There are about a dozen of them scattered across the darkened lawn. Through the slow haze that curls up from the bonfire, Allison watches the group align and realign, their soda cans and their flyaway laughs sounding together in the dead heat of June. She searches for Audrey, finds her by the copper gleam of her hair. Her sister is standing with a few other girls, their backs blurring through the faint slip of smoke. They’re close to the fire – maybe a bit too close. She should say something. She’ll tell them to move away, later.
For now, her fingers drum against the low porch step, and she glances around at the rest of the group. They look alright, actually, and it’s a nice evening, with the taste of the wind and the scent of the burning logs. Yes, it’s a nice evening, and someone’s even strung fairy lights all along the roof of the back porch. The bulbs brim warm against the falling night, ghosting across her arms.
Years from now, when she has seen her fair share of burning, she will allow herself to remember nothing of this moment but the firelight, the way that it washes over her sister’s copper hair. Now, though – now, she sees it all. The innocent step backwards. The shy leap of the flames, the initial hesitation as they stretch towards Audrey’s head. Then, the way that they command, swallow her up and into themselves.
Some time later, there are sirens in the air. The car that she rides in follows the ambulance, and the lights of the street stream past her window like broken egg yolks.
She learns amid white walls of the ER that Audrey will be alright – thank God, says the doctor to her parents, they pulled her out in time. Of course – and here, his eyes deepen with practice – the burns are third degree, they’ll scar. Quite badly.
There are visits to the hospital over the next few weeks. She hates them, hates the lights that try too hard to be warm and the thick yellow scent of the antiseptic. Audrey sleeps, most of the time, except to eat and to run her fingers through her charred hair, to stare at the scabs on her shoulders. It’s late July when she comes home, and though the burns have healed, she wears a thin white bandage across the left side of her face. She seems to do a little less of everything. Talks less, sleeps less, breathes more cautiously.
It begins with the matches. Allison doesn’t dare to ask, but three times a week now, she finds them withered in the garbage, black and tender and, sometimes, still warm. Their parents are careful with fire now; the doctors have told them that it may upset her. They don’t turn on the stove around her, or send them to bed with the electric fireplace roaring. And here she is, striking matches in secret, smashing her piggy bank and buying a lighter and hiding it in her pillowcase.
Allison catches her at it, once, ducks into the closet when she hears footsteps on the stairs. She looks around and, slowly, draws her hand from under her blanket with the lighter clenched firmly in her palm. She sits on the rug and flicks it – back and forth, on and off, and again. Allison watches through the door crack as the light sputters on and off in her sister’s eyes – it scares her, the way that flame thrashes
Her parents find out, somehow, on a Saturday evening – she knows because they ask her to go upstairs, say they want to talk to her sister alone. She hurries to her room and clamps her head between two pillows, but she needn’t have bothered – their voices are low enough to drown in the walls. After several moments of silence, she rises and presses her ear to the door. There are words, many of them, strung into taut and worried lines. A question. Because I can control it, comes Audrey’s response. I’m in control.
Later that night, Audrey rises from her bed and leaves the room. Allison hears the garage door open, and moments later, through the window, sees her sister emerge toting a can of gasoline. She stands in the middle of the stoop and spills it wildly across the lawn and the drive – the moonlight catches the beads of oil, and she can almost hear them whistle as they tear through the darkness. She moves back and tosses a single lit match onto the glistening grass.
The blaze spreads quickly and rises high – Audrey feels it in her chest as she felt the matches, the lighter, but this is so much larger. So much fiercer.
A spark catches a wooden beam, and then a porch rail, and then a doorway. It makes its way up the wooden beams, eating through the walls.
As her parents and sister scramble out, a girl crouches amid the darkness and watches the world burn.