It was the smoke that woke me.
Thick, black and cruel, it took hold of my throat and nose. My clogged airway forced a cough, deep enough to break me from my sleep. As I opened my eyes, my first thought was that I must still be dreaming.
The heat came then; washed over me like a wave to shore. Drenched with sweat, my body was trying to compensate for the environment. The thin fabric of my tank top stuck, matted to my skin, hair soaked like I’d just left the shower. My senses came alive as I took in the killer that surrounded me at every angle. Every muscle in my body tensed with fear.
Fire surrounded me. Its tongue lapped at my wallpaper, melting it into the wall which was crumbling into ash. Flames curled my beige carpeting into nothing more than crumpled rubber. All this and I hadn’t even wiggled out of my bedsheets yet.
Finally, I sat up, knowing it would help nothing. I wasn’t thinking straight. My brain refused to communicate with my limbs. My downfall, I suppose. I had waited too long to get out.
In a haze of fascination, I saw the walls of my bedroom disintegrate beside me. The blaze crackled at the tips as it ignited my ceiling, blue heat spreading wildly. At the bottom, it grew larger still, devouring the bed skirt as I sat upon my mattress.
I knew it would consume me in a matter of seconds.
My breathing couldn’t keep up with my pounding heart. I was entombed in my pajamas, in the middle of my own home. The fire was unbearable, eating at my skin, burning it until it bubbled, holding me in a painfully tangled embrace. I felt my hair light up; smelt it, as it turned to ash down the back of my neck and into my shirt.
My conscious mind fought with the pain that overrode each of my senses. It was agony. Instincts took over, begging me to find oxygen, and I gasped for it. The air I still had left to breathe stung my shriveling lungs. It was no longer fit to inhale. I was suffocating.
I squeezed my eyelids closed, but the reds and oranges were still there, taunting me. The heat grew worse in seconds, singing my eyelashes as I felt myself ignite. The skin on my arms burnt wide open, tearing apart the outer shell of my body without a second thought. The fire took me.
Succumbing to the pain, my brain turned off, and then, there was nothing.
The nothing lasted for what felt like a few seconds, but turned out to be a few weeks. Consciousness returned and I searched for the breath I’d been denied in the fire. I couldn’t find it, however. Instead, sharp pain lined my throat, a foreign object stuffed deep in my esophagus choked me back unto submission.
When I came to a few days later, I’d learned it was the ventilator. I spent the next few days weaving in and out of consciousness, unsure of what was real. My body was foreign, wrapped in bandages, numb from the drugs they’d given me for pain.
“The important thing Lila,” my mother tried to reassure me once I had been awake for a few hours, “is that you’re alive.”
I tried with all my might to shoot her the dirtiest look I could muster, but she kissed the bandages on my forehead and left. It had always been my mom and I, but our relationship had grown distant in the past few years.
Later the doctors talked to my mother and I about aftercare. Plastic surgery options. What my life might be like now that I was a burn victim. I hated the term. The doctor suggested therapy in a hushed whisper to my mother.
It was weeks before we went home, after extensive skin graft surgeries to try and repair my broken body. Nothing had survived the fire, so I had nothing to move. It felt like the entirety of my life had been reduced to nothing but ash and soot. The fire had left me hollow. What else did I have to look forward to? I set up shop in the guest room with a twin mattress and attached bathroom. I vowed never to leave, even to eat. Maybe I could rot into the sheets and nobody would notice.
The first time I was able to take a good look at what had happened to my body was the day I’d arrived home. Tenderly I stripped my clothes off, desperately wanting to run a washcloth over my damaged skin. I felt like I could still smell my body burning. My wounds gave off an odor that smelled of iron and bleach, a stench that made me want to vomit.
My face was no longer a familiar shape, housing features I couldn’t distinguish as my own. My hair was gone, eyebrows, eyelashes, everything. My forehead blistered, burnt a deep purple-red. My eyes were sunken, a different shape then when I’d seen them last. The skin underneath had sagged from the burn, revealing the pink underneath my eyes. My lips had swollen too, ugly and unnatural looking, like a plastic surgery gone wrong. The sides of my nose were gone, melted from my face leaving only a crude looking stump. Surrounding my face was a white compression garment, just to finish off the ensemble.
I was a monster.
Exhausted that night, I was finally able to sleep for a few hours, but it didn’t last long. The nightmares came, as I knew they would, burning me alive over and over again. Finally, they ended and I jolted awake. For a moment I forgot where I was, who I was and what had happened, until I brought my hands into view. Plump and waxy, they were horrible. I hated them. I hated me.
I put my hands out of sight, fumbling for the bedside lamp I knew was there. The room illuminated and I glanced around, seeing nothing of interest. Until, in the corner of the room, I saw a spark.
As my eyes adjusted, I focused on it. A jolt of electricity fired in the wall socket - blue and yellow skinny streams, shooting sparks from the three black holes. I tried to find my voice, to call for my mother, but nothing came. Instead, I stared at it.
From that socket, a burnt black line appeared in the wall, darting to the next wall plate. It came to life with the same electricity, twisting around each of the edges. I clutched at the sheets, terrified. Another black line appeared, and shot out the door.
