Fiction · 12/18/2013

Maybe The Girl

Maybe there’s a house. Maybe it’s in Maryland — as good a place as any to live.

Maybe there’s a fire, maybe it starts in the kitchen, these things happen, and it leaps from the stove to the curtains to the wall to the ceiling, and maybe the house gives into fire, and her brothers die, never waking, breathing in blackened air until their brains stop working, and her parents die, waking briefly to panic and pray, before melting and twisting and charring into nothing. Maybe the girl, in her attic bedroom over the garage, doesn’t die. Maybe she leaps from her window onto the roof over the garage, maybe she drops from the garage roof onto the dew-dampened lawn, maybe she looks at the house and can’t even scream because when you’re truly horrified you can’t scream, and maybe she runs into the street and their neighbor, a tall man who used to be a policeman, grabs her and holds her to his chest, saying “Look away, look away, don’t look,” while she chokes and vomits on his shoulder. Maybe she’s the only one left.

Maybe the cleanup crew salvages what it can: a cast iron pot her father used to make chili on winter Sundays, a silver photo frame, picture of her mother’s parents puzzlingly intact within, her youngest brother’s bicycle, a few books. Maybe the girl doesn’t want these, throws them away, uses the money her neighbors and her friends and her dead parents’ still-living colleagues have collected for her to buy new clothes. Maybe the girl moves to the city to live with her Aunt Alice.

Maybe Aunt Alice never wanted kids, hates even to be called Aunt, but knows her responsibility, knows the decent thing to do, and sells her place downtown, finds something bigger, two bedrooms, near a park, with a view of a river. Maybe Alice asks her friends with children or godchildren or nieces about schools, which are good, which are bad, but doesn’t worry too much because the girl is barely a girl, not actually a kid, a young woman, an adult, basically, so Alice leaves her to her own devices, just gives her the things she thinks are most necessary in life: a bank account, a key to the apartment, a library card, an explanation of how the transit system works, a lecture on how to handle yourself as a woman on the city streets.

Maybe the girl reads books days she’s not in school, days Alice has her book club, her AA meeting, that trip to the park with the bird watching people to take a census of the birds. Maybe the girl reads books days she is in school, standing on the bus crosstown, a book in one hand, the other grasping the parts of the bus designed to be grasped by passengers wishing not to fall as the bus lurches and veers. Maybe the girl starts smoking cigarettes, because it seems like the thing to do, and because it’s fire, because she must create and then inhale the fire, and thinks of the ashes of her brothers and parents — and they were ashes, finally, four piles of ashes buried into one earthen plot — lifting off the red tip of the cigarette and dancing away on the air.

Maybe the girl cuts her hair short, regrets it, tries to grow it all out. Maybe Ms. Duncan, her English teacher from her school in Maryland, writes her a letter full of old news and best wishes, and it makes the girl sad, and she rips it up and lets it drift away on the breeze outside the window. Maybe from the eighth floor there’s always a breeze out the window. Maybe the girl never writes back to Ms. Duncan, or anyone else, because she’s done with sadness. Maybe the girl says to herself “You’re special, you’re magic, there’s a reason why,” but maybe the girl doesn’t totally believe this. Maybe the girl thinks the universe is so big that everyone in it and everything that happens to them is a statistical anomaly, and maybe the girl has never been good at math. Maybe the girl thinks it would be comforting to believe there was magic in her veins, even though she knows it’s just blood and ashes and the last traces of her parents’ DNA running through her.

Maybe the girl thinks about cutting. Maybe the girl thinks about starving, and being beautiful. Maybe the girl thinks about giving blowjobs to every boy on the soccer team, or writing angry phrases on her arm in marker, or learning the guitar and writing songs, or writing poems and becoming famous, but in the end all those seem ridiculous, so instead she stays up late watching police procedurals on television. Maybe the girl looks out the bedroom window when she’s not reading or watching television, and maybe the bedroom has no view to speak of, looks down over an airshaft, and maybe the girl is leaning out of the window one evening to smoke a cigarette, and strikes match after match but each goes out quickly in the breeze that never stops eight stories up. Maybe she says, “Damn it,” and it means fire, maybe she means damn fire, the beginning and the end of everything.

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Rumaan Alam’s stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Crazyhorse, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere.