A Fire Burns Without Regret

“3…2…1…Happy New Year!”

Squeezed among the crowd on my building’s roof, I find myself suddenly alone as the people around me twist away to make out with their partners.

I try to keep my attention on the fireworks overhead. The colossal elementals spin and dance in the sky over the Space Needle, their rippling arms throwing sparks of red and gold. Occasionally one soars close to us, sticking out its white-hot tongue before rocketing skyward to explode in a shower of light.

Elementals this size come from volcanos. I always wonder if these performances make them sad, if they regret having to die over a strange city, but these seem to be having a great time.

So do the people around me.

“Hey.”

The bottom falls out of my stomach. It’s Tom, his smile as dazzling as the fireworks. My roommate invited him – she knows I like him, and she’s pretty sure he likes me, and she was probably hoping the midnight revelry would inspire us. She doesn’t know I’ve typed and deleted a dozen emails to him, trying and never managing to tell him how I feel.

“Hey.” I’m pretty sure I pull off sounding cool and collected. “Happy New Year.”

“This show is amazing, huh?” He offers me a cigarette.

I’ve accepted it and instinctively pulled out my old silver lighter before I remember. “Can I borrow your light?”

He looked down at the one in my hand and his smile turns wistful. “Saving your old one?”

I shrug, trying to look nonchalant. “She’s old.”

“She came from your grandfather, right?”

The lighter had been a wedding gift from my grandmother to my grandfather, engraved with their initials and their anniversary. It’s all I have left of either of them, but by the time it had come to me, more than half the life of the elemental within had been used up. Over the last few months, she’s been changing – weakening.

I hold it out on my palm and we both watch the polished surface catch the colors. “She’s dying,” I say, feeling foolish. Who gets sentimental over the fire in their lighter? It’s not like I’m weeping for the fireworks.

But Tom just gives that gentle smile. The fireworks momentarily light his face blue and I remember how close I came to asking him to dance at the jazz club near Christmas. Yet another regret of the ended year.

His finger traces the engraving. It’s the first time we’ve been this near, this close. So close. “Remember that time she got us out of that creepy basement senior year?” he asks, chuckling.

“God, that was awful. I remember using her to help Ophelia find her ring.”

“She’s been a good little flame.”

I chew on the inside of my lip, determined not to cry. “You don’t think it’s silly to get emotional over a lighter?”

“Of course not. They’re living beings, and that one’s been with your family a long time.” He closes my fingers around the lighter. “I’m going to miss her, too. She came on so many of our misadventures.”

“I’ll make sure her final year is just as adventurous.”

I light the cigarette. The elemental’s feathery arms wrap around the paper, just like she’s done since I snuck my first cigarette in ninth grade, but I can see its tiny face is turned upward, gazing with white-hot eyes at its enormous cousins dancing overhead.

“Can you see that?” I ask it. The flame wobbles in excitement.

“Need a better look?” Feeling somewhat silly, I hold the lighter up. Tom watches it rise. The little flame glows brighter and the wisps stretch skyward. Then, with a faint squeal and a flash of white, the fire launches itself out of the lighter. It circles Tom’s head, illuminating his smile, before it shoots upward like a child’s lost balloon. It spirals closer to a huge gold sparkler, which beams and spreads its many-limbed arms wide to greet it.

There is a boom and a shower of bright sparks, and then both are gone.

It takes me a moment to realize that the silver case in my hand is an empty shell now. It takes me another moment to realize she probably lived longer than I will, and she went out gloriously.

I might go out gloriously, too, but what’s the point of waiting that long?

I kiss Tom, and the response is a new kind of magic and light.

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I’d Like To Thank

(CW: self-harm)

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Night after night, she stays at the studio late, bent over her costumes.

Too derivative, the critics said, so she sought new silhouettes, new textures. Bizarre, distracting, the critics said, so she embraced classic lines, safe colors. Her work lacks imagination, so she crafted in metallic, in vinyl, in light.

She tried to love everything she made, but the nominations never included her, so she didn’t love them, really. Obviously they weren’t worthy. She wondered if she was worthy anymore. No genre seemed to suit her; no awards acknowledged her. After the incident with her last director, no producers even contacted her.

But she has a good feeling about this current project: it’s sure to impress the people who matter.

She doesn’t hear the ticking wall clock anymore, only the hum of the sewing machine, and the failure that whispers when it’s silent.

She doesn’t miss home; everything she needs is here. She used to sleep with her head resting on the bolts of black wool.

She used to sleep.

She keeps herself awake by pricking her thighs. She’d prick her fingers but the one time she did, on accident, she dripped red on the white cotton and it spread like rust, like rot. Now she hides her blood even from herself. It, like her need to sleep, like her failure, is a weakness she can no longer indulge.