Trembling, I let my legs hang over the side of the bed and found the floor with my feet. Out the door I ran, watching the black lines get longer and darker, some of them smoking, as they lit each socket up with electric frenzy. It continued down the hall, across the floor, down the stairs, until I found myself standing in the kitchen.
My mother’s oven was a typical kitchen range with gas burners. I stared at it, watching it, until one by one, each of the ranges came alive on their own without so much as a movement from me. I watched them all, blazes of blue tinged with orange. They danced, safe and happy in their own little homes, not wanting to hurt anyone. I found myself fond of them, loving how tiny they were. As I came closer, I could feel the warmth of them - so soft and delicate.
They were happy to see me.
They grew larger, overflowing their grates, meeting in the middle to set the entire oven on fire. I stood there, barefoot in the kitchen, watching it. Something in the back of my mind tugged at my voice of reason to run. To be afraid. But the fire was somehow comforting. I was drawn to it. Moth to the flame.
“LILA!” My mother’s shrieks echoed and I broke from my trance to look up at her as she flew down the stairs. “What in God’s name are you doing?” she screamed, scrambling to the underside of the kitchen sink to pull out a fire extinguisher.
She ripped the pin from the side and frantically sprayed against the oven, shielding me behind her with a stiff arm. She was so close, I could feel her trembling, frantic with fear as she swept the extinguisher from side to side to put the blaze at bay. I felt disappointment rise in my belly coupled with confusion of where it had come from.
Once she was sure the fire was at gone, she turned to face me, her face red, eyes darting across my face. Instantly, I could tell she was panicked, though I couldn’t understand why. This was the most alive I’d felt since the accident.
“Are you okay?” she asked, gripping my shoulders. “Lila, what happened?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I’m sorry.”
Turning, I went back to the bedroom, searching the walls for the dark black line I know I’d seen only moments before. But they were gone. The walls were completely untouched.
If you try hard enough, there’s an explanation for everything. My mother keyed the incident up to trauma. We started therapy the next day.
The office was small and smelled like mothballs, but my mother still crossed her legs and wore her lipstick, telling the skinny therapist, in detail, how horrible my life had been since the fire.
“She doesn’t talk, doesn’t want to eat. She’s very traumatized,” she said to him, as though I wasn’t sitting right next to her. “She’ll never be the same.” I noticed she didn’t bring up the oven.
“Well Ms. Greenwich, you need to understand, it’s very common for people in Lila’s condition to respond that way.” He looked at me, like my condition was the most normal thing in the world. “Would you mind if Lila and I had a conversation alone?”
My mother shook her head, politely gathering her purse under her arm and exiting the room.
The therapist stared at me from over the top of his horn-rimmed glasses. “So,” he began, “Lila.” He gave me a cheesy smile, grinning at me like we were old friends. “How are you feeling?”
I glared at him, frustrated by the mere notion of even expressing my feelings. Wasn’t it obvious how I felt? I barely had a face left.
“We don’t have to talk about any of the stuff your mom wants us to talk about,” he continued. “Okay?”
I shrugged, looking off to the side.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door. A young woman appeared, maybe a colleague, or an assistant. Her eyes traveled across the room, sweeping over the therapist, then to me. It was instantaneous, the repulsion in her eyes. Logically I knew, it must have been an instinctual reaction. She wasn’t able to help herself.
“Oh my goodness,” she whispered. She was staring. I could feel her eyes on my damaged skin. “ I-I’m so sorry,” she stuttered. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
It happened again, but this time I was glaring at the wall. The socket erupted, the sparks stronger this time, rattling the plate. I looked back at the therapist who was mouthing something to the woman who ducked her head out and closed the door.
“I’m so sorry,” he was saying, but I wasn’t paying attention. The black line appeared, releasing thick black smoke from the wall until it found the next socket in the wall. It crackled, erupting in so many sparks they looked like diamonds. “She’s new,” he continued, oblivious to what was happening behind him.
The black line grew, disappearing behind a bookshelf and back out through the door. “I need to go,” I muttered, standing from my chair and leaving the room. There was a need to follow the line again, to see where it ended. I felt warm and suspiciously calm. The best I’d felt since the accident.
Along the white wall it traveled, keeping pace with my strides, like it was waiting for me. I turned a corner, entering the reception area where the woman now sat. She glanced up at me, cheeks turning red, looking around the room to avoid eye contact.
The black line had stopped, disappearing behind her. I tried to find it, to make sense of it. I thought maybe I should warn her because I could feel it coming, but before I had time to make the decision, the fake plant behind her erupted into flames.
She screamed, jumping up from her chair, brushing her clothes to make sure that she too, hadn’t caught. I wanted to tell her it would be impossible not to know, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the flames. They were miraculous - free flying, tall and strong, eating away at the plastic of the plant. It produced a marvelously acrid fume that was unlike anything I’d ever smelt before. I inhaled it, delighting in it, memorizing it. Each tendril of fire wrapped around a piece of what had once been a piece of office decoration. Useless and superficial.
Now, it was beautiful.
“LILA,” my mother tugged at my arm. “We need to go!”
