“Wanna see something crazy?” said Andrew.
This could mean anything: a small dying animal, a pornographic picture ripped from a magazine, Andrew’s own uncircumcised penis. Eric did not want to see Andrew’s penis again. He said nothing.
Taking silence for consent, Andrew took the object from his pocket. Eric thought at first that it was an animal, already dead and boyishly mutilated. When he looked closer he noticed the glint of sun on its metal surface: the torso of a woman cast in aluminum. She was headless, limbless except for thighs extending from a smooth pubis, with breasts like tiny aluminum crabapples balanced on her chest.
Andrew clicked a concealed lever and a petal of fire emerged where the woman’s head should be. “I found it in my grandpa’s stuff,” he said.
Eric should have guessed it was a lighter. Andrew had been obsessed with them all summer long. He pocketed one every time they went into a convenience store, clicked it on and off until the fluid ran dry.
Though he never stole one himself, Eric too salivated for the lighters. They came in candy colors — sour-apple green, lemonade yellow, blue raspberry swirled with punch — blending into the Red Vines and Jolly Ranchers on the shelves beside them. Like most children on the brink of adolescence, Eric had not shaken off the infant instinct to encounter the world through the mouth. He longed to tongue everything bright and beautiful.
“Take a look,” said Andrew, handing Eric the lighter. The outline of the woman’s body aligned with the curve of Eric’s palm as if she had been molded to it. He prodded her nipples, nearly needle-sharp, with the tip of one finger. He turned her over and examined the two symmetrical dimples that had been lovingly inscribed above the cleft of her ass. Her skin shone like freshly-minted currency, ready to be tested in the teeth. Eric’s mouth watered.
“Cool,” he said, giving it back.
“Wanna see something really cool?” said Andrew. He crouched in the tall dead field grass. A heavy seedhead waved near his face like the tail of an affectionate rodent. He held it between two fingers and brought the lighter to its tip. Eric became aware of the throb of his blood.
Eric had seen sex for the first time earlier that year, an accidental encounter on the website where he searched for violent cartoons. He remembered the breathless wonder of the first moment of penetration — real, not simulated like in movies. He felt the same catch of breath when Andrew clicked the switch in the woman’s back and lit the seedhead like a birthday candle. “Hey,” Eric said, from somewhere in his throat.
Andrew waited just long enough to make a wish, then blew out the flame. “Pussy,” said Andrew, laughing. He pushed the lever and tossed the lighter, lit, at Eric. It was a bad throw, too low to catch, even if Eric wasn’t averse to getting a fistful of fire. The lighter disappeared into the grass.
“You catch like a bitch,” Andrew said. He rushed past Eric to the place where the lighter had disappeared and kicked for it, but already the air was filling with the smell of brushfire. His kicks only fanned the flames. When the fire grew taller than the grass he ran in the direction of the road like a hare. Eric stayed.
As the fire spread through the field so did it through the senses: the scent, the sound. A single flame is silent, but at a critical mass it demands every vibrating ossicle, every stereocilia. There was also the pleasure, derived from the senses but separate from it. It wormed from an unknown place in the dark of Eric’s organs to the ends of his extremities.
This was a different kind of pleasure than the one from that first porn video. The sensation had more in common with the unnameable thing he felt when he watched his favorite clip, found at the end of a twisting daisy-chain of links from the first. Technically, it was an animated gif, barely ten seconds long, though he let it loop longer. In it, a woman shiny with fluid (alcohol? fuel?) lies prostrate on a table, her face out of shot, while blue flame ripples across her naked body. In the last second someone suffocates the flame with a blanket and the woman sits up and smiles — an inclusion to reassure viewers that they are not, in fact, viewing a snuff film. Eric’s erection always subsided in that last second, so he could never really masturbate to the clip. No such barrier now; the fire continued to spread.
No one ever suspected the boys. The only clue to their connection was Eric’s new lack of eyebrows, but the flesh-blond wisps had never made much of an impression. Andrew’s grandpa fell into dementia before he could miss the carnival prize he had cherished since childhood.
A total of eight acres burned, all dead yellow fields left fallow for the year. No property was lost, no lives except the worms. The only charred body found among the charcoal was the lighter, later.
A boy found it in the brief wet season between the fires and the false winter. Not yet twelve, he was barefoot in the mud to toe for coyote bones. The curves of her torso felt no less natural than those; he only knew it couldn’t be a tooth.
Under the mud her body was tarnished black, the color collected in the corners like an uneven suntan. The curves of her pubis and crabapple breasts had deformed slightly in the heat of the fire but remained recognizably beautiful.
The boy found the switch in the small of her back, but of course after the fire and the rain no flame emerged from her neck. Still, there was a spark. He put the lighter in his pocket. He could find his own fuel.
Jennifer Fergesen is a fiction writer and food journalist based in Sacramento, where she writes about food for Comstock’s Magazine and other local venues. Her food writing has also appeared in international publications, including Iceland’s Reykjavik Grapevine and London’s Eco & Beyond. She has a BA in English and Geology from Mount Holyoke College and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis. See her published work at jcfrgsn.journoportfolio.com.