Volume 21, Number 2


Jennifer Hollie Bowles

Over and over, she listened to the metal snap, the familiar cinching, rolling into the plastic click and tiny bulbous sound of expansion as the flame from the lighter penetrated air. She would stare at the flame, pondering its orange-yellow glow, ethereal in its brightness. She stared until her eyes burned, until reason lifted from her mind, until she could bear the peace of the flame’s mysterious electric-blue. Once she found the peace, her eyes could move in reception toward the soft gradient gray of the flame with its yonic curve pushing against the phallus of fire.

Heather had just stormed out of the deli and sat down on a nearby bench. She worked there for three days before quitting, before she couldn’t take it anymore. She hated the smells of the meats mixing together, but most of all, she hated the customers. So pretentious and oblivious to everything except for the stupid sandwich or pile of meat they ordered. She knew she would hate working at the deli. She knew she would hate working anywhere.

Heather was all of eighteen-years-old. Her body was tall and lithe, but curvy, like a model that actually eats. She had long, thin, blond hair, almost gray in its dullness. Her hair was long only because she didn’t care to spend time to cut it, and she kept it down just so she wouldn’t have to put it up. She always wore one of four pairs of jeans, the same tennis shoes she had since she was thirteen, and thrift-store t-shirts. Period. No make-up. No pretenses. Her light blue eyes appeared curiously violet next to the pallor of her skin and hair.

Heather had imagined lighting things on fire for as long as she could remember. Sure, she had burned things—napkins, papers, disposable cups, wrappers, baskets. She had been patient enough to watch small figures of wrought iron wilt in fire, to see ceramic figurines crack against the pressure of heat and flame, but she kept her burnings hidden. She had never committed arson.

Sitting on the park bench—snap, click, flame—she realized a deep discontent smoldering underneath her private pleasures of fire. Heather knew she wanted, maybe needed, perhaps was even born to fashion with fire. Cinch, expand, flame. Not comfortable with the idea of becoming a criminal, her logic went towards professions—welders, smelters, and artists. But her love of fire rested too privately for her to share. She knew that. Snap, roll, flame—she peered at the lighter flame, so sensitive to its surroundings, vibrating gently from near and distant movements in the air, burning and stretching toward hidden particles. On some days, Heather would look into the faces of other people, searching their expressions for comparable sensitivity. She never seemed to find it.

Heather stood up, tucking her purple lighter (one of her favorites because it had shot up a large flame the first time every time for the last two months)—a.k.a. her “outside-sitting-lighter”—securely into her right-front pocket. She took out her tiny yellow lighter from her left-front pocket, the lighter that didn’t make a clicking noise and emitted a tiny flame that wouldn’t go out when she cinched the wheel with her left hand and walked.

Rough pink calluses formed the tips of both Heather’s thumbs. She loved to feel the calluses against the softness of her cheeks and thighs, as if her very skin confirmed the existence of fire. Once, she snapped and clicked a lighter for seven-hours straight until her right thumb bled and the flame ceased to emerge out of its plastic den.

She walked swiftly, head down, eyes usually on the flame. When she looked at buildings or houses in town she wanted to set them on fire, and while these images were beautiful, frustration always surfaced because she couldn’t burn them down, or maybe because she didn’t know how to yet. The stores attracted so many people with their objects of nothingness. People always want more things, she thought, things that didn’t mean anything, yet everyone attaches such great meaning to their things, as if pictures, vases, and stupid mass-produced images of things make up their identities. She smiled blandly to herself at the inanity of it all. This was brand name, and that was antique, most of it a circus show, all of it a distraction. Distraction from what, exactly, Heather didn’t know, but she knew most people didn’t understand the beauty of fire, or any other natural thing. Her thoughts delved into the attachments her own parents had for all the unnecessary things in their home. Even the family pictures she didn’t quite get—weren’t they just ways of living in the past?

Heather kept a small notebook and wrote down items she found to be useful in her home. The list was precariously short. She understood the need for lighters, of course, and utensils, chairs, beds, toothbrushes, pens, books, paper, and a few clothing items, but she could have easily gotten rid of at least half of all these things in her house. All this stuff seemed to complicate life, and it worried her. She wanted to rid. She wanted everyone to rid. To understand why they needed to rid. Such a goal seemed helpless as she snapped her lighter and brought the flame out, as if bringing the potential of fire to the fore of her consciousness.

