Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Poppy Z. Brite: Burn, Baby, Burn

Poppy Z. Brite



The girl waits by the side of the road, just past Lolita age but obviously still jail-bait. She wears a pair of ragged denim cutoffs and a grubby white T-shirt bearing the logo of John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band. Her dark hair hangs stick-straight and lank to the middle of her back. July 1976, and she's pretty sure she is somewhere in New Jersey.

When a green VW bus comes along, she sticks out her thumb and watches it roll to a stop. The rear doors swing open; hands help her in. Pot smoke. Young male faces, their tufts of attempted beard and mustache like scattered weeds, barely hiding the zits. King Crimson or some other ponderous art-rock band blaring from a stereo that's probably worth way more than the van itself.

"What's your name, baby?"

"Liz."

"How old are you?"

"Seventeen," she says, adding three years. The boy looks skeptical, but Liz can tell he doesn't really care.

They offer her liquor, which she declines, and pot, which she cautiously tries because it smells so good. The end of the joint glows red as she tokes on it, so smooth, doesn't make her cough at all. She holds the twisted cigarette before her face, focusing her eyes on the small, lurid point of fire.

"Hey, babe, quit bogartin' it," says another boy. "Less a'course you want to work out a trade."

The driver swivels in his seat, making the van swerve on the road. "Gas, grass, or ass, nobody rides for free." They all laugh uproariously. Liz feels a hand on her leg, then two more encircling her wrists, not squeezing yet but letting her know they are there. Letting her know she's trapped.

They wish.

Liz hasn't hurt anyone in a long time. The images that come back to her when she does it are too unbearable. She's been learning to focus her ability, to put her power into things that don't scream and hurt and die when they burn. But she is Elizabeth Anne Sherman from the Kansas side of Kansas City, and she is still a virgin, and she's damned if she is going to lose her cherry getting raped by a bunch of stoned hippies.

Among other things, she is afraid her parents might look down from Heaven and see it happening.

So she lets the heat well up from the place deep inside her, somewhere just below the center of her chest she thinks it is, and it arrows out of her in a thin, pure ray. It's spilling from her eyes, her fingertips, and it doesn't hurt her at all, it feels good —

The ratty boys are scrambling away from her, away from the little corona of flames around her. Liz smells scorching hair, knows it isn't her own. She gathers all her strength and reins it in, sucks it in. It has taken the better part of four years, but she can control it now, and she doesn't want to kill these stupid boys.



"Fuck!"

"She musta dropped the fuckin' doob — she's on fire — "

"No, man, it's comin' out her hands! Get the bitch outta here!"

The VW screeches to a halt and Liz hops out before she can be shoved. She stumbles on the shoulder of the road, steadies herself, spins, and manages to shoot them the middle finger before the doors slam shut and the van takes off again.

A hundred yards down the road, she sees it stop again. The back doors open and a blanket is cast out, flaming merrily.

Liz laughs.

It first happened when she was eleven. She'd always hated the ugly ginger-haired boy who lived next door. Her big brother Steve usually made the kid leave her alone, but on this sunny Saturday afternoon Steve was in his room desperately trying to finish some chemistry project that was due on Monday. Liz was playing with her Matchbox cars in the front yard when the ginger kid showed up. He wasn't smart enough to entertain himself, and when none of his equally nasty friends were around, he got off on tormenting Liz.

He leaned over her, stuck his face right in her face. He seemed all freckles and mean, squinty eyes. "Hey, Lezzy," he sneered. "Betcha think you look pretty with that stupid-looking hairstyle." Liz's mother had fixed her hair in ponytails that morning, crowning them with shiny purple holders that looked like grape-flavored candy.

The kid kicked dirt at her, overturning several of the little cars. "Fuck off," she said.

"Hey, fuck you, bitch! Girls ain't supposed to talk that way — so I guess you ain't much of a girl!" He grabbed one of the ponytails and yanked hard. She felt her pretty hair ornament snap, saw it tumble into the dirt. Fury swelled inside her, pure and hot.

