The Time I Nearly Burned Down Halloween

Or why an 11-year-old shouldn't be allowed to play with matches

By Katharine Shilcutt October 31, 2013

I am sure my mother thought that an 11-year-old was old enough to be left alone in the house for an evening without burning it down. After all, I'd been a latchkey kid since roughly 2nd grade, riding the bus home from Rummel Creek Elementary School to our little townhome, letting myself in, fixing myself an afternoon snack, and playing Nintendo doing homework until my mother got home in the evening—all without incident for many years.

She was wrong.

It's not that I was a firebug, or that I was irresponsible. I was just easily distracted, as most 11-year-olds tend to be. And, as most 11-year-olds also tend to be, I was desperate to be seen as a "big girl." One who could maybe have her own phone line in her bedroom, or wear lightly tinted Lip Smackers to her 6th grade classes. Maybe even shave her legs ... in a couple of years.

Only a year later, I would go on to nearly burn the house down. I blame this terrible picture day outfit.

It was this effort to be seen as a "big girl" that led me to decorate the house for Halloween while my mother and stepfather were out to dinner one night in October. We didn't have much in the way of Halloween decorations—we've always been more of a Christmas family—and we didn't have any pumpkins to carve. I couldn't walk to the store to buy anything (Houston was somehow less walkable in my youth), not that I had any pocket money to buy it with. But I finally managed to dig up a porcelain jack-o-lantern from a hall closet that I thought would look quite festive with a flickering candle underneath its glossy orange head.

I scouted for the perfect location for the jack-o-lantern to greet my parents when they came home. Not in the front window; they always came in through the back. Not in the kitchen; that was too plain. Not on the coffee table; it would just get knocked off somehow. The dinner table, however, was perfect. A gorgeous oak table with a thick, well-oiled top that had been made by my great-grandfather and passed down to his granddaughter, my mother, over the years, it was the ideal pedestal for the simple centerpiece I envisioned.

But I couldn't find a candle. Sure, there were big, fat ones that my mother used as decoration in the living room, and a few scented ones from the bathroom—but none of these quite fit under the squatty little dome of the porcelain jack-o-lantern. And then I remembered: there were a few birthday candles leftover in the door of the refrigerator. I grabbed them, triumphant, before realizing that my solution came with its own unique problem: how would I stand the birthday candles up inside the jack-o-lantern without cake and frosting to hold them in place?

The following Goldbergian solution is why I am not an engineer.

I eventually learned to use birthday candles in their appropriate context, although it would be years before I learned to correctly decorate a cake.

A plastic clothespin found in the junk drawer solved the problem of holding the candles upright, but the candles would still drip, I reasoned. Couldn't have wax dripping on our fancy table, one of the few fancy items we owned. But the lid from a Parkay butter container would catch the drips! I carefully positioned the candles in the mouth of the clothespin, set it atop the plastic butter lid, and lit them, before finally lowering the jack-o-lantern into place.

It was a sight to behold, warm and inviting and oh-so-Halloweeny. My parents were going to be thrilled when they came home to such a welcoming sight. I trotted upstairs to record myself playing really terrible Bangles riffs on my Casio keyboard until they came home, and soon forgot about the jack-o-lantern altogether.

Roughly 30 minutes later, I began to smell it. Burnt plastic. Scorched wood. The dizzy, woozy smell of superheated paint. THE JACK-O-LANTERN.

I rushed downstairs, only to find the jack-o-lantern roaring flames out of its eyes and mouth like a fire-belching dragon, the wood of the dining table below it smoldering. I was paralyzed. I'd never been confronted with a real fire outside of the bonfires at Girl Scout Camp and the occasional fire in my grandparents' fireplace, and didn't know what to do. Just then, I heard the back door unlock and creak open.

My parents walked in through the kitchen, where they saw me standing across the dining room. We locked eyes, then began to look at the fire, then back at each other, in a series of increasingly incredulous double-takes that could have only taken a few seconds but seemed to last for an hour. The jack-o-lantern was fully engulfed in flames by now, the dining table on its way. I did the only thing that seemed smart; I bolted.

I ran upstairs as fast as I could and locked myself in the bathroom. I was safe. My parents would put out the fire and I would stay here until I died of old age. I couldn't bear to look them in the face. My welcoming, inviting Halloween decoration had turned on me. I set our dining room on fire. I deserved to die here in the bathroom a cringing old woman and never see the light of day again.

It was several minutes before my parents finally sought me out. They couldn't coax me out of the bathroom, and eventually my mother employed the wire hanger trick—not the Mommy Dearest trick, but the one that involved using the end of the hanger to depress a locking mechanism that would unlock the door from the outside. I locked myself into places a lot. It was old hat to get me out by now.

They weren't nearly as angry as I'd expected, but did explain to me that plastic was also as flammable as wood. They showed me the spot on the table where the Parkay butter lid had betrayed its duty as drip-catcher and caught fire the moment the birthday candles had burned all the way down (which probably only took a few minutes). It was soldered to the table, a twisted mess of burnt plastic, with a few metal implements embedded where the plastic clothespin had also once stood.

"What could you possibly have been thinking?" my mother asked me, dumbfounded.

Eventually, my stepfather was able to remove all of the plastic from the dining table. He took sandpaper to the burned spot, the size of a saucer, and buffed it smooth once again, although a deep crater was left when all was said and done.

We moved houses later that year, to the home my parents still share today. And every time I sit at the table with my mother—whether it's Halloween or not—I can catch her rubbing the little black pockmark that remains in the center of the table with a fond smile on her face. It's as if the wound is a reminder of the last days of my childhood, the days when all I cared about was being a big girl, just beginning to understand the consequences.

"Katie," she'll say with a laugh as she passes her fingers across the smooth oak surface, dipping into the gentle black valley of the scar and searching back up again, "tell me again about the time you nearly burned down the house."

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