She walked down the sidewalk, looking up at the store called “stuff remembered” or some such nonsense, and she felt nauseous. The stuff place was right next to the shoe place, which stood next door to the place where everything was only a dollar. Heather could never decide which was worse—the remembered place or the dollar place—because, she mused, one is filled with crap about the crap people already hoard and the other place is filled with so much cheap crap it makes one’s head spin. Her mother had dragged her into both places when she was younger.

She had asked her mother, “Why do you want to remember everything? Doesn’t that keep you from living right now?”

“My little philosopher,” her mother had cajoled, repeating the “cute little question” to everyone in the family.

When Heather went into the dollar place, she couldn’t help herself and laughed out loud. “Look at this retarded thing, Mom,” she had said. “Who would actually buy that?” “Sshh,” her mother had replied. Poking at the stupid figurines, Heather decided it would be incredibly fun to buy some of them and burn them. So she did.

Heather set all of the stores on fire in her mind as she walked passed them. She saw one lapping flame from the left window of the stuff store. I’ll set the fire small so I can imagine the silver frames, ornaments, and stamped mugs bend from the heat. She saw larger gatherings of flames in the shoe store, so she could smell the release of burning leather and rubber. She imagined the dollar-place in full-fledged burning, filled with crispy black singed things. The dollar place was right next to hell—the “super center” that started with a “W” that Heather absolutely refused to think or speak aloud. She felt immense joy watching that abomination explode.

She reached the head of the first subdivision on her walk home. Normally she tried to avoid imagining people’s homes on fire because people lived there. It was more personal than a store. But today, she allowed herself the luxury of imagining how beautiful it would be to see every single one of the houses aflame. Windowsills blazing, lawn ornaments bedazzled with fire, houses covered in red auras. She had gone to school with some of the people who lived in the houses, but most of them had gone off to college like good little lemmings, to make money as adults and buy more crap. Then she passed, “The Joneses.” Yes, it was that cliché. The largest house on the block, half whitewashed brick and half beige stucco, an architectural anomaly made with flake board. Heather remembered when the Joneses bought the land and had the house custom built. She couldn’t believe the structure was made of particleboard and still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Joneses had three beamers and one massive Cadillac SUV. SUVs made Heather want to vomit.

She recalled the teenagers, Katie and Mark Jones, who always looked the part with their Klein, Hilfiger, and Fitch stuff. Heather loathed the fact that she had to look at advertisements on people, as if commercials and stores and billboards weren’t enough. People feel the need to make themselves ads too. I’d burn my own pinky finger off just to rid those “brand” names from being branded into my head. She chuckled softly and looked at her pinky.

She stopped in front of the Joneses’ house and gave special attention to it burning. She stood there a long time, pulled out her purple lighter so she could snap, click, flame, long enough to watch a full-fledged fire take hold of the house and burn it half-down. She imagined the designer things they must have had in there, like a stainless steel refrigerator, granite countertops, glass-topped tables, and “modern” pictures of shapes. But she felt the sudden urge to know—really—what is in that house? Seditious the want was, to confirm her beliefs, to imagine the actual items burning in lapping flames, to smell the different flavors of smoke.

Heather looked like a lonely apparition standing there, clicking her lighter, and then she felt a presence, disturbing her from reverie, and the presence seemed to give food for her thoughts. Yes, you must see the actual things to burn. She felt lust to see these things, prurient and playing underneath the surface like tiny bubbles, as when water boils. Could Heather contain the pot? She imagined the rooms behind the windows, her thoughts clicking along with her lighter, putting pieces together. The puzzle of the house worked on her.

Or maybe the puzzle was putting her together. She didn’t name it and wouldn’t have been able to admit it to herself, but something fit while she stood there. Placed. She felt whole, and a smile lengthened across her face. A packed smile that lit her up, made her eyes look full-blown blue, and her cheeks plump, as though the fitted pieces were aflame, lighting her from within.

She turned away from the house, tucked her purple lighter back into her right-front pocket, and brought out her yellow-walking-lighter. Step, cinch, flame.

