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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

Out of State

               Chester was on his way to buy fireworks from the tent in the Diamond Foods parking lot when he noticed an “Out-of-State Fireworks” banner hanging over the entrance of a storefront in his neighborhood that had been vacant for over a year. While waiting for the traffic light to change so he could turn left into the lot, Chester tried to determine if the store was open. The only occupied parking space was the one farthest from the door. There were no signs indicating openness or closedness displayed anywhere. The ferocious brightness of the day cast such a glare on the storefront windows that Chester could not see if anyone was moving around inside.

               But it was early evening on July 3rd, so any place interested in selling fireworks would have to be open now, right? And it was so close to Chester’s house; if the store was open, it would shave 20 or 30 minutes off this errand’s overall duration, which would mean missing less of the baseball game on TV. Worth checking out, at least. The light changed, Chester turned into the lot, and he parked his van in the best available spot, which was the best possible spot since all the spots were available except for the worst spot.

A sign taped to the inside of the glass front door read, “Out-of-State Fireworks Retailer Officially Sanctioned by the Multioak Fire Department.” Chester had not seen such a sign posted at any other location at which he’d ever purchased fireworks. Entering the store, Chester scorched his fingers on the door’s metal handle. A bell overhead tinkled so softly that Chester thought he may have imagined it until he looked up and confirmed that there was indeed a bell dangling there. The fireworks selection appeared modest at best: ten folding tables arrayed with a motley assortment of sparklers, fountains, rockets, and firecrackers, none of which were sorted by type. Other than the indifferently-displayed merchandise, the room was bare. Nothing on the walls, not even a desk for transactions, just a cash box on the floor next to a stack of folded paper sacks next to the only other person in the store, presumably the proprietor, presumably the owner of the truck in the farthest parking space. He was short, stocky and bony at the same time. He wore shorts and a t-shirt of the exact same shade of gray. Chester tried to remember if he’d ever before seen someone selling fireworks without wearing a single article of clothing that could be interpreted as patriotic. The man’s hair was fixed in place with a generous helping of gel, but why had he fixed it in that place? “Good evening,” said the man, lifting a hand in a gesture almost like a wave. The calluses on his fingers and palm were visible from across the room. “Are you looking to buy some out-of-state fireworks?”

               “I’m looking for fireworks, yeah,” said Chester. “Looks like you have…some.” He didn’t mean to sound dismissive of what the man had on offer, but Chester was unimpressed. But Chester didn’t need much, his kids were young, they’d be impressed with almost anything. He wasn’t trying to compete with the neighbors, he wasn’t trying to show off. He was looking for maybe 20 minutes of intermittent action before sending Olive and Robbie inside slightly later than usual to begin their extensive bedtime routine with his wife.

               “Do you want a sack?” asked the man. He made a tiny movement toward the sack stack, a prelude to a bend.

               “Yeah, I’ll take one,” said Chester. He crossed the room and waited as the man executed his bend, took the top sack from the stack, and shook it open. As Chester accepted the sack, he noticed another shorter stack of papers behind the stack of sacks. The text on the top paper was too small and cramped for Chester to read from his vantage point, but the intermittent name-and-date-length blanks made it look like some kind of official document. Chester guessed these were the forms for liars such as himself and all other fireworks purchasers to sign promising to take their purchased fireworks out of state, thereby absolving the seller of responsibility when none of his customers took their purchased fireworks out of state. Chester remembered a time when you could still legally get some pretty decent stuff to set off in-state, but now the approved list was down to sparklers and a few firecrackers that did little more than pop or puff colored smoke, not sufficient to entertain even his easily-impressed children. And no, he wasn’t trying to compete with his neighbors, but he wasn’t trying to make himself into a laughingstock either.

               “Select whatever you want to buy,” said the man. “Put it in the sack, then bring the sack back here to me, you can sign your paperwork, and then we’ll settle up.”

               Chester nodded. One good thing about the limited selection was that the shopping process wouldn’t take long, couldn’t take long. Chester started at the table to the proprietor’s left and moved clockwise around the room selecting items. The prices were reasonable. Chester mostly chose fountains, they’d be bright and colorful but less dangerous than rockets. Olive was probably old enough to light a few fireworks now as long as she was under close supervision. She’d get a kick out of that. Sparklers wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the kids on their own, but they felt like a necessary component for any kind of July 4th celebration, so Chester threw some of those in the sack as well. After maybe five minutes, Chester returned to the man with his sack no more than a quarter full.

               “Got what you needed?” asked the man.

