Rocky River High School
Instructor: Ashley Morris
Rue's fingertips had been burned enough times that new burns didn't bother her. Despite the ointment and bandages from the day before, maybe the nerves hadn't quite healed right. Still, she hesitated to light the match.
"For someone who has a fire magic affinity, you're remarkably afraid of fire. I didn't even flinch when my mother tossed a fire ball at me for the first time." Her mother snatched the box of matches from Rue, then pinched a red-tipped match between two navy blue painted fingernails. With a quick strike, the red morphed into an orange and yellow flame. The fire crept all the way to the tip of her mother's finger, not leaving a single mark. The flame hovered above. With the wooden match gone, there was no visible source of fuel.
"A two-year-old could do this, Renee. Let me know when you figure it out." She tossed the matchbox onto the floor and shut the heavy door with a thud. The abrupt snick of a lock and the click of her high heels echoed in Rue's mind.
Rue shivered at the disgust in her mother's voice. She had to work harder. There was no way she could allow herself to disappoint her mother.
The room was now devoid of anything but the matchbox, a metal chair, scuffed white tiles, and Rue sitting on the floor cross-legged. The training room was designed to be completely fireproof.
She remembered her older brother being stuck in the room for almost three days. He'd had no water until he learned to pull it from the air using his affinity for water magic. Atlas hadn't come out the same. Something about the light in his eyes hadn't been right, but Rue couldn't deny that he had mastered water magic.
Rue picked up a match and struck it on the side of the box. It didn't light until she struck it a second time.
She remembered her mother's lesson, "The first step is to let the fire burn without burning you. The second is to keep it burning." The fire crept closer and closer until it reached Rue's thumb and pointer finger. She barely felt the fire brush her fingertips but it snuffed out nonetheless. She dropped the stub of the match and pulled open the box again. There were maybe ten more.
"Mother, I'm going to run out of matches." Rue called, waiting for an answer and shivering slightly. When had the room become so chilly? Maybe she was just imagining the change in temperature.
"Mother!" She waited another 45 seconds, counting out each second in her head. Her heart sped up to a rabbit's pace.
Goosebumps prickled Rue's skin. She pulled her legs close. Her cotton dress didn't offer much warmth and her white tights were too thin to do anything to stave off the cold. The dropping temperature definitely wasn't imagined.
The hatch in the door opened and a water bottle slid through. Then a note with a bowl of almonds. A fork and a knife appeared soon after. Of course her mother gave her utensils to eat almonds. Rue was tempted to scramble at the hatch and call out to whoever was on the other side, but she had a feeling they wouldn't respond. Instead she picked up the note. A single match was taped to it.
"Don't waste it," in her mother's controlled handwriting. Rue picked up the utensils. Her distorted reflection in the paring knife showed her straight black hair and brown eyes. At only eight years old, she already resembled her mother far too much. None of it would help with the cold.
She lit a match. It burned her pointer finger and snuffed out.
She lit another. It did not burn her, but it snuffed out anyway.
Rue breathed into her hands to warm them up only to light a third. The third match stub followed the first two into the growing pile.
Her breath now fogged in front of her face. She hesitated to light another. What was she supposed to do if she ran out? She'd been working for hours with her mother and she hadn't succeeded in making the match burn for more than a minute. Unless something changed, Rue was going to freeze, but if she did nothing, she might freeze faster. Worse than that, this was obviously a test and she was failing.
Why had her mother left her in that room? It was cruel. No, her mother loved her she reassured herself. Sure, nobody else she knew was trained quite like Rue's family, but it was out of love, wasn't it?
Her mother always said she wanted Rue to succeed. She lit a match. It went out. The warmth snuffed out almost immediately.
Why was learning a magic she had an affinity for so hard? It was supposed to be easy like math or reading. She lit a match. It went out. Her hands shook from the cold.
"Everything I do is for your benefit," her mother had said. Rue lit a match. It stayed lit for a few extra seconds but it went out too. Her fingers were now red and numb. Rue's estimate of ten matches had been off; she only had two left and the extra her mother had given her.
There had to be a solution. She tried to think back. Had her mother given her a clue? Maybe not about magic but something else?
Rue took the knife from the floor. Maybe it wasn't for the almonds. Had her mother intended it for her if she couldn't take the strain? She might've denied it earlier, but in the growing cold, she wasn't so sure.
It was sharp enough, but there was no way Rue was taking that way out. There had to be another way.
The one thing that came to mind was her mother's warning to keep the matches away from her hair.
"When I was your age, I always wanted long hair. We wouldn't want to ruin yours. It would burn so easily."
Rue grabbed a chunk of hair. She couldn't feel the texture of her hair as she brought the knife as close to her head as she dared.
By the time she was done, her hands were curled with the cold and her hair lay in chunks around her. A small nick in her right ear coated her face with sticky blood. She pushed them all together and pulled off her tights, adding them to the pile. Her legs prickled with the cold and another involuntary shiver passed through her body. She tore the skirt of her dress and cut the fabric into rags with her knife. Even the almonds went in.