* * *

Heather walked into her parent’s home. Some days, she felt as though she lived there, but today, she only felt as though it was the place where she slept. Heather wasn’t sure what she thought the word “home” meant, but she knew that she didn’t feel whatever it meant to most people.

“Why are you back so early?” Her mom inquired, just above regular talking voice (her mother never yelled) so that Heather could barely hear her as she went up the steps.


Heather opened the door of her room, so peaceful in its sparseness. She had a bed with a gray comforter and black sheets, an antique cream dresser and chest of drawers. The chest of drawers contained her fire “paraphernalia.” She thought the word “paraphernalia” sounded like it needed to be burned.

The first drawer in her chest was filled with lighters. The lighters rested in color-coordinated little box-beds hand-made out of trash—waxy cardboard pieces, magazines, cereal boxes etc., but the lighters were ordered in terms of use, not color. She had lighters for special occasions, for when she had to go out with her parents, for everything.

The second drawer held her collection of matches. Heather loved matches, probably more than lighters, but she preferred the readiness and ease of lighters for everyday use. (Plus, she had burned holes in her pockets sticking warm matchsticks in them.) She had several boxes of long matchsticks, and a few small packs from restaurants and tobacco shops owned by locals, including the pack she had never opened that she got from the theatre that played old movies—where she and David (a writer) had gone on a date—her only date. They made-out once, and they saw each other, or rather purposefully ran into one another, about once a month. They didn’t say much, but they took each other for granted somehow. Heather felt comfortable around David, which was something she couldn’t say about anyone else.

The third drawer contained burned relics, and the fourth drawer held things she planned to burn, as well as a small collection of pictures she had taken of fires.

Heather’s mother was a sheltered liberal and Stepfordesque housewife, and she never would have dreamed of violating Heather’s rights by looking into her chest of drawers. She believed the “best” in people (the “best” as defined weekly by Oprah and Martha), especially her daughter. Heather’s father was methodically stable and blasé. If asked, he would have struggled to remember that Heather’s middle name was Anne and that he hadn’t performed the deed with his wife in over three years.

* * *

Heather often dreamed of fires, but that night, the fires in her dreams were different. They were vast, spreading out in a semi-circle before her, yet controllable, formable. She made them rise and fall, stretched them to sword-like points and widened them with volumes of sacred electric blue. She always felt that fires looked at her, deep into her soul, searching her with approval. She knew the fires didn’t notice many people, let alone approve of them—they wanted to burn everything and everyone until the world was ablaze with essence rather than material facade. All growth requires burning, she thought in her dream, and while she always felt as though she were looking into fires and searching them, for the first time, the fires knew she searched. They’re welcoming me. When Heather awoke the next morning, she knew what she had to do. Fire had baptized her.

The first question was whether or not the Joneses used gas. She dressed in her jeans and t-shirt, and then opened the first drawer of her chest. This was a special occasion, and she needed the lighter-with-no-name that had lain dormant in the far left corner of the drawer for a special event such as this. It was a black lighter, old and heavy with its metal gears. She had found it in the woods when she was eleven-years-old, and she had only used it once to make sure it worked. She tested it now, and the flame arose from its shelter, sure and tall with a full rounded belly, vibrating toward the east as if it could feel the very pull of the world. The lighter wouldn’t have worked if her dreams had lied. Heather smiled happily. She grabbed her red-walking-lighter, sister to her yellow-walking-lighter, and headed out the door.

“Breakfast—where are you going?” asked her mom as Heather left the house.

“Not hungry.”

The air felt brisk and the wind blew in steady streams, but the red-walking-lighter never failed her. She reached the Joneses, walking slowly along the front of the yard. Just over halfway, she found it: the rusty iron lid marked “GAS.” Heather squatted, tucking her head down, laughing, trying to hold in the joy she felt. Her eyes brimmed with tears, and the synchronicity of it all spread warmth throughout her body. GAS. Her heart and diaphragm heated. Standing up, she relaxed, felt relieved. Finally, she thought, everything makes sense.

“What are you doing?” said a familiar voice from behind.

It was David. Heather didn’t look up.

“Squatting,” she replied.

“Ah, I see,” he said, as if he knew what she was really thinking.

