Authors: Daisy Whitney
The Fire Artist
is dedicated to my amazingly talented writer friends C. J. Omolulu and Courtney Summers. Thank you for helping me shape this story every step of the way
A plume of flames erupts from my fingertips and rises high above me. As I widen my arms, the fire curves in a brilliant arc. More flames burst into the inky night at my command.
I call them down, luring them back into my scarred and hardened palms, like scarves of silk being pulled back into a magician’s top hat.
Then, with a graceful bend, I grasp a pair of arm’s-length chains I’ve left on the ground for this moment. I raise my arms above my head, wirelike whips in my hands now. A quick flick of my wrists and sparks race to the metal on the wires. A crack, then molten drops rain over me, a willowy canopy of sizzling hisses that light up the faces of the crowd. They are packed tightly into every inch of the bleachers, their bare arms glistening with sweat in the muggy night.
My fireworks hail down from the cloudless sky, falling gently at first, then quickly, like bullets and gunfire. Another snap and sparks leap higher. And another, until I can no longer
distinguish the crackling sound of the fire from the gasps and cheers of the crowd.
On summer evenings like this, the metal bleachers are jammed with the young, old, and everyone in between, clasping tight their crinkled, hastily printed flyers advertising our lineup of fire, ice, earth, and wind. I’m the final act, and I’m nearly done, so I drop the chains to the ground and show my palms to the audience. I’m not the only one who can do this. But no one in or around Wonder, Florida, is tired of coming here to watch flames fly from human hands, with fire that flies higher, burns brighter, and curls tighter than any other fire artist’s in a long time.
This is the big one, when I extinguish all the fire, the park goes dark for one long, silent moment, then a spectacular torch flares from me high into the sky. I glance at the onlookers. They are tense, jaws tight, bodies hunching forward in the stands. I look away, and it’s then that a pair of phantom fingers pinch a corner of my heart. My shoulders pull in as my chest constricts. My throat tightens for a moment.
Like a glass being knocked off the corner of a counter, I’ve spilled fire all over the ground. I can’t blame it on stage fright. I’m not nervous.
I’m losing my fire again. It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last.
The fire skitters away from me, racing over the hard grass and packed dirt, hell-bent on the front row. I fall to my knees to coax the sparks back to my hands, before they burn off the feet of the girl with the ratty pink sneakers who has been kicking the ground absently as she watches. Now, fear fills her eyes,
and she leaps up onto the bench. Her mother grabs her and holds her tight.
My heart sputters, like it’s gasping for a last breath. There’s a hole in the show, a patch I must fill in. Like an actor forgetting a line and covering it up with an ad lib that doesn’t quite fit, I grasp the long ribbon of blazing orange and tug it back into my hands.
As if I meant to nearly roast the audience.
To maintain the illusion I jump back onto my feet, thrust my arms high in the air. I’m a gymnast who’s expertly dismounted, covering up the broken bone inside her. The little girl has tucked her head against her mother’s chest, but the mother is softening. It’s a show, after all, and I have shown them that my little stumble must have been scripted.
Now there is clapping, and hollering, and so much whistling too. Fingers inside mouths making the sounds that draw taxis to the curbs in cities I’ve never been to. The audience is swallowed in cheers. They got their money’s worth and then some. Our shows don’t cost much, not at this level or this venue, a part-time ballpark a few miles from swampland and a few blocks from the abandoned amusement park that used to be Wonder’s greatest draw. Had this night been two years ago, we might have also heard the cranking of the roller-coaster cars chugging up tracks, or the groans of the circling Ferris wheel nearby. But the Eighth Wonder of the Modern World amusement park has since closed down, and all that’s left are the skeletons of the rides that peer over the wooden fences.
Together, the ten of us in this latest cast of performance artists—including my best friend, Elise, who can harness the
wind—lower our heads in unison, all while my heart thumps against my chest as if it has a repetitive injury, an insistent hiss in the pipes. My heart is not like the others’; it’s not whole.
