Katie Cortese received her MFA from Arizona State University and is currently a PhD student at Florida State. She has won numerous accolades for her fiction and her stories have appeared in over a dozen literary magazines and journals.
Free lesson plan for this story available in the Carve Classroom.
It starts as a build-up of energy that rises up from the pads of your toes to fill the space behind your eyes. At first you think you can control it, but in the next second your sister’s hair is burning, split ends giving off a too-familiar smell of crisping coconut shampoo.
Everyone is used to your fits, and Margaret doesn’t even scream. Instead, she grabs one of the damp washcloths your family keeps around the house. They’re everywhere—flung over staircase banisters, balancing on doorknobs, wadded up on the ancient, bulky television. It’s your chore to keep these cloths damp and wash them often to keep them from getting moldy. Most of them have scorch marks burned into their soft, no-color fibers. Considering your condition, it’s a small miracle there’s only been one major fire, the first time, before you could walk on your own. This time, your sister extinguishes her hair with a washcloth, then dials her hairdresser while tendrils of smoke rise from her head in sinuous threads. She gets a special rate for emergency trims. A frequent customer thing.
While she’s waiting for Amina at Mad Cutters to pick up, Margaret glares at you from across the room. You should be practicing Ujjayi breath, but instead, you glare right back, holding your ground for once, shaky though it may be. A week ago, you would not have had this argument, but a week ago the boy in Driver’s Ed hadn’t asked if you were going to the Junior Ring Dance, which Margaret is in charge of organizing.
You have never been to a school dance, never thought you wanted to go, but no one has asked if you were attending before. No one, at least, like that boy with his array of multi-colored Sharpies who pens portraits on your hands in the back of Mr. Baum’s modified Civic while the other student driver jerks you around your small town.
He’d asked if you were going to the dance, which is not the same as asking you to go with him. Still, you want to see him outside of Mr. Baum’s backseat, even if it might be dangerous. You told him yes, you were going with friends, which was risky since you have none. He’d only nodded and added blue feathers to the parrot he’d outlined on the back of your right hand, the felt tip of his pen raising just a tiny tingle in the soles of your sandaled feet, nothing stronger than pins-and-needles. When Mr. Baum dropped you at home, you asked Margaret if you could ride to the dance with her. She laughed. When you did not join her, she put a hand on your arm. Jessie, she said, What if no one asks you to dance and you go all Carrie on their asses?
I haven’t had a major incident since January, you’d said, which was five long months ago. Even then, no one got hurt. Just the mailbox full of slick college brochures for Margaret, reminding you how she would go into the world soon and you would watch the loaded station wagon depart, standing at your bedroom window like a Victorian madwoman in her attic prison. Now, you let her bring the mail in from its new flame-retardant box.
No, she’d said, squeezing gently, I don’t think the dance is a good idea.
That was all it took to ignite a burst. You fought it all the way, and were lucky it was a small one, but it was Margaret’s smoldering hair that ended up proving her point.
I’m going, you say now, getting your breath back, Whether you like it or not.
She turns away, speaking rapidly to her hairdresser, whose thick Eastern-European accent leaks through the cell.
It’s easy for Margaret to say no when she’s been to every dance and basketball game and pep rally that you have had to sit out. In the past, you did it gladly. You were safer at home. Everyone was. But you are getting better at controlling it. Only the tips of her hair were damaged this time, not like the incident with Percy, the neighbor’s evil Siamese that crossed your path after a failed geometry test. Your parents tried telling the Hendersons their cat was hypo-allergenic now, but they’ve stopped inviting your family to their famous backyard barbecues.
Still, you haven’t done serious damage in a long time, and you’ve learned a lot of self-control. If Margaret had come down with pyrokinesis instead of you, maybe she’d understand what it meant to have Sharpie boy look at you through the fringe of his bangs and say he was going to stop by the dance with his buddies. If Margaret had any idea what it was like to be you, then she’d get that this is the first time a boy has noticed you.
