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A circle of stones in the sand. A few threads of dry dune grass under a tepee of driftwood. The match. Flames growing, spreading, leaping up and licking the sticks with wind-tossed tongues. The smell—thick and close, settling indiscriminately upon cloth, hair, skin. Logs, first slender ones centered around the kindling; then broad, beefy tree limbs resting upon the entire scaffold. The blaze grew and fanned out across the sandy circle.
Easy. Precise. Sequential. Alice had always had a knack for starting fires, gathering the necessary tools to assemble and transform into something else. Smoke. Ash. That smell.
She tossed an experimental wad of newspaper into the fire. Orange light tinged the edges and ate away the inky paper, leaving crumbling blackness in its wake. In mere seconds it all but disappeared.
Alice rose from her squatting position beside the fire pit and ran up the hill into the house, bracing the screen door against her hand as it closed so as not to let it slam and wake her friends, asleep in a puddle spread out across the living room floor and furniture. In the dark she stepped gingerly over heads and arms, making her way to the corner where her backpack lay. There she bent down again and unzipped the main pocket, reached in and removed a worn blue folder overflowing with papers.
She stopped to listen for any sounds that signaled someone was awake, but all she heard were the twin hums of the fans positioned on either side of the television and a faint murmur of voices overhead. A light was on in the loft upstairs…Diane and Alex, she guessed, holed up there to have sex without disturbing anyone else. But there was no window, no way for them to see what she was about to do outside. Taking shallow breaths and clutching the folder, she tiptoed toward the back door, pausing to peer into the one real bedroom. There four of her friends slept scrunched together in the king-sized bed, lying like spoons facing the wall. They fit together perfectly, arranged tallest to shortest and breathing at different rates that still sounded synchronized as their chests rose and fell in the dark. There was no room for her beside the other girls—if she fell asleep at all she’d get out a sleeping bag and squeeze in between the boys on the living room floor. Alice was exhausted, tired, spent—but not sleepy. She closed the bedroom door most of the way, slipped out the back door, and ran downhill to the fire.
I wish I’d stayed home this weekend, she thought.
The fire had grown fatter since she’d left, less spindly and gangly and more solid—if flame could be solid—more mature. It swayed in the wind, but to a lesser degree than it had just a few minutes ago. Her fire, for she thought of it possessively, was a living creature.
She sat cross-legged with the folder open upon her lap a few inches away from the stone circle; as close as she possibly could be without getting burned. The heat on her face stung the way cold air does: nipping, scraping the skin raw and leaving it pink, flushed. Alice put her hands to her forehead to pull her hair back into a ponytail and felt sweat gathering along her hairline. When she had secured the elastic, wrapping it around the bundle of hair three times, she reached for the first sheet in the folder spread before her.
She read the yellowing certificate aloud: “Congratulations—” here someone had filled in the blank line with her name in loopy, neat cursive—“Alice Pauling: Spelling Bee Champion!” In the lower left hand corner the same handwriting spelled out the date: March 13, 1999. A dancing rainbow of block letters decorated the borders and cartoonish students with wide, scary grins stared out at her from behind the writing. She crumpled it into a tight ball and, with a stick, pushed it into the heart of the fire.
The next one was equally yellowed: “For outstanding achievement in Mathematics,” dated June 1999. Numbers in the same cheerful style and bright colors as the spelling bee letters surrounded the certificate. Alice remembered the premise of these awards: when she was in second grade, her school began recognizing students for “outstanding achievement” in all the major subject areas in an assembly on the last day of school before summer break. No one could win more than one award, and supposedly the student receiving a certificate was the “best” in that subject. Alice cried the whole way home after the assembly, wishing she had won the award for science because it was her favorite subject. Instead the piece of paper with a microscope in the background had gone to Will Yueng, whose parents were microbiologists. Alice’s mother consoled her, pointing out that math and science were closely related, and took her to Tastee-Freeze after lunch. Even then Alice knew she was being bribed, but she accepted her buyout in the form of a small twist cone.
Now she tore the paper into neat, uniform squares and threw them fluttering into the fire. Wind picked up one scrap and carried it, still glowing, down the beach before spitting it into the water.
Then she pulled out her third-grade certificate, “For outstanding achievement in science.” By third grade this meant little to her; English was her favorite subject now because Mr. McLean assigned his class to write stories, and Alice was quite prolific. She crumpled the paper into a ball so that the microscope and mad scientist were still visible, and poked it into the circle alongside the ashes of her spelling bee award.
The ritual continued. One by one, Alice took a crisp certificate with her name on it from the folder and burned it. Soon honor roll certificates replaced awards for outstanding achievement, and the teacherly handwriting spelling out her name on a blank line became less legible by degrees. But always the “Alice Pauling” stood out. Her name became sickening; she didn’t want to see it anymore. But it was part of the ritual, this careful, methodic pace allowing her to note each and every one of these meaningless scraps of paper she’d accumulated over the years.
When the last honor roll certificate lingered only in the smoke that stung her eyes, Alice took out the last sheet of paper in her folder.
Her name was printed, not hand-written, upon this one. “Alice Pauling, valedictorian. Matthew Ricci High School, Class of 2009.” Instead of wadding it up into a ball or tearing it into scraps as she’d done to the others, this certificate she held into the flames so a corner caught fire. Holding it aloft, she watched the fire spread and eat up the numbers, the fancy calligraphy, and the neat lettering of her name. When only a scrap was left, she tossed it onto the logs and watched the last of her most outstanding achievement crumble into dust.
Then an idea entered her head. She imagined building up the fire until she could jump inside of it and let it consume her the way it had all that paper, eat her up and turn all her mediocre success to smoke and ash.
But it was getting light out. And when she was completely honest with herself, Alice had to admit that she didn’t want to die, didn’t crave the nothingness that fire offered her. What she wanted…what she wanted was for the fire to purge from her everything that wasn’t truly her—the smokescreen of scholastic success and public recognition that cut her off from the ordinary teenagers sleeping inside. But the burning had left her unsatisfied.
So, tucking the folder under her elbow (she didn’t want to waste a perfectly decent folder), Alice kicked sand onto the dying fire until the last spark went out. She went up the hill and into the house again, where all the guys were still asleep. She unrolled her sleeping bag next to Will and climbed inside.