Lighting fires is more complicated than it used to be. Back when I was a kid, even for want of a match, you could use a magnifying glass and get what you came for. 100% satisfaction. No rules if you looked innocent enough. No punishment if you could put up with the looks of adults who think you don’t know better. No practical considerations if you’re smart enough to stay dumb. At least, that’s the way I remember it. Nostalgia is complicated like that.
Family dog strayed close to my frantic limbs and got singed in the fireplace. I don’t remember what my parents thought his name was. To me, he was only Sparky.
“Only superficial burns.” The veterinarian said. How could he dismiss something so beautiful as superficial? I remember Sparky’s congealed face better than I remember my mother’s. I watched him best that I could after that because I owed him everything. When I would stroke his coat, he would hemorrhage fur between my fingers like each time we parted the inches between us were small doggy deaths. My dog. My friend. My forgiver. That’s not nostalgia, that’s just the way love worked.
Caught in smoke. I dropped the computer and it shattered into a mess of hot pieces. I could smell the burnt linoleum from the hall. The flames held close to me as I ran through the apartments. I thought about how Sparky’s eye was partially closed on one side from the burns. The smoke caught me fully. Intoxicating and breathless. The tarmac was warm, then too warm on my cheek.
I wished I had been able to steal more. Empty houses, tripped security alarms. People assume what I take was lost in the fire. Do you think this hobby pays for itself? Matches, lighters, tinder, kindling, gasoline, transportation, scouting, strategy, time management, location, acting lessons. And those are just the supplies if you’re white. Not every satisfying hobby can be cheap.
The first time I felt her touch was when she was compressing my stomach in a vain attempt to limit the damage of the fire. Ha. She did cute things like that. I coughed black crap on her face without the hint of a flinch. She smiled, and I was warm.
“Am I going to die?” I said.
“You’re going to be okay.” She said. Her voice: indulgent and active. Like a dancer.
They put me an ambulance paid for by health insurance I wouldn’t have the money for after the charges on my credit card went through. The firefighter stayed with me. Attempting to limit the damage of the fire.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Phoenix.” She said.
“Isn’t that a little on the nose for a firefighter?” I said.
She laughed. That was when I knew that I’d miss her when she died.
Everything got colder and foggier as they took me away from the fire. As they closed the doors and separated us, the room was struck by a chill.
Sometimes, when I’m alone or when I’m passed out in the back of an ambulance, I hope if people remember me that it’ll be for the fires and not my face. People look at you different once you look like you’ve been through an oven. They think you’re one too many burns away from being a normal person. People were bastards. I don’t know if I could look people in the eye if I didn’t have the burns to look forward to.
Six weeks. I could have completed an online traffic school in the amount of time I spent in the hospital. Instead they taught me how to use two-fifths of my hand and how to properly air out the remains of my face too unsettling to be left in the public eye.
They told me I was highly motivated to complete my physical therapy because I was. I was close. I could taste it. I needed to be back on the streets lighting fires again.
They told me I was one of the most motivated patients they’d ever seen because I was. Hospitals are cold. Hospitals are laminated. Hospitals are in desperate want of any sort of clutter. I would never burn a hospital. I would never go back to one. I didn’t need medicine, I had obsession. I longed to be in the public eye.
I was out in five and a half weeks. I was back where I belonged.
They gave me a name. Not an interesting one like the Crispy Bandit, or the Angel of Screaming Flame. The “Cottondale Arsonist”. I didn’t even set that fire in Cottondale. That was a gas fire and any amateur could tell you that. I’ve ramped up. Three fires in three weeks. They think I’m scaling up to practice for the solar eclipse, but that’s just a fun coincidence.
Sometimes people will see my face and ask me if I’m one of my victims. As if the only thing that pops into their mind when they see me is how they can connect me to passing information they’d just as soon discard if given the chance. I make notes of these people’s names so that I can steal all of their favorite things from their houses while I light the rest of their things on fire. People ask me that question a lot. I’ve been busy.
But she wasn’t at any of them. I broke ritual and waited at the fire for fifteen minutes. None of the firefighters who arrived even looked excited to be at the fire! I mean, the nerve of the thing. What’s the point of being in the business if you don’t love your craft?
I called all of the Phoenix’s in the phonebook and left voice messages on all the ones I didn’t creep out voice-to-voice. I wondered if she would approve of my hobby and promptly purchased three hundred dollars worth of unscented candles. She called me back promptly and I felt my heart vacate itself losslessly.
Coffee followed by lunches. I thanked her for saving my life. Dates followed by late phone calls. Sometimes on days when she’d touch my face, I didn’t light the candles by my bedside. Delayed gratification preceded by immediate connection. In moments, I could feel only where she wasn’t as if my skin were calling out for something recognizable as one and itself.
Life burned its pace relentlessly.
“Do you like your job?” I asked.
“Do you like yours?” Phoenix asked.
“Unemployment? Absolutely.” I said. Phoenix smiled in the polite lovely way that good friends do at mediocre jokes.
“I mean, it’s dangerous and challenging and the pay is bad and I hate all of my co-workers but-”
“You love it?”
“… Yeah.” Phoenix said. She laughed and I knew for certain in that way only love could.
“I know the feeling.” I looked deep into her.
“I have something I want to tell you.” I said. She frowned.
“Don’t.” She said.
She took my hand and loved it as closely that she could.
“You look so beautiful.” She said, reaching for my face and touching my scars. Warmth. Volatility. Burden.
“There’s something wrong with me.” I said.
“It’s okay.” She said.
“I love you but-” Phoenix clenched something in my hand.
“Love is more complicated than putting out a fire.”
I lit the whole world on fire. The sun turned a lighter shade of bright to better the bloom that was in the air. I stole things people didn’t deserve while Phoenix saved the things they did. Standing water and metallic bowls stopped smelling like guilt. Even the burning buildings stopped smelling like joy. Eventually, I only ever cared to burn the things which meant the most to me. Life became uncomplicated. We lived life ceaselessly as we slowly backed away from the fires and closer to each other, drawn like moths to an open flame.