Riana did not want to burn her project down but she had no choice. She burned her art for love.
There were places on Riana’s bird skeleton sculpture where the glue dripped on the balsa wood in long wormy blisters that were ugly and hidden. Some secrets were for the artist alone. An observer’s eye would be drawn to the bird’s flawless body and her outstretched neck. Her beautiful wings.
Riana wished there was another way but fire was the only solution she could think of in a hurry.
In the hall a locker rang with the kick of a girl’s heavy boot. There was no time for regret. Maybe a fire in the steel sink of a high school art room was a fitting end to a 3D model of a Phoenix anyway. Not all art was supposed to last. The Advanced Painting and Media teacher Mrs. Rose had shown a video just that day of Buddhist monks who spent months creating Mandalas out of colored sand only to sweep them away with brooms as soon as they finished.
Yet when Riana held a lighter to the tip of a wing she felt as if she herself were burning. Her finger on the plastic tab shook and her stomach tightened at the smell of smoke. How cruel it was to lose so many hours of work to fire.
A ring of flames grew until they licked the bird’s spine and engulfed the entire piece. In the last moments of the Phoenix’s existence the wings lifted in the heat of the clean yellow blaze. She traced her fingers along the cabled scars on her forearm where her sleeve pulled away to expose them.
“Poor bird,” she said. “I know just how you feel.”
The fire alarm sounded in short blasts.
Shouts and footsteps echoed through the old building. Riana ran to the door’s window to the hall to find that Joan and the boy she was hurting were gone. The fight was interrupted. Mission accomplished.
Behind her the fire sounded like a swarm of ants chewing paper. She turned as the last of the Phoenix collapsed. The burning was over.
Except that it wasn’t.
Above the pile of ashes, flames leapt over the watercolor paintings tacked to the wall. Riana hurried to the sink and yanked on the faucet. She threw scoops of water at the student artwork with her hands but the fire acted like it didn’t notice, climbing the paintings like a living, greedy thing.
Mrs. Rose rushed in yelling and Riana was never so glad to see a teacher in her entire life. The woman clutched a red fire extinguisher and sprayed the fire until it was dead and the wall and counter dripped with foam. She dropped the canister with a clang and turned on Riana with wide and ferocious eyes.
“To the office.” She pointed a finger to the door. “Now.”
Damn, Riana thought. Not again.
Rebekah loved the different words for the thing she loved to do.
For example, she loved the word piracy. Rebekah was a pirate and no one suspected because she moved like a ghost ship among the living. She was unseen. Invisible. She took what she wanted and no one noticed until the beloved thing and she were long gone.
Shoplifter. What a powerful thing to be able to lift an entire shop.
Stealing. Her most favorite word. Stealing sounded like steel which was a material forged in fire. Steel was impervious to abuse. Steel didn’t feel. Steel was stainless.
Rebekah loved to steal.
In Coalton High School’s main office, Joy Austin splayed her hand so that the other girls could admire her new diamond ring.
“Is it real?” One asked.
Joy shrugged with one shoulder, a tiny smile playing on her glossed lips. Rebekah knew that her friend wasn’t playing coy. She was honestly clueless. Rebekah did know the value of things and even under the fluorescent ceiling lights the diamond winked as only the real deal would.
A fire alarm shattered the circle. They never pulled fire drills after school so that meant that the alarm was not a drill. Somewhere in the school there was a fire was as real as the diamond that Joy Austin wore in a ring that was much too big for her. Rebekah knew exactly who had given her friend a present meant for a grown woman. Maybe he had
forgotten that Joy was only sixteen years old.
In the second of elbows and breathless barks of laughter before everyone moved towards the door, Rebekah’s fingers feathered Joy’s and just like that the ring was hers.
As Rebekah joined the parade of after-school stragglers leaving the building, the words for what she was sounded in her ears in time with the fire alarm’s emergency pealing.
The fact that Jake’s eyes were watering made Joan want to hurt him worse. Rage bloomed in her jaw and crackled between her teeth. If people understood how much their fear pissed her off they would try better to hide it.