               Chester shrugged. “Sure.”

               The proprietor took the sack from Chester, set it on the floor behind himself as if shielding it from Chester with his body, and began a bend toward the documents before instead opting for a crouch. As Chester accepted the document from the man, he was surprised to see that the piece of paper was printed both front and back.

               “Wow,” said Chester, turning the paper over. “This looks pretty detailed.”

               “It’s standard,” said the man. He sounded defensive. “This is the form. I’m an out-of-state fireworks retailer officially sanctioned by the Multioak Fire Department. I can’t help it if other places don’t bother to get officially sanctioned, don’t follow the law. Here? At my store? I follow the law, and this is what the law says you need to fill out.”

               “I don’t have a pen,” said Chester.

               “The law doesn’t require that I provide a pen for you,” said the man. “That’s not one of the stipulations for being an out-of-state fireworks retailer officially sanctioned by the Multioak Fire Department.”

               Chester almost laughed. “All right, but I’m just saying, I can’t fill this out unless you lend me one. So if you want to make a sale here, I either need to borrow a pen or else you’ll have to let me go without filling out the form.”

               “You have to fill out the form to buy the fireworks,” said the man. “I have to be certain that you’re going to take them out of state before you set them off.” He rubbed his cheek with the tips of two adjacent fingers on his left hand. It looked like a self-soothing technique. “I will loan you a personal pen of mine,” he finally said.

The pen turned out to be tucked into the waistband of his shorts on the back side of his right hip. It appeared to be very cheap. Chester could not imagine why the man was so reluctant to share it. While the man watched over him, Chester cleared a spot on the nearest table and began to fill out the form. The top part of the front page was straightforward, the kind of stuff Chester filled out every year around the 4th of July, the same white lies everyone told to get their preferred fireworks home for their celebrations with minimal hassle. It wasn't technically ethical, but if everyone knew it was a lie, was it really a lie? And if it actually mattered, wouldn’t the police at least crack down on the more outrageous displays? But they didn’t. No one got in trouble. It wasn’t a real law, not a real law.

               But as Chester made his way down the form, the language got more specific, more paranoid. “What does this part mean?”

               “Which part?” asked the man, craning his neck to see where on the form Chester was hung up.

               “Right here,” said Chester. “Where it says, ‘I hearby affirm that my above affirmation of my intention to take all fireworks purchased from this retailer out of state is not untrue.’”

               “Yes,” said the man. “You don’t know what that means? If you don’t understand the form, then I don’t think you can sign it in good conscience, which means I can’t sell you any of these fireworks.”

               “No, no, I understand it,” said Chester. “I just don’t know why it’s part of the form. Like, is the rest of the form this redundant?”

               “I’ve found that people have a more difficult time lying if they have to affirm the lie over and over,” said the man. “Is that what’s happening to you right now? You find yourself struggling to complete the form because of rising feelings of guilt?”

               “No,” said Chester. “I’m just starting to think it would have been faster to go to the Diamond Foods parking lot after all.”

               “If you don’t want to fill out the form, you don’t have to,” said the man. “But you’ll have to leave empty-handed.”

               Chester sighed. He continued signing-and-dating his way down the page.

               “Are you reading everything?” asked the man. “You’re not skimming, are you?”

“No,” said Chester. He really wasn’t.

You’re not just filling in the blanks without reading, are you?”

“No,” said Chester. But that was exactly what he was doing.

               Striking with blinding speed, the man snatched the form away from Chester. “Prove it, then. The portion you just signed and dated, what did it say? What were you affirming by signing and dating in the provided blank?”

               Chester took a shot a shot in the dark. But it was more of a shot in the dim, and not even that dim. A shot in the shade. “It was just repeating the promise that I’d take the fireworks out of state before setting them off.”

               The man looked over the form, narrowing his eyes. Then he handed it back to Chester. “Forgive me,” he said. “You’re a faster reader than I’m used to.”

               Chester finished the front of the form, then flipped it over. He suppressed another sigh at the quantity of blanks still remaining, then set to work scribbling his name, scribbling the date, scribbling his name, scribbling the date. The last fifth of the back page was set within a thick-lined box labeled “contact information.” There were blanks for Chester’s phone number, his email address, and the physical address of his house. “Hold on,” said Chester. “What’s this about? Why do you need this contact information?”

               “It’s so I can find you if there’s a problem,” said the man. “If you set off the fireworks in this state, then I can get in touch.”