The machine stills and the shirt is finished. She presses it in a few swift strokes, then hangs it with the others. There’s almost a whole wall of shirts now. The rows of crisp white are so soothing. She could fall asleep gazing at them.

She cannot sleep. Not until she’s done. The walls are not done.

Her legs and fingers ache.

It is time for black. The trousers take longer. She wishes she could hem them; he’d be so much happier with them if she could hem them. How many hours since she slept?

She likes the wall of black less, but they always wear black pants. He always wears black pants. He won’t be happy with anything else.

She wakes herself with a swift jab of the needle. Somehow she can hear the ticking clock again. It thunders like oxfords marching down a hallway, marching to tell her she wasn’t nominated, the lead hates her dress, the stuntman tore another jacket, the director wants to see her later, privately.

Jab. How many hours since she slept? She only has one bolt of black left, not enough for a pillow, barely enough for all the trousers she must make. Jab. She can’t buy more, can’t leave, she has so much work to do.

She presses neat creases into the legs. His legs will fill these spaces soon. Then he’ll be happy. Then he’ll let her be happy again.

Jab. She doesn’t remember sitting back down at the machine. She’s threaded white when she wanted black. Now the pants are ruined. How many hours since she slept?

The wall of white calls to her, but it’s a different wall of black that consumes her.

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Last Night in Nuevos Angeles

The beach that night was noisy and drowning in the billboards’ neon glare. Makoto and his friends arrived first; Willow arrived alone.

“Where’s Padma?” I asked, catching the burger box she tossed my way.

“Stuck at work. She texted from the print shop – a big job came in and she has to stay late.”

“What kind of job?”

Willow shrugged. “She doesn’t tell me that stuff. She just said she’d get here when she could.”

We set up the tiny grill on a patch of undesirable, rocky beach, the only area where we could get more than ten feet from the nearest cluster of teenage boys taking shots of their older brothers’ moonshine. Out here, the glare from the billboards wasn’t so irritating; if you turned your back on them and looked out to sea, you could see the vibrant flashing lights illuminating the waves and the sunken glassy spires of Old LA.

“Carmen? You want a burger?” Willow held out a napkin-wrapped burger. “Makoto forgot the buns.”

“Thanks. Hey, have you heard from Padma?”

“Nope.”

“She must be really busy.” Padma was vocal about her inconveniences: the group chat we all hung out in was flooded by funny and often wildly inappropriate images whenever Padma was stuck on a crowded train, kept late by work, or irritated by the latest political news.

“I’ll send her a pic of that sunset,” Willow decided, raising her phone. “Maybe that’ll inspire her to hustle.”

The sunset was pretty spectacular – gold and fuschia clouds gleaming under the cool white and blue flashes of the billboards – but Padma’s absence was nagging at me. Something felt wrong.

Under the pretext of taking my own photo, I checked the other group chat, the secure one Padma and I were in.

The feed wouldn’t open.

I tried to stay calm. Reception got spotty out here, especially on crowded nights like this. There were plenty of harmless reasons for the chat go down.

“Oh, Olivia’s here!” Willow jogged away, leaving me gripping my phone and the rapidly cooling burger I could not stomach. I set it down on the shell of a rusted-out car.

The feed finally refreshed. A single message from Padma appeared, almost two hours old.

It was a single skull icon.

With shaking fingers, I powered down my phone and pried it apart. The casing would go unnoticed among all the other litter on this beach; the card I’d have to destroy and dispose of somewhere safer. I scooped up a couple large rocks and threw them out into the darkening waves, one at a time, so it wouldn’t look suspicious when I hurled my phone, too, so far that it almost struck one of the old skyscrapers. The nearby boys kept hollering, oblivious.

The single skull was a relief, but that relief was a well of hot shame. Two skulls would have meant our whole group was compromised; three would have meant that most of us had probably already been taken or killed, and whoever was left to see those skulls should run.

One skull meant one agent down: Padma. She’d had enough time to erase her tracks and protect the rest of us, then signed off with that single skull.

The waves around me were washed in red as a new message appeared on the billboards.

“Carmen!” Willow was pale, her hand shaking as she pointed up at the huge screens. Padma’s defiant face smirked down at us from the glowing red arrest notice.

“Terrorist? Anti-capitalist? Padma?” Willow stared, horrified, at the announcement. “I know she had her opinions, but…”

Everyone hated the skyrocketing costs and labor abuses that markets and governments permitted worldwide, but Padma did something about it: she’d run materials for activist groups after-hours at the print shop. And if “terrorism” included protesting the collapse of a state-run apartment tower by shattering a Nuevos Angeles billboard with shoddy rebar from the wreckage, Padma and I were both terrorists. She remained full of love and hope; I was amazed at her mountainous courage.

And she’d given herself up so the rest of the agents could be safe.