This is not to say Margaret is wrong. You are not sure that if you go to the dance it won’t end in disaster. The feeling gives you little warning. When it rushes up from the soles of your feet, you feel if you don’t project it out and away your body will spontaneously combust. Which is impossible, according to Mr. Geldon, your Chem teacher. But then, so is your disease.
You’ve managed not to be a freak at school by keeping to the back of classrooms, striving for middle-of-the road grades that don’t get you noticed. You have no close friends, on purpose. Your family protects you and puts up with you. So far. You aren’t sure going to the dance is a good idea, but you are tired of playing it safe.
Your mom’s theory is hormones. You’ll grow out of it like you grew out of The Backbeat Boys. It’s Backstreet, you’ve told her again and again. And though no amount of torture, blackmail or bribery could drag it out of you, you still have a thing for Nick Carter.
You’re right, as usual, you tell Margaret, when she hangs up, though when she leans in for a hug, you pretend to tie your shoe, and keep your real decision to yourself.
. . .
Yours is the last house on a small peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water. You suspect this is by design, though your parents swear it is coincidence—they moved there five years before you were born—but it does seem convenient since as a child, your fits could be quelled by tossing you in the ocean at the pivotal moment.
You think it was the distraction more than the water that stopped you, but your parents knew only that it worked. Until it stopped working three years ago, when puberty hit. In elementary school, your fits came twice a year, sometimes three, but in junior high, they started happening every other week. It scares you, especially since your parents have quit trying to cure you. Even when they could get a doctor to believe, none of them knew how to treat you. So now your mother says “hormones,” like a mantra, and tracks your calm streaks on the calendar.
You are sixteen and five months—old enough to apply for your Massachusetts’s Junior Operator’s License next month, provided you pass Driver’s Ed. You are two “behind-the-wheel” sessions from done, but driving scares the crap out of you. It’s not the mechanics, but the way you feel the ticking time bomb of yourself counting down during traffic standstills.
Your Driver’s Ed teacher, Mr. Baum, has been briefed about your condition. The other drivers are Tanya the Goth Girl and Sharpie boy, who you’ve secretly liked since he transferred in from St. Sebastian’s. You’ve never met anyone like him. Tall and skinny, he sometimes doodles on your hand in the back seat while Mr. Baum zip-zip-zips at Tanya to enter the rotary. You need to practice pranayama when he draws on you, the yogic breath control that helps delay your fits, which arise from any excess of emotion, good ones included.
Mr. Baum aggressively reminds the others to engage their blinkers, adjust their mirrors, keep their hands at ten-and-two. During halting three-point turns, he times them. When you drive, he holds a squirt bottle full of water as if to reprimand a wayward house pet. So far you have been too distracted while driving to muster the energy for a fit, but you fear the day driving becomes second nature when a bout of road rage could go so terribly, terribly wrong.
. . .
I’m so stressed, your sister says at the dinner table. The dance is two weeks away; preparations are reaching critical mass. She has pressed friends into service as ticket takers and decorators, and recruited her boyfriend, Rodney, to man the snack table, but he is not happy about it. He wants to smoke joints by the track shed with his friends whenever the urge strikes.
Margaret thinks you have given up on the dance, but you are planning to bike there in one of her dresses. She will not want to seem like a bitch in front of her friends and will let you buy a ticket at the door. You tried on a pink tube dress from her closet last night when she was at the movies and were pleased by the way it hugged your narrow hips. You have to squash a tiny burst now, shoveling in a mouthful of salad and chewing steadily, at the thought of Sharpie boy seeing you dressed up. You are afraid of dancing with him, but are more afraid of staying home to watch The Princess Bride. Again.
Now, your mother nods in sympathy with Margaret and takes a helping of salad. You notice with pleasure she’s trapped a tomato in the tongs, as well as a few sunflower seeds, which are rich in Vitamin E. Your mother eats like a bird, according to your father. You wish she ate like something larger. A house cat, or even a wolf. You would like her to wolf down something besides salad. Her bones seem as hollow as the pipes your father plumbs for a living.
