She had been on fire for four years now. It was hot and made people uncomfortable. Also, they said, there was the smell of burning hair. The girl couldn’t really see the problem. She was always light and always warm. She was great at camping. Maybe she left scorch marks all over the furniture—so what?
“Honey,” her mother said, over the phone. “Are you still doing that fire thing? Your father and I worry.”
“Yes, Ma,” the girl said. Sometimes, when her mother called, they had two different conversations. Her mother: You should go back to school. The girl: I feel like I’m really self-actualizing. The mother: There’s a nice new boy at church. The girl: I think I’d like to go to China.
A nearby philodendron curled up, smoking, and the girl leapt to her feet.
“It’s just that—well, honey,” her mother said. The phone was melting. It was hard to hear. “Men don’t make passes at girls who are on fire.”
“What?” the girl asked.
Her mother was saying, “Maybe you should consider letting someone else be on fire for a while,” but the phone was a bubbling mass on the floor, now, and the girl backed away from it carefully. “Bye, Ma,” she called down into the puddle, “I love you!” and as she doused it with salt, imagined that it said beautiful things.
She went out that night with her friend, Marjorie. There were only a few bars in town that allowed people who were on fire, so they went to the same places over and over. Marjorie didn’t mind. Marjorie was depressed. She claimed the sameness of the bar was a pocket-sized representation of the unchanging bleakness of her life. Every night, they drank the same beer and Marjorie left with the same kind of man: the kind who had just one thing too many wrong with him for other women to take home. A large mole, or a receding hairline, or an anger management problem.
That night, while Marjorie talked sadly to a man who was just trying to find himself, you know?, the girl on fire stared into the pitcher. When she was little, she’d thought beer looked like liquid gold. She’d thought lots of things: that all grown-ups were smart, that there was a heaven. That someday, if she was hard-working and true-hearted and smiled a lot, people would be attracted to her like moths to a flame.
She looked out at the couples pouring hand-in-mittened-hand from the diner across the street, laughing, all inside jokes and Corgi puppies. Her phone was buzzing in her pocket. It was the newspapers, the talk shows, the President of the United States; they wanted to know her secret, how in five easy steps, they could be on fire, too. Marjorie waved a sad goodbye, and the girl lifted her glass. The beer hissed at her lips: a scorching cloud of steam, the adult bitterness of gold.
Kendra Fortmeyer has an MFA from UT Austin and edits fiction for Broad! Magazine. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Nonrequired Reading and has appeared in the Toast, PANK, Smoking Glue Gun, NANO Fiction, apt, Psychopomp and elsewhere. You can find her at www.kendrafortmeyer.com or on Twitter @kendraffe.