In science class we learn the anatomy of fire, the three elements it needs. Fuel, oxygen, heat. Kel and me, we’re not allowed to sit together. I’ve gotta sit up front, where they can watch how I behave, where I can’t do any damage without them seeing straight away. She’s on the back bank of desks, with the window and the blossoming tree; vision seared by sun and hot pink petals each time I sneak a peek. They haven’t clocked that Kelli, in the corner, keeps stealing the scalpels, the ones designated for dissecting frogs. Every week she slides another up her sleeve, faster than I can confiscate. Just in case.
‘Cos Kelli’s a cutter. Has been since she turned thirteen. Sometimes, she stops eating instead; goes for weeks on only apples and black olives spooned straight from the jar. But that never lasts long. Her skin’s a map, a maze, her stomach a treasure trail of abandoned jigsaw pieces.
I’m not a cutter. What I love is the star-scarred smoke-soaked taste of fire. When we go out I rattle spraycans, emerge like a queen from an aerosol mist. Goddess of train tracks, crumbling brick walls and foxes, bonfires blazing like comets, knowing what’ll burn the best from construction sites and skips. I’m a sucker for it; materials melted and sizzling, disappearing down to dust.
That’s what it felt like, that first time we kissed. At the funeral home, of all places. Kelli’s brother, Baz, the bad-boy heartthrob of our estate, somersaulted from his bike on the dual carriageway. Dead before the ambulance got there, the news said. Her mam dosed up on Diazepam, washed down with gin and photos from when Baz was younger; his blue bike at Christmas and a gap in his teeth.
Kelli did the eulogy, in the end. Her voice didn’t even shiver. But afterwards, between wilted sandwiches and grannies clucking, I clocked the blood soaking through her sleeves. In the toilets, cleaning her up, one thing kinda led to another. They say you should never fuck someone more fucked up than you. But breaking rules is something I’m used to.
We’d been friends before that, sort of. At school we sneaked cigarettes in silence, or shared sulks about being called frigid dykes by the pricks from the football team, all because we had bad hair and worse make-up and didn’t give head when spinning bottles locked us in cupboards at parties. Seven minutes in heaven more like hell, but that’s hardly anything new. After Baz died though, it all changed.
There are three components every fire needs. Fuel, oxygen and heat. Shipwrecked on the front desk in science class, I’m sucked in by the bunsen burner’s hiss. Its flame is near-invisible, clean and chemical. No noise, no mess. I flick my fingers in and out, enough to feel the lapping tongue but not enough to feel the teeth.
I’m not a cutter, not like Kelli. She’s got so much inside it makes her itch. Each incision is a pressure valve, fizzing stars, then silver, then still. I’m the opposite, desolate, tryin’ to quench my thirst with booze and burgers, graffiti, sex and speed. But the fires are the only thing that make me flicker, that make me spit carbon and sparks. I’m not a cutter or a girl made of glass. I just want more, all the time, always, and it chars me black and blistered until I turn it out.
But her room is Autumn velvet; cinnamon-scented candles, fairylights. She changes my dressings; dabs on balm and bites surgical tape into tiny pieces to secure each pad in place. Cuffs me like a cat when I say she’d look hot as a nurse. Then we exchange and I do the same; stitch her up, repair her seams.
Kelli’s a cutter. That’s how it is. But not now we’ve had the amnesty; pencil sharpeners, scalpels and razors assembled, entrusted in a shoebox flaking rust. She complains that her muff is outta control but I like how she tastes, more even than the creamy bite of the lighter, then the warm wash once it starts and catches, firework-bright. She’s lush and over-ripe; everything unfurling, ’til it all feels too much. She’s a swamp and I’m a forest, right before the fire. I drink her in, scorchmarks soothed and cool. Heat, oxygen, fuel.
I spread my spraycans on the bed, she plumps for glitter paint instead. Red. Unravels a labyrinth of veins down her legs. Rhinestones her ribcage with diamonds, blobs a wet mess over her heart. I trickle candle wax between the burns, peel it off piece by piece. She smears the ink over her scars, then wipes it on the sheets.
Jan Bradley is a fiction writer and editor whose short stories have been published in print and online around the globe, most recently by Dog Horn Publishing and Pankhearst. Her first full-length play, The Curse, debuted in Manchester in March 2016. Jane is the founder and director of For Books’ Sake, the charitable organisation championing writing by women, and the editor of short story collections Short Stack (2012), Derby Shorts (2013), Tongue in Cheek (2015) and (RE)Sisters (2016). She lives in Manchester and can be found obsessing ober drag, roller derby, badass babes and books on Twitter or Instagram.