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Fire Prevention Week
A ghost story.
For as long as I can remember I have been afraid of fire. As a child there were many nights where I’d lie in bed and stare out of my doorway, my eyes fixed on the nearby smoke detector as though it were going to sound at any moment, giving myself and my family mere seconds to escape as of yet unseen flames. Because of this, when the time came for Fire Prevention Week when I was in kindergarten, my mother took additional precautions to reassure me that everything was going to be okay. Being an educator herself, she was used to seeing countless five-year-olds scared to the point of witlessness every October when the safety program began, so she told me what to expect weeks ahead of the scheduled evacuation, going so far as to bring me to the schoolhouse on weekends and going through a ”silent drill” so that I wouldn’t be as frightened when the time of the actual event arrived.
All of her preparations worked, as I was one of the very few students able to maintain my composure and exit the building down the small, rusted fire escape and into the playground without terrified wails or tears. After things had settled down, a local firefighter visited each of the four classrooms and discussed the usual safety measures: never play with matches, never try to put out a fire yourself, always get as low to the ground as possible to avoid the smoke and, of course, stop, drop, and roll if you or your clothing ever ignites. The way in which he presented this life-saving information was not too stern nor too comical, but just the right balance to educate such young children in a way that would guarantee its retention while preventing nightmares in the days to come.
My phobia began to disappear over the following weeks. I was able to sleep through the night without staring at the smoke alarm or imaging my house, with my family still inside, consumed in an unending hell. I no longer was waking at two in the morning to run downstairs, checking that the kitchen stove was switched off, or feeling various doors with the backs of my hands for hidden pockets of heat. I was, at last, a normal and rested child.
This all changed the following year when I was six and I began the first grade. As the air began to cool and summer became a distant memory, Fire Prevention Week once again arrived at our desks one October morning. Though the timing of the accompanying drill was kept a secret from students and much of the faculty in order to simulate a real emergency clearing, we had a good idea that it would soon begin when we saw the fire engine driving over from across the street and into the school’s parking lot just after lunch. Aside from a quick burst of adrenaline at the sudden sound of the decades old alarm, the exercise went off without much trouble for the majority of us. After exiting the school, I spoke with some friends while our teacher, Mrs. Wallace, attempted to console the handful of students who were having a much rougher experience.
The firefighters gave their lesson once more while we were all outside, and they provided us with an enthusiastic demonstration of the many tools used in the field. This included a chance to hold onto a working fire hose while the professionals held it down, and watching them spray the side of the school with a moderate jet of water. After the assembly, we were each given a worksheet and a plastic firefighter’s helmet before returning to our classrooms to continue the discussion. While we were filling out our papers, Mrs. Wallace began wheeling in a television for the next portion of the lecture.
“Okay, everyone,” she began as we became quiet. “We’re going to watch a short movie on fire safety. This could be a little scary for some of you, but it may one day save your life!”
She carefully loaded a shining red cassette into the VCR.
“I hope you all pay attention!” she said while adjusting the tracking.
The video began with a small, brown house with dark smoke belching out from the roof and windows. Charring fingers of orange and red quickly reached out from beneath the gutters, taking hold of the shingles and spreading as the sounds of approaching sires drowned the crackle of the inferno and moaning wood of the dying structure. The title faded in over the sequence of the house: Don’t Play Games With Mr. Matches.
“We all know how dangerous fire is,” the narrator began as several firefighters raced towards the burning home and the title faded away.
“Once a fire starts, it can be very, very difficult to control it. Once something is burned, it’s gone— forever.” The camera panned over the faces of the former occupants of the house, faces covered in soot and eyes swollen in silent cries. A little girl was desperately running towards the disaster, telling her parents that she had left behind her favourite doll and that it would only take a few seconds to retrieve it. As they pleaded with her, stating that it was much too dangerous, a blaze erupted from the window to which she was pointing. She began weeping, knowing that the doll was nothing more than ashes as more water fell over the home.
A loud snap jolted us all from our seats as part of the roof collapsed. The family looked on with terror as one firefighter became pinned beneath a smouldering wooden beam. As he was pulled from the wreckage, his comrades began patting his legs with fire blankets in an effort to kill the flames.
