• James Eichenlaub

The Dance of the Fire

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

The house sat in a suburb of Altoona known then as Spook Hollow, which sounds more eerily ominous than it actually was. At the foot of the steep embankment that dropped from the road passing in front of the house was a small garden. It was a garden of tomatoes, lettuce, and a turnip or two that Louise, lovingly known to others as Aunt Lou, raised for her and her husband, John. It was a typical three-story Victorian house, but because it was built on a hillside, the basement was not underground like a normal basement. Instead, it was partially built into the embankment with the remainder exposed above the surface from the midpoint, back. Making the house appear enormously tall by comparison.

Louise and John lived a few houses away from Jimbo's family, friendly neighbors, and Lou just loved children and was more than happy to watch over him for the day as his mother and father were busy elsewhere. Jimbo, or Jimmy as she called him, contentedly played in the dirt amid the rows of vegetables while Aunt Lou swept the porch and did other chores. She intended to teach him how to weed the garden, but it was a hot midsummer day, and his attention to weeds soon turned to games of fantasy as he crawled on hands and knees between the rows.

Despite wearing only his underpants, socks, and Keds sneakers beneath his striped bib overalls, he felt stifling hot beneath the summer sun as it passed directly overhead. Leaving behind the unweeded row, he crawled out and laid on his back in the soft, freshly mown grass facing the gigantic house. Shielding his eyes with his hands, he stared at the azure blue sky above him and then realized that the sky just beyond the house roof was filled with black smoke, or maybe clouds. His eyes still shielded, he watched as the blackness of the sky crept closer and closer when a sudden gust of cool wind swept across the garden, telling him that a storm was coming. At that same instant, the sky flashed with lightning and a sharp, quick clap of thunder, sending him scurrying up the hill toward the front porch.

Dashing across the porch, he let the screened door close sharply behind him with a bang nearly as loud as the thunder itself and, at the same time, almost crashing into Aunt Lou, who was just then coming from the kitchen to call him inside. "Goodness, boy, you gave me a fright," she said. Most likely having the same startled look on her face as he. The storm settled in, and the rain came down hard for a very long time. It lingered as the thunder and lightning continued, while Aunt Lou made soup (which she called 'sup') and a sandwich. As he waited, Jimmy knelt in front of the small television watching the Howdy Doody show with his pal, Buffalo Bob (see image). The year was 1956, and the Howdy Doody show was the first of the classic children's shows on television.

Aunt Lou was an older lady, and her house was adorned with woolen rugs, wooden furniture protected by lace doilies that displayed her bone china and depression glass, and as it was so aptly put, she and her house smelled "like old people...and soap". When the 'sup' was ready, Lou served it next to the sandwich on a small footstool that served as Jimmy's dinner table, behind which he continued to kneel as he ate. Aunt Lou returned to the kitchen from where the smell of freshly brewed coffee emanated and continued with whatever she was preparing for her and Uncle John when he arrived home from work.

The sun began to set before the darkness of the storm abated, and the downpour changed to a soft, continual soaking rain. The breeze through the front door screen was much cooler, but the house still felt stuffy and warm. Howdy Doody ended, and another program was already in progress with Aunt Lou returned from the Kitchen. Between the kitchen and the front room, where Jimmy knelt watching television, was the dining room that had a large dining table with six chairs, a china cabinet, and a buffet-serving table.

As she came near to where he was kneeling, Louise suddenly stopped and slapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream. Jimmy jerked his head around, first to her face, and then back to where her gaze was fixed, behind him to the screened door. Because the house was still hot from the day and the door opened to allow the air through, there, directly in front of them, was a ball of blue light that seemed to have attached itself to the screen, as if trying to push through. If it made any sound at all, it was masked by the sound of the television and the falling rain outside, but the sight of it made the back of Jimmy's neck tingle with fear as he and Louise watched the specter floating there in front of them.

The sphere hovered for seconds like the iridescent eyeball of some wayward alien, just staring at them as it seemingly sparkled at its edge. Then, without as much as a wave goodbye, it faded, or just drifted away, never to return. When it was gone, Aunt Lou fairly dove forward, slamming and locking the front door, and then turning toward the kitchen, ran and did the same with the rear door. Her panic caused Jimmy to begin crying, adding to the cacophony that heightened the feeling of fear as it combined with the noise of the television, the falling rain, running feet, and doors and windows being slammed shut and locked,

After the house was secured, Aunt Lou returned to the living room and switched off the television. She scooped Jimmy up from the floor and sat him on her lap, comforting him in an overstuffed armchair where he fell fast asleep, still sobbing. Sometime later, Jimmy's parents awakened him, lifting him from the sofa where he lay fast asleep. Aunt Lou was still crying, or had begun again, and was as she stumbled through the explanation of what they'd seen. Jimbo's mom held him against her while she and his dad talked to Aunt Lou. A calmness came over him in the safety of his mother's arms, and he dozed off again as she held him.

Jimbo awoke the next morning in his bed, which is where the saga, for him, ended. The sky was once again as blue as every Pennsylvania summer sky, and nobody ever talked about what happened afterward, most likely because the only witnesses of what was later recognized as likely to be Saint Elmo's Fire was a four-year-old boy and a hysterical older woman. Aunt Lou most likely died believing that a ghost visited them that night they saw the fire dance on the screen.

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