Willow was crying; everyone else looked stunned. They’d never know the risks Padma had taken to defend them.

It was never about keeping our network safe, I realized – it was about protecting everyone else, even the ones who’d never know it.

I picked up another rock. “She wasn’t alone.”

I took three steps closer to the billboard, brought my arm back, and let fly.

Stories that stick with you

Oh, high school English class. Nothing drives fear of classic literature into the hearts of teenagers better than over-analysis, strictly formatted essays, and forced discussion. I’m sure “Heart of Darkness,” “Lord of the Flies,” and “Old Man and the Sea” aren’t really that terrible, but English classes sure tried to convince me they were. To this day, I dread William Faulkner, approach Ernest Hemingway warily, and avoid John Gardner like the plague, thanks to “Grendel” and its endless discussions of (shudder) existentialism.

A few books managed redeem themselves, however. “The Great Gatsby” was one of them; “Fahrenheit 451” was another. Some, like “To Kill A Mockingbird,” were actually good the first time, although getting to watch any movie adaptation always helped (especially if Gregory Peck was involved). But that didn’t happen very often.

Short stories were another animal entirely. I don’t think I’ve ever debated a work of fiction more often than “Hills Like White Elephants” by Hemingway. (I’m not wild about it but I know a ton of people who are.) But for whatever reason, short stories seem to stick in our memories. The other day Kevin and I were talking politics and “The Lottery” came up. I have a litany of Ray Bradbury stories to fall back on when I need inspiration. Several classes at Linfield involved analyzing short stories – some of them were forgotten, some of them weren’t. Here are a few stories that have managed to retain their space in my abysmal memory.

1. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. It’s not a horror story, but it’s truly scary. The first time you read this story, you hardly realize anything is wrong until three-quarters of the way through. By the end, you want to curl up under a blanket with a teddy bear.

2. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Williams. This longer story preceded “The Awakening” by a good seven years, but the themes of feminist repression are the same. “The Yellow Wallpaper” plays out like something by Shakespeare or Kubrick: the narrator, suffering from “hysteria,” slowly goes insane while staying in a summer vacation home, obsessing over patterns in the wallpaper. This one makes the list because it’s downright haunting, in an “Exorcist” kind of way.

3. “Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin. It’s a whole season of a soap opera in one sitting! And it’s okay that it’s a soap opera, because it’s literary. It’s American southern Gothic to the core – love at first sight, mysterious origins, grand estates, painful twists of fate. The final sentence is the most important, but the general premise is that a loving couple’s marriage evaporates when their baby turns out to be partly African-American. It’s very short, so really, you have no excuse to not read it. Even though I’ve read it for classes two or three times, it gets more enjoyable – sort of like watching “Oceans 11” again and again, because you notice new things.

4. “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges. I think I need an entire class, or possibly mind-altering drugs, to understand this story. It makes the list because even though it drives me absolutely nuts, it’s intriguing and well-written enough that I want to read it over and over until it makes sense. There’s this library, and it goes on for infinity, and it’s full of hexagonal rooms consisting of bookshelves holding an infinite number of books, but most of them aren’t actually books as we know them because there are only 22 letters and they seem to be printed randomly on the pages, and somewhere there’s the One True Book that explains everything and it’s being sought by ringwraiths men in robes, and sometimes people go crazy and jump to their deaths because all the potential knowledge out there is just totally beyond them. So it’s, like, a metaphor for the futility of religion, and like, commentary on our minuscule existence? Or it’s actually a mathematical formula? Or like, a reminder about how language influences our perceptions? Dude.

5. “Well, What Do You Have To Say For Yourself?” by Ray Bradbury. Ray Bradbury is unquestionably the reason I write. Reading “The Illustrated Man” for the first time had the same impact on me as seeing “Star Wars” – I was introduced to whole new worlds, but more importantly, it showed me that people could make a living creating those worlds. Bradbury is one of the greatest modern storytellers, and anyone who writes both “Twilight Zone” episodes and one of the most well-regarded political allegories of the modern age (link to F 451), not to mention around 500 short stories, is worthy of admiration. But the story that really, truly, floored me and brought tears to my eyes the first time I read it and every time since – that’s this one. It’s published in “One More for the Road,” which has less science fiction and more poetic stories about summer and love and strangers from the past. This story is a simple conversation between a man who’s been cheating and his wife who agrees to hear him out, and what follows addresses everyone’s deepest fears and motivations and above all the importance of acceptance and forgiveness.

(By the way, Zach Snyder is directing an adaptation of “The Illustrated Man,” and the producer of “I, Robot” and “Marmaduke” is working on “The Martian Chronicles.” I’m not so sure I’m thrilled about either.)

So what stories do you find yourself remembering? Have I been unfair to Hemingway? Do you want to geek out over Ray Bradbury with me? Please do, I would very much enjoy that.