Author: WC Pemm PM
That's the thing about fire. You can look, but you mustn't touch. And, sooner or later, it uses itself up.Rated: Fiction T - English - Tragedy - Pyro - Chapters: 21 - Words: 55,278 - Reviews: 79 - Favs: 41 - Follows: 60 - Updated: 05-16-13 - Published: 10-05-12 - id: 8582335
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Around her, tiny eddies swirled. Bubbles surged up past her like frightened fish. Water flooded her lungs.
She was sinking, drowning, and her feet were ensnared by something she could not see. Every struggle only dragged her further below, and her chest hurt, it hurt, she was dying.
The last of her air slipped from her lips, and she fell off the bed with a thump.
Outside, crickets chirruped. The black around her was as still and unassuming as it ever was; a single candle in a bone-dry fishbowl acted as a nightlight across the room. It cast shadows over her few belongings: a gas mask, a stolen traffic cone, a dusty pink purse overflowing with matches. A tiny collection of books (The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, a signed and much-loved copy of Fahrenheit 451) stood in a row on the windowsill. Nothing was amiss, and she was very much alive.
Gingerly, she untangled her legs from the sheets and crawled back onto the mattress. She dragged the pillow over her pounding head, shut her eyes, and waited for sleep that she knew would not come.
About an hour and a half later, when the light was just beginning to creep into her window, she hauled herself out of bed. She got dressed, ate an apple and grabbed a lighter (ST Dupont, 1966, blue), then headed out into the dawn.
Her shed was waiting for her, a black silhouette haloed by the waking sun. It looked just as precarious as ever: it was quite literally slanted diagonally, with missing boards leaking sunlight. Its rickety door swung open at her touch, like it had been waiting. The tension ebbed out of her just by looking into the ramshackle place. Within stood her kingdom.
It was dry and warm, and dark. The air was still around her as she grabbed one of her miniature kindling bundles from a box near the door and settled down in the middle of the dirt floor. She closed her eyes, breathing, and flicked on the lighter. She watched the miniscule flame for a moment before putting it to the bundle. Let there be light.
The kindling crackled to life, dead and processed wood resurrected, purer and more beautiful. It threw fuzzy shadows over the muddled shapes in the rest of the shed, shapes she knew by heart. On one side stood huge stacks of firewood, neatly arranged by kind and size. On the other was a selection of sawhorses and tarps, with scrap metal and tools scattered on them. Tanks of gasoline, kerosene, and propane, half a dozen of each kind, stood in neat rows in the corners, organized by kind and interspersed with bottles of lighter fluid. In the back, nestled between a sturdy workbench and a bookshelf held together with rusty nails and splinters, both home to lighters and matches and broken parts, sat her new hoard of fireworks, patiently waiting to be released.
She stared into the fire, disgustingly awake. The nightmares had been getting worse. This was the third day in a row she had woken up in a cold sweat, left with a headache and insomnia. Each time she had wound up out here, doing nothing in particular. Sometimes she would fuss with her Big Project, or weld something for the hell of it. By the time the sun rose properly, though, she always seemed to be right here: sitting cross-legged in the center of her rickety shed and burning a little fire to drive away the dreams.
The first one soon died away into a pile of ash, and she went through another two before frustration began to gnaw at her rattled nerves. She felt like she had been chewing tinfoil. This wasn't working. She needed something bigger, like a bonfire, maybe. But there was no space for a fire that size on her meager property, especially not anywhere near the shed.
The silence was broken by her exasperated sigh. She stood, snuffing out the last few ashes of the flame, and made her way to the far end of the building to the workbench. She knelt, and a tarp-covered lump awaited her. The gas pump handle she had rescued stuck out from beneath the tarp at one end, its scuffed plastic painted over with the last of her paint. Smiling, she patted it in a familiar way before hefting it up to the workbench and pulling off the tarp.
