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Make it Burn
I’m not sure what I did wrong. They wouldn’t tell me.
The fluorescent lights glinted starkly off the stainless steel of the compound. That’s all there was. Steel and white. Men and women gowned in the colors, dead eyed like zombies. We were all zombies at that point, I guess. Some of us just accepted it better than others.
“Let me out!” And inmate cried with terror. “Why am I here? Let me out!”
There were the sounds of a scuffle, sensible shoes on the white tile, sobbing, and then nothing. It was normal. New girls like me didn’t seem to make it long. They didn’t understand. They never learned.
“I don’t know what it is with this one,” said the male ‘doctor’ who was given the job of escorting me that day. “It’s like she is dead inside. Like there is nothing there.”
“There’s always something,” his friend scoffed, “it’s all a matter of finding it.”
I almost smiled. Almost cracked my mask. There was more inside me than they would ever know. Than anyone would know.
There was enough fire in my gut to set the world alight.
Someone slammed a tray of food in front of me. “Eat,” they commanded. I did. Most would not—they didn’t last long either.
“You ever wonder what would happen if someone took one of these girls?” A ‘doctor’ suggested. “I heard some guys talking about a myth. They say if you let one of them out in the sun, they’ll burn to a crisp. Like a potato skin cooked too long. Only it’ll happen in a matter of seconds.”
“That’s bullshit,” a friend responded. “We will all be dead long before one of these girls will see the light of day. Take Annie for instance: eleven years and still going strong. Ain’t that right, Annie?”
Annie didn’t look up. She hung her head, making her dull and scraggly brown hair mix with her food. Her eyes, ringed with dark circles so intense they could pass for bruises, stayed firmly locked on her hands.
She twitched. She did not move.
“Crazy,” a man—if you could call him that—muttered in amazement. “I wonder why they even let them live.”
“Their parents pay money for them to stay here. That’s why.”
Money, I thought. That can’t be all it comes down to.
“Well, I best be taking her back. She’s not too good with free time.” My escort said.
“At least yours doesn’t try to claw your face off daily. Look at Theresa. Not as nice as the name would imply.”
Theresa was the fiery redhead. She hadn’t learned patience yet.
“Ready to go, Keisha?”
My hands dropped to my sides. He took it as a yes and cuffed my wrists to the belt around my waist. We all had one. We were all dangerous.
He had to keep a hand on my arm to steer me to my room, but I knew he did not like it. None of them did. We were diseased and pitiful creatures—they were much above touching us.
“God, what is she?” My escort whispered to another passing man, as if we could not hear or understand them.
“I think the scales are showing on this one already. Be prepared for hell until we can get an execution warrant from Derrick.”
He made a sound of disgust. “Beasts like this shouldn’t be allowed to live this long. It’s a crime against humanity. We shouldn’t need warrants. I’d rather kill them on sight.”
My gut flared. The fire roared.
No one noticed.
“I have to put her away before this gets worse. I’ll talk to you later, though.”
We were moving again. I knew where we would go; by then I had every step memorized, every beat of foot on tile accounted for. The escorts were a precaution.
Fingers beat into the number pad. A lock whirred.
Whispers attacked my ears as sudden as a tsunami and just as strong.
“New is she?”
“No. You just don’t remember…”
“If it wasn’t for all that blood…”
“But look at the eyes. The eyes are special.”
“They look like mine did. Before…”
They came in and out now, like a bad radio transmission. I knew my escort could not hear them. He didn’t even know others were there.
“Get some rest. We’ll begin again in the morning.” He took my cuffs off and threw me in the padded cell unceremoniously. The door closed with a loud bang. The lock clicked home.
“Shh. She needs to figure it out on her own…”
I looked up. They were there, like they always were. They were dressed in the same containment jackets as the rest of us, but they were different. Their skin was pale as chalk eyes and faces bruised with centuries worth of blows. Their hair was frizzed into a halo of grease and muck that had found it’s way in over time. Their lips were chapped but sometimes they were chewed raw instead. Their arms were always cuffed in.
They were not lucky. Sometimes I wondered if they were even here.
“Are you real?” I asked them, my voice cracking from disuse.
Their grins mirrored each other’s. A lip cracked. A single stream of blood trickled down her chin, leaving a glimmering trail of crimson behind.
It was color. It had been a while since I’d seen color.
“We’re as real as you are.” They said, voices chiming in unison.
“What do they want with me?” I swallowed and coughed. Talking was difficult. “What do they want with us?”
They reached foreword and grabbed my hands, squeezing them firmly. “They want what is inside of you. We have something rare, my friend. You know what it is—you keep it hidden oh so well.” They leaned close enough that I could see the whites of their eyes, smell the decay in their breath. “Let it out of its cage, little bird. Then we can all go free.”
I blinked. They were gone. I could still feel the pressure of their nails digging into my palms and feel the texture of their rough and calloused hands.
But they were gone.
And they won’t come back, whispered a voice in my head. They’re gone just like everyone else. Just like every good thing in your life, just like the sky and the sun, and all that normal stuff that normal people get. Not us freaks, locked away, destined to burn if we ever meet the sun again…
Burn. I smiled. What a pretty word.
“Burn.” I said out loud experimentally. My gut grew hotter. “Burn.” I said again. A maniacal laugh clawed out of my throat.
I lifted a hand and touched the soiled fabric of my padded prison, my confortable cell.
The fire leapt out of me and the cloth under my fingers sprang to life. I laughed even as the fire scaled down my hand, my arm. The wall was aflame, and I was alive. I was not Annie. Eleven years were not in my future.
I could feel it, with a sort of disconnected delight. It shivered up my arm, down my shoulder blades until it gave me gossamer phoenix wings. I could smell burning hair, burning flesh. I could hear my laugh, even though my throat was so burned there was no way my vocal cords could have worked.
I lavished in it. It was not the pain I liked, but the feel. There was so much of it, so much emotion tossed into the space; I didn’t know what to do with it. It filled me. It surrounded me. It became me.
I let it burn.
My door was opened. A new escort was there.
“Study time today. I hope you’re ready.”
I stood, not even the slightest wobble to my feet or the slightest shake to my hands. I was cuffed. I was escorted.
But I knew.
I had eyes just like my friend once had. I could see.
And I would make it burn.