Fire Starter

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Fire Starter

If a resident of Haver Street was asked who the Attneys were, they’d no doubt tilt their head and say, "Who? Attney? Never heard of them." This was quite mysterious as the Attneys had lived at 51 Haver Street for twelve years and their comings and goings were seen just as much as that of their neighbors.

Perhaps it was the house itself that made the neighborhood eager to ignore the Attneys. With its chipped, moss-covered siding, a black cat that kept watch on its front steps, a wild front garden filled with unnamable purple and spot-filled plants, and a shingled roof fated to tilt East, 51 Haver Street made any neighbor hurry past. It was a house to be eavesdropped on and only looked at from the corner of one’s eye. Who knows what would be seen if it was studied too closely. Then again, it could’ve been the owners of the house too. The one neighbor who knew the Attneys, the nosy cat-sweater-making Mrs. Barnaby, described them to be utterly strange. Even stranger than the nudist come garden gnome collector, Mr. Coddle.

"They leave the house at the oddest hours dressed in dark robes! Yes, those dark robes. The ones with gold lining and strange symbols. I've long suspected they're in a cult. And that lawn of theirs! It's always singed and smells of smoke."

At this point, anyone who’d dared to ask about the Attneys might have backed away, uneasy of the glint in Mrs. Barnaby’s gimlet eyes. That didn’t matter to her, though. She would continue on undeterred.

"And their daughter! Ten years old and spends all of her evenings– mind you only when her parents are gone– reading on the roof!"

"The roof?" Anyone reasonable might ask, fearing for the misled ten-year-old.

"Oh yes, the roof. Mark my words, Beatrice Attney is meant for trouble."

"Trouble?"

"Certainly. At least she has that cat of hers. Maybe he’ll keep her from being a nuisance."

Normally, one could dismiss Mrs. Barnaby's claims as the ramblings of a gossip-monger. But the Attneys were an exception to every rule. Especially when it came to their midnight wanderings. Or the child who preferred sitting on the roof and reading by moonlight, instead of sleeping like a ten-year-old ought to.

It was on one such midnight, with Beatrice perched on the roof and her parents gone, that the whole of Haver Street admitted to the existence of the Attneys.

Beatrice Attney possessed a peculiar talent. It didn’t make her preoccupation with being on the roof by one of the gables make more sense than it already did, but it explained the singe marks on the grass. Beatrice Attney had a talent for lighting fires, but not with matches, or lighters, or even blowtorches. She could light fires simply by looking and wishing them into being. There were no magic words or movements or special runes. It was as natural as breathing.

As far as Beatrice knew, she was born with it. She couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t know how to use it. The knowledge and secret of her power coursed through her veins as surely as her blood did. Perhaps Beatrice was a little warmer than the average child with a steady temperature of 103 degrees Fahrenheit with no ill effects. Or perhaps she was just a little brighter, a little more fire-filled, but everyone was none the wiser. Not even her parents knew.

Her parents knew nothing about it, they’d never asked or hinted, but then again they had their own odd happenings.

When they went in the evenings to their meetings—Mrs. Barnaby was right about their cult, it turns out—Beatrice played with fire up on the roof. Which sounds dangerous, but she was very safe about it. No, really. However, tonight was different from the other nights. Instead of swirling fire into the night sky, Beatrice intended to get into trouble. In other words, she hoped to have an adventure with her friend, Timothy. 

Well, “friend” was debatable. Timothy discovered her talent for starting fires when they were at school. Rather than telling on her (his threat) he’d decided he needed her. Beatrice was overjoyed. Even if he was Mrs. Barnaby’s nephew.

“I want to do something for Mrs. Dean.” Beatrice had eyed him with deep suspicion, her arms crossed over her wiry build. “Stop looking at me like I stepped on your cat. It’s nothing that bad.”

He told her little of his plan, but she agreed regardless. Now all that remained was for him to show up. Five minutes after midnight, Timothy strolled up the driveway. Tucked under a striped hat, his curly hair stuck out at the base of his neck. Beatrice waved at him and scooted down the roof to slip in through the attic window. Mindful of her hands on the jagged edge of the windowsill, Beatrice landed inside with ease. She didn’t bother to brush the dust off her jeans or her woolen jacket. She raced down the stairs, leaping over packs of cards, piles of books and empty vials, as well as her black cat, Hades. He yowled at her in feline disgust, but she ignored him. Taking a deep breath, she opened the creaking oak door to her house, a toothy grin on her face.

“Hi, Tim!”

“Don’t sound so cheerful,” he grumbled, motioning for her to follow him. She scrunched her freckled nose at him but tried again.

“Hello, Timothy.”

“Beatrice.”

Beatrice fought not to frown but had little luck. She so wanted to be friends with him. She didn’t have very many and he did have such nice hair and those blue eyes… 

“Aren’t the stars pretty? If you look to the left, Cygnus is above–”

“Beatrice, come on. We’re already running late.” Timothy turned on his heel, starting towards the empty sidewalk. Beatrice hurried to catch up. A hand’s width taller than her, Timothy kept ahead, but not without some puffs every so often. 

“So are we heading to her house then?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure she’ll be happy to see us?”

“Beatrice, shhh.”

After that, Beatrice decided it was best not to talk to him. He seemed to be in a mood. Instead, she did her darndest to think about the plan and attempt to guess at his motives. He’d said they were going to give Mrs. Dean, their fourth-grade teacher, a surprise. He hadn’t told her what kind of a surprise. Beatrice was curious, but rather than have her talent aired to her whole class, she had decided to accept it. Timothy was a notorious tattle-tale and the last thing she needed was for her secret to get out. Yet, the possibilities for his plan were endless and nerves tickled the back of Beatrice’s neck. Her sweaty palms felt sticky. She regretted agreeing. She liked Timothy Barnaby, but that didn’t mean she trusted him. And especially not when it came to their teacher, Mrs. Dean.