“Fire burns through every part of a building, weakening it, which could cause it to fall,” the voice-over continued. “And being inside of a fallen, burning building it like being trapped inside of an oven.”
I closed my eyes and ducked behind the girl sitting in front of me as the screams of another firefighter could be heard from within the crumbling residence. I never saw what transpired. I just remember his screaming; shrieks growing fainter as the roar of the blaze overtook him until it was the only sound that remained.
“This didn’t have to happen,” said the narrator. I opened my eyes and saw a peaceful suburban scene playing on the television.
“Proper fire safety can prevent tragedies like the one we’ve just witnessed,” he said. “Knowing how to prevent a fire from ever starting is just as important as knowing how to escape one.”
The video cut to a scene of a boy playing with an RC car in his driveway.
“This is Timothy,” the narrator said. “Timothy loves to play with his remote controlled toys.” Just as this was uttered, the car stopped moving and the boy began banging on the back of the controller to no avail. He opened the rear compartment and removed the batteries before entering the garage, a fresh pair in his hands when he returned. A short closeup revealed that they were beginning to corrode.
“These batteries are old and worn,” the narrator said as the boy inserted the two cells into the remote and closed the compartment. “Decaying batteries are dangerous and, if not disposed of properly, they can lead to fire.”
As the boy flipped the power switch on his remote, there was a burst of sparks followed by a sudden bright flash of white, and a howl unlike anything I had ever heard before in my young life echoed throughout the classroom as the movie showed Timothy running in slow motion through his front yard, overwhelmed with flames. Slowly, he fell to the ground, attempting to extinguish the conflagration before he stopped completely, the fire never easing.
The piercing sound of a whistle accompanied a new scene as the film continued. A kettle had sprung to life atop a stove as a woman reached for it, pouring the boiling water into a cup before dipping a teabag.
“Every home has a kitchen,” the narrator said as the kettle was returned to the hot burner. “How else would we cook our food and wash up after a meal?”
We then saw a young girl sitting in the parlour as she hosted a tea party for her dolls and an oversized teddy bear. She smiled towards her mother as she sat down on the nearby couch, blowing over her fresh and steaming beverage. The telephone rang and the woman stood to answer it, leaving the girl to her play.
“Do you want some more tea, Mr. Diddims?” the girl asked the bear as she served an invisible drink. As her mother wandered into another room, still speaking on the phone, the child glanced to the kitchen with a smile.
“I’ll make you the kind Mommy likes!” she said cheerfully, before grabbing the plastic teapot and walking to the stove. Standing on her toes, she grasped at the kettle’s handle and slowly slid it aside, placing her own atop the burner still glowing with heat. Soon, the toy pot began to smoulder and melt, small flares bursting forth from the edges as it ignited. Panic overtook the girl and she reached for her toy, burning pieces falling around her as she attempted to reach it.
Another white flash and hellish screech overtook our classroom. I tried to stare out of the window to the playground, or to the cartoon children jesting with different letters and numbers that decorated the walls. I wanted to see anything but the television. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t escape the next scene.
A close-up of the girl’s face engulfed in fire greeted us as embers flew around her head. Her eyes were blistering over, scorched skin peeling away to reveal the burning muscle beneath it. Her hair fizzling to nothing but a swiftly blackened scalp, and her lips— my God— her lips swelling and oozing a clear fluid that dribbled down what remained of her chin as she screamed that same howl that had overpowered the entire room just minutes earlier! She fell over, still ablaze, still crying out as if she were begging for some diving force to help her. A force that would never arrive.
The film abruptly cut to an outdoor birthday party. Nearly a dozen children were gathering near a wooden picnic table adorned with a red and white checker board patterned cloth. Two boy were playing with foam dart guns, pestering one of the girls in attendance by firing the projectiles into her hair. Others ran around the small yard while a boy about my age sat at the end of the table, patiently awaiting the arrival of his cake.
“Who doesn’t love a good party?” the narrator began. A young mother slowly walked into the yard carrying a chocolate cake adorned with six large candles. The children began to flock around her.
“But what birthday cake is complete without candles?” the voice-over continued. “Candles that can only shine by inviting one more guest: Mr. Matches.”
