We caught the house on fire, and he’s smiling.
Heat presses against the windows, desperate for an escape. They’re all locked. Every door is shut. There’s no escape. It rushes back toward us in an angry yell. Let me out. Let me out.
Paint curls against the walls. Ash sketches the ceiling in soft brushstrokes. Then that, too, begins to curl. The corner I’ve retreated to is shrinking around me. My legs curl to my chest. My head curls to my knees.
My shrinking space is invaded by a hulking figure. His hand hovers over mine. Then it clamps on top of my own and it’s…exhilarating, to touch him for the first time. To feel another person’s hand on my own. Heat and fire blaze all around us. I’m too dazed by the way his hand feels against mine.
“Didn’t you say you wanted to live? Just once in your life?” Aiden crouches in front of me. His eyes lower to our hands. He takes another risk, dropping his forehead to mine. His gruff voice is loud in my ear. “Get up. Tonight, we’re living. I’m not letting you die without living just once.”
He pulls me to his chest as he rises. It’s another sensation that steals my sanity; fingers curling around my legs.
Heat radiates all around us. It paints Aiden’s face in golden hues as he smiles. “Didn’t you say you wanted to dance?” He twirls us around in a circle, pulling me tight to him.
I bury my head in his chest. The house is burning around us, and he wants to dance? Shadows reflect against weakening walls. They grow taller, scraping the ceiling. This place could collapse at any second. We shouldn't be dancing.
Lips brush my ear, stealing away any thought. “Please,” he asks. “Just one dance before it’s all over?”
Aiden struggles for air amid the flames. His brow-bone is flush against my temple. I can feel it move as he scrunches his nose. It’s an entirely new sensation, touching him. It’s different than I imagined. It’s better. His face is hot against mine. It’s too much. There’s an overwhelming urge to give into him.
My feet hit the ground on a shaky breath. “We can’t.” I look over his head, at the sagging ceiling. Everything is on fire but the walls. We’re burning this place from the inside out.
“Please,” he breathes.
His fingers are hot against the back of my neck. He pushes my hair away and leans in. Aiden’s voice reverberates against my skin. I don’t know what’s he’s saying, but I know that I like it. Loneliness has led to me to insanity. I’m nodding as a charred picture frame shatters against the floor.
Sparks rise from the burning mantle. Yet, the fireplace sits empty and black. It’s void of the only thing it’s ever lived for.
Aren’t I doing the same thing?
These sparks are meant to be warning signs. But I take Aiden’s hand and marvel at the way it fits in mine so perfectly. His eyes reflect every particle moving in a frenzy around us. He doesn’t stop to marvel at them. Only at me. A smile splits his lips. It sends heat through my body that fire could never replicate.
As he spins me around, I can hear my laugh echo against the locked doors. It’s another feeling I’ve decided I like.
I throw my arms out, aiming to catch a flash of light. Strands of my hair whirl around my head, inches from ignition. Fire consumes everything in its path. Still, we dance.
Aiden pulls me close, caging me in his arms as we move. Heat colors my cheeks cherry red. It reflects in his eyes as white-hot flames. He reaches an arm out, shattering a vase on the floor behind us. That same hand finds its way back to the base of my neck. He dips me low with a boyish laugh.
The moment surrounds me. Every touch. Every smell. Every sound. Laughter finds its way to every corner. Flames crackle below it. Another sound creeps down the stairs like a lingering thought. It’s a child, I think. A child crying.
It’s a child crying, up the stairs.
The noise grows louder. Panic grips me like a vise.
“They’re home,” I gasp, pulling myself up his outstretched arm. “Aiden! They’re home.” Fear shoves its way down my throat. It keeps air from getting through. My warning dies on my lips. Nothing I've said has fazed him.
Aiden stares down at me with a clenched jaw. “I know,” he nods. His expression is tight. The panic clawing at me didn’t get a clean swipe at him. He reaches out for me as if nothing is wrong. I scramble back.
