It was time to change schools again. I would probably be expelled for starting the fire in the chemistry lab, but it was such a spectacular explosion that it was worth it. The magnesium strips burst into an incandescent whiteness that seared my eyeballs, even with the safety glasses I had put on, while the copper filings sputtered into blue and green showers and made me wish I had thought to put them in a tube to make a firework. The glass bottles containing some of the solutions began to explode just as the overhead sprinklers came on and showered the whole room with water and by then a small crowd had assembled outside the lab, wondering who the culprit was.
Mr. Denby, the head of science, did not even ask what had happened; he searched the crowd for my face, then pointed towards his office. I grinned at my friends and walked into the small room, and out of another chapter of my life.
I have loved flames ever since we sat around a campfire back when I was three years old and my father showed me how chestnuts would pop if left in the heat long enough, while my mother transformed small cubes of yellow corn into white fluffy treats, accompanied by a staccato of shots. I sat up all evening, watching the orange flames dance on the chopped wood and change it from a yellow brown colour to glowing red and finally to dark black with a wispy beard of white ash.
As we grew older my father would build enormous bonfires out in the open field and my brother and I would compete to see who could create the most sparks and the loudest noise. We burned some weird things in our time, such as a mannequin from a store, whose arm waved a crazy goodbye as it melted; old aerosol cans, which made a huge bang and half a sofa which sent up clouds of black smoke so thick that it could be seen from three blocks away. We coughed for days after that fire, and that was the first time the police visited our house.
“No matches at school,” my mother warned, when she dropped me off at my first elementary school. “And no lighters, incendiary devices or candles, either,” she added after the first week.
It did not take long for me to work out how to make a flame with a magnifying glass and the sun, and I can still remember Lucy Shen running away howling to the teacher after I burned her picture of a tree. My magnifying glass was confiscated, but I soon found that spectacles, broken bottles and even cleverly arranged plastic could work just as well.
When I was eight I burned my first real structure: an old playhouse in the park. One of the doors had fallen off its hinges and not many kids played in it any more since the city had put up the shiny metal monkey bars, so I thought nobody would mind if I got rid of it. Starting the fire took a long time, because the roof was still wet through from all the rain, but once it caught and the flames licked up the sides, reaching higher and higher with their flickering points all stretching up to the stars, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Then the firemen came and poured water all over it and my lovely flames shrank and dwindled to nothing, leaving a single black wall standing amid a pile of singed planks.
After that I was sent to the counsellor.
“What do you see when you look at a flame, Kyle?” Mrs. Jakes asked, while she scribbled in her folder.
“Uh, flames, I guess,” I said, wondering if her glass flower vase would bend light enough to make a fire.
“Yes, but what do you feel?”
“I dunno, like I’ve had a cup of coffee, I guess.”
And so it continued, year after year. How could I explain to her the surging of energy that rushed through me when I saw the flames leap into life from a small spark? The way the flames danced, as if to a hidden rhythm, never following the same pattern? That the roar of the fire and the crackle of the burning wood spoke to me like a symphony?
My teachers did not understand this either. At first they treated me as if I were slow and fragile, then, after the first burning incident, they were more cautious, and eventually they all became afraid of me. That was usually when I was asked to leave the school, but I did not care; school was boring. But finally I got to high school and discovered the chemistry lab and a whole new world opened up before me.
It had been a good display, I decided, as I waited in Mr. Denby’s office. Maybe I should have put some of the paper closer to the centre of the fire, or perhaps opened up some of the Buntzen burners. Oh, well, there was always next time.