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A. J. Sweeney

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AJ Sweeney

by A.J. Sweeney

They said you could light the creek on fire.

That summer was the hottest I could remember but the heat didn't have anything to do with what happened, they said. It was because of the oil spill, and the mayor went on TV and talked about it and everything. But he didn’t call it a spill; he called it a “leak.”

I could hear the newscast from our room, long after dad had said, “Go to bed, boys.” Jesse and I lay in our bunks playing Sailor. Sailor was a code name. We had lots of code names. Stealing candy bars from the corner deli was Packing A Wallop. Skipping out after lunch was a Double Feature.

But Sailor was the game we played at night. The blue TV light flickered through the crack under the door and it all must have stayed with me as I fell asleep, because when I finally did, I dreamed of water on fire.

In my dream it was the Upper Bay that was on fire, and the fire came from a raging battle. I watched from the Queensboro Bridge as the water turned red and burst into flame. Rusted ships screamed against each other with the clash of metal as they crashed, and guns and bombs rained fire. A lone sailor stood on the deck of one of the ships, commanding his armies to their deaths. The sailor wore a tattered shirt and too-short bellbottoms; his face was covered with a ragged, brown beard. He looked at me over the expanse of the water and his eyes were wild and bloodshot. I woke up suddenly and sweat-soaked, and lay there listening to the whir of the fan on high.

I was quiet at breakfast, watching condensation form on the carton of milk, the glasses of juice, and on our bowls of cereal.  A drop of it dripped off the lip of the milk carton and landed on the tablecloth, turning its pale blue a dark, wet navy. The cereal box was damp and withered from the humidity.

"Let's go see the creek," Jesse said. 

We walked over the train tracks and down 53rd Avenue, looking at the girls in their tube tops and short-shorts. We liked to play butt bingo, counting letters every time we saw a girl's ass hang out. Ass-cheek was a letter; so was cleavage, butt cleavage, and exposed midriffs. It seemed like every five seconds one of us was getting a boner and we'd have to stop and face the wall, laughing. I got ice from the deli and put it down my pants and we laughed our asses off because it looked like I peed myself. We showed my damp boner to Clive, the retarded kid down the street, and he started howling. We loved Clive, competing to make him laugh. It wasn't hard because Clive would laugh at an armpit fart.

The heat was bad enough as it was, but once you got within fifty feet of the canal, it was like walking directly behind the exhaust pipe of a city bus. It felt like I imagined the jungles would feel in Vietnam with all the Napalm and stuff, even though I’m not 100% sure what Napalm is. I was about to say that it would be cool to play War here but Jesse said, "We should bring some beers down here tonight." Said it like he did it all the time. Jesse's dream in life was to get girls to drink beer with us.

The water’s edge was cordoned off but it was just police tape. We walked right under it -- there were no guards or anything.

The water was thick and brown, like paint. Jesse lit a match and threw it. It really did burn. The flames were very low, small and blue, licking the top of the water. You could hardly tell it was on fire, except for the heat waves shimmering in the air. I kind of wished the flames would be huge, fifty-foot walls of fire. It wasn't the inferno I expected, but it was still awesome.

"This sucks," said Jesse, "Let's go."

We spent the rest of the day farting around the neighborhood, looking at girls. Damien Conners and his friends started playing Frisbee on Jackson Street and they chucked it at our heads until we left. Connors always picked on us because we were small and skinny and we had red hair. The ginger twins they called us. That was bullshit because our hair was starting to turn brown, and we are fourteen months apart.

We went home and I tried to work my dream into our comic book. Jesse did the drawings and I masterminded the story and all the dialogue. I decided that the character from our game Sailor was going to be a Greek named Kristos Bustos, but he was really Satan in disguise. Jesse wanted to make him red, with horns and stuff, but I just wanted him to look like an ordinary sailor.

"If we just draw a sailor, nobody will know who it's supposed to be," Jesse said.

“They will,” I practically shrieked.

Jesse glowered and said, “This is stupid kid’s stuff anyway. This is why we never get any chicks, because you’re still into stupid kid’s stuff.”

“How can it be kid’s stuff?  Comic books are all written and illustrated by adults,” I said.

Comic books are all written and illustrated by adults,” he mocked. “No wonder people think we’re dorks. It’s because of you.”

I wondered if that was true. Maybe Jesse could hang out with the cool kids and drink beer with chicks if it wasn’t for me. I erased hard and the paper started to pill. It didn’t matter. Jesse couldn't get the arms right anyway.

We stayed up late and watched the 11 o’clock news with Mom and Dad. Mom bitched about getting an air conditioner.

"Dave Nelson, you're a cheap bastard," she said to Dad.

Which was funny because she was the one into ecology and all that stuff, and Dad called her a hypocrite and then she couldn't think of anything else to say to that.

"Men always win arguments because of their superior logic," Dad said and Mom swatted him.

The news was still all about the oil spill. “Newton Creek is the most polluted body of water in the world,” they said, “followed by the Gowanus Canal.”

"The Go-anus Canal," Jesse called it in front of our folks.

