Nithya Kubendran is a senior studying Biomedical Engineering with a minor in East Asian Languages and Cultures. She hails from Quartz Hill, CA, where she learned to love tumbleweeds, joshua trees, and musical roads.
Carmine is the one that starts you off on arson. You’re talking to her one night about how you and Chauncey are going to do great things, and she just wants you to go bother someone else.
“You’re just a couple of disillusioned kids, thinking they can save the word,” she says dismissively.
“Save it?” you respond incredulously. “Who ever talked about saving it?”
She laughs delightedly. “Oh, I see,” she drawls tauntingly. “Ash doesn’t care about anyone, does he? That’s how it is?”
You act tough. “Yeah,” you say. “Yeah.”
“All right, then, come on,” she commands you. You follow her a few blocks over to a new construction site. You stand there, and she tosses you a lighter.
You finger it a little nervously. “Go ahead,” she gestures to the house. “Burn it down.”
You don’t want to. “This isn’t my house,” you protest.
“It’s not anyone else’s house either,” she tells you. “But I can tell you one thing. They’re not building these because they want to make our neighborhood any better. Before long, there’s going to be some fancy high-priced building way too expensive for us, and then where will we be? Kicked out of our own houses like stray dogs. You want to be on the street, kid? Because that’s where you’re going to end up if you don’t burn this down.”
She talks like she’s seen the world, and while you don’t want to believe her, you can’t help but.
And somehow that night, the idea of what Carmine says begins to burn in you just like the first glowing embers at the construction site.
You’ve been a delinquent as long as you can remember. You grew into the label the same way other kids grow into older siblings’ baseball gloves: a little loose-fitting at first, but soon enough any discomfort becomes part of the wearing. Now you don your delinquency like a mantle; you won’t part from it so easily.
Your gang is three in number, including yourself. It’s a little low for a gang, but you’ve always liked things minimal. Smooth edges, clean lines, no fuss, less anguish, or something like that.
Maybe Chauncey and Lloyd didn’t know what they were signing on for at first, but after that first mesmerizing fire together, there were no more protests. Chauncey had stolen some accelerant from his father’s shop, and Lloyd climbed in through a window to unlock the building. You set the trail and lit it up. Then there was fire like billowing sails engulfing the building, pretty as anything you’d ever seen.
After that, the three of you start frequenting old man Valenti’s house, long abandoned since he died back when you and Chauncey were young. There’s a convenient shed around the back where you hide the can for storing gasoline and the lighter, in the unlikely case that someone starts to investigate. The streets have been your playground your entire life, but you think there’s something elegant about having a hideout of sorts. It’s a place to call your own, if nothing else.
Chauncey has been your best friend since you were kids and you lived just up the street from his dad’s shop. Chauncey’s dad is a mechanic but also a drunkard; that’s why they live here. But Chauncey could make something of himself, if he so wanted. When you’re not lying to yourself, you’ve always been more than a little jealous of him.
Lloyd is two years younger than you, all smiles and lithe grace from practicing ballet all the time. You remember that first time you met her: you talked like you were an authority, and, not knowing any better, she believed you. She didn’t stop following you around after that, but somehow you found that you didn’t mind so much.
She’s a sweet girl, Lloyd. She loves ballet, she tells you. She practices every day for an hour, she says. Her parents save every extra penny to keep Lloyd going to lessons with an old woman a few streets over. They think they’ve taught her how to dream, but all they’ve really taught her is how to shatter her heart irrevocably. Lloyd is never going to make it out of here.
But you, on the other hand, you’ve kept your heart hard and set your sights on the skies. You think you if you can just get up where all that blue is surrounding you like some kind of heaven, you’ll finally be happy. Only, you don’t realize that once you’re up off the ground you’re not so infallible anymore.
You just can’t wait to escape the squalor, the masses of people, the poverty. You hate that you’re part of the poverty. But at the same time, this part of the city is yours. No rich developers are going to come in and force you out on your watch. You’re going to choose to leave yourself.
One night seems like every other night out burning down houses, but it’s not. Chauncey has brought the gas as usual. Lloyd scales a tree to keep watch, just like every other time. But you miscalculate.
It’s a new company’s construction site. You haven’t bothered to hang around and learn about the materials they’re building with or the rate of burning or the layout of the site. You’ve become complacent in your experience. And so you light it up before you’re fully out, confident that the fire will take long enough to catch to give you time to saunter out. But it doesn’t happen that way. It happens like this:
You’re pausing to look at something glinting in the walls. Some construction worker must have left it here a few days ago: a watch, a pin, something. But you stop for longer than you think, puzzling out its identity, because all of a sudden you feel deadly heat burning far too close. You look up and your stomach bottoms out with the realization that your escape route has been cut off.
