shrugged and closed my eyes, as if it might somehow influence the insomniacs across the room to do the same. Turns out, us drifting off was exactly what they’d been waiting for.
“Are they asleep?” I heard a girl whisper shortly after. “Should we stick their fingers in warm water?”
My eyes shot open to meet Jemma’s. “You’re not doing that to me!” I said, sitting up.
“Me either!” Jemma exclaimed with her infectious giggle. She immediately confessed our intent to do the same with the extra step of sabotaging some chonies.
“I don’t want my little brother finding girls’ underwear in the freezer,” Tynslee said, voicing concern before ultimately turning down the pitch altogether. “But, I know what we can do!” She rose to her feet and gingerly tip-toed across the room to a utility closet, where she removed a can of lighter fluid. Then, in a hushed whisper, she instructed us to follow her up the basement staircase.
I know - a story about a seventeen year old girl with a can of lighter fluid rarely ends well but this was Tynslee Greene we were talking about. She was perfect! Her record was clean and spotless! Plus, she had just turned down the panty proposal, so I reasoned whatever she had in mind had to be even less harmless than that. I figured, at most, she was probably using a midnight snack on her father’s outdoor grill as a distraction to keep us from breaking any rules and getting into trouble - especially while under her parents' roof - not that we’d be under that roof much longer.
“Wait here,” Tynslee whispered to us when we reached the foyer. She disappeared into the kitchen to retrieve what I could only assume was a pack of filets. After she’d returned, she punched in a code to disarm the security system, and we followed her outside to the front yard. That’s when I noticed, in lieu of cut beef, was the Costco sized book of matches in her hand.
“What are we doing?” I asked, confused.
“Lighting the street on fire,” she said, as if it had been obvious. But, the only thing that had been obvious to me was our then present location - in the middle of a subdivision in the desert with several open and uncleared lots. The notion of starting a fire anywhere was as unfathomable as Tynslee coming up with the idea herself.
“But, the lots…” I cautioned, wondering if she’d failed to notice them every single day of her life, or if maybe, she genuinely didn’t recognize the threat they posed. “What if a tumbleweed blows across the street and a giant ball of fire ends up in someone’s yard or something?”
“That’s not going to happen,” she assured me. “Trust me, when a car pulls around the corner and sees a wall of flames standing in their way, it’s gonna be hysterical. Anyway, I thought you two were all about being funny?” Tynslee threw a quick glance to Jemma who by then had joined me at my side.
“Funny, not stupid,” Jemma replied.
“Look - I wouldn’t do something that could end up hurting the entire company,” she leveled with us. “Let alone with my parents sleeping across the street. And it’s my neighborhood. If I’m not worried, you shouldn’t be worried.” With that, she moved off. Trepidatious, Jemma and I followed her to where the pack of girls were already in the middle of the road waiting.
Neither of us knew what to do. It was nearly 2:00 am in 2001 and anyone under the age of eighteen wouldn’t get an obligatory cell phone from their parents for at least another five to ten years. Plus, telling on our Company’s Captain seemed like a bad idea given Tynslee’s little speech and the nature of the sleepover, which was intended to build trust amongst the dancers. For all I knew, this was Tynslee’s bizarre idea of a team building exercise. And though I wanted no part of it, neither did I want to burn bridges with our Company leader. After all, she was the one who determined how many numbers each dancer got to be in when it came recital time. So, I simply stood back, held my breath, and prayed a gust of wind wouldn’t carry the open flame to the open lot beside us once the fire had been started.
Tynslee began at one sidewalk, pouring lighter fluid across the asphalt until she had reached the other on the opposite side. Then after the line had been drawn, our Co-Captain, Amanda, effectively crossed it, striking a match and tossing it on top of the wet surface beneath her feet. Immediately, flames shot up, just missing Amanda’s face and sending her running back towards the rest of the girls who were dancing around the road like the lunatics they were. Backlit by the
orange glow, I remember it feeling like the “Be Prepared” number in Lion King was playing out in real life before me.
The girls hyena-like laughter abruptly turned into squeals of delight once someone spotted a black Suburban rounding the corner in the distance.
With the fire still raging behind them, everyone ran as fast as they could towards the cul-de-sac where Tynslee’s trusting parents lay asleep in their estate. Jemma and I trailed behind. As soon as we made it back inside the foyer, Tynslee shut the front doors, rearmed the security system, and led us down the stairs to the basement, where we all slipped inside our sleeping bags and pretended as though we’d never left them.
I laid in the darkness with my eyes open, staring at the ceiling and wondering what was going on in the world above me. Had the wind carried an ember to the brush and started a wildfire? Had it pulled one under the unsuspecting car’s engine, causing it to explode into flames and consuming whoever was inside? I wasn’t sure if that was even possible but I couldn’t stop thinking about the myriad of ways Tynslee’s “prank” could have gone horribly wrong. However, in a few short minutes my imagination could rest, as I was about to find out exactly what happened and just who would feel the burn.