The kids all took their places at the table. Everything appeared as though it were vibrating— a very slight movement, but enough to be noticeable. As the woman reached for the matchbook, the picture froze and the video became a series of still images: the mother removing a single match. A few eager children reaching towards the cake as she was preparing to the light the candles. One of the boys aiming his dart gun. A yellow dart striking the woman’s hand as she was finishing. The still burning match falling towards the tablecloth.
The television illuminated us in white. There were so many screams and a continuous roaring louder than anything prior as the film slowly faded back into view. Enormous flames wrapped around the table as the young woman desperately attempted to smother the inferno enveloping her son, her own clothing scorched. Other children were lying in the grass or slowly crawling through it. The girl who had been teased earlier in the scene poured soda over her arm as fire made its way through her tissue. The camera began to inch closer to the birthday boy. He had fallen onto the lawn, singed bone becoming visible as he violently shook.
“Fire is no toy,” the narrator said, the chaos continuing. “Don’t play games with Mr. Matches!”
The movie cut to black as a synthesizer played a delicate, melancholy melody over the credits. It was over! Mrs. Wallace approached the TV and ejected the tape.
“Well, I hope you all learned something from this!” she said in a chipper tone, almost unaware of what we had just endured. “Are they any questions?”
The room was hushed; nobody dared move and even something as involuntary as blinking seemed to have been paused. Then my best friend, Maria, very slowly raised her hand.
“Why— ” she began in a soft, shaking voice, “why did all those bad things have to happen?”
We were all trying to comprehend that very question, and indeed, the very nature of what we had just seen. I was still frozen in the wake of the viewing and it was only her timid query that began to ground me. Never had I been so relieved to reach the ending of a movie in school!
“Well,” Mrs. Wallace started, “those little boys and girls didn’t know how to take the right precautions when dealing with fire, or the things that can make a fire!” She seemed so distant from the film, unfazed by its graphic exhibition of an uncontrolled blaze.
“But you all know better,” she continued. “That’s what this week is all about; to make sure that you know how to react in an emergency whether it’s at home, in school or even outside in the woods. Fire is a dangerous tool but if used correctly, like in the hands of a well-trained adult, it can keep us warm and cook our food. But if you ever see a fire where it’s not supposed to be, that’s when you call 911 and tell a grown-up right away!”
I wasn’t paying attention anymore. The images of children struggling to escape the flames eating away at their bodies had solidified in my psyche. My only thoughts were ‘What if that were me, or my house?’ and ‘Would the firefighters even bother trying to save me if it were that bad?’ The day was nearly complete, so while my numbed classmates went about small school exercises or a little mindless play, I sat at my desk and stared towards the clock, counting down the minutes until my bus number would be called and I could at last leave the school.
I don’t remember the ride home, but I distinctly recall ignoring my grandmother after I arrived there. She would always be at the house to watch me until my parents came home from work and we would play games or bake a small snack; it wasn’t normal for me to just walk right by her and go to my room without a sound. This is what alerted my family to the unusual circumstances at school that day. My mother, upon hearing how I was acting, immediately came to my side, asking if I was feeling sick or if anyone had been bullying me. I merely told her that I was fine, and that I wanted to be alone. My father received a similar response when it was his turn.
I never said a word about the movie that night; I barely ate dinner and refused dessert. At some point past midnight, in the darkness, I found myself awake and gazing down the hallway at the smoke alarm for the first time in a year. I imagined that it was ready to sound and that I’d meet a similar fate as those kids in the film as I stared into the corridor.
The week progressed fairly normally in class as far as the curriculum was concerned. However, in the halls, the stories of that dreaded tape abounded and we openly spoke about how it was bringing us grotesque visions, or forging the new habit of asking our folks to double check if the oven was off before we went to sleep. Then the parents started showing up at dismissal, exchanging fierce words with both Mrs. Wallace and the school principal, telling them that their children were developing insomnia or waking up in the middle of the night screaming about “the girl on fire.”
