Red Summer by Antoinette Houston

Union City, Georgia. A small city, where the most exciting place to be was the Super Wal-Mart. The theaters had closed years ago and the mall wasn’t too far behind. The current town motto was: “You’ll like what U. C.”. This was printed boldly across the rather colorful banners that hung throughout the city along the roads. Roads like the one Rita James happens to be walking along. She actually stands there for a few seconds to stare at the banner in disbelief, wondering how many hours it took the council to come up with that one. Despite her foul mood, she sniggers before moving on. “Dumb,” she thinks. Rita has been walking for quite some time, attempting to calm herself after a disastrous visit to her social worker. It wasn’t working. It’s been hours since she returned from downtown and the whole visit still irritated her. All she wanted to know was the answer to a simple question concerning her birth parents. At least she thought it was simple. Were they nuts? Mrs. Karen had been her social worker for as long as she could remember, which honestly wasn’t that far back. Rita’s memory was a bit foggy if she tried to recall anything further than five years. But Mrs. Karen was always robotic with her reaction to her answers, as if she had practiced the answers to any question Rita could possibly think up. She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give her a straight answer. Rita growls, her pace picking up a bit. If she didn’t know, all Mrs. Karen had to say was that she didn’t know. Instead, the woman gave Rita pamphlets. Pamphlets about how some kids found their birth parents and realized they were better off without them. How one kid’s dad used to beat him and the state came and saved him. Or the one girl who found out that her mom was a rape victim and didn’t believe in abortions but didn’t want to have anything to do with her. And finally there was sunny Sally whose mom was pleased as punch to reunite with her. Rita’s parents were dead. She knew this already; there wasn’t going to be a bad or good reunion with them. All she wanted to know was whether she was going to need a long-term prescription for Xanax or lithium in the future. She needed to know because she had started burning things and it would be nice to know if this was a family trait and if it could be treated. It had started small: she bought matchbooks and burned each stick whenever she got nervous or irritated. The need had gotten worse when she was with her ex-boyfriend, Gabriel. He liked watching her when she burned stuff. He said she got this blissed-out look on her face when she played with fire. He pretty much egged on her need to burn things. He had even bought her a bunch of cheap lighters; it was a rainbow of colors of which she wasn’t even halfway through. In the short amount of time they were together, she had gotten quite good at controlling what burned and what didn’t. It wasn’t long into their relationship that things got … disturbing. Gabe liked being intimidating. He truly enjoyed proving that he was a bad-ass and that those who hung with him were bad-asses too. That included his girl, and at first she was all for it. One day he tried to take advantage of a pick-a-part dealer and it didn’t pan out. Upset, Gabe was determined to teach the guy not to cross him. So he planned to use Rita’s modest fire-bug skills to burn the dealer’s yard. Not all, but enough so he would feel it pocket –wise. Gabe was scary when he really wanted you to do something. Rita’s initial refusal set him off. That was the first and only time he ever hit her, but she had agreed to the arson. The plan was for him to drop her off at the junk-yard after closing and she would enter through the back and set the place on fire. It sounded simple enough. That had been the longest drive of her life from Union City to the other side of Fairburn. When they got there, Gabe dropped her off and pulled away, promising to come back as soon as he saw the smoke. For about ten minutes Rita just stood at the front of the junk-yard. She shook her head. What the hell was she doing? Why was she doing this? She took a deep breath and hurried to the back of the yard. At first there was nothing she could use to get in. The perimeter of the yard was surrounded by a fence made of solid metal panels. It had to be over six feet tall because she couldn’t just reach up and pull herself over. Not to mention it was topped with barbed-wire. She slowly made her way around, searching for anything to help her enter. She came upon the stump at the very rear of the yard. A couple of feet from where the tree had been, the fence was crushed. A storm or something must have caused the tree to fall on the fence, giving her the opening she needed to get in. Rita realized her mistake as soon as she was over the fence: she had no way to get back over from this side. She started to panic. Gabe wasn’t going to come back until he saw smoke and he was true to his word. She had to burn something for him to come back and help her out. She