Burn – by Kathleen Brandt

When I was sixteen, I loved this guy named Roger. I thought he was beautiful. It was a pure love, untainted by any concern for who he really was. It didn’t matter what he was like. He was beautiful, that’s all, and when he was around he made me feel like I was flying.

He never would have looked at me, of course. He sat in the high part of the bleachers at assembly, the part reserved for the Beautiful Rebels. They rode skateboards, had long hair and dyed it, never played sports, made bad grades and didn’t care what the teachers said.

The rest of the bleachers were clearly stratified. Right below the top were the Sheep, basic high school kids who made reasonable grades, had reasonably well-off parents, wore jeans, and had plans to marry each other and keep going to church after college. I hated them.

Nearer the bottom there was a section for nerds and anime geeks, a section for really serious teacher’s pets, and a section for Middle Cliquers: those who really wanted to get into the socially acceptable parties. They hated me.

At the very bottom, paradoxically, were the Rich Kids. Right there on the bottom three rows, next to the cheerleaders and the best view, doing no climbing to get to their seats. I used to sit there. My dad’s David Smithfield, the lawyer. The richest lawyer in town. When we moved here, I was absorbed into the matrix of the socially perfect without a blip, like water joining with water.

But by September of the next year, I wasn’t sitting there any more. It was Billie who did it. That little bitch marked me out as her target and just moved in. First the vicious rumors. Then the drawing way of my friends into her circle. Then her dad got a home theater installed, and she started throwing these parties. Next thing I knew, Savannah, Delice and Rochelle, the Top Three of the high school social scene, were going without me. Suddenly I was on the outside of that magic circle, that spotlight of perfection.

But it was really my own fault. In this business, you have to fight for what you have, and you have to want it enough to hurt people. Billie wanted it more than I did, that’s all.

So in September, I was seated on the fifth row up, a ways apart from the Sheep, sitting alone with my skirt tucked under and my books in a neat pile by my feet. With my blonde ponytail, clear skin and Nordic eyes, I didn’t belong with the scruffier crowd beside me. With my brand name blouse and leather bag, my real diamond earrings, I couldn’t go any farther up the bleachers either.

Okay, pull it together, Rose, I told myself. So you’re friendless for the first time in your life. How long can it last? The noise from the cheerleaders and crowd was deafening.

That’s when they started up past me. Late as usual, the Beautiful Rebels stomped up one after another. The first one wore trip pants jingling with chains. The next one had blue hair, clutching his skateboard—strictly not allowed in the gym. The third, coming up toward me, was Roger, his auburn curls loose around his girl’s face, the ghost of a goatee carefully nurtured. His gorgeous long-fingered hands gestured as he joked obscenely with the guy behind him. He seemed to shine with his own light, and he fed my hungry heart as he walked by.

I kept my eyes away, even leaned a little away from them. I may have been kicked out of the society circles, but I was still a Rich Kid and didn’t let the likes of them brush my skirt. They clomped on up to the top rows, seven rows above me, and sat down with loud chattering.

I spent the assembly memorizing that glimpse of his face, the arch of his auburn eyebrow, the way his thumb had just brushed his index finger. I remembered him so hard he burned into my mind, where he burns still.

You never feel things like that again as you get older, you know? Everything is for the first time. Yet you know that it’s for the last time. Kids know, as we adults do not, that every moment that passes flares like a match head and goes out, never to come again. And yet they also know that they will never die, which we no longer believe.

It’s a poor trade.

So I sat there on my bleacher, utterly alone for the first time in my school career, and dwelt in my short glimpse of his face, his laughing eyes. It was enough, and it was nothing like enough, at the same time. When the assembly was over, the bleachers unloaded from the bottom down, so I don’t know if he and his friends came down on the same side, or the other one. The next time I saw Roger again, he was bleeding.

I think I dreamed about him that Friday night, although I’ve never been sure. I spent most of the night pouting, actually. The boys had stopped asking me out. Mostly I told them no, but it was harsh not even to have any offers. My big brother, home from college for the weekend, asked me to go to the movies, which made it worse. I called him names and swore to go to the mall the next day, alone or otherwise.