The dance will be great, your mother tells Margaret, shunting her tomato to the side. You wish, not for the first time, that you’d developed any other neural disorder than the one you have—telekinesis so you could move a piece of chicken to her plate, or telepathy so you could plant the suggestion that she eat more.
What about you, Jessica? your father says, mildly. Everyone speaks mildly to you, except Margaret. Better safe than roasted.
What about me, you say, and spear a transparent slice of cucumber with your fork. When Sharpie boy draws on your hand, his grip on your wrist is loose and warm. You chew frantically to keep from ending your calm streak.
Your parents don’t demand you skip dances; they call it the mature choice. You can’t wait to shame them with their lack of faith when they see you were able to handle it this time.
Jessie’s not going, your sister says sweetly. She lists things that could go up in flames. Crepe paper. Tablecloths. Cheese Doodles. Dresses of cheap synthetic materials. Wrist corsages. Over-sprayed hair. She is not trying to be cruel, but you can’t help being annoyed, which escalates to anger.
May I be excused, you ask, which means, I’m going to try not to light you all up now.
When your father agrees, you sprint to the backyard just in time to ignite one candle-sized flame in the petunias. When you stamp it out with the heavy clogs you wear for this purpose, the damage is so negligible you decide it doesn’t count against your streak.
. . .
The week before the Junior Ring Dance, Mr. Baum is late picking the three of you up. You wait with Tanya the Goth chick and the boy, who whistles “Eye of the Tiger” with perfect pitch. After a minute, it’s clear that Tanya is staring at you. Hard.
You keep looking for Mr. Baum as if you are anxious to hit the open road.
How do you do it? Tanya asks. Her tone is admiring. You have met her type before. Groupies who think they want what you wish to God you didn’t have.
Do what? you say, because you’re not sure if the boy knows about it. While you think he wouldn’t care, you might be wrong. You’ve been wrong before. You don’t want to scare this one away, even if he’s only interested in you as a canvas.
You’ve only set one fire so far at the high school itself, and that one was thankfully in Chem lab. You grew frustrated with your lab partner, who was more interested in flirting with Mr. Geldon than in helping with your calculations. There were many chemicals on your counter, any combination could have sparked it, but you blamed a faulty Bunsen burner and everyone pretended to believe. Mr. Geldon took it as a chance to lecture the class on safety.
The rest of your lore is rumor. Your sister keeps her mouth shut as long as you don’t embarrass her. Some of your first cousins don’t even know the truth. But Tanya clearly believes.
What thing? the boy says. You can’t tell if he is real or fake interested.
She’s pyrokinetic, Tanya says, biting a thumbnail and managing to look both disgusted and flirtatious. She sets shit on fire. Why do you think Mr. Bum-Bum has that spray bottle?
The boy looks at you with his eyebrows bunched at the center of his forehead. You want to take two fingers and smooth them back out, one over each eye.
Like a firebug, he says.
No, Tanya says before you can, tapping her temple. Like Drew Barrymore in that movie.
The boy’s lips purse up as if he is about to whistle again. You try to laugh, but it comes out like a hairball. Heh-heh, heh-heh.
Cool, he says, finally.
Isn’t that Mr. Baum? you say, leaning past the curb. It’s not.
Give us a demonstration, Tanya says. Her face is flushing up all red. She has probably wanted to say this all year, but this is the last week of Driver’s Ed. You have tried not to think about it as the last time. You will miss the boy’s Sharpies gliding on the back of your hand. Plus, there’s the actual driving, which you need to practice. You are supposed take your test in June, if you can’t find a way to put it off.
I’m not giving shows, you say.
But you can really do it? he says. It’s genuine interest; you see the change.
A little rush of pride trips up your spine. There’s a breeze and you free the hair in your ponytail so it can tangle in the wind. Yeah, you say, I can.
The thing is, you wouldn’t know how to give a show. You’ve never done it on purpose. The bursts come in inconvenient moments, the way you’ve heard boys get erections in Algebra.
Cool, he says again, smiling as if he always knew you were special and now has proof.
Show us at the dance on Saturday, Tanya says. You’re going, right?
