The following is an excerpt from “Burning,” written by Jo Chang, a writer who typically avoids writing romances but decided to experiment with this short fiction piece.
Where did you find this woman? I’ve never met anyone like her before. Last week, the first time I heard Naomi’s cries from the living room, I texted you in a panic.
Hi naomi is crying? What should i do
Is she in her piano lesson rn
Its fine dont worry about it
“What?” I muttered to myself.
I guess in my head I was expecting someone like my own old piano teacher, a terse older European woman who seemed to get off on smacking the backs of my hands with a ruler she brought especially for that purpose. You’ve never met her, since I stopped taking lessons after the accident. But out stepped that woman who was almost as short as the eight-year-old girl bouncing after her. The first thought that came into my mind was that she looked vaguely ill. I wondered how old she was. Younger than us, probably, maybe mid-twenties? She’s as small as a child and extremely fragile-looking, pale skin with a greenish tint and dark circles under her eyes.
“Uh, hey,” I said. I had been in the middle of bringing up the clean laundry from the basement, and it was only after I instinctively reached out for a handshake that I realized I wasn’t wearing my usual cotton gloves.
The piano teacher hesitated also, and I thought it was in response to the scarred and twisted flesh I was extending out to her, but when she took her left hand out of her pocket I saw that she only had two fingers, the thumb and the pinky. Between them lay a smooth basin.
“It’s nice to meet you,” she said quietly. She had a lilting accent, a mix between British, and maybe Chinese? I flushed and tore my gaze away from her hand. “My name is Stella.”
“Nice to meet you,” I repeated. “I’m Olive.”
Her skin was clammy and cold, smooth and weightless as plastic.
“I used to play the piano too,” I find myself telling the table over my plate of overcooked pasta. The three of us are sitting all together and the atmosphere feels amazingly awkward. Maybe it’s just me though; Naomi and Stella eat quietly but seem rather comfortable in the silence. I rub at an imaginary stain on my gloves, feeling like I am part of a weird parody of a nuclear family.
“Really?” She says. She’s barely made a dent in her pasta; Naomi reaches across the table for a second serving.
“When I was like, super young,” I ramble. “My parents really wanted me to learn music.” There’s a long pause, punctuated by the slurping noises of Naomi finishing up her second plate.
“Did you enjoy it?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I think I did.” The pasta is practically mush.
On her way out, after giving Naomi a final hug, Stella turns around and whoa she is way too close, I take a step back —
“Um,” she says. “If you ever want, I can teach you some piano. Again. If you want.” Her breath smells sweet, but the nauseating kind of cloying that makes me think of something rotting.
Naomi is asleep and I am in your office, at your desk, intent on working on my novel. A framed picture of you and me stands next to one of you and your first husband on your marriage day. There are no pictures of the new man. I do my best to avoid looking at both pictures. It’s so bizarre, to see photos of myself in your house. There are several that I have found in here so far, hanging and standing and pressed behind glass. In this one, we are around ten or eleven, just a few years older than Naomi, and we are sitting on the front step of our old apartment complex, smiling so hard it must have been painful. My red-raw hands sit inert in my lap. The golden beads in your hair flash in the sunlight.
You’d worn your hair in its natural style since I met you, but when we were nine years old you got your hair done in long box braids for the first time; your mother added these thick golden bands at the ends. I think you caught me staring at them wistfully once. They were so beautiful, they glinted in your dark hair like stars.
“Our hair isn’t the same,” I said. “We’ll never look the same. Because we’re not sisters.”
I think you took that the wrong way. I think you thought the expression on my face was sadness. “I know that,” you said. “But I think of you as my real sister —”
“No,” I interrupted. I held your gaze. “We’re not.”
I think that was the first time you saw the thing that was festering inside of me. The burning.
I am in love with you and you know it.
I tried to hate you, once. I don’t know if you even noticed, but that promise only lasted for maybe half a day, until you smiled and asked if I wanted to watch a movie together after school. I wish that I could. Hate you, I mean.
I accidentally fall asleep slumped over your desk, my neck limp as if it has been snapped. I have a dream about my lungs. I am at the doctor’s office and a woman who smells like thyme and coconut is raking her nails softly across my bare shoulders and down my spine with her cool dry hands. She slides a stethoscope between my breasts from behind and I try to remain as still as possible when I breathe in and then out, my breath is too loud in this white room. I can’t bear to turn around. I don’t smoke, I tell the doctor quickly. I already know, she replies and I can’t hear her voice but I know that she is speaking. Take a look. I peer down and my flesh has become transparent, everything inside of me has turned into paper. My liver and intestines are masses of origami, my heart is a crumpled ball. My veins have become dark lines of ink that seep all over the pages.