It’s missing parts.
I walk inside to the locker rooms that house ballplayers on other nights, guys with big, broad chests and beefy arms and mouths that chew gum or spit tobacco. I slow down, waiting for Elise, and I pull her aside into a quiet corner.
“It’s time for another renewal.”
Her eyes are sad. “I know. I could tell when the fire jumped away.”
“Will you do it for me again?”
“You know I will. You don’t even have to ask. I always will,” Elise says, and I can hear the heaviness in her voice. “I’ll start tracking the morning storms for tomorrow.”
The weather forecasters were right, but we’re behind the first flash storm. We catch a glimpse of a streak of lightning far off, and Elise jams the gas. But the thunder comes nearly forty-five seconds later.
“It’s at least nine miles away!” I shout, even though I’m next to her in the front seat of her brown hatchback that used to be painted pink. “But there’s more coming. There has to be.”
We fly down the Wilderness Waterway, sprinting past mangrove islets.
Elise points. “There.”
Lightning pierces the sky, ripping it apart with a bright
scratch. We count out loud, reaching thirty seconds before the thunder rumbles toward us.
“Closer,” I say, and Elise nods. She is pure determination now, focused and instinctual as we race toward the brewing storm. We cross into the curtain of rain, and she barely slows her car at all, cruising over the soon-to-be-slick highway as raindrops turn heavy and hammer the car. Elise’s parents gave her this car when she turned sixteen, a pink hatchback, since pink has always been her favorite color. She drove it in all its girly glory for a few months until she realized it would be far too conspicuous on days like this. She and I painted it brown one afternoon, and I bought her cherry ice cream when we finished. Her parents simply shrugged and figured her change of heart was the capriciousness of a teenager, when the truth is she changed it to protect me.
To protect us. If she’s caught helping me, the consequences for her and her family could be dire.
The rain pounds harder into the windshield, and Elise grips the wheel, her arms like steel cables as she steers through the wet onslaught.
Another flash of lightning. Seconds later, a clap of thunder. She slows down and squeals to a stop on the side of the road, empty beach alongside us. She looks around, scanning the deserted beach to make sure we’re alone. Then she throws open her door, and I do the same, following her as she rushes across the sand, still glancing behind and around in case there’s someone who’d see us. But we’re all alone here. The air is electric. I keep pace with her, ankles digging into the sand as we run closer
to the storm. There’s an outcrop of rocks near the edge of the water, and Elise races to it, giving us a shield in case anyone driving by can make out what we’re doing from a distance.
I’m battered with rain when Elise stops short, breathing hard. She plants her feet firm and holds out her hands. Her palms are open wide, and, like a switch turned on, gusts of air burst forth from her, powerful blasts that stir the sand into swirling gales at our feet. She lifts up her hands, bringing them over her head, the squalls rising with her. I squint, trying to keep the sand out of my eyes.
The wind she weaves intensifies. Her arms move as she fortifies her elemental creation, layer by layer. Some air artists can execute beautiful flips and twists in the air, can contort their bodies in strange and gorgeous ways through wispy blasts of air, but Elise’s gifts have always been more blunt. Her true ability is in the sheer strength of the air she can make, the way she can guide it with the precision of an atomic clock. Soon she’s crafting a miniature tornado around us, the wind a creature that bends at her command.
She peers up at the gray and crying sky, then turns to me and gives a quick nod.
All I have to do is stand and wait.
When the next jagged needle rends the sky a few hundred feet away, she yanks her man-made air with the strength of an Olympic weight lifter. Her cocoon of wind tugs the lightning bolt into her orbit. With the control that I wish I had, she sends the razor edge of the bolt into my heart.
In an instant, my nostrils fill with the smell of burning flesh. All the nearby air heats up, roaring up hundreds of degrees for
a split second or more, and Elise runs out of the line of fire. There’s a choking in my chest as my heart digests the electric current. And just like that, it’s done. My heart is a ravenous beast, blind and hungry and needy as it gobbles a force of nature.