Girl With Face Full of Fire

Paul Crenshaw

The girl got shot when the gunman—you’ve heard the story—came to her school, and when she woke from the coma the bullet was still stuck in her forehead. Too dangerous to remove it, the doctor said. We don’t know what might happen. Red lines radiated out from it like poison. She kept touching the bullet until the doctor, who’d seen these things too many times, told her to stop.
       By the time she went back to school the glass had been swept up and the windows replaced. The bullet holes in the hallways were plastered over. She sat shaking through biology and math. She ate alone at lunch. The other kids kept staring at her. They asked if they could touch the bullet. A few of them were mad that she had survived where their friends did not. The rest could only look for so long. The red lines had come together, and her face burned like she’d been crying too hard for too many hours or, perhaps, screaming into the perfect void.
       That night the first phone call came. The local news wanted to interview her. Her father, who walked around angry at the world now, told them to leave her alone, shouting red-faced into the phone, but the girl put a hand on his arm. Her calm voice soothed the savagery inside him.
       “Maybe it might help,” she said.
       “Help what?” said her mother, but the girl had already raised the phone over her ear.
       The reporters met her outside the school. Holding the microphone to her mouth, they asked her what it was like being back in school after being shot. They asked her if she was afraid. They did not ask if her face hurt.
       She did the second interview a few days later, this time on a national network. The hosts, she noticed halfway through, did not look at her. They looked at the monitors and the cameras and the lights. They pretended to look at notes, but those were only pictures of the type of gun she was shot with. Her face had grown brighter during the first interview, when the man with the microphone asked her what it was like to have a bullet in her head. She had looked at the man and her face grew hotter. She imagined it aflame, and now, on national TV, another man asked how it felt to be a symbol. He said one side used her likeness to show what will happen if children aren’t protected. He said the other side used her to show that children can survive being shot. He said both sides had trouble seeing her. She felt her face grow hotter and hotter and before they cut to commercial she burst into flames. The bullet went white-hot and then her face caught fire. She sat there, curious at this new feeling (for it didn’t hurt any worse than everything else she had suffered) while the TV hosts ran off the set.
       She burned for weeks. She went on another show, this one where the host banged his hand on the table and yelled at her that she was trying to destroy a way of life for many law-abiding citizens, but eventually he too grew uncomfortable and quieted. The cameraman couldn’t focus on her, so they sat in silence while she burned bright as a comet cutting through the endless black of space.
       That was the last talk show. Driving home from the studio she saw her face on a billboard. When she got home she called the number and spoke to a woman who invited her to speak to their support group, but none of the mothers could look at her. When they burst into tears, she burst into flames. On her way to school men in big pick-ups slowed beside her, yelling, but when she turned to look at them they drove into telephone poles and parked cars.
       By the time she went back to school the fire had reached her shoulders. She left wisps of smoke in the hallways, where the walls had been plastered over. She was in chemistry, the teacher going over chemical reactions, when the call came over the intercom for her to come to the office. She rose slowly, like a phoenix from the ashes, while her classmates stared straight ahead like they were standing on the shore.
       The principal was looking out the window when she came in. He turned in his chair and then turned back to the window. Outside, the first October leaves were changing colors. The principal cleared his throat twice. He was a heavy man with a flat-top haircut who sweated during assemblies. Some of the students said he had once been in the military, in Iraq or Afghanistan or one of those Middle-Eastern countries, but now he had gone soft around the middle.
       “There have been, uh, some complaints,” he said, clearing his throat a third time. “Some of the other kids—well, all of the other kids—are uncomfortable around you. Many of the parents are as well. Steve, our armed security guard, is uncomfortable.”
       He swiveled almost to face her. She looked out the window at the row of maples in front of the school, turning to fire now that fall had come. The shooter had parked there, she remembered.
       When the principal saw she wasn’t going to speak, he went on. “They feel you’re a reminder of what happened, and after such a terrible tragedy, they just want to forget.”
       He waited again for her to speak but she was thinking of the little pops the gun had made from the hallway. The bullet was burning again.
       “Other parents think you’re using this tragedy against them.”
       She looked at the leaves, wondering if the world was burning.
       “There’s also the safety aspect. We can’t have an open flame in the school.” The principal crossed his hands over his stomach. “So we think it’d be best—and this has been voted on by the school board—if you continued your education elsewhere. We wish you the best of luck.”
       She walked home under the red leaves, flames licking up around her face. She wondered why her hair didn’t burn, why her whole body didn’t burn with what it knew. She applied to Governor’s School and Early College and a religious private school, but no one would accept her so she stayed home and read every book in her house. She piled them around her like armor. She ordered books from the library, and an old woman delivered them in a handcart pulled by a German shepherd, and she always left a note for the girl but no one knows what the notes said.
       Over the next few years she stayed alone in her room. The flames on her face died down enough that she applied to a college on the coast, and when she was accepted she drove there not looking in the rearview mirror. In the years to come the flames would retreat further. She would graduate and get a job and after a few years her co-workers were almost able to look at her, though sometimes she heard them talking in the break room about the singed smell she carried around. Occasionally someone would see her and not look away: a professor in college, a lover, once, a small child on a train, but mostly she covered herself so people wouldn’t have to see her—she wanted to help them not see her, even though she knew the terrible price of forgetting. The flames seared the scarf and sometimes she smoked, so she stayed home more and more.
       Mostly though, she lived a normal life. Eventually she would meet a man who could see past the flames to the bullet that began them, and one day would have a daughter that, while grasping at objects as children did, removed the bullet. She held it in her tiny pink hands and it did not burn her, though she did cry, because she thought the bullet a part of her mother’s beauty. So she tried to put it back, and when she did her mother burned brighter, like a star before it expires, like a rocket’s red glare, like all the small explosions inside us.

Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collection This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press. His second collection of essays, This We’ll Defend, about his time in the military, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired ReadingThe Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Oxford AmericanGlimmer Train, Tin House, North American Review and Brevity, among others.