The other kids didn’t like Mrs. Dean. She was too strict, too old-school, too “mean.” Beatrice didn’t think she was mean. Mrs. Dean always helped her find books to read like Coraline or Anne of Green Gables. She never once shouted at Beatrice. Sometimes Mrs. Dean would get teary or stern when the children would be too loud or rude. Yet, she still wore sweaters with smiling suns and fluffy clouds on them. Even her glasses seemed cheerful, rimmed as they were with tiny images of blooming tulips and rolling hills in the summertime. However, the students in class were determined to dislike Mrs. Dean. They did everything they could to make her snap at them, while Beatrice was determined to do the opposite. It wasn’t fair, but Beatrice wanted a chance to prove that Mrs. Dean wasn’t as bad as all the kids thought. But she wasn’t sure what she could do. Timothy’s mind was set. Everyone’s mind was set.

Several minutes passed with the two children crouching behind bushes and beside parked vehicles when cars went by. They weren’t supposed to be out late. While at first the streets had been lit with soft light still streaming through checkered curtains and the painted windows of the colonial style houses, as time went on, the lights went out one by one. Even the streetlamps, globed and oh so old flickered and sputtered out as the night wore on. Beatrice’s dread grew the later it got. What did Timothy want? Did he have a plan if they got caught?

After what seemed like forever they rounded the street corner that Mrs. Dean’s house was on. In the distance, the town clock struck one, its chime hollow. The wind picked up, and the trees gave the death rattle of a typical November night. Their branches quivered, letting loose twirling leaves that whipped by their faces. Beatrice looked at Timothy from the corner of her eye. He’d zipped up his jacket, right to his chin, and his face was set in a firm glare. He stared at the house. Beatrice couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Timothy, why are we here?” For a moment he didn’t answer, but after a few seconds of silence, he turned to her.

“I want you to set her tree on fire. It’ll show her there are consequences for treating us like that.” Beatrice took a step back from him. The tree he’d pointed at loomed behind him. It was an old oak tree with the remnants of a summer flower garden at its base. A wooden swing swung from its lowest branch, whispers of Mrs. Dean’s only child now grown up lingered. Beatrice didn’t understand. What had Mrs. Dean done to Timothy?

“Like what? She never did anything to you!”

He glared at her. “She’s given me failing grades on all three of the last assignments. She did the same to the others too.”

Beatrice scrunched her forehead. She remembered those assignments. Mrs. Dean had been getting more forgetful as the weeks went by. A paper she left behind in the teacher’s lounge became a missing assignment. An essay eaten by her tiny dog, Marlow, would become an F. But Beatrice had faith that it was all an accident. It had to be.

“She doesn’t mean to. It’s all been an honest mistake. Have you tried talking to her?” Beatrice watched him hopefully, but he snorted at her.

“Oh, what do you know? Mrs. Dean likes you; she’d never give you a failing grade.” He sneered at her. “Plus, you have no friends and you don’t even talk to us. What would you know about any of it?”

Beatrice flushed, tears building up in her eyes. Her throat tightened and she said nothing. What could she say? He wasn’t wrong. She was shy and her rowdy and often rude classmates scared her.

“And you have that power. You could do something, but you never do!”

“Tim, I can’t.” Her hands shook. Her vision blurred and her heartbeat rang in her ears. 

“It’s just a tree!”

“Not to her.” It was obvious. There was so much care in the tiny garden rows, the well-kept swing, and the tree–- it was so ancient and so knowing. She couldn’t do it.

“Come on, Beatrice, it’s just to scare her.”

“Start your own fire. I’m not doing it.” Beatrice moved to walk away, thinking of nothing but home and hurt and so much else, but Timothy grabbed her arm. His fingers dug into her skin, his fingernails scratching her. It hurt. She hurt and her arm and eyes burned. Her hands burned. Everything burned.

“Ow!” 

Timothy let go of her, pushing her onto the ground. Beatrice stared at him in confusion only to see his hand covered in orange flames. The boy started to scream. He tried to wipe it on his pants, but it set them ablaze, eating away at the denim. Soon, fire engulfed Timothy, the skin on his hands seared down to the bone. His fingertips turned to tendrils of ash, blowing away in the wind as it caught the grass by Timothy’s feet alight. Fire surrounded them. It licked at her ankles, kitten-like, and burned Tim alive. His blue eyes stared at her, red-rimmed through the flames. Beatrice stayed put, frozen, her mouth open and her body shaking all over. Her eyesight faded to black at the edges the more she watched and didn’t move.

Timothy’s screams brought Mrs. Dean out onto her front porch, her nightgown billowing. Beatrice scrambled to her feet, backing away from Tim and the smoldering lawn. Mrs. Dean’s tree swayed in the breeze, but, like Beatrice, it didn’t catch fire. The flames didn’t even reach the small garden.

“Beatrice?” Mrs. Dean called, fear in her voice. Beatrice turned away from her. She couldn’t face her. She’d killed Timothy. She’d burned him inside and out and now he lay on the grass, a pile of ashen ruins, more fire than boy. But then again, in some ways, she was more fire than girl, too. She was a murderer. 

Her knees knocked together and her eyes watered. Behind her, the fire covering Tim warmed her back against the cold November wind and yet it still hurried her on. It pushed her and pulled her. She couldn’t face what she’d done.

Beatrice ran, as fast as her legs could carry her, disappearing into the night.