Valerie Shu | Art by Aanya Mishra
The first droplet kissed her forehead. The second caught her in the cheek as she twisted up into the pale yellow sky. A third on her bare shoulder, a fourth in her hair, and then she was sure she couldn’t be imagining it.
The droplets fastened onto skin one by one, slowly at first and then faster, each a cold and wonderful thrill, each a promise. She held her breath, afraid that with one wrong breath the fire baked into her bones would bubble through her skin. Transfixed, she watched little interlacing rivers of water carve themselves into her skin as rain fell faster and faster.
Then the screaming started.
She ran, faster than she’d ever run before, scrabbling upstream against the tide of bodies as she felt the fire flushing through her. All around her, panic roiled in the air like a stifling storm, the crowd moving as one entity, one thrashing river. And still she ran, leaping and scrambling like she could outrun the water but it caught her anyway, diving onto her skin and leaving cool trails in their wake, she had to see – she had to –
There, through the tangle of limbs, a flash of red. A flicker of fire, bright and brief. A desperate lunge towards it.
Her mother’s voice was a roaring surge of warmth and relief as she collided into her embrace and felt the pounding flames against the heave of their skin. Her own heartbeat was the rush of whitewater rapids. But it wasn’t until now – when she felt the terror that throbbed in her mother’s grip – that she knew. Knew, with the sinking certainty that had ignited in the pit of her stomach the moment the crowd began its panicked stampede. Knowing but still needing to keep going, needing to know that they had tried and there was still hope left –
And it was in this way, clinging to each other, that they ran through the now empty streets, streaked with shattered dirt.
She stood, rooted in place. The silent village folded itself to the ground behind her as she watched her mother run after the train. Running faster than she had ever run before as her red scarf streamed out in the wind, flickering like a tongue of flame.
She looked down. Her feet, usually dull with dirt, were slathered in cold mud. Rivers wove their way down her skin, spearheaded by heavy drops. She felt fragile and weathered, like an ancient canyon being pulled apart by the force of the water.
The train was nothing but a shrinking ashen speck on the horizon, obscured by rain and distance.
She looked down at the earth again but all she found was mud between her toes and the rain on her face and the fire under her skin.
She shivered – she burned.