We held Molotov Cocktail Nights for only three consecutive Fridays. We were all somewhere around eighteen give or take. On the first, Chris spray-painted a concrete bridge pylon with the black outline of a Christmas tree. He was always drawing Christmas trees. He swiped his favorite number in the center: 1225. The paint dribbled.
We collected bottles all week, lining them up in a cardboard box in his bedroom. On Thursday, I cut T-shirts into strips. When we were all in the car on Friday, Chris filled the bottles sitting in the box in his trunk. It was dark. We got away with this twice, but on the last Friday, a skinny attendant said we needed to use a red gas can. We ponied up.
The pylon held up a bridge in Manchester, New Hampshire. Chris poured gas into the bottles; I stuffed their openings with rags. There were always at least five of us; I can see the bodies around the box, but I cannot see the faces for the glistering of our fire and the faults of my memory. Chris took the first bottle, lit the rag with a stove lighter and lobbed the completed Molotov at the Christmas tree. The bottle smashed and fire splashed and dripped down the pylon and into the river. We each pulled a bottle in turn, lighting our own or each other’s rag, throwing bottle after bottle at the concrete. If someone tossed it, the bottle clunked against the pylon and only sank—a waste. None are duds; they all have the same potential. All of them will explode fire if you help them, but they don’t explode like you see them on TV sometimes. The glass breaks and the gas rushes and meets the fire, which rages for one eye blink as it consumes the gas. The noise is just like you imagine. It is satisfying.
Being part of the assembly line, being one of the bartenders at a Molotov night was a service I put myself into. Chris and I, and perhaps one other kid, were present at all the burnings. After the first, I pretended around all the others that I was an expert; mixing cocktails was old hat. They paid admittance with their collected bottles, and we didn’t make them get out of the car to gas up. But of course we got something from it. Assembling the cocktails was like a ritual, like casting a spell. There was a secret we were keeping, there was a tour we were giving, and there was an awe we were collecting. And, of course, we were all risking a ride in the back of a cruiser.
Every time we set about lighting the rags, someone heard a siren. When the bottles shot against the wall, there were footsteps in the tall grass. When the bottles were gone, when the lighter was pocketed, when we were back in the car and heading down Canal Street, we were freer than we had been before we even had this idea. It was catharsis. We used it to erase or purge ourselves of our parents’ divorces, the cancer eating our cousins, our dead loves, our failed exams. I needed the last night.
Earlier on that Friday, I walked down toward Lake Avenue heading for a convenience store. I watched as a car sped down the hill pulling a cat under its tires. The car roared on. The cat leapt and flopped and screamed. I wrapped her up in my trench coat and took her home, trying not to grind her broken bones together. The coat was warm and wet and the cat dead before I came through the front door. My father gave me a trash bag and I lay her still warm in the cold shed. I went house to house looking for her owners. Maybe she didn’t have any.
I thought about her while I walked through the woods behind Chris, who carried the box with the clinking bottles and the pile of rags. Breathing with each step, connecting my army-surplus boots with the earth, whipping the weeds into the laces, I thought about the car.
When all the bottles sat at the base of the pylon as a pile of blackened diamonds or useless wholes, wet-wicked and almost bobbling with gasoline, Chris lit the box. It burned slow. Chris poured gas over it, and someone shouted. The fire climbed the arc of the gas steam; the nozzle of the gas can was in flames. Chris dropped the can, and it went out. The box burned fast. We circled it and watched it flare in the dark. The sides burned first, and the four corners and their edges charred and curled in and became legs. A side collapsed in the shape of a tail.
“It’s the cat,” I said.
“Shit,” someone else said. “It is a cat.”
I told them about the cat while we watched the box writhe and the cat’s legs shrink like a house had been dropped on them. The fire waned to ember, and there was silence. One guy wandered off. Chris found him later, crying about a dead puppy he had when he was a boy.
I scraped ash from what was left into a glass vial. A tiny ginseng bottle I had picked up out of a gutter in front of a convenience store on Lake Ave. People drink it for concentration and memory. I stoppered and pocketed it.
It’s in my jewelry box.
Elizabeth Holiday lives in Lowell, Massachusetts, perched in a restored mill that is anchored alongside the banks of the Merrimack River. She earned an English degree from Wellesley College in 2011 and an MFA from Bennington College in 2014. She is currently piecing together a memoir. Selected by Maya Sonenberg.