Heather shot her eyes up at him, slightly unnerved, “You’re just pretending to look nonchalant. You’re just as fake and put together as everyone else, with your shaggy hair and dangling chains. You look so damn “cool.” I hate cool people.”

“Aren’t you pretending too?” He asked.

His statement struck a chord in her, because eating away at the center of her thoughts was the idea that her obsession with fire mirrored the obsession most people had with material items. She fought hard to keep the tenuous delineation within her brain. Heather stood up, and she softened to the clear brown of David’s eyes.

She said, “Sometimes I feel like nothing more than a shadow, some horrible projection of all the fear people feel for their rote existences.”

David looked at the Joneses’ house, “me too.” He turned back toward Heather. “That’s why I have to write.”

“At least you have that. I don’t know what to do with myself.”

David snatched Heather’s red-walking-lighter out of her hand. “Have you considered alchemy?”

Heather snatched the lighter back and laughed. They kissed, and Heather let her head fall onto David’s chest. For a moment, she felt warm without thinking of fire.

“Have you ever thought,” he said, and Heather heard the words vibrate against her ear, “that maybe Persephone wanted to go to hell with Hades to live in the chaos of darkness and fire because she was so damn bored of living in brightness and predictability and so fucking sick of and having flowers pop-up under her feet?”

Heather squeezed David, and she knew that she loved him.

* * *

Heather monitored the Joneses’ habits for several weeks, until she knew, almost without a question, when the clockwork drones would be gone or at home. Wednesday nights they went to Concordia Baptist Church—an arena sized church complete with Starbucks and Gift Shop—and stayed gone from 5:30-9:00 p.m. Plenty of time to enjoy, she thought. Most of the neighbors were also gone to the same church during that time. Heather didn’t feel any real fear about the actual act of what she planned to do, only excitement. She was a little frightened, however, by what she would do after it was all over.

At 5:30 p.m. the next Wednesday, Heather began packing. Calm with purpose, she placed a box of matches, three spare full lighters, ten small plastic containers she had snatched from the kitchen, and lighter fluid into her knapsack. She placed her red-walking-lighter and black lighter-with-no-name into her left-front pocket and three bobby pins into her right-front pocket. At 5:45, donning smooth black gloves, she left. The sky appeared a beautiful doleful gray with ribbons of crimson. She imagined that the sky smelled like smoke, and how one trillionth of an ember of the sun could dissolve her. She walked slowly, letting the gray and red strands of sundown fade into black.

Heather took the street behind the Joneses. Like a panther, she traversed the shrubs and newly planted trees, padding her way to the Joneses’ patio door. The surveillance light popped on. She had expected the light, and felt grateful for its assistance as she flattened a bobby pin and used it to snuggle inside of the patio lock, feeling the grooves and the tiny little sound of clicking metal. Of course the Joneses had an alarm system, but she wasn’t breaking in—she was unlocking the door.

She walked into the kitchen, looking longingly at the stove. The house seemed so dead, as if people had never lived there before. The air was flat, and it smelled plastic, as if the things in the house were never moved or used. She passed the dining room, bonus room, and living room and went up the stairs.

She reached the far right upstairs bedroom. Filled with girly posters, clothes, and pink things, she knew it was Katie’s room. Heather breathed deeply. A white dresser with a shelved hutch loomed at her with its perfectly manufactured grooves. Her eyes trod over the figurines until they rested on a cute little yellow fairy. Perfect, she thought, opening her knapsack and placing the fairy into a plastic container. I’m really going to do this. She took out the box of matches and lighter fluid. She poured a stream of fluid along the dresser, lighted a match and held it underneath the lip. The flame reached up toward the stream until it found that swift sound of ignition, the trail progressing in steady spikes.

The next room along the hallway looked to be a guest bedroom, even more stale and “perfect” than the rest of the house, with nothing of note save hollow landscape pictures, as if images of nature could give the lifeless, unused room some sort of meaning. Heather decided not to take anything from this room, as doing so would have defeated her purpose. She brought out her purple lighter—snap, click, flame—underneath the bedspread, until the fire arced into consumption. As she stepped out of the room, she could hear Katie’s dresser crackling and the bedspread humming in flame at the same time. The bitter smell of smoke reached her nose. She closed her eyes and smelled the earthy sweetness, like the willow tree in her backyard. How determined the flames are, how so much more full of purpose than the wretched Joneses.