You point to Mr. Baum’s car as if you didn’t hear her. He tools closer at a snail’s pace, and by the time he pulls up, Tanya’s face is its usual implacable mask beneath her white makeup.
The car smells like an ashtray. This, then, is the reason for his tardiness. He has lectured windily about the perils of smoking while driving. Tanya takes the wheel. In the backseat, the boy chews on the cap of his Sharpie, then tugs your wrist into his lap and begins to draw.
. . .
Margaret is crying when she gets home on Friday, the day before the dance. Since you belong to no clubs or teams, and Margaret plays field hockey, is VP of SGA, and heads up Amnesty International, S.A.D.D. and the Yearbook Committee, you always get home first.
She drops her backpack in the living room where you are watching Jeopardy with your English textbook on your lap and goes back outside, sobbing noisily.
What happened, you ask, following her to the front stoop where she hunches, grinding palms into her eyes sockets.
Nothing, she says, seeming to watch the ascending tide slap the jetty beside your house.
It’s been two weeks with no fits, not including the petunias, so she can’t be mad at you. You sit next to her on the stoop. Do kids at school know about me? you ask.
Margaret stops crying for a moment to suck in a breath. Yes, she says. Most of them.
I thought so, you say. It shouldn’t matter. You haven’t done anything wrong. The only crack in your façade is a twitch at the corner of your mouth. Though you haven’t given much thought to a profession beyond high school, you’ve sometimes thought you wouldn’t make a half-bad actress. After all, every day is a kind of act for you. It occurs to you now, though, that life might be easier if you stopped pretending to be normal.
Margaret is still crying. You put your hand on her shoulder.
Hey, you say, what’s going on?
She looks at you through a film of tears. You feel so protective of your older sister—physically fragile, like your mother, but usually so self-assured—that the beginning of a burst begins to fill you up like a bubble blown inside a tin can. Except these bubbles feel like they would tear you open if you didn’t allow them to escape.
Rodney dumped me, she says, but won’t let you pull her close for a hug.
Don’t you get it, she says, hands buried in her hair. He was going to run the snack table. I’m distributing rings all night, she almost screams, no one else can be trusted with the rings.
You have time to be grateful Margaret didn’t end up with your disease. Otherwise, half of your town would be in cinders by now. Then the burst resurges, trickling upwards, anti-gravity. Your fingertips tingle, your eyes burn.
I’ll kill him, you say.
You knew he was bad news since you learned he owned three Nickelback CDs. Also since you picked up the landline and heard him refer to you as a sideshow freak. Margaret had told him to take that the fuck back. But still.
Did he leave you for another girl? you ask.
She shrugs, which means yes. Then she says, Don’t kill him.
You wouldn’t try to kill him, of course. But you are worried that the next time you see him, you won’t be able to control yourself. You try to breathe slowly through your nose.
That asshole, you say. That dick.
Try some pranayummy, Margaret says, her eyes suddenly dry. Count down from ten.
You try, hard, but your sister, your best ally, water to your fire, yin to your out-of-control yang, sits next to you with bloodshot, raccoonish eyes because of Rodney “Just Call me Long Rod” Marshall. Now she stands so fast your arm hits the step and begins to throb.
I shouldn’t have told you, she says. You can’t kill him. I don’t care about Elisha, or whatever the slut’s name is. I still love him. You wouldn’t understand.
Then you are gripping something inside yourself very, very hard. You close your stinging eyes and listen for the familiar hiss-pop of a fire breathing into existence, but there is nothing except the smack of the screen as Margaret goes inside. Since all your fires are local—within a ten-foot radius—and no one is in sight, it would be okay to let go now. Instead, you clench harder, riding the curve of the bubble, letting that unbearable pressure build and build and build until you are balanced on its crest, and for the first time in your life, you don’t let go.
There is a moment when you fear your eyes will be expelled from your head, the way you’ve heard they would be if you held them open during a sneeze. At the height of your distress, you have to pat yourself to confirm that you have not become the fire, and then—the closest thing to a miracle since your mother saved you during the first, horrible fit you barely remember because she has the scars, not you—the inferno inside begins to subside.
