He arrived nine days after the fire began. He said he’d read about it in the paper, but he didn’t say which one. My father the mayor was asleep in his chair. My mother invited the stranger inside and she took his coat. I was right nearby but my mother called out loud to me. She said, wake your father. Tell him a man is here to help.
He said his name was Peter and he said he was a scientist. He said he wanted to go to the fire immediately. My mother said oh but that he’d been traveling all day and we couldn’t possibly. My father said indeed and the fire would keep as after all it had changed neither size nor scope in the nine days since its starting. The stranger said but it is a menace. My father said we suppose so. My mother said, but just to me, make up the guest room. Use the summer sheets.
He appeared in the doorway while I was tucking the quilt all around. His clothes were badly fitted, but his boots were good and he stood up straight inside them. His face was gold or reddish or that was the light from outside. The fire made a funny sort of night. He asked me which way to the bathroom and then put out his hand before I could speak.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, I’m Peter.”
I boxed a pillow and nodded. I pointed to the right. I watched him put his hand down and I watched him walk away. I boxed another pillow. I smoothed the quilt. I thought I wanted something but I wasn’t sure what.
In the morning I saddled two horses. My father’s horse for Peter, and my horse for my father. Peter was comfortable in his seat and his boots made sense.
“Do you have any tools?” asked my father.
“We’ll see first if I need them,” he said. He looked my way and I looked back. My mother was on the porch and she saw it, or expected it. I stood with her as they rode away.
“Shouldn’t you go with them?” she asked.
“What for?” I asked.
She looked at me and it wasn’t mean but I saw that she knew.
“I’m not at all sure what that man’s about,” she said. “But it’s best always to fix your mistakes before strangers go and do.”
“There aren’t enough horses,” I said.
“I suppose,” she said.
“And It wasn’t a mistake,” I said.
“Your grandmother,” she began. Then she stopped. Then she went inside.
I started to walk.
The fire was in a valley, alongside a creekbed. It was a half mile long and it burned upwards. In appearance it did not move, or change, or take in any fuel. Except that wasn’t exactly so, about the fuel, and in side effect it was so that the closer I got, the louder the screams that no one else could hear. The tips of my fingers burned, too, and I started to cry. I didn’t want to but I couldn’t help it. The wind around me hurried and hurried and I knew it was not wind at all.
Peter and my father were as near as they could get. My father was gesturing at the sky and Peter was crouched, his hand resting flat on the ground. My father still thought he was a scientist, but. I could see how he was low. I could see how he was selfish. The good men always had reasons and reasons are never clean.
Back beyond a maple tree I, too, I dropped to a crouch and pressed my hand against the ground. My father continued to talk but Peter knew I was there the second my fingertips brushed the dirt. I saw the charge go through him. He stood and turned as though to hear my father better but he was looking for me. I stayed down and I breathed. The maple smelled like ice.
“Your mother refuses to know what we know,” my grandmother had said. “But it’s your right. Your ability makes it your right.”
I said a word and the screams were mute to me and I could hear Peter ask my father, how old is your daughter?
“I’m sixteen,” I said, suddenly close. They started, skittered, slipped off balance the both of them like drunken squirrels. I smiled anchored and tall on my horse. My father hung his mouth wide and Peter held his hand out as before, the bedroom. Except it was the reins he wanted. Not my hand any longer.
“It’s a seam,” said Peter.
“Sweetheart,” said my father.
“But what sort?” asked Peter.
“Sweetheart, go on home,” said my father.
“Just tell me that,” said Peter.
“It’s not a seam,” I said.
“Then?” asked Peter.
“It’s meant to help,” I said, and I said a word, and then they could both hear the screams. My father covered his ears and Peter looked back at the fire. I saw him understand it. I saw him look at me for real.
“It’s a socket,” he said.
“There’s a prettier name for it, in the original,” I said. “But yes.”
“This isn’t help,” he said.
“We’re safe,” I said. “Safer every day it lives.”
“It just eats. It can’t sustain,” he said.
“Have you ever seen one last for nine days?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t end the way the rest of them do.”
My father with his ears covered looked angry, and like he didn’t know why. Like he’d never said to me it would be better if things were different and like now that they were he didn’t understand he’d got what he wanted. Like now that things were better he was the stupidest man I’d ever met.
I said to my father, the mayor,
“You know he’s not even a scientist.”
And he said to me,
“I can’t hear you, sweetheart!”
The fire reared suddenly and I saw that Peter was talking to it. I jumped off of my horse and I grabbed Peter’s arm. He held me back. His lips moved fast. The fire was buckling. I crouched and hit the ground with both hands. The fire was mine to begin with and it would listen to me. I felt my father’s arms confusing around me, but the ground was strong and the ground held me down. Peter’s voice sounded beautiful, just, perfect and perfect and I punctured it with my own until the screams started to laugh.
Then we were looking at each other, Peter and I, turned to one another at the same moment because neither of us could not, forever. His eyes were yellow and mine were red. His hands looked like water. My hands looked like coal. My father had let go of me and was up on his horse. The fire was larger than ever. Peter was tall in his boots.
I said a word, and I said a word, and the fire looked like grapevines under a frost, and then it shattered, and I lay on the ground knowing I would never have to be dead. Peter leaned over me, soon and weak. My father yelled, simple and triumphant. I stood up on my own but Peter was in my ear.
“It was a mistake,” he said. “And you didn’t mean it.”
I looked at his eyes, which were blue, now, and I smiled, and embraced him, and put my lips on his neck where the vibrations would best carry.
“Next time,” I said. “You won’t hear about it first.”
“No,” he said, wonderful in his panic. “No.”
“Next time,” I said, and I grasped his hand, and I turned to my father.
“Mom’s made a chicken,” I said. “And Peter will be hungry.”