No, I thought to myself, unable to look away. The blaze grew, catching a stack of printer paper just beside it. They ignited immediately, and I felt myself break into a wide grin.
When they finally got me out of the office and onto the street, I saw the receptionist sobbing to the police. She was moving her arms animatedly, then searched into the crowd, looking for something. Her eyes finally landed on me.
One of the police men gave me a glance, raised his eyebrows, and turned back to her.
“Let’s go,” I whispered to my mother.
“Lila,” she said, grasping my hand. “What’s going on?” but I refused to answer as I pulled her down the sidewalk towards where we had parked.
“IT WAS HER!” I heard someone scream. “I KNOW IT.”
My mother, in her casual businesswear, turned on a dime and glanced over the crowd. It was the receptionist, wailing, pointing her fingers at me.
“Oh hell no,” my mother spat, leaving my hand and walking towards her.
I watched as the woman’s eyes widened in fear, savoring it as my mother laid into her and the police officers. Once she’d had her fill, she left, grasping my hand in hers and pulled me towards the car.
We drove home in silence, my mother fuming beside me. As our car came into the driveway, I saw her lips close into a thin line. She parked the car, then tensed, straightening her back, like she was ready to scold me.
“Lila,” she said very seriously, turning her face towards mine. “Did you start those fires?”
I thought for a moment. “I can’t help it,” I managed to say. “I’m sorry.”
Night came, but sleep did not. I paced the room, thinking of nothing else but fire. How pleasant it was. How comfortable its presence made me feel. I longed for it, to see it again. The beauty and intensity of the element made my heart soar.
Lately, it seemed to be almost obedient. Part of me knew it seemed crazy, but it was as if it had followed me from the night I’d been burned. Waiting to show up and destroy the oven. Later, wanting...no, needing to ignite the office plant to put that receptionist in her place. I realized, I had willed that moment to happen.
My emotions were higher than they’d been in months. The anger I felt from the disappointment of my body seemed to drift away when I thought of the flames and how they had made me feel. I decided to try and make it happen again. At the mere thought, a rush flew through me, a high I could never explain, even if I’d wanted to. I felt like I could fly. Energy flowed through every nerve ending that was left in my body and transmitted outwards to my fingertips.
There it was - I could feel it shocking me, like pins and needles in a sleeping leg. I rolled the energy over in my fingers like an invisible ball, guiding it over the pads of my fingertips with my thumb. Then, without much thought behind it, I shot my hands out, towards the sockets and on cue they began to flutter with shocks. The metal cover rattled in place, shaking from the sparks.
I let myself grin from pure joy, a smile that showed my teeth, feeling the power of my thoughts flow freely through my body, my fingers, into the walls.. The energy, the fire, it came to me. It obeyed me. It loved me.
I started small that night, dragging my smoky black lines into the living room to ignite an old book. It was exhilarating, watching it light up and eat the spine, letter by letter. Later, I smothered the flames with my bare foot.
A week later, I’d moved on to bushes in the backyard, lighting a new one each night. I’d managed to get the rosebush charred to a stump when my mother came stomping outside in her slippers.
“Lila,” she cried. “You need to stop this!” Her cheeks were tear stained. I knew she’d been watching me from the upstairs window. But I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to.
I thought of little else, day or night. Every so often I’d catch my reflection in the bathroom mirror, my stretched skin calling out to me. I was drawn to that too, each day finding something new in the tapestry of my face that was beautiful. The wrinkles and tears, the pinks of my eyes, the burns that still covered my forehead, pussing yellow as they tried to heal.
There were parts of my skin that weren’t as affected and parts that were healing. As the days went by, I started to hate them. I wanted those parts to be just like the rest of me, open, oozing, and black.
I continued with small fires throughout the house, blowing out sockets, bulbs and electronics. Outside I’d tried patches of grass and small trees until the yard was black. My mother was at her wits end, but I barely noticed. She tried to love me, but I didn’t want it. She didn’t understand me anymore.
Tonight though, was different. I was going to make her see. Standing over her, sleeping in her bed, she looked troubled.
I was going to fix that.
With my arms out, I brought the sockets to life in the room, and they popped with delight, expressing sparks and small flames that spread, climbing the walls, catching the curtains, until the room was pleasantly glowing.
She stirred, and I smiled at her, wiping my hand down her cheek.
“Lila?” she said in a sleepy stupor. “W-wha-?” Fear came, and I wished it wouldn’t.
“It’s okay,” I told her gently. “It’s fantastic.”
“LILA!” my mother pushing away from me, rocking back and forth in her bed as I stood over her. I was delirious with happiness.
“Why do you want to punish me?” she asked.
“I’m not punishing you,” I cooed. “I’m making you see how wonderful this is. How lovely the fire can be.”
Without warning, the flames wrapped around her, hugging her, holding her tight. Embraced her, every piece of her, eating away at her clothes and her hair and her skin and she didn’t know it yet, but she was beautiful.
I reached to her as she wailed, head first into the flames. I felt the heat, the fire all around me as it rose to engulf my body in its warmth. I found her, holding her body with my own and we collapsed, disintegrating into the heat.
It was glorious.