Threading the Needle

Aggie Price is the first true-to-God firestarter and we take her like we take all the little phenom-kids, fast and without much conversation.

How we find her is like this: shivering, scrabbling, fierce.

Evangeline the Norn has been dreaming her for two weeks before she gets crucial and fixes on an address.

It’s in December, coming on Christmas, as the song says, but when that Mitchell woman gave her account of California-done-mournful, she wasn’t talking about the Bay. There’s a damp in the air like water collects on cold glass.

The house is a poor-kept Victorian in the heights, rickety and falling-down. It’s been raining since Friday and when we make the three flights to the top, the attic roof is pouring water like a gusher, like the world is ending all over again, only ark-style.

There are burn-marks up the wallpaper, and this is what I can’t stop looking at—black smudges, feathering at the edges, all powdery char and soot.

The idea comes to me for the ten-thousandth time that it’s pretty flat-crazy how we go looking for this. I still remember my other life, before chaos and disease, before everything caved in. In school, we learned about Adolf Hitler, a man who close to made his own apocalypse, but was brought up short at the last minute by his ardent brand of madness and his gun.

The thing that sticks with me now, after half a decade of no coursework and no history teachers, is that when he went to build his master race, he did it quite calculating—stole thirty thousand blue-eyed children out of Poland and Prague because he wanted them, and wanting was enough to make them his.

It’s enough to make me wonder, some days, what it is we’re doing.

Aggie’s sitting in the dead-middle of the floor, twitching her fingers in a quick, nervous way when she looks at us. Every time she flaps her hands, the little kerosene stove in the corner lights up, wicked with a yellow flame, then shuts itself off again.

Preacher’s the one who goes to her, just goes right across and sits down because this is what he does—knows how people are feeling. He pulls her into his lap and she lets him, when maybe someone else, she’d burn them down without thinking twice.

“You’re a true little phenomenon,” he says, holding her close to look her in the face. “Just like Saint Agnes and all. She was another little girl who wouldn’t burn.”

And that’s how she becomes Aggie, when maybe she was Kaylee or Catherine or Jenny before, but when Preacher says a name, it always sticks.

“True little pyro,” I say, with my back to Preacher.

I’m not like him, can’t just crouch down and know her by touch, know the workings of her beyond a sharp guess. She might take it into her head to burn us up in a minute. Or she might not mean to at all and still do it anyway.

Her mother has skittered away to crouch behind a dishes-cupboard, but not before I get a look at all that damage oozing down her arms. If Aggie did that to her own mother, I don’t trust the creature not to smoke me dead.

When I turn back to them, Preacher is giving me a look and doesn’t have to tell me what for. “Marco,” he says all quiet, and then says nothing else.

Marco is me, because in my first days on the Island, I was always looking for people. They would laugh and shout Polo, echoing in the corridors from everywhere, like the blindfold game, ’cause I couldn’t find them just by thinking a name or face, which is how flat-useless I am.

Preacher’s got Aggie bundled in his arms, and she’s all skin and bone, and dirty as sin, but smiling now, a little. Her eyes ain’t blue, but what flipping difference, when we’ll pack her up and take her to school on the Island, with no family but us, and no history. Alcatraz is what it was—the Island—but in my head sometimes, I call it Arkham, like the comic-book asylum. Preacher knows this, but never scolds, and never says aloud that freaks like him and Aggie are the new shade of normal, and I’m more than a minor liability, being halfway useless.

He holds Aggie against his chest and knows I’m still thinking Hitler, even though he’s told me every time the million ways it’s different. Preacher says the bottom line is this: we got power—even pointless telepathetics like me—which means we go walking the razor between idealism and tyranny every single day. But here’s one thing he didn’t say and it troubles me more than slightly: that metaphoric blade is flat-broad when you’re the one doing the defining.

I do my job and think of Hitler, and then I find the wherewithal to switch it off again. Aggie ain’t a pretty-looking blue-eyed baby, but more of a complicated weapon. Her mother’s still crouched behind the plate-cupboard, crying a tsunami, but it doesn’t take a mind like Preacher’s to know that she’s sobbing half with sadness, and just as much with relief and tiredness and guilt. She’s crying up a winter wet season ’cause we’re taking Aggie out of here—no conversation, no argument. The walls are black with all the ways she can’t help her daughter.

