Martin was twelve and he knew magic. He could conjure sparks from the air just by saying a word. He could vaporize a glass of water by looking at it. On a Monday, he boiled his schoolyard bully's insides by thinking at him.
Martin watched the teachers scramble and gather around the twitching shrieking boy. He hadn't meant to do it, Martin said to himself. He just got angry and lost control. He got a little scared. He swore to himself he'd never do it again.
Though, really, he had. He had meant to do it.
The bully had it coming.
Martin was thirteen and he was becoming better at magic. He could throw fireballs with his hands. It was cool as shit. He could set someone's hair on fire just by imagining it.
Martin's mama sat down with him in his room after he'd got home from school. She told him about the worrying things she'd been hearing from teachers. That some people felt perhaps Martin could be somehow, in some unnatural way responsible for the injuries and deaths and damage to the school that happened in the past several months.
He said no, of course it wasn't him. How could it be?
His mama said she'd seen him. When he thought nobody was watching.
Martin got mad. He seared mama's pinkie finger off. She ran off to the telephone and called for an ambulance. When papa got home later and asked where mama went, Martin said she burned herself on accident. He knew mama wouldn't dare to dispute it.
Martin was fourteen and he was becoming badass with his magic. He could burn down a building with a nod of his head. He could liquefy steel with a long, hard stare. On a Tuesday, he incinerated a classroom after he was kicked out of it for cursing at the teacher.
The teacher and eighteen other students died there or in the hospital's burn unit afterwards. Martin never forgot their screams. He replayed them in his head to lift him up whenever he was feeling down.
They were calling it a terrorist attack. Maybe one of the Asian students built a bomb.
Mama thought of talking to papa. Papa didn't connect the incineration to Martin. He didn't know what Martin was capable of. Papa thought her pinkie got amputated because she burned it so bad on the stove. So Mama decided not to talk. She bought a bottle of nice wine to wash down her whole bottle of pills instead.
Mama woke up in the hospital with a pumped stomach and a failing liver. Martin stood over her. Mama felt terrible. Fuck, he really looked hurt.
Martin was fifteen and he was stronger with his magic than he knew how to control. He could dissolve a person to a fine black mist with a snap of his fingers. He could level a neighborhood with a deep breath and a shout.
Martin's papa had enough of impossible accusations leveled at his son. He moved his family to another part of town and sent Martin to another school.
Martin got sent to detention on the first day of school for saying disgusting things to the other students. He got detention on the second day for talking during classes. He got detention on the third day of school, too. He'd had it with detention. Detention was boring. They didn't used to send him to detention at the old school. The teachers were too afraid of him. Maybe the problem was that the new teachers needed to fear him, too.
On the fourth day of school, Martin skipped classes and burned the home of every teacher he had down to the ground. Two spouses and an infant daughter burned in them and died.
There was no fifth day of school for Martin or his classmates. The school closed down until further notice.
Jess was sixteen and she knew magic. Jess' parents kept her secret for her. They helped her to develop her magic. She could make fire, too. And she could extinguish fire with a concentrated thought. She could restore most hurts with just a touch.
Jess liked her school. She liked her teachers. Mr. Brown was one of her favorites. Mr. Brown's wife and daughter were dead now. Jess found Mr. Brown drinking himself to sleep at bars and telling everyone how much he wished he was dead with them.
She gave Mr. Brown what he asked for. He died peacefully in his drunken sleep. He never hurt again.
Jess' mother told her about something she'd heard. One of the new students had a history. He came from a school with fire problems. It was like Jess, when she was much younger. Her mother said that perhaps Jess should talk to Martin. Maybe he needs support. Maybe he just needs time and room to grow.
Jess found Martin at the river running through their town. He was chucking rocks in without touching them. He boiled passing fish dead. He turned when he heard Jess coming close. The girl sat down beside him.
"Hey," Martin said.
Jess watched him. She didn't speak. It went on long enough to make Martin feel uncomfortable.
"What'd you want, huh?"
Jess tossed a rock into the river without touching it.
It took a moment, but Martin got it.
"Oh." Then he smiled. "I bet I'm better than you. More powerful." He stood up. He was more excited than he'd been in forever. He loved showing off. He said, "Watch this."
He closed his eyes and clenched his fists. When he opened his eyes, the river was gone. The riverbed was steaming. The rocks were red-hot. The trees around them were gone. Hints of ash flew away on the wind. He burned away Jess' long red hair for the finale.
Jess closed her eyes and touched her balded temples. She made these pained noises. Martin thought she was just pissed off about the hair. Then water condensed from the air and fell into the riverbed. Ashes went in reverse and reconstituted trees. Everything went back more or less as it started. Jess looked at him with this penetrating glare. The girl was still bald.
"You forgot the hair, bitch."
Jess stood. She spat at Martin's feet before she left him there.
Martin turned sixteen. He was back in school. He never left Jess alone. He teased her by destroying things and leaving her to fix them before somebody noticed. He had something like a crush. Jess hated him. If not for her mother's disapproval, she would have dealt with him months ago. She should have dealt with him at the river.
Martin told his parents about Jess. Not the whole truth. Just that he was into her. Papa thought that was great. Mama asked him not to, but Papa called up Jess' father on the phone and set up a lunch with them and their wives and their two kids.
And so they all met for burgers.
Martin and his parents joined Jess and her parents at a table. Jess and her parents looked serious. Jess had this short, patchy hair. Jess didn't look like someone who was into Martin. She just looked mad. Papa said, "Now wait a minute." The mood was all off.
Mama saw the way they looked at Martin. She saw strength and hate in Jess' young face. She saw embers in the girl's eyes. Mama stifled a cry. She got it.
Mama said, "Please." It barely came out at all. Jess looked to her. She took in Mama's dirty gray hair, her mangled hand, the pits her eyes were sunk into. Mama said, "Please. Please say you can do something."
Martin looked at Mama angry. Martin burned something inside her. Mama seized up and breathed hard. She bent and retched onto the floor.
Jess looked at her mother. Her mother grimaced. Her mother finally nodded once.
Martin watched mama. He was enjoying her pain. He wore this terrifying smile. Jess stood from the table. She came behind Martin. He noticed her suddenly and tried to turn. Jess put her hands on his head and before he could say something vile about it, he shrieked instead. Things went all wrong in his head. He couldn't move. Things got jumbled and re-jumbled. His ears were on his ass. His eyes switched sides. It all went dark.
Martin collapsed and fell out of his chair. He drooled onto the floor. Everyone in the burger joint gawked. Some kid in a waiter's uniform lost his legs and sat by mama's vomit. The kid just sat there looking vacant and holding a rag.
Jess put a hand on mama's shoulder. Papa watched her with this look that came from miles away. By the time Jess was to the door, her hair was grown to her shoulders. Her parents followed her out and they drove off.
Martin was seventeen and ordinary. He had these faint memories of doing magic, but he couldn't do magic anymore. He couldn't remember how he ever did. He had memories of hurting people. When he hurt people more, he felt like it connected to the magic. His memories came back a little. But his parents fucked with his opportunities to hurt people. They shut him in his room or isolated him in other ways for weeks on end as punishment.
This girl with red hair found him cutting up her cat. She seemed familiar. The girl looked like she knew him. Martin took his knife and moved toward the redhead.
She didn't run or anything. He got to standing right in front of her. He tickled her cheeks with the knife. Something was wrong. The girl didn't flinch. She didn't look scared. She didn't watch the knife. She stared right at Martin.
Martin got mad. He pushed the knife in and sliced the girl's cheek.
Martin vanished. The knife dropped to the ground. Some ash flew away on the wind.