Breathing Fire

 

I was pacing in front of her, not knowing what to say. I wanted the floor to creak for dramatic effect when I walked around this house, but it never did. This house was well-kept and well-built and well…. Amazing. The wide-open spaces were enclosed by towering walls, which often made it feel like I was falling into a black hole. It wasn’t, like, a mansion or anything, but it was a pretty big place to be. It had been winterized a few months ago, so the cold nipped at my ears the way cats nip at unwanted touch and the darkness was blinding by the time I got home from school. I couldn’t open the curtains during the daylight anyway, for fear of being caught. Every now and then, the shadows would betray me and I would slip on the stairs. It started to make me nervous to walk around at in the pitch black. On days when I was having a particularly intense bout of unease, I often wouldn’t move much at all. So that, combined with my generalized anxiety disorder, combined with the bitter cold, combined with the expensive curtains and fancy, unoccupied furniture made this place really creepy. But the floors never creaked. Someone was really lucky to live here, but it wasn’t me.

She sat cross-legged at the dining room table, under a chandelier the size of an exercise ball, wide-eyed and lips closed tight. Her hands were clasped and her glasses sparkled in what little light peaked through the blinds.

“Who told you I was here?”

She paused before speaking earnestly, “No one told me anything.”

“What?”

“I mean I saw you walking and I followed you. You turned left on Mason Street and then left on 43rd, which didn’t make sense. I’m honestly surprised I managed to keep up- you changed routes and paces at LEAST six times.” She said this as if I had annoyed her on purpose with my attempts to avoid being followed.

I took a deep breath, “Signe, you shouldn’t be here.” The air between us began to thicken. Our eyes narrowed and you could hear somebody shouting outside from down the street. The discomfort was nearly palpable.

“No, no, no. YOU shouldn’t be here. I have every right to be here that you have. Which is literally none.”

It didn’t take genius to know she was right. She was always right. I couldn’t tell her that, though. Signe was a brilliant girl, but she already knew it.

The shouting outside grew louder, more intense, as somebody with a deeply masculine voice came closer to where we were hiding. Signe and I were quiet, listening. You couldn’t make out the words they were yelling, but you could hear the desperation like a deafening blast as the voice cracked with every cry. I could almost swear I’d heard that voice many times before.

Almost simultaneously, Signe and I came to the same terrifying realization: the desperation was for her. She shot up from the intricately designed, velvet-lined chair and marched, panicked, to the front door.

Without a word, my wide-eyed girlfriend threw it open with full force. For the first time, I saw what the entryway looked like in daylight.

“Jadon!” Signe called.

The curtains felt foreign between my fingers as I gently pinched them back just enough to peak through. People had already come outside their homes to investigate the yelling. Here I was, illegally camping out in suburbia while Signe and Jadon were making my hiding place the center of attention.

Jadon’s howls became muffled yelps as Signe took him into her arms, like a mother comforting her child. Signe’s brother was two years older and towered at least eight inches over her, an uncommon trait for someone with Down Syndrome. He did, however, exclaim my name as he recognized my eye peaking through the window.

“Aleks-ss-ss-ss-sander!” he stuttered excitedly.

Jadon was one of the few people that always remembered to use my chosen name. I’d only told him once to call me Aleksander and for him, unlike my family and, well, almost everyone else, once was enough. I’d grown to have a really soft spot for him. But right now, he was blowing my cover.

As she comforted him, Signe glanced at me apologetically. Her hair blew unmistakably fiery in the breezy sunset, giving her a look of danger that she would otherwise be rid of. She was a forest fire crackling with wit, balance, and focus. And I was merely a barren tree standing in her way.

I swallowed hard as a stern-looking woman wearing an expensive-looking suit glided toward Jadon and Signe. She looked exactly like the kind of person who would live in this neighborhood: rich, confident, and dressed to the nines. She probably used Ben Franklin’s to stuff her bun. I was tempted to run out between her and Signe, inevitably revealing myself to everyone watching, but to my surprise, she marched past them and up to the patio.

“Is everything okay in there?” she whispered in a heavy English accent through the cracked-open door without turning to look at me.

I remained silent, so she continued on, “I’ve been watching and I just want to make sure you’re alright. Do you need some food?”

