I reached out and touched the spot slightly below the girl’s elbow and at once she dropped her textbooks and went tiptoeing down the hallway like a ballerina, her arms flowing from third position to fourth. They stopped and watched her, teenagers wearing backpacks crammed with notepaper and thick books. Together we stared as she went into a short run and leapt forward, legs split front to back, her feet and the weight of her all landing on the floor with a gentle thud.
She stopped at an orange locker and spun the combination wheel clockwise, counterclockwise, then clockwise again. She lifted the metal handle and swung the door open, her skinny fingers and skinny arms reaching in and pulling out a chocolate cupcake with an unlit candle claimed in its fudge center. A Korean boy came out of the chemistry lab and she offered him the dessert.
“Make a wish,” she said. “Close your eyes and wish the continent.”
I came up behind her in careful steps. I pinched her left earlobe with my thumb and forefinger. She released and the cupcake fell to the ground, rolled on its side. Then I saw that the girl was looking at me. For the first time, she was looking at me. I could see the whites of her eyes darkening to the color of ocean, that shallow heart of the Pacific. Like the surrounding waters of
The kind of blue where tropical fish swim, streaked in yellow and black, their
noses like little trumpets.
“I know you,” she said.
I stepped back. “What?”
“From middle school. You’re Kenneth. Tell me your name is Kenneth.”
I looked away, through the window, somewhere else. “No,” I said. “That’s not me.”
“Thomas, then. Jules. Yes, your name has to be Jules.”
I took hold of her narrow wrists and squeezed. At first, nothing. Then a sound out of the sky, something like trees buckling under the wind and splintering in half, something like the cry of a wounded animal lost in the gross blackness of a cave. There was a shout of light, a pause in time, and the world seemed to breathe in deep and exhale slow. It was quieter now, the world.
I blinked and saw that the girl’s head was on fire. She was burning and a ladder of smoke rose from the top of her head up to the ceiling, quickly casting itself out wide until no ceiling was left to be seen. Someone’s voice was yelling for water. Another for the glass to be broken and the fire alarm pulled. Students and teachers were heading down the stairs, some with shirts pulled over their noses and mouths, others coughing into a hand.
The floor emptied and only the girl and I remained. She lowered her burning head as if to bow.
“Make a wish Nicholas,” she said. “Close your eyes Kale and wish the stars. Wish the great wall of China.”
I closed my eyes. I thought about my name, its letters and the way it appeared on the signature line. How the tongue touched the roof of the mouth whenever it was spoken. My name was the fire in that girl’s hair and the liquid melting down the sides of her face. It was in the gray of the smoke and caught in the people’s lungs. My name, my name. I took a long breath and in one blow snuffed the girl out.