Bella slips into my bed reeking of smoke. She lays her palm against my cheek, and the oily residue it leaves behind makes me think of gasoline.
“What time is it?” I mumble into my pillow.
I try to roll over and face her, but she nudges me back and slings an arm around my waist.
This isn’t the first time Bella has swung by after hours. Usually, her visits are accompanied by a fifth of vodka swiped from her family’s liquor cabinet and a batch of kisses, delivered silently and breathlessly so as not to alert my mother sleeping down the hall.
She nuzzles my neck. “Don’t worry about it. Go back to sleep.”
I blame my next words on my dazed, surreal state of neither dream nor waking. “Did you miss me?”
Bella’s laughter rolls like thunder and lightning through my body. “Very much.”
When I wake up again Bella has gone, the sooty outline on my white sheets the sole proof she was ever here.
The next morning, my entire class is abuzz, an aberration from the expected lethargy of early-morning homeroom. My friend Markus leans against my desk.
“Hey, Laura. Did you hear about the fire in the old warehouse down Starfall Lane?”
“What?” I sputter, suddenly parched.
Markus nods. His crooked bangs swish back and forth with the force of his enthusiasm. “The entire west wing burned to a crisp last night. We used to play Spin the Bottle there. Crazy, right?”
“Crazy…” I bring the end of my braid to my nose. My hair still carries a faint fireside whiff. I remember with a jolt that it’s Bella’s and my one-month anniversary tomorrow.
Although we have different class schedules, Bella always manages to steal a pocket of time for me. My feet propel me through the hordes of students toward her locker. Faraway flames hiss in my ears.
“Where were you last night?” I blurt the moment I reach her, forgetting to be casual.
“In your room, being your own personal dream catcher,” Bella replies.
Her warm chestnut eyes glimmer as her red-painted lips stretch into an easy smile; the picture of innocence. She leans in to kiss me, but I place a finger on her mouth to stop her approach. Her lip piercing brushes against my skin and sends a sizzling current coursing through me.
“Anyway,” I say, trying to mask my labored breathing behind faux-indignation. “Don’t you have a class to get to? I’m not tutoring you if you fail.”
Bella’s unapologetic laughter rises above the bustle of the hallway. She opens her locker to retrieve her textbooks, and I peek inside. A picture of us, taken on an amusement park date a week after she asked me out. The strawberry-colored teddy bear I won for her that same day. And pressed up against the bear, books of matches stacked in haphazard rows and a set of ash-stained clothes. I look away.
This is all so new, so fragile. I don’t want Bella’s secret to complicate things between us.
I don’t wait for her after school. Instead, I trek past the gentrified part of town, to the old dirt roads running along the waterfront. I pause when I reach the abandoned warehouse, a pigeon-gray smear against the blue of the sky. Tilting my head back, I take in the entire dilapidated glory of it.
The first thing I notice when I squeeze through the gap in the chain-locked gate is the blanket of ash underfoot. It must have rained down from the cracks in the ceiling. It sticks in a thin film on my white sneakers and stains each fingerprint when I try to wipe it away. The big stairway leading to the upper floors is intact, and so are most of the rooms.
Markus might have been exaggerating, but it still looks bad. The west wing is torched, every wall kissed by the flames. The fire’s memory lingers in the blackened charcoal spots and the scorched detritus accumulated on the floor. A smell of burnt hair permeates the air like a faulty hairdryer.
I imagine Bella standing in the doorway just as I am, the flames casting shadow and light across her face, her silver lip-ring glittering like a fire-forged gem. Goosebumps bloom across my skin, and I don’t know if it’s due to unease or awe.
“So,” Bella says, “how should we celebrate? I’m told one month is a milestone. Most high school relationships don’t last past it. I don’t know what the statistics for same-sex romance are, but you get the gist.”
Her voice is nonchalant, but her eyes dart around the hallway without landing on anything and the toe of her shoe scuffs against the scarred linoleum floor.