She looked up at the ginger kid, her eyes shimmering with what felt like tears, and he grinned. "Awww, look at the little bay-bee — "

Then flames were coming from his mouth instead of words. He fell to his knees, clawing at his throat. Liz saw the fire take his hair, sizzle his eyes. He was burning and she was glad. He was a ball of flame, spreading to the lawn, the bushes, the house. Her rational mind was gone now; she did not know she was burning her own home and could not have stopped it if she had. She was nothing but a conduit for the beautiful, deadly fire.

The fire raced through the neighborhood, destroying her house, the ginger kid's house, more. Thirty-two people died that day, including Steve and Liz's parents. Firefighters found Liz wandering in the blackened wreckage, filthy with soot but unscathed. No one could figure out how the fire had started, though arson was suspected. No one knew how Liz had survived. She didn't know either. Though it was in her future to make fried calamari of an Elder God, Liz had no idea how great her powers were.

No one around her understood anything at all until the man from the Bureau finally came to visit.

Some nothing town called Plainville, and she's sitting in front of a cold cup of coffee in a diner when the black girl starts talking to her. "You okay, girl? You want one of these doughnuts? You don't have to pay for it — they're day-old."

Liz accepts gratefully. She hasn't eaten anything since sometime yesterday. She's also never actually spoken to a Negro before. None had lived in the spanking-new Kansas City suburb her parents had chosen so carefully (and which she had lain waste to so easily). A few had gone to her school, but the two races kept themselves separated so completely that desegregation may as well have never happened. And there are none at the Bureau, not yet. She's a little nervous, but after some of the freaks she's met in the last few years, one black girl not much older than her isn't so scary. "Thank you," she says. The doughnut is stale, but Liz doesn't care. She makes it disappear in a matter of seconds, and the girl silently slides another one onto her plate.

"Runaway, huh?"

This isn't the first time she's been out on her own, and she knows how obvious she is, a fourteen-year-old wolfing down free food like some starved stewbum. "Throw-away," she says, though it isn't strictly true.

"That's rough."

Liz doesn't know what to say. She stares at her plate, then looks back up into the girl's friendly face. It's been a while since she saw one.

"My name's Mahogany."

"I'm Liz."

They shake hands. Liz notices that Mahogany's palm is a dusty rose-pink, not brown as she would have expected. The hand is strong, the knuckles slightly swollen.

"You look so tired," Mahogany says. "If you need a place to rest for a few days, I have one."

Liz Sherman's first rule of the road: take what you have to, rides and food and such, but trust no one. "That's okay," she says. "I mean, it's really nice of you, but there's someplace I have to be."

They both know it's a lie, but Mahogany nods, says nothing more until Liz gets up to leave, and then just a soft "You take care, now."

"You too. Thanks."

Liz pushes open the greasy glass door of the diner and sees rain sheeting down. She hates the smell and the feel of rain. She wavers for a moment before realizing that she just can't make herself go back out there yet.

"You said maybe I could stay with you a few days?" she says, turning back to the counter. Mahogany smiles, and Liz feels an upsurge of something she hasn't known in years. It takes her a few moments to realize this feeling is hope.

The man from the Bureau had the kindest, saddest eyes Liz had ever seen. They sat out on the stoop of her current foster residence and he asked a lot of personal questions, including whether she had begun to menstruate yet. (She had, just three weeks before the conflagration that killed her family.) She wouldn't have answered such questions for anyone else, but she felt some undercurrent of empathy with this man, something she couldn't quite identify but couldn't ignore either.

"How's it been for you with the foster families?" he asked.

Liz shrugged. "The Svoradys were weird. They wanted me to act like I was five years old or something. When some little kids came in, they kicked me out. Then I came here, to the Fletchers'. They were pretty nice at first, but ... well, you know what happened. I guess that's why you're here."

"The accident."

Liz stared at the floor. "Yeah."

"It wasn't really an accident, was it, Liz?"