She knows it in the most uncompromising way, she’ll never see the kid again, can’t do a thing to stop us. I’m the occupying soldier, following orders. She is so excruciating-relieved.

11 thoughts on “Threading the Needle

  1. Remember kids, absolute power corrupts absolutely. 😉

    I love post-apocalypticness. Plus, dude, superpowers. Awesome.

    I especially liked the line with the “like the world is ending all over again, only ark-style.”

  2. I love the voice. I felt like I was talking/reading with gum in my mouth. The bitter almost agresive tone. I liked the use of weather/water — ‘water collects on cold glass.’ ‘… pouring water like a gusher, …’ ‘… like the world is ending all over again, only ark-style.’ ‘ … crying a tsunami,…’ ‘… crying up a winter wet season.’

    Love the fire water thing. Fire — whats inside us, anger, passion, no one knows, you’ve hurt me, I’m burning, but I really want to burn/hurt you. Water — is supposed to be love/cleansing, parents, family, life, but in this case life is drowning us/him.

    Water/love/life doesn’t save/see/know me. Nobody knows me. I’m on fire and nobody knows. “Save me.”

    The story isn’t about characters. The author’s here too. Subtle. *love*

  3. Remember kids, absolute power corrupts absolutely

    You know it!

    I’m a big fan of post-apocalypticness as well (what a great word, by the way–I think I’m going to use it all the time now). I want to write more about it, but I suspect I may be lazy. Sci-fi always seems to lend itself to ideas that take a lot of analytical effort to be done right, and even on the best days, moral ambiguity makes my head hurt.

  4. Thanks, Simon!

    I felt like I was talking/reading with gum in my mouth

    That’s neat–it really sums up the way I feel about the character, too. Someone young with too much responsibility, too much resentment, and maybe not enough capacity yet for perspective.

  5. I tend to just add -ness or -y or -ish to the end of everything, especially when you shouldn’t. It’s a slightly better vocal tic than my old habit of just putting ‘mo’ in the center of multi-syllable words. As in, ‘that photomograph is colormoful.” Though more original than my massive overuse of the word ‘like’.

    Yeah, they want to make stuff make sense and you’ve got to make them think without telling them but they should get it…Well, I like *reading* really well-crafted sci-fi.

  6. I really like the concept of this, and the sharp narrative tone. Very bitter, and that’s pretty much how I feel about the people in power these days. Questioning, but not acting, or acting with uncertainty, not going to step out of line – great commentary on society. And I don’t mean that as dryly as it sounds. 😉

    I ❤ the names, too.

  7. This is one where I’d love to eventually do a novel, or even a series (next to zombie-apocalypse, I’m frantically devoted to superpower-apocalypse). It would have to be way less surface-bitter to work as a novel, but I think I could still get a lot of mileage out of the ambiguity of power and who makes the rules.

    Also, I know you can’t tell from this, because I pretty much set an indestructible precedent by invoking Hitler, but Preacher is one of my very favorite characters to write, and is much more complex and of far less questionable motive than he appears here.

  8. Hey, I don’t believe in absolute evil, so invoking Hitler for purposes of characterization/theme doesn’t totally destroy a person’s coolness for me. (Just wait til we discuss Pan’s Labyrinth and I gush for several paragraphs about my love for the Captain.)

    I was thinking series with this one, actually, and yeah, the bitterness would probably need to come in waves. 😉

  9. Me again. Still reading XD

    I just wanted to say that I love more than anything else in this, the mother.

    Her mother has skittered away to crouch behind a dishes-cupboard, but not before I get a look at all that damage oozing down her arms. If Aggie did that to her own mother, I don’t trust the creature not to smoke me dead.

    she’s sobbing half with sadness, and just as much with relief and tiredness and guilt.

    The walls are black with all the ways she can’t help her daughter.

    She knows it in the most uncompromising way, she’ll never see the kid again, can’t do a thing to stop us.

    She is so excruciating-relieved.

    Sorry about all the quotes but I’m in love with her beyond words.

    I read Steven King’s Firestarter when I was young and my mother is covered in 3rd degree burns from a childhood accident.
    Make of that what you will ;D

    But I love this one dearly. Almost cherish it.

  10. I’m so impressed at how back people are reading! These ones from 2008, well, I haven’t even thought of these in years. It’s like excavating an archeological find!

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