It hurts like hell, but after a minute, you can breathe without gasping, and when you peek at the world, you see no crackling flames. It’s your first averted fire. You’ve done it. You’ve shown it who’s boss. You feel like crying. You feel like celebrating. You are on your feet before you remember Margaret is mad at you, but rush inside to tell her anyway.
She is facedown on the couch, curiously still. I swallowed the burst, you nearly shriek.
She sits up and blinks, mascara smudged artfully across her face. You did what? she says.
I’ll do the table, you say, though it means you won’t be able to dance with Sharpie boy. Margaret is more important than him anyway. Let me do refreshments, you say.
She peels herself up from the couch. Really? she says, You think you can do it? When you nod, she grabs your hands and the two of you jump up and down until your mother walks in, yawning. Because of her tank top, the pinkish scar tissue on her upper arms is exposed.
Margaret tells her what you did.
I knew it, your mother says, Hormones.
. . .
Your first dance, so far, is better than you’d hoped. Your classmates look like beautiful strangers, hair done and shoes shiny. Margaret managed to transform the gym to a ballroom with a roll of craft paper for a red carpet and a few artful clutches of silver balloons. Low lighting illuminates couples grinding on each other in a dazzling sea of sequins against suede, satin against silk, velvet against polycotton. It doesn’t even matter that most of what you see is flammable.
Of course, you mainly have eyes for Sharpie boy, who surfaces occasionally in the crowd. He already danced once with a girl on the swim team. Her hair was blond and lank and you caught yourself imagining it going up like a mentholated Kleenex before regaining control easily, and with a certain amount of pride. Since yesterday’s snuffed fit, you’ve reveled in your new, delicious ability to pull up short at all your self-imposed stop signs.
Though you are afraid you may not talk to Sharpie boy, never mind dance with him, at the refreshment table you are a minor goddess of all you survey. When the dancers are thirsty, they must push wrinkled dollars into your waiting hands. The dance benefits S.A.D.D. and everything is a dollar. You feel so free and easy that you don’t mind repeating the price over and over. That cookie? A dollar, you tell a redheaded senior, and when a boy from your homeroom asks you how much the punch is, you hold up one finger and pretend not to see the outline of a flask against his suit coat. Across the gym, Margaret gives you a thumb’s up, which you return. With all your heart, you believe the paper runway safe from your wrath.
Even if Rodney shows, though you doubt he will, you feel confident in your ability to stay cool. No one is in charge of your destiny now but you.
Will Smith is demanding everyone “Get Jiggy with It” when Tanya and her friends sidle up for cups of punch. You submerge the ladle in its red depths, avoiding floating orange slices.
Her? one girl says at the back of the group. She wears a black eighties prom dress with a swatch of black lace over her face.
Tanya nods, and your face burns with an ordinary blush. Thankfully, it is dark beyond the dance floor’s roving red and white spotlights.
You hand the last cup of punch to Tanya, but she doesn’t take it.
So when are you going to do it? Tanya says. You know, poof.
You owe Tanya nothing but the punch in your hand. I told you, no shows, you say.
We won’t tell anyone it was you, Tanya says, reaching at last for the cup, swirling the contents against the plastic. Just light up a streamer, Tanya says. We paid ten bucks to get in.
Yeah, we won’t tell, Lace-face says without meeting your eyes, so you wonder who else expects you to reduce the school to cinders.
You try to catch Margaret’s eye, but there are too many balloon bouquets between you. When a boy cuts through the crowd for a brownie, Tanya’s gang drifts away, shaking their heads like you are a promising shih tzu that peed on the dog show judge.
Sorry girls, you think, not sorry at all. You are in control. You are in the driver’s seat. Still, you are flustered when, after a brief lull, your Sharpie boy bellies up to the table in a blue blazer and yellow tie.
There you are, he says, and you blush furiously, fighting an inkling of a burst that is easily mashed back down, to your pleasure, which brings a new influx of pink to your cheeks.