There it was. Her ultimate creation, her opus. The pump handle was attached to one end, and there was a fat metal nozzle at the other. A propane tank was fastened to the bottom, and a network of fat tubes connected everything like veins. She flicked a switch on one side, and a tiny blue flame sputted to life from the narrow pipe that stuck out beneath the nozzle. It flared wide for a moment before dying. She flicked the switch twice more, and got nothing for it.
Her brow knit, and she bit her lip. Then she grabbed her drill.
"So why you'd call me down here again?" Tobias said, yawning.
"I told you I wanted to show you something. Put out your cigarette while you're in here."
He did, dropping it to the dirt floor and grinding it out. "At freakin' midnight though?"
"Fewer people around."
Two days later: it was warm and sleepy in the girl's shed, and she was pulling on thick cloth gloves. A rusty army-issue flashlight lay at hand on the bench. Behind her, Tobias was slouched into roughly the shape of a question mark, with sleepy-heavy eyes and his hands shoved deep into his jacket pockets. The light pinned his shadow to the wall, huge and looming and hunched.
The gloves were just snug enough, warm and rough against her skin. She wrapped her fingers around the machine on the workbench and hefted it up experimentally. Just getting the balance and weight of the thing right had taken her hours, but it had been worth it for the perfect result she had achieved. It was even light enough to run with. Satisfied, fingers itching to begin, she swung it around. Tobias jumped back with a squawk, throwing his hands in the air. His shadow lurched in pantomime. "Whoa! Whoa. What the hell is that?"
"My flamethrower," she said, proudly.
He gave her a baffled look. Your what?"
"Flamethrower. Throws flames? Do I really have to spell this out?"
"Yeah okay I know what it is but why do you have it?"
She shrugged, leading him out of the shed. "I made it." She looked over her shoulder at him and was met with a bewildered stare. She rolled her eyes. "Just come on."
He did, but not without running his mouth. "You made that thing? How?"
"With tools. And scrap tubing. And a gas pump handle."
"But you're…" He sputtered, so utterly caught off guard she had to smile to herself. "God. Goddamn. And it works?"
"Yes," she said, more defensively than she'd meant to. She hesitated, then corrected herself. "Should. Guess we'll see," she added, picking up the flashlight. She headed for the door, motioning for him to follow.
She led him out of her yard in the dark and through the sleeping neighborhood ("It's so damn quiet around here," he complained once, lighting up a new cigarette, "you're like a million miles from the city, took me an hour to walk here, surprised I didn't get axe-murdered or nothin', you better be grateful."), toward the woods a ways off. The moon, a fat crescent overhead, seemed pale and washed out before her flashlight. It was a thirty-minute walk, and Tobias was uncharacteristically quiet; whenever she glanced back at him he was looking worriedly at the machine in her hands.
Soon they reached the tree line. They had been crunching their way through the cold undergrowth for about five minutes before Tobias finally said, "Where we goin'?"
"Shut up a minute and you'll see."
"Geez! I'm just askin', relax," he grumbled, biting his cigarette. "Kinda flyin' blind here, yeah? Followin' Miss Firebug and her Amazin' Homemade Freakin' Flamethrower into the woods in the middle of the night. This is trust right here, okay, a guy starts gettin' questions! You ain't gonna test that thing on me, are ya? No? Okay, cool, yeah haha, uh, just, just joshin' ya." He hunched into his jacket, sinking his neck deep into the collar. "Shit, this is like the one time me and my cousins went explorin' in this abandoned apartment complex when we was kids, an' they'd all been there before but it was my first time, right, little damn ten-year-old me, and we get to the middle of the place an' I turn around an' they're all gone—"
"—just went and ditched me, the little schmucks, left me wanderin' around in this big dark spooky place for an hour, I shoulda shown'em who was boss after—"
They had broken into a moon-lit clearing comprised mostly of messily hacked stumps. It was scarcely large enough to accommodate the only noticeable feature it had: a cramped-looking wood shack smaller than her own shed and in almost worse repair. Its windows had long since been reduced to jag-toothed mouths. Its wood and sheetmetal roof was dented and full of holes, littered with woodland debris. The door hung outward. One wall had caved in, and within was nothing more than an old pot-bellied stove and a rusted mattress frame, just recognizable when she shined her light on them. The whole structure was surrounded by a dirt trench. There was nothing but silence; not even the wind blew.
