Purposeful Pyromania

Ronald Brennen was sitting on the freshly-cut grass of his father’s home during a balmy evening in July. The temperature around the home, however, was becoming unbearable. It had been roughly six minutes from when Ronald ignited the blaze. A neighbor, driving toward his own property five-hundred yards away, had noticed Ronald staring into the flames with a smile. The neighbor dialed 911, muttering, “Goddang firebug.”

Firefighters and police were dispatched to the home, arriving another twelve minutes after the emergency call had been made.  The single-lane road that ran in front of Brennen’s house filled with the cacophony of sirens and striking lights flashing from blue, to red, to white. While the closest neighbors were a quarter of a mile away, the now-raging fire led to his neighbors’ TV programs getting interrupted, their late-night snacks halted, and their children woken up by the growing clamor and billowing smoke that coated the area. However, Ronald Brennan was absorbed by the smoldering spectacle. The panic growing around him felt muted. Ronald only saw the flicker of flames reflecting off of his glasses and enjoyed the campfire scent of his childhood home burning to the ground.  He didn’t hear the officers yelling for him to move away from the inferno—not until he was tackled from behind and dragged by his limbs to the curb. His head struck the lawn hard, waking him from his delight and launching his lenses into the air.

“I said, what the hell is wrong with you, kid?” an officer repeated, after pulling Ronald to his feet.

“Wrong? What do you mean?” Ronald asked, placing his hand on the officer’s shoulder and cocking his head to one side.

The officer looked at Ronald’s hand, then his eyes, and back at his hand as he shrugged off Ronald’s grip. “Sitting there like that.  You lookin’ to get burnt up, too?”

“Oh, you think I’m being reckless. No, no, I have everything quite under control.”

The officer methodically examined Ronald from toe to crown. When his gaze met Ronald’s, he saw no signs of guilt, but also no signs of panic. The officer’s eyes cut into slits. “What do you mean, under control?”

Ronald smiled. “The fire. It’s not an especially windy night, so the chance of it spreading to one of the adjacent properties is unlikely. My father’s land is fairly large, too. There’s plenty of space between the house, the barn, the silo, et cetera. We always keep the trees pruned, so it’s unlikely to spread that way, either. I have it under control.”

The officer opened his mouth to speak, but stopped, his maw agape for several seconds. He widened his eyes, shook his head and sucked his teeth. “You mean to tell me you did this?”

Ronald nodded his head. “Guilty as charged.”

The officer’s face tightened and grew red. He slammed Ronald’s head down against the trunk of his squad car. The steel cooled Ronald’s flame-tingled forehead, but left him feeling woozy and unsure if his legs would keep him upright. The officer read Ronald his rights and then asked, “Your father know about the shit you pulled here tonight?”

Ronald saw flickering lights dancing in his periphery after his head was removed from the top of the trunk. He thought he might black out, but chuckled and said, “I hope so, I did this for him. Not that you’ll be able to ask him, though. He’s still inside.”

The officer stopped, shouting, “We got somebody still inside! Get in there and get him out, he might still be alive.”

Ronald mistakenly stepped on the officer’s foot trying to regain his balance. “He’s not.”

“You betta hope he is. Otherwise you just admitted to arson and murder.”

Ronald smiled, his body swaying like a sapling taking on heavy wind.  “Arson, I suppose, though I’m burning my family’s property, so that’s a bit hazy. However, my father being inside—I wouldn’t call that murder.”

The officer lost his composure. He hadn’t been on the force long, and what little training he had disintegrated when confronted with Ronald Brennen’s cool demeanor. He threw Ronald into the back of his squad car and bashed his face into the metal grating between the front and rear of the vehicle. There was a splash of blood that left Ronald with a fractured—if not broken—nose. His body crumpled, leaving him unconscious on the seat.


Ronald woke up in a holding cell. He found it difficult to breathe, realizing why when he placed his hand against his throbbing face.  The blood hadn’t soaked through the bandage, but Ronald felt a moist spot in the center. He let out a slight groan.

A nearby officer heard Ronald stir and said, “He’s up, Sarge!”