Here I am, you say, leaving one hand on the table so he can see the faint impression of his last drawing—a desert island complete with palm tree and shark’s fin.
Are you having a good time tonight? you ask.
It’s nice to see everyone dressed up, he says, looking only at you.
You bite your cheek to keep from smiling too broadly.
Do you have to stay here all night, or can you dance later? he asks.
I’m supposed to stay, you say, though when he swallows hard you quickly add, But maybe my sister can cover one song.
He gives you that sweet half-smile. One punch, please, he says, Top shelf.
It’s on me, you say, which you hope he recognizes as code for: “I like you.”
He grins, almost bumping into your next customer, who is so familiar that you smile automatically before remembering his crime against Margaret, and that he’s supposed to be running this table. You look around for Elisha What’s-Her-Name.
You’ve got some nerve, you hear yourself say.
Rodney lifts his hands in surrender. Woah, he says, I just wanted to say thanks for stepping in. Mags said you looked like you were having fun.
You’re back together? you say.
He squints like you just spoke Swahili. You look away from his stupid, gelled flattop before it pushes you over the edge and scan for Margaret, but she is conveniently missing.
Long Rod backs away slowly. Look, he says, I’m not even thirsty. Forget I was here.
But you can’t forget, because Margaret lied to you. She heard at school you were going to the dance and put on a show to keep you out of Sharpie boy’s arms. There is no Elisha What’s-Her-Name. Margaret is clearly a better actress than you. For some reason, that’s the final straw.
Leaving the cashbox open, you storm across the gym where Margaret peeks out from a tightly clumped knot of her friends.
“Stairway to Heaven” begins to strain through the speakers. You glimpse Sharpie boy approaching the table you just vacated and want to abandon your mission, but can’t.
You lied to me, you tell Margaret as her friends scurry off.
Her fists attach to her hips. I was trying to protect you, she says.
While this is partly true, she was also protecting herself, as well as her precious dance. Plus, she lied. Manipulated you and your disability. Your family is supposed to be your safe zone. You all make sure your mother eats and doesn’t drift back into the depression that almost killed her when you were a baby, before you almost killed her, that is. Margaret protects you at school and you protect them all by never feeling anything fully. You count backwards and study Mahayana Buddhism and sit for hours in a full lotus instead of collecting yearbook photos or writing for the school paper or trying out for the spring musical.
You cried, you say. You never cry.
Yeah, and you swallowed a burst, she says. Remember?
This is also true, but you can’t remember that feeling. Your needle is ticking into the red.
Shit, you say, nails buried in your palms.
Easy, Margaret says. Her hands flutter near you without landing. She’s singed herself that way before. You can control this, she says.
She is more afraid to see her red carpet burn up like a trail of gunpowder than concerned for your safety. It’s so clear she might as well have said it out loud.
Not this time, you say, because you are past the tipping point.
You stumble for the door, arms pinwheeling for balance in your borrowed heels. Outside, the humid air offers no relief. You wobble down the steps, the metal railing glowing in your grip, memorizing your fingerprints, and rip off the shoes halfway down. In the parking lot, tar sticks to your soles as you run, but you don’t dare stop. Not a car, you think, anything but a car. As you streak through the parking lot and turn at the gym, seeking any private corner, a column of orange flumes up from a metal trash can, but it barely dents the intensity of this fit. You haven’t felt a burst this strong since your baby days, when your condition was first presenting. You don’t remember that first time, except you remember it all in a way, because it is Shelby lore, a family secret bigger than your own horrible curse.
You run past some kids sharing a doobie by the track shed. Rodney has his back to you. His tie begins to smoke as you pass, but he puts it out with the flat of his hand, blaming a cherry knocked off the joint. You are trying to hold the bulk of it in a little longer, remembering that sunny morning when you were small enough to stand at the bars of a crib, drooling onto Margaret’s hand-me-down shirt reading Daddy’s Little Angel. You couldn’t speak yet, except for a long stream of Mamamas. The crib was in your mother’s room where she was napping.