Jake threatened to hit her back but she knew he was too chicken shit to follow through.
She so wished he would. To be able to get in a fight would feel like sudden freedom after a long time in jail.
Joan hammered Jake in the nose with the heel of her hand. His head smashed into the locker and left a dent in the metal. He hunched over, cupping his fingers over his bleeding face. She stepped backwards while he struggled for breath and emailed the pictures they had just been discussing to herself from his phone.
There was a rumor that it was Joan’s fault that the basketball team’s star lost out on his scholarship the year before because she’d broken his leg in retaliation for the pics he’d had on his phone of her drunk and naked. It wasn’t true. There were no pictures. Joan was never drunk and she sure as hell was never naked. The kid had broken his own leg in a drunken fall down the stairs at his house by himself. But she let the rumor stand. She even fanned the gossip mill’s flames by not denying anything to anybody. She liked being hated. Her psychology teacher said once in a lecture that hatred was a secondary emotion to fear and even more than being hated Joan loved being feared.
“Please.” Jake’s voice broke like a tweener’s. “Please don’t do anything. We were just fooling around, right? I mean, Joy was into it.”
“She didn’t look into it to me, Jacob.” Joan had scrolled through. She knew exactly what photos he had on his phone, including one selfie he’d taken where his face was clearly visible alongside the main attraction which was Joy unconscious with her shirt pulled to her chin. Someone had scrawled the word slut across her belly in black marker.
The picture was more than enough to ruin any chance Jake had at a football scholarship. This time she would deserve the blame for crushing a boy’s college dreams, if he didn’t do as she said.
They stood at Jake’s locker outside the art rooms. She was barely tall enough to be able to bite him on the neck standing on her tiptoes and she was about half his weight. Yet here they were nonetheless. A tiny mouse terrifying a gangly and gutless elephant.
Joan’s secret was violence. She struck hard and she struck quick. She would do the worst thing possible with zero wind up until her victim shivered and bled against a cold locker begging for mercy.
“Please don’t hit me again,” Jake said. “What do you want?”
“I want you and your friends to quit taking unconscious girl porn you sad pathetic asshole.”
He swallowed hard. “It isn’t my idea. It’s---“
“I really don’t care,” she said. “Make it not happen.”
He wasn’t lying. She knew whose idea it was to play this nasty game that wouldn’t die, humiliating one girl after another since summer. The pics were the brainchild of Adam Turner, a guy in her class that everybody worshipped for some bizarre reason. At first Joan didn’t care about what was happening. Girls in her class kept going to parties and drinking with Adam and his friends. What the hell did they think was going to happen?
But now Joan did care. The latest target of the joke was Joy Austin who was a friend of Rebekah Linwood’s. Joan didn’t talk to Rebekah much anymore but they’d been best friends in eighth grade and she didn’t want her to be next in line. Besides, Joan didn’t know how much more she could take of the boys snickering into their phones during class. She couldn’t stand bullies.
When she found Jake, stole his phone and maybe broke his nose, Joan knew exactly what she was doing. There was a method to her ass-kicking madness. Joan targeted Jake because he was Adam’s best friend and she knew that Adam would stage the pictures as long as his minions told him it was funny. He would only quit when his friends stopped thinking he was cool for hurting girls because what guys like Adam wanted more than anything was to be the center of attention. Without an audience there would be no point.
“Please leave me alone,” Jake said. “Can I have my phone back? We’ll quit taking the pictures. I promise.”
Joan had made her point. She knew that. But once unleashed, the itch for more violence marched under her skin like a bad army. Her fists curled.
The sudden blow of the fire alarm made her jump. Jake ducked and ran, leaving a line of bloody stars spotting the tile floor in his wake. She dropped his phone and crunched it under her boot because fire or not she was dying for something to smash.
That was when she noticed the smoke billowing out of the art room. Mrs. Rose hurtled down the hall and slammed open the door. Joan backed away as the teacher yelled at someone inside. There was the hissing of a fire extinguisher. From far away, sirens.
Joan followed Jake’s blood trail to the exit.