A man in his late fifties—dressed in full police regalia, stripes and decorations denoting him as sergeant—sauntered in from the adjoining room. The officer who had left Ronald unconscious followed behind him, head down. The sergeant stopped in front of Ronald’s cell, his shined and spotless black leather shoes tapping hard against the tiled floor. He stood waiting for Ronald to acknowledge him, but after forty-five seconds of silence, the sergeant said, “You’re in a heap a trouble here, son. Do ya understand that?”

Ronald wanted to say he wasn’t stupid, but his upbringing made him reply, “Yes sir, I am aware I’ve committed a crime tonight. I willfully destroyed my family home.”

The sergeant sighed and a small frown formed on his weathered face. “I don’t think ya understand the actual weight of what you’re sayin’. Your actions have consequences. I ain’t even talkin’ about jail time, I’m talkin’ about something ya can’t undo.”

Ronald knew what the sergeant was referring to. “My father?”

“Yep,” the sergeant sighed. “Shame, a boy killin his old man like that.”

Ronald also sighed, but one of relief. “I’m glad it’s over for him.”

He shrugged off Ronald’s answer and said, “You messed up tonight. Nothin’s gonna change that, but Simmons here”—he nodded toward the officer behind him—”responding by bashing in your face ain’t right either. Witnesses said ya didn’t put up a fight.”

Ronald looked at the officer who had knocked his face in, nodded and said, “Yes sir.”

“Well, what Simmons did goes against protocol. I take that serious in my precinct. You’re allowed to press charges, if ya like.”

Ronald shook his head no.

“Well, with that cleared up, we need to take a statement from ya. Normally you’d be in front of a judge in the morning, but I’ve heard ya already confessed, so no point in dragging it out. You’re entitled to have a lawyer present if you’ve got one to call, though.”

Ronald shook his head once more.  “I don’t need one. My father always said a man should be responsible for his actions.”

The sergeant smiled. “Well, all right then. We’ll get one of the other officers that was on scene for your arrest to take you to an interrogation room for questioning an—”

Ronald interrupted: “Excuse me, sir.” He pointed toward Simmons. “I’m only giving a statement if he’ll be the one questioning me.”

“Seems like a conflict of interest. Simmons rearranging your face and all.”

“No, it has to be him.”

The cell door was slid open and Ronald’s wrists were manacled. The sergeant walked Ronald to the interrogation room himself, Simmons in tow. Inside, a bare table and two chairs stood in the center. Three walls were painted blue, with the forth composed of a double-sided mirror. A small camera sat upon a tripod in the farthest corner.

Ronald giggled and motioned toward the camera. “Pretty sure my father owned the same model.”

The sergeant simply guided Ronald toward one of the empty chairs, pulling it out for him. “Take a seat. Simmons will be in shortly.”

The door closed after the sergeant and Ronald heard talking behind the entrance. He couldn’t make out their words, but he could tell that Simmons was reluctant. Ronald, through blurred vision, looked in the mirror and did his best to make out the damage to his face.  His blue eyes no longer sat behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses: instead, two black eyes now made a faux frame. He couldn’t see his nose, only the large bandage held in place by medical tape. His shaggy, strawberry-blond hair was as unkempt as ever. He smiled, exposing the snaggle tooth on the left side of his mouth. He raised one handcuffed hand and waved at whomever was watching on the other side of the mirror.

The door opened and Simmons entered. Something was clutched in his left hand. He pulled out the chair opposite Ronald, sat down, and stared into the disfigured face he was responsible for.

They sat quietly for some time, but then Simmons reached over and set something down. Ronald’s familiar gold frames were laid before him. He fumbled to put them on with his bound hands and bandaged face, but he managed. Though some extra scratches had been added to the lenses, the world became clear again.

Ronald saw Simmons visibly for the first time.  He was a younger man—not quite as young as Ronald, but probably only two or three years older. Simmons had a strong jaw, which was currently clenched. The veins on the side of his head showed the strain of his bite.

“You can relax.” Ronald held up his cuffed wrists. “I can’t do anything, now can I?”

Simmons ignored Ronald’s question. “Why me? Why do I gotta be the one you talk to? You already told me enough outside the fire.”