Tobias knit his brow. "You wanted to show me this?" He looked kind of disappointed. She wondered why.
"Sort of," she said. Her fingers wouldn't keep still, playing along the trigger of her new toy, carressing its metal belly. Forcing patience, she left him to circle the structure, lighting up everything with the flashlight. No one hiding themselves away in there. Good.
"What's with the trench?" asked Tobias as she rejoined him.
"You'll see," she said, and turned the flashlight off. She tossed it to the ground, and flicked the flamethrower's switch. The pilot light sputtered into being.
A shudder of anticipation ran along her back, and she planted her feet. When she pointed the flamethrower upwards and tested it, letting off a short burst of fire, it finally clicked for him. "Waittaminute, you're—"
The only answer he got was a huge grin thrown over her shoulder, wilder and brighter than she'd ever given him before, brighter even than the day he had shown her the sparkler. She pulled the trigger, and the flamethrower rumbled, then hissed to life.
The blaze exploded outward, a solid ten feet, before settling back to a more modest five. The fire landed first on the outstretched door, and then it spread. It rushed down the cracked wood to the doorframe and leapt onto the weatherstained wall. It crawled toward the roof, and it was drowned in more fire as the flamethrower belched airy streams of heat at it in every direction.
In no time at all, the whole thing was alight. She circled it over and over, every step measured and careful, like a witchdoctor in the midst of a ritual. Smoke floated up in a heavy pillar, and the timbers were cracking. It blazed madly in the dark, dancing, beautiful and glorious Fire.
The girl only stopped when the propane ran out, the living dragon in her hands was reduced to a pilot light and an empty metal shell. But that was fine. It had been an utter success, after all. She switched it off, set the machine down by the flashlight, and—finally—relaxed.
She sat down crosslegged next to where Tobias had sunk down onto the ground, her expression dreamy. Relief had swept through her like a wind the moment she'd seen the thing start to burn. All the tension was seeping out of her now as the fire blazed, the anxiety and exhaustion that had been building up from every sleepless night lifting from her shoulders. The migrane that had been lurking in the back of her skull all day was gone. She felt light-headed and giddy, even post-orgasmic. Fire was better than sex any day. There would be no nightmares for her tonight.
Then Tobias blurted, "That's arson."
She blinked, and the afterimage of the fire burned against her eyelids. Sleepily she turned to look at him. "Hm?"
"That, that-that-that's arson, right?" he said again, back rigid.
A twinge of annoyance went through her. "No."
"You set fire to somebody's thing, arson."
She sighed, and recited: " 'Arson: the willful and malicious act of setting fire to, burning, or causing a building where people reside to be burned.' "
He looked like a deer in headlights. "What?"
"That's the legal definition of arson. And it's not arson, because it wasn't malicious, and no one lived there."
"Okay but why do you know that?"
"I had a good lawyer."
Tobias paused, a miracle in and of itself. "…You gonna tell me that story?"
He shook his head and gave no reply, and that suited her just fine. She curled up into herself, chin pressed to knees, and watched the fire burn.
The blaze had become immense. It had engulfed what was left standing, and licked at the edge of the dirt trench she had painstakingly made months ago, when she'd discovered the clearing and the shack. It wouldn't do to have the whole woods go up, no matter how fantastic that sounded. Nothing had changed here in all that time, and it was far enough out that the smoke and light wouldn't attract attention. She had been keeping it in the back of her mind for so long, waiting for the right timing, and it could not have come together more perfectly.
She had very nearly been lulled to sleep simply watching it when Tobias said, "So this—like, the fire—this is what you wanted to show me?"
