I met you the way teeth meet pavement. Summer after sophomore year, when I didn’t know anything about truth except that it scorched, I was working the register at the family shop and caught you at the door with your pockets full of lighters and candy. You told me you’d empty them if I met you by the dumpster out back, so I left my shift with a hand curled around my butterfly knife, half-ready to die. Instead, we shared a cigarette until the lampposts flickered on, the silence some sort of truce.
You cupped your hand around the tiny fire, let it fall onto the pile of garbage below us. It caught lazily. I watched your eyes follow the sway of the white flame. How it climbed like a vine up the side of the building, rolling, breathing. How there was no proof of it except the echo of the burning across your face.
It wasn’t always this way, you told me. You’d scraped your palms raw trying to scale the old family sycamore and when you knuckled through the medicine cabinet for your mom’s jar of aloe you found a lighter instead. It was small, peeling, and pulsed like a heart in your crying hand. How sweet: a tiny tragedy to call your own. Outside, it stormed harder than it ever had.
The first fires were small. A pile of sticks. A pair of boots. A dead sparrow. But the rain kept coming down and the only way you knew to deal with it was evaporation. Everything became either kindling or ash, your hands a trigger. When your daddy caught you curled up by a burning shed, he hosed you down with the cows behind the barn and sent you down here to stay with your aunt, keep out of trouble. God knows it didn’t work.
In the alley, you show me where the fire nicked the base of your throat. Did it hurt? My fingers running along the raised, gnarled skin. Probably. I don’t remember anything but the light. The cigarette sizzling out on your knee. A hiss, but I don’t know from whom. Brightest thing I’ve ever seen.
Once the trash fire wanes, I turn off the cameras and grab a bottle of liquor for the way. As the road stretches black and empty before us, I point out where I chased a snake into the gutter, where my bike got stolen the first time, where I stole it back the second. Suburban windows dark, curbs pregnant with shiny empty cars. I pretend not to hear clicking. We follow the sound of music to the biggest house in town, yard heaving with kids barely older than us, puking into manicured grass stained pink and yellow in the shitty disco lights. We hop the white fence and leave ashes in our wake.
I learn the rules of the game quickly: get as close to the flame as you can without getting burned. First, you teach me how to cut through a crowd like a blade, fish a wallet from a pocket through the disguise of slipping past. Bodies, clumsy, bleed into each other in the haze of youth, of throwing it all to shit. Funny how please and excuse me become currency in the exchange of deception. I thrill at invisibility, at weaving in and out of presence. You see me all the same.
We get bolder, go bigger. This house is massive, everything in it gilded. We take ornaments, tablecloths, earrings, knives, magazines, pills, purses, bottles, china. My bag grows heavy with what is not mine. Between raids, I name your hunger contagious. We have no use for any of this, obviously, but the thrill of marring the pristine is too great to ignore. Too many times, I hold my palm out for you to press something shiny into it. The last is a vial of old French cologne. Swiped it from the dad’s room. Some sort of tycoon. I slip it into my pocket and leave everything else on the silver kitchen island to be claimed once more in the morning.
The night swirls into itself. One moment we are taking and another we are giving. Your fingers are a permanent circle around my wrist and I am nothing but willing. Ready. Eager. My gaze reaching only as far as the stretch of skin between your shoulder blades.
Glass shatters against the white paneling of the house in the backyard, barely empty beer bottles heavy in our hands. Watch. You pull your arm back, wind up for a throw. I’m gonna get the bedroom window. I prepare for an arc but the bottle never leaves your grasp. Instead, it comes back down and splinters between your hand and thigh, and scarlet blood blooms across your skin. As I sit cross-legged pulling the shards from your palm, your laughter rises smoky through the dark.
The center of the flame is the hottest, you told me at one point, blue and biting as ice but the readiest to burn. Maybe that’s what drew you to the pool: the chlorine-blue surface, the eye of the flame you could finally touch. Maybe it was just about time you grazed the other side, for once growing to fill an empty space rather than molding your own. Kneeling at the edge, you turn to me, and you must have wiped your mouth at some point because your hands and grin gleam the same punched-out shade of crimson. When you move your lips, I don’t hear your words until you take my hand, guide it to the beginning of your scalp.
You’re staring at me, and staring, and staring, your eyes the whitest thing I’ve ever seen, and there’s still music seeping warbled through the marbled windows, the air heavy with it, and with something else, something sweet but putrid, thin but insistent, settling like film on my skin, my eardrums, my tongue, but I still can’t tell what it is, and this whole time you’re still staring so hard I think you see right through to the other side. My neck prickles with sweat. I close my fist in your sweat-slick hair.
It’s you. It’s the singed stench of chlorine rising like heat from the concrete. It’s the wet night pooling sticky in my elbow pits. It’s me, holding your head under the blurred surface. It’s the rubbery skin of your nape slipping silver like a fish beneath my fingers. The water still. Your eyes open.
When I let go, you rise like you’ve been woken, silently, but so quick and sudden your matches fall from your pocket. I cup my hand right below, before the water closes around them. You could have left them. The ends of your hair drip water into my lap. Your face is a puddle of gasoline shining chrome in the porchlight. I know. I’m sorry.
And I think that somewhere in there was an answer. But I’ve forgotten the question.
We left the same way we got here: in the dark. This time, the walk back is familiar. I shouldn’t look back, but when I do, I see the silhouette of your head turned down to face your hand, haloed in the wavering glow of flame.
Later, you’ll stand in the same pool, drained, and trace the gaps in the concrete with cracked fingers. The jets empty and open like mouths. How even an absence can hold the past like a wound.
When I come into the store the next morning, I find nothing but ash and police tape. In the place of the green and brown building is a pile of black, men murmuring around it. My father stands with his head in his hand, the other wrapped around across his stomach. When I approach him, he turns. Who would do this? Who? Who?
As I am handled into a police car, read my rights, I don’t look at my father outside the window, red and blue lights echoing on his watery face. Instead, I rest my gaze in my lap. Beneath my fingers and the fabric of my shorts lies the smooth glass of the cologne bottle. Warning: highly flammable. The car lurches forward and once I am sure we are far enough, I look up. I watch the wheat fields slip past me in rivers of beige, trying to be golden in the first breaths of morning, like running, like remembering wrong.
Thanisha Chowdhury is a Bangladeshi-American writer from Northern Virginia. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writings Awards and she is the EIC of Paper Crane Journal. When she is not writing, Thanisha enjoys playing the Sims 4 and crocheting frog hats.