               “I’m not going to set the fireworks off in this state,” said Chester. “You won’t need to get in touch with me.” The man was wrong about repeating the lie. It didn’t become more difficult the more times Chester lied. It became easier.

               “Fine,” said the man. “Don’t buy the fireworks.” He tried to snatch the form away again, but Chester was ready for him, snatching up the paper himself and holding it out of the man’s reach.

               “All right, all right,” said Chester. “I’ll fill out the contact information.” The man was so annoying that Chester now felt not even a hint of guilt at lying on the form. This man deserved to be lied to. Chester wrote false contact information into every blank. Then he handed the form to the man and said, “Can I pay and leave now?”

               “Just a second,” said the man. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, then studied the back of Chester’s form while using one thumb to punch in the digits of Chester’s fake phone number. He hit “send,” held his phone to his ear, and looked at Chester. “Why isn’t your phone ringing?”

               “It’s on silent,” said Chester.

               “Then answer it,” said the man. “So I can confirm…hello? No, ma’am, I’m sorry, I have the wrong number. I would like you to know that it isn’t my fault, though. I was lied to.” He glared at Chester as he spoke. When he hung up, he turned the form sideways in his hands and prepared to rip it in half.

               “Wait, wait, wait,” said Chester. “Hold on, come on, I don’t want to have to start over.”

               “Your business isn’t welcome here,” said the man. “If I can’t trust you to give me your correct phone number, how can I trust that you’re telling the truth when you say you won’t set these fireworks off within the boundaries of this state?”

               “I just didn’t want ads!” said Chester, annoyed at the desperation in his own voice. “I was worried you’d misuse the information to send me advertisements! Give me the form back, I’ll correct the phone number.”

               “Is there any other information under the contact information section that’s incorrect?” asked the man.

               Chester hesitated. Would the man check on the email address too? He probably would. Chester could insist he wasn’t capable of checking his email on his phone, but would that be enough? The man might just disqualify him. What about his home address? Was there any way for the man to check on that? Yes, easily. He could use his phone to look up the address. It wouldn’t take long to see that it wasn’t real. Chester cursed himself for not at least using a real street name, but the man could have used one of those satellite apps, found the house, demanded that Chester describe it. Better to just come clean and get out of here. Chester scratched out all of the incorrect information on the form and did his best to write the true information as legibly as he could in the little space that remained. The man tested his phone number again, of course, but this time Chester passed. The verification of his home address turned out to be less sophisticated than Chester had thought. The man merely asked to see Chester’s driver’s license and compared the address printed there with the one Chester had written on the form. Chester didn’t know how the man could be sure the license was up to date – what if he had moved since getting it? – but it was up to date.

               “All right,” said the man. He retrieved Chester’s sack of fireworks, pawed around inside of it for a minute, and quoted Chester a price.

               “Aren’t you going to verify my email address?” asked Chester.

               “No,” said the man. “You don’t want to be here all night, do you? I trust you.” His pinched face relaxed into a vulnerable smile.

               Chester thought that this might finally induce a twinge of guilt, but no, still nothing. He paid, thanked the man without rolling his eyes, and escaped the store with a modest haul of fireworks in tow, the bell over the door tinkling one step above inaudibility behind him.


               At dusk of the following day – that day being the 4th of July, Independence Day – Chester opened the garage door, set up two lawn chairs in the driveway, grabbed the butane lighter from the grill and the sack of fireworks from the car, and assembled his family on the front porch. Olive and Robbie were coated in stratified layers of sweat from playing outdoors, cooling off at lunch time, playing outdoors, cooling off at snack time, playing outdoors, cooling off at dinner time, and playing outdoors. Laurel, Chester’s wife, wore a blue and white bandana on her head, her red hair completing the trio. She carried a cooler filled with ice and a single can or bottle of each family member’s favorite beverage. Across the street, the Lewans were jumping the gun, already setting off some of their bigger fireworks despite the fact that it was not yet full dark. Their premature display produced a blue haze that hung at street light level in the dense air. Next door, the Sims children were throwing snappers at each other’s bare feet, crying out in pain and crying out with the ecstasy of revenge. They were all older than Olive and Robbie, and their rambunctious behavior fascinated Chester’s kids in a way that he feared would one day result in copycat crime. The aroma of grilled hot dogs came from all directions, seemed to seep up from the ground, out from the trunks of the very trees.

               “We’ll start with a couple sparklers,” said Chester. “We’ll save the rest until it gets darker.”