Ronald smiled. “Yes, I did tell you some of what happened, and I don’t blame you for not wanting to talk to me, but I want you to know.”

Simmons shook his head. “I don’t really care what you want. I’m here to get your statement and then I’m going home sometime tomorrow afternoon, thanks to all the paperwork I’ve got now.” His chair scraped the floor as he stood up, walking toward the tripod in the corner of the room.

“Fair enough, but there’s more to everything that transpired tonight and I’m going to tell you regardless. My father would have wanted it that way.”

“Whatever, Psycho. Your father’s dead. Seeing as how you made that happen, I don’t think you really have the right to speak for him.”  Simmons turned on the camera and faced the lens toward Ronald’s face. A red light blinked on.

“We’ll see how true that is by the time I’m done talking.”


Ronald’s parents had tried to have children for many years, but every time Malory Brennen got pregnant, the fetus never made it to term. Malory and Thomas seemed cursed, yet they’d always wanted to be parents. A fertility clinic was out of the question. “Wasn’t natural,” they’d say. If the lord didn’t want them to have a baby, there wasn’t anything they could do about that.

It wasn’t until Malory turned forty-five that Ronald was conceived. They didn’t want to get their hopes up, but after four months with the child still holding on strong, Malory and Thomas knew God had deemed them fit to be parents. Malory couldn’t wait to be a mother. As soon as the ultrasound showed a boy, she named him Ronald—or “my little Ronnie,” as she referred to him.

The new parents were hopeful, but Malory’s doctors had warned her about the troubles that can come with pregnancies at an advanced age. Unfortunately, early one June morning, seven months into the pregnancy, Malory’s water broke and it was bloody.  With the strength of a cart horse that’s in the twilight of its career, Thomas managed to lift his wife from their bed and put her in the back of their station wagon. He drove so fast that Malory had to chastise him in between moans of pain. He nearly ripped the asphalt up from the street and took it with them to St. Michael’s Hospital.

After rushing Malory in, the staff wouldn’t allow Thomas to stay with her as they brought her into the operating room. Twelve hours passed. Thomas was still standing near the doors, asking anyone who walked by in a pair of scrubs how his wife and son were doing.  Thomas finally got his answer around the thirteenth hour. Malory hadn’t survived the birth, but their son had. He couldn’t help himself from weeping in front of this stranger. After breathing in deeply and shaking the sting away, all Thomas asked was, “Can I see my boy?”

Thomas told Ronald this story many years later, when Ronald became inquisitive about why he didn’t have a mother like the other kids, and now Ronald was telling Officer Simmons.

“So, some sob story is supposed to make me feel bad for you? It’s a shame it happened, but you killed your dad just like you killed your mom.”

Ronald ignored Simmons and instead continued his tale. Thomas never held the death of his wife against his son. God had taken Malory from him, not Ronald. And after that, Thomas stopped going to church. When Ronald asked about his friends’ parents making them go on Sundays, Thomas responded, “We don’t have to go. God and us, we’ve got an understanding.”

Thomas chose not to raise his son in the Christian tradition, but that didn’t mean he didn’t raise Ronald to have respect for those around him. “In fact,” Ronald told Simmons, “thanks to my dad, I ended up a much kinder person than most people I know.”

“Kinder, says the boy who killed his father. Whatever, just move it along. None of this has to do with tonight.”

Fifty-one when Ronald was born and having dealt with type-one diabetes his whole life, Thomas knew he wouldn’t always be around, so he needed to make sure Ronald could take care of himself.

“Dad—he taught me how to be self-sufficient. We went camping a lot. Taught me how to fish, hunt, make a shelter, build a campfire, stuff like that. Taught me to respect the world we live in. Something most people don’t care about.”

“Campfire. Is that what started your tendencies to burn?” Simmons asked with a smirk.

“Fire’s always been a part of my life. Those campfires, burning leaves in the fall, fire pits in the backyard on brisk summer nights . . .  the smell of coals and ash fill most of my memories.”

“So, you became obsessed with fire then? It’s just something that was, pardon the pun, burned into you?”

