Every time, he resisted. But it was like an unbearable itch, burning into him, a need to know that singed his nostrils with smoke.
They were being seated at a restaurant when he saw the waitress recognize him. He held out, keeping his eyes on his plate when she came by, feeling his parent’s stares drilling into him. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your mouth shut. But as she handed them the check she paused and said to him, “You’re that guy, right? The one that went into the fire?”
And it burst out. “Do you think I did the right thing?”
He heard his father’s huff of breath, knew his mother had turned her head away, his sister had shut her eyes, but he kept his eyes fixed on the surprised face of the girl in front of him. She fiddled with her blonde ponytail.
“I mean…you do what’s good for you, right…?” But her eyes avoided the pink, drooping side of his face standing out in high contrast against the rest of his dark skin. “Um. So, anyway, you guys have a good day!”
In the car, his father exploded. “What do you want, Travis, somebody to come and fawn all over you, boy? We moved past that stuff when we moved past all that religious trash. You know the law. You know we don’t judge people no more! You want her to tell you what a good thing you did? You know that’s unhealthy, you know that’s rude as all get out.”
“You need to think about other people.” His mother said, her voice quiet, but hard. “How are you making them feel? Every time you ask that question, and you want praise for your choice, how do you think it makes the ones who chose differently feel?”
He sat in the backseat beside his sister, who had her arms crossed and her jaw stuck out. “I thought you said the counseling sessions were going well,” she snapped. “You’re so embarrassing! That doctor whatever is a quack, Mom.”
“Tessa.” His mother scolded. “The doctor is doing his best.”
Travis stared out the window and remembered smoke and flames.
Six months ago he’d been walking home through a poorer neighborhood. A lot of the houses were historical but their tenants or owners weren’t able to refurbish them to their proper historical glory and had to leave them falling down. He’d smelled the smoke first, a harder, sharper smoke that made his stomach clench in unease. And then he saw her long before he saw the building burning in front of her. She was standing on the sidewalk, bent double, like someone was kicking her in the stomach, and holding onto a crying toddler. “My baby!” She screamed. “My baby!”
On either side of the burning house, her neighbors were quietly hosing down the sides of their own houses, backs towards her pain.
But Travis felt her voice cut into him. She was fear; she was desperation. There was nobody coming to help her, at least not in time. When they passed the Tolerance Law five years ago they had to disbanded the volunteer fire department in favor of a randomly selected, government organized fire department. Response times were notoriously slow. He saw her clutching the toddler’s shoulders, heard her over the crackle of the fire, “Stay here, okay? You stay here! Be a good boy! Mommy will be right back!”
He didn’t even think. He just ran, dropping his backpack as he darted across the street and raced the woman into her own home.
Five minutes he was in the building. He inhaled the smoke. He was set ablaze as a wall burst into flames as he passed. He dropped, rolled and kept going. He found the baby, scooped it up against his chest, and turned and ran.
When he came out into a burst of fresh air there were lights and shouts all around him. He had a dim memory of dingy yellow canvas arms reaching out to pull him to safety. The baby left his arms at some point.
Two things he remembered clearly. One: the neighbor, one of the ones that had been busily hosing his own house down, stood against the white backdrop of the house, surrounded by the deep greens of summer lawn foliage, glaring at him. The depth of loathing on his face made Travis cringe back, stumbling away from him.
Two: They were strapping him onto the stretcher to be taken to the hospital. A head appeared in his vision, blocking the blue summer sky. He couldn’t see the features clearly, but hot tear landed on his face and he knew it was the mother whose child he’d saved. “Thank you,” she sobbed, “Thank you. You’re a hero.”
Those two memories were the clearest pictures that remained in his conscious mind.
The doctors did what they could for his burned face and arm at the hospital, though the mass of pink, burned skin bubbling up from the right side of his face and arm would probably never go away. It would stay with him like a badge, announcing to the world that this boy had ignored the Tolerance Laws.
At night, the flames consumed him again. His mother just cried. His father was silent. What have you done to us? Their silence said. How will we pay these bills? How will you ever get a job, looking like that? You think you were so self-sacrificial, but you never considered us. The guilt settled on him, as painful as the burns contorting his face.
They signed him up for a counselor afterwards. He’d gone into the office feeling hopeful, stuck out his hand to a white man with an untamed head of hair, an aggressive mustache and too many teeth.
“Hey Dr. VanBruen. Nice to meet you, sir.”
But VanBruen only bared all his large teeth at him in what Travis hoped was a smile and said, “We’ll see.”
Unnerved, Travis made his way to the couch and sat in it, instantly enveloped by pillows. It was so cushiony it was uncomfortable and he found it hard to think straight when one of the cushions kept poking him in his sore eye. The couch, it turned out, was the best thing about the counselor.
He had hour long sessions. Each session began with the Reading of the List:
- By my actions, I implied that I was making a better choice than Ms. Carter’s neighbors. [This was how he learned the woman’s name for the first time.] I am sorry for being arrogant and judgmental towards Ms. Carter’s neighbors.