               His kids nodded up at him. If even they understood the wisdom of this decree, what was going through the Lewans’ heads? As if in an answer, a rocket shot into the air and exploded over the Lewans’ house, its brilliance diminished by the remaining sunlight.

               Chester and his family moved from the porch to the driveway. He held two sparklers in one hand and lit them both at the same time, distributing them already crackling and spitting to Olive and Robbie. Then he sat down in the lawn chair next to Laurel’s lawn chair and reached for her hand, took it, held it, and they both watched as their kids ran in tight circles waving the sparklers in zigs, zags, figure eights, lopsided circles, and shapes unrecognizable.

               These first two sparklers had not yet fizzled when Chester’s phone began to vibrate in his shorts. He grunted, took the phone from his pocket, and looked at the screen. Not recognizing the number, he denied the call and returned the phone to his pocket. But a moment later, a scrap of residual paranoia from the previous day nagged him into taking his phone back out of his pocket to check the call log. Sure enough, the number matched the call Chester had received when the man at the fireworks store had conducted his test to make sure Chester wasn’t lying about his contact information. This made Chester nervous. Why was the man calling him? Was it a coincidence that the man had called right as Chester was in the act of breaking his promise to only set the fireworks off out of state? Was the man spying on Chester and his family? Chester looked around, stood, walked past his kids to the end of his driveway, and scanned the cars parked along the curb up and down his street. He didn’t see the man’s truck, didn’t see anyone lurking.

Chester’s phone buzzed in his pocket again. He took his phone out and stared at the screen. The man was calling back. The man was relentless. The man would never leave Chester alone. Should he answer? Should he block the number? The problem was that the man had Chester’s address. If Chester didn’t answer the phone call, would the man come over to bother him and his wife and his kids in person? It seemed possible, and it also seemed like one of the least desirable possible outcomes. Chester drew a steadying breath and accepted the call. Before he could speak, the sound of multiple alarms burst forth from the other end of the line, warbling and clanging and squawking. “Hello?”

A voice emerged from the cacophony. “Hello? Is this Chester? You purchased fireworks from my store yesterday evening?”

“Yes, this is Chester,” said Chester. “This is me.”

“I’ve got big problems,” said the man. He was breathing hard. “I’m sure you hear the alarms, right? They go off whenever someone sets off some of the out-of-state fireworks I sold them in state instead of out of state like they promised. The alarms are triggered by tiny heat-activated sensors attached to transmitters in each firework. You’re not setting off those fireworks you bought from me in state right now, are you? You’re out of state, like you promised?”

“Uh, well, we aren’t out of state yet,” said Chester. “The plan is to go tomorrow. And then we’ll set off the fireworks. With our out-of-state family, the ones we’re going to visit.”

“So on the 5th of July, then,” said the man. “You’ll set them off on the 5th when you’re out of state, but you’re not setting off any right now? You haven’t set any off yet? Not even sparklers? Sometimes people think not all of the fireworks they buy from me have to be set off out of state, but yes, they all have to be set off out of state, or at least not set off in state, even the sparklers!”

“Well, we’re saving ours for the family celebration,” said Chester. “Tomorrow and out of state.”

“I thought you probably were,” said the man. “I pretty much knew it. When you didn’t answer my first call, that made me start to doubt a little, but when you picked up the second time, that made me feel better, that restored my confidence in you. ‘Cause yesterday when you left my store, I thought, there goes a man who’s going to abide by the papers he signed, not to mention what he told me to my face, ‘cause even though there was that small issue with the contact information, I sort of understood why you lied at first, but we got it all straightened out and when you left I could tell we were on the same page.”

“Yep,” said Chester. “You bet.”

“So it must be that woman,” said the man. “Risa, that’s her name. I’ve tried calling her three times and she won’t answer. The last time it went straight to voice mail. I think she’s avoiding me. I think she’s setting off the fireworks she bought from me here in-state, probably right here in Multioak at her house, and she’s trying to ignore me. She’s hoping I won’t figure it out and that I won’t confront her about it, but I have to. I have to! They’ll destroy my house!”

“Yeah, it must be her, that definitely all sounds suspicious,” said Chester. He didn’t understand most of what the man was talking about, but having successfully deceived him yet again, Chester was ready to escape the phone call as soon as he could.

“You’ll help me,” said the man. “Right? You’ll go with me to her house to confront her? I need backup and I don’t know who else I can trust. There is no one else I can trust.”

“Me?” asked Chester. “No, I can’t go with you. I’m here celebrating with my family.”

“I thought you were celebrating with your family tomorrow out of state,” said the man. “On the 5th of July.”

