Blow it Up, Kid!
TW: referenced/implied childhood trauma, also it’s sad.
Blaire wakes to the screech of her robo-parrot Claire calling “Lo-ser! Lo-ser! Lo-ser!” like she always does at 10 p.m. on workdays. She groans to her feet, stretches, and smacks the sleep from her mouth as Claire’s insults become increasingly profane. Blaire picks the TV remote from between the couch cushions and throws it at the robo-parrot’s beak, yawning into the ensuing quiet. Outside her apartment, the rain beats a light drum.
She yawns again, rolls her neck, then frowns when she realizes she’d lost the remote to the dark of her apartment floor after throwing it. The lights are off, so she ignites a flame in her hand instead. Blaire dodges the clutter of discarded wrenches and half-constructed robotics projects and picks the remote up from the floor. She presses it and her small TV fizzes awake in the corner, playing the credits of a movie she’d meant to catch tonight. Oh well.
She flicks through the channels: PBS, Jesus ad, collegiate football, Sonia Ramirez urging America not to fear the fire children, another Jesus ad, Adventure Time episode rerun. Blaire settles there, leaves the living room to use the bathroom, and comes back to the doorbell ringing.
She frowns; she didn’t have any packages arriving today, and any guests would usually at least text her before coming. Her nerves spark a familiar current. Blaire transfers the flame onto her dominant hand and moves forward, tip-toeing on all the spots where she knew the old floorboards wouldn’t creak.
She checks through the peephole, groans, and then opens the door. Sonia Ramirez stands outside with her red lipstick and tan suit a shade lighter than her skin, umbrella open over a brown ponytail. Blaire flips her off and then slams the door shut again.
“Blaire,” deadpans Sonia. “Open the door.”
She opens the door, but just enough to stick out a hand and write in flame “F off” in the air before closing it again. Sonia clicks her tongue. “Stop being such a child. Open the door.”
“No,” Blaire says. “Go away.”
“Don’t you ‘Blaire’ me. Go away. I don’t need you ruining my night with your preaching again.”
Silence. A motorcycle vrooms by. Blaire imagines the glare of Sonia’s eyes, the cross of her arms, imagines her pressing her lips into a line to mirror the one between her brows. Was that her heel tapping, or just the rain? Blaire leans forward and thunks her forehead against the door.
She curses herself and swings it open. Sonia steps in, an eyebrow cocked that said they both knew that was going to happen, so why was Blaire wasting her time. She grumbles under her breath as she makes her way to the kitchen. Sonia dumps her umbrella and toes off her heels before following, flicking the lights on as she goes.
“Adventure Time?” She asks, eyeing the TV. Blaire’s apartment is small and low-rent, with no wall between the kitchen and the living room. Sonia watches the rush of cartoon candy soldiers as she sits down at Blaire’s kitchen island. “Aren’t you a bit old for cartoons?”
Blaire opens her refrigerator and grabs a bowl of leftover ravioli she’d made yesterday. She sets it on the counter, then fills a mug with water and passes it to Sonia. “No one’s too old for cartoons. You having fun, playing adult all day long?”
Sonia huffs a laugh. “We’re 26, Blaire. I am an adult.”
And doesn’t she show it. Blaire glances at her as she dumps the ravioli into a pot and turns the stove on. Eyebags beneath makeup, red edging her whites, no color at her cheeks. She stirs the pot and says nothing. They lapse into quiet, Blaire cooking and Sonia paying half an ear to the TV in the background.
Blaire’s still wearing her grease-smeared work coveralls, the top half tied around her waist so she can sweat out her arms, and in the quiet she feels Sonia’s gaze dipping across her shoulders and back. She waits. Outside, the rain beats, the wind whistles, and another motorcycle revs its engine. The ravioli finishes heating. Blaire scoops it into a bowl and digs a spoon up from a drawer.
Finally, Sonia speaks.
“Have you seen the news today?” She asks, then scoffs at herself. “What am I kidding, of course you haven’t. There was a new case.”
Blaire slides the bowl over to Sonia. She hates how she says “case” like the politicians do in debates, or like the scientists do in out-of-context stats twisted by journalists. Like she thinks she’s fooling anyone. “There’s new cases every day,” Blaire responds.
“It happened in a school,” Sonia says, picking up the spoon but making no move to eat.
Blaire pauses. She leans back against the counter. “How bad?”
Sonia blinks down at her ravioli. She gives a short shake of her head and a sigh. “Bad. No deaths, but a classroom completely burnt down and six elementary schoolers with third-degree burns.”
Blaire cusses. Sonia continues on: “The boy who blew up was being bullied by his classmates, and we think he probably also had some trouble at home. Classic example of a fire child, really.” She gives a short, humorless laugh. “God, the press is going to be all over this.”
Blaire thinks to that clip she saw on TV of her. That was half a decade’s worth of work, being able to get on screens, get platforms for her message. Half a decade to warm the public up to the idea of integrating the children into society, out of mandatory institutionalization, but progress was frustrated and delicate. She could imagine what would be said in the aftermath of this, that boy a symbol for the demonization of the fire children. Do you want your kid to get blown up by a lunatic freak? Sign this petition today!
“Where is he now?” Blaire asks.
