The Hand Aflame


The lipstick was bright orange. Tangerine came to mind— citrus, lively, and ultimately, too tart. It wouldn’t look good against Jay’s skin, so she put the tube back on the shelf. All the tubes in this shiny, white makeup store and still she couldn’t find a single perfect burnt-orange. Mom would be angry now that this trip ended up being a waste.

After being dragged back into the car she rode shotgun. Her mother, Rhonda, preferred control, ergo, the driving seat. She didn’t mind that too much— looking out the window into the open night was calming. The drive would only be a little lengthy, and they would eventually get to the hill. Below it, the town; a sea of lights in a night of anything-could-happen-now.

And something did. Closer to home, driving through the labyrinthine neighborhood, they approached a house that was brighter than the rest. People were gathered outside on the lawn and the sidewalk, holding sparklers and setting up firecrackers. She could hear laughter and children whooping as they ran past. Then a woman half-hidden under a porch caught her eye. Nothing about her was spectacular. Not her dark shin-length dress, or the way she poised her self on the rocking chair, ignoring the party around her. But the way she held her hand in the air as she admired it, alight with flame. The fire burned along her wrist, trailing up her palm and past her fingers, until it extinguished itself on the tip of her nails, leaving behind only a bright afterimage of flames. The woman closed her hand as they rode past. Further down the road there was a small skate ramp on the sidewalk. Underneath it, a beagle watched.

Jay knew immediately that it needed help. She begged her mother to turn back, please, the dog needs them, someone, but Rhonda refused and drove on. The daughter watched the dog get smaller and smaller the further they drove and knew it was a mistake. Her path had forever diverged from this moment. She could feel herself splitting in two— the her that jumped out of the car to save the dog, and the her that did nothing.

She did nothing. She just watched as the beagle disappeared from sight. She could feel the heat of her mother’s ire beside her—that look of annoyance on her face. It melted off of her in thick waves and suffused the air like smoke.

In the backseat, dirty dishes from days ago rattled and clattered together as the car went over a speed bump. Rhonda ordered her to wash them. Now.

“What—but I have no water!”


The girl stared at the dishes. Well. It wasn’t untrue what she said… she did possess, to a certain extent, or form of it, water on her person. She pursed her lips and was about to spit when—

“DON’T DO THAT!” Her mother yelled. But it was too late. She’d already spat inside a bowl.

Despite her yelling and inane logic, the dishes got done just as they pulled into the driveway of their home. At least, on the outside it was a home. Inside, it was a gym, and Jay still hadn’t perfected her floor routine. She desperately needed some practice time.

It was a simple routine, but still wasn’t in her body yet. A few more rounds on the mat (the mat she hated, with its faded navy blue color and always slightly sticky touch) was all she was allowed before a rival stopped her. They used to be friends. Good friends. But even on the same team, only one star can shine the brightest. Rather than be goaded into a fight, again, Jay ignored her. She left the gym for the garage, in search of her mother.

Her mother was in the garage, as it turned out. And so was a man she’d never seen before. Lanky, greasy, and a wrinkled blue jumpsuit with the name tag so faded the red thread had long turned pink.

“I’m going out for a bit,” her mother said, giggling like a little girl. “I’ll be back later.”

“No,” Jay protested. Her mother didn’t even know this man. Jay certainly didn’t know him. But her mother dismissed her with a wave of her hand and got in the car. The man gave Jay a look her mother didn’t see—all satisfaction and smugness. Her mother was in the car, ready to go, completely unaware of the danger she was in. Jay knew what would happen if she left with that man. The man knew as well— he’d been planning on it. She could see it plain on his face: and what are you going to do about it, little girl?

The man looked at her mother like a butcher would assess a cut of meat. Jay slowly pulled a crowbar off the wall next to her.

“Which window,” she asked her mother, calmly, “Would be the least expensive to replace?”

“Probably the back one,” she said, “Why?”

And it was done. Without a second thought, Jay swung, burying the crowbar into the backseat window. Glass shattered and fell, glittering like tears. Her mother screamed.

“Why are you so sad?” the man asked Jay, staring at the glass on the floor. It didn’t appear to bother him. “Why do you feel like this?”

His jumpsuit was wrinkled and dirty. But his beard was perfectly groomed, his hair tidy. He was a good looking man.

Jay gripped the crowbar tight in her hands. “You know how in the movies, the main character feels in their gut that something isn’t right? That something horribly bad is going to happen? But no one believes them because seeing the future is impossible? But they’ll do anything to ensure that the fire never happens?”

The man was quiet. But underneath his calm mask was a fury that Jay knew would consume everything; her, the garage, her mother and even himself. If her mother hadn’t been there to witness it, he would have done it ages ago.

Sniffling, her mother stepped out of the car. Moved somehow, miraculously, by her daughter’s speech. The man left without her mother, but her absence would not ruin the plans he had for the evening. Someone, maybe multiple people, would not live to see tomorrow. At least, she thought, she’d saved her mother.

It was only days later, in her gym during practice, that the man came back. He strolled by with a cart full of lightbulbs and VHS’s. She tried to ignore him, but he parked beside her.

“See?” He said. “Nothing happened. I got what I needed and I’m safe.”

“Good for you.” Jay crossed her arms and waited for him to leave.

And he did. He pushed his cart across the floor with all the arrogance of an old cat. Did he hear the way her voice had shaken? Could he tell from the way her fists were clenched how much she wished his neck were between them? The sight of him made her sick. He would have killed her mother.