The Future of Fire: Stephanie Powell Watts (Dr. Stephanie Powell Watts is an Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University. She has published short fiction, poetry and nonfiction in a number of journals.)

The day leaves in pink and gold on Second Street Hill. The hills rise like pimples shadowing the small town in the piedmont area of small town North Carolina. The man’s shiny metallic blue car cruises past us, the grill echoing the glower on the driver’s face. We have food stamps, 20 dollars worth, from Kim’s mother and free reign to buy whatever we desire— cheesy chips, black licorice, pre-sugared Koolaid and Coke, chocolate candy in bright foil wrappers glittering like Christmas presents under a six foot fir. Anything. The car stops a few yards in front of us before the white man driver gets to the stop sign. We are used to the looks. We are young, almost women, skin tight jeans and my 80’s bubble of long, thick hair. But the man shouldn’t stop not like that. He backs up to us, says nothing, looks at us with scientific interest-- “a way that hurts us for its raw investigation,” a look without warmth. Kim takes my hand, “Come on,” she says. She is older by a year and accustomed to being in charge. She is also taller than me, a pretty enough face, but a body with womanly changes: an hour glass frame, nipples tugging against the cotton of her t-shirt. I am still fifteen, still a little girl beside her. I am reminded of another day with an older woman. My Aunt Candy was on the shortcut to my Grandmother’s, walking briskly through the tall weeds behind our house. But then a black snake lay like a fire hose, thick and long, minding his business. “Look,” I say, dumb as a potato, stopped like death. I point, confused. The snake was not supposed to be there. While my aunt walks on, dragging me behind, 10 years wiser to the ways of nature, understanding immediately that there are some sights better not taken fully in. She jerks my arm to her, whisks me like a debutant along the rustling weeds.

We are almost to the grocery store, just steps away now. This store is run down and tired looking, in the heart of the small town’s only low-income housing project. The electric eye that should hold the door for us, beckon us in, is slow, and makes us impatient. I get a cart and we wheel around the store. There are ridges of black from the produce and meat carts on the industrial linoleum. I imagine that I might have made those marks with the soles of my shoes, the time a grown man tried to pull me into the back room, through the ‘Employees Only’ door. We walk quickly past the fruit, at the dairy section; we briefly consider some refrigerated cinnamon rolls to cook but there are too few for our hungry crowd of children, Kim’s four older brothers, two younger sisters, her mother and the two of us, nine of us in all. Once we begin filling our cart, we forget about the man and his car and grab at all the sugar we want. Why not? We do not yet consider calories or carbs. We have never even uttered the word diet. We are lithe, thin limbed, too much for the over 30 crowd with their un-tucked shirts, sad eyes passing by the Juniors sections in bright department stores, longing at the tiny jeans like they were the last bright divine promise, long lost. We are finished. Five bags between us. She carries three, though one of mine is light and has only two cardboard tasting frozen pizzas that have no taste of care or love in their making.

In the way of stories, we are nearly home. We can’t yet see the project apartment or any of the long rows of undifferentiated apartment houses, but we are there. The sky has turned from pink to a deeper blue and our shadows are stubby visible along the asphalt. “Get in,” he says pulling up next to us leaning across the bench of the front seat. His hair is thin and sweating through to his scalp. He is older, maybe close to twice our ages. We keep walking and he matches our steps, his car creaking like something waking up. “Get in,” he says, his voice more insistent now. We don’t speak. Keep our steps together. We are almost home. At the intersection where the small copse of pines divides Kim’s apartment group from another, a boy, brown like us whizzes by on an old fashioned bike. I don’t know him. How could it be that in such a small white town I could not recognize another black face? Kim looks at me. Grabs my hand. “Run,” she screams and we hurl the groceries, cookies and pizza, ice cream and colas behind us.
“Run, run,” she screams and we fly across the street, not looking back, but hearing the metallic blue car stop, the engine die, the car door open and slam. I lose Kim’s hand. I am alone, the crunching of leaves and branches underfoot, a green canopy of pine trees blocking out most of the later afternoon light. I can’t look behind me. If I see the man in the woods, see the expression on his face, I may never be able to see the woods again without his face. This I understand without the words to articulate it. Though this piece of land between the apartments can’t be wide, I feel that I have been running for days. Kim’s tiny little apartment with too many people, too little money, is perpetually receding in the background. I catch my jeans, my best ones, on the bark of a stubborn tree and rip them to my panty line. My screaming brings Kim back to me, jerking me all the way to the door of her apartment. Our food is gone, scattered on the road. Kim’s brothers get into the family’s car. I don’t want to know what will happen if they find the white man still cruising the street.

There is no lesson to this story, no neat package of meaning here, except this. If the white man had rolled down his window, smiled at us, asked us if we wanted a ride, we’d probably agreed, jumped in the car without a single care, flattered to be recognized by a real man. If he’d just asked, we would have looked at each other, a giggle suppressed under our lips, our shrugs and “okay sures,” sealing us to whatever fate we had to find. The white man would know better next time.
Kim and I watch her brothers from the living room window. The oldest, Billy, yells and cusses, as the rest of the boys pile into the family car. Long after the car squeals around the corner, I watch the dark; left in this place I must get used to finding myself, the girl who waits for the story to end.

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