“That’s with extended family,” said Chester. “That’s when we’re setting off the fireworks. Tonight I’m just cooking out with my wife and kids.”

“You still haven’t finished eating?” asked the man. “It’s after 8 o’clock!”

“Look,” said Chester. “We finished eating, yeah, but we have to pack for tomorrow, we’re leaving early in the morning. It’s a long drive…out of the state. To the other state.” He turned around to see that Olive and Robbie had followed him to the end of the driveway and were watching him lie with dead sparklers in their hands. Chester stooped to wave mosquitos away from their shoulders, all four of which were bared by their tank tops. Laurel had not left her lawn chair. She mouthed something to Chester, but she was too far and the light was too imperfect for mouthing.

“It won’t take long,” said the man. “I’ll come pick you up. I know where you live, I have your address. You’re not far from me, and you’re right on the way to Risa’s house.”

“No,” said Chester. “Come on. Why me, huh? All I did was buy fireworks from you, man, I’m just a customer. I signed your paper, I’m abiding by it, that’s it. That should be the end of it. You’re really imposing on me here.”

“You think is easy for me?” asked the man. In the background, another alarm joined the chorus. He raised his voice another level. “I know I’m imposing, it’s embarrassing, but I’ve got everything at stake here. I’m desperate. They’ll destroy my house if I don’t resolve this! You think I don’t know I’m stuck in a bad deal? Of course I know! I was open for one day, I only had two customers willing to fill out the entire form – you and Risa. So that’s where I stand, see? You’re the only person I know, maybe the only person in town, who I can trust to be on my side.”

“Call the cops on her,” said Chester. “Tell them Risa’s setting off illegal fireworks. Give them her address.”

“I can’t!” said the man. “I’m responsible for making sure my customers don’t set off the out-of-state fireworks in state, and if I don’t handle it, they’ll destroy my house! I never should have taken the deal. I never should have bothered with the official sanction of the Multioak Fire Department. I wanted to do this the right way, but I underestimated people’s hatred of paperwork. Even with the subsidy, I didn’t come close to breaking even. Two customers! Two! And now one of them – Risa, not you – is going to get my house destroyed unless I do something, and I need help. Your help, Chester! Please!”

“No,” said Chester. “I’m putting my foot down. I’m not helping you confront this lady. Nothing in that form I signed said I would do anything like this with you.”

“I’m coming over,” said the man.

“No!” shouted Chester. “Do not come over!”

The line went dead.

Chester tried to call back three times, but to no avail. His kids stood nearby in solemn reverence of his shouting, something they rarely saw him do. He herded them back toward Laurel.

“Why didn’t you answer when I asked you who you were talking to?” asked Laurel.

“I couldn’t tell what you were asking,” said Chester.

“What else would I be asking?” asked Laurel.

“I didn’t know it was asking,” said Chester. “I didn’t know if it was a question or what. It could have been a statement for all I could tell.”

“So who was it?” asked Laurel.

“The man who sold me the fireworks,” said Chester. “He’s on his way here.”

“What?” asked Laurel. “Why is he coming here?”

“It’s hard to explain,” said Chester. “I’ll deal with it.”

“Can we set off more fireworks now?” asked Olive, tugging at the hem of Chester’s t-shirt.

“No,” said Chester. “Everyone has to go inside. Give me those.” He took the spent sparklers from his kids. He looked them over for any evidence of heat-activated sensors, but if there had ever been any, they were burned up. Did he have time to dissect one of the unused fireworks in search of sensors? Probably not. And it seemed like a fool’s errand anyway. It made no sense, right? Chester decided he needed to dispose of the used sparklers in a secure location. Would the man want to inspect the fireworks he’d sold to Chester? Would he look inside the box of sparklers, notice that two were missing? That would be somewhat incriminating, sure, but not incontrovertible proof, right?

His kids protested with whines pitched even higher than usual, but Laurel sensed the potential for trouble and she took responsibility for gathering them into the house, casting a last look over her shoulder that told Chester she was not imagining the issue with the fireworks salesman accurately. But how could she – or anyone – be expected to?

Working fast, Chester buried the burned-out sparklers under the mulch in the back yard flower bed, then put the sack of fireworks back in the car, the lawn chairs back in the garage, and the butane lighter back on the grill. Having covered his tracks, he returned to the front yard where he hoped to intercept the man before he came to the front door so Chester’s wife and kids wouldn’t overhear the continuation of their argument. It did not take long for the truck Chester recognized from the fireworks store parking lot to pull into the driveway. The man, his un-gelled hair making a strong case for yesterday’s excessive gelling, leaned out of the driver’s side window and said, “Get in! Let’s go!”

