A Broken Fairy Tale of Lost Souls

Doug Rice


There once was a little boy who lived in Pittsburgh and who played with tiny paper matches. And there once was a young girl who lived in Pittsburgh who followed this little boy around. She stayed in the shadows and walked a safe distance behind the boy, but this girl was always there, always near the little boy. This girl watched the boy from behind trees, from around corners, from through windows.

One afternoon the boy-who-played-with-matches showed the girl a condom and told her what it was used for. This boy's voice remained steady and calm, and it seemed like the boy was waiting for the girl to blink or to look away, but the girl did not look away, nor did she blink. And the girl's breathing did not change. And when the boy asked her if she wanted to touch it, she said "yes" and did so with the very tip of her thumb and the very tip of her index finger. And the girl was careful not to change her expression. Not to smile. Not to frown. Not to allow her breathing to become faster or more shallow. She touched it as if touching it did not matter, as if touching it with the tips of her fingers did not affect the rest of her body. And she was careful to keep her eyes staring dark and strong, straight into the eyes of the little boy.

And the boy-who-played-with-matches showed this little girl broken bottles and told the girl he was never afraid, that pain only hurt until it stopped. The boy asked the girl if she ever played with paper matches? If she ever played with no rules? With the back of his young hand the boy wiped snot running from his nose. He asked the girl if she ever burned her fingers. The girl told the boy that God was watching her every step and that God worried about her. That God would not allow her to do such things. And she told him that she could not carry matches in her pockets because the matches always burst into flames. And that, before she could change anything she had done, her thighs would be burning, that she would begin bleeding and that her skin would disappear in the flames. And the girl told the boy her mother said, "There's no stopping it. Fire eats fire and that's when the madness happens. And there is no turning back. There only is a dream of water under red rocks. Fire destroys fire but you can't drown in fire. You can only drown in water." And it is the voice of God that poisons you. The girl rubbed her hands together to warm them, to protect her frail skin from the cold snow.

When the girl became older, much older, and had become a mother because of all the things that had been done to her, the girl remembered a room in a basement, a room with a naked light bulb hanging from a string or a wire. She remembered that older boys smoking cigarettes in the playground across the street stared at her. She remembered it was winter. The girl had left her gloves in her locker at school, so she put her hands into her coat pockets. Police watched this cold girl out of the corner of their eyes when they drove past, but they did not stop. Those winter days when there was no heat at home, the boy-who-played-with-matches stayed after school talking to the janitor. And the girl, careful not to be seen, watched.

One day, after the school became empty and dark, the janitor led the boy down into a basement. There, the janitor drank some dark brown liquid from a mason jar and the boy watched him. The girl could not take her eyes off the boy. The janitor looked into the boy as if he were trying to read the boy's thoughts. And the boy looked back at the janitor as if they had already agreed on everything. On everything that could never be said, on things that could only be felt and remembered. The boy pretended that the girl was not watching from outside. He pretended she was not cold. He pretended that she was not staring through the window, that the girl's hands were not in her pockets, that her tiny ears were not burning red from the cold wind. The boy and the janitor did everything that they had agreed on, but none of it was seen by anyone. Not by the police passing by. Not by the boys smoking cigarettes. Not by the girl standing in the snow. Not by Debra. Not even by the boy.

A few weeks later, the janitor left town never to be seen again. Late at night, in bed, after all the children had fallen asleep, mothers and fathers told stories to each other about the janitor, stories that they secretly hoped were true. Children stayed in their beds, but they could hear the stories seeping through the walls; they could hear the stories in the cries of their mothers and in the creaking of the bedsprings.

The boy-who-played-with-matches and the girl who followed him remained silent. The boy and the girl stayed to finish the school year, to long for summer vacation, to wish for the snow to melt. The girl continued to look at the boy as if he could not see her looking at him. On the last day of class before summer vacation, the boy-who-liked-to-play-with-matches and the girl who followed him gave each other the kind of smile that people give to each other when they knew a secret between them and knew that this secret, like all true secrets, was made of stone and they would carry this secret with them until some undertaker laid them to rest beneath the earth.