by Siobhán Carroll
The hideout was for watching animals which is what he had been trying to do the first night that he saw her. She had stepped into the cove, his cove, shed some sparks around from a sparkler and then carefully removed a metal box from her bag. After setting the box deliberately by some rocks at the edge of the cove she had startled him by taking off all of her clothes. He hadn’t meant to watch that part, had been too surprised to stop, and was still wondering if he should make a noise to alert her to his presence when what she was doing made him catch his breath. She walked towards the sea, as if she was planning to skinny dip, before pausing at the water’s edge. The wind was high, and water was blowing at her face where it evaporated, casting a misty halo.
As he watched she started spinning on the spot and, as she turned, her skin caught fire. He tried to run forward but found himself frozen to the spot in panic. Forced to stare at this girl who had somehow decided to immolate herself in front of him. But as he watched he saw that the fire did not appear to be hurting or consuming her, instead she seemed to be made of it. At a closer look her hair was not on fire but made of flames streaming behind her as she faced down the wind. He felt the warmth on his face like a fire on bonfire night, making him realise how cold he had been before she arrived.
She held her arms outstretched and was laughing in delight as if this was a game to her. The whole thing seemed to enchant her, and he too was mesmerised. After a few hours (he lost count) she stopped burning and reluctantly walked to her metal box, pulled out her clothes and bag and slumped away. The whole beach felt cold and empty without her presence. The sun was rising, and he felt the stiffness in his body from staying still in the cold. He had barely trusted himself to breathe as she played and laughed in her flame-filled state.
He went back to his hide every single night after that, no longer interested in the animals of the dunes, just wanting to see her. She did not come every night or even on a schedule, so he just made sure to always be there in case it was time. When he was not at the hide, he was trying to find her. He found out about a series of fires in local fields and forests and a girl who had been arrested for starting a fire further along the beach after being found at the scene of a mysterious blazing fire glimpsed from across the bay. He had found her name online and tracked down where she lived. She worked in a wood-fired pizza restaurant and seemed ordinary enough. Only he knew her secret.
He had been planning for weeks, tonight when she walked into his cove, he would be ready for her.