poked around and found some partially empty cans of paint and other flammable chemicals. They would give off more than enough smoke. She took out her lighter and picked up some scrap canvas that was on the ground. She had just lit it when she heard the growling behind her. Rita didn’t like dogs and this one was huge. It was some kind of monster hybrid of mastiff and chow. It had a large head and big teeth, and the rolling growl it was giving did more than terrify her. Rita did everything she could to prevent a scream from ripping free. It happened immediately. Pressure built up in her chest and was released as she screamed when the dog moved toward her. Without warning, the fire she had started blossomed to an inferno. The flames swirled around her, causing her to become more panicked: now on top of being mauled by a monster dog, she was going to be burned. But she didn’t feel anything. She opened her eyes to see the flames dancing around her like leaves in the wind. The dog, on the other hand, was whimpering painfully as the flames had singed it. Rita raised her hand toward the fire in stunned fascination and watched the whirling flames move further out from her, sending the dog scampering away in fear. At that moment, her fear of Gabe vanished. She was calm now that the dog was gone and she came to the realization that she wasn’t freaked out about this 'ability'. She looked at her hands, watching the feathers of flames circle around her fingers then split off to rejoin the whirling flames about her. It was as if somewhere in the back of her mind she knew she could do this. She simply never attempted to. Rita looked around the yard and shook her head. She had no ill-will toward the junkyard owner so she wasn’t going to destroy it as Gabe wanted. Instead she headed back toward the fence, the flames winding about her. She looked at a spot on the fencing and watched the flames slowly burn through the metal. The fire went from rich red to blinding white as it turned the metal into liquid, creating a widening hole to give her escape. It was easy. She focused on the stump and watched the fire devour it hungrily. The smoke she needed to signal Gabe filled the air. She broke up with Gabe days later, but didn’t wait long before moving on. She had a new boyfriend before the end of the week. He really didn’t like that. That was four weeks ago. Rita enters the woods not far from her home. Union City was growing but it was still mostly trees, great for hiding the things you didn’t want others to see. She crunches through the remains of last fall, making her way through the woods. The piles of dead leaves and sticks were high here, nearly concealing an old barn that nobody would miss. She had come across it on one of her many walks. She thought it had been white once, based on what remained of the flaking paint. Two stories tall, its ladder laid on the rotted floor where it had fallen with her the first time she had tried to explore the hay loft. Time, the elements, and termites riddled the old barn with damage from roof to base. The weathered clapboard siding was coming off in dozens of places, either hanging haphazardly or rotting in piles on the ground. It was a miracle the building was still standing at all. Rita walks once around the derelict’s perimeter before she stops at the opening where the doors would have been. Inside, she can see ancient hay and stacks of forgotten wood, all dark with age and overgrowth. She reaches into the front pocket of her jeans and removes a worn book of matches. She had gotten rid of the lighters, not wanting to be constantly reminded of who gave them to her. The matchbooks were more comfortable anyway. Flipping the cover open, she removes one stick from the dwindling few. She looks at the match and then back at the barn. She knows this is dangerous, knows that it’s illegal, but it’s the only thing that makes her feel better. It’s the rush, the heat, the crackling of materials when they are devoured, she feels it. It’s as if she is consuming it. The only other way she can describe the feeling is ‘delicious’. It fills up the ache that takes her sometimes, an overpowering emptiness that feels as if someone has taken a jagged shovel and scooped out her insides. The fires, the beautiful flames, as long as she is near them, alleviate it. Well, it used to. Now it seems to only make her … hungrier. Rita looks back at the match and swallows. This is going to be so much bigger than her last couple of stunts. The needs were getting stronger which in turn created an excess…an excess of energy, she guesses. She doesn’t really know what to call it; she just knows she can’t get rid of it. The excess is growing more and more uncontrollable with side effects that were becoming harder to manage. Rita licks her lips. It’s too late to try and stop. Her fingers are shaking now. Soon the ache will follow and then the pain, if she doesn’t release it. The match suddenly ignites in her hand and she quickly moves inside the barn.

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