Chester stood two long paces back from the truck and said, “I’m not going with you. This is your problem, not mine.”

The man’s eyes were pleading, perfect for the verbal pleading they accompanied. “I can’t go alone,” he said. “This woman lied to me repeatedly and in writing about her intention to set the out-of-state fireworks off out of state. Who knows what else she’s capable of? You’re a big guy. Taller than me, at least. All you have to do is stand behind me while I get her to sign the Formal Acknowledgement of Guilt Form. Otherwise they’re going to destroy my house!”

“Who is?” asked Chester. “You keep saying ‘they’ are going to destroy your house. Who is going to destroy your house? Why would anyone destroy your house?”

“The fire department,” said the man. “The Multioak Fire Department. They have a special squad for it. All the shortest fire fighters. Some even shorter than me, although some are taller than me, but not by much. When a customer of an Officially Sanctioned Out-of-State Fireworks Retailer sets off fireworks in state, the retailer is responsible for getting the customer to sign a Formal Acknowledgement of Guilt Form, and if they don’t, then the fire department holds the retailer responsible, and they destroy his or her house. That’s what the smaller axes are for.”

Chester, struggling to comprehend, then struggling to decide whether he should bother to struggle to comprehend, grasped at an inane detail in the man’s explanation. “Smaller axes?”

“Yeah,” said the man. “You’ve seen the big axes for chopping into burning buildings, right? And there are the smaller axes, and that’s what those are for.”

“I’ve never heard of any smaller axes,” said Chester. “You say they’re for the smaller fire fighters to use when destroying the houses of…of…”

“…of Officially Sanctioned Out-of-State Fireworks Retailers whose customers set the fireworks off in state but do not sign the Formal Acknowledgement of Guilt Form, yes,” said the man. “And we’re on a ticking clock, here, I don’t have much time left, those fire fighters are hearing the same alarms you heard over the phone, more and more of them going off, and they’re only increasing in intensity, riling the fire fighters into very destructive moods. So, get in! Let’s go!”

“I..” said Chester. “I…uh…”

“Please, please, please, please,” said the man, and he kept saying it, childlike, but with stronger and stronger notes of panicked anguish.

Chester looked at the front window of his house, saw Laurel standing there framed by the edges of the curtains parted just enough to accommodate her. The bandana was gone, her hair was down. She watched him, worried. Chester realized he needed to get this man away from here, away from the nice and sweet and fulfilling parts of his life. Even if he managed to send the man on his way alone, Chester knew in his heart that the man would return. Left to follow its own course, the investigation would lead inevitably back to Chester, and his deceptions would mount until they collapsed, and then who knew what would happen, what this unstable and deluded man would do? Chester had to go with him, had to steer the investigation away from himself from the inside, had to find a way to make a clean break from this man and his paperwork and his dubious associations with the Multioak Fire Department. “I love you,” Chester mouthed to Laurel. Then he mouthed, “I’ll be back soon.” He concluded by mouthing, “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

Laurel’s sole response was a combination facial expression and shoulder movement that clearly communicated the word-like sound “Huh????”


After a short interval of driving in apprehensive silence, the man finally introduced himself to Chester. “By the way,” he said, “I’m Silas. And I know you’re Chester because your signature on the paperwork was very legible, which is another sign of honesty.”

“All right,” said Chester. The air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror of Silas’s truck was too strong. Chester could not identify the scent. An Official Acknowledgement of Guilt Form rested on the bench seat between the two men. Chester picked it up. “Oh no,” he said. “It’s three pages long, Silas. Wait, each page is front and back, it’s six pages long!”

“Well, yeah, you see why I need your support,” said Silas. “Even if we catch Risa red-handed setting off the fireworks in state, she might not be willing to fill out the form unless we can apply enough pressure.” He maneuvered the truck along residential streets only, each one featuring both large and small gatherings of celebrants beginning to congregate around their heaps of illicit fireworks, festive arsenals with the power to delight and to maim and to awe and to ruin. “Look at all this,” he said. “These are the people whose houses should be destroyed. They’re not even trying to do the right thing. At least I tried.

“How long was the form you signed for the fire department?” asked Chester.

Silas shook his head. “My writing hand is still cramped. It may never fully recover.” He slowed the truck, peering out the driver’s side window. “I think this is it. This is Risa’s house.”