My mother, being in the same school system, soon heard the stories of restless nights amongst the first graders and rumours about a traumatic short film as the primary cause. She asked me outright about any movies we watched when she came home one day. I could tell that she already knew the answer, so I told her everything as I cried into her shoulder. While she didn’t reveal her anger in front of me, I could hear her and my father shouting at one another, outraged that my class had been shown what they assumed was a video aimed at much older kids.
A PTA meeting had been scheduled in the aftermath of Don’t Play Games With Mr. Matches. My grandmother came by to watch both Maria and I, as all of our parents were attending the conference and finding a sitter was extremely difficult with so many family members heading to the assembly to express their concerns. We kept busy watching cartoons and eating cookies, but that movie was still on our minds. It was inescapable.
“I took the batteries out of all my toys,” Maria blurted out as we sat before the TV. “I don’t want them to burn me up like that.”
“I’ve been blowing on my allowance every time I slide it off my bookcase,” I replied. “You never know, right?” I didn’t want to admit how paranoid I had become, but I felt at ease knowing that I wasn’t alone in it. Nothing more was said about school or the movie, though I knew she was just as eager to let loose about it as I was. We just couldn’t go there again.
After what felt like many hours had passed, all of our parents came home with a look of relief upon them. Mine cheerfully said goodbye to Maria, who looked to me with confusion, as she was whisked through the door by her folks. My mother and father came over to talk to me on the couch as I waved goodbye. They said that Mrs. Wallace had shown everyone the film at the PTA meeting, and that it was just a silly little puppet show teaching kids not to play with matches so that we would not become hurt with such carelessness. There was no burning house, no kids on fire, no screaming, nothing of the sort. Their explanation was that my imagination had gotten the best of me and that my old phobias had resurfaced as a result of going through another Fire Prevention Week.
I was completely dumbfounded. How, just how, could they not have seen what I did? What we all did? Maria and I were just talking about the exact same thing, yet my Mom and Dad had no idea where we were getting these vivid stories! I tried my best to tell them what was on the VHS again, but they said the only fire in the whole movie was a bunch of orange tissue paper dancing about on a puppet’s stove, clearly fake. And even then, a firefighting doll quickly extinguished it. They told me that there was nothing frightening about that video.
The next week, we all exchanged stories on how the film our parents had seen wasn’t the same as the one we had watched, and that we all had overactive imaginations in their eyes. One of the tougher kids in my class accused Mrs. Wallace of switching the tapes at the PTA meeting so that she wouldn’t get in trouble. It was plausible, but then why did the other classes see the same thing we did? What about those teachers?
For the next month we came up with different ideas and conspiracy theories regarding our instructors and Don’t Play Games With Mr. Matches, but it gradually tapered away. The movie was becoming forgotten beneath Thanksgiving and Christmas, and eventually we didn’t even think about it at all. Aside from the occasional nightmare or trigger that would bring it back as a topic for discussion amongst my classmates, it was a relic of the past not worth mentioning.
It has been twenty-three years since that day in the first grade. I haven’t thought about the film in ages. Hell, I couldn’t even remember the name of it until a few years ago when I tried to find a copy of it online as a curiosity piece. While I couldn’t get my hands on a VHS or DVD, there were a few people sharing their own experiences with it in various Internet forums, and it brought back a couple of old shivers, but nothing exceptional.
I am now married and I have a little girl of my own. That’s what restored all of these repressed childhood memories and fears from the deep fissures of my mind. Yesterday, when I went to pick up my daughter from school, she came running over to me, crying and clutching my shoulders harder than I thought possible for a child.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” I asked as I held her. I was growing anxious that another student had harmed her in some way and wanted to have the issue settled as quickly as possible.
“We— we watched a really scary movie,” she started, her blonde curls dishevelled as she hid her face in my torso. My skin felt as though it were struck with thousands of small wires that wrapped around and pierced my body.
“What— what was the movie about, sweetie?” I asked very cautiously.
“F— fire!” was all she said before breaking down.
No. There was no way it could be the same one! In that moment everything flashed before me in full detail: the family looking towards their burning home and the firefighters trapped inside of it. The boy set ablaze by his remote control and the girl with the melting face, howling in such agony that it could shake a devil. And the party; the birthday party full of screaming children consumed by fire as a boy convulsed on the grass as he was reduced to ashes.