“You can make jokes, but my old man prepared me for what I had to do tonight.”

The older Ronald got, the more his father deteriorated. By the time Ronald was fifteen, his father had already lost his left leg up to his knee, two toes on his right foot, and a lot of the feeling in what remained of both lower limbs. Thomas walked with a cane, a stand-in third leg. Ronald tried to help his dad move around, but Thomas always rapped Ronald on the shin with his cane and said, “Just because you’ve still got yours doesn’t mean I can’t walk without mine.”

“I couldn’t bear to see my father like that. Such a strong man, destroyed by his own body.”

Simmons sat upright in his chair and looked intently into Ronald’s eyes. “So that’s it: you killed him because he was getting old. You took his life because you thought he was better off.”

“I didn’t do anything I wasn’t supposed to do.”

Five more years passed and his father’s condition only got worse. Ronald was now twenty and his father was seventy-one. In that time, Thomas lost his other leg to the knee. He’d lost most feeling below his waist and developed bowel and bladder issues.

“I changed my father’s diapers the way he’d changed mine. Most people wouldn’t do that for their father at twenty.”

“So you resented him? I get it—my old man and I, well, I never really agree with anything he’s got to say. You did it for yourself. Shit, I would too.”

Ronald shook his head. “No, he asked me to do it.”

Simmons laughed. “Bullshit. You made his last moments hell. Same as he made all yours.”

Thomas couldn’t put his son through the hell he was living. He said, “Ronnie, you’ve been a good boy.  Momma would’ve been proud of ya, but you don’t need me anymore. Not like this. I’m only making things worse for you and I can’t go on.”

Ronald fought for his father’s life: “No, no, not at all, Dad. You’re not making anything worse. I love you. I don’t mind taking care of you. I’ll do it as long as I can.”

“I don’t want you to anymore,” Thomas said, as tears pooled in his sunken eyes. “I want to go back to Malory. I don’t want to be a burden to you anymore. Please, Ronnie. I know what I’m askin’ ya, but please, son. End it.”

Simmons shook his head. “Even if it were true, that doesn’t explain why you burned down the house.”

“We didn’t have anyone. My father was old. I never knew my grandparents. I didn’t have a mother growing up. I’d be having a funeral as the only witness to his life.”

“But still, a fire? You could have hurt everyone on that stretch of land.”

Ronald smirked and shifted in his chair. “I told you when you tackled me to the ground. I had it under control. If you did your job, you would have listened to how I told you I grew up around fire. If you were even better at your job, you would have looked into my background and saw I work for a prescribed burn crew. My job is literally setting controlled fires.”

The officer’s eyes widened, darting between Ronald and the camera. He turned around in the chair to look at the two way mirror, then back at Ronald. “Horseshit.”

Ronald continued: “I expect to go to jail for this, as it was a rather unorthodox funeral, but my father was a Viking. He deserved to go out like one.”

Simmons rested his hands on his knees, leaned down, and shook his head.

Ronald stared past Simmons and to the mirror behind him. “If you check the fire safety box at Thomas Brennen’s home, you will find a video recording of my father asking for and giving consent to an assisted suicide.” He motioned toward the recording camera. “Pretty sure you can just pop the SD card into this one here and check. My father was lucid, but I’m sure you’ll try to find a way to fight that. I gave my father a lethal dose of oxycodone, as requested, and willfully set his home ablaze. I gave my father what he asked for, because I loved and respected him.”

Ronald then turned back toward Simmons and said, “I wanted you to know because you fucked up my face out of anger and confusion. I wanted to clarify my situation before I actually have my lawyer present, because as my father taught me, a man takes responsibility for his actions.”

Ronald leaned back in his chair, took off his glasses, and removed the bandage from his face.  He placed his glasses back on the bridge of his nose, wincing as he did so.  He then gave the same snaggle toothed smile and waved toward the mirror once more.  Simmons fought the longing to smash Ronald’s grin into oblivion. He already had too much paperwork, but he couldn’t let Ronald win either. He cocked his arm back, giving the illusion of a punch. Rather than flinch, Ronald just flashed his teeth once more.