The bonfire emits an eerie warmth, creeping up my spine and pouring down my shoulders. The flames radiate their searing light onto my skin with an angry desire. The heat hits me like an arrow with a glistening tip, tearing a gash in my back. I can feel the thick, sticky, salty red pain trickle down my back. Yet when I reach my hand to touch the tender skin on my shoulder blades, I find only the rough patches of irritated skin that I have always had, that I have grown into like a turtle to a shell. Maybe it’s because I have never been this close to a fire that I feel the heat so immensely. I don’t think I’m feeling anything at all, though, because the moment I step away, the bitter night claws my skin with sharp gusts of wind. I feel the sand rub against my body, emerging from the folds of fabric in my bathing suit. This is the first time I have worn a bathing suit in a long while, too. I was never able to bring myself to try on, nevertheless purchase, such a thing. A bikini, no. Even a one piece bathing suit, no. Not until tonight, until I was caught off guard in a storm of abrupt, faux confidence as I received the invitation for the bonfire. The adrenaline I felt handing the cashier the money to buy a simple, white-with-sunflower bikini had worn off the moment I tried it on. The psoriasis on my back and shoulders felt big and itchy, bright like blood against the soft, goose feather white of the bathing suit. Somehow I forced myself to walk to the beach, to press my toes into the sand and lift the weight that kept me up for hours and hours since I can’t remember when, the weight that had my eyes drooping as I attempted to cover myself up before school, the weight that told me never to jump into the crystal water of the pool that sat waiting in my backyard, the surface still and quiet like glass, waiting for me to ripple it, because people would see me. I was scared. Even in my own home. I get that same sense of panic again now as I back away from the fire. The fire that illuminates the ugliness on my exposed back and sends a pain that isn’t really there down it. The chatter from the crowd grows louder as I step away from the fire. The tip of the sun submerges behind the horizon and into the thick blue water, the bright orange of the summer night bleeding into a velvety ink. A group of kids run past me, faces I have seen roaming the halls in school before and others I don't know blurring past me. The kids run straight into the water. I can feel the water hit my skin, frigid and refreshing, sliding over my scaly back with a sensation of relief. But I am utterly and completely dry. I am standing far, far away from the water. My feet are bringing me away, away, away from the bustling highschool kids and back in the direction of my warm, waiting bedroom. I don’t look back. But each step feels like I am betraying my own body. I am a puppet, and a puppeteer is pulling strings. I walk away from the party, yet I feel the urge to go back each time my feet hit the sand. I am lost between ditching the place or slapping my conscience and walking back.
“Ionna, leaving so soon?”
I plaster a smile to my face and turn around. I can’t tell if I am devastated or over the moon by Roxi deciding if I should stay for me.
“Hey Roxi,” I wave back.
The expression on Roxi’s face wavers, her eye twitches, and I know she knows. A sense of relief rushes through my system. I don’t have to explain this to her, she explained it for herself.
“Hey, you’re beautiful. Psoriasis isn’t going to stop you from having fun, is it?”
See. There it is. The fractional hesitation between ‘fun’ and ‘is it?’
We both knew the word that was going to come out of her mouth.
Psoriasis isn’t going to stop you from having fun again, is it?
A little piece of me breaks.
All the times I ditched Roxi because I was too scared to show up, the times she held me through sobs, the times she leaned me sweatshirts to cover up when I forgot mine.
I look past her to the fire, the flames dancing like ballerinas. They cast shadows across the sand, weaving in and out of groups of kids.
“No,” I say back. I don’t look her in the eye.
This is the type of night where the light vanishes completely. The moon, gone from the sky, the beach a long, stretched out canvas of colors. Charcoal and ink, rich hues that tint the thin clouds with a perfect summer night.
The darkness makes my tears harder to see.
The truth is that I am petrified.
Petrified that Roxi will give up on me.
I’m mopey. I whine about psoriasis. I hate myself because of it. Roxi is always there, a shoulder to cry on.
But what if I never grow out of this, what if I am always like this?
We walk back to the beach in silence. What else is there to be in?
She walks me to the edge of the water, and I don’t complain. We sit down.
“Ionna, listen.” She starts.
I wince. This is it.
“You are going to get into that water. And swim. Nobody can even see you. It’s so dark out. They will be focusing on themselves, and if they were looking at us, it would be because of my ugly face. Okay?”
“You’re not ugly,” I tell her.
She isn’t. Stunning whips of fine hazel hair, green eyes with flecks of warm, golden sugar honey. The perfect face.
Roxi takes my hand.
The water sends a shock up my spine.
Bitter water sloshes at my ankles, pin prick droplets peppering my shins like a dose of something invigorating.
We trot in. I laugh.
My psoriasis feels non existent, I feel fresh and clean and happy.
The bonfire sends light towards me. My chin is on the surface though, and nobody can see me.
I let the light hit my hair.
Why not let them look at it?
I dunk my head fully underwater with Roxi.
It’s not to escape the light.