I wasn’t about to have her endure the same traumatic nights I did. I took my daughter’s hand and walked with her into the school and right towards the principal’s office. I couldn’t wait to tear into the administration, a feeling my own parents must have felt over two decades earlier.
“Oh, my!” I heard a vaguely familiar voice say. I turned to see Mrs. Wallace standing in the doorway, looking older and with some grey highlights in her otherwise dark hair, but not too dramatically different in appearances after so many years. She was now principal.
“Well, haven’t you grown!” she said excitedly, recognizing me almost in an instant. She then looked at my daughter, still sniffling as she stood beside me. Just as I was about to state my intentions, she calmly ushered me into her quarters. I knelt down to my little girl and asked her to wait outside until I got back. She nodded, wiping away some more tears before sitting in a chair beside the office door.
“I think I know why you’re here,” Mrs. Wallace said. “It is October, after all.”
“She saw it,” I started. “She saw that same goddamn movie!”
Mrs. Wallace sat at her desk and let out a heavy sigh. She then opened a drawer and removed a shining red VHS. The title and text had long since worn away, but I knew it was the the same one I had seen when I was an elementary school student.
“Do you— want to watch it?” she asked.
I stared at the cassette, filling with abhorrence for it, for what it had done to me, for what it had done to my own child! I wanted nothing more than to pulverize it and wrap the tape around the casing before throwing it into a river. I put that ire aside and nodded. Mrs. Wallace loaded the cassette into a dusty old VCR in her office, fiddling with the long outdated equipment until the picture came into view on the TV.
“Hi there, kids!” shouted a furry blue puppet. “I’m Willy, and I’m here today to teach you all about fire safety!”
The movie continued as I stared, mouth agape. This wasn’t the same thing! There were no fires, no screaming children! It was just some silly little puppet show like my parents had told me so many years ago!
“You don’t need to say anything,” Mrs. Wallace began. “I know.”
I was released from my stupor.
“What?” I asked, breaking my gaze with the screen.
“Every year, for over twenty years, we’ve shown this same movie,” she said. “Every year the children are frightened.” She sunk lower in her seat. “Beyond frightened, even, and I always end up having to deal with the fallout: the angry parents, the crying kids. I don’t know what it is, but I know that it happens each time. And I know you saw it too— the real movie, that is.”
I looked to the television as the ridiculous puppet carried on a conversation with a cheesy anthropomorphic ember that was encouraging him to play with a book of matches. The real movie?
“There’s something in this tape,” she continued. “Something you can’t see when you grow up, but the kids can see it.” I looked back at my old first grade teacher, suddenly looking worn from so many years of enduring this same conversation.
“I’ve never seen it myself,” she said before standing and ejecting the tape. “But,” she continued somewhat wily, “you never played with fire after this, did you?”
“No! Never!” I said, shaking my head like a child just caught in the candy tray before dinner. Mrs. Wallace chuckled a little as she returned the red cassette to her desk drawer.
“Well then,” she said, “whatever is in here must work. Why else would we be holding onto it for so long?”
I left with my daughter and headed home, keeping silent on the revelations I had had in that office. I did my best to reassure her that everything was safe, that she didn’t have to fear the spontaneous blazes that the movie had showcased. That the house wasn’t going to burn down without warning, and that we had a plan to get out both quickly and safely if such an emergency were to arise.
After a struggle to get her to bed, I decided to contact my old friend Maria online. She had long since moved away from the town in which we grew up, so I figured she wouldn’t know anything about the video outside of what we had seen when we were kids ourselves. We joked for a bit before I brought up Don’t Play Games With Mr. Matches. Her messenger was still for a little while, and then a large block of text appeared:
“Oh, my God! I forgot all about that thing until the other day! So weird! My son came home crying, saying that he was terrified of fire. Then he started telling me about this movie they watched in school and it just sort of came back to me! I remembered the burning boy running through the yard and, when I asked him, he said it was the same thing! I was so afraid that this was going to traumatize him so I went to the school to talk about it. Now, you’re never going to believe me, but when I watched the video it was just some stupid puppet show!”
© 2016 by Mike Smale. All rights reserved.
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