Chester leaned forward to look around Silas’s head. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s home.”

“She’s hiding in there,” said Silas. “She knew I’d come when she didn’t answer my calls. But she didn’t know I’d have a second honest man with me.” He eased the truck into the driveway of a two-story house with only one remarkable attribute: the brightness of its porch light. “Come on,” said Silas. He grabbed the Official Acknowledgement of Guilt Form and slid out of the truck with an unpleasant movement that involved both a momentary dangling of the feet and an inadvertent pelvic thrust. Chester sighed and exited his side of the truck like a normal adult man.

As Silas scurried up the front walk to stand in the glare of the abnormal porch light, he glanced continually over his shoulder to make sure Chester was following. He poised his finger over the doorbell and paused until Chester was in position just behind him.

“Even if she’s here,” said Chester, “what if she won’t come to the door?”

“I’ll keep ringing the doorbell,” said Silas. “All I have is my persistence. She’ll answer eventually.” He rang the doorbell. It followed a long ding with a brief, almost clipped dong that sounded from within the house’s depths.

Something in the quality of the doorbell’s chime told Chester all he needed to know. “She’s not here, Silas. No one is.”

Silas rang the doorbell again, and it sounded so futile, it sounded like a call to no one. Even Silas perceived it. He scratched his shoulder. “So she is out of state? But that would mean…” He narrowed his eyes and aimed them back at Chester.

“Just because she’s not here doesn’t mean she’s out of state,” said Chester. “Come on, Silas, think. There are lots of other places in this state she could have taken the fireworks to set them off. She might be in another town hours away, she might be at a neighbor’s house right here on this block.”

Silas looked ill. “You’re right,” he said. This concession was followed by a sigh that nearly shuddered into a sob. Then he attempted to rally. “OK, back in the truck, we’ll drive around and look for her.”

“Silas, listen to me,” said Chester. “She might be nearby, but she might not be. And it’ll be dark, hard to see people’s faces. I don’t even know what she looks like, so I can’t help you look. And what if she’s not even setting the fireworks off? What if she is out of state, but she gave the fireworks to someone else, and they’re setting them off in-state and that’s what’s triggering your alarms, huh?”

“But we have to do something!” said Silas. “We can’t just camp out here and wait for her to come back and sign the form. They’ll begin destroying my house in a matter of hours. Or less! They may have already started!” There was a mosquito on his chin just sucking away, unperturbed by the wild ride provided by Silas’s histrionics.

“What if you just forged her name on the form?” asked Chester. “You’ve got her signature on the other form, you could probably approximate it. You know she’s responsible for all this, so it wouldn’t even really be-”

“Stop,” said Silas. “Just stop. I can’t believe you, of all people, would even suggest such a thing. The form doesn’t assign guilt, it acknowledges guilt. One’s own guilt. She has to be the one to sign it.”

“And that’s a distinction worth letting your house get destroyed over?” asked Chester.

“I accepted the responsibility,” said Silas. “I shouldn’t have, but I did.”

“What happens to a person who signs the Official Acknowledgement of Guilt Form?” asked Chester.

“What do you mean?” asked Silas.

“Let’s say Risa signs the form,” said Chester. “What’s going to happen to her then? When the fire department receives the form?”

“Nothing,” said Silas. “Why would something happen to her?”

“But isn’t that the point?” asked Chester. “Wouldn’t she be acknowledging her guilt so that the correct person gets punished?”

“No, no,” said Silas. “She’d just be acknowledging her guilt so that I don’t get punished. Nothing else would happen to her.”

Chester attempted another appraisal of Silas. The conclusion he reached, though not certain, was sad. He said, “So the only punishment for acknowledging guilt is actually having to fill out of the entire Official Acknowledgement of Guilt Form.”

Silas didn’t get the joke. “No,” he said. “There’s no punishment.”

“I’ll fill it out,” said Chester. “I’ll say I’m guilty. Then you can show the fire department and they won’t destroy your house.”

“Absolutely not,” said Silas. The harsh porch light beat down on him, made his facial sweat gleam. “And I’m really…I’m really troubled by the dishonesty of your suggestions, Chester. I’m starting to wonder if you’re really the man I thought you were.”

“Exactly,” said Chester. “Maybe I’m not that man you thought I was. Maybe it really was me who set off the fireworks. You have good reason to suspect me now, right? So you could let me sign the form in good conscience, you could show it to the Multioak Fire Department and feel pretty good about the likelihood that I was the actual guilty party. I mean, isn’t it interesting that I only presented this option once I found out there’s no punishment for acknowledging guilt? That right there is more than enough to arouse real suspicion, Silas, maybe even enough to make you sure – or almost sure – that you got the right man.”

