It’s hot outside, even though it’s edging past 9 PM and the sun has already started its descent from the summer sky. Crickets and locusts compete against the loud croaking of bullfrogs to be the loudest noise in the night, but everyone knows that in less than half an hour there will be a much louder noise across the United States: Fireworks. A few have already started, but it’s just the small fry so far—sparklers and roman candles and such. The big ones won’t start for a little while yet.
The Fourth of July has always been one of August’s favorite holidays. Not for any patriotic reason—the country was going to hell in a handbasket and his father was a big part of that—but because it was the one time of the year his father took time off from his ‘business’ and took August to visit his family in the country.
And this time it’s especially exciting because it’s the first time that August gets to bring his friends along with him.
He loves the city, of course. Loves the urban decay that’s all around and the way the lights never go out. Everything in the city is awake, alive, electric.
But the country is another animal entirely. For one, everything is closed by 10 PM. Which means everyone has to find their own fun, their own entertainment, in those dark after-hours. And the sky—August only ever sees the stars when he comes to the country, and every time he sees them, he thinks they get brighter and brighter. Everything moves slower here, too, like it’s all trapped in honey, but he finds it’s a nice reprieve from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Then of course there’s the food. Fried chicken, sweet tea, fresh-brewed lemonade, and of course the blackberries.
Blackberries are August’s favorite. His fingers are already stained with the dark purple juice, having spent the majority of the day picking them off the vine. His aunt’s house, where they always stay when they come for the Fourth, is next door to this old guy’s house and he’s been growing them on his fence since before August was born. He doesn’t mind sharing either; August is pretty sure he has nobody else.
“How long until we can start the show?” Donovan asks, jogging up to him. His legs are long, longer than the rest of them, but they’re uncoordinated and clumsy so August half expects to see him trip and eat dirt. He’s almost disappointed when he doesn’t and Donovan is standing in front of him, smiling brightly and putting his dimples on display as if he knows exactly what August was expecting and is proud that he could defy expectations. He looks smug.
Of them all, Donovan is probably the one August finds it the easiest to be around. Of course he cares about them all, but Donovan is the one he’d consider his best friend. The taller boy is incredibly smart and understands the importance of hard work and necessity, two things that August knows intimately. At nineteen, Donny is working his way through college at a shitty gas station on the edge of town. August knows he’s always tired between studying for exams, writing papers, and working the graveyard shift. Yet Donny keeps at it, never stopping. August is pretty sure he deserves the break more than anyone, so he’s happy that he was able to take time off for this little vacation.
August shrugs in answer to Donovan’s question. “Few minutes,” he says, and he feels the nervous anticipation quiver in his gut. See, August has a secret.
He’s got a reputation for being a total badass. He’s a bit of a jock, captain of the basketball team and one of the more popular people on campus despite his generally antisocial nature. He plays with lighters, keeps a knife on his person at all times (you would too if your father was a criminal with lots of enemies), and he sells drugs on campus because his father has all the best connections and it’s a lucrative business. He prides himself on his fearlessness—and yet, he’s not fearless at all. Rather, he has one particular weakness: fireworks.
He supposes that it stems from a childhood accident wherein his cousin’s arm got blown clean off while he was messing around with them. The sound he’d made had been horrible and the smell…there was nothing quite like that smell anywhere on the planet that August knew of. Ever since then, he sneaks away when the fireworks show is set to begin. Maybe it was cowardly, but he would just rather put headphones on and drown out the festivities.
This time, though, he knows he won’t be given such a chance. The kids are excited about the fireworks, wanting to see a ‘real show’ because they heard that the country does it better and they’re right. There’s less rules about the kinds of fireworks that can be set off by individuals, more space to do it in, and even the town’s shows are incredibly over-the-top for such a small place.
Furthermore, Donny had cornered him earlier and coerced him into joining him in setting the damn things off since they all know he has a lighter and it’s assumed that he wants to be right in the middle of the danger. The only way he could have said no was if he admitted that he was scared, and there is just no way in hell he is going to do that, then or now. The last thing he needs is Emery in particular finding out he’s a wuss and teasing him about it; August is pretty sure his greatest joy is trolling the rest of them and he’s got a penchant for finding out what people are scared of and using it against them. August does not want to give him any ammunition.
Only problem is he’s not sure how he’s going to hide it once he lights the fuse and freaks the fuck out right in front of all of them.
The others pile out of the house then, shoving each other’s shoulders and laughing loudly. Damian is carrying blankets and what looks like a picnic basket and Donny sees him struggling so he quickly rushes over to take the basket out of his hands.
Meanwhile, August tries to think of a way to get out of this. Fake a stomach ache, maybe? But no, Damian will be on him in an instant, checking his temperature and force-feeding him soup.
Damian’s voice catches him off guard and he turns quickly to see him, an expression of concern on his face. He’d apparently spaced out so much that he hadn’t even noticed when the older boy arrived. “I’m good,” August says quickly. Too quickly.
