The Lantern's Fire

April 1, 2008
By Sydney Rubin, Wilmington, DE

I have often wondered why people are the way they are. Why I am the way I am. Why I wear all black, spike up my hair in a rigid Mohawk, drape myself in chains and put the colored contact lens in my eye so that one eye is all white with a little black cross in the center. I guess it’s just that I enjoy the way people look at me when I do that. I like that widening of the eyes, the stiffening, the warning alarm I hear going off in their heads when they see me. It’s not that I want to be the center of attention; no, however infantile it seems, however needy, I just enjoy it when I am noticed.

We all have problems. Some of my friends talk about theirs, but usually they are silent, like me. Sometimes there is no need to talk, because we all know how screwed up we are, and talking about it just makes us even more screwed up. Talk didn’t stop Michael from drinking all that lye, and lying down in his mother’s basement to wait to die. And talk won’t stop me, either.

Sometimes, looking around at the mall, I get this weird kind of itch in me, this longing, and it won’t go away. Watching these mothers walking with their children, shushing them with offered candy, the preteens saying over and over, “like lol that is just so omg,” and fluffing their hair. The older teens lolling about, some always tired, some always bouncing up and down with uncontained energy. And then there are my friends and me, in a circle, standing silently without a word, as unmovable as Stonehenge rocks. Why are we there? It seems to me that we are drawn to these people, drawn to the light of their lives like moths to a lantern. But we know that if we get too close, we’ll get burned. So we just flutter around the edges, afraid to get burned, but drawn nonetheless, drawn to the light that shines so brightly from the night we have flown through for so long.

I adjust the long black coat that reaches down to my ankles and glance up at the vaulted, glass ceiling, and then back down at the ground, and almost step back in surprise. A little girl, probably only one or two years old, looks up at me. I blink blankly at her. She is inside our black circle, and my friends are beginning to notice her, are staring at her in astonishment. Nobody enters our circle. And she is staring straight at me. I gaze back at her, uncertain of what to do. She smiles. The light of the lantern brightens to an unbearable degree. I am being blinded by it, and yet the yearning in me grows. What is this light-child thinking? What does she think of us? Of me? Why does she smile at me? Why doesn’t she flinch away, as everyone else does?

Without knowing what I am doing, I reach my hand down towards the little girl, and her smile widens, exposing tiny pearl teeth. She raises her own hands towards mine clumsily, and manages to catch one of my fingers in her little hands. Shocked silence reins in the circle, but I am not a part of it. I am brushing the light; the child’s fingers burn me like fire, sparks shoot through my lungs, dance up my veins. And then the child takes her hand away, and staggers off on unsteady legs back to her parent, who is on the phone and has only just noticed that her child somehow managed to slip away undetected. My hand is still tingling from its contact with the light, and the darkness around me has never felt so cold. I stare after the child, not noticing the mother’s fervent glances in my direction as she picks up her child and flees. But I am frozen with the knowledge that I touched the light, and I burned, but I didn’t die. I turn back to the silent dark circle, and I still cannot break the silence that binds us, the dark coldness of it. But from the looks that my friends are giving me, I think there is something new in my eyes; perhaps a spark left over from the lantern’s fire.

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