On Wednesday, as I sketched spheres in art class, Dawson’s soul caught on fire.
The smoky smell hit my nose, acrid and sooty, like that time Mom burned the popcorn. Two desks over, Dawson’s pen scribbled, his eyes blazing orange-red flames. I gasped.
A few kids giggled nervously. Mrs. Bui shushed, “Let him work.”
We watched as Dawson finished, his breath ragged as though he’d just run the mile in P.E., but his face smiled. His eyes were brown again.
Mrs. Bui held up Dawson’s work, lines swirling in a perfect portrait of our teacher, right down to her curly fringe. “It’s beautiful.”
It really was. You could see Dawson had put his whole soul into it.
Art class was still plucking at my thoughts when Mom picked me up from KidCare, the last kid waiting, as always. Mom’s sleeves were still rolled up, a bleach stain on her apron. At home, over microwave tacos and canned fruit, I asked, “What makes a soul burn?”
“This happen at school?”
“Well, when you find something you’re so passionate about that it fills your entire world, your soul burns.”
“Is it painful?”
“No, my love, it doesn’t hurt at all.”
“But what makes it start? Dawson’s done art class millions of times before.”
Mom smiled and shrugged. “No one knows. Something just lights inside you.”
My fork chased a skinless peach around my plate as I tried to wrap my head around the idea that one day, I’d have flaming orange eyes. “I don’t think I want it to happen.”
“It seems scary, but it feels like you’re doing exactly what you’re meant to be doing. And when it happens, I will be there to support you every step of the way.”
Mom scraped her chair back and held her arms open. I loved our hugs, her scent exactly like the faint oven-haze of something baking, but not pie or casserole. It just smelled warm and lovely, even if Mom never actually had time to bake.
She still hadn’t taken off her apron, her back stiff and tight under my touch. I hugged harder.
At school the following Tuesday, Aleta’s soul caught fire. I didn’t do orchestra, but I heard from others about the burning eyes and how Aleta didn’t want to stop playing.
Classmates whispered, “You know, if you put too much of your soul into something, you’ll burn out and die young. Like Mozart.”
I didn’t know much about Mozart, but that seemed dumb. Dawson’s flickering eyes looked creepy in art class, but there was no denying it: he was happy. His soul burned for drawing. Meanwhile, I didn’t feel a single spark of warmth as I drew babyish squiggly lines. Nor was music my thing. Did I even have a soul in me? It wasn’t like I could check.
That night, over a dinner of soggy chicken nuggets, I blurted out, “What if my soul never catches fire?”
Mom shook her head as though that was nothing to worry about. “Everyone has a different burning point. Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was 78.”
I didn’t know who Grandma Moses was, nor did I want to wait until I was 78, so I sighed. “But I’m not good at anything.”
Mom knelt, the patches on her knees worn. She raised my chin. “A soul doesn’t burn for talent. It burns for what you want out of life. What do you want?”
“I don’t know.”
“And that’s okay. You’re only 11. Part of the joy of life is the journey to find that burning point. Some people have many, many things they burn for. And as your classmates burn now, they may find they burn for something else in the years to come. Even my soul’s passion has changed with time.”
I’d never seen her soul burn. I knew she’d moved here after I was born, had raised me alone. She didn’t talk about her family except to say they lived too far to visit. Since coming here, her job had been cleaning the tall office buildings, day after exhaustive day. “Do you burn for your job?”
“No, my love.” Mom’s oven-comfort scent grew stronger. “In my hometown, children follow parents, the same hard life over and over. I was okay with that, then you were born. My dream became giving you a better life, no matter how many floors to scrub or toilets to bleach. To raise you higher than I could ever go.”
I saw it then, the glowing embers behind her exhausted eyes of early mornings and late nights and hidden fears and pounding worries. Not like Dawson’s bright flame, but a smoldering heat intended to keep burning no matter the obstacle.
I grasped Mom’s hands, chalky dry skin and hard bones, sleeves rolled up over her elbows, and imagined myself rolling my own sleeves up, studying for math tests, writing essays, taking extensive notes in class. To do justice to her dream. To give her something back for giving so much of her love and life to me. To let those hands rest and grow soft someday.
A dream warm and loving sparked hot inside.
Carol Scheina is a deaf speculative author whose stories have appeared in publications such as Flash Fiction Online, Escape Pod, Cossmass Infinities, and more. You can find more of her work at carolscheina.wordpress.com.