So I wasn’t in the best mood as I went to bed. The moonlight came in and made a bar across my pink carpet. It sparked glitters from the decorations on tomorrow’s jeans, hung over the chair. Pictures of movie stars, mostly with moustaches drawn in permanent marker, looked down at me with fake desire in the dim light. I could hear the rest of the house slowly going to sleep. Dolores, the Mexican maid, sang to herself as she finished putting away the clean dishes. Finally even she went quiet and left the house. I lay there and stared at the window.

After a while I started a nice little fantasy of Roger finding out where I lived—it was in the phone book, it wasn’t completely impossible. He’d knock so softly on my window. I’d go and open it, wearing my best nightgown, the one with the lace. And there he’d be. His coppery curls floating around his face on a light breeze. That look of intelligence and humor. His big green eyes looking warmly at me.

I fell asleep around then. When I woke up, it was in the deeps of the night, around 2 a.m. You don’t need to see a clock to know it’s the small hours. The tide of your heart is out, and you know. The dream was already slipping away, and I grabbed after the shreds of it, even though they tore in my hands.

Someone had been holding me, that’s all it was. Someone behind me, arms wrapped around me, warm and solid. Not imprisoning, not demanding, a grip that had no agenda, offered only comfort. I didn’t know if it was Roger I dreamed about. I hoped it was Roger.

That’s when I heard the tapping at my window.

It was so soft, like a kitten’s footstep. I grabbed the sheet, staring wildly at the window. I was actually sleeping in my sports bra and some shorts I’d almost grown out of. Tap tap. I took oath there and then to sleep in sexy nighties for the rest of my life, wrapped the sheet around myself and went to the window. Tap. I pulled up the blind.

It was snowing. I stared at it, unbelieving. Little flecks of snow tapped and slid down the glass. It was only September. It hardly ever snowed here even in mid-winter. But it was moon-spangled snow coming down, the flakes rippling as they feathered out of a light gray overcast.

I had to open the window, just to see if it was real. The breeze was cool, but not frigid. The snow continued to settle, the thinnest layer of white on the bushes right under my window, the grass, our minivan in the driveway. I stuck my hand out the window.

A cold kiss, then another, on my fingers. A tiny crystal, sparkling blue and purple in the light, came to rest on my palm and melted at once. Then I frowned. I’d seen the colors, and where was all this moonlight coming from if it was overcast enough to snow? So I looked up.

It wasn’t the moon. It was a star, and it was hanging just about ten feet over the roof of my house. It was a little point of light, brilliant and bluish, and as I lifted my hand to shield my eyes, I saw that it was sinking. The snowflakes fell past it, one at a time through its light, and it was descending toward me not quite as fast as they.

Still dreaming, I thought, but I didn’t really believe that. It was over my head now, down, down, to eye level, and I opened my hands underneath. The little blue-white star, fiercely bright, nestled into my palm as if it were happy to be there. It felt like a glass marble, burning cold, even more than you’d expect glass to be in a snowfall.

I brought it in. It warmed at once, squintingly bright in my dark room, throwing my shadow harshly against the wall. Warmer, hot now! I was on the verge of dropping it when it cooled. And I felt better, so much better.

No, that’s not right. I was healed. The headache from getting up at 2 a.m. and staring at something bright. The muscle strain in my shoulders from being so tense when nobody asked me out. Those myriad little aches and pains everyone has, all the time, and never notices. Let me tell you, when they go away, you notice.

The star was shining dreamily, burning blue in my hand, oblivious and cold again. I sat down all at once on the bed and covered it with my other hand. I could see the veins in my fingers.

I shoved it under my pillow and got up, shakily. I closed the window. The snow had stopped. It would melt off in minutes, and everyone would think it had been rain. Because you get rain in my town in September. You don’t get snow.

I turned around and stared at my pillow. That thing healed me. I turned my arm over to check. The scar I got from being savaged by the corner of an open locker door—gone. A two year old scar. Unconcerned twinkles of blue-white light leaked from under my pillow.

That thing could make me famous. It could make me rich. There was so much I could do with it. I could do a lot for poor old planet Earth, not to mention poor old planet Rose. But it was also the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

Except for Roger.

