Cooling

by Elizabeth Genco

Fire is my friend, and it has been this way for as long as I can remember. Everyone said that my mom had fire in her, and that she passed a little of that fire on to me. Even my dad, when he said anything to me at all. So after the mucous pooled in her lungs, drowning her from the inside out, and after they set her in the damp earth, deep where the fire could never go,the flames inside me rose up. It was only right that they got their share of what was left.

This is exactly how she would have wanted it. Don’t go trying to tell me otherwise.

Unfortunately, the law didn’t see it that way. They didn’t see a young woman cleaning up unfinished business. They saw the charred bones of our old house and they knew that it wasn’t an accident.

This time, I waited until two straight weeks of summer sun had sucked all the moisture out of every bit of wood in the county. I snuck out of the house a few nights ago and cut four small holes in the corner of Mr. Hibbs’ shed. The flames will grow strong from the newspaper stuffed in the holes and it’ll spread to the walls and the floor and I can almost guarantee that there will be no paper left when Mr. Hibbs returns from his annual pilgrimage to the Southern Maine Auto Show. But just in case, I doused it with kerosene, not gasoline.Gasoline sinks down into the soil and waits patiently for the fire inspectors. I’m not going back to juvie again.

Old Man Hibbs has never left well enough alone, with his perpetual comments about my hair, knees, or whatever other body part caught his attention that day, every day, since about the time I could walk. My father saw it all the time and never called him on it, not even on the day that we came home alone from the hospital. Maybe the fire would come for him next. Who says that Anna won’t take me in? She would. I considered this possibility as I bent down to light the first match.

The paper caught easily but the flame stayed still, hovering there, as if waiting until the coast was clear. Within a couple of seconds, it withered, then disappeared completely.

I ripped another match across the side of the box and it burst into flame. That flame caught on the newspaper, just as it should, then burned in a little ring, like a kitten chasing its tail. Then the ring evaporated.

I tore off a piece of the paper and sniffed it. There was a trace of sulfur from the match, but it didn’t smell like kerosene. It didn’t smell like anything.

"You shouldn’t play with those." The voice was soft and low and came from the direction of the clump of trees behind me.

A boy stood there, just in front of the trees. He was tall and shapely, with light hair that curled gently around his ears. He wore nothing but a pair of blue jeans. I guessed that he was about my age, but with the light fading, I couldn’t be sure. "You shouldn’t play with matches," he said.

"I’m not playing." It came out a little too defensively for my taste.

"You might burn yourself."

We stared at each other and waited. The gathering darkness would soon blot him out but for now I could still see his features. His face was slightly round, like he’d kept just a little bit of his baby fat. Large, soft eyes peeked out from beneath the flip of blond hair that waved over his brows.He might have been kind of handsome were it not for the fact that he was keeping me from my fire. Nobody keeps me from my fire.

"Go away," I said.

"No."

I would wait. I’d pretend to go away, then I’d double back and hide somewhere in the thicket, where I could keep a close watch on the shed. I could wait all night. It’s not like my father would notice my absence.

The sky rumbled loudly, breaking our messed-up truce for a second. I looked up to see the sliver of the night’s moon overcome by ash-grey clouds that had not been there before.