- By my actions, I proved that I do not think about my parents’ needs or show proper appreciation for their efforts to raise me. I am sorry that my actions have caused my parents financial, emotional, and psychological difficulties.
- The choices I make must not destroy other people’s right to choose what’s best for them. This is the principal taught by the Tolerance Law.
Then Dr. VanBruen would start in, expounding on each point until Travis, still woozy from pain meds and poor sleep, would nearly nod off just listening to him. The doctor had him recite the points at the end, and usher him out of the office without even a “Goodbye.”
And Travis would get back in the car and smile at his parents. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Great session.”
The only thing he couldn’t hide were the questions.
He asked over and over again, to anybody who would listen to him. Was it wrong to do something drastic to save someone else? The thing that scared him was that he was angry at those neighbors who took care of their houses while a woman’s child burned. He knew that saving the baby had been terrifying, and dangerous and carried an almost certain chance of self-harm. So what right did he have to feel they had done the wrong thing?
He asked people about it for exactly one year. The last time, he’d been at school, hanging out with his friends and a new guy. They’d been laughing and talking, until Travis noticed the new guy trying not to stare at the pink skin twisting across his face and down his arm. All his friends had stopped talking about Travis’ choice with the fire and he appreciated that, but he couldn’t ignore the thought that this person might have answers for him.
“Hey,” he’d said to the new guy while everyone was talking. He gestured to his face, “You heard the story?”
The new guy nodded, wordless.
“So,” Travis leaned forward and put his elbows on the table, “Should I have done it?”
The new guy looked at him, the corners of his mouth turned down, eyes lidded. The seconds ticked by. Travis felt his ears growing hot as the other boy just stared at him, expressionless.
He finally spoke, his voice cold. “All I see here is an ignoramus who wants everybody to feel sorry for him because he made a bad decision.”
Travis didn’t ask anybody questions after that. It was too easy to be misunderstood, he told himself, and it wasn’t something he should dwell on. So he said what his counselor wanted him to say, he smiled, he made choices that validated other’s life choices, and he tried not scream when he woke up from a nightmare about burning to death.
His scars were healing. His face was still gnarled, but it faded from a raw meat pink to something closer to his own skin tone. Everything was returning to normal. He’d accepted reality, he’d taken responsibility for his actions. As he passed his parent’s room one night, he heard his mother’s voice through the door, “I’m so glad he’s gotten over that. I guess every kid gets into some kind of trouble, right? It’s such a relief he’s getting past it.”
Almost before he realized he’d done it, he stretched his face into his best attempt at a pleasant, well-adjusted smile and walked on past.
That spring his father talked him into co-coaching the first grader’s baseball team together. Travis agreed—it was nice that his father wanted to do something with him again instead of just be embarrassed. He was a good coach, and he enjoyed it.
One evening, as the sky went purple and the peepers began to sing, Travis walked into the restroom area after a practice. He stopped before coming around the corner as he saw his entire baseball team clustered around the snack machine. The plastic cover was off and each boy was taking a handful of candy bars or chips from the inside of the machine—all but one.
“Guys,” dweeby little Nathan Dreer squeaked, “We shouldn’t do this! It’s wrong!”
One of the taller boys, their first baseman, swung around to glare at Nathan, “Okay, first of all, dumbo, if we don’t get caught it’s not wrong. And secondly, who made you the one who can decide what’s right and wrong for us?”
Nathan stuck his chin out. “I don’t care. It’s wrong!”
The first baseman lifted his fist. “I’ll show you wrong, you little—”
Travis stepped around the corner and the boys froze in tableau. In the back, someone hissed, “You’re gonna get it now, Nathan!”
The first baseman straightened up and pointed a finger at Nathan. “He’s trying to force me to do what he wants!”
Travis looked at them, their angry faces, their muddy uniforms. He jerked his head over his shoulder. “All of you, get out. Time to go home. Nathan, stay a moment.”
They filed out, several boys snickering or glaring at Nathan as they stuffed candy bars in their pockets.
Then they were gone, leaving Nathan alone in the restroom hallway, clutching his hands in front of him. Travis’ dad would have reminded Nathan of the Tolerance Law, talked about how important autonomy was, how selfish and low it was to take that right away from people. He’d talk about respecting others choices and protecting other’s rights. He’d sound real good and patriotic.
Travis knelt down on one knee in front of Nathan and looked the boy in the eye.
“Listen,” Travis said, glancing over his shoulder quickly, “Don’t tell anybody, but—what you did just now—it was right. It was good. I’m proud of you. Don’t you let anybody tell you something else, okay? A lot of people believing something’s right—it doesn’t make it right.”
Nathan’s mouth fell open. Travis got up, still glancing over his shoulder. “Now, if anybody asks, I chewed you out big time, right? Go on, get out. I think your mom’s here to pick you up.”
His face lighter, Nathan scampered out. Travis followed him and stood in the archway watching the boys cluster around the field gate as their parents pulled into the parking lot. He ran a finger over the deformed whorls and pock marks on his face and stepped onto the field to go help his Dad clean up the dugout.