I Want To Set Myself On Fire

Image of Long Story Short Award - Fall 2020
Image of Short Fiction
He can’t believe he’s made it this far. Every blink his eyelids perform proves to be a battle. One lapse of thought could drown him in the depths he won’t have the nails to claw out of. But for the moment he’s winning, thoughts dampened with the high it brings. He drinks it in, all of it. This is what the greatest have felt. He now knows why it’s so damn intoxicating.

A faint breeze grazes his pale cheeks. Their dull colour of the drapes matches clouds that glided by their room this afternoon. That was the last time he parted them. It was too late to catch any glimpses of the sun now, it had tucked itself into bed a long while ago.

It was her idea to let some air in this cramped space. They hadn’t been allowed outside yesterday. A sizeable storm made itself at home, bringing enough rain to slosh down the roof. She pointed out that they now had another shower. He told her that she needed one the most.

He was only half-kidding but she didn’t bother stirring up a retaliation. Waves of grease gleam over her dark oily locks, clumping them together in matted strands. Beams of moonlight crawled up her head. Bathing her entirely in a dusty glow.

He wonders if this is worth the slam of lethargy he’ll be struck by tomorrow afternoon. She won’t be tormented with regret, only another onslaught of restlessness that’ll toss her into another night.

Amidst the wind, the candle he lit hours ago struggles to keep its flame. It sits atop his desk, bringing light to the words sloppily scrawled on scattered papers. His penmanship is horrific, even he strains his patience in trying to decipher his writings. But they must hold something of importance.

His eyes, bleary and unblinking, pore over the ink. Scouring for something, anything to brim his life with purpose. Something to root his importance in the soil under this school.

“You’re still awake.”

He jumps, jolting the brittle bones of his back.

She grins. “Sorry.”

“It’s alright,” he mutters, straightening his arched spine in a symphony of cracks. “I think I needed that.”

Her fingers reach for a hairband on her dresser. “Don’t tell me you’re spending hours staring at your notes, hoping some...unheard of idea will just smack you right in the face.”

“You’d rather I lie?”

She crosses her legs. “That’s not going to get you anywhere.”

He gets to his feet, pressing papers to the front of his shirt. “Would you rather I go...somewhere else, or...”

“Why would I want that?” In a single motion, she loops the band around the thin width of her gathered hair and tightens it. “No, I...I’ve just been feeling off.”

“Oh.” He returns to his seat but teeters on its edge.

“I, uh...like your company.”

The heat from the candle flickers across his face. “Oh.”

A gust of wind bursts into their room, startling it. His notes do somersaults over themselves to escape the crisp blast. After managing frail sputters of flame, the candle fizzles out.

She shoves her palms into the glass until it locks back into place. Thick darkness silently spills into the room.

In his drawer, his fingers thumb through sketches until he grasps a small matchbox. It offers three scarlet-tipped sticks to spare. After a few attempts, he’s able to coax a flame from the match and dip the dry wick into the amber glow.

“You’ve got matches?” She stares at their box questioningly.

He tosses the tattered container onto her bed. She smooths down her blue nightdress and reaches for it. The dusty wooden floorboards emit shrill creaks to accompany his steps. One by one, he collects his sketches and retreats to his desk, who provides him with a fresh sheet of paper. For once, he lets his pencil guide him. Its dulled lead tip drags along the paper, leaving faint and fierce marks in its wake. When he draws his hand away from the page, he eyes the coat of silver it’s collected.

A foul smell wafts through the air. His head first tilts toward his untouched candle, then to her. Bright orange flames roll up the skirt of her nightgown, licking at the soft fabric. Stray ones snag upon her cream-coloured bedsheets. He pries his eyes away from her just to rummage around his workspace. All he finds is an old cup of water, tainted with the residue of many paint-dipped brushes. He flings it across in droplets. Their murky gray colour splotches the dress but douses her flames.

“What on earth are you doing?”

At least she had the sense to close the window before stirring up thick coils of smoke. Tears pool under her eyes. “I’m trying to feel something.”

“By burning yourself? That’s the way you’re planning on doing so?”

She presses her palms into the seared satin of her nightgown. “I’m trying...to see how close I can get to death and farther away from what it feels like to be alive.”

“Layla, you can’t...you can’t do this.”

“I can. And you’re in no hurry to stop me.” Tears spill down her cheeks. “I don’t...have what you have. I don’t have a single hope in creating anything that will withstand forever.”

Her fingertips leave black smears behind when she buries her face in her soot-stained hands.

He takes her hands in his own. Blackening them in the process. “Then make something that will last today. Just for today, just...just make something that won’t cause you to set yourself on fire.”

“But...I don’t know where to begin,” she answers in a voice pierced with tremors.

“I’ll help you.”

This will be as temporary as they come. He knows this, as his pencil swishes from one sheet of paper to the next. It’s the third he’s used. What he wanted them to conceive was too much for their brittle points to bear.

Oil paints were difficult to come by when his interest piqued in painting. The piece will be worthy of the best he has, a box of fifteen he bought from a woman at a train station. They serve as slim tubes of motivation for him now, looking on encouragingly while he sketched. He wrenches the window free of its lock. A pleasant wave of crisp air rolls indoors and sends the drapes aflutter. She returns in an emerald dress, clutching a canvas taller than her. It’s the largest he’s ever seen.

“Why...did you want to set yourself on fire?”

The question tumbles out of him before he can set his drawing aside.
Beneath him, she looks up from his array of watercolour paints. Her papers, which hold legible handwriting, litter the floor and serve as an impractical rug.

“I wake every day, feeling like I don’t have anything to give to the world. So, I thought to feel normal again, I had to do something so otherworldly, that people didn’t think I was one. It doesn’t make much sense, now that I say it.” She stares down at the paper in her hand.

His pencil scratches his own. “Why do you feel that way?”

“My head’s so cruel to me sometimes. It makes me believe I’m nothing. I don’t think my thoughts are mine at all, because it doesn’t feel like I put them there. But then again, who else would?”

“That must be frightening.”

“I suppose I’m alright with being a little terrified. It helps deal with the emptiness a little.” She tosses her drawing aside and huffs out a sigh. “Are you finished yet?”

Once they opened paints, cleaned brushes, and sharpened pencils, their unprepared canvas stood no chance. The blank surface met an abundance of orchestrated brushstrokes and arranged lines. She’s the first to step back, eyes wide in unadulterated admiration. He joins her, startled by the splotches dousing their clothes, faces and hair in a jumbled multitude of colours.

“You’re going to need another dress.”