"Go to bed or I'll sign you up for computer camp," Dad said.

Once we were in our rooms, I still wanted to play Sailor, but Jesse got mad and told me to shut up and go to sleep.

It was way too hot to sleep. I tossed around for a bit, then got up around quarter to four. Jesse was gone.

"Jess," I whispered. I went to look for him. I went to the kitchen and opened the fridge, letting the door stay open longer than it needed to. I took the juice out of the fridge and poured myself a huge glass in my Han Solo Collectible Cup from Burger King. No one was allowed to touch my collectible cups.

I opened the window to the fire escape. He wasn't out there either. The street was quiet. It was almost cool outside. There was a little breath of freshness to the air. He went to the creek, I realized. (“How did you know?” they would ask me later. I can’t say how I knew. I just did.) I wondered if he went there with beers and girls. I imagined him meeting girls out on the street, being cool, going to the corner deli where, in my fantasy, they didn't care about ID, and taking them to the creek.

I followed him.

The barriers were still unguarded and the police tape was mostly torn away; everything looked abandoned and bombed-out, looked like a war movie.

"Jess, you here?" I called softly. I couldn't find him. I saw a metal shell on the ground -- it looked like a shell anyway. Shrapnel. I kicked it and started messing around, pretending I was on the battlefield. "Sh-ttt-tt," I made the sound effects of a machine gun. "G-sh!" A grenade going off. The shore was a minefield. I took cover by an iron girder, ducking behind it to keep an eye on the V.C. I looked around. It was kind of weird to be playing out there alone. Jesse was probably drinking beers somewhere. I had to find him.

I walked the length of the shore. Looking at the water gave me the shivers. I imagined falling off the edge. What would happen if I fell in? Would the pollution burn my skin off? Would I choke on the oil? My foot slipped a little. There was some loose shale by the pilings. I pulled my foot back from the edge, and then I saw him.


He stood a little ways down the shore, staring down into the creek.

“Hey!” I called.

He looked at me. I started to walk toward him when I realized he wasn’t alone. He was with the man from my dream. The man, up close, was scrawny and scabby looking.

“Get away from him! Jesse get away from him!” I screamed.

Jesse looked all around as though he couldn’t see anyone there.

The man disappeared. And then so did Jesse.

But by the time I got to where he’d been standing, the thick bubbles in the surface of the water had almost stopped burbling. I dropped to my knees to look; there was nothing but darkness. He was gone.

And that’s when I lit the creek on fire.

I watched as the water began to glow with low blue flames. It looked like a TV flickering. One match, a small blue flame. Another match, a brighter glow. Another match, another match, another match. More and more, brighter and brighter, the water changing from blue to red. I could see him down there, floating, one pale arm reaching thinly up through the water – but no, the water was black. I saw nothing. I remember nothing. I don’t remember what I saw. His eyes, red – no, I saw nothing. I did not see the ragged man again, he was gone, his burning eyes were all burned up, and nothing but flame remained.

It is strange that I had matches in my pocket. I don’t remember bringing them.

The sun had started to rise by the time I got home and mom and dad were freaking out. "I went to look for Jesse," I told them, and they looked at each other with panicked eyes.

We called the police and they dredged the creek but I knew it was too late. By that time Jesse would be incinerated, cremated, dissipated by the chemical stew. Police and reporters swarmed around our building and Mom cried a lot. “Why did you do it?” she kept asking. “Why did you go down there?”

I kept trying to tell her -- he went there first.

The police asked me a bunch of questions. "Did your brother go down here," they asked. "I don't know." "Why did you come here last night?" "I was looking for him." "Did he say he was planning to come here?" "No." "Why did you come to the bridge." "I don't know." I heard them muttering to themselves. "Dredging the fucking canal and the fucking canal's on fire."

“It’s not a canal, it’s a creek,” I said.



I was watching Knight Rider when I saw mom and dad talking about me in the kitchen. I know what they were talking about because they kept looking over at me.

I got up from the couch, walked over to the kitchen, and took a beer out of the fridge right in front of them. They looked at me. They didn't know what to do. Let them look. Let them wait. I wonder if they'll ever know. I wondered if I should tell them Jesse was never coming back but I thought I'd let them try to figure it out for themselves.

That night I worked on the comic book, adding a prologue about why Kristos Bustos looked like an ordinary sailor (you know why it is now, Jesse – didn’t I tell you?). I decided was going to make him the main character. The comic book is my work of art now. I can create the characters, I can destroy them.

Clive is the only person I tell. Clive understands things better than 99% of people I know. We’re working on the comic together. He just colors and traces because he can’t draw but he never argues with me about the story and he still laughs at all my jokes. I’m starting to get attached to Clive. And his parents are pleased that I am with him. He spent so much time alone, they said.




A.J. Sweeney lives with her husband in Brooklyn, New York, across the street from a cemetery and a high-voltage ConEd substation. She hopes that one day, maybe during a thunderstorm, this combination will result in some really cool zombie action. Her writing can be found on her website and on her blog at