Glass crunches under my feet. It litters the floor. That burnt frame splits apart under my weight. Two innocent smiles stare up into the flames.
A little boy and his mom.
“Don’t,” Aiden warns. He pushes me back, kicking the frame out of the way. Two heavy hands clamp onto my shoulders. They hold me in place. “If you touch him, you’ll kill him.”
Smoke billows up the stairs. It suffocates everything it can reach. Something different suffocates me. The fact that this touch doesn’t feel as exhilarating as it did a moment ago.
Aiden doesn’t stop me when I pull away. His voice calls after me, but shrill cries fill my ears instead.
The stairs are breaking apart, but I make my way up them anyway.
Upstairs, the smoke is too thick to see through. I rely on memory instead. I’ve traveled down this hallway a hundred times, guiding that little boy to his bed. I was always there when his mom would crouch low and assure him there was no reason to fear the dark. But, just in case, I’d be here. A little flame just for him.
Every night, for years, I kept him safe. Until his mom came back and bid me a good night too. There wasn’t enough left of me to keep him safe.
I knew tonight would be my last night. My last time entering his open doorway.
But I didn’t want it to be like this.
The smoke makes it hard for me to see his tear-stained cheeks. The darkness that filled his room has been invaded by his protector. He cries at the betrayal.
“I’m sorry,” I cry back.
Small hands cover his eyes in response. He doesn’t see me pull myself back through his doorway. I run down the hall, to the second door, and beat my fists against the wood. Flames peck at the door. Little by little, I crack away at the barrier.
“Wake up!” I scream. The sobs of a little boy mix with my cries. My fists hit the door as hard as I can manage, but my little flames aren’t enough. They bite at the door. They don’t burn bright. “Please,” I yell. “Wake up!”
Wood shatters in front of me. A new hand hammers against the door, just above mine. It only takes one hit. Aiden yanks me back as pieces explode around us.
Her scream fills the house.
The woman pushes past us and sprints down the hallway. She cries a name as she races into his room. Noah.
When she emerges from his doorway, there's a small figure in her arms. Little hands clutch at her shirt. Together, they race for the stairs. But they find them completely engulfed.
Aiden stands at my side, looking at the figures with wide eyes. He burns across the house, reaching out with a longing that can’t be quenched. When he backs up, the wall behind us erupts in heat.
Twin flames, he once called us. One that never got the chance to burn. One that burned too long. Both extinguished before they could live.
Neither of us meant for this to happen. We didn’t mean to burn like this. I didn’t know what touching him would do. I just wanted to have someone, to touch, for once.
My feet shuffle back until my legs are flush with the wall. I push myself against it and let everything I have burn hot. Paint steams. Wood cracks apart. Noah’s screams torment us all. It pushes me further, burning as hot as I can. It’s the last flame I have to give.
Cold air hits my back in a shocking rush. We’ve burned through the wall completely. The smoke has finally found an escape. It billows out of the house in great clouds that fill the night sky. The wall cracks and splinters. Pieces fall away. They splash somewhere far below.
Two figures race past in search of an escape. The third figure stands directly in front of me. His hands are hot against my face. “What are you doing?” he questions. His attempt to pull me away from the edge is useless. The only part of me that moves are my eyes.
They wander to a mother holding her child in a desperate lock. Tears run down both of their faces. Yet, she inches toward a fiery ledge. It’s her last hope. Bravery keeps her strong.
It made us reckless.
“What are you doing?” Aiden tugs at my face.
I shake my head. There’s no need for an explanation. I blink back my anguish and look up at the person I’ve called a friend all these years. The person that promised we’d get a chance to live. Tonight, we did. And now, for them, we need to douse the flames.
My hand hangs in the open space between us. “One last dance?” I ask.
Aiden doesn’t speak. His shoulders drop. So do his eyes. They flick to the world far below. The battle raging inside his head ceases to burn when he glances over his shoulder.
Noah’s mother cradles him to her chest, whispering comforting words. She swallows a sob as flames rise above the ledge. Her last chance of escape is being burned away.