She napped a lot. Every day, for large portions of the day. Your sister was outside, in the sandbox. Too young to be outside on her own. One minute you were asleep in the stripy lengths of sun filtering through the blinds, and the next awake and restless, overwarm, wanting out of your crib. You tried crying. You almost remember this being deliberate. You called out your string of Mamamas. Everyone in your family knows the term “post-partum depression” now. Not then, of course. Then you only knew you wanted to wake her up.
Her smooth eyelids enraged you. You see them as you run on feet bleeding, tar-spotted, and sore. Weeds in the cracks of the neglected pavement erupt into flame as you pass. You cannot stop to put them out. There is a loading dock near the cafeteria. The dock has a corrugated metal door in a concrete courtyard. It’s a place that might save you. As you run, tears sizzle and evaporate from your cheeks on contact.
Mamamamama, you’d cried. Mamamamama. She remained still until you realized she wasn’t sleeping after all. She was moving, positioning a bed pillow over her head. Blocking you out as if you didn’t exist. You thought none of this exactly, and all of it at once. Your rage escalated as only a toddler’s can, exponentially, a burning sensation tickling the soles of your tiny feet. You continued to cry until you couldn’t remember a time when you hadn’t been crying and didn’t know how to stop. At the height of your loudest wail yet, a blanket of fire swept across your mother’s bed, covering her like a comforter. The one memory you are fairly sure is authentic to this experience is having your mother stare out at you, more surprised than scared, from a halo and matching necklace made of fire.
You cried her name—or the string of Mamamas—and it woke her enough to roll on the ground, snuffing the worst of the flames. She ripped away the blackened tank top that had begun to melt on her body, then scooped you from the crib where your skin seared hers like a sunburn. The carpet had started to smolder. The dresser was catching. Downstairs, she grabbed the portable phone from its cradle and ran out back where your sister was sitting in the sand box, pointing at the column of smoke billowing from your parents’ window. The fire department saved the first floor. The second floor is an addition.
Your mother spent a month in the burn unit. She’s never blamed you, but that hasn’t kept you from blaming yourself. You should have stayed home tonight. It was selfish to want Margaret’s kind of life.
Ahead of you, the beaten-down bus that takes athletes to away meets appears. The loading dock is beyond it. As you run, gum wrappers spark and flicker out as ash. You are fooling yourself that maybe you can swallow the burst in the courtyard, maybe it’s not too late, when you feel a hand graze your shoulder blade and hear its owner draw it back with a hiss.
Jessica, your Sharpie boy starts to say, but when you spin around to face him, his eyes widen and the speech withers on his lips.
Go away, you say, frantic at his proximity.
No, he says, surprising you into silence, and then before you can warn him, his hands burrow into your hair. The scream you expect never comes, though, which makes a kind of sense. Hair is only dead cells, after all, and yours is thick, piled high tonight in a mess of curls.
All you can think to say is, Hot—hot—hot, but he leans forward anyway, stupidly unafraid, and you have no time to worry about melting his face off because instead of placing his lips on yours, he purses them to blow a cool breeze across your mouth, an anti-kiss. You part your lips and the cool sweeps in like a breath mint, rushing from your nostrils as steam.
He’s done it, somehow. Calmed you.
You feel some slack in the burst, but when you open your eyes to thank him, he gives you that half-smile you see now in your dreams. No one has dared come this close in a fit before. You’d assumed that in the whole of your life, no one would. And that’s what pushes you over that fiery edge. Knowing he followed you out here, even though he knows about your disease.
You are puzzling over his inexplicable bravery and starting to worry about the mess you must look like when the bus behind you disappears into an undulating orange cloud. He flinches, then forgets you are still too hot to touch and scalds his fingers trying to pull you away by your wrist. I’m sorry, you say, retreating on ruined feet as the frame of the bus emerges from the flames with paint peeling and tires smoldering and metal beginning to melt.
Don’t be, he says, looking not at the bus but at you. It’s the look on his face as he stands next to you at the front of the gathering crowd, sweat cascading down his face from your nearness, that says you were right to come out tonight after all. Whether you are in control of your destiny or whether you never will be, you know you’re done trying to hide.