She walked passed the steps, into a bedroom filled with posters of girls in bikinis, a workout bench, weights, clothes, and black-satin-stained furniture. She knew this must be Mark’s bedroom. She spotted the shine of a silver pen resting in a case on his desk. The pen was engraved, “Happy Birthday, Love Grandpa.” Perfect. She placed the pen in a plastic container. She opened Mark’s closet, lit a match, and held the flame underneath a Tommy Hilfiger shirt. The flame took hold, gathering upward until the shirt looked black, connecting with the other shirts deliciously. The smoke smelled like licorice, and it danced, the flame melting the black plastic hangers until the dripping began and the smell turned pungent and putrid with chemicals. Heather turned away, walking toward the next room with double French-doors, a huge master-bedroom laden with commercial fineries, fake plants, beaded pillows, thick cherry furniture, and strategically placed wall ornaments, all dead things. It’s time for the dead things to return home, she thought.

Heather felt the sudden urge to throw things off the dresser and ransack the entire room, but how more efficient is fire, so more capable. Heather stood on top of the king-sized bed, lifting her arms and generously dowsing the chandelier with lighter fluid. She lifted her lighter toward the chandelier—snap, click, flame—it swooshed with the sound of engulfing fire. She jumped down from the bed and went to a jewelry armoire. She found an antique platinum and aquamarine necklace which she placed inside a plastic container. Better make sure, she thought, as she noticed the chandelier fire waning. She covered the armoire in lighter fluid, stepped aside, and threw a lighted match at it. How fun this is. Better make sure, she thought again, laughing and falling to her knees, cinching open her lighter and allowing the flame to catch hold of the fibers of the carpet.

By the time she reached the steps, each room had its own internal cadence of lapping flame, and she walked down the steps with the joined beats of the fires—fires that would connect. She went into the living room, with its twenty-foot ceiling, gargantuan flat-panel TV, and inlaid bookshelves. She peered at one of the bookshelves and saw a tiny little yellow-book lying there entitled Ayurveda. She laughed again, and couldn’t seem to wrap her mind around the ridiculousness, the total absurdity of that little book lying there, as if the inhabitants of the monstrosity in which she stood would ever take the time to understand or practice Ayurveda, and the size of the book so mirrored the impossibility of it that it was too funny. Heather had never felt so happy. She placed the book inside a plastic container. She took out the lighter fluid and poured it alongside the arms of a plush taupe micro-fiber chair. She brought out a match and relished the scraping, swishing sound as its tip strode along the sand, powdered glass, and red phosphorus to create fire. The flame made contact with the fueled arms, swooshing into an expanse of full-blown blaze.

Heather went next into the Joneses’ dining room, and without hesitation, she placed a fake golden plastic apple into a container. She kneeled to strike a match underneath the burgundy jacquard tablecloth. She left the bonus room alone, as it was too close to the kitchen. Heather searched the Joneses’ kitchen drawers until she found utensils. She removed a sleek copper-tone fork and placed it into a plastic container. She went to the oven and turned it on to 500 degrees. She opened the oven door and trotted to the patio door. By 7:30 p.m. she was alone in her room. She heard the distant sound of an explosion followed by the sirens of a fire truck.

* * *

The fire made the front-page headline of the local paper, and no one was a suspect, except the Joneses themselves, who were under investigation for arson. Heather walked past the house the next day. Nothing but charred pieces remained of the house. A couple of blocks later, David caught up with her.

“Some fire at the Joneses,” he said.

“I love you, but I don’t love you enough to be an alchemist,” she replied.

“I know.”

They strolled side-by-side in silence until Heather walked into the “stuff remembered” place alone. She purchased a large glass frame with six shadowboxes. She went to the place where she slept and carefully placed the fairy figurine, engraved pen, aquamarine necklace, Ayurveda book, plastic apple, and fork into the shadowboxes.

Seven days later, she placed the frame into a mailing box, and labeled it with the police address—in care of the Joneses—on the front. She put the package into a USPS den. She imagined what the Joneses would think when they saw their rooms reduced to single objects.