Before your family moved into the apartment three doors down I was losing my mind. I was six years old and dying of boredom and loneliness. Do you remember how in our apartment complex, we were the only living creatures under the age of thirty-five? Except for the hideous white dog that lived above us that had an unsettling habit of jumping off high surfaces with as much force as its tiny body could muster, so that at night it sounded like there were literal cats and dogs being flung onto the roof over our heads.
I’ve always had beautiful hands, it’s what everyone used to tell me. My mother would always say I had princess hands, all long fingers and soft skin. She was only half-joking when she’d tell me I should be a hand model when I grow up. My father would protest, only half-joking himself. “No,” he’d say. “Mi princesa is going to be someone big. Something special.”
We were all surprised when your mother took me in as her own after the accident. Our parents were not exactly friends, mostly because mine didn’t know much English and yours were always leaving early and coming home late from work. I was in a coma for a week after the accident, so I did not have time to worry about the fact that I was now an orphan — an orphan — with no living relatives in this country who did not even know how to spell the word “insurance.” That drunk driver didn’t just steal my parents from me. When the fire licked my arms up to the elbows and my long dark hair, I became someone who wasn’t a princesa anymore, a royal gown traded for a shorn head and hospital gown and hands encased in thick layers of plaster. Your mother was sitting at my side when I woke up, and hers was the first face I saw after being born into this new life. Even now, I will never stop thanking the God my parents prayed to every night.
Naomi looks almost nothing like you. I’m sure you’ve heard this many times already. She takes almost completely after her father, save for her ears, which stick out in the same endearing way that yours do. And you two eat the same way, quickly as if someone is about to steal each bite. When you two eat cereal, your teeth scrape against the spoon.
I only half-believe her when your daughter insists that you let her eat this kind of sugary garbage all the time, but she seems to be enjoying it so much that I can’t feel too bad. I pour myself some of the cereal too, to see what it tastes like.
“What d’ya wanna do today?” I ask her over my own bowl of what is essentially mini chocolate chip cookies soaked in milk. “It’s the weekend, there’s probably a lot of stuff to do around here, right?”
“Mmm,” she says absentmindedly. “I can’t think of anything.”
When you called me and asked for a favor, I agreed before you even finished explaining what it was, that you really needed to find someone to watch over Naomi for a week while you and he went on your honeymoon. Everyone else was too busy with work, or had their own kids, but even so, you would have asked me anyway, since you trust me the most in this entire world.
“But even so,” you continued. “I’m so sorry to ask, I know it’s a lot — ”
“You don’t have to apologize,” I said. “You know that I’ll do anything for you. I owe you for the rest of my life.”
“How can you say such embarrassing things,” and there’s the laugh that I love, warm and soft and I could almost smell the thyme and coconut from your skin through the phone.
I actually haven’t seen Naomi in years, ever since she was a baby, which meant I was virtually a stranger to her, albeit one whose presence was scattered throughout the house in various pictures with her mother. I still can’t tell if she even likes me or not.
After breakfast, Naomi practically runs into her room and shuts the door. If this was an indie coming-of-age film, I would go after her, and we would have a heart-to-heart about how we both love you more than anything else, how we’ve both lost you to other people. How it feels to have a blank space in the place of a father. But I slink back into your room and shut your door. The house is so quiet.
Is Naomi supposed to be practicing the piano or something? It’s summer break, but does she have a homework packet to finish? I know you send her to some fancy private school, one totally different from the small public school we went to together, but they must give some sort of summer assignment, right?
Never mind. It’s not like I’m her mom or anything.
For the rest of the morning, I sit at your desk and type. Both photographs lie face down on the desk.
You know I’ve been writing this novel for ages, and because it’s you I will tell you what it is about. A woman takes her niece in after her parents die in a plane crash and the girl finds out that the woman has created dolls that resemble her dead children in the barn and talks to them at night. One night, the girl hears them talking back. At the end of the novel the barn burns down, but I can’t decide if the niece lights the fire or the woman herself or someone else.
For lunch, I make us tuna fish sandwiches. You always had a thing for shiny objects; when we were kids you always wore those sparkly bangles and charm bracelets, even though they gave you rashes. When your mom packed you sandwiches wrapped in aluminum foil you’d squeeze them into tiny hard balls and keep them on your desk. I started calling you Magpie instead of Maggie, and grew furious when the other kids picked up on it and stole my nickname for you.
I find my hands and my brain are off-sync. I do not realize that I am slipping little souvenirs into my pockets. Don’t worry, it’s nothing pervy like your underwear or anything, but the receipts in the kitchen drawer, one of the hundreds of cheap rings you love to wear — you have so many I’m sure you won’t miss just one — a feather from your down mattress. I tear off a patch of aluminum foil from the roll and pack it into a tight ball in my fist, bury it deep in the pocket of my jeans.