She lit a match and placed it next to the end of one clump of hair. The pile ignited. More strands caught fire.
Slow down. Rue willed the fire to decelerate and expand. It could burn away the very oxygen she breathed if it would just stay lit. The fire obeyed. More. She needed more.
The fire grew in size, as big as her mother but far warmer. Rue dipped her fingers into the dancing golden flames. Her fingertips tickled with the sudden warmth instead of burning.
She breathed in the warm air, spreading the fire with her newfound power. Rue wasn't sure how long she kept the fire burning. Even when the tiles turned black with soot and only the smell of burnt hair and almonds remained, her fingers danced through the flames.
If her mother's flame had been a candle, Rue's was a wildfire. The flames reflected in her eyes, making her pupils gleam with light. Eventually, the flames receded, leaving heat waves radiating from the tiles.
The extended use of magic left Rue exhausted. On the still warm tile floor, she lay down, her eyes heavy with sleep.
When Rue woke up, she was lying in her bedroom, fluffy blue blanket tangled around her legs. Had the whole thing all been in her imagination?
"I'm so proud of you. You passed the test even faster than your brother, even faster than me. Though you didn't have to give yourself such an ugly haircut." Her mother sat next to her stroking her hair. Her short hair. Then it had definitely been real.
"I love you, Rue."
Rue wasn't sure she believed her mother.
"I love you too." Rue wasn't sure she believed her own words. Even though she was out of the training room, the test wasn't over. Maybe it hadn't begun in there either. No matter her mother's next move, Rue decided she was going to win.
Her mother had lit a flame.
Rue wasn't going to let it go out.
The fluffy blue duster dances along the tops of my shelves. I'm dancing too, dodging my desk and dresser, moving to the imaginary music in my head. It's the only way to make a boring chore seem a little more fun. My nose twitches with the urge to sneeze, temporarily halting my movements as the dust floats in the air around me.
I should've dusted a few weeks ago, but distractions always pulled me away. Looking down at my desk, nose still twitching, I can see my painted box has a fine coating on top. Tracing the lid with the duster, I sneeze. I don't go back to my job. Instead, I lift the palm-sized box and sit on the edge of my bed. The duster lies forgotten beside me.
I like to think I'm like the dust sometimes: slipping into the smallest of spaces and finding the things nobody else seems to see. There was a time when that small hand-painted box wouldn't have had an opportunity to gather its new coat. I remember when I used to tell anyone who came into my room the story of a special box.
When did that time pass? When did I become so careless? Why had I let those intricate paintings of flowers go unnoticed?
"Grandma, tell me about your treasures again!" I had exclaimed, pulling on her big, wrinkled hand with my small one. The treasures contained the entire world. My grandma had smiled, excitement lighting up her green eyes, making her look young despite her dusty gray hair.
"Which one do you want to know about this time?" The familiar words made me smile. It was tradition for her to ask me every time even if my answer never changed.
"All of them!" I would exclaim. At the time, I didn't know that I was the only one asking. The only one who gave my grandma an opportunity to brush the dust off of her old treasures and even older stories. Opening the display case, she pulled a small box off the bottom shelf, holding it as delicately as one would hold a newborn. It was sleek and black with vibrant flowers painted on top. The artist had even included the faint tracery of veins in the flower petals. I could imagine the artist must have used brushes thinner than toothpicks. The contrast between the black and the pearlescent tones of the paint made the flowers glow with life.
"This box is very special to me, so I've kept it empty all these years," I leaned into her words, letting her paint a story as complex as the box itself. She traced each flower and whispered their names to me, making me repeat slowly until I could recite them myself. Crocus speciosus and Tulipa schrenkii were my two favorites.
She spoke of Russia, where the snow fell thick and white and told of flowers blooming after long winters, only to be crushed under the heavy march of soldiers. It was a tale of struggle, where the darkness seemed to win at times. Of a girl who had her roots set down until they too were ripped out by the soldiers. The same light that shone in my grandma's eyes shone in my blue ones. When finished, she held out the box to me, still holding it so, so carefully. I didn't dare hold it in my own hands, but I grazed the lid with my clumsy fingers.
"Do you like it?" she asked.
"It's amazing," I let my awe seep into my voice, "I wish I had one just like it." My fingers traced around the petals, cautious not to push too hard. I could feel the slightly raised texture of the paint and the almost imperceptible layer of dust.
"Why not take this one? The flowers have waited a long time to bloom again. It's yours if you want it," I had stared at my grandma, mouth open wide not believing her words, but she had simply smiled back, holding the box out to me until I allowed her to set it onto my hands.
My hands are bigger now, but the box has remained the same, just as beautiful and precious. If I lift the lid, I know I will find empty space. But not an empty box, stories fill the inside.
I set the box back on my desk where I know it belongs. Grandma knew that she couldn't hold onto the story forever, so she gave it to me. The box will gather dust, but the stories inside are far more important.