Sonia looks up. “They’re holding him at one of the facilities overnight. I’m… I’m going in tomorrow with a few others from the organization to see him. To see what we can do for him.”
Before, when Sonia had just founded the organization, she would’ve asked Blaire to come with her. Now, she knew not to bother trying. But looking at her, the sag of her usually perfect posture and the white knuckles of her hand gripping the spoon, Blaire wishes she would again.
As it is, all she can do is watch and wait and remember. Remember—always, always—that night so long ago now, the heat in her throat and below her skin and then outside of it, the fear in her parents’ eyes and the bursting satisfaction of it, yes, yes, finally, the disgust too, I can’t stop it, I’m sorry, I can’t stop, how she knew she would explode for years before. How many times she exploded after in her jagged youth spent fenced in the fireproof halls of the facilities.
She closes her eyes and the heat makes itself known under her skin. She hasn’t blown in ages now, but she feels the phantoms of her combustions in her bones. She thinks of the boy, imagines the pound in his head before the flames came, and thinks I’m sorry.
Blaire pushes the bowl towards Sonia a bit further, and tells her: “Eat.”
Six hours later, Blaire wakes to the smell of smoke and the sound of gasping. She sits up, throws off her covers, then follows her senses to the bathroom, bare feet thudding over creaking floorboards. She finds Sonia on her knees in the bathtub, curled over with her forehead pressed to the porcelain bottom and her arms gripping her sides. She finds her on fire.
Blaire comes to a stop at the edge of the tub, her pajama-ed knees brushing the lip. For a moment, she just stands there and watches the periodic heave of Sonia’s shoulders as she gasps deep and quick, and the flare-up of flame that follows. She thinks: At least she made it to the bathtub this time.
Then she reaches over and twists open the shower knob. Cold water douses Sonia’s body, white clouds gusting from her skin and screening Blaire’s vision. It’s only after the steam clears completely that Blaire shuts the water off to find that Sonia had not only managed to make it to the bathtub, she’d managed to get her clothes off too. A relief; if the cloth had burnt into her skin, they might’ve had to go to the hospital.
Blaire throws a towel over Sonia’s still hunched figure, kneels next to the tub, and wipes her down. When she’s done, she grabs another towel to bundle her in. She picks her up from the bathtub, now black with ash, and carries her back to the bedroom.
For a long while, she sits on her bed, back against the wall with Sonia curled on her lap, her face pressed into the dip of Blaire’s collarbones as her quakes subside into tremors. Blaire heats her hands up, trapping her flames just below her palms, and presses them down Sonia’s back over the towel, along her arms, and through her hair until she’s completely dried.
Afterwards, a muddle of time later, Sonia shifts on her lap. Blaire catches her eyeing one of her hands on her shoulder. She knows what she’s thinking. Sonia’s asked her about it before, many times when they were younger and less frequently now in their adulthood, how she can control her fire so well. How she can make letters in the air while Sonia has to cower consumed under hers.
But Sonia doesn’t want to control the fire. She wants it to go away. And so she comes to Blaire’s apartment once every few months—once every few days, sometimes—and fights with her about how she’s not doing enough for the people like them, how she’s wasting her potential in her dingy apartment, how she’s still a child, and if they’re lucky, she’ll burn that night. If they’re not, it’ll come a week or two later, and Blaire will have to see her caller-ID flash on her phone and know it’ll be fifteen helpless minutes of fire before she can get to her.
Blaire shuts her eyes. It’s six a.m. now, and the dark of night’s lifted into a damp grey—just enough for her to smudge out the shape of the bedroom and the woman in her arms. When she opens them, Sonia is looking up at her, her breath warming Blaire’s face. Her brown eyes are half-lidded, and even in the low light Blaire can still make out the shadows beneath them.
Finally, Blaire speaks.
“Do you ever think about your childhood? Before, I mean,” she asks, her voice husky with disuse and the early morning.
She doesn’t need to specify before what. It’s obvious to both of them. Sonia looks away, off to the side at one of Blaire’s many overstuffed bookshelves full of odd metal trinkets she’d made when she couldn’t sleep. In a hoarse voice, she answers, “Not really. I don’t remember most of it.” The I don’t want to, either goes unspoken but understood. “Do you?”
Blaire leans down and presses her mouth to the top of Sonia’s head. “Yes,” she says. “All the time.”
Sonia nods. They fall asleep like that, curled into each other in the fragile minutes before dawn.
When Blaire wakes again, she is alone. She groans up from her bed, stretches, and walks into the kitchen where she finds a clean bowl in the drying rack and spoon in the drawer. There’s a note on the kitchen island in Sonia’s swift, slanted handwriting: Thanks for the ravioli. I’ll text you later?
Blaire squints down at the note, rubs her eyes, reads it again.
Her body is a mouth gaping wide open. She’s good at killing her desire, separating want from need and letting go of what is only the former, but right now, as the thin morning slants through her shuttered windows, she can’t convince her body that this isn’t a need. So she aches.
She aches, and aches, and lights herself on fire just a bit. Just to let it skim over her skin, then pull it back with a deep, shuddering breath. Another moment later, she turns back to the hallway leading to her bathroom.
Just before she leaves, Claire’s ash-stained wings stretch with a creak as 9 o’clock strikes. In her metallic voice, she cries: “Cow-ard! Cow-ard! Cow-ard!”