She threw herself off the stoop, trembling with anger. "I didn't set the fire! I didn't! I know everybody thinks I did, 'cause I was fighting with Donny right before it happened, but I thought maybe you were different — "

"I don't think you set the fire."

She stopped raging. "You don't?"

"Not with matches or a lighter. Not in a way that other people can set a fire. And I don't think you meant to do it. And, hey, nobody got hurt, just a little smoke and water damage. But the fire came from you, didn't it, Liz?"

She looked up at him. He didn't seem angry or scared, just certain. "How do you know?" she whispered.

Instead of replying, the man reached into his pocket and pulled out a dollar bill. He held it in the air between them, and she saw something shimmer from his eyes.

The bill began to burn.

They watched the small flames lick at the paper for several seconds before the man let the bill fall to the ground and smothered the fire with his foot.

"I can do it too," he said simply.

A hundred questions rose up in her. "What — how do we — why — "

The man held up his hands in a placating gesture. "Plenty of time for all that and more. But first I have a proposition for you. Liz, what you have is called a 'wild talent'. Instead of being shuttled around to foster homes, would you like to live in a single place, a home, with other people who have wild talents? Would you like to learn more about yours, and how you can control it?"

She didn't have to say yes; the man could read it in her face.

"It's called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense," he told her.

By the time Mahogany's shift ends, the rain has slackened and the sun is beginning to dry up the puddles on the sidewalk. Mahogany says her house is only a few blocks away. They walk in a companionable silence, having spent most of the afternoon chatting while Mahogany waited on an occasional customer.

The neighborhood looks poor but well kept, the houses painted in pastel colors, no trash in the streets and only a ghostly scrawl of sandblasted graffiti on a wall here and there.

"Two more blocks," Mahogany says. "There's one thing I ought to tell you before we get there."

Liz looks up, guarded, her fragile hope beginning to crumble. This is the part where Mahogany tells her something awful, something about heroin or turning tricks maybe, and Liz will have to turn and walk away from the only person who's been kind to her in weeks. "What?"

"Well, you're not gonna be the only person staying with us. My momma and I sort of help people out, other kids who need a place to go. There's a girl there whose folks threw her out 'cause she's pregnant, and two boys who like each other ... you know?"

Liz just says, "That's cool," but she could cry with relief, except that she never cries. When they finally come to the house, a solid old two-story deal with bright red trim and a pointy roof covered in multicolored shingles, she almost feels as if she is home.

Just inside the front door, mouth-watering fragrances envelop them: basil, garlic, fresh bread. "Momma!" Mahogany calls. "I've got somebody with me!"

A woman stands at the stove stirring spaghetti sauce. As she turns, Liz sees that she looks old enough to be Mahogany's grandmother instead of her mother.

"Momma, this is my friend Liz. Liz, meet my mother, Zora."

"Welcome, sweetheart. We're pleased to have you here. You hungry?"

"I am now," Liz says.

Zora laughs, and Liz notices that her careworn face is beautiful. "Good. Mahogany, see if you can find David and Patrick. Caroline's feeling poorly; I'll take a tray up to her later. Liz, will you keep me company?"

Mahogany leaves the kitchen. Still stirring the sauce, Zora gazes levelly at Liz. "We don't have too many rules around here, but there are a couple you should know. One, you don't judge anybody in this house. Only God is fit to judge, though I don't believe he does. Two, you're safe here and welcome to stay as long as you want, but if you're in some kind of trouble, I need to know about it."

"I'm not in any trouble," Liz says. "Just on my own and tired." Technically it's true; though the Bureau is probably looking for her, she didn't break any laws by leaving. Her custody is a hazy, difficult matter, and the Bureau is hesitant to stir already troubled waters by hunting her down and dragging her back to Connecticut every time she gets antsy and takes off.

"Good. You don't lie to me, I won't lie to you." Zora turns back to the stove. "Can you lay out those plates for me? Five of em."