Aiden shakes his head. “I just wanted-” he struggles to find the words. He squeezes his eyes shut and leans back. “I just wanted to live with you. The way that they do.” He turns back to the two figures fighting against flame.
I connect my hands behind his neck and nod. I know what he wanted. I wanted it too.
A silent question hangs in the air between us. Aiden stares down at me for a long, tense second. Then he clenches his jaw and nods.
His hands cradle my head as we tip.
Our burning home falls away. The smoky night sky replaces it. For a second, we’re the brightest thing in the night. Aiden wraps us in firelight. He holds me the same way Noah’s mother holds him, in a desperate lock. A smile fills my face as we’re engulfed in the deepest darkness I’ve ever known.
Ice slaps into us. I try to suck in a breath, but there’s nothing to breath. Pain explodes down my body in tiny blasts. The water drags us into a menacing hug, squeezing too tight.
Aiden’s fingers slip away from my head. He reaches out with a desperate yell, but he’s fading just as fast as I am. Bubbles can’t carry his cries. They explode inches from my fingertips. Aiden disappears with the fast-moving current.
I’m only alone for a second. Then two figures burst into the water ahead of me. They create a frenzy of bubbles that rip us from the dark.
Flashing lights capture the moment a hand breaks free from the surface. I watch as Noah and his mother are dragged onto shore. Men in suits wrap them in warm blankets. They whisper all of the words I wish I could. It’s okay. You're going to be okay. We’re sorry. Water cascades above their heads, silencing the crackle of flames.
“I am sorry,” I whisper to the cold night.
It cradles my cheek in response. Cold air gathers me in a frantic hug. It yanks me to my feet and tells me to rise. My heavy heart struggles to climb, but I make myself keep going. I watch every bit of my destruction die away. The water trapped in my lungs escapes from the cracks in my body. It extinguishes all but one last flame.
Rising mist pulls the firefighter’s reassurances to my ears. Stop crying. No one’s hurt. It was just an accident.
It was just an accident. But that doesn’t mean it’s not my fault.
Destruction fades the higher I rise. Flashing lights turn to hazy hues. Color melds with sound. I cry into a velvet mist. It absorbs my tears, until it can’t hold them anymore. Then it empties and waits patiently, again and again. Time cradles my head until the tears finally stop, and I feel light once again. Eventually, I rise on shaky feet.
I walk until I reach a ledge. Then I look over. The rising sun highlights one point in particular. The cold wind urges me to look. So, I do.
Fresh paint coats a house built on a river. It stands where I once stood. On the shore, a man spins a baby around in his arms. A young woman swats him on the shoulder and walks into the house with a giggle. She passes another woman. This one is older. She scolds the man raising the baby high into the air.
He laughs and angles the baby towards her, so she can lean down and drop a kiss to its cheek. Her withered hand rises to block the sun. And I see something I can’t look away from.
Scars paint her skin. Scars from a reckless fire.
The young woman remerges from the house, carrying a little cake between her arms. The smallest flame flickers on top. It leans back as the baby curls forward to see. They clap and sing and laugh. When it’s time to make a wish, the man holding the baby leans down and blows out the flame with a laugh.
And I can feel it. Somewhere deep down, I can feel that flame going out. It’s feels…familiar.
A gruff voice startles me. “I had a little left to give after all,” he tells me. A hopeful smile fills his face, soft and hesitant. Aiden turns away with a shake of his head. “It took him a while to trust me again, but,- he’s not scared of the dark anymore,” he assures me.
Tears prick my eyes. I blink them away and smile. “I’m glad for that,” I tell him. My shaky legs carefully turn. I take in the sight of the man standing next to me. Time hasn’t touched Aiden. He’s still filled with promises and hope. I can see them all on his face.
He catches me staring and a wicked grin breaks free. His hand hangs in the air between us in a silent question.
And I’m reminded just how perfectly it fits into mine.