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When the Fire Goes Out

Story by Emily Roth (Read author interview) September 19, 2022

© Cottonbro

Heather from Algebra touched my penis, my boyfriend tells me, and I immediately imagine myself recounting this story to Mia later so a small smile forms on my lips, and I ask him questions like, on purpose? With her finger? Just for a second? But I can’t keep a straight face and tears stream down my cheeks, because nothing is tragic anymore, everything is hilarious, and I’m imagining Mia laughing too, like the time chocolate milk came out of her nose in the cafeteria, and my boyfriend says, I don’t know how to comfort you, which makes me laugh so hard I almost puke, because I think the last time I was comfortable was the afternoon that Mia and I took mushrooms and lay in a field watching the clouds pulsate, swollen with rain, and Mia said, imagine what it feels like to be a cloud, and I cracked up, but she didn’t, then we lay there for a while not looking at each other, the ends of our hair touching, probably, and Mia told me once that your hair and fingernails keep growing after you die, and I thought of that at her funeral as I studied her hair, thinking of how she was always paranoid about split ends, and I was on mushrooms again and I was certain I could see new blonde growths sprouting along her scalp, then finally Heather from Algebra touched my shoulder and said, I know, and I said, you see it too? And Heather said, the makeup on her neck? Yeah, they fucked it up.

I bike home from my boyfriend’s house, my legs fizzing with adrenaline, like the times Mia and I used to careen breakneck around the neighborhood, and I want to tell Mia about the penis thing, mostly, but I also need to tell her that she was wrong; when you die, everything stops. I hear a shout behind me and, for a second, I think it’s Mia, yelling something to make me laugh, or maybe my boyfriend, speeding to catch up to me, but I turn my head and realize no one is there, and the street is hollow of other people, the sky growing dark behind the clouds like a bruise, and the loneliness slams into me like it often does, so I pedal harder, and I’m going so fast I imagine flames igniting under my tires, and I think of the time at Girl Scout camp we had to rub two sticks together and only Heather figured it out, so she taught Mia and me, and I wonder where my boyfriend was in that moment—maybe stepping up to bat at a t-ball game, dust shimmering around his sneakers, or maybe cupping a firefly between his palms, or maybe lobbing a water balloon into his sister’s face—and I wonder if any of us could have known then what would happen all these years later, but my therapist tells me that there were no warnings, and I couldn’t have done anything differently, and that’s the part I struggle with, the idea that even in that moment, even as little girls sitting on the edge of a wide glossy lake, even as we conjured sparks between our sticks and Heather cheered, we were barreling towards this inevitability. Even as we stared at each other wide-eyed and shrieked with laughter, fire in our hands.

About the Author

Emily Roth is a librarian and writer. Her short fiction has been published by The Masters Review, Reflex Fiction, Exposition Review, and others. She lives in Chicago with her rescue dog, Obie.

This story appeared in A SmokeLong Summer 2022 — Special Issue of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly A SmokeLong Summer 2022 — Special Issue
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The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

Deadline November 15!

The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction (The Smokey) is a biennial competition that celebrates and compensates excellence in flash. The grand prize winner of The Smokey is automatically nominated for The Best Small Fictions, The Pushcart, Best of the Net, and any other prize we deem appropriate. In addition to all this love, we will also pay the grand prize winner $2500. Second place: $1000. Third place $500. Finalists: $100. All finalists and placers will be published in the special competition issue in December 2022.