"So this got somethin' to do with what you said about fire calmin' you down the other day?"
Silence. Then: "Alright, so then what's eatin' ya? I mean this is kinda a big friggin' fire, big fire for a big deal?" He was watching her intently. When she said nothing after a minute or two, he ventured, "You still havin' those nightmares?"
"You still a nosy somebitch?"
"You better believe it."
She laughed despite herself. "I don't know, how's your sleep?"
"It's gettin' better, I guess." He leaned forward and plucked up a green twig from the ground to spin between his fingers. "When I was a kid my gramps was livin' with us and he had real bad insomnia. I always thought, damn, he don't gotta sleep! You waste so much friggin' time sleepin', you know? That must be great, havin' insomnia gives you so much time." He tossed the twig into the blaze and shook his head. "Turns out it just makes you feel like shit."
The roof of the shack finally caved in, red-hot metal dropping down onto the charred wood. It settled there at a jaunty angle, like an absurd hat. The girl reached out and tugged the flamethrower closer, stroking it like someone might pet a dog. "It's the same kind of nightmare every time for me."
She nodded. "Drowning. Different ways."
"Ways, like … what?"
"Sometimes I'm at the bottom of the lake and my feet are weighted. Or I'll be at the bottom of a pit filling up with rain. Or there'll be a flash flood and I can't get to higher ground."
"Jesus," Tobias said. He had pulled out his Zippo and finally re-lit his cigarette. "How long you been gettin' those?" he asked, taking a drag.
A sigh rattled through her ribcage. "You got another cig?"
Wordlessly, Tobias pulled out his pack of Newports and handed it over. She picked out a cylinder, thought a moment, then leaned over and flicked the flamethrower's switch. The pilot light hissed into life, and she carefully lit the cigarette on it before turning the contraption off again. She put it to her lips, pulled in the smoke to breathe it out again, and said, "Since my family kicked it."
Tobias said, "Oh," very quietly, and after a long pause.
"Mmph. Car went off the road during a bad storm. Hydroplaned, dove right off a bridge." She sucked in more smoke. "I was, I dunno, five. My brother got me out of a window before it sank." Shifting, she leaned back onto one hand and glanced at him for just a moment, gauging his reaction. "Did the whole orphanage thing, got the boot a couple years later."
"Fuck, I'm … I'm sorry."
She rolled her shoulders in a shrug. "Sorry doesn't do anything."
Tobias didn't answer, and she didn't go on. Instead, they watched the shack until it smouldered into embers, nothing more than a blackened mess of tin and ashes. When the last of the smoke had begun to die, she flicked her cigarette into the embers, cracked her neck, and stood. Tobias joined her, stretching out his lanky limbs. "Hey," he said, and then hesitated. He swallowed, straightened up, and went on: "So uh, hey, y'know tomorrow's the fourth." His hands were fidgeting in front of him as she picked up her flamethrower and the flashlight, turning the latter on. "Of July," he added.
"I been hearin' there's gonna be the biggest damn fireworks show Boston's ever seen after the Pops finishes up. Uh, y', y'know the Pops, right? Big ol' orchestra, always plays on the fourth?"
She wrinkled her nose, leading him out into the woods again. "I've lived in Boston for three years, 'course I know about the Pops. I can hear them all the way to my house."
"Oh, cool," he said, catching up to walk alongside her. "So I was thinkin', kind of a big deal, once-inna-lifetime kinda thing, right, and uh, so … you wanna, like, go see the fireworks? Wit' me?"
She thought about it. There'd be monstrous crowds. Noise. "No, not really."
Tobias deflated as dramatically as a balloon. "Uh, well uh alright," he started, but she interrupted: "I was going to set off the ones you sold me. You can come, if you want."
"Yeah?" he chirped, brightening at once.
He had gone from uneasy to disappointed to eager all in under thirty seconds. Already he was launching into another full-blown, one-sided chatter as they walked back to her house. What a strange boy.