There were seven of us, seven is an unlucky number, and it has a tendency to over correct itself into something easy and even. It was never a good number to begin with but made worse by the curse.
My mother was cursed. She called it “setting little fires in my youth.” The problem with fire is that it sometimes chases you down and blackens the wallpaper and ruins the furniture and perfumes what clothing you have left with smoke so dank it curdles your stomach.
I knew a thing or two about fire by the time I was nine. That was my brother’s doing.
He was born first and also the first to go. It wasn’t dying, I think the warlock that left the curse didn’t have the stomach for death, not the real kind. He wanted it to hurt, but warlocks have such a strange definition of “better” and “worse.” My brother was a big young man, all of eighteen that day, he wore his pants low and chin held high. He liked online fighting games and painted his room himself in colors of red and orange. Maybe he knew. Or maybe we are the makers of our own ends. He was crossing the street with us for school when he started to smoke. Not with a cigarette or a joint or anything else you might expect– his hands let off puffs of thick acrid-smelling smoke and then his heels.
His face went slack and the red licked at his cheeks from the inside.
He was all but burning by the time I reached him. I don’t think it hurt. He didn’t scream or shout, but tears welled up in his eyes before the end. “Let mom know.” He was easily carried away on the breeze to set some bush on fire or burn down a local park.
I always keep the TV on tuned to the weather channel at home. I keep track of different forest fires in the Rockies or building fires in Massachusetts. I blink a couple times and think to myself: Is this him? Is that Danny? Is he happy?
We stuck closer together after that and didn’t make many, or any, outside friends. We spent our time arguing and pushing and kicking for mom’s attention, and hoping we weren’t all haunted by the inevitable.
Marcella was next. We shared a bedroom, me and all the girls, with one unicorn light for the youngest and another light from the crack under the door. But we didn’t need any light that night.
My eyes flew open as bright neon filled the gaps in the space and I squinted at something impossible. Marcella stood up in the middle of her bed looking blank. She didn’t cry out either, but simply stood upright and stared. Her bones were orange and yellow and green and pink neon, glowing from the inside out like a painted Halloween skeleton. It was all bright nonsense as if glow sticks were cracked in her joints. “Oh,” she said once and only once.
She grew brighter and brighter before turning into nothing but light and silence.
We ran after that– as if magic can’t catch you if you run fast enough. If you skip town enough and demand favors off of lesser witches. That didn’t stop it from getting Brady.
He turned into bubbles and music the second we entered Sea World. He barely made it through the door before he collapsed and left nothing but violin melodies and bubbles catching rainbows and floating toward the sun. Sometimes his voice still dances next to me in the morning light and I’ve even stopped crying over it.
“It won’t hurt,” I tell my little sister because I am next in line. I’m the oldest now. “I promise it won’t hurt.”
And it doesn’t.
Fire, neon, bubbles. I felt the call before anything else, like an ache in my chest, and I didn’t try to fight it. We were all together in the backseat of mom’s minivan. We were skipping town again and headed to the next dank wherever. I exhaled from someplace deep inside myself and closed my eyes.
“I’m gonna get ‘em.” I announced, “I’m gonna see his smug damn face and I’m gonna break it.”
“What are you saying?” A small voice asked. I was 14. It started with my fingers: crooked. Wrong. It went to my wrists: hard and unnatural. It spread to my elbows: painfully thick and ancient. My sister screamed but I didn’t look up.
“No, no, no, no, no.”
I didn’t feel it. Branching, reaching for the sun, breaking in all the worst ways as I turned into a tree before their very eyes. I didn’t mind though. “Let me out.” Those were my last words before it reached my neck and I tumbled out into the bright unforgiving world as something changed.
I found myself in the soft earth. I was placed in a park I think. Squirrels played among my hair and little burrowing creatures went among my roots. And I waited. And waited. And Waited, capital W.
He came though. Immortality lends itself to visiting many places more than once. He came strolling through my forest in the grips of his own arrogance. My brother was waiting too as the Warlock walked under my branches and I let the world start to crackle and smoke.
I suppose the Warlock was right. If you set enough fires they eventually do catch up to you.