All week, I had giddily filled page after page of my planner, trying to come up with the perfect anniversary date. Something classic, like dinner and an indie movie, or maybe something daring, like a romantic picnic where the entire town could see us. Instead, I find myself saying, “I’ve got too much homework. Plus, Mr. Ramirez hinted at a pop quiz tomorrow.”
I tell myself that I’m putting the date off because of smoke and suspicions. But a little panicking part of me has wanted to pull the fire alarm on our relationship even before I visited the warehouse on Starfall Lane.
“Oh.” Bella frowns for a moment before she paints a bright expression back across her face. “I could help you study. I know you’re a nervous wreck right before a quiz.”
“Sorry,” I mumble. “I really need to ace this test.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Bella says, her smile reassuring. “I’ll find some other way to entertain myself.”
I let her walk me to my next class with a searing certainty that I will be following her tonight.
Groggy, jittery, exhausted, I look for Bella first thing in the morning.
“I know what you did last night. I followed you.” I want it to sound like an accusation, but my words are tired, losing steam.
Bella shoots me a smile, gone before I can decode it. “You think I didn’t know? You’re not as sneaky as you think.”
I think of last night, the dumpster fires Bella left like trail of breadcrumbs across town.
“Why are you doing this? Don’t you know it’s dangerous? Not to mention illegal.”
“I love watching the flames. They’re beautiful, and they make my heart quiet.”
I stare at her, unable to process her words. I expected her to deny it, or at least weave some lie. Not this crippling honesty. Her smile contains the duality of a child making mischief and of a girl being humbled by a force of nature. It makes my throat tight with anger. With longing.
“I only burn things people don’t need, and I’m always careful not to lose control of the fire. There are no witnesses. It’s only me and…”
“Your messed-up hobby?” I snap. I can feel the cracks forming between us, a hairline fissure growing bigger, and I’m not sure if it’s her doing or mine.
Bella’s smile turns small and hurt before fading altogether. “Laura, come on. Talk to me. What is this really about?”
I take a step back when she reaches out to link our fingers together. For the first time since I met her, I evade her touch.
My breath rasps in and out of my throat; my tongue tastes like ash and charred meat. I don’t even know why I’m so angry. It’s because of the fires and the secrecy, sure. But as I stand there staring at her open expression, I realize something else. Maybe I’m looking for a reason to fight because I don’t know if our relationship can withstand it.
The truth is, I’ve been having doubts about us. They creep up when Bella is away and I start wondering why she would ever go out with me when she could have any boy or girl she wanted. They spike when boys I’ve known all my life ask if they can get a ticket to the ‘lesbian show.’ They cut deep when I watch the news, read the statistics, or when I hear the whispers in the hallways. And now, all of those worries are threatening to engulf us and the anniversary date I keep postponing.
“I… I have to go,” I say, moving farther down the hallway, away from Bella and all the confusion caused by her presence.
She doesn’t try to stop me but instead calls after me, “I’ll be at the shipyard tonight. Please come.”
Her dark eyes follow my retreat. I can feel their concern, their tenderness. The sensation of her gaze lingers even after I’ve burst out into the parking lot.
The truth is, I’m scared of the connection between us, those tight wires that quiver and pulse with electricity. I’ve never felt anything close to this before, and I don’t know if I should embrace it or run away.
I’m afraid of getting burned, and it has nothing to do with matches or tinder.
Deep into the night, I lie in bed, thinking. I bury my nose in my pillow, but I only catch the scent of lavender detergent and my everyday shampoo. There’s no trace of smoke. No proof that Bella was ever here. I get up and pace around the small space. My room is catalogue-perfect, everything in order—just as I like it. The only thing out of place is inside my drawer, tucked beneath my diaries and old school notebooks. I take out the box of matches I swiped from Bella’s locker and twirl it between my fingers for a few minutes. A package so small. So harmless. So full of chaos and possibility.
