Fiction — December 2, 2014 11:07 — 2 Comments

Fires – Jason Sposeto

Years ago, in another life, I woke to look out the smeared window of a Greyhound bus I had been riding all night. Ahead of us on the horizon, there was a red pinprick of light. We were traveling through the countryside on a long two-lane highway and the night was pitch dark—the light was like a match struck in a basement or the glint off an animal’s eyes as it circles a campfire. Several of the passengers from the opposite side of the bus had gathered around and were looking out at the light. One of them, a large, older man smelling of body odor and cologne, had placed his hand on my headrest and was leaning over my seat to get a better view.

As the bus drove closer, we saw that it was firelight. We were still at some distance, but the dimensions of a large building, all ablaze, could just be made out. A plume of black smoke billowed up from the fire and dissolved into the dark of the night sky.

The passengers were talking amongst themselves in a hushed tone:

“I think it must be a barn,” one of them said.

“I’ve never seen a fire so big,” said another.

“Do you hear any sirens? It could be an hour to the nearest town.”

“We should stop and see,” said the man standing over my seat. His voice was deep and gravelly with a smoker’s crackle. It was naturally loud, the voice of someone who is incapable of whispering.

The others fell silent. They looked amongst themselves, silently conferring.

“I’m sure the authorities will be here soon enough,” said a man in a sleep-rumpled navy business suit.

After that, the passengers grew silent, and they all returned to their seats except the man standing above me. I could sense his grip tightening on my headrest as he looked steadfastly at the fire. We were drawing nearer to the blaze.

Finally, the man released his grip and walked down the aisle toward the front of the bus, steadying himself off the overhead luggage compartments. As he reached out his arms, I saw that they were covered in a thick mat of gray hair. His back was stooped slightly with age, but he still appeared solid and strong. He reminded me of my grandfather, who continued to work as a cement mason into his eighties, his body all sinew and gristle, hardened by years of physical labor.

When the man reached the front of the bus, he spoke to the driver:

“I think we should stop. I can hop out for a minute and make sure everything’s all right.”

“We can’t stop,” the bus driver replied without bothering to look up.

“It’ll just take a minute,” the man continued. “I’ll check to make sure nobody’s hurt.”

“I told you we can’t stop. Sit down.”

There was a steely tone in the driver’s voice that seemed to seal his statement from any further debate.

“It’s not like we can do anything. Leave it to the fire department,” the man in the suit said in an agitated tone.

The old man turned to look at us, his fellow passengers, and what he saw did not encourage him. We buried our eyes in our phones or strapped on our sleep masks or forced ourselves to look out at the black landscape rushing by. I saw a glint of panic in the man’s eyes, the look of a cornered animal. Probably, when he was younger he would have reacted differently—he would have found some way to force the bus driver to pull over, using brute force if necessary. Or at least he would have put the man in the suit in his place. But he was older now, and his instincts were not as sure as they used to be.

I sat with my cheeks burning and my teeth clenched. It seemed like the old man was looking only at me. I wanted to stand up and defend him. I wanted to proclaim to the cabin that he was right—how could we drive past a fire like that? But I said nothing. I bored into my seat like a drill into the earth.

The old man’s face grew slack. After a minute, he walked back down the aisle to his seat, and somehow he seemed smaller as he passed.

The bus was quiet for a time. As the sun rose, people began to chatter amongst themselves again. We arrived fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, and my sister was waiting for me at the station. I saw the other passengers hug their families and climb into their cars and drive off. The old man shuffled across the street to the city bus stop. We all returned to our lives without knowing whether anyone had lived or died, whether anyone’s life had been changed irrevocably that night as we drove past, refusing to bear witness.

Later that night, I woke in a sweat. I remembered the bus ride so vividly it was as if I was still there. I saw the fire blazing bright and violent, impossibly red. I saw the old man argue with the driver and then turn to us, and I willed myself through time to stand up. Stand up! But the memory was the same. It burned within me.


Jason Sposeto is currently an MFA student at Pacific University. His work has previously appeared in Satellite Magazine.


  1. Michael Doane says:

    Brilliant, Jason. Very moving.

  2. Charles White says:

    Stumbled on this gem while browsing the archives and immediately brought back memories of my own failures to ‘stand up’. When we read about it in the news, we always tell ourselves that ‘if it was me, I would have done something’, but when the time comes, we all just put on our headphones and sink into our seats. Truly a great piece.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

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