So I lay down again, my heart beating fast, and waited for the morning to come. Eventually my pillow got too cold and I pulled the star out. I put it in the outside zipper pocket of my leather purse, where it gleamed softly through. And after a long time I fell asleep.

I woke up late, just in time for lunch, as my mom informed me when she banged on the door. I looked at the purse first after mumbling a good morning. Nothing glowed there. Dream after all, I thought. I looked at my arm and spent several long minutes trying to find that scar. Then I went over to my door and locked it, which I always did anyway when my brother was home. I unzipped the pocket.

The baby star glimmered in the leather pouch, its glare much reduced by sunlight. I felt so grateful. Tears pricked my eyes. I don’t know if you can understand what it meant to me to have proof. Teenagers know that the world is a strange and impossible place, that sympathetic magic is real and everything the adults tell you is wrong. I had proof. It was a great gift, and it is with me still, now and always, like a secret fire hidden behind my heart.

Looking down at it, I knew exactly what to do with the little star that had come to my hand.

I took it with me to the mall. I walked there, my parents having refused to buy me a car until I went to college. Every now and then I glanced down at my purse. Frost was forming on the outside of the zipper pocket and the leather was becoming discolored and a little cracked. That thing was cold. Cold and bright and perfect, like Roger, who didn’t know I existed, but made me feel better anyway. Because he existed.

I never made it to the mall. Halfway there, a big sprawling weird building lives, with a rounded roof and a peeling, immortal For Lease sign. In its parking lot, some guys were skateboarding, using the low railing of its empty flowerbeds to practice stunts. My heart started beating faster even before I picked Roger’s auburn hair out of the pack. I knew he’d be one of them. It was Fate.

And there he was, idly spinning his board with one hand while he and the others watched a tall spindly guy in loud orange shorts line up his rip. I turned off the sidewalk, marching steadily across the vast parking lot toward all those backs.

“I’m telling you, it was snowing,” I heard Roger say.

“In September?” The others laughed. One of them punched his arm. He was so beautiful it hurt, shining in the sun. Those broad shoulders, the height and straightness of him, a perfect copper rod between the earth and sky, drawing my eye like lightning.

The spindly guy ran his board at the railing, hopped up and slid along it for a yard, then snapped back down, wobbling a little. There were congratulatory whistles, and Roger caught up his board and took his spot. It was a new board, one of those wasp-waisted ones, brave and glossy with neon paint. He kicked the ground and got it moving.

At the last second he saw me, approaching from behind his crew, and started. His feet left the board, but the board failed to leave the ground. I stopped in my tracks, slapping myself in the mouth with both hands, helpless to stop it. For one instant he was airborne. Then, falling, defensive arms slapping the concrete edge with a horrible crunch, and he fell, boneless, rolling. There was a universal cry of awe and horror from the others.

I unzipped the pocket. As the boys converged on Roger, who sat up, swaying wildly, I reached in. Frozen glass marble to my fingers, brilliant baby star to my eyes. I held the beautiful thing in my hand for the last time.

Two of Roger’s left fingers, the pinky and the ring, stuck off at a horrible, unnatural angle. He held the hand up, staring at it blankly. A trickle of blood ran down his arm, but sheets of it poured from his scalp, just over his left ear. That whole side of his hair was matted with it, and his shirt was slowly turning red, starting from the shoulder.

“Let me in,” I said. I shoved with my free hand, the other clenched tightly around the star. The boys didn’t move, except for one of them, who turned away retching. I got another step closer.

“Where did you come from, rich bitch? Get out.”

“Who is that?”

“Get her away.”

Roger looked up at me over the heads of his kneeling comrades. I shoved some more. The look on his face was one of pure shock, all expression wiped away, the look of a small child who has fallen and hasn’t decided yet whether to laugh or wail. I couldn’t get closer.

So I tossed it. I lobbed the little star at him underhanded. There was no way to know if he had the presence of mind to catch it, or if he would even see it, or if his right hand could do it alone. I felt sickly sure that if he failed, the healing star would shatter into a thousand useless pieces on the concrete, like my heart. But if the things we love are to have any real value, sometimes we must hazard them utterly.

