SLOW BURN • by Phebe Jewell

The best part of setting fires is the beginning.

Mama’s new shag carpet has tempted me for days. I lie down in the living room late one afternoon while Mama’s out, matches in hand.

Janie smells it right away and tears down from our room. “Syl,” standing above me, “you’re so gonna get your ass whooped for this one.”

I lie prone, watching loose threads curl and shrivel in the heat.

“I’m telling you, Mama’ll kill you.”

I roll to my side and get up slowly. The fire is a compact circle, but soon it will spread. I rub it out, the rubber soles of my sneakers pressing the burn with familiar ease.

I sit in the living room for a long time. When I hear the car pull up in the driveway, I move to the couch, my feet planted on the singed carpet.

Mama calls from the carport, “Syl, help me with these groceries.”

I sit, feet locked in place.

“I can’t, Mama. I don’t feel good.”


“I can’t. I’m sick.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

Mama stands in the doorway, her coat flecked with rain, grocery bags in her arms. She sniffs the air. “She burned the rug,” Janie sings out.

I never knew I could run so fast, but Mama is faster. Halfway up the stairs her hands pull my ankles out from under me. Janie watches silently from the hallway as Mama shoves my nose into the burn, her hands pressing mine into the small of my back.

“How many times do I have to tell you? My brand new carpet too!”

Yanking me up from the floor, Mama pushes me into the kitchen where she keeps the extension cords.

“How many times?” each time the triangular plug catches my back and sides.

Janie stands in the doorway, arms across her chest. Out of breath, Mama lets me go. She turns to the grocery bags on the kitchen table.

“Janie, help me with these.”

Janie steps around me, eyes on Mama. While they load the fridge, I rub my side.

“Don’t drop them,” Mama hands Janie a carton of eggs.

I limp upstairs to our room and wait. I hear dishes clatter, water running. When Janie comes in, I pretend to sleep, arms wrapped around my pillow.

Soon it’s quiet downstairs and Janie’s breath finds a slow, steady rhythm. I creep out of bed, pillow in hand, and watch her chest rise and fall. I don’t know how long I stand there before she startles awake.

“Syl? What’re you doin’?”

“Nothin’. Just lookin’ at you.” My hands clench the pillowcase.

“Sorry, Syl… I didn’t mean to…I … I.”

I drop the pillow and climb onto her, fingers raking her hair and face. She whimpers, tries to push me off her, but I’m bigger.

“Don’t ever do that again,” rolling off her, “or I’ll kill you,” climbing back into bed.

Janie cries softly so Mama won’t hear. I listen in the darkness, waiting for her to fall asleep. Only when I hear Janie’s rough snores do I let my body sink into the mattress, my back burning. I lie on my side all night, eyes dry, chest tight.

Janie winces when I shake her awake before Mama gets up.

“Shhhh,” I whisper, squeezing her hand in mine. “Sorry.”

Janie turns away.

When I burn Mama’s favorite tea towel in the backyard a week later, Janie watches me from the bedroom window. She never says a word.

Phebe Jewell writes and teaches in Seattle. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in “Amethyst Review”, “Bindweed Magazine”, and “Crab Creek Review”. Twice her poems have been chosen for Seattle’s Poetry on the Buses.

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