Inside her bedroom, Patsy depressed the hairspray’s nozzle until her finger ached and then touched the lighter’s flame to the flammable cloud. She stared into the airborne flames, transfixed.
Patsy’s latest lover pulled her down onto the bed and sounded his nasty chuckle. “You’re not the only one can set a fire.”
Patsy wondered how much longer she would keep him around. He’d only lasted this long, three weeks and counting, because she hadn’t yet found his replacement. She hated an empty house and setting fires just wasn’t the same when no one was watching. Even with company over, though, she always felt Anna’s absence in the house.
It was Anna’s weekend with her dad and his second wife, Lily. Patsy sometimes fantasized about setting fire to her ex-husband and his skinny, smug, replacement missus, saw them burning out like two straw dolls.
Her lover’s stubble tore at her chin and cheeks, like sandpaper on paint, and she pictured her outsides flaking away, chip by chip. She closed her eyes and conjured the fire of moments earlier, beating overhead like a golden eagle.
Patsy had never mastered pancakes. Her batter always turned out too thin or thick and she either burned the pancakes or they remained raw in the middle. Today, her Saturday with Anna, she tried her hardest.
Anna pushed her plate away. “They’re black.”
“They’re fine,” Patsy said.
Twelve-going-on-twenty, Anna’s chest, waist and hips were starting to fill out along with her attitude.
Patsy and Anna argued inside the gloom of the kitchen. The house faced the wrong way and the sun never entered the back rooms until afternoon.
Anna threatened to go live with her dad and Lily.
“Because of pancakes?” Patsy said.
“Because you don’t try. You don’t care.”
“Fine, go live with Tom and Lily, see how long they’d put up with you,” Patsy said.
Anna’s chin trembled and her cheeks burned red.
Patsy felt immediately sorry and suggested they go out for breakfast, to the IHOP.
Anna shook her head hard, as if she had spiders in her hair.
Patsy suggested they make S’mores. Anna had loved to make S’mores when she was younger, when they’d go camping, when they were still a family.
Anna lit up like a sparkler. “For breakfast? Seriously?”
They readied the marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate and Patsy reached for the gas lighter. The familiar feel of the lighter in her hand calmed and heartened her, much like an alcoholic’s first daily grip of the bottle.
They ate to full and laughed at each other’s chocolate teeth and marshmallow lips. Anna wore a black camisole and her hair caught-up in a bun, showing off her shoulders and long neck and shiny oval face. She looked like a dancer, like a beautiful girl on stage in the lead role. Patsy felt an ache in some part of herself she couldn’t name.
“How’d I get so lucky,” she said, “to get you?”
In the afternoon, three of Anna’s friends came over. Patsy liked to have the girls hang out at hers, enjoyed the full, happy feeling in the house. The girls disappeared up to Anna’s bedroom and soon the sounds of music and laughter and screeches touched every wall. Patsy locked herself inside her bedroom and sat on the edge of her plump duvet. She lit match after match and watched the sticks burn out. The smell of sulfur always catapulted her back to childhood and her father’s ritual with his matches, loose-leaf tobacco and pipe.
Patsy’s parents had raised her with a fear of fire. As a boy, her father had lost his two next-door-neighbors, seven-year-old twins, in a house fire. The boys were his best friends. He could smell their cooked corpses for months after the inferno and sometimes said he could still hear their screams.
Her father had never allowed candles in the house, or a deep fat fryer or Christmas lights. He also kept matches and lighters out of children’s reach and unplugged every electrical appliance in the house every night.
Patsy stared into the ball of fire atop the matchstick. Fire brought out a tenderness in her that not much else did anymore, aside from Anna. Fire made her feel like she was deep-kissing an angel.
Tom and Lily insisted on a meeting to discuss ‘Anna’s welfare.’ Patsy refused to meet with them, but they threatened her with Child Protective Services. As soon as Patsy heard the splutter of Tom’s car in her driveway, she raced upstairs to her bedroom and her aerosols and watched fire dance in the air. Anna called and called.
Tom and Lily remained standing inside the living room. Tom looked like he’d bulked up at the gym and his stance and new build made him appear more like a police officer than a technical writer. Lily, a yoga instructor, remained as skinny and attractive as ever, her chestnut hair pouring down her tiny back. Patsy inwardly talked down her panic and sniffed at the sulfur on her fingers. She wanted to be in her kitchen, not the living room. She’d feel better in her kitchen. She offered lemonade.
They sipped the lemonade with mechanical movements and suffered small talk. Patsy pressed her thumb to the scar on the inside of her left wrist. Years back, she’d burned herself on the face of an iron. Tom had pulled her over to the faucet and held her arm under cold, running water, and had fussed and worried. After that, she’d burned herself repeatedly. In the end, though, even hurting herself couldn’t make Tom care.
Tom started the ambush. “We need to talk about Anna.
“What about Anna?” Patsy said.
“We’re concerned about her well-being,” he said.
Patsy laughed into her glass. “Her what?”
In the back garden, Anna played hoops and repeatedly thumped the basketball against the backboard.
Tom returned his glass to the table, lining it up perfectly again with its ring of condensation on the pinewood. “Thing is, Patsy, Lily and I think it best Anna come live with us.”
Patsy’s glass slipped out of her hand and dropped to the floor. She looked up from the smashed glass and seep of lemonade over the tiles and glared at Tom through tears. “That will never happen. Never.”
“Please, Patsy,” Lily said, “we know this is hard, but we have to think about what’s best for Anna.”
Patsy imagined taking the red lighter to Lily’s hair, to her lips, to her hands and feet.
“You need to accept you’re not the best role model,” Tom continued.
Patsy ordered him and Lily out of her house.
“We’ve already filed paperwork,” Tom said.
Patsy shouted and chased Tom and Lily down the hall and out her front door.
Lily turned around at the front gate. “You’re crazy. You need help.”
“You better believe it,” Patsy said and slammed her front door.
She returned to the kitchen and pulled every tea towel from the drawer and heaped them onto the counter. Anna remained outside, the basketball still thudding. Patsy held the gas lighter to the mound of tea towels. The reflected flames shimmered in the window.
Anna shouted from the back garden. “Fire! Mom! Fire!”
Patsy remained motionless inside the kitchen, her face warmed by the flames.
Anna burst through the back door. “Mom?”
Patsy brushed the fabric bonfire into the sink, turned on the faucet and doused the flames.
“What happened?” Anna asked, her tone suspicious.
Patsy faced her daughter, that longstanding feeling of fuel in her veins gone. Calm, resolute, she made them both a promise. “It’s okay, sweetheart, Mommy’s got everything under control.”