Riley Weaver was drowning in her own sweat.
The air was poisoned with the foul stench of trash that spilled out of the nearby dumpsters, and the blistering heat threatened to peel the skin off her bones. Her pale face glowed a dull shade of red underneath the black hoodie, and she impatiently wiped the beads of sweat on her forehead with the back of her tattered sleeve.
Despite the scorching summer sun, Riley hid her porcelain skin in an oversized sweatshirt. It belonged to her dad, and it had “Leave It To Weaver Pool Service” written across the chest in chunky, white letters.
She passed by the front porch of an old, decaying trailer home and scowled at the nine-year-old twins she had the misfortune of babysitting last summer. The pudgy boys had set her hair on fire with a blowtorch when she decided to take a nap on the old, moth-eaten couch in their living room.
In return, she whacked them on the head with a broom. They cried to their parents, and she got fired.
The twins stopped splashing around in their plastic, wading pool and greeted her with cold stares.
Riley cut through the long, narrow alley that led to her mobile home and came to an abrupt stop. Underneath a short palm tree, and taking shelter in the cool shade, sat a group of girls that made Riley miserable in Junior High.
Despite being underaged, they smoked cigarettes and guzzled down canned beer.
Riley cast her eyes down and scurried along, hoping to avoid bloodshed. Their last encounter left her with a black eye and a bruised lip.
“Hey moron!” One of the girls belched loudly, then she crushed an empty can of Bud Light and chugged it at the graffiti-scarred utility pole.
Riley stifled a groan and quickened her pace.
Her getaway was cut short when a chunk of dirt had suddenly hit the back of her hooded head.
The girls howled with laughter. “Bull's eye!”
Riley clenched her hands into tight, trembling fists and whirled around.
“WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?” She bellowed angrily, even though her heart thumped wildly inside of her chest.
Joanna Smalls cracked her beefy knuckles and stepped forth. She was a short, fat girl with piggish eyes, a pockmarked face and a large, bulbous nose.
She was ferocious, and her notorious reputation for biting ears off in a fight earned her the nickname Tyson Jo.
“You stole my iPhone, you little turd!” She snarled.
“You've never owned an iPhone!” Riley spit back indignantly, forgetting the fact that she was outnumbered, five to one.
A ripple of sinister oohs snaked through the pack, and Tyson Jo pursed her chapped lips until they were barely visible.
“Are you calling her a liar?” Mary-Anne hissed.
Mary-Anne was a giant, paunchy girl with uneven, yellow teeth and thin, oily hair. Her nickname in school was Bloody Mary, and she earned it in fifth grade when she stabbed one of the boys in the arm with a yellow crayon because he called her Porky the Pig.
Riley swallowed a thorny lump that suddenly spawned inside of her dry throat.
“Even if she had one, I've never stolen it.”
Without a warning, Tyson Jo snatched the hood off Riley's head and revealed a mane of red curls that fell softly around her moon-shaped face, and emerald-green eyes.
“Where's my money, Weaver?” Tyson Jo snapped.
Tyson Jo grabbed a fistful of Riley's sweatshirt and lifted her off the ground. “Don't pretend to be stupid, Weaver. What did I tell you last week? Next time I see you again, you better have money on you or else….”
“I—I don't have any money. I forgot!”
Tyson Jo dropped her on the ground. ”Hold her arms,” she told Mary-Anne.
Before Riley could protest, her arms got twisted behind her back. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” She yelled.
“You're pissing me off, Weaver.” Tyson Jo searched through Riley's denim pockets and fished out a wallet. “Let's see what you have in here.”
Her eyes sparkled when she came across a wrinkled twenty-dollar bill. “Well, well, well. Looks like someone was lying to me.”
“That's mine!” Riley tried to free her arms from Mary-Anne's viselike grip, but she was not strong enough.
“No, that's my money! If you lie to me again Weaver, I'll beat you to a pulp. Understand?” Tyson Jo threw the wallet on the ground and stomped on it.
Riley mustered all of the strength in her body and kicked Tyson Jo in the shin.
“Why you little turd!”
Tyson Jo punched Riley in the face and shoved her into the ground. Then, she leapt on top of her, grabbed a fistful of her hair, and pummeled her face with rabid punches.
Riley tried to wriggle, but Tyson Jo was too heavy.
The skin on her face tore open from repeated blows. Blood oozed out of her nostrils, snaked down her chin and dripped down on the ground.
Suddenly, she went rigid.
A blistering knot formed in the pit of her stomach. It coiled into a tight, prickly ball, and it slumbered deep inside of her like a fire-breathing dragon, only to reveal itself when her life was in danger.
Then, Tyson Jo gave out a blood-curdling scream.
Her black tee shirt caught on fire.
“HELP ME!” She screeched, and beat the scarlet flames with her large, calloused hands.
Mary-Anne was the first to come to the rescue. She tugged the burning tee shirt off and tossed it on the ground while the other girls watched in horror.
“She's crazy! Let's get outta here!” Tyson Jo scrambled to her feet. She hurried down the dirt path with Mary-Anne and the rest of the girls following close behind.
Riley sat up slowly.
She couldn't see through her right eye; it was swollen shut, but she knelt beside the flames and reached out a hand to touch them. They nipped at her fingers like baby snakes and sent a rush of excitement down her spine.
She scooped them up. They swayed gently in the scorching heat, and then swallowed both of her hands.
Her skin prickled, but it didn't burn.
Riley learned about her gift when she turned three. The memory was old and faded, like the sepia-toned photographs her father had of his grandparents.
It had been a sweltering hot summer day.
Baby Riley had splashed around in the bathtub. Her mother, Caroline Belle, sat near, on a shaggy rug, and busied herself with cleaning out the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink.
She paused her humming when Riley became unnaturally quiet.
Gingerly, she peeked inside the bathtub and gasped in horror.
Her daughter's tiny hands burned like a flame, and when she clapped them together, she sent sparks of red light into the shallow water.
Caroline Belle screamed like a banshee, yanked Riley out of the tub and scrambled out of the bathroom.
She called her husband at work and begged him to come home immediately. He did. They rushed the baby to the hospital, but when they arrived, the doctor found nothing out of the ordinary.
Caroline Belle grew fearful of Riley. She pleaded with John to give her up for adoption. When he refused, she packed up her suitcase and left in the middle of the night, never to be seen or heard of again.
Riley couldn't summon her power at will. It only revealed itself whenever her life was in danger. Almost as though it had a mind of its own.
“What are you doing out there?” A deep, smoke-burnished voice asked, and sliced through her thoughts like a knife through soft butter.
Riley flicked her wrist and the flames disappeared.
She glanced up and stared at an old, hunched woman in a floral bathrobe and a set of curlers in her engine-red hair.
Mrs. Crow was a retired History teacher. According to the urban legend at Willcox High school, she ran over a football player with her 1970s Buick Riviera because he called her a nasty name in the parking lot.
He lived, but transferred schools soon after.
She stood at the backdoor with a grim look on her wrinkly, weathered face and a cigarette wedged between her thin, colorless lips. She planted both of her fists on her wide hips and tossed Riley a withering glare.