She then craned her neck to face me, and then away from me, and then back toward me, pretending not to see me. I nodded. The woman pulled herself back onto the patio, shut the door, and turned to walk away.

“All clear!” She stated loudly enough for the concerned neighbors to hear.

Relief flowed over my face and I sank silently to the floor. I didn’t get up to lock the door. I didn’t pinch back the curtain to watch Signe and Jadon walk away. I didn’t move from that spot on the floor. I didn’t move, that is, until a knock woke me up many hours later.

My parents kicked me out shortly before my eighteenth birthday. A combination of coming out to them as a lesbian and then coming out as a transman two years afterward forced them to question their Catholic beliefs and, contrary to my hopes, it ended up being easier for them to abandon me than “abandon God.” Like most teenagers who are kicked out by their parents, I didn’t have anywhere to go and I didn’t have any money. My twin brother had a friend whose parents owned a vacation home on the other side of town, so the two of them graciously helped me break in and begin my life as a squatter. Admittedly, I don’t know how I feel about being labeled a “squatter,” even though I know that’s what I am in society. And in the bathroom. I don’t know how I feel about the second one, either.

Out of habit, I peaked through the curtains before creaking open the door. It was her: the neighbor from earlier, this time in silk pajamas and cat-eye glasses. Even dressed for comfort, she appeared unmistakably sophisticated. She entered with a silent prowess that demanded respect, immediately handed me a granola bar, and began gathering my belongings, which had been strewn about the living room, dining room, bathroom, and kitchen. After a few too many accidents on the stairs, I had confined myself to the lower level.

I tackled the bathroom first, figuring she wouldn’t enjoy laying hands on my personal products, but she was there within seconds helping me gather up syringes like it was no big deal. The last thing I needed was the lady who was apparently trying to help me to find out about my trans status.

Despite my internal panic, she never glanced twice at the tiny bottles labeled “Depo-Testosterone,” but instead delicately placed them back in their boxes and into my duffel bag. After a few lookovers to make sure we had everything, I attempted to replicate her soft steps as we headed out the door.

“Isabelle,” she introduced herself once we had stepped over the threshold to her home. I’d almost forgotten her accent.

“Uh, I’m Sander. I’m, uh… I’m diabetic,” I knew as the words exited my mouth that I was trying too hard to explain the syringes.

“Right.”

It was too late. She knew.

“Okay, I’m not diabetic.”

“I know.”

Yeah, she definitely knew.

Though her walls were lined thick with bookshelves, her home was just as dark and gaudy as the one I’d been in three minutes prior. I was not thrilled about the scenery, but there was a certain kind of peace that came with being somewhere I was allowed to be.

“What time is it? I have to be at school by seven thirty,” I desperately attempted to change the subject.

“You may as well stay up, then,” Isabelle nodded her pointed nose toward an antique clock sitting on the mantle as set down my bags. Between the reflection on her lenses glaring at me and the radiance of the fireplace, the room was flickering so deeply orange it was impossible to tell the true color of her wallpaper. The clock, on the other hand, indubitably read 6:35AM.

Within weeks, I had a safe haven. It was easy for me to empathize with this (incredibly intimidating) woman living alone in such a huge house, so I didn’t mind keeping her company. It was common for us to have dinner together, read together, and go for walks together. There were sometimes even moments I would keep from Signe, afraid she might feel threatened by my new, totally platonic, friendship. I knew Isabelle and I shared a special camaraderie, but it was nothing for Signe to become jealous of.

“Sander, come here!” Isabelle called one night from her bedroom. She was sitting against her headboard with a book in her lap. Her face softened under the glow of a candle. She was an undeniably sexy woman, for someone who looked so much like an angry librarian.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“Will you lay with me for a bit? My sheets are a little cold,” she said, patting the flat space next to her.

I shuffled over to her bed and clumsily fell into the blankets, which felt perfectly warm to me. This was not the first time she’d used this excuse. Isabelle turned on her side, smirking at me with a devious confidence while slickly intertwining her legs with mine. Her skin was soft against me, but shivers of discomfort still raced down my neck. Her gorgeously striking face and perfect curves could never hold a candle to the wildfire that was my girlfriend. But Isabelle had warned that if I ever pulled away, she would surely kick me out and feed me to the wolves. I was, once again, a prisoner of my own life with no way out.

She blew out the candle. This was one of those nights Signe would never find out about.