His right hand snatched it out of the air as neatly as any Frisbee he’d ever caught in the park on a summer day.

He looked down at it with his sea green eyes. Its light flared between his fingers. The frantic boys fell silent. I could have watched his left hand, seen his fingers crackle and straighten. Instead, I looked at his dear face, stealing all the moments of him that I could.

He winced as the heat burned his hand, but he didn’t let go. When he looked down again, flexing his healed fingers, a baby’s grave and open wonder was in his face. The other guys backed away from him, looking at one another, already rewriting this in their heads so that none of them would have to be the first to say he’d seen the impossible.

Roger scrambled to his feet, using both hands. He stuck the star in his jeans pocket and brushed off his knees. He had control of his face when he was done.

“I’m okay,” he said in answer to the questions of the guys around him. “Might have cut my head a little. It’s okay.”

“What happened, man?”

Roger shrugged. “You,” he said to me, not looking right at me. “What’s your name?”

“Rose,” I said. “Rose Smithfield.” And then I turned and walked away. Nobody stopped me. My hand tingled where it had held the star, the greatest gift that had ever been given me. And now I’d given it away, a present to the boy I loved, who would never have looked at me twice. My heart was singing.

I saw him a few more times around school that year. There was a big social upheaval in the upper cliques, a few friends of the Big Three turning into enemies. I was a natural nucleus for these people to form around, and they brought their followers along. So I had a group to hang with again, a sort of splinter Rich Kids group, and it became even less likely for any of the Rebels to be seen talking to someone like me.

So they didn’t, and I kept stealing looks at Roger from afar. Sometimes I thought I saw him looking at me, but he was never alone. His crew would laugh and point and I would move on, the glimpses of his face like embers in my heart. Enough and nowhere near enough.

Some guys asked me to the prom, but my inner circle had sworn off dating after a few catastrophic scenes. We all went together instead, us girls, feeling strange and grown-up in our formals, grateful for someone to stand with. We were all in a group by the punch table, giggling about Rochelle’s disastrous brown and peach sheath dress, when an announcement came from the band’s PA that left us speechless.

“This next song is a very special dedication from Roger McCourt, called Dance With Me Only.” The introductory music started up, gooey and soft with harp notes scattered through it like stars. “This one’s for Rose Smithfield,” the singer said, and began to croon it.

I’ll never forget that. Walking across the gym under the mirror ball, listening to couples asking each other who Rose Smithfield was, guys snickering, girls sneering, toward the corner where he stood with his boys. Burning for him, like a candle flame, a pale warm light brought down like a baby star from someplace else.

The skateboarders couldn’t hold it any longer. As I got close, they met one another’s eyes and burst into guffaws, some almost screaming with laughter. “Oh, baby, lookit her face! He got you good, rich bitch!”

“Way to get her hot for you, Rog!”

“Oooh, burn!”

“She fell for it!”

I hardly noticed them. Roger wasn’t laughing. He stood with his hands in his pockets, smiling a little, and his eyes on mine were so warm. In that look, we shared all the love we had, a lifetime’s worth. He’d had to tell his crew it was a joke on me, or lose his place with them. But for him, the dedication was real.

We’d never speak of it, or ever look again at one another with our hearts burning in our eyes. He was too proud to sacrifice his crew’s friendship. I was too proud to lose my clique again. That one moment, that one look, was all we’d ever have. It has to be that way, when you’re sixteen.

I went away to college, and he went away to a different college. I heard, many years later, that he became an extremely successful doctor. I married a wonderful, tender man. When I had my children, I swore that I’d always remember, that I’d understand them when they were sixteen because I’d remember what it was like. Now they are teenagers, and I’m completely mystified, like every other parent on earth.

But I do remember some things. I remember his eyes and his auburn curls. I remember the science teacher saying that the atoms we’re made of come from the stars. One day, when the sun explodes and swallows the earth, our atoms will go back to being part of the stars.

In between, all we can do is burn.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. BabloalayDync
    May 20, 2009 @ 15:08:51

    Engaging website will come back again:D

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