No matter how hard I tried, I could never recreate that day—the day I burned.
The heat of the flames licked my face, encapsulating me with a force I'd grown to savor. Tainted smoke filled my lungs, but my memories remained locked away as if it happened to someone else entirely.
It always began innocent enough with the deceptive smell of campfire wafting high in the air and bouncing toward me in a playful dance, confusing my memories with that of willow sticks and marshmallows, goodness and life. But I knew better. It was only a precursor. The old barn, abandoned fifty years before, popped and cracked. Its final battle lost and swallowed by a kaleidoscope of orange, yellow, and red flames. A cloud of black smoke filled the sky, but still, no new memories were triggered. No part of me, changed. As glorious as it was, it was all routine.
It was strange to think I'd just set my fourteenth burn, well, my official burn. The rest of my fires had been discarded long ago as simply a child's curiosity, but Cal knew the difference. He knew I was searching, and he wanted to protect me from myself. Maybe that was why he encouraged the burnings in the first place. I bet he never expected it'd turn into this.
Even now as I played the part of showman and waved at the crowd, I recognized no one. My fans for one day. These faceless people in a crowd. My teachers. Old friends. My first love. I'd never gotten used to the spectacle, but simply tolerated their prying eyes. It was easier being the freak.
The people's chants and shouts of encouragement reeked of selfish intentions. If the billowing stench of molted flesh hadn't soured my stomach, their false sense of support would have. The fires eventually always smelled of death and decay. Maybe that was my curse—my one memory.
I heard the chief calling out to me, warning me to back away, but I chose to ignore him. I'd always pressed it until the last minute to savor each moment in hopes that the fire would never be in vain. The skin on my arms and face grew hot, but it was a heat that fueled me. Almost there. A little longer.
Shouts of warning had little effect on me. I lit fires for Christ's sake, big ones, I wasn't afraid. Besides, if I pushed just a little longer… Mom? Did I even call her that? Why did it seem like a foreign word, tasteless and cold?
"Kenna. Pull her back. Now!"
And just like the thirteen burnings before, I came up short and retreated to the arms of the men leading me away.
A few onlookers remained in the dwindling crowd; I could see pity in their expressions. I must've been obvious nothing had changed within me.
"Next year, Kenna. I can feel it," someone called out, as if I wasn't more than just a thing to them—their creation—and an annual plaything.
Kenna Doe. God, how I hated who they'd made me. They might as well called me Brown or Green, something ordinary, something that anyone or anything could've been.
I closed my eyes at the sound of Whit's voice and leaned into him. The other hands around me gave way, and eventually, I only felt his touch. I let him lead me, pretending he provided some sort of comfort, while I searched my brain for anything—even an afterthought of my former life.
"Are you okay?" he asked again.
It was times like these when I wished I could still cry, but it seemed with each added burning, my tears dried up completely. "I'm fine. I just want to go home."
"Let's get you some water," he said quietly. "Do you want to sit?"
I nodded and reluctantly opened my eyes. I'd forgotten all about the amateur preacher who'd requested I speak with him, but as I looked at him, standing next to me, in his bland short sleeve oxford shirt, my stomach turned. I wasn't in the mood for talk of God—of the Savior who allowed my mother to die.
"This is Duncan Cane," Whit said almost enthusiastically, as if this little prick held some sort of power. Like a goddamned medicine man come to banish the devil out of me. Been there. Done that. No thanks.
I didn't mean to study him as I did, but he didn't look like any student of God I'd seen, with his black framed Wayfarer glasses and trendy hairstyle. He looked like some rich kid who thought a lot about himself and wanted others to know just how little his shit stunk. No God-loving, seminary student could possibly be so shallow, even in a bad shirt.
"Sorry, Duncan Cane. I'm not interested." I turned to Whit. "Take me home."
Whit scratched his head and looked over my shoulder with a look of apology that made me want to scream.
I didn't always act like such a bitch, but burnings got the better of me. No matter how much I prepared for the letdown, I couldn't help the inevitable rage that stirred.
"I appreciate your willingness to talk to me," Duncan said.
"You know, maybe it isn't a good time."
Whit sounded nicer than I would've put it.
"I wasn't expecting what I saw today and I'll completely understand if…if—"
"If what?" I whipped around to face him.
He swallowed then stared back at me almost as if he'd slipped inside my thoughts.
"I'm sorry," he finally said, "about your mom."
I couldn't deny the concern in his voice. I guess I hadn't given those simple words of condolence much thought until then, when it felt like I'd heard them for the first time, seen it on his face.
"Thank you," I said.
Wait. What was I doing? Why did I have to continue the charade? But the truth was, as I looked back at Duncan my mind filled with things I hadn't seen before. Plain white shirts with short sleeves. Flashes of images—of people. Faces drawn and somber just like his. A large cross behind a pulpit in a little church. Singing. There was singing.
I laughed. I wasn't sure what was happening.
Duncan glanced from Whit and back to me. A stunned expression twisted his boyish face.
I couldn't help it. I laughed again.
"Is everything all right?" Whit took my hands and peered into my eyes. "Is it the fire? Do you remember something?"
"No. I don't know. Maybe."
Whit and Duncan exchanged glances.
The images continued to flicker. Numbers. One-five-seven. Two-Three-Eight. I laughed, but the images slowed. Plain white shirt. Short sleeves. Hands tight around the pulpit.
My heart began to pound.
I am one of the wretched. The words pierced through my thoughts. I am one of the wretched.
"Kenna, did you hear me?"
I am one of the wretched. Plain white shirt. Short sleeves. I am one of the wretched. Plain white shirt.
I jumped, but Whit's loud voice did little to curb my thoughts and speculation. Insistent. Foreign. Mine. I turned on my heels and started for my car. I had to get out of there. For the first time in fourteen burnings, I remembered something. But, it wasn't the fire that fed my memory.
It was Duncan Cane.