I take the matches with me back to bed. At times I feel like my whole life is scripted, but this is new and unfamiliar. I want it to fill me with excitement, but my brain knows all too well how to be scared. So I bring Bella’s face to mind. I imagine the way my pulse gets out of sync whenever she’s near, another diversion from its steady, boring routine. Holding the matchbox makes me feel closer to her, somehow, and I don’t shy away from the feeling.
Somewhere from within, I draw the courage to light the first match. I watch the tiny dancing flame, transfixed by the way it consumes the match’s stick body. I don’t notice when the flame reaches my thumb and forefinger. My fingers get singed, and I drop the dead match on my bed sheets. I imagine Bella beside me, taking my hand in hers ever so gently, teasing me a bit before she kisses it all better.
Lurching to my feet, I put on my coat in one swift motion. I don’t feel scared walking the empty streets alone at night. I know Bella will be waiting for me, and that certainty is enough to light up the world.
The old shipyard has been out of use for decades. These days, it’s an ancient, corroded husk whole generations of kids have been utilizing to ride their bikes and smoke their weed in secret. I’ve never done either of those things, but the thought of breaking the rules makes me feel like liquid fire is flowing through my bloodstream. Even before I’ve woven my way through the labyrinth of metal and decay, I catch the telltale gleam of flames.
Bella stands before a small open fire. Her hair is draped over one shoulder, a red scarf coiled twice around her neck.
She doesn’t disguise the relief in her voice. She keeps surprising me, this girl. We’ve been friends for almost a year and girlfriends for longer than a month, but I still don’t know her all that well.
I want to know her, pyromania and all.
“This wasn’t exactly the anniversary date I had in mind,” I say.
I join her at the fire. For a few moments, we stand side by side, watching the flames flicker and tremble in their pit.
“Help me find more kindling?” Bella asks.
The fire illuminates her profile. Her eyelashes cast elongated shadows against the honey-tint of the flames against her skin. It’s beautiful. The fire. Her smile. Everything.
My breath catches in my throat.
I say, “Will you show me how to make the fire stronger?”
Her smile turns brilliant. I follow her around the shipyard. Together we gather dry branches and bunched-up newspapers to bring back to the cinderblock pit.
Bit by bit, I feed the fire, making it bigger, stronger. I watch the flames climb up to the night sky, blazing orange against pure black. I close my eyes, and the flames paint the back of my lids strawberry-red. The crackling sounds combine with the smoky smell to touch a place inside me, somewhere close to my heart. I don’t know what it is that makes Bella’s heart so loud and unruly that only starting fires can soothe it, but her presence has always quieted the maddening whir of my brain.
I reach out blindly and grasp Bella’s hand in mine. Our fingers interlace, and I feel more right than I’ve felt in a long time.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so afraid,” I say, trusting that Bella will know I’m not referring to the fires.
“It’s not your fault,” she says gently. “I know you came out of the closet because of me. Maybe you weren’t ready. But you should know I’m here for you, even if you don’t want us to be together anymore.”
My eyes fly open. “No. I want you.”
I didn’t come out to the world because of Bella; I did it for her. For us. I wanted to be the kind of girlfriend she deserved, not someone trapped, ashamed, and afraid of her own shadow. And maybe I failed at that last part, but not anymore.
Bella smiles, fire and stars and determination in her brown eyes. “And I want you, too.”
I’m the one who initiates the kiss. It’s sweet like a sugared fruit at first. Slow, maybe a bit tentative. I pour all the love and frustration of this last month into it, all the uncharted hope I discovered within myself tonight. Then her piercing rubs against the inside of my lips and sends sizzling sparks of electricity from my tingling mouth all the way to my toes.
When our mouths part, Bella laughs and pulls me into a hug. Entwined, we stand before the fire. I close my eyes again and allow the warmth to envelop me.
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, The Forge Literary, The Colored Lens, Argot Magazine, The Arcanist, and other venues.