“Naomi,” I call from the kitchen. “Lunch.”
I don’t get a response, which is odd.
“Naomi,” I repeat. “Lunch.”
There’s a faint rumbling noise, and it’s too early for the train to be here. I realize that it’s the low murmur of voices coming from her door. Naomi’s door is open a crack.
“Naomi?” I say, knocking on her door. “Lunch.”
“One sec,” she yells. Through the inch of space between the door and its frame I see the girl kneeling in front of her nightstand. A pot of three brilliantly huge daffodils takes up the entire surface. “I have to go now,” she murmurs. She blows a gentle gust of air lovingly onto their petals, on their roots, as if she is breathing on a plane of cold glass before writing a message on the fog. The flowers shiver. “I’ll be right back. I love you, love you, love you!”
I hurry away from the door before I get caught. Before I go, I catch the girl planting a kiss on the edge of the ceramic pot.
I forget to take the aluminum ball out of my pocket before I put my jeans in the wash. When I fold the clean clothes, the lump in the denim surprises me, looks like a lump of bone or a tumor.
Next Friday, the night before you return, Naomi has another piano lesson. She cries just as much as normal, but when the two of them emerge from the living room, Naomi asks if the piano teacher can stay for dinner again.
“Sure,” I say. The piano teacher smiles, and I don’t know why this makes me feel unsettled for some reason. As I stir the pot of rice on the stove I realize that it’s because I’ve never seen her smile before.
We have rice and beans for dinner, after the piano teacher shows me how to properly open the cans of beans without a can opener. It just takes a certain angle of the wrist. The beans are too salty and the rice is undercooked and crunches slightly in between our teeth, but neither of them say anything about it, which I am grateful for. Stella and I are sipping on red wine, your husband’s alcohol. I figured it was a celebration, and you had never explicitly mentioned that the wine was off-limits. I take a vicious sort of pleasure from filling my stomach with something that doesn’t belong to me.
“Your mom’s coming back tomorrow,” I say to Naomi as she helps me load the dishwasher. The piano teacher is scrubbing the rice-rimmed pot and I am trying not to stare at the two limp fingers of the silicone glove she wears on her left hand, that flop flaccidly whenever she moves the sponge around.
“Yeah,” she replies. I can’t place her tone, if she is excited or surly or indifferent.
“I should probably get going,” Stella says. She wipes her hands on the small towel hanging on the oven handle.
“No!” Naomi cries. “Don’t go.”
“It’s alright,” and I must have drunk more wine than I thought because my words come out slightly slurred. “Stay a while.”
The piano teacher smiles again. That’s the second time tonight.
“Let’s make s’mores!” Naomi says. “We have the marshmallows ’n’ everything.”
“S’mores?” I say.
“In the backyard,” she says slowly, as if I am stupid.
“That sounds like fun,” Stella says. Naomi bares her teeth and skips to the kitchen cabinet.
My phone chirps from my back pocket. It’s you.
Everything alright? This is one of the only times you’ve texted me first. My fingers feel fat and heavy as I tap out my response.
Yeah. Piano teacher is here rn
Im glad u guys r playing tg well 🙂
What do u mean
Naomi and Stella are outside looking for dry branches we can set on fire.
Im just glad u and Naomi are getting along. A lot of my friends tell me she’s too old to be having imaginary friends but I think its kind of cute haha
Stella has materialized behind me. I put the phone down and turn to face her and she is so, so close.
We are both so drunk, we are so fucking drunk on your husband’s expensive wine and I am really going to pay for this later but for now she is kissing me and I am kissing her back. I press her against the kitchen counter. She tastes like salt. Her fingers tangle in my hair.
Naomi’s voice floats in through the kitchen window. She is laughing.
Stella pulls back and she is smiling. She clasps one of my hands in hers and slowly peels off my cotton gloves, revealing my red skin. Her tongue shoots out and wraps around my finger. It is small and pink, like a cat’s. My index finger is in her mouth and it is hot, unbearably scalding.
Naomi set up the fire all by herself. The three of us circle the flames, standing because I couldn’t find any lawn chairs and Naomi was impatient for dessert.
The s’mores are delicious. The first and only culinary success I’ve had this entire week. Stella and I are holding hands. This is the first time I’ve been near such a large fire in so long, maybe the first fire since the one created by the twisted parts of my parents’ car, their bodies, my flesh. Her hands encircle my hip and I can feel the aluminum ball digging into my skin. The flames cast shadows across our faces. It is summertime, and the fireflies are out, twinkling in and out of the darkness like little stars. In just a week, I have gotten used to the sound of the train that roars across its tracks, so when the sound tears through the night none of us even flinch. As if sound is a tangible thing, the screaming tracks make the flames tremble. The blades of grass under our feet shudder and dance.
Daily Arts Writer Jo Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.