“Ohhh,” said Silas, his eyes widening. “Oh!” He did not, of course, understand what Chester was doing, but he understood what Chester wanted him to think he was doing. And to be honest, there wasn’t much difference. Just a little disparity in motives, but the upshot was the same. Silas thought an honest man was engaging in some dishonesty in a way that would allow Silas to preserve his own honesty, whereas actually a dishonest man was engaging in some honesty in a way that made Silas think the dishonest man was doing him a favor. Or something like that. It wasn’t really important to keep it all straight, Chester just wanted to get Silas out of his hair and go home.

“I will need to borrow your pen again,” said Chester.

The callback brought a tear to Silas’s eye.


When Chester got home, the kids were in bed. Laurel was in the family room writing in the journal she used to log witty things she, and sometimes other people, had said. “They both cried themselves to sleep,” said Laurel. “They were so disappointed we didn’t set off the rest of the fireworks.”

“Let’s wake them up,” said Chester. “Let’s set the rest of them off right now.”

Laurel scrunched her face in distaste at the suggestion. “Well, ‘cried themselves to sleep’ is maybe an exaggeration.”

Chester sagged into the couch next to his wife. “It’s just as well,” he said. “I’ve kind of had it with fireworks for the night.” Outside, from near and far, fireworks boomed away in answer.

“So what was all that about?” asked Laurel. “What took so long?” She closed her journal but kept her place with her thumb, perhaps anticipating that she would say more funny things during the following conversation.

“Believe it or not,” said Chester, “it was mostly filling out paperwork. I didn’t even read it and it still took forever to sign and date everything.”

“Paperwork?” asked Laurel.

“Yes,” said Chester. “This whole mess is about paperwork. You want the long version or the short version?”

“Long,” said Laurel.

So Chester related the whole saga to her, starting with spotting Silas’s pitiful fireworks store from the road and leading all the way up through Chester’s arduous signing of the Official Acknowledgement of Guilt Form and Silas dropping him off at home afterward.

When he finished, Laurel sat in silence for a while. Sometime during the telling, her thumb had slipped out of her journal, which now lay closed on her lap. “Smaller axes?” she finally asked.

Chester laughed. “I know,” he said. “Smaller axes.”

Laurel wasn’t laughing. “I always wondered what those were for.”

“What do you mean?” asked Chester.

“The smaller axes,” said Laurel. “I caught a glimpse of them once, and the way the fire fighters reacted, it was like I wasn’t supposed to see them. So I’ve always been curious about why that would be.”

“You’ve seen smaller axes?” asked Chester. “Wait, you’re not saying you believe Silas’s story?”

“No,” said Laurel. “Not all of it.” She paused. “Chester, I have to say, I’m a little bit nervous. You didn’t read this Official Acknowledgement of Guilt Form at all? You just took this guy’s word for it about what it meant? You just assumed that because he talked about honesty so much that he was being honest with you? You didn’t see that as a red flag? Not even enough to make you want to actually read what you were signing, Chester?” Her voice grew fuller of fear as she spoke.

“It was…it was six pages long, Laurel,” said Chester. “I was trying to get home.” Laurel’s disquiet was spreading to him, he could feel it entering his pores. “I’m sure he wrote all the forms up himself and printed them off in the library or something. I’m sure the fire department will laugh…will laugh him out of the…the…”

“Shhh,” said Laurel. “Do you hear that? Sirens!”

But, Chester thought, why wouldn’t there be sirens on the night of July 4th? Was there any night when one might more expect to hear sirens? This was probably the Multioak Fire Department’s single busiest night of the year.

These sirens, though. Chester had to admit that these sirens sounded a little different. Not quieter, but smaller, somehow. And not less threatening for being smaller.

More threatening, if anything.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever seen your fire department’s smaller axes? If so, what do you think they’re for?

  • Do you find it plausible that an apparent obsession with honesty could be used as a cover for deep dishonesty? Or is that too sick for even a deeply dishonest person to try?

  • At what age should a child be allowed to hear someone say that fireworks are a big, fat waste of money and that we might as well just set a pile of cash on fire and watch it burn?

  • Would you stand idly by and let a loved one set off fireworks that would clearly benefit from full dark prior to full dark?

  • Has anyone anywhere ever taken out-of-state fireworks out of state?