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Flame Retarded

By Kate Story

Flame Retarded, Quality Costumes, Colourful Masks with Wide- Vision Eye-Holes, Brite for Nite!!! I squished my nose against the grimy glass. I wanted it, the ballerina outfit with the white tutu. In my family we got costumes Mom made, or one of a series of ancient Devil costumes passed down from our vast array of older cousins, all of whom apparently wished to go out on Hallowe’en dressed as Satan. But this year, it was ballerina or bust.

I was going out that Hallowe’en night with Lisa “Where’s-the Loot-Bag” Cooper. She was so named because at my fifth birthday party, as soon as she walked through the door, she shrieked in her nasal voice, “Where’s the loot bags? Where’s the loot bags?” She didn’t stop until my mother said, “Here’s your damn loot-bag, Lisa-Where’s-the-Loot-Bag Cooper, for the love of Christ!” The name stuck. Lisa was a skinny little kid with a head of stiff red hair. I’ve always had a thing for red-heads. Lisa-Where’s-the Loot-Bag Cooper was my first crush, Grade One and Grade Two and Grade Three. It probably would have continued if she hadn’t failed Grade Three, staying behind while I moved on to other grades and red-heads.

Lisa was going out this year as a princess. She’d described her costume to me: “It’s all white and long like a bride and there’s a cloak and a diamond crown!” White and long like a bride — I couldn’t walk next to her as a tattered, grubby devil. I was afraid to ask my mother, yet something about Lisa’s lust for loot must have rubbed off on me for I took my courage in hand and I nagged. I nagged until my mother said “Stop nagging!” and then I whined, and I whined until even I was sick of it and finally (in a towering rage that did nothing to dampen my utter triumphant joy at getting my sticky hands on that cheap white netting) my mother stormed into the ARCADE and bought me “That damn ballerina outfit.” Lisa’s hair was bright like copper and it stuck out in all directions. She’d look beautiful in a diamond crown. We would look wonderful, the princess and the dancer, together.


Yes, I’ve always had a thing for red-heads. My second red-head was Beverly: Beverly of ballet class, Beverly of the long red hair. Thick, so thick that her braid was three inches across, and long, so long it went all the way down to her waist. Beverly was a beautiful dancer but cursed with short legs and big tits; even at the age of twelve it was obvious she wasn’t going to have a career in ballet. Even so, she always wore her hair pulled back tight into a bun as if she was about to spring into a tutu and practice Swan Lake. Beverly was suicidal and used to run away from home. She’d call me from phone booths: “I’m going to kill myself. I really mean it this time. I don’t know where I am. My mother doesn’t know I’ve left the house. I’m going to throw myself in front of a car,” and then she’d hang up. I’d sit by the phone in an agony, waiting for her next call. “I’m going to do it now. As soon as a truck goes by.” I’d walk for hours in the Newfoundland winter night, looking for her; once she’d walked half-way to Cape Spear before I got to her and coaxed her all the way down Blackhead Road to my house. Our mothers called what we did “Sleepovers.” I’d chase her all over town, pluck her from the brink of death, and then we’d go to her house or mine and drink hot chocolate. We’d give each other massages and she’d take her hair out of its bun, and then we’d lie next to each other. I’d be stretched out there on the mattress next to her listening to her breath, and burning up inside.


But before that, before out-growing Hallowe’en and taking real ballet classes and flirting with real anorexia and pointe shoes, there was Lisa and the Brite for Nite costume. I walked to the bridge that separated her road from mine, clutching an empty bag for candy, heart pounding. She was already there waiting for me, a white blob in the twilight. I have to say that her costume was, as far as princesses went, a disappointment. It was pretty much the same as mine, except her skirt was longer and she had a cheap tiara on her head, almost lost in her hair. Of course I had my magic wand, and in a burst of genius, a little bag of sparkles that I could throw into the air. “Hi,” she said when she saw me. I took a deep breath and wished hard and looked at her again, and because I wanted it enough she was a princess and I was a ballerina and we were beautiful, despite our toques and woolen socks.


We hit every house along the Waterford River between her place and our school. It was a long stretch, maybe a mile, with a cold wind, but we were determined (she wasn’t Where’s the Loot Bag for nothing). We got pretty close to the school, and then Lisa said in her nasal voice, “Hey, I wonder if the perv is around?” and I said, “Naw, b’y,” and she said in sepulchral tones (with nasal overlay), “How do you know? I bet he loves Hallowe’en. I bet it’s his favourite night!” and I said, “Yeah, he dresses up as the Perv!” and this wasn’t very funny but we laughed, staggering along in each other’s arms. And we were indeed close to the school, and there was indeed a perv, and I can’t speak as to what his favourite night may have been, but a night when children roam unattended surely couldn’t be too far down his list. He was an old man, in his forties, ancient. He used to hang around in the small clump of trees we called “The Woods” at the top of the hill above our elementary school, and flash little girls. We’d shriek and run away.