They eat at a wooden table polished to a golden brown patina, with old-fashioned white lace placemats that remind Liz of a set her mother had. That brings a lump to her throat, but the chatter of David and Patrick, the two boys who like each other, soon distracts her. They are about fifteen, long haired, handsome, and fragile looking. Liz wonders how they ever survived in the real world. By their wits, she supposes; both are as talkative and charming as Siamese cats. They tease Mahogany with great affection, and she gives back as good as she gets.

After washing up, the five of them sit in the living room and talk for hours. At one point Caroline comes downstairs to say hello. The bulge of her pregnancy looks impossible on her tiny frame, but she carries herself with a brittle, formal dignity. No one asks Liz any prying questions, nothing about where she came from or why.

Everything is fine until she goes to bed.

She shares Mahogany's room, which has twin beds on either side of an antique vanity table. The sheets are deliciously soft and cool, especially since she's been sleeping in bus stations and behind mini-marts lately. The two girls talk a little longer about nothing in particular, just sleepy scattered conversation like the kind that comes toward the end of a slumber party. Then it's dark, and Liz is dreaming.

She's back in Kansas City, in the front yard of her house. Her Matchbox cars are scattered on the ground before her and the purple ponytail holders are in her hair. The ginger kid is nowhere in sight. She turns and goes up the front walk toward the house. The door to the foyer is partly open, but Liz can't see inside. She has almost made it to the porch when her mother half-staggers, half-falls through the door.

Her mother is in flames. Her face is barely recognizable, her eyes seared shut, her hair burned away. Her mouth stretches open and emits a soundless scream. Her charcoal-claw hands reach out to Liz.

"Mommy!" Liz screams. She rushes to the burning woman, trying to smother the fire with her own body, but it is too late. The flames don't burn Liz, but her embrace crumbles her mother's body and the charred pieces fall away.

She wakes to the sound of screaming, but it is not her own.

The bed is on fire. She sees Mahogany through the curtain of smoke and flames, reaching frantically for her, shouting her name. The covers are destroyed, the mattress beginning to smolder, but Liz feels nothing. She scrambles out of the bed and rushes to Mahogany, who grabs her. "Are you hurt?" Mahogany asks, and it twists Liz's heart a little that this should be her first question.

"I'm fine! Help me put this out!" Liz spins wildly, searching for clothes, covers, anything that might smother the flames.

"We can't, Liz! Look — " The fire is halfway up the wall, exposing joists and wires. Blue sparks fly as it spreads into the electrical system. The girls run from the room, down the hall, yelling and banging on doors.

Everyone gets out alive. That is her only consolation, the only reason she doesn't just throw herself in front of a fire truck. The house and everything in it are completely destroyed.

When the firemen have gone, leaving only a pile of black and stinking rubble where a home once stood, Zora and the two boys come over to Liz. Zora's arms are wrapped around the boys' thin shoulders; all three faces are streaked with soot and tears. Liz sees Mahogany comforting Caroline on the other side of the street. "The officer knows a shelter we can stay in tonight," Zora tells Liz. "I don't know what we'll do after that, but we'll find something."

Liz can hardly meet the woman's eyes. "That's okay, Zora. You guys have enough to deal with. I think I'm just gonna take off."

"In the middle of the night? Why, Liz, I can't let you — "

"I've got someone I can call to pick me up," Liz tells her.

She sits on the curb and watches them ride away in two police cars. Before they'd parted, Mahogany hugged Liz and gave her the address of some aunt or cousin, asking her to write and let them know she was all right. Liz knows she never will. These people don't need her in their lives, don't deserve what she has already given them in exchange for their kindness.

When the last police car is gone and the street is dark and silent, Liz goes to a pay phone on the corner and dials the number of the BPRD. It only rings twice before being answered by a doctor Liz knows.

"Come and get me," she says, and begins to cry. She hasn't cried since she was eleven. The tears burn worse than fire. And when the long black car that comes to fetch her finally turns into the Bureau's winding driveway, Liz knows that this time she really is home.

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Tales of Mystery and Imagination

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