Damian’s brow furrows even further, but Donny saves him from having to answer the question he knows is going to come. “I set out the blanket and the kids are sitting with their food. Now or never. Ready, August?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m ready,” August says, even though he absolutely is not ready. This is going to be the most embarrassing moment of his life. But he follows Donovan over to where they have all the fireworks set up, a massive pile of them. They’d bought a big variety at the Fireworks Superstore, but August doesn’t know the first thing about them—which ones are cool and which ones are lame.
He picks one at random. “Shall we start it with a bang?” he says, trying to make his tone light.
Donovan grins. “You bet.”
They set it on the ground and August knows the time is here. He’s going to make a fool of himself. He sees Emery has his camera out already to record the moment he panics, but there’s nothing he can do about it. He’s gonna have to face his fear head-on.
“Actually,” Damian says, surprising them both. He had followed them to the fireworks. “Can I stand with you, August? I’m a little scared, but I want to face my fear. Just stand with me while Donny lights the first few with your lighter?”
August knows he’s not telling the truth. He’s heard Damian talk about how much he loves fireworks ever since he announced this trip. He doesn’t want to argue, but at the same time, he feels like he has to. If he agrees too quickly, everyone will realize that he’s the one who’s scared. “Why me? Why not Donny? Everyone knows you guys are practically married.”
“I’ve been wanting to get my hands on these things for ages. You wouldn’t deprive me of my fun would you?” Donny says, seeming to pick up on whatever Damian’s plan is. He knows then that they know—there’s no sense in even trying to deny it. But somehow, they also know he can’t go on hiding it. He’s gonna have to face it; at least this way, he won’t have to do it alone.
Slowly, he nods, handing the firework and his lighter to Donny, who accepts them with a whoop. The kids and Tobi all cheer when they see him hold up the first one like a prize. August and Damian step back a little and Damian snakes his hand into August’s without preamble. It’s a small thing, holding his hand, and usually he’d feel pretty emasculated by it, but somehow it’s okay. Because it’s Damian, and he knows that Damian won’t judge him for it, but also because he needs it.
The quiet fizz of the wick makes August swallow and Damian tightens his grip on his hand. “Just watch,” Damian says quietly.
August watches. It’s almost agonizingly slow, but when it blows it’s anything but. Bright lights of white and red and green shoot up out of the top and down onto the ground like a fountain. He jumps—of course he does—and he even flails one of his hands a little, jumping half behind Damian’s broad shoulders, but there’s something incredibly exciting about the whole thing and he finds that he’s half-laughing. The next one is much louder, and he fully hides behind Damian that time.
Towards the end of the show, however, he finds that he’s clapping along with the others every time there’s a particularly loud boom or a really bright light. The shrieking ones are his least favorite—they pierce his ears like the scream of a banshee—but even they have their redeeming qualities.
For the finale, Donny jogs over. “Wanna give it a go?”
August swallows thickly, glancing over at the others, and they’re all cheering, calling his name. He sighs and hopes he doesn’t blow off his arm like his cousin. “Yeah,” he says. “Can’t let you have all the fun.”
It’s actually a line of the damn things—at last seven—and he knows that it’ll be a rush. He wants to do it though; he wants to put this fear to rest once and for all.
So he squares his shoulders and flicks the lighter on. He takes comfort in the orange flame. It’s familiar, and really, the fireworks are just really big, really bright, really dangerous lighters. He can do this.
In the end, he manages. He runs down the line, throat feeling about the width of a straw, and he ignites all of the wicks. And when they blow, he barely manages to fall back on his ass before they all soar into the sky.
He’s laughing though, staring up at the bright explosives as they shoot into the air. Everyone’s cheering, screams and claps and he thinks he hears Jem even calling his name as if in encouragement. When the last of them is gone, leaving behind only a puff of smoke and the thick smell of magnesium and sulfur, he can hardly believe it. He feels half-deaf, but surprisingly he doesn’t mind.
Damian pulls him to his feet and claps him on the back, and then all the others are there, all clapping him on the back too as if he’s done the whole thing. “Did you record it?” he asks Emery once they all settle down, flopping down in the grass half on top of each other.
“Nah, but I got one really great shot,” Emery says.
“Yeah?” August says. “Let me see.”
The shot he shows him is of his own face when he lights the first firework and August can hardly believe it’s him. The boy in the picture looks almost half his age, eyes wide as saucers and mouth wide open in an exclamation. The light from the firework illuminates his pale skin, giving him an almost unearthly glow. He sees fear and wonder in equal measures.
“You like it?” Emery asks.
“Did you know I was terrified?” August asks after a moment.
“Yeah,” Emery says. “We all kinda guessed it. You got tense every time we talked about the show.”
August sighs. “I guess I can’t hide anything from you guys, huh?”
“Nope,” Emery says. “But for what it’s worth? I’m proud of you. We all are.”
It’s sappy and it’s stupid, but August can’t help but smile. “Thanks.”
“Now are you ready for the illegal ones Tay found under your aunt’s house?”
August groans; he should have known it wasn’t going to be that easy.