You try to calm down, take a few deep breaths, the usual routine. You can hear Chauncey’s voice calling something outside, high and scared. So they can already tell this fire isn’t burning right.
Done with thinking, you decide to act. You dive into the fiery door, shoulder first, hoping that you can make it out. Your eyes water, and the smoke fills your throat, but you keep going. You barely make it through the wavering heat of the last room, but your eyes are on the door to the outside, and it gives you hope.
You finally bust through the burning door. You drop to the ground, rolling, to put on the burning on your shoulder, ignoring the pain. You cough heavily while you try to stand up and then stagger out to the front where Chauncey is.
He looks scared when he sees you, and you know something’s wrong.
“Where’s Lloyd?” you ask, a little desperately.
“She- she went in after you. I couldn’t stop her; she just climbed in through the window,” he stammers.
“You- you’re kidding me, right, Chaunce?” you say weakly, brow furrowing as your mouth suddenly becomes a lot more dry than it already was. “She’s not in there, is she? She just got tired and left, right?”
You look back at the house, and it is burning full force. If you’ve learned anything over these last few months, it’s that the fire department takes its time getting to this part of the city, and the people don’t care enough to phone a fire in until it’s close enough to make them sweat. If Lloyd is in there, she doesn’t have a chance of getting out alive.
Chauncey grabs your arm before you can move. “You’re not going back in there,” he says. “You can’t.”
You don’t want to believe that he’s right. You try to jerk out of his grip, but he holds fast. “C’mon, Chaunce, you gotta let me go after her,” you plea, voice rising.
He looks like he’s about to cry, but he bites his lip and shakes his head and holds on to you.
The two of you back away from the snapping, spitting fire like it’s a dragon of old, as if keeping eye contact with it will somehow protect you from its wrath. The house burns and burns, and yet there are no screams.
Looking for something—revenge, redemption, you don’t really know—you find Carmine.
You glare at her, fists clenched. “Why would you do that to a couple of kids, anyway?”
She laughs. “All I ever wanted was a little anarchy in my life, Ash. You were the one that took that too far. I didn’t force you or your friends to do anything.” Your eyes narrow. Somehow, some way this must be her fault, you think.
She finally turns to face you, eyes hard. “Quit blaming me, kid. You’re smarter than that. You know exactly whose fault her death is.” Carmine has always made far too much sense.
Your face burns. All you’ve found is soundly argued condemnation. You’ve always been the brash kind, facing things head on, but now you just want to escape more than ever. And you think, what’s stopping you?
You want to say a few last words to Chauncey, at least, you decide.
“Chaunce, I’m leaving. I’ll find a plane, and then I’m gone,” you tell him at his father’s shop.
“And what?” he asks in disbelief. “Leave this place behind like it never mattered, Icarus incarnate? You remember what happens at the end of that story, don’t you?” That stings a little. Chauncey always has been good at reminding you that world doesn’t work the way you want it to.
You want to lash out and rage about the whole thing as if it could actually make a difference. You want to be as broken as he is, but you can’t let yourself be that way. You would drown in a sea of wanting, but you don’t know how to do anything but float, a survival instinct at its bleakest.
You finally swallow hard and say, “Goodbye, Chaunce.”
Leaving the shop, you retrace the familiar path to the house. Walking around the back, you can see the door to the shed swinging slighting in the wind, hinge whining gratingly. Once inside, you see the old tools. You pick up the lighter and can, their weight as familiar as going home.
Preparing the house to burn is mechanically easy. You wonder how it’s come to this, how arson has ceased to be fantastic.
You don’t want to say goodbye, but this parting’s heavy inevitability has been crushing your chest for far too long, anyway. You’re finally ready to cut your losses, you think, convincingly callous. You set the gas can down, hold your lighter to the trail, and step back. Within the span of minutes, the whole place is ablaze, along with what feels like the remnants of your heart. They will be able to tell this job is arson—that is, if they even bother to investigate. But those chances are low. The rest of society doesn’t care about a burned down vacant house any more than they care about a young girl that went missing.
The heat starts to mount, and you squint, protecting your pilot’s eyes, to watch the house burn a few moments longer. You afford it one last lingering look, a two-fingered salute as goodbye, and then you’re gone.