It was dark and I spun along the sidewalk ahead of Lisa, waving my wand in the air. I was trying to do pirouettes, only I didn’t know what pirouettes were yet; this was before Beverly and the ballet classes. And I was trying to be enchanting, and I remember a strange feeling in my six-year-old body, because I was trying to appear enchanting. You couldn’t be enchanting in a devil costume with a fraying forked tail. But this year I was a ballerina. And I remember feeling a bit sick and strange and at the same time very excited. “I’m dancing, I’m dancing! I’m a beautiful dancer!” I hummed to myself under my breath. “I’m a beautiful dancer!” And I waved my wand and spun my plastic bag full of candy and I hopped up and down. And I sang a little song, and spun some more, and then I looked behind me and the sidewalk was empty; that is to say, there was no-one on it except me.


Years later I would be walking along that same stretch of sidewalk alone, only this time it would be a New Year’s Eve night, that Hallowe’en of young adulthood. And I’d be dressed in sparkles then too, gold pants, with shine on my décolletage and a good pair of shoes. And I’d be coming home from the house of a red-haired star, well, star in the local sense of the word, a star and a red-head; could I ask for more? I was a good girl, good enough to leave when his girlfriend phoned and I was always so good about it, even when he wouldn’t fuck me so he could save himself for her. I’d laughed and spun around, right out the door for him; I could fake a pirouette by then. He had red hair and I burned for him, flame retarded.


And I stood there on that same sidewalk when I was six and the sidewalk was empty of Lisa and of anyone, and I said, tentatively, “Lisa?” And then she screamed. I knew it was her, even though I couldn’t see her, the scream came off the side of the road, in some trees. And I said, “Get off it, that’s not funny!” and I started backing away from the scream, and then she screamed again and I turned and ran away up the road, then spun and ran towards her, then away, then towards, back and forth like a little scared mouse. And then I heard rustling in the bushes and a grunting noise and a sob, sort of choked off. And I’ll never know why but I charged into the bushes where the noises were coming from and saw him there in his awful dark coat, and Lisa was under him only I couldn’t see her face, just a bit of whiteness that was her costume, and he was jerking at her in this awful way. And I shrieked and I hit his back with my little plastic magic wand. And then I spun around and I hit him again, not exactly pirouetting, because I hadn’t learned that yet.


“Get it right, Joan,” the ballet teacher would say to me. “Turn! Turn!” Beverly had so much hair that she had to use those giant metal hairpins to fasten it up in a massive sleek ruby bun, and in the recital we spun around and around, only I could never quite do it, and the pins started coming loose from Beverly’s hair, and they shot around the stage ping! ping! like tiny missiles, like bullets, and the rest of us tried to keep dancing, but they were shooting out at a furious rate now, pinging and zinging and people in the audience started ducking, then a woman cried out, and there was a great roar and confusion and people were flinging themselves into the aisles, one dancer screamed as a metal pin pierced her white-feathered breast. Blood blossomed around it and she fainted. We other dancers fled, the audience trampled each other in their panic, and at the centre of it all was Beverly, spinning, spinning and the light on her grew whiter and brighter, metal shot out from her hair like steel hornets and she glowed, seemed to rise from the ground in her spinning, a vortex of light and weaponry until her hair finally came loose and spread around her shining red like ruby jewels, like fire, like blood and joy and she spun up and through the roof of the Arts and Culture Centre, blood angel ascending to heaven.


Years later it all got written about in the newspaper — not Beverly the Blood Angel, that was too strange and too wonderful and those who had been there could never agree on what had happened. What got written up was the Perv and all us girls at the school, and there was an interview with Lisa’s mother wherein she wept and said she grew up back when you really didn’t talk about those things; I mean, we just didn’t know about those things. And after failing Grade Three Lisa and I sort of lost track of each other, but the newspaper article — my mother showed it to me — went on and on with the usual story: how she got sullen and difficult and stopped doing well in school. And then she started doing drugs and had an abusive boyfriend and left home and her mother didn’t know where she was. And my mother was very grave as she showed me this, and she wanted to talk about it. She said she hadn’t realized… had it… had I… was that why?…


“Why what?” I said.


And that was the end of that.


Years later as I walked along that sidewalk, bleeding, it was still dark and I couldn’t remember exactly where it had happened. Was it here? Or here? Or those bushes in there? It being New Year’s Eve in St. John’s there were three different cabbies who slowed down and offered me a ride home. “No thanks, I don’t mind the walk.” I need to walk off my sweet-temper, it’s making me sick. “If it’s a question of money, me luv, don’t worry; hop in, I’ve made enough tonight.” “Aw, thanks, but I’m nearly home.” I’d never be able to find the place again, so much had grown over it, it’d been years and I still hadn’t learned to pirouette, had, in fact, given up trying.


But once, one Hallowe’en night, I’d danced around Lisa and the man. I’d spun with my wand and my tutu. I’d thrown sparkles. I didn’t know then that those would be the best spins I’d ever do. The perv ran away. Lisa sat up. We walked home together. We didn’t talk. We were covered in sparkles. We shone.


Kate Story is a writer and performer from St. John’s, Newfoundland, currently living in Peterborough, Ontario. Her first novel Blasted will be published by Killick Press in 2008.

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